I had a frustrating experience at the mall this past weekend. I vented about it a bit on Twitter (note the random autocorrect) and extensively on the way home. As I’m not a parent it’s the worst taboo for me to say anything about how children should be dealt with, but it really is a problem when people leave their children unsupervised.
However, what was even more difficult to deal with were the parents themselves. Basically it went something like this: Uschi and I are walking through the mall minding our own business and we pass a parent with their young child; the child may or may not have noticed Uschi but in either case is not reacting to my guide dog; the parent, on the other hand, upon seeing my shepherd partner immediately points her out to the child. It’s a scenario that I’ve encountered countless times since I started working with guide dogs and what astounds me is how people don’t see it as a problem. In fact, while I bitched and moaned to my friend during the drive home she actually said to me that there’s nothing I can do about it. Say what? For the record, I really hate essentially being told that I should expect things like that. What’s wrong with wanting some common courtesy and decency now and then? Because, let’s face it, that’s quite a double-standard in terms of the expectations my guide dog is supposed to live up to!
But fine, I accept that the problem is not readily noticeable to those not partnered with a guide dog, so let me tell you about one of my favorite things that happens on occasion: I go to a restaurant — and it’s always best if I’m with some friends or family because it just adds to the awesome — and we sit down and enjoy our meal. As we get up to leave, I call my guide dog out from under the table and someone, be they other restaurant patrons or our waiter, reacts with supreme surprise because they were completely oblivious to the fact that there was a dog under our table! You see, that’s how it’s supposed to be. I’m not saying that no one should notice there’s a guide dog around because that’s like white people saying they aren’t racist because they don’t see the color of other people’s skin. Unless you’re blind too, you’re going to see a dog. That’s fine. The issue is drawing attention to the fact. Yes, there are appropriate ways this pans out, i.e., asking polite questions or a casual comment. Acting like a kid at Disneyland hopped up on sugar, however, is not.
Those parents that excitedly point out my companion, though, are way over that line. For one, on the off chance that your child hasn’t noticed my guide dog, please understand this is a good thing. I think a lot of people assume I dislike children because of how much I dread a child’s reaction to my guide dogs, but in truth I adore children. (Not that I want any of my own, but that’s a whole other topic.) Children tend to have extreme reactions when they see a big dog in an unexpected place. They are either incredibly excited, which usually ends up being a Huge Distraction for the dog and sometimes is downright frightening for me when children come flying out of nowhere to be near the dog, etc. Or they are shocked to the point of fear. Honestly, in all the years I’ve been working guide dogs I have not made one single trip to the mall where I have not reduced at least one child to tears. It can’t be helped, but it does not make me feel like an awesome person.
The more likely situation is the one that parents don’t seem to get: your child has already noticed the dog! I mean, it’s a dog in a place that dogs usually aren’t and comparatively to them it’s a Big Dog. Perhaps they’ve dismissed the sighting because something else has caught their attention. Perhaps they are quietly observing. Or perhaps they’re just internally preparing themselves for one of those two previously mentioned major reactions. But for whatever reason they aren’t freaking out . . . until you point out the dog, too. It’s like a forest fire has been ignited in how quickly this energy spreads and feeds off itself because by nature of the parent’s reaction it’s reinforcing the child’s, which has now become exponentially more of an issue than if the situation were to play out naturally.
Now all that isn’t to say you need to go out of your way to reprimand your child for noticing a guide dog. I don’t want your child thinking it’s shameful that I’m blind and that’s exactly how I feel when this happens in front of me and it’s uncomfortable and very embarrassing. Instead what I absolutely love to see is when a parent takes the opportunity to educate their child about guide dogs. (Though, I have to force myself not to run after the people walking off giving somewhat inaccurate or downright incorrect information.) I know not everyone is familiar with what a guide dog is exactly and that even more people could care less and that’s really a whole other gripe. What bothers me about parents drawing attention to the dog is that it seems to me it’s reinforcing a behavior that is not desirable.
ETA: Thinking more on this — mostly due to chatter on Twitter and Facebook — I remembered a comment someone made to me once about how some people view working dogs in relation to other dogs. Specifically, I had mentioned that I was brought up to always ask a person if I could pet their dog regardless of whether they were a working dog or not. The rebuttal point they made was that people don’t necessarily look at a working dog thinking they shouldn’t distract the dog, but rather that it’s a socialized animal and thus more approachable. This is certainly true in the sense that unlike most pet dogs, working dogs have been raised and trained in numerous situations that make being in public a routine chore for them. It’s an essential part of their training and one that most people don’t have any understanding of. So, I can understand how people might think that these are “safe” dogs to come up to. However, just because a working dog is generally going to react to human interaction better than your run-of-the-mill pet, it does not mean that it’s acceptable to come up and give them attention. I can’t stress this fact enough: always ask! Regardless of whether the dog is working or not.