"No. I'm sorry. He'll forget his job," is what I say to most kids under the age of eight. When explained like this, the children usually say "oh" and carry on their merry way. I wish the interactions with adults were so easy. Most people think that I have problems with kids wanting to pet my working dogs; current and past, but it's the adults that can't seem to restrain themselves. There are different types of petters too. You'd never know it, but people have different approaches when trying to pet Glacier or Jetta. Sure I've had a few kids come running up and start petting before saying anything or before I can stop them, but when they are asked to stop, they respectfully leave the dog alone. Adults on the other hand, are a whole different story.
First of all, I think parents who don't teach their children to ask first before petting are more responsible for their child interacting with m working dog than the child is. It's a good rule for any kid to be taught. You never know if a dog may have a past that makes them nervous around kids. Maybe the dog has aggression issues. What if the dog owner-working team or not-is in a hurry and don't have time to stop and have their dog petted? It's just safer for everyone if kids are taught to always ask first.
The adults that irritate me the most are the ones who say, "I know I shouldn't pet him, but I love dogs" and then proceeds to touch my working dog. This is type one of the Petting Type. Really? We can't practice a little self control here? You don't see me grabbing your steering wheel while you are driving just because I "know I shouldn't, but I love cars." It's the same thing; very unsafe. At least with these kinds of petters I can usually stop them because I know what they are doing, but there are other types of petters I can't stop and these are the most problematic.
A good example of Type One Petters is exhibited in a man who approached me in Starbucks where I was sitting studying. My roommates were off picking out books in Chapters and I had settled down at a little table with my study notes and a cup of raspberry hot chocolate. As I sat there I could hear people making comments about Jetta. Harmless really; just admiring her looks, her good behavior. Nice things to hear, but then Mr. "Can't Keep His Hands to Himself" walked up. He asked me a few questions about Jetta, which I answered even though it was obvious I was engrossed in my studies. We discussed the usual protocol when dogs are working, AKA not looking/touching/feeding/engaging them and a few other general things about Jetta herself. He continued prattling on and then suddenly his voice disappeared. He was still talking, but it was more at floor level. I felt Jetta's leash, which was tucked under my bum, move a little and heard her tail start whacking the table leg. I was astonished that this man, who I had just told was not allowed to pet Jetta because she was working, was sitting on the floor in Starbucks with her. Did he think I wouldn't notice his voice moving and Jetta reacting? I waited a minute to make sure he was really rubbing her ears and then said, "excuse me sir, I am trying to study and she is trying to work, please remove yourself from the floor and leave us alone." I kind of surprised myself because I am not always so outspoken, but adrenalin got the better of me and my mouth took over.
I don't think people realise that I know when my dog is being pe. I get cues from the dog like he starts acting funny. He moves around and may or may not start wagging his tail quite vigorously. Sometimes he moves closer to me and turns his face into my leg. At guide dog school we are taught to read our dogs' body language. It is through this interpretation of movements that we are able to be guided safely. The dog also learns to communicate to the handler through his or her body language. For example, I was out Christmas shopping this past December in a very busy mall. Glacier was doing very well guiding me around other shoppers and the millions of displays that were plopped randomly in the middle of the mall's hallways. We were coming up to a particularly busy area, which I noticed due to the increase in noise. Glacier also changed too. His head came up and thrust forward and his chest was puffed up. I think he was saying to everyone "stay away from us. I am doing my job."
The second type of petters is what I like to call the Sneaky Petters. When these sneaky petters touch him, I can tell because he moves differently.
Sneaky petters are the petters who reach around and scratch the dog's head when you're walking by, or pat his shoulder when you are standing in a line. Sometimes the sneaky petters stay long enough for me to notice and ask them to stop, but other times it is a "drive by" petting and I can't do anything about it. I always tell people that my working dog is just an extension of my arm. You wouldn't talk to or pet my elbow would you?
It is so rude and disrespectful when people touch/talk to/feed working dogs. A few friends and I were in a restaurant once with two guide dogs and a puppy in training. There were sighted friends at the table, but we were involved in conversation. So much so that not a single one of us out of four people noticed that a customer from the table across the aisle, gave Glacier a french fry. It happened to quickly and we were so unsure that none of us knew what to say or do. The server later asked if that was wrong because he had seen it happen and was going to say something, but wasn't a hundred percent sure if it was incorrect to feed a working dog.
I think there are a few reasons why people interact with working dogs. Part of it is that most working dogs are gorgeous and well groomed dogs that look happy to be out. That in itself is very enticing. I also think that people do not understand the consequences that the handler has to deal with after the "no interacting" rule has been broken. For months after that french fry feeding incident, I had to correct Glacier a lot for scrounging, when before that it wasn't an issue. Food scrounging is not allowed because it is kind of rude on the dog's part. Having public access is a privilege not a right and misbehaving dogs can jeopardize that. Eating people food can also make working dogs sick or gain weight. Both of which are obviously unwanted in a working dog. Scrounging can also be dangerous for the working team. If the dog is so focused on that doughnut lying in the gutter instead of what is out in front of him or her, the handler could trip, walk into a street or have a not so positive interaction with a car. Unwanted petting causes the same danger concerns.
If I allow you to pet Glacier while in harness, he may see you one day walking down the street and think "Oh my friend. Goody!" He then will drag me over to you despite the five lanes of traffic between us. He will also start seeking out petters because he thinks this is an okay behavior. In his quest for ear rubs, he may walk me into poles, off curbs that could result in me twisting my ankle, or pull me down a flight of stairs. That is why when Glacier is working-AKA wearing his harness-he is not to be talked to, petted and absolutely under no circumstances may he be fed!
Now, other working dog teams may have different rules, but each dog works differently and responds differently to attention and food. I know one handler that allows people to pet her dog if it is sitting very calmly even if it is in harness. This extra attention does not impact their working relationship, but as I said, each team is different and what works for one person may not work for another.
One thing that I have noticed in relation to petting that the yellow labs get bombarded much more than the black labs do. I'm sure it is the same for different breeds, but I only have experience with working a black and yellow labrador. Glacier is almost 25 pounds heavier than Jetta and yet, people are drawn to him like bees to honey. The first time I noticed it, I had just brought Glacier home and was coming out of a bank. We had been home for probably three days and I was working easy routes with him to get him comfortable and confident. He was a bit unfocused and excited, as most 18 month old labradors are, but was doing really well until a lady reached out and started petting him as we walked by. We were moving! I was shocked. People had attempted to pet Jetta in harness, but we were always standing still.
The difference is evident when we go out with Mr. K and Roscoe. Most people will move towards petting Glacier, but rarely will they go for Roscoe first. I think part of it is because Roscoe is black and because Mr. K is a big dude. People have also assumed that because Roscoe is wearing a sign that says "Do not pet me. I am working," but Glacier is not that it is okay to pet Glacier. I have considered putting a sign back on Glacier's harness, but I haven't noticed a difference with it on or off. The only thing that was good about the sign was that it gave kids something to read and they could relay to their parents that "you shouldn't pet that dog." Right now I'm not using a sign because Glacier's harness handle is too short for the signs that LDB provides. (Harness handle length is based on the person and dog's related heights and since Glacier is so tall and I am about average, we have a short harness handle).
So as you can see, there are many different types of petters out there and some are easier to deal with than others.
PS: Thanks to Puddles for the inspiration for this post. :)