You see a dog. You want to pet it. It’s a basic and fundamental human reaction to the presence of something cute and fluffy. Unfortunately, you can’t just reach out and fulfill every whim when it comes to encountering a new dog. There are basic rules of etiquette that need to be followed:

First, if the dog is a service animal it is always best to ignore the dog and allow it to continue with the job it has. Service animals fill an important role for their owner that they cannot be distracted from. If you reach out to pet one you are disrupting them from their important work. Even making eye contact and smiling can be a distraction for a hard-working pup.

How do you know if the dog is a service animal? First look at what the dog has on. Do they have a specific collar? Do they have a vest; often with the words ‘service dog’ printed on it? What kind of leash are they wearing? These can all be tip-offs that the dog is hard at work, and unavailable for you to pet. It is not always obvious, so please always use your discretion and choose to abstain from the serotonin rush if the dog’s profession is at all in question.

Second, not all dogs are receptive of pets from strangers. Some dogs are shy. Some dogs are stranger-aggressive. Some dogs are just plain terrified. Just like humans, they all have their own pasts and personalities. It’s part of what makes each dog so unbelievably cute. This does mean, however, that the situation needs to be gauged before you reach out and potentially startle them. Not only could this hurt them, but it could lead to your own bodily harm if they are scared enough to react aggressively. Your action could also injure bystanders or the person accompanying the dog.

How can you know if a dog is scared? Look at their stance. Is their tail wagging or between their legs? Is their head held at high alert? Are their hackles raised? If their tail is not wagging, or if their head and ears are super perked, or if their hackles are visible, you should not immediately push contact. Any one of those behaviors can be a sign that a dog is nervous. If there is any concern whatsoever, it is best to air on the side of doubt and leave your new friend alone.

Third, ask the owner. This is what most of us have been taught from a young age. If you are unsure, just ask! Nobody wants their dog to be ignored when they could be getting fawned over. An owner will always say “yes!” if it’s good for their pup. Once you have gotten the go-ahead you should still be respectful of boundaries. Try letting them sniff your palm first before swooning all over. They’ll let you know when they’re comfortable.

If you follow this pet-iquette everyone wins. No one is distracted from work, or further scared from human interaction. Instead, those that desire your attention will receive it in spades. You see a dog. You ask permission. You can pet to your hearts content.