When Is It Okay To Pet A Service Dog?

September 15, 2020

Photo credit: Ralph (Ravi) Kayden Unsplash

A reader asked us this question.  While we do not train service dogs, we’ve had the pleasure of discussing the difference between a service dog and other dogs at local schools.  

Service dogs are different from therapy dogs and emotional support dogs. These dogs are not pets, rather they are working dogs with paramount jobs. Service dogs keep their person safe. A distracted dog is unable to concentrate on their human handler, which could lead to a medical emergency.

We wouldn’t want someone distracting our doctor during a procedure he is performing on us. Nor would we want someone interrupting our attorney while they are defending us. I don’t even like people to distract a cashier when I am checking out at the store. Each of these people have a job to do. While most human workers are not as adorable as a working dog, the dog is performing a job that could save their handler’s life.

We are most familiar with guide dogs who are their handler’s eyes. However, there are many other jobs that service dogs perform. Many of those jobs are for conditions invisible to the human eye, such as:

  1. Allergy alert dogs
  2. Seizure alert dogs
  3. Diabetic alert dogs
  4. Psychiatric dogs
  5. Mobility assistance dogs
  6. Hearing dogs

So while we cannot necessarily see the job a service dog is performing, they are working, even when they appear to be resting or sleeping. While these dogs are trained to ignore distractions, no one is perfect. In some states, interfering with a service dog’s job could lead to a misdemeanor offense or even a felony.

Don’t feel bad for service dogs or fear that they are not living their best life. They do have free time where they are permitted to play with toys, enjoy treats and run around like other dogs. Unlike our family dogs, service dogs are not left behind. They are very well cared for, receive plenty of mental stimulation and do enjoy down time.

To answer your question: It is never okay to pet a service dog you meet on the street. While many people believe that service dogs wear vests or other identification while working, that is not necessarily true. Some handlers choose to forego the service vest for one reason or another.

Asking the handler if you can pet the dog is not right either. Service dog handlers want to move through life without being questioned about their dog or the reason they have a service dog. We should treat both the human and the dog with respect by permitting them to go through their day without interruption. 



Our 18 lesson, online program is a hands-on program where students are required to work with dogs. Skill and ability is determined through a series of videos submitted to the school.Students are also responsible for written homework assignments. We also offer a 2-week and 4-month in-person internship. To learn more about the courses we offer, visit ISCDT.com

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