My life with Bright provides me with some unique opportunities to educate people about Service Dogs and life with a disability, and also to teach common sense. These opportunities come in many forms, but there’s one situation in particular that blows my mind every time it comes up.
I grew up with dogs. I had a Westie when I was little, and got my first big dog when I was 13; one of the first things I learned was that it’s dangerous to surprise an animal. Dogs don’t like being the last ones to find out that someone’s about to touch them, so I was taught to always approach them from the front and give them a chance to sniff me out.
Apparently, there are a whole lot of children out there who were never taught that lesson. Pretty frequently, in fact, I hear parents and children approaching me and Bright from behind, and parents saying, “Look at the puppy! I bet it’s soft – why don’t you go and pet it?” Then, inevitably, I see a little hand in my peripheral vision, reaching out to grab Bright’s tail or touch a back leg.
I’m very happy to say that I’m confident that Bright will always respond appropriately, but I’m always shocked at the lack of respect people – especially adults with children – have for the power of a canine’s jaw.
Consider this post a Public Service Announcement:
Never Approach an Animal from Behind
Dogs are not people. When people are surprised, our reaction is usually fear in the form of a yelp or laugh, and maybe a little jump. But we’re past the point in our evolution where we’re constantly on the lookout for predators (although, maybe we shouldn’t be…), and dogs aren’t. When surprised, they often go into fight or flight mode, and in most cases, fight is the most viable option for them. While the jumpiness can be overcome through breeding and training, which it is in the case of a true Service Dog, that’s not the case with most pets.
For example, my mom grew up with her aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents all living on the same block. There were lots of animals – chickens, cats, dogs, rabbits, even a pet skunk named Flower. She knew how to behave around dogs, and she was still injured by one when it was surprised. I remember her telling me the story of the time she was standing next to of one of the neighborhood German Shepherds, petting his back, when a cousin tugged on its tail. Since she was within striking range, my mom ended up with a hole in her hand when the spooked dog reacted to what it perceived as a threat.
To be clear, this kind of behavior is different from aggression – notice I said the dog bit her hand. It didn’t attack, maul, or instigate a fight unprovoked; it just reacted to what it thought was danger. While this kind of reaction to fear isn’t acceptable for a Service Dog, most pet owners don’t know enough about canine behavior to avoid situations like the one my mom experienced.
Fortunately for the kids that come up behind Bright and yank on her tail, they won’t end up with holes in their hands. I love that I get the opportunity to talk to them about safety with animals, but my heart’s a little afraid for kids who learn this simple lesson the hard way.
Parents: If you’ve read my blog before, you probably know that the most important part of etiquette with Service Dogs is that you ask before petting. That always applies, but I personally rarely say no to a young child or to you as a parent because it gives the you the opportunity for a teaching moment. You can walk your kiddo to the front end of the dog and explain why it’s important not to sneak up, pull tails or ears, or poke eyes. It seems like a small thing, but you could be saving your child serious injuries and trauma in the long run.
I love dogs. I’m comfortable with them, and I enjoy learning and teaching about them. One of the most important lessons we can learn is that dogs aren’t people, and if we want to understand them, we can’t apply human psychology. Respect the differences between the canine and human worlds, and please teach your kids to do the same.