Saturday, March 05, 2011

"Do Not Pet Me. I Am Working."

"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. :)


Jen said...

Excellent post!
That's very interesting how more people interact with the yellow dogs than the black. I remember one day when we were training at the guide dog centre, two of us were having coffee waiting for the trainers to finish with two other students so we could go for our walks. A man came up to talk to us, and said he heard that black labs were not as placid and mild-tempered as yellow ones. I was the only owner of a black dog in the group, and although I was sure this wasn't true, I was glad when my trainer just laughed when we told her.
If more people pet yellow dogs than black, I never want a yello dog! People are constantly trying to pet O.J all the time!
He doesn't get too distracted and will quickly focus on his work again, but if people pet without asking I'll usually tell them he's working, mostly to make them feel guilty for being ignorant.
Someone fed him in harness for the first time ever recently, and told me he was just giving my dog a treat after he'd done it. That annoyed me more because it was like, well she won't see what I'm doing so I'll do what I want and then tell her. This would never happen to somebody who can see.

Amber DaWeenie said...

Wow...I found your writing to be very interesting as I've seen the same thing happen a lot when there is a working dog in the area. I was noticed a working guide dog in the mall that actually had on a coat that said she was working and to please let her do her job and not show her any attention. Is this something you could possibly do? It won't stop everyone but it might help to lessen the attention.

Have a nice weekend!

Jess and Glacier said...

Jen: Your example of the guy giving O.J a treat is exactly what I mean by the "sneaky" petter. They just do whatever they want because they figure you won't call them on it. People have misconceptions about all colours of labradors. The funny thing is that you could breed two black labs and have a litter of all yellows or a litter that has all three colours in it. The different colours of labs is just that, colouring. They aren't a separate breed based on their colour.
Amber's Mom: I thought about getting someone to make something Glacier could wear or a different kind of sign that I could put on his harness handle. I think the "do not pet me" signs or whatever they may say, help a bit. A few of my friends have signs on the harness handles that have a hand that is crossed out. I like that idea because it is more universal. I hope you have a good weekend as well. :)

Dog Foster Mom said...

I've only met a working dog once that I can remember - it was a bomb-sniffing dog at the airport, so I'm not sure if that's the same rule, but I would guess it is - I'd hate to have the dog miss finding a bomb because I distracted him at just the wrong time! :) I think some people just want to connect with dogs, and petting them or feeding them is the way that they know to do that. We have people feed our foster dogs at adoption events pretty often. They usually ask, but sometimes they don't, and that makes me crazy because some of the dogs have food allergies or other reasons they shouldn't have treats. Usually the people just don't realize they shouldn't feed them, but they don't know they're being rude by just doing it and not asking!

Would Glacier really ignore a donut on the street if he was walking right by it?

TheBlindGuyreviews said...

I generally threaten the "petters" life. It usually does the trick that or I try to seem generally grumpy and surly (which isn't much of a stretch). Actually on a serious note what I notice the most are the people who put there hands up to your dog in an attempt to get the dog to come and sniff their hand, that drives me to borderline violence. I also hate it when people who spend time with you A LOT decide that its ok to talk to or touch your dog when you are out working, like they are exempt from the rules.

Jess and Glacier said...

Dog Foster Mom: Theoretically he should ignore the doughnut. I was walking through a mall once and glacier actually kicked a doughnut and I wouldn't have known except that my friend told me. Glacier got a lot of praise that day. :) And I don't know for sure, but I am sure the Bomb sniffing dogs have the same rules. I just have decided that it is a good rule to follow that if a dog is working, don't interact with it unless you have been given permission. That would drive me nuts too if I were at the adoption events and people were feeding the dogs. So not cool! But I think you are right-people just want to connect with the dog. That just goes to show you the power of having a fuzzy one around.
The Blind Guy Rants: I know right?! The petters who are around the dogs on a regular basis and pet them are almost the worst kind of petters.

L^2 said...

Great post, Jess! The drive-by petters drive me nuts too, because it happens so quickly you can't even do anything about it.
I haven't noticed too much of a difference in attention levels from the general public for yellow versus chocolate, but maybe that's because brown is a fairly rare color for a working dog. Also, I think Willow got a lot of attention from people in my home area because she was the first guide dog they'd ever encountered. But after 8 years the novelty of it has worn off, so seeing Jack is not such a big deal to them. So far though, I am a lot more strict about friends and family interacting with Jack than I ever was with Willow, partly because of certain behaviors it encouraged in Willow - like the excited pulling when recognizing a friend - that I want to avoid with Jack.
Jack didn't wear a sign for the first four months or so, but I've just started using Willow's old harness sign on him. I bought a new insert for it though. Instead of the "Do not pet me" saying, I got "Ignore Me I am a working Guide Dog". We've only used it for a few days, but so far it seems to be yielding better results. I used to meet a lot of people with Willow who would read the sign and say, I won't pet her, but then they would proceed to do all sorts of other things to try to obtain her attention. I'm also having a purple haness sign-pouch custom-made to fit Jack's short harness handle that says "Guide Dog Do not pet or distract", in an effort to cover all our bases. :)

Jess and Glacier said...

I like the "ignore" word better than "do not pet" because as you point out, people won't pet, but they will find other ways to distract the dog. I think it's time for me to invest in a sign of some sort. I had contacted Raspberry Field to see if they could make one and they said they were in the process of doing so. I haven't heard anything else though. I may contact them again. I think you're right about restricting family/friends interacting with the dogs. I think that is something I should be more on top of. I think I will make that a goal of mine. :)

Sherlock said...

Excellent posting. Even years ago before I knew anything about SDs, I would never presume to speak to or pet someone's SD. Certainly people are curious but that doesn't mean they can talk to, pet, distract etc.

Beau is a mobility/balance dog and because he's a rescue, we are still working on socialization. So we frequent dog-friendly places and I do not put his working clothes on him.

Actually at this point in his ongoing training, I welcome the talking, touching, petting, hand out to sniff, etc. Even when little kids run over to hug him without permission, I don't go ballistic because he needs this type of interaction.

For now.

This will change and most likely pretty soon within the next month or so .

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the good info regarding working dogs. I am (was) a walk by petter when I saw a working dog. Now I know better.

Jess and Glacier said...

Wow. That is a huge compliment. I know a lot of people do it because they really don't know or understand.
Thanks for reading and being open to new information. :)