Ok, so this is completely off of my typical topic, but it’s something that I wanted to point out, and it does take courage to suppress our urges, so let’s get into it.
I was at the airport the other day, and there was a woman sitting at the gate with a service dog laying next to her. As another woman was entering the gate area, she squealed and squatted down and started petting the dog. Of course the dog leaned in and enjoyed it. (I do the same thing when people pet me!) She looked up at the dog’s owner and said, “I know I’m not supposed to do this, but I just HAVE to pet your dog. What a good dog, I just love them and HAVE to pet them all.”
The dog owner smiled politely and waited for her to leave.
On the surface, this is a sweet and harmless interaction between a dog lover and a dog.
But to the owner, it’s a dangerous lapse in training.
PLEASE NOTE: I am talking about certified service dogs and Emotional Support Animals here. The requirements for Emotional Support Animals (or ESAs) are a little different, and require less training, but should be well trained to behave like service dogs in public. They too should not be doted on and petted in public. They are all providing a specific job and are not there for your enjoyment. Especially certified service animals like seeing eye dogs, hearing dogs, seizure, allergen and diabetic alert dogs, mobility assist dogs.
Dogs are social animals, and they love a good pet, a snuggle, a treat, and being around other people. Of course they love the pets, and it’s fun to give it to them. But what this does, is rewards them for interacting with people other than the people they’re serving, causing them to seek out interaction with others more. (Humans are the same. We repeat what’s rewarded. Pay me, I’ll come back to work. Have a candy jar at your desk, I’ll come back and see you more. Greet me and make me feel good when I come into your store, I’ll be back!) Service dogs are trained very carefully to not seek out that interaction. They are taught to ignore other stimuli around them, human or otherwise, and focus on their person. This is an especially important thing for seeing eye dogs when they’re leading their person across the street. I don’t want Rufas to be distracted by anything at that moment! This is why a lot of dogs flunk out of service dog training when they’re too friendly and social. Funny to get a failing grade for being nice, but when the fire alarm is going off, and it’s time to get alert the deaf person so they can get out of the office building, I don’t want Fido to be stopping on the way for some lovin from the cubicle mate.
Now, service dogs are very very well trained and tested before their given to their people, but a dog’s learning doesn’t stop when they’re handed over. They can unlearn the great training they had if rewarded enough for the wrong thing…which happens when some random stranger reaches out and pets the service dog. And you say “but it’s just one pet.” Yeah, but how many individuals are saying “it’s just one” adding up to many many on a daily basis, endangering their person. I don’t want Rusty hoping for pets from a passer by while his person is on a ladder, about to have a seizure.
You may also be thinking “But they work so hard! They deserve so much love!!”. Dogs love to have a job and a purpose, and there is no dog who more clearly has a purpose and a job than a service dog. They work hard, think a lot, and generally have a fabulous relationship with their person. These are the things that dogs need. Don’t worry. They’re happy, and if they’re not, one pet from you in public isn’t going to fix that.
And think about it….why are you really petting that dog? It’s purely for your enjoyment. Dogs are fabulous and I love them, and I’m all about loving up on a deserving pooch, but the only reason I do that is because it makes ME feel good. Yes, the dog gets enjoyment out of it, but they love rolling in poop too, and I wouldn’t do that with them just because it makes them feel good. Get me?
So next time you see that awesome, adorable, deserving, smart, working animal, have the courage to hold back your first instinct to love on them. Smile from afar, and go look at puppy pictures on social media. And if you think it’s an Emotional Service Animal, and their training “isn’t as important”, don’t pet them anyway. In order for people who need ESAs to continue to have them in public places when they need them, the animals need to behave appropriately, so don’t teach them to seek out attention in public. Plus, their person may not want your grubby mitts on their beloved support animal anyway.
So have the courage to examine your motivation. Petting a service animal is actually a very selfish act, and I know that’s not your intent. You’re a good person, so think it through, smile from afar and get on with your day knowing you helped that person more than you would have helped the dog with some lovins.