Posted on: February 26, 2020 at 8:16 pm

Most of us know that we should not approach, pet, or distract a service dog in any way. These dogs have an important job to do, and impeding their ability to do it could put their owner’s safety in jeopardy. 

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But what if a service dog approaches you without its owner? A 2018 viral Twitter post brought this to the attention of thousands of people who had no idea the significance that a lone service dog held.

Service Dog Etiquette

According to the Guide Dog Foundation, guide dogs are for individuals who are visually impaired, and service dogs are for anyone else with a disability other than blindness. The organization has laid out a list of guidelines for how the general public should behave around a service dog:

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  • When you see a service dog in his vest, you should not touch, talk, feed, or distract the dog in any way. This will ensure the dog is able to concentrate and do what he is trained to do for the safety of his owner.
  • Treat the dog as a working animal, not a pet.
  • Speak to the owner, not the dog. You can ask the owner if you can pet their dog, and if you are permitted, be sure to pet the dog lightly on the shoulder, not on the top of the head.
  • Never give a service dog command- that is the job of the owner only.
  • If you are walking with a service or guide dog and their owner, do not walk on the dog’s left side, as that could confuse the animal. Best practice is to ask the owner where is the best place for you to walk.
  • Never try to grab or steer the person while they are being led by their dog, and never attempt to grab the dog’s harness. If you think the person looks like they need assistance, ask first [1].

Read: Funeral home adopts Bernese mountain dog to comfort grieving families

A Guide Dog Without a Handler

The “Service Dog PSA” that caught the internet’s attention opens with a story from a woman who has a service dog. The woman had tripped and fallen, and while the incident was harmless and she was unhurt, her guide dog, who thought she was having a seizure, went off to find help as he is trained to do.

When she went to go get her dog, she found him trying to get the attention of a woman who was swatting him away. She realized in that moment that most people are unaware of what a guide dog without its owner means, and do not know what to do in the event that a lone service dog approaches them.

In this instance, the handler was fine, but she makes the excellent point that if she had been having a seizure, she could have been in a potentially life-threatening situation. She wants everyone to know that if a service dog without a person approaches you, it means the person is down and is in need of help [2].

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How Service Dogs Help Their Owners

Service dogs provide many essential services to their owners, depending on their specific needs. 

The basic tasks of a service dog could be answering the door for their owner, retrieving items for their owner such as mail or medication, alerting others when their owner needs assistance, helping the owner to get around, providing physical support for the owner if they are unsteady, and carrying medication or other provisions with them in a small pack [3].

In emergency situations, service dogs are trained to bring the phone to their owner if they need to call 911, to bark at a speakerphone to signal an emergency, interrupt its owner during a trigger or psychiatric occurrence, alert others when its owner is in distress, lead other people to its owner, and to alert its owner of potentially dangerous situations [3]. 

Psychiatric service dogs provide support to people with mental disabilities and are trained to guide them if they are disoriented, provide tactile stimulation during anxiety or panic attacks, identify if or when their owner is having hallucinations, to search a room for people with PTSD, and to interrupt or redirect their owner if they are self-harming [3].

Read: 14 Amazing Ways That Service Dogs Help People with Alzheimer’s and Dementia

How to Help if a Service Dog Approaches You

The TODAY show ran a segment on this topic, in which Carson Daily interviewed the show’s resident dog trainer to find out exactly what to do in case an owner-less service dog approaches you.

The trainer explained that service dogs are not usually trained to jump or bark, so if one approaches you it will likely gently nudge your leg to get your attention. There is no universal command that you need to say to the dog, but asking it “what?” or “where?” or simply following it will be enough [4].

The trainer’s main point, however, is just as clear and concise as the PSA that circulated on Twitter:

If you see a dog in a vest without a person attached to it, follow it.”

Keep Reading: Do Service Dogs Really Help People with Cancer? These Studies Have Answers

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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