Saturday, January 19, 2013

How SD Handlers can Handle the Public in Potential Service Dog Conflicts (to reduce your own stress levels)

  • This article is kindly shared by Debi Davis who wrote the article for Delta Society in 2000. 

    Since we know that operant conditioning works with humans as well as other animals, and if you are reading this blog, you are probably using OC to train your service dog, it makes sense to use this approach to handle potential conflicts with your service dog. I say potential because the point is to prevent them from happening and turn critics into supporters and educators. Using OC, it can be done without confrontation and end up rewarding the individual for doing the desired behavior instead of having to correct them for unwanted behavior. This approach is much less stressful on you, the Service dog handler, once you get the hang of it. Like any other behavior, it pays to practice it before you need it.

    Using Operant Conditioning on Humans

    "I have been amazed and encouraged by how the same operant training skills used to communicate with our dogs can also work to diffuse access confrontations encountered as a service dog user. I use a method of dog training called "clicker training," in which we try to set the dog up for success by finding things to reinforce and reward. 

    Clicker training is very proactive in that it does not suppress behavior when the dog has made a mistake. Instead, it allows for those mistakes to become a normal part of the process of finding what will be reinforced and rewarded. 
    Service animal access conflicts can also be approached in the same manner that we approach clicker training. We can use our skills of observation to note body language of the person confronting us and respond in ways that are less likely to trigger that person's defense mechanisms. We can anticipate problems and practice responses that will involve the confronter in a positive way, rather than pushing him or her into a corner. We can look for ways to allow confronters to accept they have made a mistake, without trouncing upon their egos. 

    My mother had a saying that fits very well into this proactive advocacy approach: "She drew a circle that shut them out, heretic, rebel—a thing to flout. But love and I had wit to win; we drew a bigger circle and brought her in." cWe can stand our ground in advocacy, stating laws that protect our rights to use a service dog in public, but at times this approach alone can backfire. If the person confronting us feels attacked—even if we have tried to simply state the laws in a neutral way, without rudeness—we still may receive a defensive response.

    Setting People up for Success

    Intentional Distractions Created by Public

    Setting people up for success and ignoring rude responses is not easy, but it's an opportunity to see how effectively proactive communication can diffuse a situation before it turns into a heated exchange. One personal example comes to mind. A certain store manager constantly made distracting, kissing sounds whenever my service dog and I passed by, in attempt to attract my dog's attention. 

    I searched for a way to let him know this was inappropriate and could even be dangerous for some service dog users. But this was a very nice manager, who simply was ignorant about service dog etiquette, and I wanted our encounter to be a pleasant one so he'd still look forward to having me come back into the store.

    In thinking about the possible ways I could resolve this problem without conflict, I thought first about giving him a brochure on service dogs, which lists the appropriate and inappropriate responses to service dog teams. But how could I give him the brochure in a way that would allow him to "keep face" and not be embarrassed by his inappropriate response? 

    I chose to set him up for success in a way my mother's favorite saying explains: I drew a circle and brought him in. I rolled into the store, armed with my packet of brochures tucked safely away. Sure enough, the manager again made his distracting sounds, trying to catch my dog's attention. 

    But instead of reactively correcting him for his error, and then giving out the brochure, I tried a different approach, an operant approach. I rolled up to him and said, "Hi, I really thank you for helping me to teach my dog to ignore distractions. Do you have just another 30 seconds to do that one more time, as I roll by with my dog, so I can try to keep his attention focused on me instead? It would be SO helpful!" 

    When I have asked for someone’s help to teach my dog an important lesson, I have never been turned down. The manager immediately agreed to help and the exercise went just as planned. I'd just given him a very important piece of information, but in a way that allowed him to be part of the solution. Before we left, I handed him the brochures and said, "I can't thank you enough for helping me. You're terrific. Listen, here are some service dog brochures you might want to have on hand should you see any of your customers attempting to interact inappropriately with a service dog team. Just thought they may come in handy for you, since you are so supportive of service dog users."That was the last time he ever distracted a service dog team in the store. Each time I came back in with a dog, he'd find me and offer his assistance if I had to do any special training sessions. What could have been an embarrassment to him ended up being a springboard for understanding, by bringing him into our world of service dogs in a non-threatening way.

    Access Conflicts

    With access conflicts, I have also used inclusion and education with much the same approach. Once, on the way home after a long airplane flight, my husband and I stopped at a restaurant for a bite of dinner. I had my service dog with me—a 9-pound Papillon who certainly does not look like the typical guide or service dog. I expect this to be confusing to many people so I keep my dog in a service dog vest, with identification to help the public see that he is not a pet, but a working dog.

     Rolling through the front door, I spot the manager glance up at us from across the room. His appearance immediately changes: his brow furrows, his body becomes more rigid, his lips become taut, and he heads toward us purposefully. I can picture the adrenaline and endorphins pumping through his system as he charges our way, obviously determined to let us know we are not welcome in his restaurant. I adopt a relaxed posture as I smile and watch him approach. 

     He will not make eye contact, but has his sights only on the dog. Hungry, tired, and in no mood for a confrontation, I wait until the manager is almost to us, and quickly and noisily drop my keys. 

    "Ooops!" I say, using one of my secret cue words for my dog to fetch the object. My dog immediately responds by dipping his head, picking up the jingling keys, and assuming a "Paws up" position with his front paws on the edge of my wheelchair. He holds the keys in his mouth quietly until I am ready to take them. I take my time, wanting the manager to see this dog is doing something out of the ordinary, and realize that this is no pet, in spite of his non-traditional appearance. The manager watches closely. His posture and face are still tight and stressed, his hands clenched at his side in fists, but I note that he's not immediately growling at me to "get that pet out of here!" either. He's eyeing the dog with some curiosity and confusion. 

    Before he can speak, I take a proactive lead: I look up at him, smile and say, "Hi! Yes, I know—he doesn't look like a real service dog, but isn't it amazing how helpful a dog of his size can be? This little guy also makes my bed and does the laundry. Don't know what I'd do without him. It was worth the thousands of hours of training we had to go through to get to this level of skill."

    The manager remains mute, and is, I believe, a bit stunned to learn this little fluff ball is some kind of service dog. His body posture begins to relax and his fists unclench. I quickly add, "Yes, it's amazing to me that these little service dogs can do nearly everything the larger service and guide dogs can do. I'm just so thankful that trained service dogs of any size have legal access, because this little wonder sure makes my life livable. Ha—from the look on your face, sir, I can tell you've probably never seen a legitimate service dog so small. Here, watch how he'll fetch my cell phone!" 

    I roll over to the window, put the phone on the ledge and roll 20 feet away while my dog remains in a sit-stay. I cue my dog to retrieve the phone by the duct-tape handle and assume a "Paws up" position on the chair, holding the phone quietly in his mouth until I am ready to receive it. 

    The first words out of that manager's mouth are, "I can't believe that little dog just got that big phone for you. That's impressive. And you say these little dogs have the same legal rights as Seeing Eye Dogs?" This gives me a chance to beam brightly, dig into my purse and fish out a copy of the brochure on service animals, and the access granted to their handlers. 

    I hand it to him, saying, "Yes, they do. Here, you can have this. I have extras. It may help you in educating your staff about the many different types of service animals you might encounter. I can see you're already quite knowledgeable, but this may give you some more detailed information for your staff. They are so lucky to have you to help them, so they don't accidentally break the law and deny access to a legitimate team."

    This has just given the man some very vital information, as well as allowed him to save face. I acknowledged that he was in the position of authority to educate others, I gave him additional information to help him, and I didn't have to use a verbal defense to get the job done. But more importantly, by letting him save face, I got him excited about service animals and engaged his interest. Because he had a good experience with his first service dog encounter, he will probably be more welcoming to the next team entering his doors. 

    I quickly added, "And I want to thank you so much for not reaching down to pet my service dog, and distracting him from his work. This was so thoughtful of you, and I only wish others were as considerate as you are." The manager quickly smiled broadly, thanked me, pocketed the handout, and asked us where we would like to sit. "Anywhere is fine, fine!" he quips. 

    I ask for a nice corner booth, where I can get out of my chair and put the dog under the table. He guides us to the table, and I quickly toss down my dog's rug and cue him to lie down. The man is besotted. He can't take his eyes off the dog. "I've never seen such a well-mannered dog before," he states. Beaming, I suck up his remarks and thank him. He then leaves and brings back three cooks and five waitresses. Ass we are waiting for our order, he educates them about service dogs.

    He says, "See this little dog? He is just as smart and well trained as one of those seeing eye dogs and he can even do the laundry and make the beds! Now, whatever you do, don't distract him, and don't pet him. He's working and shouldn't be disturbed." Mr. Confrontation had just become an educator, and was in a position of authority and honor. We enjoyed a lovely dinner and left feeling we had made a new friend. I have no doubt that the next team to enter those doors will be treated like royalty. It only took two short minutes of operant responding to diffuse what could have been a stressful, defensive interaction.

    More Access Issues-Using Shaping

    Sometimes we cannot be quite so proactive and have to allow the person to first have their say. Not long ago I rolled into a fabric store with my service dog at my side. As I passed the fabric cutting table I heard the manager holler, "You can't have that dog in here!" I was shocked, but decided I'd use it as a chance to "shape" her behavior.

    I smiled and relaxed, instead of tightening up and stressing when the manager said, "That's not a Seeing Eye dog, and pets aren't allowed in here so you'll have to leave." I ignored her rudeness, turned to her, smiled brightly and said, "Oh, you're so right this isn't a guide dog! Could you imagine this little thing trying to guide someone? The person would have to be Barbie Doll sized to use a guide dog this small."

    I quickly add, "But let me tell you what this little trouper can do! No, let me show you. I toss down my keys, cue my dog to retrieve them, and then cue him silently to assume a "finish" position at my side, giving me attention while in a sit position. I add, "Ohhh, and that's just one little thing he does to help me. I'm so glad I get to be the person to show you how a service dog helps a person with a disability. You know, service dogs of all kinds have the very same access rights with their disabled owners as guide dogs have. They are so liberating for us, give us so much independence. Here, let me show you how he'll pick up your scissors and that hunk of material you just dropped. 

    "Fetch, Peek!" Peek fetches the items, and I direct him to give them to the lady. She takes them, and is beginning to lose the pinch-faced look. I continue: "Yes, it's a Godsend to have my service dog with me. I'm constantly dropping things, and he picks everything up. Sometimes when I transfer from my wheelchair, the chair rolls away, so he also brings it back for me. I don't know what I'd do without him."

    I let my eyeglasses slip from my fingers and clatter to the floor, while the manager watches Peek carefully pick them up by the nosepiece. I can see her attitude softening, and finally give her a chance to speak. She says, "Yes, I can see that's quite a well-trained dog, but honestly, we can only allow seeing eye dogs in here. That's the law!" 

    I counter with an agreement: "Yes, that used to be the law, that only dogs guiding blind owners were allowed access, you're quite right. But now federal and state laws allow people with all types of disabilities to use an assistance dog in public legally, just as guide dog users have enjoyed for so many years. Here, let me show you, so you'll be able to teach everyone in the store about service animals." 

    I whip out my service dog brochure and point out the federal laws and the many types of service dogs working in public. She is amazed and embarrassed. 

    I knew at this point that if I allowed her to save face, she'd be a great supporter and would most likely educate the other store members, making it easier for the next team who entered those doors. She could be a hero. I said, "I'm so glad you are so open to learning new things. I wish everyone were like you. These dogs are true lifesavers, and you can help us so much by educating others. I'll leave this information with you and if you have any questions, my card is there as well." I add, "Give me a holler and I'll even be glad to come here and give a demonstration and talk all about service dogs, so your staff will know what to do the next time you see one. And, I can help you know legally what you can and cannot ask by law, to save you from possible litigation."

    "Well," she quips, "Our division manager says only Seeing Eye dogs can come in, so maybe this would be a good thing for her to see. I'll see if I can set up a visit. You say you'll bring the dog and show the others what you showed me?" She never did call to set up a meeting, as I expect the brochure answered most of her questions, and gave her phone numbers where she could get confirmation on the information presented. However, I made a point of visiting the store the following week, waltzing in with a big smile and waving hello to the staff on duty. No one blinked about access, but each of them came up to tell me that "we always welcome service dogs here, but if there is anything we can do to help you, just ask."

     Children's In-Appropriate Behavior

    The public environment offers constantly changing criteria and there is no way we can prepare for every unexpected problem that comes our way. In public, children can be very difficult to deal with if we are still thinking in terms of punishing their inappropriate responses. We do not have the legal right to physically correct someone else's child, no matter how ill-behaved. 

    Whether one believes in corporal punishment or not really is a moot point. But this does not mean we have to put up a child’s inappropriate behavior, either. It only means we need use our intelligence and creativity to find proactive solutions to change the situation. Proactive, operant responding allows us to capture a child's interest and involve the child a structured, positive manner, always building on something that can be reinforced. It relieves us of having to correct or punish the child and instead allows the child to become part of the solution. 

    This is how I have chosen to counter the problem behaviors children exhibit around my service dog. I could be reactive, but what would this do other than put the child on the defensive, giving him just the fuel needed to become more belligerent or intractable? I find it far easier on my blood pressure, and on my conscience, if I find ways to build on some behavior the child is offering. We may only have one moment in time to help change that child's perceptions and responses in the future. I don’t want to miss that opportunity.

    When I encounter children who inappropriately try to interact with my dog, I find ways to bring them into the circle and find something I can build on. If a child is making noises, trying to distract my dog, I might take that an opportunity to turn them into my training assistant. I'll hear a rude noise, turn to the child and say, "Hi! You make some great noises. I could really use your help. I need an assistant dog trainer like you. Could you make those noises one more time for me? I need to teach my dog to ignore sounds like this, and you could really help me a lot here. I'll walk my dog by you and try to keep his attention on me, if you'll just make those same noises when we pass."

    In this way, I have given the child, like the store manager, the information that those noises are inappropriate, and that I have to train my dog to ignore them. But I've also given them this information in a way that allows them to come into the situation, and be part of the solution without punishing them. I give the child a "job" and this usually takes care of the problem. 

    It's a bit harder when the child is reacting with meanness or spite, but it's not impossible. When I see a child exhibiting these behaviors, I immediately assume that they have little outlet for their frustrations, and probably have little reinforcement in their lives, but lots of punishment. I may not be correct in my assumption, but it does give me a starting point, a goal: to find some way for that child to relieve the tension, to get out that negative energy and to refocus on something positively rewarding.

     One child, who was intent on kicking my dog, was given the job of kicking a wadded up piece of paper across the floor while I worked to keep my dog focused on ignoring that movement, which simulated a ball's movement. When I saw the child kick out at my dog, I quickly turned to him and said, "Oh, I see you have quite a strong kicking foot there. I'll bet you're great at football. Say, could you help me out for just a minute?" I'd have that child kicking paper wads all over the place, and with each kick, I'd say, "Yes, That's it! Kick it hard! Make it really go far! Great job!" Then, after the floor was littered with paper wads, I'd have the child sit on the floor, and I'd cue the dog to fetch those paper wads, and drop them in a paper bag the child was holding. Everyone came out a winner. 

    Unwanted Petting

    Inappropriate interactions of all types can be countered with operant responses. Unwanted petting is something all service dog teams will encounter at some point, when working in public. We may never want our dogs to be petted while they are working, or we may choose to allow some interaction with the public when we have given our dog permission to take their focus off us, and greet another human.

     One way to quickly deflect the hand that reaches out quickly to pet our dog is to use the universal "Halt!" signal of the up-stretched palm, to stop the advance. Then, we can smile and say, "One moment, my dog is working and must focus on me. If you'll give me a second, I'll tell him that he's temporarily "off duty" and can now make friends with you, okay?" 

     Or, if we choose never to allow petting, we can use the same hand signal to get the person to draw back and not pet. And then we can say, "I'm so sorry, I'd love to have you pet my dog if she was home, off duty. But when she's on duty, working for me, I can't allow her to be distracted from her work." Then you can give the person a service dog brochure that explains service dog etiquette. Even saying "no" can be done in a way that is not unpleasant to the other person, and educates them kindly.

    There is much in the operant ways we communicate with our dogs that we can use in difficult situations when children or adults are displaying inappropriate behaviors. We just need to put on our creative thinking caps and let the dance begin. We can choose to let a situation irritate us or we can choose to try to find a positive, non-confrontational solution that may have long-lasting positive results. I hope this article will help others explore the possibilities of using operant responses to change unwanted behavioral responses.

    Two books have been valuable in helping me counter problems that arise when using a service dog in public. "Don't Shoot the Dog," by gifted dolphin trainer Karen Pryor, outlines ways that operant conditioning, with a focus on positive reinforcement, can change behavior effectively and painlessly. Her book not only explains how to communicate with people to affect behavior changes, but also how to use the very same principles to work with animals of all species.
    Another book I recommend is Dale Carnegie’s classic "How to Win Friends and Influence People," written in 1937. Carnegie understood that to make our points in a non-threatening way, we could use some simple positive reinforcement techniques. The book outlines ways we can change people's responses without offending them or arousing resentment."

    Debi Davis, Service dog owner, trainer and handler

    Selected References:

    Pryor, Karen: Don’t Shoot the Dog

     Pryor, Karen: On Behavior

     Donaldson, Jean: The Culture Clash

     Sidman, Murray: Coercion and Its Fallout

     Parrino, John: From Panic to Power: The Positive Use of Stress

     Catania, A. Charles: Verbal Behavior 

     Skinner, B.F.: Walden TwoPhelps, Joseph: Conciliation Quarterly, publication of the MCC US Mennonite Conciliation Service, Vol.15, No.2: PO Box 500 Akron PA 17501-0500 USA

     Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies 336 Baker Ave., Concord, MA 01742 (978) 369-CCBS 

     Athabasca University Psychology Centre Positive Reinforcement Exercises)

     The Conflict Resolution Network, PO Box 1016 CHATSWOOD, NSW, 2057 AUSTRALIA +61 (0) 2 9419-8500.


    "Words give us a very efficient way to influence the behavior of others. We communicate items of information or convey our thoughts or ideas because others often act upon them; we express our feelings and emotions because others often then behave differently toward us."—Charles Catanaia in Verbal Behavior 

    If you have other proactive ideas or experiences you've had based on OC that you'd like to share, please do so in the comments below!