Image credit: K9s for Warriors

Responding Appropriately to Handler-Assistance Dog Teams

Do you know what an assistance dog is, or how to interact politely if you encounter an assistance dog team out and about in public? Learn the ins and outs of assistance dog etiquette below!  

Dogs at Work

Assistance dogs are trained in specific tasks to assist an individual with a disability [1]. They come in all shapes and sizes: a guide dog assisting someone blind or visually impaired, a service dog assisting someone with a physical or psychiatric disability, a hearing dog assisting someone d/Deaf or hard of hearing, a medical alert dog assisting someone with a medical condition, and more [2,3]

Inclusion Matters

Assistance dogs can be a social bridge for people with disabilities [4], yet over 75% of handlers have experienced discrimination because of their use of an assistance dog [5]. Educating yourself and your children creates a culture of inclusion [3,5,6] and minimizes stress for all parties. 

The Dangers of Distraction

Assistance dog handlers rely on their dogs for their safety, well-being, and independence. Even though they are well-trained, assistance dogs can lose focus if distracted, creating a health and safety concern for the handler [7]. In some states, interfering with their work is even considered a criminal offense [8].

Do's and Don'ts

Assistance dog etiquette is also disability etiquette. How do you respectfully and appropriately approach a team, and keep human and canine needs in mind? [3,5,6,7]

The Handler 

  • Speak directly to them (rather than an attendant, interpreter, or family member).
  • Don't make assumptions about their abilities or intellect.
  • Know that some disabilities are invisible.
  • Avoid personal questions.
  • Put the person first (they are a person with a disability, not a disabled person).

The Dog 

  • Speak to the person, not the dog.
  • Think of the dog as a piece of medical equipment, equivalent to a wheelchair or hearing aid.
  • Assume they are working.
  • Avoid distracting the dog with sound, touch or eye contact.
  • Do not offer food or treats.
  • Ask first if it's okay to pet them. It may or may not be!
  • Keep your own dog under control and at a distance. 

Allergies, Fears, Cultural, and Religious Concerns

You may have important reasons that you cannot or would prefer not to interact with a dog. If so, communicate your needs respectfully and discretely to a staff member so that you can be accommodated [2]. Remember that as long as the dog is behaving appropriately, the team has a legal right to share the public space. It is up to the business to accommodate everybody comfortably and equitably [1,2].

Assistance Dog Fraud

If a dog enters your business or facility presented as an assistance dog, what can you do?

Why is assistance dog fraud a problem?

  • Many handlers-dog teams have faced discrimination from business owners and customers due to prior negative encounters with fake assistance dogs [5].
  • Pets that are misbehaving or aggressive can interfere with a legitimate assistance dog's work, putting the handler at risk.

Is the assistance dog legitimate?

  • You will recognize a genuine handler-assistance dog team when you see them; the dog will be quiet, confident, and well-behaved [9].
  • If the team is not causing any disruption, do not interfere. It is not necessary, nor is it recommended, to question every person entering with a dog.
  • Smile and treat them with the utmost respect. They may be expecting skepticism or may be coming directly from an experience of public discrimination.


For Business Owners and Employees:

Not sure if the assistance dog is legitimate?

  • Ask the two questions that businesses can legally ask to determine the legitimacy of a service animal [1]:
    • "Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?"
    • "What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?"
  • If the handler is able to answer these questions, thank them for their time. You can let them know you are trying to make it a more accessible space for teams like them by trying to identify fake or unqualified assistance animals.
  • If the handler is not able to answer these questions or their responses indicate that the animal is not needed for a disability, offer resources (such as this page) to clarify the definitions and access laws for assistance dogs compared to companion or support animals.  

Are there any limits to public access?

  • It is legal on a case-by-case basis to deny access if the dog's presence would require unreasonable accommodations based on the following pieces of information [9,10]:
    • Type, size and weight of the service animal and whether the facility can physically accommodate these traits. For example, a zoo exhibiting animals that are natural predators or prey of dogs may not be able to accommodate this service animal species at those specific exhibits.
    • Whether the service animal is sufficiently controlled by the handler; examples include barking unrelated to a trained task, wandering away from the handler in a way that is unrelated to a trained task, or soiling indoors.
    • Whether the presence of the service animal in the facility compromises the legitimate safety requirements. For example, hospital wings may require extreme sanitization prior to entry.



Handler-Assistance Dog Graphics

The following graphics were featured on social media in a mini-series used to educate the public about handler-assistance dog teams. 

What's the difference between assistance dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support dogs? Assistance dogs are the only ones legally allowed to enter public establishments and specially trained to assist one person based on their individual needs. Both assistance and emotional support dogs are legally allowed to live with the owner regardless of pet policies. None of these dogs need to be registered or certified.

Some types of assistance dogs include hearing, guide, medical alert, mobility assistance, and psychiatric assistance dogs, among others.

When meeting an assistance dog team, DO respect the handler-dog team, assume the dog is working, speak to the handler directly, and keep your dog leashed and at a distance. Don't question the dog's legitimacy, interact with the dog, make assumptions about the handler's abilities/intellect, or ask personal questions.

What are businesses allowed to ask? Per the ADA, the only 2 questions businesses can ask a handler & assistance dog team are: is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Frequently asked questions about assistance dogs. 1) Do assistance dogs need to wear a vest or patch? No. 2) Do assistance dogs require proof/certificates? No. 3) What if I have allergies, a fear, or other concerns about dogs? Respectfully communicate your needs and concerns to a staff member. Remember, the assistance dog and handler have a legal right to share the space.

What is assistance dog fraud? Posing a pet or untrained dog as a service dog.


The information above was compiled by graduate students Sarah Leighton and Clare Jensen.  The graphics were made by undergraduate research assistant Marjorie Leblanc



  1. U.S. Department of Justice. (2010, September 15). Americans with Disabilities Act 2010 Revised Requirements: Service Animals.
  2. Levey, J. A. & Cappy, S. L. (2017). Service Dogs in the Perioperative setting. AORN Journal, 105(4), 365-369. 
  3. Davidson, J. J., Cummin, T. M., & Strandova, I. (2020). Supporting Service Dogs in the Classroom. Intervention in School and Clinic, 55(5), 313-318. 
  4. Bould, E., Bigby, C., Bennett, P. C., & Howell, T. J. (2018). 'More people talk to you when you have a dog' - Dogs as catalysts for social inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 62(10), 833-841.
  5. Mills, M. L. (2017). Invisible disabilities, visible Service Dogs: The discrimination of Service Dog handlers. Disability & Society, 32(5), 635-656.
  6. Murphy, K. L. (2007). Addressing Changing Times Teaching Disability Etiquette to PETE Students. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, & Dance, 78(7), 41-44. 
  7. Parette, H. P. & Hourcade, J. J. (1995). Disability Etiquette and School Counselors: A Common Sense Approach Toward Compliance With the Americans With Disabilities Act. The School Counselor, 42(3), 224-232.
  8. Wisch, R. F. (2021). Table of State Assistance Animal Laws. Michigan State University College of Law, Animal Legal & Historical Center. 
  9. Campbell, K. (2016). Supporting the adoption of legislation criminalizing 'fake' service and emotional support animals. Journal of Animal & Environmental Law, 8
  10. U.S. Department of Justice. (2015, July). Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA

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