BREAKING NEWS

Vests for reactive dogs

Thanks to TACT and Clean Run, there is now a trend that suggests encouraging the public to mistake a reactive (fearful) dog for a service dog is a good idea. They sell an official looking vest and even an ID badge for the owner. Apparently, the objective is to get people to be nicer to reactive dogs and to leave them alone. I feel sorry for the dogs subjected to this ignorance. The unfortunate reality is that clearly identified service dogs face a lot of abuse and open hostility from the public and are more likely to be approached than are pet dogs. They're putting dogs with low stress tolerance into outfits to make them look like dogs with high stress jobs from a distance. It's like putting an agoraphobe in a policeman's uniform in the hopes people will leave them alone. The law abiding probably will, but to trouble makers and people with a grudge against cops, it's like a magnet.

The problem with unwanted human interactions seems to stem from one or more of the following:
1. An assumption that the dog is "safe" so they can do what they want and the dog won't react.
2. Anger directed at people with disabilities, oddly often related to handicapped parking.
3. Buckingham guard syndrome: they know the dog is trained to ignore distractions, so they decide to test him, doing whatever it takes to get a reaction out of the dog, including barking, growling, and lunging at the dog. Sometimes it's directed at the handler and they decide to test whether they're really blind by doing something objectionable to their dog to see if they can get a reaction from the handler, proving they can see.
4. Lack of instruction from a parent or guardian about approaching strange dogs, and this one is wearing an outfit, how attractive!
5. Animal rights nuts: not all people involved with animal welfare or animal rights groups are mentally unbalanced, but those who are will attempt to free a service dog from slavery because in addition to the fact that people shouldn't have pets, disabled people aren't fit to care for them anyway, and service dogs never get to be regular dogs so they are better off dead than in slavery. There have been some attempts to poison service dogs in order to free them from "slavery."

The problem with unwanted dog interactions seems to stem from one or more of the following:
1. A dog owner assumes the dog is friendly because it's a service dog and are convinced that their own rude and invasive dog is also friendly, so they should play whether you want it or not.
2. A dog in gear, be it a vest or a harness or other gear has a different profile than a regular dog. This can make some dogs suspicious. If you saw a person dressed up as an alien, would a voice in the back of your head suggest they might not be quite right? A dog in gear is more likely to be attacked by stray dogs than one without gear. In any given year, about one third of guide dogs experience a loose dog attack severe enough to report it.

Is this really a situation you want to put a reactive dog into? Service dogs are selected for their rock solid nerves and high thresholds, in effect, their innate ability to handle stress. This isn't done casually, but precisely because of the high stress circumstances under which these dogs need to work. A large cause of that stress comes from being recognized as different from other dogs, whether it is done by humans, or other animals.

Consider this ad from Clean Run that was later edited:

screen shot of an ad for a vest for reactive dogs

For those using screen readers, this is the objectionable text from the ad:
"...from a distance a TACT training team may have a resemblance
to a working dog/handler team. This will have the desired effect of
keeping the public at a safe distance."

On the left edge of the ad are some photos of a dog wearing a red vest with black trim and patches that say, "TRAINING STOP DO NOT DISTRACT" one on each side, and on the back, "TRAINING STOP DO NOT PET." The patches on the sides are more visible because you'd have to be looming over top of the dog to read the one on his back. There's also an image of a trainer's badge that looks like a fancy name tag with a clip for attaching it to your clothing. It is red with white lettering and reads, "IN TRAINING" on a black rectangle and below that on the red background "DO NOT DISTRACT." The print is large, but the badge appears to me to be about the size of a credit card, so large is relative.

The ad on the TACTdog.com site still includes the original wording.
screen shot of ad from tactdogs.com

Service dog handlers can attest to just how effective those "do not pet" patches are. People often read mine out loud to me, while petting my dog, followed by a chuckle and a comment, "oh, I guess I shouldn't be petting him then, huh?"

We aren't the only ones aware of this either. People actually using vests on reactive dogs are reporting problems as well, it's just that Clean Run and TACTdogs aren't being forthcoming with the negative consequences of their product:
"Believe it or not, even if your dog is wearing one of these vests, even if a person has asked you whether they can pet your dog and you say, “no, she’s afraid of people”, someone will try to pet your dog!"
http://companionanimalsolutions.com/blogs/protecting-your-dog-on-walks/ Note this page links to similar products for asking the public to leave a dog alone (including a body garment) and those products don't try to impersonate a service dog. The CAUTION leash is particularly easy to read at a distance due to large print and high contrast colors.

I contacted Clean Run, pointing out that it was grossly unfair to mislead the public into thinking a reactive dog was a service dog, even if the intention wasn't to use it for public access because it would damage the reputation of legitimate service dog teams if the dog behaved in a reactive manner. I also commented that it wasn't a good idea for the reactive dog either (as I explained above).

I was initially blown off, though they did eventually change the wording on the ad. When I tried to point out the fundamental problems with doing this to a reactive dog, I was told I didn't know what I was talking about and should purchase their 4 DVD set on TACT training. I suggested a reactive dog would be far better served in a Thundershirt or Anxiety Wrap with a patch that said in large letters, "I'M SCARED." I suggested it several times, but each time my suggestion was ignored in favor of the eventual suggestion from Ms Percival that I should worry instead about real service dogs behaving badly in public and other companies that sell vests, even if they don't openly encourage people with pets to make their dog look like a service dog like Clean Run did in the above referenced ad.

Note that the TACT vest sold on Clean Run actually costs more than twice what you have to pay for something similar on eBay or something that would be of actual benefit to the dog. Compare $99.95-$109.95 for the reactive dog vest to around $25 for a similar vest with no patches on eBay. Patches usually sell for around $5-$10 apiece. For the same approximately $40, you could have a Thundershirt, which is designed to apply a gentle constant pressure across the dog's body, like swaddling, with the effect of actually helping to calm the dog instead of just trying to make him look like something he's not. Add "I'M SCARED" patches and you come to maybe $60, which is still 40% less than the high priced fake SD outfit, and of far greater benefit to the dog. At least it would be of greater benefit working around people. Dogs wouldn't notice the difference.

It appears to me that the problem is one can't make as good a profit from a $10 patch as one can from a $100 vest if one can market it effectively.

If you are interested in implementing the patch idea for yourself, ______get link from Meesha______ will custom make patches like this for you at a nominal charge.

Being mistaken for a service dog is the LAST thing a reactive dog needs, but now consider the consequences to legitimate service dog teams with this kind of mistaken identity. People with disabilities who use service animals to perform the basic skills others take for granted every day face an uphill battle just getting access to goods and services and part of that battle is public ill-will toward service dogs. While, on average, most people don't seem to have an issue with it, there are some who are very vocal, even hostile toward service dogs and their owners. Unfortunately, thanks to fakers, public confidence in service dogs has eroded over the last decade. Maintaining a professional image has become of paramount importance to those with legitimate service dogs who would no longer be able to hold jobs, get groceries, keep doctor's appointments, or any of the myriad of things everyone does everyday if they lost the right to use their canine helper in public. If the public perception of service dogs drops too low, laws change to restrict their use. We've already seen it happen in regulatory law for both the Air Carrier Access Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. It could be restricted further, and will be, if the public image of service dogs continues to deteriorate.

What happens to the public image of service dogs if a reactive dog is mistaken for one? What happens if a dog perceived to be a service dog behaves in a reactive manner? Joe Average is not going to understand the difference between a reactive dog and an aggressive dog. They're just going to think "that's a scary service dog and I don't want something like that next to my kid on the bus." According to Monica Percival, "They also train with two leashes and a muzzle." How's that for public image: a service dog who has to wear a muzzle?

This idea of intentionally playing off of a resemblance to a working team in order to somehow make it better for a reactive dog is doubly misguided. It's bad for the reactive dog, and it is bad for people with disabilities who depend on their service dogs. Who really benefits? Only the manufacturers and vendors.