Service Dog Dilemma
Why you shouldn't distract a service dog.
What is a service dog?
A service dog as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is "a dog that is individually trained to do work or performs tasks for people with disabilities." A service dog could be wearing a vest or be working with only a collar and leash. They can be any breed of dog and must know at least one task related to the handler's disability. If the dog's sole purpose is for comfort or emotional support, it is not considered a service dog.
What counts as a disability?
Some disabilities can be really obvious, such as being in a wheelchair or being blind. Other disabilities are not so obvious. Disabilities such as diabetes or PTSD cannot be seen on the outside, but still affect the person's daily life.
Why is it important not to distract a service dog?
First, let's clear up what counts as a distraction. A distraction can be a number of things including, but not limited to: touching the dog, calling to the dog, feeding the dog, or making kissing sounds at the dog.
A service dog should always be focused on its handler to make sure that it picks up on cues that would require the service dog to alert its handler that they are about to experience an episode of their disability, such as a fainting spell (for someone with syncope). If you are distracting a service dog they could miss those extremely important cues and not alert their handler; this makes you liable if the handler gets injured because of the missed alert. So if someone with syncope were to faint as a result of their service dog missing an alert, and they hit their head, you might be held responsible.
Distracting a service dog could also cause the handler distress. Someone who has severe anxiety in large crowds could suddenly have an anxiety attack because of people suddenly crowding them to pet their dog. It is also just very rude to pet a service dog; it's like walking up and stroking someone's wheelchair or petting someone's child.
What should you do when you see a service dog team?
The best thing you can do when you see a service dog team is to ignore them. If you want to interact with them or ask a question, simply address the handler directly. And, when you do ask questions, do so respectfully and avoid asking personal questions; we don't ask you about your last colonoscopy or pap smear, do we? As long as you're respectful, all is good in the world.