How Clean Are a Service Dog’s Feet?

Service dogs are often denied entry for hygiene reasons, yet a new study finds their paws are cleaner than shoe soles.

Guide dog is helping a blind man
Are guide dog feet any dirtier than shoes?. sssss1gmel / Getty Images

Service dogs are specially trained to help their owners and usually accompany them wherever they go. Depending on where you live, they’re allowed nearly everywhere, including stores and restaurants, hospitals and schools.

But researchers in the Netherlands found that’s not always the case and hygiene is often given as the reason they’re refused admittance.

“We heard that a veteran, who wanted to take his assistance dog to a hospital appointment, was refused entry. The reason given was that dogs were not hygienic and thus should not be allowed into the hospital, even though Dutch law and a [United Nations] agreement dictates that assistance dogs are welcome in all public places,” study lead author Jasmijn Vos, masters student at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, tells Treehugger.

“We wanted to investigate if hygiene was a valid reason to keep assistance dogs out of hospitals.” 

Vos and her colleagues compared the germs on assistant dog paws versus those on the soles of people’s shoes and shared the results in a new study. The dogs were cleaner. The results were published in the journal Environmental Research and Public Health.

Opening Doors to Service Dogs

The researchers say that more than 10,000 people in Europe use assistance dogs including guide dogs for the vision or hearing impaired and medical alert dogs.

Even though assistance dogs are legally permitted in public places in the Netherlands, 40% of owners said they were denied entry somewhere in the past year, according to a survey by KNGF, an organization that provides trained guide dogs.

“This happens very often,” Vos says. “And according to our research, 81% of participating assistance dog users had been refused once or more with their current assistance dog.”

In the United States, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”

Service dogs are specially trained animals that help their handlers with something directly related to their disability. Neither emotional support dogs or therapy dogs are considered service dogs under the ADA.

According to the ADA, service dogs are allowed to accompany their handler anywhere that the public is allowed to go. But Vos points out a story in Colorado where two individual service dogs were denied access with their handlers to a medical center.

“From this story I could say that the U.S. is also not there yet, similar to the Netherlands, and possibly harder to achieve since it is such a big country,” she says.

Testing for Bacteria

For the study, researchers took samples from the paws of 25 assistance dogs and from the soles of the shoes of their handlers. For comparison’s sake, they also sampled the paws of 25 pet dogs and the shoes of their owners. Each person walked their dog for 15-30 minutes before the samples were taken.

Vos and her team examined the samples for Enterobacteriaceae (a large group of bacteria including E. coli that often cause infections in health care settings) and Clostridium difficile (C. diff), a bacteria that can cause diarrhea and severe inflammation of the colon.

They found that dog paws were more likely to be negative for Enterobacteriaceae compared to shoe soles (72% versus 42%) and have significantly lower bacteria counts. Only one sample — from a single shoe sole — contained any C. diff bacteria.

Researchers hope that the findings will strengthen the argument that service dogs shouldn’t be denied access to public places.

“They could learn that hygiene is not a legitimate reason to refuse assistance dogs to public locations, and that this is not allowed by law anyway. Assistance dogs are well trained and will not bother other people visiting public locations, because they are focused to perform their tasks for their users,” Vos says.

“They are of great importance to those users. We hope that people are willing to read into assistance dogs: what are they, what do they do, how can they be recognized and identified and how do you interact with them (hint: you do not, just ignore them and let them do their job).”