Indentured Service Dogs

While in Tractor Supply the other day, a girl stood behind me in the checkout line with a very nice Wirehaired Pointing Griffon.  The dog was on a leash and gave me a sort of pleading look, standing right by my waist, so I naturally reached to give her a pat.
“No!” her owner snipped, and jerked the lead.  I noticed then that the dog was wearing a pinch collar and had a little vest on that said, “Service Dog in Training.”  She was reprimanded (as was I) for this bit of interaction.
I realize it is the standard policy for service dogs to not be allowed to socialize, as they have to “not be distracted from their job”.
I think this is a horrendous mistake for a number of reasons.
1)  A dog is a social animal and to suppress the natural greeting behavior will cause frustration.  The impulse to greet WILL eke out in other ways, or transfer to other (less desirable) behaviors.
2)  There is no way to restrain the impulses of people you meet.  Therefore, the handler while in public has to be constantly correcting the dog every time a person approaches it.  This means that a dog’s work day is peppered with corrections over things that he can never “unlearn”.
3)  Socialization in public places is a fundamental importance in the emotional stability of  the dog.
4)  A good working dog will do the job no matter what distracts him.
5)  A good trainer should be able to train the type of focus it takes to get the job done in a public arena.  Trainers unable to cope with this are either lazy or incompetent.
What the griffon’s owner demonstrated seems to be a blanket rule for service dogs.  So many of them have very little quality of life, with an existence of humdrum, joyless days in constant restraint.  As the training world evolves away from suppression and correction, and into more positive and joyful methods, I hope to see a big life change for service dogs.

Terrible Til in action: One example of a joyful working dog!

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About Nancy J. Bailey

Artist, author, bad karaoke singer. Woodsy ragamuffin. Mom of a horse named Clifford who plays fetch and paints with watercolors. He visits libraries and schools with me, to promote literacy and making the world a better place. Yes, he is house trained, no, he doesn't live in my house! I have written three books about Clifford. But my newest book, THE NORTH SIDE OF DOWN, is co-written by my awesome sister Amanda, who has Down syndrome. Her unexpected one-liner wisecracks can always make me laugh. If you make me laugh, you've made my day!
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2 Responses to Indentured Service Dogs

  1. biz3503 says:

    You gave a very bold opinion based on a few minutes of observation. I have a service dog myself and yes, service dogs are trained to avoid distractions. However, they are living, breathing animals, not robots, and as you pointed out, they do like to socialize so completely avoiding all distractions 100% of the time would be impossible for any trainer to teach – lazy or not – but avoiding 90% of distractions is very possible. So we often have “Do Not Pet” signs on our dog’s vest to help our dog’s avoid distractions successfully. I also have never reprimanded my dog for the actions of others. She is trained to look at me if someone attempts to pet her. She would be corrected for not doing that and praised for doing it, as that is part of how she maintains focus. Remember, service dog work is very meticulous. Getting the job done… in a minute will not work. A service dog alerting to a medical emergency must be timely. The delay a distraction may cause could put the handler in danger hence the concern over minimizing distractions. Without the dog, the handler would be in much more danger.

    It’s also important to realize the vest serves multiple functions. It lets businesses and customers know why the dog is in the store and also helps to educate people with the information on its patches. Even more important though is what putting on that vest tells my dog. It lets her know it’s work time. When we come home, go to the park, on a playdate with other dogs, or for a walk in the woods, she’s not wearing that vest and is allowed to run, play, and socialize like any other dog. You only saw the dog while it was working. No working dog will perform well if not given this off time. Just like humans need to go home from work and unwind, so do dogs. If not given enough off time, their ability to focus will suffer just like when we get writer’s block or not enough sleep. Socialization is also key to maintaining a good temperament in a service dog, so they get as much of that as possible… when they’re off duty.

    Please look closer into a topic before comparing anyone to slave owners. Decades of service dog trainers all agree – that’s not a coincidence, nor is it oppressive. My dog loves frisbee too.

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  2. Thanks for responding. Yes, I do have very bold opinions about animal welfare. This is based on way more than a moment’s observation. But if you read my post again carefully, you will see that the dog approached me at the checkout counter, was standing at my waist looking at me, clearly asking for attention. Any dog lover would have responded exactly as I did. As I am not always the most observant person, I noticed the vest after the handler rather violently jerked her away… With a pinch collar!

    I believe most people are like me and would not interfere with a working animal wearing a vest, especially one that was clearly marked. However, this situation was neither my fault or the dog’s, but rather a lax, and inappropriate reaction, on the part of the handler…. Although the dog and I both paid for it.

    I am glad to know there are handlers such as you who make clear the rules, who view situations with a sense of fairness, and have your partner’s best interests at heart. Thanks for caring enough to let me know not all handlers behave in the same way. We need ambassadors like you. And, thanks for reading my blog.

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