fist shaking lady

“You’re not supposed to ask!” the elderly woman yelled at me in the middle of the airline waiting area while we were waiting for our return flight to California from New York. She whirled around, wild-eyed and added over her shoulder, “But if you must know, she’s a service dog for the mentally ill.”

With that, she fled the area, dragging the pooch behind her. Her grey-haired travel partner was desperately looking for a hole into which to crawl.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “The dog is an emotional companion for people with mental illness. As you can see, my wife needs that.”

The dog was adorable, a Cockatoo and something mix. It was well behaved, did not bark, yap or jump up. If it did, I would have moved to another seat.

After years of working in organizations providing care for vulnerable children, I encountered scores of therapy dogs (and rabbits), carefully trained to deal with and respond gently to unruly and even unkind children. I know that many people volunteer to train the animals, which can take as much as two years to get them ready. In the meantime, the dogs are allowed to accompany their trainers in all public places as a part of their training.

I’ve learned from my colleagues and coaching clients who are visually impaired that when a dog’s vest reads “service dog,” they are exactly that: in service, i.e., working. The proper protocol is not to touch the dog or even approach it unless with specific permission from the owner/trainer.

Just before the she yelled at me, her dog had approached and started nuzzling my leg. I held out my hand on reflex, palm down, to scratch her ears. When I saw the “service dog” vest, I asked the woman, clearly without forethought, “What kind of service?”

That’s what provoked the agitated response in the dog’s owner.

I had incorrectly assumed (there you go again, Judy…) that the woman was training this animal, thus my question. I was deeply embarrassed for upsetting her and rattled by her response.

When she returned to the waiting area, she headed right for me, and I could feel my adrenaline kick in. I anticipated a confrontation, and I was feeling anxious. I had handled public outbursts by patients I had worked with and was expecting a scene or worse. As she approached, I noticed that she was dressed in nondescript travel clothes. Her hair was a stringy mop that had not been cut or combed in a while and her makeup was askew.

“I am so sorry that I was rude a while ago. Please accept my apology but…” she began.

I interrupted her. “It’s not a problem. In fact, I want to thank you for helping me learn an important lesson.”

Her eyes softened and got teary, but she said nothing more and took her seat across the aisle, eyes cast down. When I thought the woman was going to attack me either verbally or physically, I could have used an emotional support companion, dog or otherwise! Maybe she and I are not that different…

The woman and her emotional support companion stayed in my thoughts throughout the flight. How easy it is not to pay attention to the reasons behind an emotional outburst and to assume or react rather than realize what the situation needs. In my early years, this story would have had a much different ending. Time and experience have mellowed me out, however.

The experience had many lessons but the greatest may have been the reminder that none of us, leaders or otherwise, can fully prepare for everything. There will always be surprises and the unexpected. Sometimes we will overreact.

If we can get past the adrenaline and back to the brain being in charge, options become clearer. You can choose: to say nothing, to buy some time, to resist assumptions, to apologize, to walk away. Or even, just to say thank you.

How do you handle emotional outbursts? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below.