How Should I Interact With Working Dogs, and What is the Difference Between Them?

You’re likely to encounter service dogs, therapy dogs, emotional support animals, plus other working dogs in the public space, but they shouldn’t all be treated in the same way. If you meet a working dog either while alone or with your own dog in tow, here’s what you should know.


What’s a “Working Dog”?

Yes, kennel clubs organise certain breeds into a “working dogs” group, and you may even own a dog who belongs to that group. The dogs whom you meet out in public who are actually on-the-job, however, will have had those beautiful helper instincts honed and trained, possibly for up to five years! So what does that mean for you, when you just want to pet all the dogs?

Well, for starters, therapy dogs and service dogs may seem somewhat similar, but in reality, the two types of dogs have very different purposes. There’s also a difference in where and when each type of dog is allowed when it comes to public spaces.

Service dogs

When you see dogs in public in a ‘service dog’ vest, know that you’re looking at an animal who has undergone rigorous and intensive training in order to provide physical and emotional support to a person with a specific illness or disability. These dogs may assist people who are visually impaired, suffer from PTSD or severe anxiety, seizures, autism, or one of many more illnesses or injuries that impairs the person’s ability to function independently. Service dogs undergo intensive training and must pass the Assistance Dogs International Public Access Test. This test determines whether they are able to be an appropriate and unobtrusive helper in public places.

If you see one of these dogs, please resist the urge to pet them, and keep your own dog with you! Otherwise, you could potentially distract them from their job, which could prevent them from helping their human in a medical or emotional emergency. Not only that, even if nothing else goes wrong, you would be causing undue stress to the human.

Therapy dogs

Therapy dogs, on the other hand, are booked by therapy dog organisations and brought to an appointment by their volunteer handlers. They often work in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and even disaster areas. They provide emotional support and generally provide furry friendliness to those around them. These dogs are usually willing and able to be petted, but ask their handler first. Unlike service dogs, they don’t need to be registered or certified by any special organization; however, they will have had a temperament check. While these dogs are brought to a public space in order to benefit the humans there, it is important that you are respectful!

Emotional support dogs

A third type of working dog is the emotional support animal. These are animals (any animal, not just dogs) who have been prescribed by a mental health professional to a person who needs emotional support with conditions such as anxiety, stress, or severe phobias. These animals will not be allowed in all public areas. Travelling with them requires documentation from the prescribing mental health professional, proving their necessity.

Unlike therapy dogs, these animals are not in the public sphere for everyone’s benefit. While they do not have the same level and style of training and may not be doing the same degree of work as a service dog, they are still supporting their owner in an important way.

ALWAYS ask before you approach someone else’s dog or allow your own dog to approach them, and—most importantly—ask before you pet them.