Today I will provide a warning in an admonition I hope you will accept my correction in the healing spirit in which it is offered. I have a lot of friends and associates that rely on dogs — Service Animals, if you will — in order to live a more average life. These special dogs are raised by families as puppies and only the most dedicated and pure-of-heart dogs make it into a lifetime of service.

Some of these people who rely on these dogs for the daily routine of their lives are Blind or Deaf or they have Cerebral Palsy or Autism and the dogs become their eyes, their ears, their legs and their common sense.

The issue I am raising with you today is to ask you to respect the Duty of the Dog. If you are on the street or if you meet someone who is using a Service Dog, ignore the dog, and speak to the person.

Often people who are uncomfortable with a Disability will ignore the person and begin to engage the dog and that is dangerous for several reasons.

Do not pet a Service Dog. Do not ask to pet a Service Dog.

Respect the hard job of the Service Dog by ignoring the dog as an animal and realize the dog is engaged in a difficult job.

Don’t become part of that difficulty. A Service Dog knows it is on a job while in a harness. You may try to engage the dog and pet it and play with it but the dog is trained to ignore you and to only serve its master.

These dogs are trained to deal with traffic, recognize danger and serve as the first and last line of defense for a person who cannot provide for their own safety in the world. If you try to play with or pet a Service Dog — even if the dog is sleeping or sitting — you run the risk of confusing the dog while on duty.

These dogs know if they are in their service harness they have one personality and when that harness comes off they can play like a regular dog and express their real personality.

I have a Blind friend named George who knows the first instinct of every person he meets is to look away from him and pet his big, beautiful, black lab.

He listens for the sound of the stranger’s voice as is trails away from eye level to dog level and the moment he senses that shift in sound, he reaches down to his dog and places both arms over the dog and sharply says, “Please do not pet my dog. He’s working right now.”

Many people get offended — especially children — that George won’t let them pet his dog. If they are willing to listen, he’ll explain why petting a dog on duty is confusing to the dog.

George goes on to share stories of his dog at home at play. George says having his dog is like seeing again. “I can walk through the world as I used to walk when I was sighted.” Some Disabled people are not as strong as George to warn strangers off their dogs and some are not even aware of your petting and the cooing until it is too late.

If you happen to see someone petting a dog in service — remember, the clue the dog is on duty is the harness or the special bib markings — you might be able to help the person the dog is helping by stepping in and saying something positive like, “That dog is working right now.” Just remember a Service Dog knows its place and its duty. Know your place and duty.

You can enjoy looking at a beautiful dog in service, but pay that compliment to the owner and not to the dog. They’ll both appreciate your sensitivity and your uncommon understanding that they’re alone in the world together and fighting to maintain average.


  1. I admit, David, I have touched a service dog when I shouldn’t. I realize now my error.

  2. There is a family up the block from us. They train puppies to become duty dogs. The children are always heartbroken for a week when the dogs are ready to move on to more formal training and they have to say goodbye.

  3. That is a wonderful sacrifice, Anne!
    I do wonder about the cruelty to the children, though.
    They family is expected to bond with the puppies and to expose them to a wide range of environments – only to lose them later when the puppies leave to serve the disabled.
    The whole experience seems to beckon unnecessary heartbreak in children who are incapable of understanding or accepting the loss of the dogs.

  4. Most excellent post highlighting an important message.
    My grandmother was a great fan of Guidedogs for the Blind and we were taught this message early on in life.
    Thank you for highlighting this.

  5. Nicola!
    Thanks for the kind support! I appreciate your experience very much!
    The dogs chosen to serve are special. They are trained and winnowed out of every litter. Not all of them make it. Some of the dogs crave affection and petting so much that they just can’t do the job.
    Other dogs crumble under the stress of working in a big city. The sounds and the commotion are too much for them to handle. Dogs that can do their Duty in a city like Manhattan are a rare breed indeed.

  6. David, as a Vegan, how do you feel about calling dogs into the duty of serving the disabled?

  7. Oh, Anne… you ask a troubling question.
    I am torn.
    Dogs should be dogs.
    Is it right and fair to force them into the duty for serving the Disabled?
    Probably not.
    Would I, as a Vegan, accept a pig’s valve if I were dying of heart disease and I had no other option for living?
    Probably so.
    Life is hard and impossible and you do the best you can with the evidence you have on hand.

  8. We’re all guilty of something, right? Even if we work to be pure and innocent and good, yes?

  9. Great post! I have a neighbor who suffers from MS and has a service dog. I have always greeted him and his dog with a hello, and he and I talk. On the other hand, I know a woman at church who has a service dog who has crossed all the lines of business and pleasure and has even been known to receive Communion on Sundays. The important thing is that she sets the tone and lets people know what’s okay. Her situation is exceptional, I believe. She also does pet therapy with him at Waterbury Hospital. (The Blog Standing under the Sky has interviewed her and the pup.) I believe they are exceptional. This is a great, sensitive post. Thanks for being a part of Saturday!

  10. Any dog that can work in a city like Manhattan is indeed remarkable.
    Do you have a national association for guide dogs – or is it run on a state by state basis ?

  11. Thanks for the great comment, Sandy!
    I appreciate your real life examples.
    Some dogs are exceptional and can handle duty, danger and fun all at the same time but using the exception to prove the rule makes life difficult for the rest of the 99.99%.

  12. Thank you many times over for what you have conveyed about interacting with the handler and NOT the service dog. I run into so many people who insist on interacting with my service dog in training, that it makes Tippy’s job more challenging then it really needs to be. I keep hoping that someday I find a way to literally make my dog invisible, but it seems like the more Tippy does to be invisible, the more she stands out and people beeline for her while ignoring me when it should be the other way around. If I thought it would help, I would have the phrase “ignore the dog talk to the handler” printed on her vest, but people ar oblivious to the “Do Not Pet Me! I’m Working!” patches on her vest so I somehow doubt it would help. I can only hope that with the help of others sympathetic to Service Dog Teams that the message will get out that the dogs are to be left alone to do their job when the team is in public. Keep up the good work!

  13. Very nice post. I have a service dog to help with my locomotion and balance. She does not “wear” a harness, so most folks do not recognize her as a service dog. Most folks ask first before “touching” my dog. I am pleased with this, and usually decline and inform them, “Not now, ahe is working for me, she is my service dog.” Some folks know what this means. Others shout, yes, I said shout back at me, “What, are you blind!” Meaning of course, I am not blind. Part of the problem is folks who provide information about service dogs using guide dogs in harness and folks who have obvious, visable disabilities as “examples” of service dogs. Guide dogs are service animlas, and have been around for a long time. Folks who are blind and have a dog in harness really do not appreciate the problems experienced by other persons with physical disabilities that are not immediately observable. This is the main problem I experience. Folks will repetedly question if I am disabled, and do this in public. I am very tired of this continued ignorance, and I do wist those within the disability will soon address this issue of “hidden” physical disabilities.

  14. Fantastic post! Most people don’t understand animal etiquette in general, which creates problems even in the best of circumstances. Thanks!

  15. I very cautiosly restrain myself from petting a dog on duty. Petting a dog comes very naturally to me as a dog lover and I tend to do it but not with the service dogs.
    I remember sitting ona park bench with a service dog and his owner, the dog came to me as if he wanted to play…his owner allowed it.
    It was a gorgeous yellow lab.
    I was very surprised but happy!

  16. I have a guide dog who was also taught to do some service dog tasks since I became a quad. A lot of people will call her and try to get her to come towards them even when she’s working! Sometimes people will even jump in front of her so they can pet her even though she is guiding me at the time. I’m really glad you wrote this entry to let people know how they should treat guide dogs and service dogs!

  17. Welcome to Urban Semiotic, Kim & Sophie and thanks for sharing the hard reality of your life as a disabled person with a dog. What you describe is outrageous, yet ordinary. Perhaps we can work together to change that and to create some respect for Dogs on Duty.

  18. I just wanted to say the this is great advice, however, I would expand it. I am an owner of a dog that I adopted from a shelter about 6 months ago. She is a wonderful companion and well trained, however, she is very timid in new situations or especially around men. We have special things that we do to try and work her through her timidness including her accompanying me everywhere that she can. It is important for her to learn that nothing bad happens to her in these unfamiliar places. The biggest set back is when strangers try to pet her without asking. When a human leans towards a dog they usually do it in a way that conveys aggressive dog behavior without realizing it. For example, the forward movement of the chest and showing of teeth (smiling to us) can be very aggressive moves towards a naturally unsure dog. Every time someone tries to pet my dog it scares her greatly and we experience severe set-backs in her training. I wish that all people would have the common courtesy to ask before petting an unfamiliar dog. There are better ways to approach an unsure dog that would advance their training as opposed to counteracting it.

  19. I’d like to respond to the comment regarding “dogs should be dogs”. A year ago, I became a foster home for Belle, a Helping Paws Service Dog in training. Never having owned a dog, I often thought at first that I was taking something away from Belle by teaching her to work for me and eventually the person with whom she will be placed. What I have found is exactly the opposite. Belle is never happier than when she is working cues and learning new skills. She will often bring things to me when she feels as if I haven’t asked enough of her. Most bad dog behaviors come from bored, ignored dogs. Those that are engaged, whether it be in purposeful work or a simple game of fetch, are the dogs least likely to be problematic in the home or in public. Belle doesn’t see her work as work. To her, it’s a wonderful game that we play together each and every day. It is more complex than fetch, but it’s no different. Most people want to touch these dogs because they see the joy in which they serve their humans and they want to be a part of that. It is difficult to say no, but if the dog was unhappy at what it was doing, other humans would sense that and object. Instead, their natural inclination is to reward (petting) because the dog’s attention and affection is so apparent to a public starved for partnerships such as that between a service dog and it’s human.

  20. amaing how many people will touch when they should not. I did not know all of this but I guess I’m straight forward and can honestly say I never touched. Same thing with do not traspass, or do not steal or murder. I took it all seriously and I follow the rules and respect others wishes when it comes to their personals, dogs included!

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