It's hard to hold back from petting any cute pooch, but these working dogs have a job to do.

By April Saylor
August 28, 2020
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If you're anything like the editors of Daily Paws, it's just part of your DNA to want to greet every dog you meet on the street with a hearty "Who's a good boy?!" and a pat on the head. But there are some hound/handler teams who work in tandem to perform certain tasks, many of which are crucial for the safety, independence, or mobility of the dog's owner. Interacting with either the dog or the person can be an unwelcome distraction to their day-to-day life.

Here's why you can't pet service dogs—even if you have the best intentions—and why it's so important to give them their space.

Why Can't You Pet Service Dogs?

Service animals are different from other pets. They are specially trained to perform tasks for their handlers (someone who uses a service animal), and these hardworking pups should be on the "do not disturb" list at all times. Depending on the needs of their owners, service dogs—also known as assistance dogs—are trained to perform a number of special tasks to increase the mobility and independence of their human companion. Guide Dogs of America, a nonprofit that provides service dogs for the visually impaired, veterans with PTSD, and people who are on the autism spectrum, notes that some of those tasks may even be life saving for their owners. And interacting with a working animal distracts them from doing that very important job.

Service dogs are working animals—when you engage with them, you could be risking the health or well-being of their owner.

What Should You Do Around Service Dogs?

First, give them their space. It's hard to withhold from petting or talking to a cute dog—we get it. But remember that these dogs have an important job to do, and try to contain your excitement so as not to detract from their role assisting their owner. While service dogs may be well-trained to tune out distractions, it can still make it hard for them to concentrate if you are trying to get their attention through noise, gestures, or by reaching out to touch them.

Second, be polite. As a dog lover, it's understandable you'd want to ask questions about the service dog, how they're used, and what their training regiment is like. A dog with the ability to look both ways before crossing the street or prevent a health emergency is The Most Awesome Thing in the World—we agree! But take a pause before you ask someone about their assistance animal. They may not want to talk with every person about their service dog's special training, or why they have one at all.

How Can You Tell If a Dog is a Service Animal?

Not all service dogs are created equal, but they are all protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). There are different kinds of service dogs that are trained to assist their owner with different types of tasks. Some service dogs help their owners with mobility, others assist with hearing or vision, and some are trained to alert their owners of oncoming seizures or act as a mental health instrument for their handler. But it may not always be obvious that a dog is working to provide assistance for their owner.

Many service dogs are identifiable by a service dog vest or a type of harness, though that's not always the case. The ADA does not require that service animals wear any special ID tag, vest, or specific harness that would identify them as such. Additionally, the handler of the service dog is not required to have any self-identifying documents that they carry to "prove" their dog is a service animal.

The ADA has very clear guidelines on what is considered a service dog, and says a service dog "must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability." This means that a service dog is not the same as an emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animal.

Roman / Adobe Stock

When Is It OK to Pet Service or Assistance Dogs?

There may be times when it's appropriate to interact with a service dog, though there are a few guidelines to consider before heading in for a scratch.

Some service dogs in training, including "puppy raisers" who help teach assistance animals basic obedience skills and how to behave in public before the pup is placed with their recipient, might bring the dog out in public to help socialize them. Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, RBT, Daily Paws pet health and behavior editor and the executive director of the Iowa Human-Animal Bond Society, says that in the case of service dog training or socialization, the owner will ask that you approach the dog, not the other way around.

"In some circumstances, a handler may request that you interact with a dog to assist in socialization," Bergeland says, "but not always. Don't assume it's OK to approach, play with, or pet a dog even if you know they're a service dog in training."

Bergeland says to also steer clear of service dogs—especially ones in training—if you have your own pooch with you. "In terms of service dogs in training, there is nothing more distracting than other dogs," she says. "Second would be people, and the third is environment." So unless you are specifically asked to play, pet, or pay attention to a future assistance dog, steer clear.

Another, more critical time it's appropriate to interact with a service dog is if you find one without their owner. If you discover an unattended service dog, take immediate action as their handler may be in danger. Some service dogs are specially trained to go find help on behalf of their handler, and may nudge you or bark to get your attention. If this happens, fast action on your part is needed ASAP. Guide Dogs of America says that in this case, you should follow the dog, who is trained to take help to their owner. Asses the situation, and call 9-1-1 if their handler needs medical attention.

Rules to Remember When Interacting With a Service Dog:

  1. DO: Give the dog space.
  2. DO: Keep your composure. Don't be loud and jump around.
  3. DO: Ignore the dog, even if he tries to sniff you. Remember, service dogs have a job to do!
  4. DO: Take immediate action if you find an unattended service dog. Their handler may be in danger and many assistance animals are specially trained to go find help.

Proper interaction with a working service dog starts with giving the specially trained pups the space they deserve. These special pups help keep their humans safe, and we owe it to both members of their team—person and pup alike—to give them our respect since they have such important jobs to do.