This post is for the third Assistance Dog Blog Carnival (ADBC), which is now up!
There were so many tempting topics to write about for the third ADBC, the theme for which is “Reactions.” Some options were my MCS reactions and how they affect SD training and partnership, my current SDiT’s or past SDs’ reactions to various events in life, other people’s reactions to encountering a disabled trainer, etc.
However, I decided to write something fun: Public reactions to a little-known breed of service dog.
Warning: My SDs are not golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, standard poodles, mixes of any of the above, or German shepherd dogs! Yes, it’s shocking but true!
This topic is a goldmine of hilarity. Oh, the stories! The outrageous guesses! It does a former humor columnist’s heart good to remember and compile them.
Let’s start with the standard question:
“What kind of dog is that?”
If I had a dollar for each time I’d been asked that, I could probably buy a new dog!
In fact, after a few months of public access work with Jersey, my first bouvier des Flandres service dog, I created a little pamphlet that I kept in her pack, which I handed out to the curious general public.
The title of the pamphlet was, “What Kind of Dog Is That?”
It gave a brief overview: That bouviers were developed as a herding and general farm-work dog in the region that is now The Netherlands and Belgium. They herded cattle (their name is French for “cattle herder of Flanders”), herded sheep, pulled carts, drove livestock into town, and protected the humans and animals on the farm from intruders.
It mentions that they are hypoallergenic, with hair instead of fur — hair that grows until you cut it, and mats easily, and requires a lot of upkeep. It also says that they are not the right dog for most people, and as a result, they are not a popular breed in the U.S. (which is good, in my opinion).
I include some basic service dog information, such as that I trained the dog myself, and that I prefer that people not pet or otherwise distract my dog. I also say that I need to get my errands done as quickly as possible to preserve my health and functioning, so I prefer not to have to field a lot of questions.
I encourage them to learn more about assistance dogs by visiting the IAADP website.
When Jersey retired, and Gadget started working, I revised the pamphlet, changing the references from “Jersey” to “Gadget” and the “she”s to “he”s. When Barnum is trained, I’ll update the pamphlet again, although I’ve now developed a policy of not telling people Barnum’s name (a story for another time).
Usually, when people ask, “What kind of dog is that?” the conversation proceeds as follows:
Me: A bouvier.
Person: A what?
Me: (Enunciating very clearly) A boo-vee-ay. The full name is bouvier des Flandres. It means “cow-herding dog of Belgium.”
Person: Huh, I’ve never heard of that. A what-was-it, did you say?
Person: I’ve never heard of them.
Me: They’re not very popular in the U.S. They can be difficult. Some of them can be aggressive if not trained properly.
Person: (Looking disappointed and wary) Oh. Well, he’s beautiful!
Me: Thank you!
Then there are the “Guessers.” These are the people who want to play twenty questions about what type of dog Barnum is.
This starts with the stranger approaching and saying, “Excuse me, is that a [breed]?”
The most common guess is a Labradoodle. Now that I have met doodles, I see why this is such a popular guess. We met a black Labradoodle last summer who could have been Barnum’s twin.
In all fairness to the people who are way off, I give my dogs terrible haircuts. They don’t look at all like the bouviers people see on TV in the big conformation competitions, like Westminster. If I’m really trying hard to give a haircut that looks in any way fashionable, it usually comes out like a giant schnauzer cut or some sort of mutant terrier. Which is why. . . .
Other frequent guesses are giant schnauzers (which is pretty close, appearance-wise), briards (again, a good guess, a lot of similar characteristics), standard poodles (it’s the coat), various terriers, including a wire-fox terrier (I think it’s the coat) and wheaten terriers (which are about a third the size of a bouv, so again, it’s the coat), Kerry blue terriers (again, yes, if the Kerry blue was on steroids and black or gray), a pointer or Weimaraner (when Gadget’s coat was shaved for the summer), Newfoundlands (size problem in reverse), and in more recent years, thanks to President Obama, Portuguese water dogs (which is close in many ways, except the size) and sometimes, remarkably . . .
Someone will say, “Hey, is that a bouvier?”
I say, “Yes!” And give them a big smile. I might even chat with them a couple of minutes and congratulate them on their discerning eye. Usually they have had a bouvier of their own or have a family member with one, which is why they recognized the breed. (Bouviers are much less common in the Northeast than in the Midwest and California.)
Among the Guessers, there are also the people who question my knowledge of the breed of my dog. Particularly when the doodles trend had just begun, and people were asking me, “Is that one of those mixes between a poodle and a Lab?” and I’d say, “No,” they wouldn’t leave it at that.
“Are you sure?” They’d say. “Because it really looks like a Lab-poodle or [fill-in-the-blank other doodle breed].”
“Mm,” I’d say, and move on.
Most often, “Challengers,” want to suggest that really my bouvier is a mixed breed, and I just don’t know it:
Person: What kind of dog is that?
Me: He’s a bouvier des Flandres.
Person: Hm, well to me he looks like a mix of a [breed] and [another breed].
Me: Well, he’s a bouvier.
Person: Did you get him from a breeder?
Me: (In the case of Jersey and Gadget) I got her/him from bouvier rescue.
Person: I’ve never heard of a bouvier.
Barnum, in particular, stumps people because his coat is so very curly that, even though he resembles them in no other way, poodles are the most common guess.
A recent interchange:
Man: Is that a poodle?
Me: He’s a bouvier des Flandres.
Man: Is that some sort of poodle?
At least all of the breed Guessers are guessing the right species. They earn cookies for that.
There is a whole subsection of people who have not realized that my dogs are, in fact, dogs.
Jersey, bless her heart, was pegged as a non-dog more often than Gadget or Barnum have been. I attribute this to four factors:
- Her cropped ears and docked tail. While I am not in favor of cropping and docking, when I first was trying to adopt a bouvier, it was very hard to find a bouvier raised in the US who had natural ears. That is becoming more the norm, but it’s still really rare to find a breeder who doesn’t dock the tails. The lack of doggy ears and tails contribute to the already bear-like appearance of many bouvs.
- Her movement. Jersey tended to shamble along, with lowered head, which, again, leant a certain ursine quality to her appearance. This gait is a bouv trait, but Jersey was particularly prone to it.
- Her lack of movement. Jersey was an accomplished power-napper. (Another bouv trait.) When she was in a down-stay, she went into all-out “holding-down-the-floor” mode.
- As with all my bouvs, I let her hair grow in the winter. This makes them look very shaggy and about twice their actual size. This means that . . .
Bouviers get mistaken for bears a lot.
I know it’s not just me, because I have met a number of people online whose bouvs are named Bear or Teddy or something along those lines.
Also, when I joined the bouvier group on Dogster, the first discussion topic bore the title, “Is that a bear?! Non, c’est un bouvier des Flandres!”
Since I live in an area where black bear sightings are not uncommon, it is both more and less understandable that people would think bouvs are bears. More understandable, because people know there are bears around, so there is more “bear awareness.” Less understandable because, when you actually are used to seeing bears (I had a recurring problem with bears invading my porch and compost bin at my previous home), you see that there are many important distinguishing features between the species, particularly size. A black bear weighs hundreds of pounds, whereas a bouv usually tops out at 100 pounds or so. All of mine have been 75 pounds or less.
The first time I experienced “the bear phenomenon” was when my roommate and I were walking down the main street of Northampton to go to Gay Pride. I was wearing skimpy, slutty black clothes because it was Pride, and that was my tradition (striking a blow against disability stereotypes and feeding my exhibitionist streak at the same time. [I was younger and cuter then; I could carry it off.])
Anyway, a carload of guys, probably college students, went by, and we heard yelling and calling, and Laurel and I rolled our eyes at each other, thinking it was just the usual harassment. But then, we heard what one of them actually yelled, which was, “Oh my god! Those people have a BEAR on a LEASH!”
Gotta love living in the five-colleges area. Higher education at work (probably combined with several beers.)
Another time, I was at the grocery store, at one end of the frozen food section. A small child was with her mom near the other end, moving toward us. The little girl kept saying, “Mom, is that a bear or a dog? Is that a bear or a dog?”
The mom was not answering. I’m not sure if she was busy or distracted or embarrassed that her child was pointing out the existence of the disabled woman, probably a combination.
Finally, the mother, exasperated, said, “What do you think it is?”
The little girl contemplated Jersey and me for a bit and then said, “I think it’s a bear.”
Then, there are the times it happens in reverse — to those of us with bouv-on-the-brain. One night, driving home late, Betsy was very tired. In the street ahead she saw a shape, and her first thought was,”Why is there a bouvier in the road?”
Of course, when she got closer, she realized it was a bear.
But it’s not just bears. . . .
Another fun story of a young child still “learning their animals” occurred at the same grocery store as the little girl who thought Jersey was a bear. In this case, I had Gadget with me.
I was in the produce area, which is big and hectic and teeming. I usually try to get out of there as fast as possible, because the store tends to put displays of fruit on little rickety tables at the ends of aisles, which are easy to knock into.
So, Gadget and I were making our way along when I saw a very familiar scene begin to unfold. A little boy, maybe about five years old, was shopping with his two moms. He saw me and started bouncing excitedly, pointing and jabbering to his moms.
One of them said, “Okay, but you have to ask first.”
I was all prepared with my little speech I give to children about how this is a working dog who needs to be able to focus on helping me, and that, therefore, while I appreciate very much that he was asking first — and that it’s always important to ask before you pet any dog — I was sorry but he couldn’t pet my dog.
That’s not what happened.
The boy rushed over to me, and said very sweetly and earnestly, “Can I pet your cat?”
I was so surprised that I just said, “Sure.”
Given that he lives in Northampton and has lesbian parents, I cut him some slack that he thought my animal companion must be a cat. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, think of all the lesbians you know, and tally the number that have cats. If some don’t, there is likely a cat allergy involved.)
I’ll end with one last Jersey story.
A friend and I were at my town’s Fall Festival, where people from the town, as well as people from the surrounding area and a lot of tourists, come to eat maple sugar products, buy or sell crafts, and watch or participate in Pumpkin Games, such as relay races where little kids try to carry as many pumpkins as possible over a finish line.
My friend and I had just bought lunch and were sitting on the porch of the country store. Jersey, wearing her green pack, lay on the deck beside me.
A man walked by, nodded and smiled at us, glanced at Jersey, then, after taking another couple of steps, did a double-take and screeched to a stop.
“Oh my god!” He said. “I thought that was a stuffed animal, and then I saw it move!”
We all had a chuckle, and I told him that Jersey was, indeed, doing her rock impression. To his credit, the man had thought Jersey was a toy dog, as opposed to a massive teddy bear.
Of course he followed up with,”What kind of dog is that?”
-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I was gray, so nobody thought I was a bear), the spirit of Jersey (Call me anything, just don’t call me late for dinner), and Barnum, SDiT and non-poodle
P.S. Remember to go to The Trouble Is… to read the other great ADBC posts!
For information on future carnivals, visit the ADBC page here.