People Know Not To Pet Service Dogs

Next step—knowledge of therapy dogs!
By Karen B. London PhD, May 2018, Updated June 2021

Murphy during his restaurant visit

I was in a local dog-friendly restaurant with a therapy dog in training named Murphy. Every Tuesday afternoon, I take care of this lovely dog and do some training with him. I try to take him on an outing each week so that he is comfortable in an ever-expanding set of situations. Today’s session was all about getting lots of treats from people wearing hats. Like many dogs, Murphy feels a little nervous around individuals with hats. He loves restaurants, though!

Everywhere I take Murphy, people say hello and greet him. They are happy to pet him and comment on his sweet personality, his calm nature and the softness of his fur. Lately, we’ve been having essentially the same interaction with a variety of people. As they are loving him and vice versa, I mention that he is a therapy dog in training, and they immediately stop petting him and say, “I’m sorry! I know I’m not supposed to pet him!” This tells me that it is common knowledge that working dogs should be left alone and that they are not free game for petting.

I’m delighted that this lesson has permeated the culture because it makes life so much easier for friends and clients of mine with service dogs. It’s bad form to distract dogs who are supposed to be alert to an oncoming seizure, detect a drop in blood sugar, follow the instructions of the human member of the team, or perform any other task they have been trained to do. That’s why trying to pet or play with a service dog is not okay.

However, not all working dogs are service dogs, and that includes Murphy. As a therapy dog, his job will be to interact with people and have a positive effect on their emotions, so it is important for Murphy to have a lot of fun interactions with people. He needs to become used to strangers petting him. This is very different than a service dog, whose focus should always be on the human member of the team. Service dogs are trained to give their attention to the person they serve and generally ignore other people while working. Therapy dogs are trained to interact with everyone who wants to interact with them. (Another big difference between these two types of working dogs is where they are legally allowed to be. Service dogs have broad access to places where pet dogs are prohibited, but therapy dogs don’t.)


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Whenever people react to learning that Murphy will be a therapy dog by backing off and saying that they know not to pet him, I am pleased, even though they are not exactly right. These interactions tell me that people are more knowledgeable about service dogs than they were even a few years ago. A growing number of people know that they are not supposed to treat service dogs like pet dogs, and this is good news. They often take great pride in their knowledge and want very much to do the right thing and to be acknowledged for it. That’s why I usually say something along the lines of “Good for you for knowing that many working dogs should be left alone.”

Then I let them know that Murphy is a type of working dog that they can pet, as long as they ask permission (as with any dog), because he is training to be a therapy dog and not a service dog. I love sharing that they are not only allowed to pet him, but that it is good for him and an important part of his training.

There are still many people who rush to visit with service dogs, unaware that this creates problems, but things are getting better. I’m hopeful that in the future, some of the differences between service dogs and therapy dogs will also be common knowledge.

Photo courtesy author

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life