I was at a restaurant once when a woman was seated at the next table with her service animal, a Capuchin monkey. I was horrified when a man brought his son to her table to “meet your monkey” and pet it.
Seriously, mister, would you bring your kid over and say, “We think your electric scooter is really cool and my son wants to push its brightly-colored buttons”? Of course not. So why would you assume you can handle other medical equipment, which is what service animals legally are?
I’ve heard horror stories from those who use service dogs daily, but still I’ve been really surprised since I started working with Mindy at just how rude some people are around service animals. And while most people are pretty good at not interfering with her or at least asking before reaching for her, there are others which are ruining the picnic for everyone, and I don’t get it. I mean, we’ve had service dogs among us for nearly a century, right?
(Warning: I acknowledge openly that R+ is the best behavior modification option. But this blog post contains P+, in that I strongly criticize. Proceed with caution.)
Service Dogs and Children
I often explore potential conversations in my head well in advance of when I’ll need them. I don’t know if everyone does this, or if it’s just my way of having a response ready or a by-product of writing dialogue, but I’ll often let a conversation run in ways that I wouldn’t actually complete in real life, just to see where it goes. In Mindy’s first week here I started with a phrase I suspected I might hear soon: “It’s not fair to expect kids to refrain from running up to pet a dog. It’s not realistic to ask that of kids.”
“Well,” I answered myself, “it’s not only polite and the legally correct thing to do, I think it’s very fair. After all, this puppy is the developmental equivalent of a human toddler about two years old, and I’m expecting her to remain calm and polite next to me in the presence of kids. Only seems fair that it goes both ways, and I expect you’d be pretty upset if I let her off-leash to jump on your kid.”
“Yeah, but that dog’s supposed to be well-behaved.”
“Yep, because I’m raising her to be well-mannered and to contribute to society.” /significant pause/
Of course, all that was just in my head, and I knew it was a bit over the top. But actually, it wasn’t.
Recently (I’ve deliberately delayed posting this story to protect identities), a parent indeed said to me, “But it’s not realistic to expect kids not to run up on a dog, even a service dog.”
My script was ready, though I softened the language, and I explained that it was in fact critical that kids learned to respect service dogs, for the safety of the dogs and the kids and the disabled handlers, and that I was expecting this dog to be calm and mannerly around kids, so why not the other way around?
“Yeah,” he said, “but a blind person isn’t going to be able to see the kids to tell them to stay back, so the dog’s going to have to be able to work while the kids pet it anyway. They should be able to handle it.”
I’m not even sure what I said at that point, except that it was somewhat more polite than what I was thinking, which was more along these lines:
- Why is the blind citizen responsible for a strange child’s action instead of the parent? Do you really believe the burden of a disabled citizen’s safety and ability to “participate fully in the social and economic life of the state and to engage in remunerative employment,” as Indiana code states, rests on the disabled person, and not on the parents of the child who is threatening said safety and ability?
- Why must a hard-working service dog put up with harassment on the job?
- Why can’t a healthy child learn civilized and safe behavior?
- Do you also think it’s okay for a kid to pull on someone’s crutches or climb on a wheelchair, since it’s unrealistic to expect him to hold back if it looks like fun?
- And, are you really letting your child run up on any dog, then? Do you have any idea both how rude and how dangerous that is?
Unbelievable. My mind was quite boggled.
I do want to point out that during this exchange Mindy was solidly at my side, getting clicks and treats and not even moving out of her sit, while someone else repeatedly blocked this parent’s still-unrestrained child. Good girl.
And yes, I understand that some kids are too young to really understand the concept or importance of their behavior. That’s kind of like a puppy not yet having the self-control to resist running children, yeah? And that’s why I had a physical attachment to the puppy and was actively reinforcing good behavior before it could go bad. You know, taking responsibility for her actions.
Fortunately, the vast majority of people understand that service dogs are not toys, and I’ve overheard many parents tell their kids that the dog cannot be approached while working. Bravo, parents! Thanks for raising good citizens!
On the other hand, not long ago I was walking in a public area with Mindy when a parent sent their toddler to go see the cute puppy. (Without checking me with or anything.) The toddler obediently ran up to us, startling the puppy and exciting her. Before, Mindy was walking nicely at my side past children. After, I had a puppy who barked at seeing any passing children. We’re making progress on that, but it’s a problem I shouldn’t have had to fix.
Making the Service Dog Look Bad
I was sitting in a meeting, Mindy lying on a mat by my side and getting occasional treats for remaining quiet and still. She was doing great, so well that I was thinking about extending duration between treats.
I was paying attention to the meeting and so I missed the approach of danger up the side aisle. When I looked back, a woman (who previously had been told she could not interact with the puppy without permission) was bending over the dog, making full eye contact, and whispering to the puppy.
Most dogs are not comfortable having someone lean over their air space and stare at them, and even my Shakespeare and Laevatein with years of public practice beneath their belts were deeply uncomfortable with this. (Imagine a stranger leaning over your head and torso as you’re seating or lying down, and you’ll get a sense of why.) Mindy reacted as any puppy might, choosing the fourth F of “fool around,” and she leapt up barking and bouncing. The woman laughed. While Mindy stopped barking quickly, it took her a number of minutes to settle again.
Behind me, a man commented, “That dog sure doesn’t mind well, does it?” And after the meeting, he made a point of approaching me to point out my dog’s ill behavior.
But the dog had been lying quietly before.
People who rely upon service dogs also rely upon those dogs being welcome. By prompting bad behavior in a service dog (causing her to bark, pull toward strangers, jump up when greeted, etc.), even if you don’t mind, you are causing observers to think poorly of the dogs and making their handlers’ access more difficult.
Distracting the Service Dog
Today we were walking in the mall, just getting some exercise with a bonus of socialization. I was very pleased, as we’d just passed several children with no barking, which is progress after the incident already mentioned.
And then a mall-walker came up on our six, making alien “woob woob woob” noises as she reached for Mindy. She wore earbuds and never looked at me, focused on the puppy, and she apparently could neither read the “Guide Dog in Training” vest nor hear me over her music and her own woob woob woob-ing.
Mindy was quite startled, as I imagine most of us would be if a stranger grabbed one’s butt while making woob woob woob noises. I bent to block the puppy, putting my face in the woman’s view, and said firmly, “Please don’t.” She was quite surprised at my intervention and then walked on, a bit indignant.
Mindy took a while to settle again, and she kept looking behind us as people passed, waiting for the next space alien woob attack.
Service dogs must be able to focus on their jobs. A guide dog needs to be aware of all 360 degrees (“is that car coming this way?”) as well as overhead (“is that ladder sticking out too low for my person to safely cross under?”). Here’s a real-life incident caught on security camera last year, in which a GDB dog in training alerted his trainers of unexpected threat.
What if, instead of listening all around him, that dog had been wondering about the passersby? “That woman is dressed just like the woman who grabbed my butt and woobed at me, so I’d better keep an eye on her!” A dog who keeps checking the other pedestrians to see if they’re about to make a dive for him is a dog not fully focused everywhere else.
There are several levels of infraction, I’ve noticed. I of course don’t mind answering questions or explaining to the genuinely uninformed! but the last three here are pretty annoying.
A man reached down to Mindy, talking to her, and then read aloud, “Oh, guide puppy! I’m sorry.” He drew back his hand and moved away. He knew better, just missed the signs, and he caught his own error. I sincerely thanked him.
(It’s worth noting that not all service animals wear vests, so never assume.)
“What, I can’t pet her just because she’s a service dog? But that’s so mean!”
No, not really. Mean to you? Nah, you were already planning to run this errand without playing with a puppy, weren’t you? So really no change at all to your day. Mean to her? Nope, I’m just making her job easier. You’d be pretty annoyed if I turned puppies loose on you while you were trying to do your taxes, right?
“Please don’t,” I said, treating Mindy for coming back to me from the roughhousing stranger. “You need to ask before you interact with a service dog.”
“No, it’s okay,” he said, reaching for her again. “I have labs at home.”
Um, no, that doesn’t make it okay. Having a Labrador yourself doesn’t give you special dispensation to interrupt this one.
Or another real life reply, “No, it’s okay, we’re just hugging.”
Unless I see an actual membership card to the I’m Too Special For The Rules club (and you still have to show it first before reaching), I’m going to have to block your grabby hands, sorry.
Quite a few people will come up, lean down over the puppy, and croon, “I know I’m not supposed to mess with you, so I’m not touching you! Look, not touching! You’re so cute and wiggly, whee! So squishy! Not touching!”
When I try to intervene, because the puppy is by now probably totally distracted or even bouncing and barking as described above, this person will usually defend himself or herself by proudly stating that they didn’t touch the puppy, they knew better, and they did nothing wrong.
These people are quite frustrating, because they’re pretending to have the high ground while continuing to do exactly as they please and even seeing the results. Anyone who ever took a car ride with a sibling knows exactly how annoying the “I’m not touching you” defense is, and exactly how valid it is when offered as a “I wasn’t doing anything” protest. Which is to say, not at all.
We Have Rules, Too
Per state law, a trainer or handler is liable for any damage a service dog or service dog in training does, and the dog must exhibit non-disruptive behavior (so for example, if a service dog is repeatedly barking in a movie theater, it should be removed).
A bark or two in a public area is probably not going to be considered “disruptive,” but we do try to keep it close to zero. Some days we do better than others, and this early in the training a lot depends on what we encountered on our last outing.
So we really, really appreciate the people who simply comment, “Cute puppy!” or ask, “What is she training for?” And I will always thank you for asking before reaching for her, always, whether I give permission or not.
So How Should We Act Around Service Animals?
You act as you would with any other piece of medical equipment — you ignore it unless asked.
Yes, sometimes dogs in training can be greeted, because they need social time, too. And Mindy certainly plays and snuggles with friends when she’s out of vest and on her own time. But it’s not fair to her or to her future partner to disrupt and distract her when she’s on the clock.
And yes, some service animals may be greeted, and some handlers are happy to explain what their helpers do. But many handlers don’t wish to discuss their medical issues with strangers, and many dislike constant attention, so it’s best never to assume.
In short, if you wouldn’t do it to a pair of crutches, or a wheelchair, or a scooter, or a breathing aid, don’t do it to a service dog. Just a good rule of thumb.