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Petting a Service Dog on Duty

  1. Don’t.
  2. Really, don’t.

Service dogs are animals that have been specially trained to perform a task or series of tasks for their owners. These can range from opening doors to alerting them of seizures to calming them after panic attacks, and more. Some are even trained to bark whenever someone enters a room so that their owner can distinguish between a hallucination and a physical person! Service dogs are amazing, sometimes life-saving, medical necessities for their owners. These animals keep their owners safe and help them navigate the world which, let’s face it, is often not designed to make life easier for people with disabilities. 

Dogs are adorable and delightful animals, and it can be hard to spot one without wanting to go over and pet it. However, service dogs aren’t like non-service dogs. When they’re working, they’re working, and distracting them can be extremely harmful to their owner. Their owner’s life could potentially be at risk if the dog gets distracted, and even if the service that the dog provides aren’t necessarily life-or-death, the dogs still need to be alert and paying attention to their owner. Don’t distract a service dog, whether it’s by calling/diverting its attention, allowing your pets to go near and interact with it, or allowing kids to do so. There’s a reason that person has a service animal, and if the dog is on duty, they’re working and shouldn’t be distracted. 

On that note, whatever reason that person has a service dog is absolutely none of your business unless that person decides to tell you otherwise. Even if you think the person may not have a disability, remember that not all disabilities are “visible.” For example, you might not be able to “see” PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but that doesn’t mean the person doesn’t have it. Asking someone why they have a service dog is asking them to disclose their medical history, and if they don’t voluntarily offer that information to you, you don’t need to know it. If a person doesn’t disclose their reason for having a service dog to you, don’t ask them about it, and don’t ever accuse them of not needing one. It’s not your business, and if you aren’t that person’s medical provider, you have no right or reason to be judging their level of need.

While you shouldn’t try to grab the attention of a service dog, if a service dog is trying to get your attention, don’t ignore it or push it away. Many service dogs are trained to alert others if their owner is in a crisis situation, and if a working dog is trying to get you to go somewhere, their owner probably needs you. If you aren’t in a position of being able to help, find someone who is. 

Simply put, service dogs on duty aren’t pets; they’re at work protecting their owner from potentially harmful and life-threatening situations. Respect this, don’t ask inappropriate questions, and if you’re not sure what to do in a given situation, follow the owner’s lead. If they aren’t talking about their dog or their medical condition or offering for you to interact with the service animal, don’t take the opportunity to distract the dog or be disrespectful to the owner. Speak to the owner before speaking to the dog, and don’t interact with the dog if you haven’t been given explicit permission to do so or the owner isn’t in trouble.

For more information, check out the following sources:






Rachel Minkovitz is a senior at Bates College double majoring in Psychology and French and Francophone Studies. She spends a lot of time listening to music, hanging out with friends, reading and writing, advocating for social justice, and looking for furry animals. 
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