Nothing brightens a human's day like an unexpected encounter with an adorable dog. The most natural possible reaction to seeing a sweet doggo in person is the immediate desire to meet/befriend/pet/otherwise dote on said perfect doggo. If the pup in question is a service dog, however, it's vital that you pump the emotional breaks and resist the urge to rush in for pets and love. This is a difficult ask for a lot of people—trust me, I know. I have a service dog and deal with well-intentioned working dog distractors on a daily basis.
If you've ever wondered why it is that you're not supposed to pet service dogs (or if that sentence is brand new news to you), then keep scrolling and, please, take the information that follows to heart.
Why can't you pet a service dog?
There are so, so many reasons not to pet service dogs. I know it doesn't seem like even a thousand reasons not to could possibly outweigh the urge to do it anyway, but the reasons not to are serious—sometimes they're even a matter of life or death. Here are just some of the main reasons not to pet a service dog, in order of least to most serious:
1. It's a rule that you know exists and you're an adult so just, you know, act like one.
I know, I know—harsh. But seriously. You know that you're not supposed to pet service dogs. You might not understand why, but we both know you've heard people say not to do it before. You're not being a super cool, rebel-without-a-cause rule-breaker when you ignore this rule. You're just being inconsiderate.
2. It's rude and invasive.
Speaking as a person with a service dog, it's very rude, even invasive, when people walk up and pet my assistance animal without permission. Think about it this way: A service dog functions, on a practical level, as a medical device and you shouldn't do anything to a service dog that you wouldn't do to a wheelchair, probing cane, or pacemaker.
No matter how fluffy and adorable any of these items were, you would not sneak up behind the person using them in Target and start rubbing them and talking in baby talk. If you did, you would probably be arrested (or, at very least, banned from that Target). That's kind of what it's like when someone pets your service dog without permission—it feels weirdly personal and inappropriate.
3. It distracts the dog from doing its job—which is very, very dangerous.
This is the "real" reason and by far the most important one: When you pet a working dog, you distract them from their job, which is always, on some level, to keep their partner safe. No matter what a dog is trained to do, their owner's safety, health, and well-being is what is at stake if they can't perform their job. In some cases, like for dogs who provide medical alert, this could quite literally be a matter of life or death.
But what if I don't think it's a REAL service dog?
So, here's the thing: You can't tell if a service dog is legitimate or not just by looking at them (service dogs come in all breeds and sizes) and you can't tell if the person with the dog is disabled or not just by looking at them. Many of the tasks that service animals are trained to do are specifically to assist people with invisible disabilities, including, but not limited to, seizures, diabetes, asthma, PTSD, panic disorders, and autism.
This is another place where I can offer a little first-hand insight. You can't tell by looking at me that I have a condition that requires a service dog and, as a result, I'm often met with disbelief about my assistance dog. On the kinder side of this are people who pointedly ask if I'm training my dog. On the less kind side are people who flat out ask me if he's a "fake service dog." The latter often ask this incredibly rude question while in the middle of petting my dog without permission. The moral of the story: Your assumption that a service dog is an imposter is not a reason to ignore the rules about how to interact with service dogs.
On a related note, if the dog is a "fake," you run the risk of approaching a dog that's skittish or not as well socialized as a fully trained service animal would be and getting yourself bitten. As a general rule, you shouldn't pet any dog you don't know without the owner's express permission.
What if I ask permission to pet the service dog, though?
So, you can totally ask. Some people will let their assistance dog interact with people who politely ask and some won't. It's a very personal choice. If you do ask for permission to pet a service animal, wait for a firm verbal yes and then wait a little longer. Often, the handler will need to give the dog permission to greet a stranger because until then, the dog should be focusing on their human. Remember: That is the dog's job and the reason they're out in public in the first place.
As well trained as they are, service dogs aren't robots and a new human full of new smells giving them pets and love and praise will almost certainly pull their attention from their owner. If you approach the dog without permission and distract them, you aren't just putting their owner in danger in that moment, but you may be derailing months and months of intensive training the dog underwent to learn where to focus their attention. The real world is full of enough distractions as it is and service dogs need to put effort into doing their jobs if they're going to do them well—just like the rest of us.