What do we usually do when we meet a cute dog on the street? It is out of the question! We approach him/her, willing to pet him/her or at least we try to make eye contact and talk to him/her. Often it does not even come to our mind to want to talk to the owner first and ask for permission to pet their pet. Some of you may think that this is not a big deal, especially if the dog is small, and looks cute and friendly.
But have you ever thought about the possibility for the dog to be not just a pet, but a service dog? Will petting the dog be acceptable in this case?
Service Animals are dogs, who have been individually trained to perform specific tasks directly related to a person’s disability. By “disability” is meant a physical and/or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Some US states also accept miniature horses as service animals.
The tasks that service animals perform, typically vary on the person’s needs. These can be both physically and/or mentally related.
Examples of service dog tasks are:
-Allergen detection tasks;
-Psychiatric service dog tasks;
-Interrupting repetitive/harmful behavior.
A service dog can do so many different types of work beyond the “general” tasks listed above, depending on their owner’s disability and particular needs.
Prior to going through advanced training, every service dog must have gone through basic obedience training and especially focus training. Focus training is of utmost importance for service animals, as they must be able to ignore distractions when exposed to various situations and surroundings. The tasks that a service dog performs for the benefit of his/her handler, can not only mitigate the symptoms of a certain disability but also be life-saving. Focus training usually starts in an environment without distractions (usually at home) and gradually moves to busier environments with more distractions. It is conducted step by step until the dog is able to remain focused on his/her user regardless of the surrounding.
Considering all the information provided above, you may already understand the importance of service animals in their owners’ lives. If petting a service dog may seem completely harmless to you, it can actually have serious consequences for the dog’s owner. By petting the dog, you are distracting him/her from his/her primary goal, namely to remain focused on his/her owner and provide immediate support as needed.
If you see a person who is using a wheelchair, crutches, or other aids to walk, you can easily determine that the dog who is accompanying them, is a service dog. The same is valid for dogs, who accompany people with visual impairments. In some cases, it is obvious what the purpose of the dog is. However, some service dogs perform psychiatric tasks, that mitigate the symptoms of mental disabilities. In other words, in some cases, it might not be so obvious that the dog is a service animal. You can not take for granted, that the dog is not a service dog, just because the tasks he/she performs are not so obvious.
Although service animals are deemed medical equipment, they are still living beings who need time to play, rest and socialize. Talking about socialization- it is no recommendation, but mandatory for service animals. They need to properly behave at home and while in public. This means that they should not jump on other animals or people, excessively sniff around, pull on the leash, bark (unless they bark as a part of a task they perform), or otherwise misbehave. Since socialization is essential for service animals to get used to being around people and animals, in certain cases the service dog owner may ask you to pet the dog or interact with him/her as a part of his/her socialization training. You should always have the owner’s permission to pet a service dog.
The laws in some countries such as the US and the UK, do not require service animals to wear identification gear, including a harness, a vest, a special collar, or an ID tag. This makes it more difficult for the general public to identify the dog as a service animal, especially if it is not visible at first glance what tasks he/she performs. Many handlers decide to attach an ID card or put identification gear on their service animals for two reasons:
1. To notify the general public that the dog is a service dog, and not a pet, hence he/she performs specific tasks and should not be distracted;
2. To notify the general public that the dog is well-mannered and will behave properly.
However, there are many people pretending to have a disability only to have their dog granted access to certain premises whether grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, or even on planes. That is why identification gear itself means nothing unless the dog has gone through appropriate training. If the dog misbehaves, i.e. he/she is seeking attention, is excessively barking, is pulling on the leash, or the owner seems to be unable to control him/her, he/she may not be a legitimate service animal. Of course, service animals while still in training, may show some mild behavioral issues, that their owners need to work on.
Some service animals are trained to alert other people when their owner is in danger. If there is an unattended service animal, this could mean that his/her owner needs help. You should let the dog lead you to the owner and take immediate actions as needed (call 911, help the person go to a safe place, help them stay on their feet, bring them beverages...etc.).
You should not obstruct the access of the dog to his/her handler, but give him/her enough space to be able to interfere as needed.
You should not be loud or overly enthusiastic, as you may distract the dog.
You should not ask the owner for any details about their disability-this is personal information that should be respected.
You should not pay attention to the dog, even if he/she tries to explore you (sniff at you). Since dogs investigate the world around them primarily through their noses, it is normal for them to sniff around (within normal limits).
As we have already mentioned above, petting a service animal may distract him/her and interfere with his/her ability to do the work he/she has been trained to do. Not only petting a service dog can have a negative impact on his/her owner’s health, but it is also be considered a felony in some states, and a penalty can be imposed.
Other consequences are related to the safety of the person petting the dog. Since there are many “fake” service animals, you may be unable to immediately evaluate whether the dog is well-behaved or not. If you react impulsively and go pet a dog, that you can not be sure whether he/she is a real service dog or not, you may get bitten or otherwise end up injured.