An open letter to dog owners who take their dogs to human social events.
I like dogs.
I even really love some dogs, like Quincy (with me in the picture). I enjoy watching videos of happy dogs, am pleased to see dogs being walked around town and parks, and even dogs when their humans take them to human-centric places like patios at bars.
BUT THERE’S SOMETHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PEOPLE WITH SENSORY PROCESSING CONDITIONS.
I have autism, and that presents a challenge for me and others like me when someone’s “good girl” or “good boy” invades our personal space. You wouldn't know from looking at me, or even spending time with me, that I'm autistic. I present very neurotypically most of the time.
Physical interactions I can’t control are extremely uncomfortable for me. So when I’m out on the patio, trying to relax with friends, and a dog — cute or not, well-behaved or not, not-going-to-bite-me or not — noses around my legs or feet or lap or wherever, it is very uncomfortable to me. Not “oh, I’m not a fan of wet kisses” uncomfortable, but “I’m trying very hard to not jump out of this chair and make a scene” uncomfortable.
Plus, it depletes the limited social energy I have (I love engaging with other people, but it takes emotional and mental effort), so generally what happens is I end up quiet and reserved for a long while.
It would be great if the doggies’ humans would pay a bit of attention to us. When those of us with sensory processing challenges don’t want to interact with a dog, it’s usually pretty obvious.
I draw my arms in, move to the other side of the chair, and don’t look at the dog. That should be a pretty clear sign that I’m not comfortable around your dog. Please take steps to keep them away from me.
“Why don’t you just say something?”
Again, I have autism.
I get anxious returning an item at Target, or going to a yard sale and leaving without buying anything. Please don’t put that onus of effort on me, because if I have to ask you to keep your dog away from me, my night is over.
I will be caught up in the cognitive processing of the physical stimuli from your dog, plus the analysis of whether I broke social expectations in the asking itself, and even whether I asked in the appropriate non-verbal ways that neuro-typical people expect. I have also been chided in the past for speaking up, asking why I don’t like dogs and being explained to that they were “just being friendly.” While that may not seem like a lot to you, for me it is. And it is usually the termination of my ability to socialize for that evening.
There are many other reasons why people might be uncomfortable around dogs: phobia, traumatic past experiences, and even cultural and historical contexts.
You wouldn’t let your child climb all over strangers. You can show the same consideration to those of us who are uncomfortable with your dog's affection.
PSAOn the spectrumdogs
Improv nerd, geek girl. She/her.
Theater owner, actor & improviser, writer, filmmaker, minor league humorist, and generally-opinionated scuttlebug.
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