I’ll tell you what: if you’re uncomfortable talking to strangers, don’t get a Service Dog. I’m asked constantly if it’s ok to pet, and in between the requests, many people do it without asking at all.
Unfortunately, this is not a question with a consistent answer, so really, all you can do is ask.
Sometimes it’s ok, and sometimes it’s not.
Some handlers have a “no petting, period” policy. Some have given up on ever saying no. Still others of us give a different answer every time we’re asked, based on the situation.
What’s really important, though, is that when you walk away, you understand why the answer was yes, or why it was no.
When I’m working at my retail job, customers ask to pet Bright a lot. Usually, she’s laying quietly at my side, sometimes under a table and always out of the way. And usually, I say, “Thank you for asking, but since she’s working right now, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t. It’s really important to not distract her while she’s working.” You’d be surprised at how often I hear, “Doesn’t look like it. She’s just laying there.” Sometimes, they proceed to make kissy noises and all kinds of attempts at getting her attention. Those things are also distracting!
In addition to that, many working dogs do things for their partners that you can’t see. Some are trained to detect the onset of a seizure, some help sniff out otherwise deadly allergens, and others can sense a drop or rise in blood sugar! A small distraction could mean serious health implications for the human partnered with that dog.
Check this story out, if you are wondering how valuable that kind of service can be!
She’s just laying there!
When I say my dog is working, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s doing an active command; it just means she’s under the my control and has to have her attention focused primarily on me so that when she’s asked to perform, she’s ready for it.
It’s hard for dogs to focus on one thing for very long. Really hard. (Unless that thing can be eaten or chased.) It’s not Bright’s fault if I let someone distract her or if someone pets her without asking first, but if she fails to carry out her job, I still have to enforce the rules. Since she doesn’t speak English, I can’t explain that she gets a pass because someone else goofed up. That makes consistency really important.
CCI has a great article on what’s appropriate and what’s not.
So, what do I consider when someone asks if it’s ok to pet Bright?
I actually have a little mental checklist:
- Is Bright under control? Do I currently have her attention, or is she eyeing the pretzel just inches from her nose? If she senses the opportunity to grab it, she just might do that, so she needs to know I’m in charge.
- What’s the environment like? Is this a quiet setting, where the you’re the only person likely to start petting, or are we in a packed shopping mall where, chances are, we’re going to attract a crowd?
- Who’s asking? Is it a server at a restaurant? (That one is almost always a “no.” Sometimes, other customers think that’s really gross.) Is it a small child, or a whole gaggle of them, or is it a parent trying to seize a teaching moment?
- What kind of day has Bright had? Stressful, with lots of new experiences? Is she currently showing any signs of stress (sweaty paws, panting, ears back, cowering)?
Being the human partner of a Service Dog is an incredibly active role; I have to be aware of several things at once, and in the split second that someone asks to pet, I have to decide what’s best for me and Bright. Hopefully, this article leaves you with a better understanding of my role in my dog’s success, and also why I might respond to the question the way I do!
Questions? Have you ever had an experience with a Service Dog in public? Share them here!