I had a distressing situation happen recently. I was on a walk and a toddler leapt out of her stroller and tried to grab Noelle. While the kid was shrieking and flailing wildly, her adoring mother asked if she could pet my dog. I snapped, “Absolutely not!” And I left. One of us was rude. Hint, it was not me.
As a service dog trainer and handler, I know my dog. I trust my dog. Noelle can maintain a sit/stay with a toddler eating an ice cream cone one foot away from her. She has never growled or snapped at a person. But, Noelle is still a dog. Service dogs are highly trained, carefully raised, carefully selected from birth for their jobs, but they are still dogs. Any dog can bite if provoked.
A small child, leaping from a stroller, waiving her arms, shrieking at the top of her lungs, “Doggie Doggie!” probably looks adorable from a parent’s perspective. From a dog’s perspective, this looks like a threat. A small child petting a dog by grabbing her also looks cute from a parent’s perspective. From a dog’s perspective, this feels like a threat. As Noelle’s handler, its my responsibility to protect her from threatening situations. And this child was acting scary, so I snapped at them.
I do not allow small children to meet Noelle. Small children do things that scare dogs. They grab ears and tails. They throw things. They can pick up a stick and hit a dog. They scream and yell and kick. Small children are a threat to my dog and I take that very seriously. Noelle could get injured. Worse, Noelle could become so traumatized, she decides all small children are dangerous. Then I’d have a dog who growls at kids, which is not an option for a service dog. I would have to rehome my dog, get a new puppy, and spend the next two years training a new service dog, because of one traumatic moment in the park. None of this is worth the risk.
All of this was running through my mind in the split second I had to protect my dog from a stranger’s kid. So, I snapped at them. If that still seems rude to you, let me flip this situation around. You’re walking with your child in a stroller, enjoying a beautiful morning at the park. Out of nowhere, a strange dog runs up to your child and growls in her face. You would do whatever you had to do to protect your child. I did the same.
I would rather not be put in this situation. It’s not safe for anyone. Parents, it’s your responsibility to teach your child to be safe around dogs. If your child is waving her arms and screaming, “Doggie doggie!” your child is too young to meet a stranger’s dog. Over half of all dog bites happen to children under the age of five. Children under five can frighten dogs, even friendly dogs like Noelle. Please don’t risk your child’s safety. It’s not cute. It’s dangerous. Here’s a handy guide for dog safety.
And as far as interacting with service dogs, please don’t follow service dog teams and tell your child, “Look at the doggie, say hi to the doggie.” A distracted service dog puts their handler in danger. A guide dog could miss an obstacle. A hearing dog could miss a sound alert. A medical alert dog could miss a signal that their hander needs help. I need Noelle to notice changes in my blood sugar. She’s amazing at her job, but she can’t help me if she’s paying attention to you instead of me.
If you see a service dog in public, ignore it. If your child notices the dog, tell your child, “Yes, that’s a service dog. It’s working. We need to leave it alone.” Every time I hear parents tell their kids, “That’s a service dog, leave it alone,” my heart leaps for joy. For more information about service dog etiquette, visit Anything Pawsable.