Can I Pet Your Dog? Etiquette for Service Dogs

Service dogs (or any animal assigned as a service animal) are usually working when we see them out and about. They may even be in training and wearing one of the harnesses that identifies them as “in training.” Whether they’re working as a full-time service animal or are in training, there are specific guidelines that we need to be mindful of when we’re tempted to interact with them.

Service dogs have the right to be wherever their handler is. In fact, they have access to all public facilities by federal law. Documentation credentials are not required. A business owner may ask only two questions—whether the dog is a service dog and what service the dog provides.

The primary guideline is never to approach a service dog without first asking permission from his handler. Be prepared for the response to be “No,” depending on the circumstances. This is a close-knit team and the handler depends on the responses from the dog for basic daily tasks. Any small distraction could potentially put a person at risk or create a vulnerable situation.

As much as you may want just to pet the dog, resist. The dog is working and needs to keep focused on his handler. If you think about the times you’ve seen a service dog, most really don’t notice anything other than their person. That’s part of their training—to focus, anticipate, and respond instantly.

Speak to the person first, not the dog. Obviously, the dog is needed; we don’t need to ask or know why. Respect the person’s need for a service dog and their privacy. They’ve probably been asked more times than they care to recall what their dog’s name is, what breed, and on and on.

While it’s natural to offer to help, it’s probably not needed. The dog is trained for whatever their handler needs assistance doing and does it remarkably well.

Don’t offer water or food to a service dog. Most likely there’s a fixed schedule for mealtime. and offering a treat would be too distracting. Think about it. Would you like a stranger to offer food to your dog?

Even if the dog seems to be napping, he’s still in work mode and awaiting commands from his/her handler. As dog owners are well aware, a simple move can alert a napping dog.

Service dogs do get downtime; they don’t work all the time. Generally, when they’re home with their handler, they get to play and have their “doggie” time. Many times, when the service harness comes off, that’s the signal for rest and relaxation.

If you happen to be with your own dog, don’t let your dog engage with the service dog.

Service dogs are trained to serve in a variety of capacities. Dogs are trained based on their unique skill sets and teamed up with handlers who need assistance in a particular area. While some needs may be obvious, many are not. Seeing-eye dogs may be the easiest to identify; however, there are also hearing dogs who are trained to alert their handlers to ringing phones, doorbells, and any other sounds that we take for granted. Some are trained for mobility assistance, coping, medical alert, seizure alert, therapy—the list goes on. Bottom line, whatever the skills, service dogs make life easier and their support enhances the lives of those they are trained to serve.

Let’s give these working dogs the respect they earn every day for a job well done!