Written By Amie Chapman
Any dog can have a life changing experience after a traumatic encounter with another dog. But when the dog who has that experience is a service dog, that encounter can end with a career ending result. Even encounters that don’t have any physical trauma can still cause emotional trauma that may be too much for some dogs to continue helping their partner. The number one reason a service dog is retired early is because of a traumatic experience with another dog.
There has been a major issue with uneducated pet owners taking their dogs to more places in recent years. We have been able to spread some awareness about how dog owners can help keep service dogs safe but way more needs to be done to combat irresponsible actions by pet owners.
I want to share an encounter that I, and my service dog in training; Pixie, recently had on a quick trip to the mall while grabbing a bite to eat. I grabbed my food from the checkout counter, turned around…and out of nowhere was an off leash Chihuahua running straight for Pixie. It was angry, barking, snarling and coming right at us. I had a split second to react. As the little dog reached Pixie, it started biting at her legs. I did my best to kick the dog away as the owner made his way to us. He quickly grabbed his dog and muttered “sorry” and turned to leave. I am normally not the type of person to yell, but I couldn’t hold back and screamed at him “What the hell! Put your dog on a leash!” He scurried off without any other word. People and employees in the food court watched in disbelief; not really fully understanding what just happened. One person, an employee at one of the food stands, asked me “are you guys ok?” He was the only person. As I caught my breath and looked Pixie’s body over, I tried to calm her down but she was still pretty amped. I did my best to gather my composure and we left the mall. Pixie picked up on my adrenaline while we made our exit which made her a little antsy.
I have been working very hard with Pixie and her confidence level with strange dogs. She used to bark every time she saw another dog, but we have been making a lot of progress with this issue. A few days before she was charged by the Chihuahua, we had a very good training session at the same mall. Pixie was able to pass a golden retriever in close quarters without a single bark, and just a slight distraction before correcting herself. Unfortunately, after the incident with the Chihuahua, Pixie has been more uneasy around dogs she sees out in public. We have backtracked a few months with her training.
I was very lucky with Pixie this time around. She has no physical wounds from her encounter. So many other service dog users are not as lucky. I personally know multiple service dog handlers that have had their dogs physically injured by other dogs. Either this is dog off leash, or it can be because pet owners are not giving proper space in the public setting.
Some dogs have to retire because they are never emotionally the same after their encounters. A dog that is stressed and worried about a random dog charging them in a store, or mall.. won’t be able to focus on their handler. A service dog may miss an important alert or task. I know people who have service dogs that hesitate to enter certain stores or places because it triggers the memory of a former attack. So much time, energy, money, and care gets put into the creation of a service dog. To lose a service dog because of something that could have been avoided is very hard to swallow. This shouldn’t be happening as often as it does…or at all.
Some dog owners are unaware of basic dog behavior. They put their dogs in situations that cause them to misbehave, and get them into trouble. People let dogs off leash that don’t have a reliable recall. Some think that their dog loves to say hi to every other dog she sees. Others are unaware of the fact that they are bringing their pet places that are uncomfortable for them. Then there are pets not trained good enough to be in public. While working in an emergency veterinary clinic for 22 years I have seen more than my share of what happens when people can’t control their dogs, or make very poor decisions about what their dogs can handle.
I’m pretty confident that with a little time, and some more work, Pixie can get back to where she was, and even better. She is just hitting her stride with her maturity and confidence. But we will have to see if the Chihuahua incident has any long term effects. The incident reminded me that there is so much more awareness needed for education with pet culture for both service dogs and pet etiquette. I have been constantly asking myself, why would someone think it is ok to bring an aggressive dog to the mall, and not have a leash for it?! It is because people are uneducated and put their dogs in position that get them in trouble. I will continue to bring light to this issue as long as it is a common cause for service dogs to be retired.