Service dogs do have limits

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There has been a great uproar lately over photos taken by former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin that she posted of her Facebook page. The photos show Palin’s Downs Syndrome son, Trig, standing on his service dog, Jill Hadassah, in order to reach the sink. Palin added a bit of commentary to the photos about the lesson Trig taught her about, “turning every stumbling block turned into a stepping stone on the path forward… He, determined to help wash dishes with an oblivious mama not acknowledging his signs for ‘up!’, found me and a lazy dog blocking his way. He made his stepping stone.”
The photo has gone viral on the internet and has been criticized greatly by numerous individuals and by the organization PETA. On Ms. Palin’s Facebook page alone, it has been “liked” over 74,000 times, shared over 12,000 times and commented on nearly 27,000 times, by those both praising and attacking. Palin has since defended the photo.  In a statement to NBC news, she said, in part, “PETA needs to chill. At least Trig didn’t eat the dog … I grew up with dogs who were part of the family; a big part. I love dogs and am blessed to see our pets so happy and strong, living life so freely and vibrantly in Alaska’s majestic wide open spaces. Jill Hadassah was born and trained to help those with challenges most of us will never understand…I am in love with this four-legged family member! So is Trig …”
She concludes her statement with this, “P.S. Should Jill Hadassah have not enjoyed Trig’s playing with her, guess it would have reminded us another important lesson – sometimes life jumps up and bites you in the okole, but you don’t stop moving and baby you just Shake It Off.”
It’s this last attitude that bothers me the most. Without getting into the politics of the situation, I don’t believe that Ms. Palin was being cruel, disrespectful or knowingly unvigilent when this occurred. I do believe that in taking photos of it she lost a valuable teaching opportunity, and perhaps put her son in danger of being injured or bitten in the future, by Jill Hadassah or some other dog.
Children and dogs are a wonderful combination, and Service Dogs, especially those placed with children, are trained to be amazingly tolerant of the things children may do to them. The fact that a dog will accept mistreatment, however, does not mean that they should have to.
Dogs are sentient, living creatures with complex emotions of their own.  They also feel pain and discomfort. Trig is not a small child, he’s a six year old, and his weight is probably very near that of the dog he’s standing on.  While Jill Hadassah does not look stressed or even uncomfortable in the photos, this action could have injured her spine or shoulders, or bruised her.
Labrador Retrievers are quite stoic as a breed, and it can be quite difficult to determine if they are in pain. My own personal dogs have had injuries that are known to be very painful, but the only sign they give when being examined is a slight closing of the eye. As Trig was not, apparently, told not to stand on the dog, the odds of him repeating the behavior are high. The pain and/or discomfort to the dog can be expected to increase as the child grows.
Children need to be taught from an early age not to treat dogs in ways that can be painful or uncomfortable for them.  While many dogs will tolerate tail pulling, hair yanking and other such behaviors, they should not have to. We teach children not to hit, poke or punch other people, but we should be teaching them to have respect for all living things.
The danger is writing off such behavior as “cute” or “funny” is, of course, the fact that one day the dog might decide not to tolerate it, or that the child will repeat the behavior on a less agreeable dog.
Ms. Palin seems unconcerned that the dog could have bitten her son. The sad fact is that many dogs, pushed to their limits by a child, finally do bite. Most of these dogs practice bite control and either lunge and vocalize in an attempt to scare the child, or snap them so that they are hurt but uninjured. Other dogs bite too hard and their teeth penetrate the child’s skin. Even in cases where the dog issues a warning, the result for the dog is often euthanasia.
Children should be taught from an early age not to fear dogs, but to respect them and treat them properly. In this way, the child and the animal can build a bond that will last for years.
Karlene Turkington, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, is a lifelong animal lover who has been training dogs for over 20 years. Readers are welcome to send their questions to: info@TrainMyK-9.com. Information provided here is a basic overview of issues. Specific health or behavioral concerns should be discussed with your veterinarian or qualified animal trainer or behaviorist.

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