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Know what to do when you encounter a service dog

Those of us who love dogs often find it hard to resist talking to or petting service dogs when we see them out in public. However, it's essential to remember that these dogs are working. They have to focus on what they've been trained to do. If they lose that focus -- even for a second -- they can put their owner in serious danger.

Even if you encounter a service dog who's in training or "off duty," it's still imperative that you ask their handler or owner if you may interact with them. To summarize: Never interact in any way with a service dog without first getting the permission of the person they're with.

If you are out with your own dog when you encounter a service dog, keep your dog away from them unless the owner/handler has given their permission for the dogs to interact. The service dog could see your pooch (and you) as a threat to the person they're with, and things could get ugly.

If you're doing everything right, but for some reason the service dog approaches you without the owner/handler giving their permission, don't respond until you've been told that it's okay. If a blind person's guide dog approaches you, let the person know what is happening.

Most service dogs undergo a considerable amount of training. Dogs are trained specifically to help blind, hearing-impaired and disabled people. Some are even trained to help people with diabetes and seizure disorders as well as emotional issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Don't assume that because a person doesn't "seem" disabled that the dog is not a legitimate service dog who's there for an essential purpose.

There's been considerable bad press about emotional support dogs (ESDs) -- particularly on airplanes. They don't require the same kind of training and certification as other types of service dogs. While anyone can claim their dog is an ESD, true ESDs help people with many types of emotional and mental issues deal with the world.

It's best to assume that any service dog is legitimate and to deal with them as we've described here. However, that doesn't guarantee that a dog won't bite or attack you. If you or a loved one has been bitten by any dog -- even a service dog -- it's important to know what your legal rights and options are.

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