Archives for posts with tag: service dogs

What do you do when you meet a service dog?  Nothing.  Nada.  Not anything.  Don’t talk to her.  Don’t touch her.  And do not, I repeat, do not stand there staring at her.

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In addition, do not ask her partner what she has.  Do not ask what the dog does for her.  Do not stare at her eyes to see if she’s blind.  Do not talk about the person and the dog in their presence as if they weren’t there unless they can’t here you, in which case the dog’s cape will say HEARING DOG.  In fact, don’t do it anyway because even if that person can’t hear you, everyone else will and it’s just plain rude.

Do not whistle to the dog, snap your fingers, cluck your tongue.  Do not fall upon the dog as if she’s a sizzling steak and you haven’t eaten in years.  Do not yell at the person or act snarky if you are asked not to touch the dog.  If you really really love dogs so much that you can’t keep your hands off a working dog, go to the shelter and adopt a homeless dog in dire need of a loving home, and pet that dog.

Do not make people angry who have enough problems already, which is why they need a service dog, especially if they write a blog.

Do not, do not, do not presume to know why the person you see with a service dog needs a service dog.  Do not guess some wrong stupid reason why the person has a working dog.  Many legitimate service dogs do work you cannot discern for disabilities you cannot see.

And, finally, unless I need to keep on ranting, do not pretend your dog is a service dog so that you can have him in the plane with you because you stand a good chance of screwing things up for people who cannot get by without help from their legal service dogs.  And you will go straight to Hell in a hand basket, whatever that is.

Thanks for listening. Over and out.

 

 

A long time ago, when I was an apprentice dog trainer, teaching beginners and working in the advanced class with my own dog, I got nervous one evening when I it was time for me to call my dog to come and called out the wrong command.  My dog, a Golden Retriever named Oliver whom I subsequently named my business after, did what I meant, not what I said.  This made me wonder, and wondering about things dogs did was how I learned much of what I learned about dogs.  What if I gave a hand signal and a voice command and they didn’t match.  What would Oliver do?  So I did.  And he did both things.  Faced with something (a) he could perceive was incorrect or (b) had a double meaning, he improvised, making a confusing situation turn out well.

Service dogs improvise all the time.  Because they are taken to places where pet dogs are not allowed, they are faced with dog-unfriendly scenarios. There’s no place for them to be, the only way out is an escalator or moving sidewalk, there’s a slick floor, a trembling floor (on the plane), spilled popcorn within reach.  What’s a dog to do?  Improvise.  They also improvise when their partner is in trouble somehow in a way they’ve never seen or, even more amazing, when someone else is in trouble nearby and they elect to offer a fix.

My first service dog, Dexter, understood that sometimes I was in pain and that he could gracefully and quietly help out, which he did, carving out yet another way dogs could help their humans, by improvising.

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Pet dogs, too, like Oliver before he became a pro, will improvise.  They’ll tweak the rules of a game to make it more interesting.  They’ll crack jokes. They’ll offer help in a way they never have before.  If you pay attention, you’ll be surprised by how smart your dog is, how very, very smart, and by how much he can figure out about the world you share.

 

 

 

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If you have an invisible disability and want to learn about the help a service dog can give you, if you want to learn more about dogs, if you want to know what a great breeder does before you get to bring your puppy home, if you want to laugh – or cry, if you want to see some really really good photos of dogs, if you want to see some telling, funny drawings of dogs, if you want to read about how one dog taught a complex job to another dog, if you want to understand how your dog’s genetic predisposition to do a job informs his life, if you have an iPad or a Kindle or a Nook, for $6.99 you can read DO BORDER COLLIES DREAM OF SHEEP? and never look at dogs the same way again.

Yesterday, when Sky wanted to play, I sent her to find a toy.  When she had searched the room and came up empty, she spied something she thought I could throw for her to retrieve.  But when she got there, ready to fetch it and bring it to me, she saw it was a pair of socks I had dropped onto the floor.  (So, you’re perfect?)  She hesitated and came back to me empty-handed, as it were, deciding that it wasn’t appropriate to make the sock into a toy.  I told her she was a good girl and off we went together to find one of her toys.

Of course, because she’s a service dog, Sky makes decisions all the time.  Service dogs for invisible disabilities such as diabetes, epilepsy, coronary artery disease, fibromyalgia and Crohn’s disease, to name a few, often help on their own, figuring out first what the issue is and then subsequently when their help is needed.

But what about the pet dog?  Surely she shouldn’t make decisions when you say Come or Down, unless, of course, the decision she makes is to do what’s asked of her quickly and cheerfully.  After all, quick obedience to either of those commands could save her life.  But are there times a pet can make decisions?  Are there times when she should she do so?  And if so, how would you teach her to make good ones?

Every creature needs to use her mind and part of using one’s mind is making decisions.  So, yes, decision making can be a good thing and, moreover, it can help your dog to grow up.  A dog who can make appropriate decisions when it is appropriate for her to do so will be a more interesting companion, more reliable, smarter, possibly even more helpful, even is she is a pet.  After all, pet owners get colds, flus, the occasional headache and it’s lovely when a dog can decide that today is a day to lie quietly on the bed and be comforting, not a day to lob toys and my person.

The best way to teach a dog how to make sound, appropriate decisions is really, really simple.  It is easiest to start this with a young puppy.  Walk around your house with the pup, initially on leash, then off leash, and monitor the puppy’s behavior.  When the pup picks up a toy, softly say “Good dog.”  When the pup picks up a shoe – or a sock – softly say, “No,” and replace the shoe or sock with one of the puppy’s toys.  Don’t leave the pup with a blank slate – saying no but not telling the pup what will get her praise.  Teaching not that but this will help your dog view the world in a better way, teaching her that some things are yours and other things are hers, teaching her that making good decisions is a very good thing.  Be clever.  Be subtle.  Be persistent.  Take your little walks many times a day.  Take them until your puppy becomes trustworthy, knowing that some things are for chewing and others aren’t.    But don’t stop there.  Also praise your pup for exploring, for being friendly to other animals and to humans, for curiosity but not for theft, for playing with you gently, for waiting for her food bowl to be put down.  The list is long, but time with your puppy is precious and whatever you teach when she is young will pay you back one hundredfold.

Continue when you go outside.  Encourage your puppy’s appropriate choices and discourage bad choices, replacing a bad decision with a good one when that’s possible.  As your pup grows, and her confidence grows, if you put your mind to it, you will continue to see that she makes decisions all the time and you will be able to quietly, softly encourage the good ones and quietly softly replace the bad ones, helping her to become a thinking adult and a fine, appropriate companion.  Remember, praise should not interrupt what a pup is doing.  Think of it as something in the background.  On the other hand, your disapproval, because what the pup is doing is potentially dangerous or inappropriate in some other way, that should disrupt.  That should stop your dog and give you a chance to show her a better decision, something as she grows that she will become better and better able to do on her own. Don’t be afraid to say “No,” because it’s not a four letter word.  It’s merely a tool to teach your dog how to think.

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Today, at the dentist’s office, my teeth were cleaned by someone new.  At one point, when Sky got up and came over, the technician said, “She doesn’t want to be alone.”  I was sitting on the floor of the locker room with Sky on my lap and someone passing by said, “Oh, I knew you spoiled her.”  When Sky was on my lap on a plane, several people said, “Awwww.”  And when she is on the job, standing at my side or waiting for me to catch up, people will suggest she’s scared or shy, because “her tail is down.”  In each case, my service dog was working, doing the job that is her life’s work and her passion.  She comes over when she knows I am in pain or when my stress level shoots up.  She sits on my lap to help with pain.  And when she’s on the job, her tail is down.  She’s a Border Collie.  That’s what they do.

Though I would love to educate the public (people without service dogs), there’s no way I can explain to every person who comments what’s really happening.  For one thing, some of the comments are made when I am hurting.  Others are made on the fly.  By the end of the comment, the person is gone.  And some people, no matter how carefully you explain, are so full of knowledge that they just won’t get it.

There are so many times that we humans jump to conclusions.  Rather than waiting to see, rather than asking, rather than doing a bit of research, we grasp an answer and we think we know what’s going on.  Things are often much more complex than we like to think they are.  Easy is comfortable.  There.  I get it.  But sometimes we cannot bear the anxiety that can come with doubt.  Or we need to blame someone, fast.  Or we need to dismiss an incident by feeling we know the answers.  You know I am no longer talking about service dogs.  Or dogs of any kind.

But let’s go back to dogs.  Let’s go back to a different kind of service dogs, the ones who went to comfort the grieving, the ones who wagged their tails and pushed their big broad heads into hands, into laps.  And even in that case, when the comfort seems so obvious, so welcome, so touching, even in that case there is more than meets the eye, because those dogs were changing the body chemistry of the people they befriended.  They were doing more than offering unconditional affection.  They were showing each person they touched that they could and would feel better, that despite the horror, life would, somehow, go on.

 

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Even when far away from home, a dog needs as many of her usual routines as possible, a chance to retrieve, familiar food, sleeping in the bed with her partner, a little work, a little play, a lot of walking and exploring.  The more a dog is socialized, the more places a dog gets to go, the better that dog will do traveling away from home, away from what is familiar.  This is true for any dog, but all the more true for a service dog who, despite the fact that you are on vacation, has to keep her mind on her job.  I have never found this to be a problem.  Instead, I find that while away from the usual surroundings, service dogs are even more attentive, that their sense of responsibility is heightened.  This does not mean that service dogs don’t like to travel or that they don’t enjoy exploring new places, new smells, new sights.  Mine have all loved it, both the sense they seem to have that they need to be more alert than usual and the wonderful chance to smell and see new things.

When I went on book tour with my first service dog, Dexter, he was in awe of cactus.  Since it was new and strange, totally out of his experience and obviously not like any other plant he had ever seen, he kept alternating smelling the cacti and urinating on them, happy as a lark as he did so, pulling me along from one to the next.

The first time I took a dog on a boat was in San Francisco and Flash, my second service dog, loved being on the water.  I have found since then that all my dogs feel happy on a boat, even on the Zodiak whale tour we took in Nova Scotia.  Despite getting wet, Sky seemed content as the boat rose and fell with the waves, the water coming over the edge every time we splashed down.  Monk went so crazy on the swamp tour we took in New Orleans, he appeared to want to jump in and swim with the alligators.  We held tight!

When we travel, we change the dogs’ eating habits, offering the same food, as best we can, that they eat at home, but feeding only once a day instead of twice.  To make things easier for them, I switch to the once a day feeding, with just a snack in the morning, a week or so before we leave.  I take extra hikes with them, to get myself ready for all the walking done on vacation, and since we often go to wilder places than New York City, we usually take the dogs to the zoo a week before leaving so they get to see creatures they do not usually bump into in the city.  We do lots of extra brushing, often a bath and check with our veterinarian to see what sort of protection the dogs might need where we are going, heartworm pills for New Orleans, Frontline for Alaska.  I always give the dogs’ training a little tune-up before leaving.  While vacation often means hiking in a national park, it also means navigating a crowded airport, so tightening up their work is a good idea.

For me, apart from the fact that I need my dog with me, the pleasure of traveling is immensely increased by having my dog along.  Even when the change I experience is stressful, that crowded airport, for example, I feel safe and secure when I look down the leash and see Sky navigating to our gate or looking back at me to make sure I am okay.  Traveling with a service dog means more conversations with locals and other travelers, friendlier service in restaurants, nicer stays in hotels.

If you are lucky enough not to need a service dog, many of the pleasures of traveling with a dog are still open to you.  In France, you can take your dog with you when you go out to eat.  In many places, motels or hotels are dog friendly.  Walking around a city or hiking in the country, having a dog along and seeing the world through her eyes adds immeasurable pleasure to the joy of traveling.  And there’s always a field, a park, a plaza where you can toss a stick and show your dog that traveling is as much fun as staying home, only moreso.

Dexter was nearly a blank slate when he came home to live with me so many years ago.  Of course he had inherited traits from his parents, but because he was dumped at the side of a busy road, along with four litter mates, at three weeks of age, he didn’t have his mother with him to teach him the important lessons he needed to learn in order to live a good, happy and productive life.  And because he was at the ASPCA for the next three weeks, it’s unlikely anyone had the time to work with him, to carry him around, to roll a ball for him to pounce on, to give him a name.  While other dogs his age, luckier dogs, were getting enrichment, he wasn’t getting much.  But fortunately, he wasn’t alone.  He had his litter mates with him.  And unfortunately, someone had given the pups even more company.  Another litter was in the same cage, and they were all sick.

Once Dexter came home with me, initially as a foster dog because he was too young to adopt, and once we got rid of the infection he has picked up from the other puppies, two things happened.  First, my German Shepherd, Scarlet, decided that she must have given birth, because, lo and behold, there was a puppy in the house.  Scarlet began to take care of Dexter and to teach him the things his mother would have taught him, to pay attention to his elders, both human and canine, to play gently, to follow her wherever she went and, of course, to worship and adore her.  And second, I had Dexter in a safe area in my office and would stop writing whenever he woke up and work and play with him.  At first, he couldn’t track a ball rolled five inches.  But then he could.  And then if I rolled it under something or tossed it over something, Dexter would know how to find it.  He learned his name quickly and learned to follow me as I called Puppy, Puppy, Puppy and walked around the house.  He learned to sit before I put down his bowl and to lie down when I patted the floor.  He learned to listen to words.  He began to learn to think.

When we went out, I put him in my jacket and zipped it up so that only his face was showing and that way, with Dexter listening to the beat of my heart, we went everywhere.  He was too young to put down for the first couple of weeks, but at an arts and crafts fair, a nice lady put down a section of The Times for him – which he made good use of – and then took off her lovely bracelet and gave it to him to play with.  From the safety of my jacket, Dexter saw and heard the world.  And so when it was time for his tiny feet to hit the pavement, he was a city dog, raring to go.

The nice folks at the A, as it is called, said he was part Jack Russell or part Smooth Fox Terrier and that he’d grow up to be a 15 pound dog.  All my dog trainer friends agreed, 15 pounds, maybe 18 pounds.  He gained two pounds a week, growing bigger and stronger and smarter every day.  In the end, he weighed 84 pounds and though we were surprised, we loved every single one of them.

As he matured, I continued teaching him, new words, new games, some tricks, all the basics and then some.  But he has some tricks of his own up his sleeve.  Dexter knew when I was in pain, something that happened too frequently because I have Crohn’s disease, and he knew exactly what to do when that happened.  He would lie next to me, pressing tight against me, the furnace-like heat of those 84 pounds soothing the pain away and his presence helping me to release the good chemistry that chases away pain.  Eventually, Dexter became my service dog, the first ever for Crohn’s disease.

As I continued to teach Dexter new things, some for fun, some because we needed them for his job, he became more and more capable of learning, a far cry from the nearly blank little puppy I’d adopted.  Teaching a dog gently and slowly, adding activities, games, commands, words for everything, hand signals, whistle signals, anything interesting you can think of will expand his mind and make him a better companion and a more interesting friend.  And paying attention to what he knows on his own and to what he is doing, will do the same for you.  Beyond that, the message is clear.  If you rescue a dog, he will rescue you right back.  And amen to that.

 

You know you’ll use “sit” and “stay.”  How else will you take silly pictures of your dogs?  But what about “back up,” “walk up,” a recall while swimming?  What about teaching your dog to throw a rubber duck into the bathtub?  What about teaching your dog to shake her head and growl when you shake your head and growl?  OK.  No one needs that last one, though it’s gotten me a lot of laughs.  But what about the others?

Teaching your dog anything will make her a smarter dog, a faster learner, more fun to be with.  And then there’s another reason.  You never know.

I had gone to visit a neighbor whose cancer had come back.  I brought my then service dog, Flash, knowing he would comfort her, hoping I could give her a few happy minutes on a very, very sad day.  I suggested she get into bed and she did.  I never had to say another word.  Flash got into bed with her and pressed against her, turning his head back to kiss her again and again.  I sat quietly on the floor, thinking that in ten minutes, my neighbor, a very reserved woman, would get up, thank me and that would be that.  She got up an hour later and threw her arms around me.  “I’ve never been kissed by a dog before,” she told me, hugging me tight.  “I feel so much better.”

On my way out, I passed the open bathroom door where her parents were giving a bath to her nephew who was about two.  As I nodded to them, the little boy reached out for Flash and I noticed a rubber duck at the side of the tub.  So I sent Flash into the bathroom and told him to find the duck.  Which he did.  And then I told him to toss the duck into the tub.  Which he did.  In no time, the little boy was giggling and his grandparents were laughing, a moment’s respite from their sadness, a small miracle which happened because I teach commands just in case.

Another time, we were in a crowded restaurant with Flash and the only place he could fit was sort of a little slot between our table and a wall.  Had he gone in forward, he would have spent the meal staring at a wall.  I had taught “back up” simply because it was easy and fun and because it was a nice way to practice “walk up” or “come,” alternating sending the dog away and asking him to come close.  This time, “back up” did the trick.  Flash could lie next to the table and still see us and the bacon someone had dropped a few feet away!

The basic commands are taught for your sanity and your dog’s safety.  Beyond that, teaching is still a good idea because it makes the dog a richer, better companion and because, to repeat myself, you never know.  Yesterday, coming home from the eye doctor on the bus with Sky, I was asked twice how long it takes to train a service dog.  Like humans, dogs can and should be life long learners.  The larger a dog’s vocabulary, the more willing a dog is to pay attention and learn on the spot, the more flexible he becomes.  Education helps a dog to take things in stride, to entertain when that’s the perfect idea, to stay safe and even to crack more sophisticated jokes.  Dogs – a great thing.  Educated dogs – even better.

 

 

In the last couple of decades, I have rescued two dogs.  One was a tiny puppy, the other a nineteen month old.  Despite the age difference, both dogs knew they had been rescued.  My guess is that every rescued dog understands this.  And here’s the miracle, both dogs, on their own, became service dogs.

The little puppy. a pit bull mix we named Dexter, grew up and elected himself to be the first service dog on record for Crohn’s disease.  The rescued teen, a Border collie mix we named Monk, was adopted as a playmate for my service dog, Sky.  As soon as he came to live with us, he attached himself to my husband, Steve, and began to help him with the side effects of radiation for prostate cancer.

Each rescued dog became a service dog for someone who had never had one before, someone who had no thought a dog could help with their disability.  In each case, therefore, no specific tendencies or traits were sought and initially, no reinforcement was given, at least not consciously or intentionally.  Instead, each rescued dog saw a need and gracefully filled it, quietly doing some things we could understand and other things we, as mere humans, could not.

So I have to ask myself, is it only humans who are capable of feeling gratitude?  Or can dogs feel it, too?

 

 

Just home from five wonderful days in Nashville where, among other things, I went to the zoo with my grandchildren.  It was a hot day,  80 degrees and humid, and, like me, most of the animals were wilted, sleeping under a bush or out for the duration right on the grass.

We walked around, looking for animals that might be awake, animals that might be interesting to see.

But the elephants were barely moving.

We saw an alligator just lying around.  Well, that’s kind of what alligators do when they aren’t hungry.

And then we got to the tigers.  One was walking slowly toward where we stood, safely separated from his territory.  Then he turned and sauntered away, that is, until Barky McBark, my trusty service dog, spotted him – and barked.

Suddenly the tiger turned and ran toward where we were, stopping our hearts, thrilling us to pieces.  Barky wagged her tail.  Mission accomplished.

She’s a great service dog.  She’s attentive and there when needed.  She adjusts to flying, sleeping in a motel, schlepping around to places that are, by and large, boring to dogs.  She’s quiet in museums, restaurants, the movies, the doctor’s office, the post office and even in the office at home where I write.  But show her sleeping wolves (in Memphis) or a tiger dragging its feet, and she’s full of the devil – just one little bark to make things more interesting.

You know the old saying, yes?  Great is the enemy of good.  We’re not perfect and our dogs need not be either.  Sometimes accepting pretty darn good is a pretty darn good thing.  And it sure wakes up sleepy tigers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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