Can I Pet Your Service Dog?

by Kimberly Sullivan

We knew that my son, Adam, had Spinal Muscular Atrophy and was going to be disabled when he was 16 months old, but his fascination with dogs started at birth. His first three words were dada, mama, and dog. Every dog he saw caught his attention. He loved them. We knew that he would benefit greatly from a service dog.

We did lots of research, especially at the Abilities Expo in Chicago, since this was before web searching was available. The organization that we had decided to pursue was Canine Companions for Independence. We had visited with several people with service dogs. They were so friendly and let my son pet their dogs. They were great answering all of our questions.

Later on, I took my son to the bathroom. A lady was in the bathroom with her service dog. We addressed her dog, but she snapped us and told us not to bother her service dog. We had just spent all day petting dogs and we didn’t understand why she was so mean to us. At that time, we thought we wanted a service dog that we could let people pet. We didn’t want to be the mean person yelling at little kids.

It took us a long time to apply for a service dog, and get to the top of the waiting list. In 2005, we got the call that we were going to Ohio to train with a dog with the potential to be placed with my son. After two weeks of eight hour a day training, we were placed with Athena, a beautiful black lab/golden retriever mix, who was a skilled companion.

My son was in love.

To Pet or Not to Pet

One of the first things we asked was can we let people pet her. The answer was it is up to you. Great! We completed our team training and brought Athena back to our home in Chicago. One of our first outings was to Walmart. As we were walking down the aisle, a child asked if he could pet Athena. Sure! We let him pet her. Within a few seconds we were surrounded by kids wanting to pet the dog. It took us 15 minutes to get down one aisle! My husband and I looked at each other and said, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.

On another outing, my son and I were alone with Athena. We were attending an event outside with various vendors. We let anyone pet Athena who asked. At one point, a man asked to pet her and he tried to feed her some beef jerky. I told him no and he yelled at me that it wouldn’t hurt her. The dogs are trained not to take food, and allowing her to take food from a stranger would destroy two years of professional training.

Athena was starting to seek attention from other people instead of keeping her focus on Adam. The final straw happened when we were out and Athena saw someone she knew. She got excited and lunged toward her friend. Adam had her leash around his very fragile, very tiny arm. Athena pulled his arm hard and sprained his arm. He was in pain for two months. We were lucky that she didn’t break his arm.

It was becoming apparent that allowing people to pet Athena was a problem. It didn’t take long for us to decide that we had to start telling people no, they couldn’t pet her.

For the longest time, we nicely told people no. What we discovered was people weren’t listening. Or they argued with us. We started firmly telling people, “Don’t pet the dog!” Over and over we kept hearing, “You don’t have to yell,” or, “Why are you so rude?” If we were nice, people would not respect our wishes.

I now know why the lady in the bathroom had yelled at us so long ago. She was at an event trying to go about her life, using her service dog so that she could be independent. Other people were at the Abilities Expo demonstrating service dogs and letting people pet them. She had likely had to tell many, many people not to bother her dog. She just wanted to go to the bathroom in peace. She wasn’t trying to be mean.

There are a lot of reasons why people don’t want their service dogs to be petted or distracted. They may need their dog to stay focused on them, they may be in a time crunch, or they may be tired of having to tell people not to bother the dog.

Or maybe they just need to pee.


Adam and Athena were a team from 2005-2014. After working until she was 12 years old, Athena retired. Athena is now enjoying life as a pet in our home. In November of 2014, Adam was paired with a new dog. This time he was old enough to receive a service dog instead of a skilled companion. See Adam and his service dog in action here.

Author: Kimberly Sullivan • Date: 3/13/2018

About the Author

Kimberly Sullivan is the CEO of the Sullivan Family where she manages her husband, son, nurses, and three dogs. Her hobbies include sleeping and chocolate. She details her experiences as the mother of a son with Spinal Muscular Atrophy on her blog, Please Don’t Pet the Special People at

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