How to Interact with a Service Dog

By: Alyssa Salter, Disability and Neurodiversity Specialist

You may have encountered working dogs in your life before, such as airport working dogs or the security dogs that work at theme parks. However, today we are going to be focusing on service dogs for people with disabilities. 

Service dogs are defined as a canine trained to perform a task(s) for a person with a disability that is specifically related to that disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines the term as "dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities." This means that usually one dog is assigned to an individual person. 

You may have also heard of therapy dogs and emotional support animals (ESAs), but there are distinct differences between these categories and service dogs that we will cover another time. 

Service dogs are amazing…I would know, I have one!

Alyssa's service dog in her service dog gearThis is my service dog and she is for medical and psychiatric disabilities. She is owner trained, which means I trained her myself and did not receive her through a program. However, she is fully trained, and we worked with a professional trainer who specializes in service dog training.

What Should I Do When I See a Service Dog?

 Here are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to service dogs:

  • DO ignore them
  • DON’T acknowledge the working dog at all or try to get their attention
  • DO give the team space 
  • DON’T make kissing noises at the dog
  • DO respect that a service dog is essential medical equipment
  • DON’T touch the working dog
  • DO keep your hands to yourself

It is important to remember that service dogs, although adorable and cute, are medical equipment and should be treated as such. You can equate their presence to a wheelchair, a pair of glasses, an oxygen tank, or a walker. 

Service dogs can perform an array of tasks or work for a disabled person. They’re able to detect changes in the body, alert to medical or psychiatric issues, and offer support during a health crisis or episode. It is these life saving and supporting tasks that make it very important to give teams with their service dogs space and to allow them to navigate the space as those without the need of a service dog. 

Can I ask to pet a service dog?

Generally, no, you cannot pet a service dog. As stated, service dogs are working for someone with a disability. That individual needs their service animal to perform as expected, and that does not include receiving pets from strangers. 

I would generally advise to ignore the service dog completely and not ask to pet the animal. It isn’t personal, it’s just that the dog is working.

Can I feed a service dog?


Service dogs should be treated as medical equipment, not as pets

If a service dog rubs against me, does that mean it wants me to pet it?

No. Usually, this will be a mistake and the dog did not intend to touch you. Please ignore the service dog.

Can I offer to help, like open a door for the team or something?

You can always ask, especially if the goal is to be helpful. Do not be offended if the handler refuses; they know themselves and their abilities best.

If I’m with my dog, can it meet the service dog?

No. Please keep your animals away from working dogs.

If I ever meet you and your dog in public, what should I do?

If you meet us as a team, please speak to me (Alyssa the handler) and not to my working animal.


Remember, it all comes down to respecting boundaries and autonomy. Disabled people with service dogs will appreciate your respect for their boundaries and autonomy and will be grateful for smooth sailing with their medical equipment. You can help make environments more accessible by respecting a service team!


Recommended reading:

Why Autism Awareness Month Is Autism Acceptance Month

Identity-First Language for Autistic People

Flying with a Service Dog


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