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May I Put Sugar in Your Gas Tank?

Almost every time I hear someone say, “Do you mind if I pet your dog,” I hear The Bad John whispering in my ear, “Would you mind if I put sugar in your gas tank?” Of course, I never say it and really do appreciate people asking, but there are some very good reasons for not wanting people to pet a guide dog.

A little background: All puppies are born deaf and blind. As a result, touch is the primary way they have of experiencing the world for the first few weeks of life, and it remains an extremely powerful way of bonding with a dog. It’s no accident they like to be petted.

This is an absolutely wonderful way to get-in good with most dogs. Most people instinctively sense this and just naturally want to pet a dog when first meeting it. However, tempting as it is, petting, at least in my experience, is one of the quickest ways of ruining a good dog. As I’ve heard more than one trainer say, “The dog is there to work for you, not the person who wants to pet it.”

Guide dogs are motivated to work because they get praised. But, they’re not stupid. If petted with any degree of frequency by strangers, most dogs quickly figure, “Why should I work when I can get petted for doing nothing?”

A number of people, probably from watching Animal Planet or National Geographic, have heard “you shouldn’t pet a guide dog” but decide that one little pat won’t hurt. And, if that were the only clandestine pat it got in its life, they’d be right. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Strangers and, frequently, friends and family all think they will just sneak a couple of pats, so that, over the course of the dog’s working life, it has received, quite literally, thousands and thousands of additional pats. Each one, by itself, is not a big deal, but, taken as a whole, they are.

Imagine that you’re getting ready to cross a four-lane street at the red light. The light turns, and you give the dog the “forward” command. You start to cross, then the dog sees someone who has given it a few pats in the past. I can guarantee that the dog is now less focused on the traffic and its work than before. What makes this scenario even worse is that the dog is almost certainly going to be just as distracted if the person it sees only vaguely resembles someone who has petted it. Working with a dog is like working with a perpetual seven year-old in that, for all their wonderful qualities, dogs are highly distractible.

I’ve only ever heard two objections to this point of view. First, some schools, and many handlers, say it’s all right to pet the dog when it’s not in harness i.e., it’s not working. I’m not about to second-guess someone else if they want to do this. This is a little like criticizing your neighbor’s child-rearing practices. Anyone who has ever spent much time around dogs knows that there are times they can do some really amazing things. I just think it’s straining credulity to think that a dog suddenly develops amnesia, forgetting all of those thousands of pats, as soon as the harness goes on. After all, how likely would it be for Fido to ignore raw hamburger when he was working just because he’d had only gotten it when his harness was off? Petting may not be as rewarding as hamburger, but it is one of the more motivating things in a dog’s world.

Second, from time-to-time, I’ll hear unsolicited testimonials about how someone let’s people pet their dog all the time, and the dog’s works is wonderful. Again, I’m reluctant to dismiss such comments out-of-hand. My third dog was a true professional, rarely allowing promiscuous attention to influence his work. This, however, is the rare exception rather than the rule. The catch is that, if a handler assumes their dog’s work won’t be affected by petting, by the time they know for sure, it’s too late to undo the damage.

I do have one exception to my no-petting rule. If a small child asks politely, I’ll say “yes” and suggest the best way to approach the dog. I do pay the price in that, after a year or two, every dog I’ve ever had (and that includes the one who was a real professional) is easily distracted by small children. So, ogre that I am, I allow little kids to pour a little sugar in the tank.

P.S. The next time you run across someone who doesn’t care if you pet their dog, please resist the temptation to pet the poor dog on its head. They’ll probably put up with it, but they don’t like it any more than you would. If you want to make a real hit, rub them below the ears, on the side of the face, or on the base of the tail. While dogs have their individual personalities, they’re generally not crazy about having their hindquarters messed with either. This advice has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the blog but is passed along gratuitously to help the dogs you deal with have a happier life. We humans do enough well-intentioned, but goofy, things to them as it is.

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