Why You Can’t Pet a Service Dog
It’s tempting to pet a service dog. After all, these dogs are well-behaved, adorable, and very approachable. What harm could it do? It’s just a pat on their soft furry head and maybe a treat. So, is it okay to pet a service dog? The short answer is “NO.”
It’s never a good idea to pet dogs you aren’t familiar with, as a general rule. You never know what kind of temperament or background a dog could have. Always approach a dog and its owner slowly and ask the owner first if their dog can be pet.
More importantly, service dogs are different from other dogs. If you see a dog with a vest, harness, or cape, it may be a service dog. They are specially trained to provide a task that a person with a disability cannot accomplish on their own. Focused and disciplined, service dogs are always alert and vigilant, ready to do their jobs. Distraction can be costly and, in some cases, even life-threatening to their handlers.
Distracting a Service Dog
Service dogs spend months, sometimes years, in training to perform their tasks. All that time invested in the dog is for a fundamental purpose. Although it’s not typically apparent what a service dog’s purpose is, here are some examples of tasks they might perform:
Dogs who assist children with autism keep these kids safe, provide tactile stimulation, or encourage them to interact with their surroundings. These dogs also establish boundaries for autistic children, preventing them from straying away or running.
Service dogs for people who suffer from seizures help detect, prevent, or assist when seizures occur. They may provide pressure on specific body parts, obtain medications, or call for help. These dogs may even alert their owners or others if a seizure is about to occur.
Service dogs trained for people with diabetes can perform many life-saving tasks. They can call 911 in emergencies and detect if a person’s blood sugar is low. Diabetic service dogs can also obtain medication if their owner suffers from hypoglycemia.
Dogs trained to be medical alert service dogs can detect when physiologic changes occur, such as blood pressure, heart rate, or hormonal differences that can affect a person’s safety. These dogs let their handler know if such changes occur and can call 911 or get assistance if necessary.
Psychiatric service dogs can help obtain medication, prevent self-injury, or remove their handler for situations that can trigger a crisis response. These dogs can also detect the start of anxiety or agitation and alert their handler to initiate positive coping skills.
Knowing how essential and vital their services are, it’s easy to understand why a service dog shouldn’t be distracted.
The tasks above are a few of the functions that a service dog may have to perform. A service dog, when out in public, is on the job. Just like a pilot or a surgeon shouldn’t be distracted, a service dog must remain focused on the job. Their handler’s life may depend on it.
Don’t Look a Service Dog in the Eyes
Although it may seem minor, making eye contact with a service dog can also distract them. For dogs, eye contact has different meanings than it does for humans. And because they can’t verbalize their thoughts as humans can, eye contact can be a form of communication. Eye contact with a service dog is like starting a conversation with a bus driver, right in the middle of making a turn.
Your Scent Can Affect a Service Dog’s Job
We may not be able to detect the scents on our hands, but dogs do. Our scent can affect a service dog’s task by preventing them from smelling the scent they’re trained to detect. A dog’s highly sensitive sense of smell can pick up all kinds of odors, even our hands’ temporary touch on their fur. Petting a dog who relies on their nose to detect blood sugar levels or hormones can be dangerous for the disabled person that needs the dog to be in top working condition.
It May Not Be a Service Dog
Despite attempts to curb illegitimate service dogs, there continues to be a number of non-legitimate “service” dogs. You may think that a dog wearing a vest is a well-behaved service dog, but it may turn out that the dog is not well trained. You never want to be in a position where you could get bit or hurt.
Respecting a Service Dog’s and their Handler’s Space
The handlers of service dogs also deserve their own space and privacy and to keep their disability status to themselves. Asking what kind of disability they have is not only invasive but may be against the law. The American Disabilities Act (ADA) protects service dog owners’ privacy and service dogs’ use.
Cuteness aside, service dogs are not pets. They’re a vital part of a person’s treatment intervention for their disability. Without their assistance, a person with a disability gets placed in a dangerous situation. Service dogs are cute, but they are professionals and should be treated as such. Give service dogs the space to do their jobs because someone’s well being depends on them.