So You Like To Pet Service Dogs…

As I watch you encourage your child to engage with a working dog, even after the handler has asked you to stop, I cannot help but feel angry: angry that you, a stranger, feel that your child’s right to interact with a cute puppy dog is more immediately important than the handler’s wishes. I am angry that you would argue with a firm denial, even when it is given with respect and gentleness. I am angry that you are showing blatant disrespect for the safety and comfort of the dog’s handler. I am angry that you are teaching your child to disregard the proper treatment of service dogs. I am angry that you, as the parent, are refusing to live by example. I am angry that you are ensuring that service dog handlers everywhere will have to keep saying “please don’t pet the dog” indefinitely.

I understand: the dog is beautiful, and friendly, and a pure delight to touch. Your child adores dogs—probably, the dog adores children, too, and would welcome a little affection. You are a dog lover, and hate to deprive yourself or your child of the opportunity to indulge in a bit of doggie-interaction. You don’t want to disappoint your child. I’m a dog lover, too. I understand. But …

I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t matter, because you may choose an unsafe time to distract a working dog, thus inconveniencing or even endangering the handler. It doesn’t matter, because the dog has a million distractions to contend with already—dropped apple cores, other dogs, and tantalizing bits of popcorn—without sudden attention from a strange human. It doesn’t matter, because you should never touch someone else’s property without permission—and yes, the dog does count as property in this instance. It doesn’t matter, because you were told no. That, on its own, ought to be good enough.

Many of my friends are dog handlers, so I can guarantee that they don’t enjoy telling an eager child that they can’t touch the puppy. They don’t enjoy saying “no” three times a day. They don’t enjoy denying you the company of their dogs. They just want to get where they’re going without fuss, and the last thing they feel like doing is disciplining a complete stranger. They are not part of a conspiracy to ruin your fun. So …

Why do you do it? Why do you insist, even when you know better, upon continuing to violate another person’s space? Why do you continue to place handlers in awkward positions where they must discipline your child because you refuse to do so? Why do you care more about touching that sleek coat than you do about whether the handler makes it across the street safely? Why do you care more about your right to go to pieces over the cute doggie than another human’s right to autonomy? The dog is an extension of them, and when you touch the dog, you’re effectively intruding on their personal space as well.

If I placed a wandering hand into your stroller to give your child’s head a stroke, wouldn’t you be a bit nervous? If I reached over and grabbed your arm to say hello, wouldn’t you be annoyed? If I insisted on distracting you while you were trying to do an important job requiring vast concentration, wouldn’t you wonder where my manners were? So I will ask it of you: where are your manners?

Yes, we’re talking about a dog here, but that doesn’t exempt you from the rules of basic human courtesy. Maybe the dog would love to be stroked just now. Maybe the dog has had a long day and would love to flop down and have its belly rubbed. Ultimately, though, the dog has a role, whether that’s guiding a blind person, or alerting the handler of an approaching seizure, or assisting a police officer. That role precludes them from being an ordinary dog while they’re out and about. When that harness is on, the dog is not a cute little puppy you run up to—it is another living being, hard at work and deserving of your respect. Even more importantly, the dog is attached to someone who is depending on them, and that person is also deserving of your respect.

To those who pet the service dogs: no excuse is good enough. Please, for the sake of safety and common decency, stop.

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7 thoughts on “So You Like To Pet Service Dogs…

  1. there is a serious lack of respect in this day and age and this goes without saying or should anyway. if somebody says don’t touch they mean it and that’s irrespective of service dog or another person or another person’s property regardless of what that may be. it’s not just lack of respect but down right ignorance too and contempt.

  2. Pingback: On Personal Autonomy: No means No! | Life Unscripted

  3. One of the biggest issues I see is the use of “service dog”. This can be very confusing for the public. I see service dogs that are completely untrained and go running up to people. But I do understand the column…Children should NEVER go running up to any dog! Such a dangerous act.

    • Hi, Debbie. Certainly, there are badly-trained/handled service dogs out there who have genuine training, and others who aren’t service dogs at all but who are passed off as such so the owner can take them everywhere (this is admittedly rare, but still very damaging when it happens). Here’s the golden rule, if there is confusion: never touch someone else’s dog without permission. Problem solved.

  4. I go through similar issues with kids wanting to play with my wheelchair, and although there was never any danger to my safety I do wish adults understood my chair is a serious device and not a toy, and that it’s okay to tell your kid to move on to any of the zillion ways they are abled to play.

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  6. It is irritating for me to deal with people, both adult and children, who just don’t ask me if they can pet my guide dog.

    If they ask me and I am not walking down the street, I am fine with telling my dog to sit and let them stroke his head. But still people insist on making a grab at his ears or his harness. I had one person grab my dogs harness as I was getting off a bus, I asked him to let go as I was getting off, only to be shouted at, “Who did I think I was? It seemed a couple of weeks before I had let the man stroke my dog as we sat in Starbucks. Then it had been ok. But to this man keeping a whole bus full of people waiting because he wanted my dogs attention was not innapropriate.

    One good thing though is that the word is spreading among children, I have even heard them tell their parents, “That is a working dog and you shouldn’t touch him without asking.” So there is hope for our future.

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