Why don't (some, at least) service dog owners seem to like their dogs?
August 12, 2005 12:05 PM   Subscribe

On several occasions, I've noticed people with service dogs treating them in a manner that seemed surprisingly ... "dismissive," let's say. Why is that?

I've noticed this most frequently on buses and in coffee shops and that sort of thing, where various owners seem to treat the dog in an almost cruel way. Not abusing the dog so much as pushing it around or really just tolerating its presence, but little more. There seems to be no emotional bond between owner and dog.

Is this just pattern recognition - a simple matter of me noticing these interactions more because my attention is called to the "spectacle" of a dog on a bus - or is there something else here? The explanations I can think of are 1) When receiving a service dog people are told not to relate to their dog in certain ways so as to avoid confusing the animal; 2) The owner is so accustomed to having the dog around that s/he really does see it as just a tool; or 3) The owner is lashing out at their condition by proxy, since the animal is a prominent reminder thereof.

I'm not saying there couldn't be a lot more to it, those are just some guesses.
posted by Sinner to Pets & Animals (16 answers total)
I've always thought that service dogs were treated that way when they're working so as not to distract them from their job. Who's to say they're not getting petted and loved when they're safe at home? But that's just my understanding... I'm no expert, and I don't have a service dog.
posted by geeky at 12:25 PM on August 12, 2005

I would guess that the familiarity would be a large part of it. They spend 24 hours a day together, so much of the time has to be dull. I'm sure the fun stuff is all at home.

Once, I was on the subway across from a blind woman who had a service dog that she was ordering around rather indifferently. The dog was behaving perfectly (of course), and I said something along the lines of "I wish my dog behaved that well" to a friend. She smiled, leaned over, and gave it a loving scratch under the chin.
posted by MrZero at 12:26 PM on August 12, 2005

I'm wondering if it has something to do with the fact that the dog is actually "working," and as such - it's "all business." between "person" and dog." It could be part of the conditioning process.
posted by ericb at 12:26 PM on August 12, 2005

what geeky said.
posted by ericb at 12:30 PM on August 12, 2005

Yes, you're not supposed to treat a service dog as a "normal" dog. For instance, if you ever see someone with a Seeing Eye Dog, you should not pet the dog.

In addition, many of these people have been blind since birth. I imagine that could they see what they were doing, they'd be more gentle. Not sure if that makes sense but it does to me.

The only time I would intrude is if the person is treating the dog poorly and, because you can see, you see the error is not the dog's fault. For instance, I once saw a woman tugging really hard at her dog not realizing his paw was caught in a grate.
posted by dobbs at 12:31 PM on August 12, 2005

I think that geeky and ericb have it. Every documentary I've seen on this discusses the importance of the difference between working time and off time for the dog. I would guess that being stern and showing no emotional attachment during work time keeps the dog focused. Knowing dogs, it is very simple to get them to move from focused to playing..sometimes even a certain word or motion from an owner will set them off. This is probably why you're seeing such stern treatment.
posted by spicynuts at 12:32 PM on August 12, 2005

I agree with what you all have said. It does have to do
with the fact the animals have a job to do and need to
concentrate on that job without distraction. I think it would be very hard to live with an animal and not form some sort
of affectionate bonding. I guess when the job is done the
owners are then free to express their affection and appreciation for their animals.
posted by bat at 12:34 PM on August 12, 2005

Best answer: Service dogs "get off work" just like people. When they're on the job they're supposed to be focused. At home, the dogs are allowed to relax and usually treated like other pets.
posted by divka at 12:36 PM on August 12, 2005

I've a friend with a seeing-eye-dog. When I go to his house when the dog is off-duty, the animal is every bit the normal "noodge" of a dog. He tries to sniff groins, he gets in the way, he begs for attention. On the job, his personality "fades". He's really a damn good dog, come to think of it.

One thing I always think is nice is when people ask permission to pet him. My friend thanks them, and usually allows it. But it isn't the same as petting the dog when he isn't working.
posted by Invoke at 12:53 PM on August 12, 2005

Actually, it's good manner to ask anyone, sighted or not, if you can pet their dog. Mainly because some dogs can be a little weird around people, skittish, etc.
posted by Atom12 at 1:14 PM on August 12, 2005

The above answers sound better to me, but it also seems likely that in some cases the owner actually doesn't have a particular fondness for dogs. In which case you wouldn't expect them to be all affectionate with them.
posted by squidlarkin at 2:34 PM on August 12, 2005

I'll third (fourth?) the working/not working thing. Also, remember that not everyone shows affection in the same ways, and people who really know and love dogs tend to tailor their interactions with them depending on the dog itself. Some dogs need lots of physical contact and happy talking to get the message, others get just the same amount of "I love you puppy" from a smile or a single kind word. But service dogs, when they're working, are working, and my impression from talking to service dog trainers is that mostly the dogs who are successful find the work itself intrinsically rewarding (some of this is the training process used, some of it is the dog itself). Most dog breeds were created to do a specific job, and those who have been bred true to their breed's purpose do, in fact, get a whole heck of a lot of satisfaction from simply having a job to do, and doing it well. Dogs who work for a living often take their work very seriously, and are often a whole lot happier for it than dogs who spend all day sleeping on the couch. Often, they don't need cuddles and pats, they just need a "good dog" now and then, and most people who need/have service dogs work hard to learn how best to work their own individual dogs.
posted by biscotti at 3:02 PM on August 12, 2005

I've seen a particular service dog for a blind person in our office a few times, and while they were getting insurance, the dog was "working". But when the transaction was done, the owner's partner removed the dog's harness, and all of a sudden, it was okay for us to meet, pet, cuddle, talk to, scritch, and lavish some attention on him. (He was a beautiful black Lab, and you couldn't help but love him! Such silky ears and wise eyes and wiggling tail and...

I love dogs.)

And it's good sense as well as good etiquette to ask the owner before petting any dog. Even the most innocuous little moppet dogs can snap and bite at strangers. It's a good habit to get into, if you like to say hello to dogs, as I do.
posted by Savannah at 6:09 PM on August 12, 2005

Just an interesting anecdote, since the question seems pretty much wrapped up. I was on the subway recently and a guy got on and sat down with a seeing-eye dog, which then lay down on the floor between his legs, facing the opposite side of the car. The dog (a lab) then noticed that his front paws extended pretty far across the aisle, so that people couldn't pass easily lengthwise down the car, and he proceeded to carefully fold back his paws under his legs to make room, which was about the coolest thing I had ever seen a dog do, including catching frisbees and fishing.
posted by planetkyoto at 6:45 PM on August 12, 2005

This is slightly repetitive, but my cousin used to look after guide dogs (seeing-eye dogs) that didn't adapt well to being in kennels during their training. Off duty, they're doggy dog-dogs. Put on the harness, and they're at work. Oh, and if you're blind and don't have a particular fondness for dogs, you're not likely to have a guide dog. It just doesn't work unless there's a good fit.

One anecdote: a particularly fun golden retriever in training once ate several of my cousin's scented candles. My mother said something along the lines of 'what will happen if she goes to a blind person who has candles?' Uh, mum...
posted by holgate at 11:28 PM on August 12, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks to all for the great answers. While I'm a bit ashamed for not having thought to just google-ize (or howstuffworks-ize) an answer, the individual anecdotes made for really interesting reading. By the way, the howstuffworks explanations on how they train service and police dogs were also fun reads...
posted by Sinner at 11:38 PM on August 12, 2005

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