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Although it may not happen often, there could be times when a patient comes into your department at the hospital or the health care office you work in, and they have a service dog.

Would you know what to do? Do you acknowledge the dog or not? If it’s an emergency situation, can you move the dog?

We interviewed two experts to get their opinions on what nurses should do when patients have service dogs: Wallis Brozman is an Outreach and Advocacy Programs Specialist for Canine Companions for Independence as well as a three-time recipient of Canine Companions service dogs, and Jennifer Swank is a Service Dog Instructor for America’s VetDogs.

Wallis Brozman and her service dog Renata Photo by Chris Kitteredge Photography
Wallis Brozman and her service dog Renata
Photo by Chris Kitteredge Photography

How should you act/perform when a patient has a service dog? Suppose a patient is admitted to the hospital or comes to the ER, and their service dog is with them? What should nurses do?

Brozman says:

  • A service animal is limited to a dog and, rarely, a miniature pony (usually for guiding a person who is blind), that has been individually trained to perform tasks or work that directly mitigate the handler’s disability. Health care workers should ignore the dog unless the dog is out of the owner’s control, behaving in an unsafe manner, or preventing the care of the patient. Service dogs are permitted in all areas of a hospital that the general public is permitted, with the exception of sterile environments such as operating rooms, sterile storage, or burn units.
  • As long as the service dog is behaving safely and under control, the service dog can join the patient in admission. Hospital staff are not expected to manage the dog’s needs, so the handler may need to locate family or friends to take the dog outside or assist with its care for the duration of the admittance.
  • If a patient is unable to handle the dog, the hospital is responsible for finding alternative care for the service dog. The service dog owner should be given the first opportunity to identify alternative care for the dog.

Suppose a patient is brought into the hospital in an ambulance and their service dog is with them. If the doctors/nurses need to be working on the patient, what should a nurse do with the service animal? Do they have information on their collars or anything that will give a phone number or someone to contact?

Brozman advises:

  • If a handler needs urgent care and the dog is in the way, ask the handler if you can move the dog (even if they are unresponsive). Let them know that the dog will be with a specific staff member or the patient’s contact while they are receiving critical care. While this isn’t a requirement, there is a lot of potential anxiety for a patient if the whereabouts of their service dog is unclear.
  • If the handler is unable to provide direction on alternative care for the service dog, check the dog’s ID tags or equipment for contact information. If an immediate contact cannot be reached (i.e., a family member or friend), the dog’s equipment may indicate a program or organization that trained the dog, such as a logo. Get in touch with the organization if possible, as there may be volunteers or staff members who can assist in finding someone to care for the dog.
  • As the last option, the dog should be kenneled at a veterinarian or animal shelter with clear instruction that the dog is a service dog whose owner will be returning for the dog—not surrendering the dog.

Swank advises on the following questions:

What about this same scenario in a regular doctor’s office? If someone comes in for an appointment and uses a service animal, what are the health care workers required or expected to do? Not do?

Again, there really isn’t anything for anyone to do—the dog should be ignored, and the handler should be spoken too as if they are any other patient without a service dog. Asking the handler if there is anything special that they need such as placement in a room to allow space for their dog or simply inquiring how the staff should interact is appreciated.

Suppose the person at the doctor’s office is sent to the hospital. What should nurses do with the service animal?

If the handler is conscious and able to command the dog, then the dog should go along. If not, then the emergency contact person for the handler should be contacted.

What are some of the biggest mistakes nurses can make when they work with a patient who has a service animal?

I’d say the biggest mistake would be to distract the dog by talking to them, trying to pet them or treating the person differently because they have a service dog.

What else is important for our readers to know?

Number one thing is to always ignore the service dog and talk to the handler. Talking to the dog, making noises towards them, or trying to pet can potentially cause harm to the handler. Some service dogs are allowed to be interacted with while working, but never assume so. Always ask the handler before petting or distracting the dog.

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