Mobility dog owner Hannah Gibson explains why it’s important assistance dogs like hers stay focused on the job.
Over three months ago, I met Darcy (affectionately called Mr Darcy by Mobility Assistance Dogs Trust, the organisation which trained him and every one thereafter). He is my mobility dog and he loves his job. I have waited two years for him and he is more than I could have imagined or hoped for.
I have widespread chronic pain among other things and Darcy is there to help me with daily tasks like putting laundry into the basket (and dragging it to the laundry room), opening doors, getting my meds, doing deep pressure therapy, fetching things off the floor and – his favourite – carrying stuff.
He is also my bark alert if I get sick or faint. He is like my superhero and best friend. With him, I have much more independence and confidence being out in the community. He is also incredibly goofy and makes me laugh every-day. He is even responsive to my thesis reading material.
I think he genuinely believes that all bodies of water were created just for him and gets very excited at the prospect that he may get to swim. Or sit in it. As long as his whole body is submerged. He particularly likes to drink sea water.
What I love about Mobility Assistance Dogs Trust is that they don’t try to change a dog’s personality but match a dog and the skills they love doing with the needs and personality of their human handler. In my view, this means that Darcy gets to do a lot of what he naturally loves doing.
When in work mode, Darcy wears a bright green jacket with the words “I’M WORKING. Do not distract me”. But when we go out in public, some people ignore that. We have to brace ourselves for the hordes of interest and finger-pointing. He is usually unaware, ignoring everyone because when he is wearing his jacket, he is like a superhero – focused on the task at hand. It is super important that he is supported in his important role, yet quite often some people go further than just looking, and the variations of these interactions are a mixture of the following:
An adult will encourage their child to come up and ask if they can pat him. Young children, with their wide-eyed innocence that would melt most icebergs, stand expectantly, and the parent looks on as if to say, ‘I couldn’t say no to them, so you’ll have to do it for me’.
Probably the most irritating is when people start to pat him purely because they believe their love of dogs justifies them touching mine. Sometimes they are polite enough to inquire first if they can touch Darcy, and when I say please don’t because he is working, indicating his working jacket that isn’t particularly hard to miss, they reach down and start scratching his head and playing with his ears, saying ‘it’s okay, I’m good with dogs’, or classically ‘it’s okay, I have a dog’.
Or the classic ‘oh but he wants me to pat/cuddle/feed him, look at those eyes!’ He’s a golden retriever, he’d con a saint into believing he wants food.
Finally, those who try to distract him while we are standing in a queue can knock me off balance. Normally he is great at ignoring people, but that doesn’t mean he is completely immune to your attention.
Trust me, his eyes and brows are so expressive that it’s fascinating to watch. He makes everyone smile because he is such a happy dog. I get that it is hard to resist touching him. However, I must be honest. Owning a dog, or being ‘a dog person’ does not make you immune to the rules: while a service dog is working they should not be distracted or touched. It doesn’t give you special permission. By distraction, I also mean making eye contact with them and telling dogs ‘your owner won’t let me touch you’ is hardly going to win you points. So, I thought instead of just telling people the rules, how about I try and translate it into easier to understand language?
What if your baby is sleeping in your arms and someone wakes them up, without permission, to stroke their cheeks and hair with the explanation ‘hey, it’s okay, I have kids too!’ Would you be pissed off, or is this an allowable offence? I mean, I bet if you were wearing a sign that read, ‘DO NOT DISTRACT’, you’d want your baby to be left alone right? I’m guessing that you expect people to not treat your child as if they are public property.
Would you like someone to come and knock repeatedly on your glass window and tell you how unfair it is that they can’t distract you while you concentrate on a piece of very technical and important work? What if that work was the difference between keeping a person safe or not?
This feeds into a whole set of discomfort around dogs (not just service dogs) in public. People seem to think that by virtue of being in a public area – they are allowed to touch dogs. Not only is that disrespectful, but they also have no idea of the dog’s nature. The dog may not like to be surprised (who does? I know I jump ten feet back if someone suddenly invades my personal space) which can lead to the fight or flight response and distress to everyone concerned.
I get it, (most) dogs are cute, and as for Darcy, he may be well trained, but he is still a dog and would rather play than work. By trying to distract him, he will get mixed signals. I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that people require more training and reminders about appropriate behaviour than he does.
Jokes aside, service dogs, mobility dogs, assistance dogs, and guide dogs – they all are supporting their human partners and, particularly in public, they must concentrate. If a dog is trained to detect seizures and you distract them, they may not pick up and alert their owner of signals. Often mobility dogs are a sense of balance, and one hard pull can mean the owner falls. Service dogs of all kinds do tasks that require acute attention, and one’s desire to pat a dog may equal in serious injury or a dangerous situation. I know that it’s hard. Hell, I love dogs and always feel the tug of wanting to talk or pat them when I see them. But it’s up to me to reign that impulse in and respect the dog, their space and consult the owner. And if it’s a service dog, I’d suggest to not even ask.
While you shouldn’t distract Darcy when he’s working, you can follow him on Instagram at @mrdarcymobilitydog
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