Why You Can't Pet Service Dogs: Reasons and Etiquette

Leave these well-mannered canines to do their job without distractions.

Published November 21, 2022
Children in library with reading assistance dog

You've definitely seen people out in public with their service dogs decked out in signifying apparel, and the temptation to walk up and pet their pup is irresistible. Who wouldn't want to shower affection on such a well-behaved dog? However, you definitely shouldn't do that. It's really not even polite to ask, in many cases. But why can't you pet a service dog? Because these are working dogs, highly trained to ignore distractions outside the functions they perform for their owners. Avoid committing a faux pas, and leave these canine heroes to focus on their job.

Service Dogs Are Working Dogs

Interacting with service dogs is considered impolite because they are performing tasks for their owners that can be life-saving. You wouldn't walk up to a paramedic or EMT to congratulate them when they're in the middle of a rescue, would you? It's not much different with a service dog. Service dogs are trained to help people with a wide range of disabilities and health issues. There are several types of service dogs:

Seeing eye dog guides a person with visual impairment
  • Guide dogs, who are trained to assist people who have vision impairments or blindness. They'll often use their sense of smell to help their owners navigate safely.
  • Hearing alert dogs, who can detect sounds such as an alarm clock going off or a smoke detector beeping. They can also respond to other environmental cues, like sounds from the television or microwave oven.
  • Service dogs for people with physical disabilities that limit their ability to walk on their own, such as paralysis or cerebral palsy.

Why You Can't Pet a Service Dog

Service dogs are trained with positive reinforcement methods, which means they receive treats or praise when they do what's been asked of them correctly. The goal is for these dogs and handlers to develop strong bonds over time, so much so that the dogs will know exactly what their handlers need without being told every step along the way.

A service dog is trained to ignore distractions and stay focused on their handler. This is an important part of their training, as they need to be able to focus on the task at hand while ignoring everything else that's going on around them. If you're one of those people who would like to pet a service dog when they pass by, think about how distracting it must be for them if someone pulls at their leash or tries to pet them.

Making eye contact alone could be distracting to the dog. Well-rounded service dogs are loving and still have a desire to be loved, even though they have learned how to avoid most distractions. Eye contact could make the dog want to visit with you, distracting them from their job of caring for their handler. It's best to leave them to their work, out of respect for the important role they play in keeping their owners safe.

If the timing is right, you can ask to pet a service dog in public, but understand that this isn't the same as asking to approach a regular pet. Some owners won't mind, but others might not appreciate the distraction. Context matters. For example, in a crowded public place, you should probably go about your day. If you do decide to ask, take the owner's cues and follow their lead.

Even When the Dog Doesn't Appear to Be Working

Service dogs are trained to perform many actions, and some may not be immediately apparent. For example, a dog that is trained to detect seizures may not appear to be doing anything. However, while they are lying next to their handler, they are noticing even the smallest cues in case their handler were to have a seizure in the middle of their lunch.

A dog that is trained to detect low blood sugar is still working to monitor their handler's condition. A dog that is trained to aid veterans with PTSD is monitoring their handler's breathing. Even if it looks like the dog isn't doing anything, they are still working to ensure their loved one is safe and cared for properly.

When It's Appropriate to Pet a Service Dog

When the dog is not working, they are permitted to interact with people, including being petted and played with. When the dog is working, however, they cannot be distracted by human contact. These restrictions are in place to ensure that the dogs are able to perform their tasks safely and effectively.

Because of these limitations on petting service dogs, you should refrain from interacting with them when they're wearing vests or identifying patches that indicate that they're working animals. In some cases where there's reasonable doubt about whether or not an individual has a disability requiring their use as a service animal, such as in restaurants, you may ask if you can touch their dog, but if they are uncomfortable with it, they may respectfully decline.

If you know someone with a service dog, that's the only truly appropriate time to pet their pup. The handler is more likely to be honest with their comfort level regarding petting their dog.

Let Service Dogs Work

These dogs are performing vital, often life-saving tasks for their owners. The rules are in place to ensure that these animals are able to do their jobs without getting distracted by strangers or attention from other people. While it may seem like a good idea, trying to pet a service dog can actually cause them to lose focus on their job. It can also make them feel unsafe and anxious, which can disrupt their thought process while on the job. Save your greetings for another time and another dog, and leave working service dogs to their tasks.

Why You Can't Pet Service Dogs: Reasons and Etiquette