Do Not Disturb

Service dogs need to stay focused on their owner in order to best serve

It is vital for the public to respect service dogs while they are working. A dog that is looking away from the owner or is distracted is unable to properly function and execute life-saving tasks. Although you may be tempted to talk to the dog, coo, or whistle in hopes of making a connection, this approach is highly frowned upon by the owner. Other attempts of contact, such as asking to pet the dog, offering praise, or allowing unsupervised children to approach, are further hindrances. Owners of service dogs may respond with “no thank you, he is working,” or “please don’t distract him.” This is not to offend people, but instead stresses the need for the canines to focus on their work.

Service dogs are trained for specific public access skills, which allow them to politely and quietly function with their owner when outside the home. Dogs learn to settle down, stay, leave things alone, disengage from the public, cross streets, enter and exit buildings, navigate public transportation, and more.

Part of the training process includes teaching the dog to ignore the general public. This is a difficult task to accomplish—even harder when people purposefully disrupt the canine’s work. As hard as it may be, simply ignore them when in public.

Service dog owners who encourage contact between their teammate and the public are most likely phonies. Legitimate service dogs are required to remain focused on their owner, especially if they still have their vest on.

Respect for disabilities and the ADA

Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. Some are visible; others are “invisible”. In addition to mobility assistance, dogs can be trained for a variety of the invisible conditions. Medical alert dogs are even able to indicate when a diabetic’s sugar levels are out of balance. Others predict the oncoming of seizures. Hearing dogs alert their owners to sound, and psychiatric service dogs assist owners with mental challenges and help them gain confidence and independence.

People will sometimes see a service dog and ask “What’s wrong with you?” or “But you don’t look disabled.” Occasionally, individuals make a brash comment such as: “Do you even need that dog?” This type of statement originates with a misconception of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA explicitly states “Staff may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.” Professionals, the public, and business owners need to become aware of ADA requirements when interacting with service dog teams. This will enable the public to maintain respect for disabled individuals, who may already feel vulnerable in public. Remember, questioning their condition and interrogating them adds stress, and is also illegal.

People faking service dogs have considerably contributed to the same problem. Owners putting vests on pet dogs have caused businesses to become skeptical. Fake service dogs can appear out of control, disruptive, unhygienic, and poorly mannered. The more people abuse the law, the more people with disabilities are disadvantaged.

Luc learning how to navigate transport at Union Station in Washington DC Photo by Charlotte Wagner

What can you do?

Teach children early on not to interact with service dogs. If you see one in public, tell your child not to distract the dog and explain the canine is working. Also, explain to children the types of assistance service dogs provide and that a person with a health condition depends on their dog for guidance, especially in an emergency.

If you are with your own dog and come across a service dog team, please be courteous and afford them some space. Do not allow the dogs to interact or socialize. Maintain focus on your dog and ensure their behavior does not impose on the working team. Teaching your dog to focus on you instead of the service dog is a great way to gain control.

Please do not put a vest on your pet in an attempt to pass it as a service dog in public. Business owners have become increasingly suspicious of legitimate service dog teams as more owners take their pets in public places. Even emotional support and therapy dogs do not qualify under the same rights as service dogs under the ADA. Virginia and other states consider it illegal to falsify pets as service dogs.

Service dogs should be unseen, unheard, and have impeccable manners in public. It may be tempting to point the dog out, watch, stare, or otherwise acknowledge it, but please remember to disengage; it is kind and respectful to give a quick glance and smile before returning back to your own agenda.

Americans with Disabilities Act Information Information for Business Owners & Professionals

Business owners and professionals will benefit from understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act in order to better handle customer interactions. It is astonishing how many people are unaware of their rights and etiquette.

Suggest a protocol for personnel to ensure interactions with service dog teams are pleasant. If business owners are concerned about a service dog, here’s some key guidelines regarding service dogs from the ADA:

  • Under the ADA, service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices. In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.
  • Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals. When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility (for example, in a school classroom or at a homeless shelter), they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility.
  • A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless: (1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or (2) the dog is not housebroken. When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service animal be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal’s presence.
  • For more info regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act and Service Dogs please visit: 
Kuma visiting the Botanical Gardens in DC as part of his training.

Although federal law does not require service dogs to wear a vest in public, Virginia law requires dogs to be identified as working animals. Under code § 51.5-44, dogs must wear either a blaze orange leash, vest, backpack, or harness identifying the dog as a trained service dog. Dogs in training (6 months and older) have the right to access streets, highways, sidewalks, walkways, public buildings, public facilities, and other public places as long as they are part of a service dog working team and are appropriately identified. A handler’s requirements include “a jacket identifying the recognized guide, hearing or service dog organization, provided such person is an experienced trainer of the organization identified on the jacket; or (v) the person is part of a three-unit service dog team and is conducting continuing training of a service dog.” § 51.5-44. E.

For more information regarding Virginia code and service dogs visit:


Charlotte Wagner Harvey
About Charlotte Wagner Harvey 21 Articles
Charlotte Wagner Harvey holds a Bachelors of Science with honors in Animal Management from the University of Essex with a special interest in behavior. As a dog trainer and the owner of K9ology in Warrenton, she helps dog owners and dogs find common ground to establish a peaceful life together. Her core tenets: there are no shortcuts, it is hard, and do it right or don’t do it at all. She lives in Rappahannock County with her husband and a farm full of animals including horses, chickens, cats, and, of course, dogs.

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