Dealing with Children in Public
When you are out in public and training your service dog (or SDit) people (especially kids) can and will do many unexpected things. Unexpected, that is, unless you’ve already had some exposure to what they can do.
In these situations of unwanted interactions, you need to be your dog’s advocate and protector.
From polite inquiries if they can pet your dog to abusive people trying to run your dog over with a shopping cart, protecting your service dog should be your first priority. Of course how you are feeling that day will affect if or not and how you choose to interact with others people in any given situation. If you are feeling up to it-go for it! Educating people about your rights and their responsibilities is just part of the challenge of having a service dog.
Below are tips to handle unwanted situations.
1. Eye Contact
Eye contact is key in every interaction as that tells the other person that you know they are there. This is key to getting their cooperation and using your facial language to communicate without saying a word. Think of what a “Mom look” (bit of a frown, using an unwavering stare to look directly at them, mouth pursed) can do to control children and even other adults! (Google it. It’s a thing!) Use it to your advantage. Alternatively, the sarcastic “Really? with eye brows raised can also get their attention that you mean business.
A polite inquiry from a child to pet your dog might give you a fleeting glance at you as they move in for the pat. This is the instant that you need to take advantage of for your communication. A smile is reassuring and says "Yes, go ahead!" A “No, she working” can stop a compliant child in their tracks. If they glance up and see a frown from or wide open eyes, most will hesitate. Your worried look about the interaction in that second is social referencing. And is your chance to either engage with them, turn toward your dog or even move away from them.
Ignoring Them After Initial Eye Contact
Turning your attention from them to your dog can be very powerful as it is a clear message in body language that you wish to disengage or are focussed on something else. Turning to the side to face your dog is even a stronger message.
At the same time, avoiding eye contact from the start for any interaction usually sends a message of fear and can trigger bullies to target you.
2. Talk To Your Dog, Not Them
If you choose to turn to your dog, and perhaps are not confident in talking with strangers, talk to your dog and explain the situation. “I know that child wants to pet you but you need to keep focussing on me so you can do your job. That was so nice of them to ask though.” Say it loud enough they can hear if they have stuck around. That way they may get the message and move on.
3. Asking For Their Help
If the child and parent are persistent, ask them if they want to help you train your dog. In many cases they think this will take a long time and are suddenly in a hurry to leave. Some (maybe about 25%) will agree to help so you need to be ready with something for them to help you with. I usually start with a nose target to hand. Ask them stay where they are and demonstrate extending your hand at your side palm facing them. Tell them you will send the dog to touch their hand. As soon as your dog does, mark and treat in front of you. That way they get to “help” they get the interaction they want and your dog learns to ignore them and focus on you. Usually repeating it three times is enough for most people.
If there are two or more children, ask them to take turns helping so your dog only has to deal with one child at a time.
If you have a small dog, asking them to squat down to receive the nose target prevents the kids from leaning over your dog.
4. Second Meeting, Same Day
Beware. Some children (usually the pushy ones) think that if they’ve greeted your dog once, then they can bypass the greeting if they see you again that day. Be prepared for this and use your body to block them however feels appropriate to you in the moment. This is another educational opportunity. "Just like we make eye contact and greet known friends before moving in to give them a hug, we need to do that with dogs every time we meet them too. The dog may be working or not want that interaction right now."
5. Position Your Dog for Least Inviting Interaction
Another effective position to prevent interactions is to turn your dog to face you and have her bum towards the oncoming person. The dog van be either sitting or standing. That allows you to pet her head and still talk to the people. Few people will reach out to pet the dog’s bum especially if the dog is sitting. This is another universal clear body language message “Do Not Touch" or "I don't want to interact."
In tight situations like an elevator, always put your dog in the back corner facing the door, with you standing between your dog and the other elevator riddlers. This gives her some space. What if you are the one that needs the space? Put her across in front of you with her head facing the wall. That is also an odd position that most people will hesitate to approach.
When you are sitting, your dog can either sit or lay between your legs with her bum under the chair or body across sideways under your legs. Face your dog away from oncoming people. In this case, the middle of the bench rather than facing the end. Avoid having her hang out the end of the chair or in foot traffic channels. This will stop people from stepping (or tripping) over your dog.
A more extreme version is to teach your dog to move behind you or between your legs so you become a physical barrier for her. In some cases, you may need to be quick to step between the child and the dog to become a physical barrier. If you teach your dog ahead of time what to do, and practice in many settings, that will make it easier when it happens.
Alternatively, a hand up in the "Stop" sign will almost always stop the most persistent child. If they don't be prepared to use your "Mom voice" to give them instructions like "Go find your parent." Mean business. Combine it with the "Mom look" if needed.
6. Get Help!
If no parent is present, call out for one! At the very least, other parents will look and that attention is not usually what the unruly child wants.
If you have someone following you, go to the customer service desk and tell them what’s happening. They are often willing to talk to the person or at the least, intervene to give you time to leave the store. Some may invite you behind the counter to get away from the stalker. Avoid being alone with them. For example, avoid going into the bathroom as they follow you in there.
The shoe may be on the other foot as well. Perhaps the child is afraid of dogs but the parent wants an interaction. On duty is not the time to work on this, but if you want to help, you can move to a non-working location with the parent and child. One trick that worked well for us was to teach your dog to lay on her side or her back. Our golden was very hairy and we asked the kids if they knew that dogs have belly buttons too? When they realized they do, and they wanted to see one, they became so invested in finding it in the fur, that they forgot about their fear. Obviously do this with only dogs that are comfortable with kids stroking their stomach area.
Practice Before it Happens!
In any case, figure out what you will say in three common situations and then ask a friend and actually act it out. That way when it happens on the fly, you will have generalized it which will make it easier for both you and your dog in the moment.
Hopefully, this will give you some ways to handle situations with children that come up in public. They can be unpredictable so be ready for anything.