4 Dos and Don’ts for Engaging with Working Dogs

In more ways than one, dogs are truly man’s best friend. On top of bringing joy and comfort to households as pets, they also contribute towards necessary services such as aiding the disabled, preserving public safety in the company of personnel like policemen, and rescuing people in need during natural disasters. These paw-some heroes are called “working dogs.”

There are many types of working dogs, but all dogs that fall under that umbrella are trained to perform specific functions. For example, dogs classified as service animals by Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) typically help visually impaired people navigate public places, alert the hard of hearing about important sounds like knocks on the door, and respond to the onset of seizures in people with epilepsy.  

Most of the time, it’s easy to differentiate service dogs and other working dogs from normal pets thanks to apparel like custom dog collars or harnesses. But aside from being able to identify them, ordinary people should also learn the rules for interacting with working dogs. These canines follow rules and observe a routine that’s very different from that of a usual house dog, and it’s important to be conscious of them so that there are no obstacles to the valuable service they’re rendering for their humans. Knowing the etiquette for interacting with working canines will also allow strangers to respect the privacy, dignity, and agency of the dogs’ owners or handlers.

To that end, below are some dos and don’ts for safely and unobtrusively interacting with working dogs:

Rule Number One: Speak to the Owner, Not the Dog

Working dogs tend to stand out among other dogs, regardless of their breed. A dog on duty may catch your eye because of its well-trained and attentive nature, not to mention how adorable it is. You may have the urge to go up to a working dog and coo at them or talk to them. But don’t be tempted to place all your attention on the dog and completely ignore its owner.

Bear in mind that when they’re working, these dogs are supposed to accomplish specific tasks. They may be in the middle of leading their visually impaired owner down the street or watching their owner for alarming symptoms of a specific mental condition. Even if it’s not immediately apparent what they’re doing, talking to them may obstruct them from doing their duty and even endanger their owner. 

In addition, paying attention only to a working dog is rude behavior. The dog’s owner may feel like you’re ignoring them on purpose and may not take too kindly to you.

As such, it’s best practice to speak with the dog’s owner first before speaking to the dog. The owner is also in the best position to tell you about how to engage with their dog, as well as explain other important facts about how their dog helps them navigate their disability or condition—provided, of course, that they are open to sharing.

Rule Number Two: Don’t Distract the Dog without Permission

As mentioned above, working dogs are trained for highly specialized purposes, and a dog may be on duty even if it currently looks relaxed. The dog’s priority is to maintain their focus and ensure that their owner is safe at all times.

Avoid distracting the dog, for example by petting them or asking them to do a trick for you, unless given explicit permission by the owner or handler. Some dog breeds take a while to regain their focus after play, and this could potentially be dangerous for the owner if any incident arises soon after that.

If something were to happen to the owner during the interim between play and work, a working dog would not be able to do its job correctly. Knowing that, never violate the rule of permission and always take the dog owner’s word as the final word.

Rule Number Three: Keep Your Own Dog at a Safe Distance

It’s natural for dogs to be curious about one another, but if you’re a dog owner yourself, try to keep your pooch a safe distance away from a working dog. This is especially important if your dog is playful or easy to approach another dog.

At worst, it’s possible for your dog and a service dog or other working dog to get into a scuffle, and this could be particularly dangerous to the owner. Knowing that you can’t always predict how two dogs will interact with one another, err on the side of safety and make sure that the working dog and their owner have their space. 

Rule Number Four: Don’t Praise a Working Dog or Give It Treats

Lastly, it may be tempting to praise a working dog or give it treats when you see it doing a good job. Positive reinforcement is an integral part of a working dog’s training with the people immediately close to them, and hearing it from someone other than their owner may send the dog confusing signals.

Treats like human food can also pose as the ultimate distraction—even for the most well-trained dog. It cannot be overemphasized that working dogs should not be distracted from their duty or put in a situation that runs counter to their routine.

Final Thoughts: Treat Working Dogs as Service Professionals

As the term implies suggests, working dogs are trained to perform a specific duty. Dogs may be naturally friendly and irresistible to whoever beholds them, but nothing should get in the way of the tedious and precise duties required of a working dog—which, if done well, can save lives and contribute to the wellbeing of whole communities.   

If you’re unsure of how to engage with a working dog, the best course of action would be to defer to its owner. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask. It’s better that you do and learn the right thing to do moving forward than to accidentally do something wrong.

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