About 18 months ago, I received a service dog, a yellow lab named Isaac. One of the things I’ve discovered is that wherever we go, someone always wants to pet Isaac. Unfortunately, some people do so without even asking me first.
You may already know that you aren’t supposed to pet service dogs when they are working. In fact, some service dogs, including mine, wear vests with patches on them that say something like “Please don’t pet me, I’m working” when on duty. And yet, many people come up to my service dog and pet him anyway, often while reading the patch on his vest out loud or while saying something like, “I know I’m not supposed to pet him but I just can’t help myself.”
Why aren’t you supposed to pet a service dog that’s on duty? Perhaps it helps first to understand exactly what a service dog does.
Service dogs are dogs that have been individually trained to perform specific tasks that mitigate a person’s disability. For instance, I have post-traumatic stress disorder and my service dog is trained to notice when I begin displaying signs that I am starting to have an anxiety attack. When he sees those signs, Isaac prompts me to take my medication, something I often forget to do when I am very anxious, which usually prevents a full-blown anxiety attack from occurring.
Now, it’s also important to understand that service dogs aren’t always “on duty.” Most of the time at home, Isaac behaves like any other dog. He plays with toys, bugs the cat, climbs into my lap (even though, at 80 pounds, he’s really too big for that) for a cuddle. He gets lots of attention and affection from me, my friends and my neighbors. While some people think service dogs never get petted, that’s not the case at all.
When Isaac is working, though, when we are shopping at the grocery store or dining at a restaurant, he does not behave like most other dogs. He behaves like a service dog. He understands that when he is wearing his vest, he is working and that the rules are different when he is working from when he is at home or playing at the dog park.
Isaac is a dog, though, and it takes work and concentration for him to behave like a service dog. He needs to pay attention to me, so he can notice things like signs of increasing anxiety, and he needs to focus on how he is supposed to be behaving. He has to concentrate on things like remembering not to sniff the legs of the man in line behind us, even if he does smell like cats, and remembering not to sniff the candy bars temptingly displayed right at his nose level. Simply put, Isaac’s job requires concentration.
And doesn’t yours? Mine, as a freelance writer, sure does. I’d have a difficult time writing coherent sentences if people kept coming up to me and petting me, talking to me, barking at me, meowing at me and making kissing sounds at me. Well, service dogs have a hard time concentrating when people do those things, too. Which, in a nutshell, is why you shouldn’t pet them or distract them in other ways.
U.S Department of Justice. Service Animals.
Pet Partners. Facts You Should Know about Service Dogs.
Also by This Contributor:
How Are Service Dogs Cared for Off Duty?
What Questions Can Business Owners Ask People with Service Dogs?