I have been thinking about this post for a long time. How to word it in a way that doesn't come off too harshly. How to approach this from a level-headed frame of mind. How to make my point heard.
And what it comes down to is my dog.
I know that Owen is handsome (exceedingly so, in my opinion) and he attracts a lot of attention out. And it isn't just me projecting this onto him; Darcie warned me that he was one of their top two attention-grabbing dogs out in public. And it doesn't help matters that Owen hams it up out in public; when he spots somebody he thinks he can get to look at him (and hopefully come over and give pets), he perks his ears up, wags his tail, and does "puppy eyes". (We actually heard a little girl out in public one day as Owen gave her this treatment cry, "Oh mommy, look! He's doing puppy eyes!")
Usually, this is all Owen does. He stays by my side (or wherever I have placed him) and is ready to work when I ask him. If he starts to stray a little bit and looks like he might "break" his stay to go try and see people, I will tell him "leave it" and that normally refocuses him right away. Worst case scenario normally is that he gets a leash "pop". Because Owen wears a martingale collar, it doesn't do anything other than snap the chain under his chin and make a noise. The collar barely tightens because the chain is pretty slack already, it is more about the noise of the chain when you give a correction, than actually choking the collar up.
Normally, this is all we have to do in public if Owen gets a little too people friendly.
However, this would be an ideal situation where the public respects our space and our privacy. I understand that it is pointless to get upset over people looking at Owen; although it sometimes only takes a look (especially from kids) to put Owen in "puppy eye" mode. But the people who make kissy noises at Owen?
I really don't understand what they are thinking. This happened to us the other night night when we walked into a sushi restaurant (which I was a little on edge about because certain types of restaurants are more likely to try and refuse access - but we had no problem) and immediately, a group of patrons at the bar go "Awwwwh," loud enough to be heard across the entire restaurant. As I was getting Owen into a comfy spot by my chair, this same group of women start making kissy noises at Owen. Were they trying to distract my dog? Get his attention? Get him to come over?
I really can't understand why somebody would do that. It happened to us as we were walking through the airport in Houston; a teen walking by us started making noises, trying to get Owen's attention. Owen ignored her completely and I stared her down; she stopped immediately once I caught her attention (I think she thought I may have been blind - and I startled her). But why would somebody try to distract a service dog? I truly cannot comprehend what has to go through somebody's mind for that to be the choice they make.
Here's the thing. If you distract Owen enough that he forgets his job, I have to give him a correction. I have to get him in trouble because of other people's actions. Why would somebody think it is appropriate to try and get my dog's attention from across the room? I just can't wrap my brain around this one.
But these are normal things; they are easily corrected and Owen and I can go on our way.
Drive-by-petting on the other hand? (Drive-by-petting: petting a service dog without the handler's knowledge; typically done with a hand lowered down to the dog's level as the offender walks past the service dog team) We've already had two instances and we've been on our own less than a month. The first was at the restaurant our first day on our own; at the time I was shocked. Not to say that I forgive that offense now, because I still think it was beyond rude, but it was nothing compared to when we were at the Nutcracker ballet after Christmas in Houston.
Leaving the theater was a zoo, there were people everywhere. On the way out of the theater, I turned around and saw an old man reaching out and trying to grab Owen's wagging tail! Seriously? I asked my dad to walk behind us and "watch Owen's tail" (he had no idea what I was talking about until we got out and I told him). Once out of the theater, we were stopped for a moment while people tried to figure out where to go, and unbeknownst to me, a woman behind us had her hands all over Owen. When we started to leave, Owen didn't follow with me. Curious, I turned around to look at Owen and tell him "Let's go" again, only to see this woman I didn't know petting my dog. She had the grace to look embarrassed when I caught her, and I thought that was the end of it. However, as we started to leave, she ended up following right behind us the whole way out of the theater. Owen kept looking over his shoulder at her; whether he wanted more pets or was leery of the stranger who had her hands all over him, I don't know. Owen had to keep getting corrected to pay attention, and we were privy to the woman's conversation with her friend the whole way out of the theater. Things like, "Oh, he's getting in trouble now," "I think that's because I pet him," and "I just pet him for a minute."
This is the problem though. When you ask to pet Owen and I say yes (which is rare), he knows he is supposed to greet somebody because I give him the command "say hi". He knows that for a brief period of time he can get pets, but then he must return to work. But when something like this happens, it throws him for a loop. And because of that, it led to a lot of corrections on my part, something I hated having to do.
My family says I should be appreciative of the parents who explain to their children that Owen is a "working dog" and that he has a job to do and that they can't pet him and of the people who respect our space and don't bother us (and I am). But people doing the right thing, doesn't make up for the selfish people who distract my dog without thinking. I doubt I will ever be "okay" with this; I know it is part of walking with a service dog, but that doesn't mean I have to be "okay" with it.
In my mind, it is basic dog etiquette. I am shocked how many people say things like, "Oh, I had no idea I couldn't pet him when he's working." Owen is my service dog who I need to have a somewhat normal life. I don't bring him places with me so that other people can pet him. Basic dog etiquette is that you don't interact with somebody's dog without asking them first. End story. You wouldn't go out of your way to pet somebody's dog while they were walking it on a sidewalk, so why do people go out of their way to pet my service dog? I need Owen to live a normal life, trust me. If I could feel the same way I do now about going places without Owen, I wouldn't have gone through this roller-coaster of a journey and spent $20,000 on a service dog. I did that because I wanted my freedom and independence back. And I have it.
But just because I choose to walk with a service dog for my health, doesn't mean that I bring him places for other people. It doesn't give other people the right to distract me and him. And just because I have a disability and a service dog doesn't make me a walking, talking, interactive show-and-tell exhibit.
I am practicing delivering a few responses that will help me out. Nothing has been confirmed by a doctor, but over the last year or two I have noticed increasing processing delays during verbal conversations that I am not anticipating. For example, if I can plan what to say before I call somebody (like a doctor's office to check on prescriptions or make an appointment), I do fine. But if that same person calls me and I have to have an unplanned conversation it's very difficult for me. The same goes for unplanned interactions out in public. If I were going to give a presentation on Owen I would prepare what I wanted to say well in advance. I talked with the other grad students tonight about rules for Owen (don't touch, don't feed, don't distract), and I practiced what I wanted to say beforehand. But out in public when I turn around and there's somebody standing there trying to pet my dog, it throws me for a loop. Practicing what I want to say in advance (and making sure what I say is short and to the point) will help me feel less flustered in situations like this.
Things you may hear if you try to interact with me and my dog out in public:
"Thank you for asking [to pet my dog], but he is a service dog and I need him to focus on his job right now."
"Please do not pet my dog, he is working." (getting increasingly loud and less polite as needed...) :)
"Sorry, I do not feel comfortable discussing my medical information in public."
And don't even get me started on the undergrads in the hallway who, while walking by the classroom, see Owen underneath my table and go "Awwwwwh" loud enough to distract the entire class I'm in. (Do you know how ridiculous you sound?)