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Your Next Hello Could Get You Arrested

Updated on September 28, 2011

My Service Dog Raphael

The Rules of Service Dog Etiquette

Part 1 of the Service Dog Savvy Series

By Maria V. Eyles

I’m in my favorite big box store shopping for…big boxes, or plastic storage bins. The ‘clearance sale’ ones teeter high above my head, shoehorned together like Russian dolls that a Russian tank could not pry apart. As usual, no clerks are to be found; no customers either in my radar screen. So, I sigh, say a prayer, brace one hand on the back of my patient service dog Raphael, get on tippy-toes and attempt to drag the bins closer to the edge.

That little shove inevitably opens some invisible, automatic door in my magnetic field, and suddenly we are swarmed by customers flying at us from every direction. Some yelp, some moan, some whistle, some coo:

Oh, what a beautiful dog! Can I pet it?

What kind of dog is that? [pronounced thee-aaaaaat ]

What’s the breed, lady? My cousin breeds them what-d’ya-call-its.

What’s her name? Can I pet her?

How old is he? Can I pet him?

Is she a show dog? How much does it cost to groom her?

Are you a trainer for guide dogs? You don’t look blind!

What did you pay for a dog like that? Can I pet it?

Can I pet him?

What’s he for? You don’t look disabled!

Can I pet your dog?

Here, doggie, doggie!

I know I’m not supposed to, but can I pet him?

Neglected children, unnoticed in the shadow of Raphael’s blazing spotlight, clamber down from shopping carts and race toward the dog—oh, and what’s-her-name holding his leash.

Poor Raphael is now hopelessly distracted. And I’m in danger of losing my balance, not to mention my temper, as the Ignorant Cavalry bombards us with its fusillade of questions.

Finally, one fellow in a baseball cap notices Raphael’s vest and “Working Dog, DO NOT PET” badge. He screws up his face in wonder, “He’s a service dog?! OH! Guess I’m not supposed to pet him, huh?” A little girl politely keeping her distance declares, “Mom! You’re not supposed to pet a working dog.” A little boy chimes in, “What’s a service dog?” [End of Scenario One]

Scenario Two

Another day, another store, I’m walking out of Costco in San Luis Obispo, California (aka SLO). A guide dog is positioned to enter through the big doors, but the dog’s teammate is hidden by a middle-aged woman. Said woman is vigorously petting the service dog on the head as she yaks a mile a minute to the man about how much she loves dogs and “needs” to touch them. The man with the visual impairment is obstructed from moving forward by the friendly curiosity of this woman. [End of Scenario Two]

Service dog etiquette seems to be a fuzzy or even nonexistent notion to the general public, if you ask me. (And boy, do you ask and ask and ask me!) How much do you think you know? Can you answer these questions about the two scenarios above?

  1. Which scenario(s) depict(s) people breaking the rules of service dog etiquette?
  2. Which one(s) depict(s) people breaking the law?
  3. Which scenario(s) depict(s) people potentially breaking the law?
  4. Which laws, if any, would these be—state or federal?
  5. Which scenario(s) depict(s) people reacting appropriately to a service dog team?
  6. How many questions can we, the general public, ask a service dog team?
  7. Can we at least ask to pet a service dog?

Yeah—I thought so. These are tough questions. Most people cannot answer all of them. Many do not know what is or is not appropriate behavior when confronted with a service dog team. Truthfully, I myself did not know many of them until I talked to trainers and/or researched them, or got annoyed enough after long days out with Raphael.

First, let us answer the question posed by the boy in Scenario One. (He and the little girl in Scenario One answer Question #5. Their behavior is appropriate.)

What is a service animal?

A service animal is a dog which has been trained to perform tasks for its disabled handler so that he or she can function or navigate the world more easily. The ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990. This federal law guarantees equal rights to the disabled in matters of housing, employment, transportation and public building access. The ADA defines a service animal as, “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” These are the newest guidelines, revised in March 2011. Now only dogs can be service animals (or in rare instances miniature horses). So, “service dog” is now interchangeable with “service animal.”

Legally, a service dog is not a “pet”—it is not even a dog! A service dog is classified as necessary medical equipment for the disabled handler.

In reality, a service dog is still a dog, though a highly specialized and well-trained one. He or she is not a fancy robot, not a toy. Service dogs get tired and cranky too, and have “off” days. Sometimes they flub up or forget aspects of their training. A service dog must concentrate very hard to get tasks done for its handler in the midst of chaos, like in crowded stores. Breaking that concentration by distracting the service dog is not only unkind but also potentially dangerous to the handler.

The Service Dog Team

The person with the disability, called the handler, and the dog together make up the service dog team , but it is the handler who is in charge—or top dog, if you will. It is not the service dog’s right but the handler’s right to go anywhere people are allowed with the service dog.

Types of Service Dogs

Whereas in the past only guide dogs for the blind/visually impaired were recognized, now there are as many types of service dogs as disabilities served: hearing or signal dogs, medical alert dogs (including diabetic and seizure alert dogs), mobility dogs (including walker or balance dogs like Raphael), sniffer dogs for people with severe peanut or other food allergies.

There are service dogs trained to help people with arthritis in their hands, and others who remind people to take their medication. Psychiatric service dogs help many cope with their illness. Service dogs for autistic children have been much in the news lately, and there are many documented cases of near-miraculous turn-arounds with these children. For some types of service dogs, however, a revision to the ADA in March 2011 removed “emotional support” dogs (dogs that are not trained but serve to make the person feel better about being in public) from the official service dog list, so they are no longer protected by law or allowed access.

Invisible Disabilities

The list above is very long and still is just a sampling. Yet you can see from this list that many, many disabilities are what’s referred to as “invisible.”

These invisible disabilities come into play with our lessons in etiquette, which start here. Question 1 was, Which scenario(s) depict people breaking the laws of service dog etiquette? Both. In fact, both portray egregious lapses of service dog etiquette. (Question 1)

Recognizing and Reacting to a Service Dog Team

First, how will I recognize a service dog team? The obvious tip-off is that a dog in a food store, restaurant, church, theater or any public place which normally doesn’t allow dogs or “pets” is a service dog. This is not quantum physics. The dog may or may not be vested or harnessed. It doesn’t matter. That dog is a service dog. As for people sneaking a pet in, it happens occasionally. There are ways to deal with this, which we’ll see later. But 99% of the time you must assume it’s a service dog.

Rule-of-Three (No ‘Puttin On the Dog’)

The first and greatest service dog etiquette lesson is simple, short and sweet: When you encounter any service dog team, do one-two-three: smile, keep quiet and be on your way.

Now there are exceptions to this, but the above rule-of-three should apply 95% of the time. For one, you may have noticed that no one in Scenario One asked me, “May I help you with those bins?” “You seem to be struggling with those; do you need some assistance?” “Let me find a clerk for you.” Comments like these would have been welcome!

Instead, that crowd turned me into a human kiosk in service to them and their idle curiosity by forcing me to answer questions about my service dog while he was working for me. This is not appropriate interaction.

Suppose I were a deaf person accompanied by a sign language interpreter, and I was having a conversation with a clerk or taxi driver or priest or whomever. Would you barge up, ignore me, grab my interpreter and ask that interpreter dozens of questions about where she was born, trained, where she gets her hair done and how much she charges per hour? Above all, would you get huffy and upset when I begged you to please not bother her while she is working?

The Handler is Not an Automated Information Booth

This has actually happened to me regarding Raphael, whom I guess I should have named Elvis, considering what an attention-magnet he is. It is not uncommon that individuals become incensed when I dare to interrupt their barrage of 157 dog questions with, “Just a second. Let me finish paying for my groceries on the credit card machine.” (You know how confusing those machines get!) But no . No time outs for me, the human kiosk. They glare at me sanctimoniously as if I’m the rude one.

One time I was literally choking in a restaurant. A tall, muscular man walks up and demands to know all about the dog (Elvis. Shucks. Name opportunity missed.) All I could sputter were gasping-gagging noises. He persisted, as if I was merely an animated cartoon character turning from beige to red to blue. When I finally could spit out, “I’m choking!”—seemed like a reasonable and obvious excuse to me—his face reddened and I thought he was going to punch me. But luckily he turned on his heel and stormed off.

I can’t wait for the day when I hear, “Do you mind if I keep my mouth shut and move right along, quietly minding my own business?” I will blow kisses at that person.

Interfering with a Service Dog is a Crime

If I am snarling here, forgive me but I am looking out for my dog, for me and for you . Because those people in the above scenarios did not know it, but in most states, interfering with the duties of a service dog is a crime .

Truthfully, the likelihood of your ever being arrested or fined for “friendly interference” with a service dog is almost nil. Most state laws specify that the interference has to be deliberate or malicious. However, even “friendly interference” is an extremely rude and disrespectful breach of service dog etiquette. (Questions 3 & 4)

The exceptions, in almost all states, are that criminal interference takes place (1) if that service dog is a seeing eye or guide dog for the blind; or (2) if the dog or handler is injured or killed during your interference. In either case, you are in deep doo-doo. The woman in Scenario Two is breaking the letter, if not the spirit, of California State law. (Question 2)

California Penal Code Section 365.6 [January 1, 1994]: (a) any person who, with no legal justification, intentionally interferes with the use of a guide dog by obstructing or intimidating the guide dog user or his or her guide dog, is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by a fine of not less than $1,500 not more than $2500, or both.

However, if either Raphael or I or the guide dog team had sustained any injuries due to the interference, someone could have conceivably been charged with a very serious crime:

California Penal Code Section 600.5 (a) Any person who intentionally causes injury to or the death of any guide, signal or service dog […] while the dog is in discharge of its duties, is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding one year, or by a fine not exceeding $5,000 or both a fine and imprisonment. (b) In any case in which the defendant is convicted of a violation of this section, the defendant shall be ordered to make restitution to the disabled person who has custody or ownership of the dog for any veterinary bills and replacement costs of the dog if it is disabled or killed.

How Not to React When You See a Service Dog Team

So, now let’s get back to your being so thrilled to see a dog in the store that you feel compelled to talk to the handler and ask to touch the dog.

This simple list of “don’ts” will help you if you forget the rule-of-three (Question 8, your pop quiz: What is that rule-of-three again?).

1. Please don’t engage us in any conversation or interrogation. Shocking as this may sound, we did not come to the grocery store to have a conversation with you! We came to buy our bread and milk bones. We want to get in and out safely and quickly. Just smile or nod if you care to, or ignore if you please to, then go about your business.

2. Please do NOT approach us unless we give you a wide-open invitation. Or unless you see something really wrong like the leash entangled around the dog’s paws or broken glass on the ground. Even then, please introduce yourself and your intentions so we know what you are up to and give you our permission.

3. Do not touch, pet, call, or whistle at the service dog, or even try to. BIG no-no. This applies no matter how cute, gorgeous, fluffy or adorable the dog. This applies even if the service dog looks at you. That may be part of her job, to check out the space for her person. The dog is not there for your entertainment. The dog is there to assist the handler.

4. Never, ever tease or give commands to a service dog. It is not your place to tell my working dog to “come” to you! Conversely, please don’t interrupt when the handler is giving her dog a command. These are abusive acts which totally confuse the dog and upset the handler. Please educate your children on these points too. Most of us teams are very compassionate with very small children, but still you should not let the child just run up and grab the “puppy.”

5. If we are waiting on a line together or otherwise caught in the same space more than a few seconds, please do not give into your urge to stare at the service dog. In dog-language, staring is often a threat, not a compliment. A dog could eventually start a low growl to warn a handler of this threat, and the dog would be justified.

6. How many questions should I ask a handler? Now you know that, with a few exceptions, there are four answers to this: None, zero, zip, and nada. No questions please! ADA law guarantees my right never to discuss my disability(ies) with you. So don’t ask, “Is this a guide dog?” or “What kind of service dog is he?” Remember, many, many disabilities are invisible. And don’t ask about the dog, her breed, where she was trained, and so on. If you are truly passionate about knowing something about my dog, the best is to hand me a note with your questions and contact information on it. Several etiquette savvy people have approached us this way; as a consequence, I have been delighted to spend time talking on the phone or emailing them info about my service dog.

7. Okay, YES. There are some exceptions. Two of them we discussed already, an offer to help or an instance of imminent danger. Also, if the handler is not in a hurry, or if the team is sitting, waiting or at rest—such that the dog is not actively guiding or aiding the handler, the handler may invite interaction. Somehow, the handler will indicate he or she is approachable and is inviting you to conversation. Socializing via the service dog actually has a salutary effect on many disabled people who can be or feel very isolated by their disability.

Attention Overload

Also, in a similar “at rest” situation, if the handler seems open to it, you can certainly ask to pet a service dog. However, you should graciously accept no as an answer. You may be the fifteenth person who has asked in the last hour, and we may be getting overwhelmed by all the attention.

Really, how would you like it if I asked you to hand over your cane or crutch so I could see how it “feels”? Or, how about if I asked you why you need your custom wheelchair, and could I take it around the store for a spin because I love moving objects?

Fake Service Dog Teams

Earlier I mentioned those cases where a person with or without a documented disability tries to pass off a pet as a service dog. Apparently this abuse is on the rise. ADA law stays very broad to protect the rights of the disabled. So, unfortunately, it leaves some loopholes. Anyone can buy a vest or “certification” on the Internet or elsewhere, or even connive to get a county license. This issue comes up in Service Dog Savvy Part 2 (“Your Next Cold Shoulder Could Get You Arrested”) since only business or organization owners or managers can confront suspected service dog team impersonators, not shoppers or clients. But frankly, this potential problem is volatile, and must be dealt with delicately.

However, there is one thing you can do if you think you are encountering an illegitimate service dog. If you are an eyewitness to the dog’s misbehavior—such as the dog urinates, poops, growls menacingly, destroys merchandise, snaps at someone, or bites you or someone else; or you see any behavior you think may be out of control—you may report it to the owner or manager. Then he or she will have to take over. But please do not report your suspicions. Only report what you have actually witnessed. Team impersonation is a crime, but being wrong about it is a worse crime.

Making Your Intentions and Behavior Match Up

Above all, please don’t take personally our failure to acknowledge you. If we do ignore you, it is because we are concentrating on working, not socializing. This is hard for Raphael and me because we are both very friendly creatures, as are our neighbors. I am very proud to live in San Luis Obispo County, California, the place Oprah Winfrey described as the “happiest city in America.” Oprah was actually referring to the city of San Luis Obispo. Yet what goes for the city, pretty much goes for the county. The happy people here are both dog and people friendly—to a wonderful degree. So I know that the majority of these daily infractions of etiquette are well-intentioned, and done in a kindly spirit.

However, there is a fine line between “friendly” and over-bearing. Those of us who are blessed enough to have service dogs are terribly proud of them. At one level, we appreciate your attentions and intentions.

On another level, though, we may have had a long, tiring, frustrating day. Just like you on those days, physically and mentally we begin to decline in our ability to withstand extra stress. We may be teetering on a meltdown. Perhaps you are making us late for our anger management class! (Heh, heh. Once or twice I almost said this half-mockingly. But like most SLO County citizens, I’m too polite).

Don’t let any of your new education scare or discourage you. Let common courtesy, circumstance and timing be your guides. We really would love you to keep smiling at us!

But as to your idle curiosity, please wait till “Elvis” and I have left the building.

The End


1. www.ada.govEvery aspect of the federal law covered. Look under “Articles” on the Home Page for “Common Questions Regarding Service Dogs.”

2. Probably the most comprehensive site on service dogs that exists.

3. “Individual State Laws Regarding Service Dogs” For those residing in the other 49 states, you will want to see how your state’s laws stack up.


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      A very fine piece of writing - funny and informational at the same time. Having seen this happen, I can see why the author wrote her article. And she wrote it extremely well.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I could just imagine this happening to you. Thanks for all of the info. that I didn't know.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks! Learned a lot.

    • profile image

      Jannette Welz 

      7 years ago

      Great article. Most people are in the dark about service dogs and how to approach them.

      Humor very good. It helped to lighten a serious subject. Good writing....Keep at it.


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