In a recent post, I commented on the problem that all assistance dog handlers face: distraction from the public. In my case, there’s a slightly different twist.
While Barnum’s work at home is zipping along beautifully, we have a long way to go with his public access skills. This is because I so rarely go anywhere. However, now that it’s summer, and I’m a little more functional, I’m more often able to take Barnum to public venues to train.
One issue we face which many other service-dog-in-training (SDiT) teams don’t face is that since I am so obviously disabled (I am in a wheelchair and use oxygen) and in a public space, people generally assume Barnum is my working service dog (SD) no matter how he’s behaving. (In fact, people generally assume he’s working even when he’s running around, off-leash in the woods, in his orange safety vest!)
When we’re training in public, I always put the “In Training” patches on his vest under the “Service Dog” patches, but I don’t think anyone sees them. I think even if they were ten times larger, the sight of a woman in a wheelchair with a dog with gear on would automatically translate to “service dog” in most people’s minds, and people would still not really “see” the “In Training” badges. The poor visibility of the “In Training” patches raises two concerns.
One of my concerns is that if we’re in a store, and Barnum’s comportment is far-from-perfect, I’m not comfortable with people believing he’s a SD because I worry that we will give other SDs a bad name, or that we will support the myth that partner-trained SDs are not as well-trained as program dogs. Even worse, because I know that some individuals try to pass off pets as SDs (which is illegal as well as unethical), I worry that people will become used to seeing a badly behaved dog as a “service dog,” and that will support the efforts of those who commit fraud.
The second problem is people wanting to talk with me. When I am working Barnum in public, I am unable to communicate with other people. I can’t split my focus. When I try to tell them that I can’t talk, I think I usually end up coming across as very rude because it’s just impossible for me to answer questions, chat, or anything else when I am trying to use my limited energy and focus on extremely demanding training. People who want to talk to me or who want to interact with Barnum are equally big problems in this stage of our training.
I recently came across two products that are designed to tell strangers not to interact with your dog. They are in the DINOS (dogs in need of space) resource section of Notes from a Dog Walker. They are both primarily intended for dogs who are reactive to people or other dogs. DINOS can include fearful dogs, aggressive dogs, or overexuberant dogs (which Barnum was sometimes in the past with other dogs). Barnum is not reactive to people or dogs, however I think this gear could be really useful to Barnum and me as an SDiT team in public.
I’m not sure which to get. I’d like your opinion.
Option A: The TACT Training Vest from Clean Run
You can read a description of the materials and see additional views of this vest at Clean Run.
What I like about this vest is that it has the message very forcibly on both sides, and to a lesser degree, from the top. It also looks like it will last well, and it looks professional, so I could keep using it as we improve our public manners. Red and black help get across the “Keep Away” message, I think.
I’m also wondering if I’d be able to remove those patches and put them on his working gear when he’s no longer training. A very large “Do Not DISTRACT” patch is definitely preferable to the smaller “Please Don’t Pet Me, I’m Working,” patch that we have now.
I’d like something that I can fit over Barnum’s pack, if possible, because I’m using the pack as a cue to teach him that a certain standard of behavior is required. I’m not sure if that would be possible with this. But the tradeoff might be worth it. I also wish it covered more of the dog, because between my big self and my big chair and Barnum’s big self, I would want to make sure the message didn’t get lost.
The biggest drawback, in addition to the minimal size of the vest, is definitely the price: $100+. I could also pay extra for a badge for me to wear that says “In training, do not distract,” but I doubt that would be useful. Most people seem to have trouble seeing me inside all the assistive equipment anyway. Plus, being in a chair means I couldn’t put this badge anywhere close to eye level for a standing adult. For those who know me and want to be friendly and chat, my presence as a familiar face would probably override a little badge. Most people look at the dog, anyway.
There are more pictures of this vest on different sizes and breeds of dog at The Pawsitive Dog, including the option for a harness hole in the back. It has the same text on both sides of the vest.
It covers more of the dog. There is just one message, and it’s pretty straightforward. The size of the lettering is huge; there’s not much to distract from the message. At $38, it’s also less than half the price of the other one. This seems most likely to fit over Barnum’s working pack.
It doesn’t look as professional. My biggest concern is that I’m not sure if medium purple on tan is bright enough and has enough contrast to get the message across.
UPDATE: Cricket Mara, the maker of this vest, replied to my questions with this very helpful information:
The Dog In Training vest is made of a poly/cotton blend fabric with cotton straps and “Soft Touch” Velcro. It is durable and washable, but still not heavy or noisy. To use it over his pack, I would measure his chest with his pack in place. I do suggest air drying to preserve the screen printed lettering.
UPDATE: Option C: Design Your Own Vest
Much more reasonably priced than either of the other options. I can choose the color of the material. (Not sure if I can choose the color of the text.) This means I can choose colors AND a message that I think will be the clearest and the most obvious!
I think this is least likely to fit it over his pack. I’m emailing them with questions about sizing, colors, etc.
What do YOU think?
I’d particularly like to hear from members of the general public who do not have assistance dogs: Which vest do you think would more likely keep you from approaching a person and dog and trying to engage either the person or the dog? If you knew the person or dog? If they were strangers?
I’d also like to hear from other assistance dog handlers. Which do you think would be more effective, based on your own experiences? If you were going to buy one, which one would you get?
I look forward to everyone’s responses! Please feel free to cast your vote (and offer your reasoning, if you’re so inclined) in the comments to this post. You can also tweet me on Twitter at @aftergadget.
– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I didn’t like strangers), and Barnum (Strangers are fascinating!) SD/SDiT