Why Can’t You Pet a Service Dog? 3 Reasons

can you pet service dogs

I was walking with my son the other day when we encountered someone with their service dog. Whilst he’s been surrounded by animals all his life, he’s not had much interaction with service dogs before, and his natural inclination was to pet it.

This was a good moment, as I was able to explain what these dogs do and why you are not allowed to pet service dogs. He was a little upset but cheered up when I told him that the dog was working hard to take care of its owner.

So why can’t you pet a service dog? You should not pet service dogs for 3 reasons including how they need space to care for the person without distractions, the person could be relying on the dog for balance, and you might even get hurt if the dog tries to protect the vulnerable owner.

Sounds simple enough, but you would be surprised at how often people get this wrong, with some thinking it’s perfectly ok, even with service dogs in training.

Why don’t you pet a service dog?

Here’s more detail on the topic, plus whether there’s ever a situation when you can pet a service dog.

1. Give service dogs their space

Service dogs are very well-trained, but they are still prone to distractions just like any other animal. The dog needs to keep its full attention on its owner and the environment around them.

If you were to pet the service dog and distract it, it may fail to notice a hazard such as a moving car, and its owner could get hurt.

Our job is to avoid distracting service dogs to the best of our ability.

For example, if you notice someone walking with a service dog, cross to the other side of the street if safe to do so.

If you are all stopped at a light together, do not pet or talk to the dog. It may seem strange and against your nature to ignore the dog, but it is the best possible thing that you can do for them.

2. Relying on service dogs for balance

If someone has a service dog to help them with a physical disability, they are likely dependant on the animal to travel safely. Some dogs are used to help people balance and walk.

If the dog were to get distracted and walk towards someone who is calling out to them, this could cause serious issues. Their owner could over-balance and fall over into the street.

If the owner is in a wheelchair, the chair could get flipped over and cause an injury. The chair could also get pulled in front of a car, especially if it is a big dog that is controlling its movement.

Handy Hint: I recently wrote a guide explaining how service and guide dogs know where to go, for example crossing the street or getting on a bus.

3. You may get hurt

Service dogs are trained to never hurt humans, but accidents can always happen. If you sneak up on a service dog and try to pet or restrain them, they may panic. They may even think that you are attacking their owner, who they are responsible for keeping safe.

This may result in your getting scratched or bitten by a service dog, even if they do not intend on doing so.

The easiest thing for you to do is to politely ignore the dog until it has passed by.

Can you pet a service dog in training?

No, you should not pet a service dog in training as they are still learning so this would be an unwelcome distraction.

If you have ever had someone try to talk or interact with you when learning something new and complicated, you will know how hard this can be to focus.

can you pet a service dog in training
It might be tempting to pet a service dog in training, but it could be a felony (Image via https://unsplash.com/photos/bjU0FvDuHJA)

Can you pet a service dog when they are not working?

Yes, you can play with and pet a service dog when they are not working. Service dogs will be part of the family, just as regular animals are. They can play and relax in their downtime, but they will always be on the lookup for signs that something is wrong with their owner. If they sense that something is wrong, they will stop what they are doing and coming running right away.

Other members of the family should keep in mind that the dog is being trained to follow the instructions of the person with the disability. The dog needs to obey those specific commands and get used to the sound of their voice to achieve perfect cohesion.

Do not override the commands of the handler, simply let them train the dog the way that they see fit.

Is it a felony to pet a service dog?

Depending on where you live, it can be a felony to pet a service dog. Service dogs are considered to be medical aids, similar to wheelchairs or white guide canes. If you interfere with a service dog, you can be charged with a ticket, a fine, or even imprisonment.

Typically, the more severe punishments are issued to people who intentionally try to harm a service dog, rather than just distract them.

Check with your specific city laws to be sure, but you can expect to at least be charged with a misdemeanour for bothering a service dog while it is working.

Did You Know? It can also be illegal to use a fake service dog. Here’s what you need to know about the law and reporting fake service dogs.

Why can’t I make eye contact with a service dog?

Some people may believe that it would cause no hard to simply smile and wave at a service dog. However, this can be just as distracting as rushing over to pet it. If a dog looks you in the eyes, it can lose its focus and forget what is going on.

This can lead to the dog or owner being hurt by something in the environment.

For example, at the very moment that the dog looks at you, a vehicle could hit a patch of ice and wind up on the sidewalk. The dog needs to be paying attention to prevent being hurt in accidents like these.

How to identify a service dog?

When walking in the street, it is typically easy to recognize a service dog. They are usually wearing a bandana or vest that says “do not pet”. Service dogs will also be very focused and disciplined, especially while they are walking with their owner.

These dogs have been trained from a very young age to act properly, especially when in a public setting.

What are fake service dogs?

People will occasionally abuse the rules and will try to pass a regular pet off as a service dog. The primary reason for doing so is that the dog can accompany them inside buildings and they don’t need to be tied up outside.

To pull off this ruse, the owner will purchase fake service dog vests from the internet.

It can be fairly simple to identify fake service dogs. This is because they tend to bark and cause disruptions, particularly when they see other animals or large crowds of people.

This is resulting in problems as the fake service dogs are coming in contact with the real ones and starting fights. This is hazardous to both the dogs’ health and the handler with the disability.  

What do I do if I see a service dog in a building?

It can be a bit of a shock to see a dog strolling around indoors, as dogs are not typically allowed inside public buildings. Keep in mind that service dogs have the right to go anywhere that their owner goes. This could include restaurants, hospitals, courtrooms, etc.

If you see a service dog in a building, it is fair to assume that they have the right to be there, just as you do. Try to ignore them and go about your business as you normally would.

If a dog is not house-broken or is misbehaving, the owner of the building has the right to ask the dog and its handler to leave. However, the chances of this happening are slim, as service dogs are very well trained – which will often be the difference between catching a fake service dog or not.


Owners rely on service dogs to go about their daily business safely and securely. If you decide to pet the service dog, you are potentially put the owner and yourself at risk.

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Image in header via https://pixabay.com/photos/service-dog-dog-beach-military-5420330/

Marc Aaron

I write about the things we've learned about owning dogs, the adventures we have, and any advice and tips we've picked up along the way.

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