Why Can’t You Pet Service Dogs?

Service dog helping a person in a wheelchairIt can be difficult not to show affection to service dogs when you see them out in public, as most of these dogs are adorable, well-trained, and dedicated to the help of their handler. However, attempting to pet a service dog or otherwise distracting them from their job can have negative consequences and result in problems for you, the service dog, and their handler.

In this article, we tell you why you can’t pet a service dog and give you some explanations as to the service dog’s potential duties. We’ll also help you understand the correct way to behave around service dogs to ensure the safety, privacy, and comfort of everyone involved.

Service Dogs and Their Duties

Many different types of service dogs may be out and about helping their handlers; these dogs can be divided into three main categories: guide and mobility service dogs, medical alert dogs, and psychiatric service dogs. Each service dog provides specific tasks that help their handler achieve daily tasks more easily, provides them with comfort and assistance from bothersome symptoms, or helps alert them to incoming medical problems, such as blood sugar drops or seizures.

You can identify a working service dog by their well-trained behavior, how they stick right next to their handler, and, typically, by a vest or leash that indicates they are a working service dog.

Why You Can’t Pet Service Dogs

When a service dog is out and about in public, they are committed to helping their owner and can’t risk being distracted from their duties, whatever they may be. Below, we discuss what could happen if you attempt to pet a service dog.

You Distract the Dog

Service dogs are out with their handler and providing assistance; their tasks are essential and help to keep the handler’s medical conditions under control or provide mobility assistance. When you attempt to pet a service dog, you distract them from their tasks and put the services they are providing to their handler at risk in both the short and long term.

You Risk Injury

When you attempt to pet an unfamiliar dog or the service dog sees an unfamiliar person, they may react poorly and growl, bite, or nip. Almost every service is trained so that this doesn’t happen, but you never know how approaching a service dog will go. You also don’t want to risk injury to the handler or the service dog itself, as this can result in serious issues and legal complications for everyone down the line.

It’s Rude and Possibly Illegal

Interrupting a working service dog and interfering with the duties they are performing for their handler isn’t just rude—it can be illegal. Depending on the state you are in, there may be laws that can hold you accountable for distracting a service dog and getting in the way of the tasks they are performing. Read up on the laws in your state, and never attempt to pet a service dog regardless of whether or not it is illegal.

How to Behave Around a Service Dog

When you spot a service dog in public, you may not know how to interact with them appropriately. Below, we give tips for positive service dog interactions and advice on what not to do if you encounter a service dog while out and about.

Positive Service Dog Behavior

Review these tips for how to act around a service dog to ensure the safety and comfort of both the dog and their handler while you are occupying the same public space.

  • Try to give the service dog and their handler as much space as possible. This will enable the dog to perform their duties comfortably or guide their handler without issue.
  • Stay relaxed and calm, and refrain from making loud noises, sudden movements, or pointing out the service dog.
  • Ignore the existence of the service dog, even if it tries to get your attention for something like playing or pets. However, if you see a service dog without a handler that is attempting to get your attention, you should follow it – the handler is likely in need of assistance.
  • If you have a dog out with you, keep your dog away from the service dog. The time to socialize your dog and meet and greet is not out in public with a service dog. Allow your dog to meet or play with other dogs in a monitored space like a dog park.
  • Teach your children about service dogs and their important roles, and to ignore their presence when you’re out and about.

Remember, the best way to navigate a service dog interaction is to ignore the existence of the service dog and let them do their job. They are there to assist their handler, and gushing over the dog or distracting them can have very negative results.

Negative Service Dog Behavior

If you see a service dog in public, you should never engage in the following behaviors, as they can put you, the service dog, or their handler at risk.

  • Never attempt to touch or pet the service dog, as this can be distracting, upset their handler, or result in injury to you, the dog, or the handler.
  • Do not talk directly to the dog or attempt to summon their attention in any way.
  • Refrain from making eye contact with the dog or staring directly at it, as this can distract the dog. Service dogs, much like other dogs, rely heavily on body language and eye contact for communication.
  • Never offer a service dog food, treats, or toys – you don’t know what their feeding and toy restrictions may be, and, again, this is distracting the dog from their duties.
  • Do not ask the handler what services or tasks the service dog performs, as this is rude and interferes with the handler’s right to privacy about their condition.
  • Never ask for service dog documentation – this may be illegal in certain situations and goes against the handler’s privacy.
  • Don’t assume that a snoozing or napping service dog is off duty and eligible to be approached; if a service dog is out with their handler, they are at work and not to be interacted with.
  • Do not allow your child to attempt to pet or play with a service dog.

You should also remember that it can be illegal to approach a working service dog, attempt to distract them, or otherwise interfere with their work, depending on your state. So, instead of bothering a service dog when you see them out and about, simply respect and admire them from a distance, refrain from distracting them, and carry on about your day with the knowledge that you saw a service dog helping their handler to the best of their ability.

What if a Service Dog Approaches You Without a Handler?

Most service dogs are trained to seek help if their handler is unconscious, in danger, or incapacitated. If a service dog approaches you without their handler in sight and makes a big deal out of trying to gain your attention or attempts to get you to follow them, you should follow the dog. They will likely lead you to their handler, where you can assess the situation and call for further help depending on what is needed.

Leaving Service Dogs to Their Jobs

As many dog owners and lovers alike know, it can be hard to ignore a cute dog, especially one that does a great job guiding and helping their handler. However, attempting to pet a service dog that is working or even making eye contact with a working service dog can disrupt their attention and result in serious issues for the dog and their handler – it may even be illegal to bother a working service dog.

If you see a service dog out working, always be sure to use proper conduct and don’t attempt to interact with the dog. Speak to the handler if you must ask about the dog, but always be cautious, polite, and respectful of both the individual and the service dog’s privacy and comfort throughout the entire interaction to ensure everything remains safe for everyone.