TSA: It's Not Just The Dogs

Last summer, the family traveled to the West coast for a two week, multi-state excursion. There were several flights and they each tossed challenges at us. Most memorable was the old tale of the violently ill 5-year-old vomiting on the seat, but instead of some poor person on our flight dealing with it, it was us. And instead of getting a cleaning bucket from the flight attendants, we instead got three useless, unabsorbing napkins and two literal nips of Smirnoff --- not for me and Brian to use as "coping juice" but to clean the seat and my kindergartner off with. When the attendant went to dose my child with bottom shelf vodka, I had to stop him by suggesting maybe, just maybe, it's a bad idea to have a sick kid reeking of vodka as we traverse through the airport to our next destination. I think he figured out eventually what I meant to say was, "I'd rather not my already ill kid wafting up the halls with liquor and puke because people will look, PLUS the smell of alcohol when sick likely produces...a sicker human."

But second to that less-than-pleasant connecting flight was the family behind us in the security line on our flight home from Seattle to Boston days later. They had several kids with them, all under the age of eight, including one who I gathered to be around two. As they approached the gated line, they noticed the working dog sniffing back and forth. As they stared terrified, eyes wide, the mom did her best to say, "Just keep going guys- you're doing a good job - the dog won't hurt you."

The kids stood frozen in terror, deciding how to navigate this now uncomfortable position of having to walk this one-way path past the dog and then past the dog on the loopback as the line continued in its all too familiar zig-zag pattern towards the "take off your shoes, belts, and dignity" line.

The thing that wasn't helpful? As the kids stood in frozen terror, the TSA agent started BOOMING "MOVE along, DO NOT STOP, keep GOING"

As this poor woman, holding a baby, was trying to tell her kids as calmly (through an audibly shakey voice) to keep moving, the dog won't hurt them - Captain Testosterone unhelpfully belted out, "MA'AM, if you STOP you will be pulled from the line and NOT ALLOWED TO CONTINUE TO YOUR DESTINATION. Move YOUR KIDS. Do NOT stop."

I mention this story because this week, the big story going around the Internetz in the canine world is that the TSA is looking to phase out pointy-eared dogs with their floppier eared cousins. Sure. Perhaps a beagle would have made the kids feel a bit more at ease but I'm here to say if you are a person, particularly a child who is terrified of dogs, the ear set and size will not make that fear go away, and screaming at a mom to move her kids only makes everyone more stressed out, more frozen more scared, and is decidedly not helpful to the situation at all.


Very little of this had anything to do with the floppy-eared or pricked-eared nature of this particularly well-behaved working German Shepherd. These kids were scared of dogs, period, and they were trapped. They had to walk by something terrifying and there was an unknown man in uniform yelling at them like they were in prison to just do as he said....er, yelled.

My daughter has an 8-year-old classmate who loves dogs, loves specifically how cute they are. But, whenever one passes us on the street, she stands in abject terror. She freezes. She stops breathing. Her eyes go wide. Another classmate brought their 8-week-old puppy to school pick up and while my daughter's friend really wanted to say hi to this 7-pound fluff-nugget, she was stopped by fear. She couldn't even bring herself to touch the sleeping puppy cradled in the owner's arms. She was legitimately struck by fear.

But here's the thing: She loves the idea of dogs. She adores puppies. Pictures of puppies are SOOOOOOOO CUUUUUUTE (in only the way an 8-year-old can say it, six octaves above what a normal human can vocally produce). When faced with one in her immediate presence? She's terrified.

So while the news is jumping on this story about "floppy eared dogs being less scary, pricked eared dogs being phased out", perhaps the thing to address in tandem with this phase-out could also be how to instruct TSA and police how to work with nervous kids or people who are legitimately terrified of dogs for any number of reasons (perhaps they were attacked; perhaps they have had no exposure to dogs; perhaps for some people - particularly in international airports, considering that culturally dogs are not valued as working animals or pets all over the world and are instead considered "dirty vermin" or "dangerous").

The other thing to perhaps help is to take the machismo out of the TSA line. I've seen several handlers who are praising their dogs and working with a nice loose leash, playing tug with the dog, and other great bonding experiences while the dog is working - and others - like this particular handler, leash jerking this working dog, which made the dog stand up more, posture more, widen his eyes more, turn in a more unnatural way - a jerkier way. This dog was working beautifully. There was no reason for him to be tugging on the choke chain (which you all know I have problems with anyway). He was adding fuel to the fire his partner who was yelling at everyone had set. Who knows? Maybe he was also more stressed by his partner at the head of the line yelling at people and he was unknowingly taking it out on his working dog.

So yes, while I can totally understand using flopped eared dogs as a tool, it's not the only one to focus on. And besides, I bet if there were dogs working in a more open environment instead of in a pen that looks like what we funnel cattle through before they go to slaughter, many people might feel a bit more at ease.

I've also seen some cases where enthusiasts of "pricked eared dogs" are getting upset. Just like with helping some dogs gain confidence around scary things we must find a foundational block as a stepping stone, this act of changing the overall look might be one we can consider for a short time. That doesn't indicate that pricked eared dogs are bad dogs while I can see the knee-jerk reactions happening within my very own circle of professional friends. "Get over it - teach your kids to be OK with all dogs" (I don't think that's helpful. There's more here than just teaching kids to be ok with giant dogs). My favorite argument is,  "It's breedist!" There are many dogs with pricked ears and while they might be thinking specifically of German Shepherds and Malinois, there are others, too. I saw a Schipperke at Logan a few years ago on my way to Wisconsin and while I laughed, he had pricked ears.

I think in general this could be a good step for a time while we sort out other, very real, very palpable, very alpha-male, very patriarchal problems in the way we are using dogs, and if there are ways to make more people more comfortable in a stressful situation, great.

But like most things canis familiaris we cannot just blame the dogs. While it's an easier fix to change the look of the dogs, the real fix, the harder fix, the one that is being overlooked in all the reporting is looking at how the humans are behaving.

As usual.

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