On a trip years ago, our group had a Native American guide for one day and, lucky me, I was seating right behind him as he drove.  Of course the subject of my service dog came up and of course, shortly afterwards, the idea of giving her a Native American name.  I’d always loved the ones I’d heard and found them more telling and expressive and colorful than the name I’d been given by my parents.  I’d always longed to have one myself,  But that aside, as I described my dog’s good and bad points, the perfect name was selected: Barks Too Much.

I’ve never met a perfect service dog, not one trained by a venerable institution, not one trained by a disabled partner, not one who saved my life every single day.  There is no such thing as perfect.  It’s something you reach for, but never reach. Dogs, like humans, have personalities, quirks, likes and dislikes, astonishing talents, insidious faults.  No matter what method is used to train a service dog, he or she may be very, very good, even amazingly good, but never perfect.  Because there are horses in Central Park. Or, in the case of an old friend’s guide dog, pizza on the coffee table.  Because temptations and irritations occur.  Because real life is surprising, messy, annoying, tempting and because, so to speak, we are all human.

What makes a great, imperfect service dog? Focus on her partner. The ability to learn to work, to learn the rules of your job, to bend and break those rules when that makes more sense than following them.  Yes.  That.  The ability to play away stress, because it is stressful to have a job that, in some cases, goes around the clock, that means you are alert to when you are needed even when you are sleeping.  Yes.  That.  The ability to tell your partner in no uncertain terms that he or she needs your help RIGHT NOW, even when that partner (only human, after all) does not know that that is so.  Flexibility.  The ability to disappear in public, in a restaurant, say.  The ability to walk very, very slowly in a museum, to lie quietly at your partner’s feet on a long plane ride, unless you are needed, to sometimes help another person, not your partner, when asked to do so or when you know you are needed and you know you are needed badly enough to discard the “rules” for the moment.  Yes.  That.

 

Barking at horses, the thud of a basketball being bounced, skateboards? Just proving that she’s only human and celebrating the wisdom of her name.

I had never even thought of teaching Flash, my second service dog, what to do in a museum.  At home, though he was with me most of the time, it never even occurred to me to take him to a museum.  I simply left him home those days.  But when traveling, there was no place to leave him.  Besides, when traveling, you don’t go to a museum and then go home – or back to the hotel.  You take a walk along the Seine, stop for tea, go to a museum, go out to lunch, window shop, walk in a park and then go back to the hotel to feed the dog and rest a bit before going out to dinner.

What would Flash do in The Picasso Museum, I wondered, our first time in Paris.  I was soon to find out.  Without me saying anything, he padded along next to me, stopping when I did, moving again when I was ready, from painting to painting.  Though there was nothing to interest him, he was interested anyway.  He was interested in me, and in doing his job, being attentive so he’d know when I needed him.

When we got to the gallery where the sculpture was, oh, my.  It took my breath away. And Flash took away the breath and heart of the guard.  The gallery was all but empty, the guard in love with my dog, so we were able to get some wonderful pictures, fun to look at now and remember it all.

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Now Sky travels with me.  She has climbed a smallish mountain in Newfoundland, hiked in the shadow of Denali, visited the Louvre.  Travel not only broadens the human, it makes a service dog more easy going, more flexible, faster to adjust to changes and yes, I think, even happier, especially when a trip means doing something she never gets to do at home in New York City!

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As for me, though it takes planning and work and a third of  my suitcase in order to have my dog with me, there’s an extra bonus besides the necessary care she takes of me.  She makes everything so easy, because anywhere my dog is feels like home.

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It’s not only that I never go anywhere with my (service) dog.  It’s not merely that we are joined at the hip

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It’s more that all my life, my view of the world has been through dog-colored glasses. When I was trying to learn how to walk, it was the family dog who walked at my side, bracing me when I tried to haul myself back up after a fall, running to get my mother if the fall made me cry.  When I wanted comfort, he was there.  My mother had been told that too much attention would spoil me.  But no one told that to Snowflake.  And so comfort became dog.  And so it stayed.

After school, I’d rush home to be with my dog, usually taking him to the beach with me when it was off season.  I grew up at the tip of Brooklyn, in a community called Sea Gate, and we lived two blocks from the sand and the ocean, and it was there that I spend hours and hours following my dog and watching him follow his nose.  When I was a teen-ager, I tried to get a volunteer job at The Seeing Eye and was told they didn’t hire women, not even for free!  I didn’t know how I’d continue to wrap myself around dogs if I couldn’t find work that included them.  So I  bought a puppy for $5 and  sneaked him onto the train I took when I left home for college.

I became a dog trainer by accident on purpose.  It’s what I always wanted to do – to train dogs and to write about them – and both happened in my early thirties and so finally, I had what I had dreamed of – a life where there were always dogs glued to my side.

When I wanted to understand the world, Snowflake was there.  Here’s what you do for a friend, he seemed to be saying, you walk close to their side and so you are there if they should fall, if they should need you.  And then later, another dog said, here’s what you do on the beach, you love the silence broken only by the sound of the waves and the call of the gulls and you find exciting things to wonder about – crabs! footprints in the sand! driftwood to retrieve!  Life is best when it is simple, the dog told me.

And so when I want to record a moment in time, why would I turn the camera on myself?  It is the dog who has my attention, my focus.  It is the dog who is myself, my selfie, my teacher.  Then, now, forever, it is the dog.

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Flash at The Musee Picasso in Paris.

Flash at The Musee Picasso in Paris.

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I was having a problem with my service dog, Sky, and it was causing me a lot of grief. Though she was working well, better than ever, in fact, away from home, she had begun pestering me at home, pawing for attention, interfering with what I was trying to do, behaving in a way that was bratty. Or so I thought.  She’s ten now.  Perhaps the work is too much for her, I began to think. I even began thinking about getting another dog, a pup I could train who would start easing into the job so that she could ease out of it.

I was sad.  I was disappointed.  I was grieving.

And then one day, on the way to the gym, seemingly out of the blue, I got it.  The “it” had happened before.  I remembered one time in the movies when Flash was “pestering” me and I was angry at him, wanting him to lie down, not wanting people to think I’d brought an untrained dog to the movies.  And then I “remembered.”  He’s my service dog.  If he’s “pestering” me, he’s trying to help, to get his head on my lap to help me release those good chemicals that lower pain.  And then I noticed (clever me) my posture, how I was crushed into myself with pain, but ignoring it, watching the damn movie.  Because if you have a chronic illness and you don’t get really good at ignoring the side effects, you will not be living a life.  You will be lying on the floor moaning and feeling sorry for yourself.  You will not be one of those brave/foolish humans who thinks, something wrong with me, you say.  Hah.  Not a chance.

So on the way to swim, a little slow on the uptake, but finally seeing the light, I realized that (a) I had fallen into a hole and (b) my good little girl was trying to help me climb out.  Without specifics about the nature of this particular hole I had fallen into, because I am not in the whining mood, I am in the how great dogs are mood, the moment I realized what was OMG wrong with my dog, the problem was solved. I no longer was thinking she was too old for her job or too poorly trained to be a service dog.  Instead, I saw the heroic nature that all good service dogs possess.  Stay calm and carry on.

Thanks for keeping an eye on me, Sky.  I’m only a dim witted human, but I finally got it.

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Sky doesn’t look her age, but she’s going to be ten next month.  I make sure she eats a super good diet, gets lots of rest and very important, gets exercise for both her body and her mind.

On the way to the gym where I swim and work out with my fabulous trainer to build powerful core muscles, Sky and I play.  She doesn’t mind – in fact, she adores – playing the same game every time we go.  While I would occasionally add a new twist to an old game, now I am adding new games to challenge her mind while she’s having fun. In doing so, of course, we are both learning.  Isn’t this always true when training and playing with dogs?  I get glimpses into the way she perceives things, into the way she thinks and remembers, and so I can adjust the teaching of each new game, breaking each step into the right amount of parts.  Sometimes we have to go back and go more slowly.  Other times she gets the game as a whole, all at once. She’s a very intuitive little dog and often seems to understand sentences, even sentences I wouldn’t think she would understand.  But she has always read intent, and perhaps that’s the secret.

Even in the gym, where Sky tends to be unobtrusive, we have developed some routines that give her pleasure, make her think and sometimes, give me a break.  When we leave the pool with Sky off leash, there’s a sort of bridge that leads back to the rest of the gym.  We rarely pass more than one other person and no one seems to mind that she’s free for the moment.  At the end of the bridge there’s a bench and once, when my back was sore, I asked her to hop up so that I could put the leash back on without bending.  Now that hop is added to the routine and of course Sky has generalized and will get up on whatever’s around when I need to leash her up.

At home, we find new twists for old games all the time.  I love to see how fast Sky learns and to see the sparkle in her eyes when she gets it.  How long did it take to train that dog? I am asked.  We’re still working on it, I say, and we always will.

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How it hurts my heart to say that.  Of course my dog is a pet.  She’s also an emotional support dog, a comedian, a genius, a companion, a teacher, a student, my best friend and a service dog.  Sometimes people say their dogs do things for them that are not included in the Federal Law that makes them a service dog, BUT that they also do things within that law.  The fact that your dog is a multi-tasker, a stand-up comic as well as a seizure alert dog or a diabetes detection dog, a companion for long, good for you walks as well as a dog who helps your balance or chases away your pain does not make your dog less of a service dog.  No indeed, that just makes your dog a better service dog.

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I once asked a blind friend if her dog stayed close when she had a bad cold or the flu. She told me, no, that her dog guided her.  That was her job and that’s what she did.  Perhaps that’s not true in every case.  Perhaps it’s because of the way guide dogs are bred selected and trained, with such strong emphasis on that one difficult task. But for those of us with invisible disabilities, those of us who raise and train our own service dogs, the program is broader and more varied.  By being with our dogs 24/7 ourselves, they, being dogs, will notice everything that’s amiss and try to fix it.

Drawing from DO BORDER COLLIES DREAM OF SHEEP?

Drawing from DO BORDER COLLIES DREAM OF SHEEP?

It’s difficult, particularly in the face of what has become rampant cheating, for the bus driver, the restaurant manager, the hotel clerk, the airline (what are they called now?) to know if your dog is really, actually a service dog.  Even my little brass tag from the NYC Dept. of Health isn’t convincing everyone any longer.  So I am forced to say those horrible words.  This is not a pet.

Forgive me Sky.  Now that even the scientists know, as we dog lovers have always known, that dogs understand not merely the tone of our words but the meaning as well, I am forced to apologize each time.  But dogs not only understand our tone and our meaning.  I shouldn’t have to worry because above all, they read our hearts.

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If my father were alive today, he’d be puzzled to see me with my cell phone.  All the years I was growing up, we had a black rotary phone, attached to the wall by a cord.  We never had to replace it with the latest, newest, coolest phone.  It lasted for decades, making and receiving phone calls.  It didn’t take messages or selfies.  It didn’t count steps when you walked.  It wasn’t also a flashlight.  It didn’t translate foreign languages.  And you couldn’t play Solitaire on it, even if you wanted to.

My father would not have been surprised to learn that I still love dogs, because I always did, and he wouldn’t have been surprised to see that a I always have my dog with me.  Though the ADA made that possible long after he died, I spent much of my childhood with my dog, following along behind him as he ran on the beach, watching him following trail the seabirds left in the sand, seeing him fishing around in the small lagoons the ocean formed where there were rocks.  Though no one of any importance thought dogs had any thoughts or feelings all those decades ago, it was clear to me that they, that all animals, did.

 

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I am not a fan of the sort of lists that say which dog is the most intelligent, because dogs were bred to be specialists and judging their smartness means knowing what they were bred to do and how that informs their thinking and their actions, even their personalities.  And I don’t like testing a dog or an ape or an anybody with a test that measures things of interest to another species, like, for instance, obedience trials.

Try this test on your dog.  Think of all the things you do before you leave the house.  Your dog’s list, of course, will be incredibly longer and in addition to your actions, he’s also reading your mind, picking up the pictures you form as you think.  But that’s a whole different blog.  Now do one of the things you do before leaving:  Put on your shoes (if you’re like me, you don’t wear them in the house) or put on sun block, or check to make sure you have your keys, or dog bags, or get your jacket out of the closet, or comb your hair (because who cares what it looks like at home) or shut off the air conditioning and open the windows.  So do one of those things and see how your dog reacts.  How smart is that!

My father was a scientist, but I know if he were here today, I know that if I told him the things I have learned about dogs, I know he would see the truth of what I told him and that he would not need to test my theories.  I know that he would not be surprised that I had wrapped my life around dogs and that I had shared what I knew in books and blogs and seminars and on the phone and in the street and anywhere I could.  And I think he’d be happy, because it would all make sense, better sense, at least, than, say, reading a book on a phone, or doing this with one…

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I lost my dad when I was nineteen. If only my dad were here to see all this, how great that would be.

 

Thank you to all the people who do not stare at me when I am in public.  Thank you for not trying to determine if I am blind, and since I am not, thank you also for not trying to figure out what the fuck is wrong with me that I need a service dog.

Thank you to all the people who hold the door open for me and Sky, even the ones who say, a little too loud, I am holding the door open for you, because they think I am blind.  I know you are trying to be kind and for that, I thank you.

Thank you for all the people who tell me how beautiful and attentive Sky is but don’t try to pet her and don’t have a conversation with her.

Thanks to all the mothers who tell their children they can’t pet the doggie because she’s a working doggie.  Well done!

Thanks to all the restaurants who welcome service dogs and their partners and seat them appropriately, where the dog can tuck in nicely and not trip the wait staff.

Thank you to all the waiter and waitresses who bring water for a dog on a hot day.

Thank you to all my providers, doctors, dentist, trainer, who understand that I need to have my dog with me even when they can’t see her doing a thing.  Sometimes help comes in at the eye.

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Thank you to all the bus drivers who don’t yell at me for getting on the bus with a service dog and thank you to those cab drivers who stop for me.  As for the drivers that speed away when they see my small, well-behaved service dog, can you say fuck you on the internet?  Yup, you can.

Thanks to my incredible shrink for understanding that all rules are left in the waiting room and that he can pet Sky all he wants to.  And thanks to Sky for understanding that sometimes rules have to be put aside for one reason or another. Intelligent working dogs have the mental flexibility to understand that, in certain circumstances, kindness counts for more than rules.

And thank you all for stopping by.

Years ago, we went to the farm where the sire and dam of the puppy who would be my first Border collie lived and got to photograph them working sheep for Dog Training in Ten Minutes, the book I was working on at the time.  First the sire was sent and moved the sheep around the field as instructed by whistle commands.  When I began to move to where I could get the shot I wanted, the breeder asked me what I was after and signaled the dog to move the sheep in such a way that I could get the shot from where I was.  I was very impressed.

At some point, the sheep got very close to the fence.  In fact, they were pressed up against the fence.  The male, commanded with the whistle to move them, hesitated for just a split second.  The breeder called him off and sent the female, heavy with pups which were due in a week or two.  She ran to the sheep and in a quick, sure move, poked her long nose between the first sheep and the fence, effectively and quickly sending the whole flock back into the field.  It was a graceful move, executed with confidence.  I was pleased to get the shot, a picture of my first Border collie working sheep in utero.

That pup, Flash, plied his trade in New York City,and wherever in the world he went with me, becoming my service dog.  My gamble was that, like the German Shepherd, the Border collie could take his inborn skills and apply them to tasks other than sheepherding.  Luckily for me, that was true and Flash became an outstanding worker, doing the work he was assigned rather than the work he was bred to do.

Flash at The Musee Picasso in Paris.

Flash at The Musee Picasso in Paris.

The other day, walking with my Border collie, Sky, on the totally crowded High Line, the elevated park made from the area where the trains brought produce into the city, I was reminded of the Flash’s mother, moving the sheep off the fence.  I was able, because of Sky’s skill, something passed down to her from her mother and her mother’s mother and all the working collies who came before her, to walk at a good speed despite the fact that the path was jammed with people. Sky took her pointy nose and moved ahead at full speed, inserting it between strolling tourists, the way Flash’s mom had inserted hers between the fence and the sheep. This neatly opened the way for her and for me, at the far end of the leash, to follow.  I always find it interesting to watch a dog work, whether she is using her skills to do the job her breed was designed for, or whether those same skills come in handy for doing something totally different, but equally as useful.

Sky and her sister, May, working sheep, with Denise Wall.

Sky and her sister, May, working sheep, with Denise Wall. And below, looking out the window of our Alaska Airlines flight home.

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Dear Peeps,

Just in case there are any among you who don’t understand why it’s distracting to TALK to a service dog, or just in case you know someone with a high, squeaky voice who likes to do this, or just in case you have a good place to share this post, here goes!

The guide dog leads.  If you watch his face, you can actually see him concentrating on the decisions he needs to make.  Do I lead my person where there’s a curb or where there’s a curb cut?  Do I walk near the building line or more toward the center of the street? Oops, watch that high branch.  Do I go forward when the car has slipped by the red light?  Etc etc

The hearing dog listens for sounds and alerts his person when the doorbell or the phone rings. He listens for honking horns and other signs of danger.  He lives in his ears, alert, waiting to work.

The mobility dog fetches items, opens doors, shuts off lights.  His mind is on the job.  He waits for commands, attentive to his person.

The dog who helps with an invisible disability watches, listens, senses.  He dowses constantly.  Is there pain? Is a seizure coming? Is the blood sugar low?  How’s his heart doing? Is my help needed?

When someone distracts a working service dog with handling or conversation, it interferes with the work the dog has been taught to do, checking the environment for safety, alerting to sounds, fetching a needed item, mitigating pain, alerting an oncoming seizure, etc etc.  A service dog does not need your love. (Ha! A surprise to many!!)  Do not ask a service dog’s name because when his handler says his name and when you repeat it, guess where his attention goes.  Do not get angry at anyone for not letting you pet a service dog.  Or converse with a service dog.  If you wouldn’t talk to the person if not for the presence of the dog, OK, here goes, just shut up.

Do not talk about a person with a service dog.  Unless the dog is a hearing dog, they can hear you talking about them.  Do not talk about them in a foreign language.  Because you never know. And even if they can’t understand your words, because they are in Swahili, they can still see where you are looking, or pointing if you are a total idiot.

What can you do? OMG, what can you do?

You can have a conversation about things other than what the person’s disability is and what the dog’s name is.  It’s lovely when two strangers meet and converse.

You can offer a seat on the bus.  I need to keep my dog on my lap on the bus so she won’t get stepped on and this is difficult to do when I am standing.

You can say, Beautiful dog, in passing, but not ask any questions. Because all dogs are beautiful!

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You can smile.  But not with a squeaky voice.

You can ignore the dog, please, ignore the dog, and do what you would do if the dog weren’t there.  Or you can make believe the dog is a cane or a wheelchair, if that’s easier for you. Because service dogs are considered to be medical equipment. Even though you kiss them a lot more often than you would kiss your cane.

Sometimes, especially if you are adorable and too young to understand what it means that a dog is working, just sometimes, the nice lady will let you pet her pretty dog in, say, the elevator of the Metropolitan Museum.  But in that case, even though you aren’t even two yet, please don’t scream at the top of your lungs when your daddy picks you up because though the doggie is staying on the elevator, it’s time for you to get off – because now the nice lady just can’t make an exception for the next cute little kid who is too young to understand that a dog who looks like any other dog, except for the cape and the intense look of concentration on her face, is, indeed, doing her job and should not be distracted.

OK, OK, but I bet you need to rant sometimes, too, and if you can get me to sit still, I’ll listen to yours.

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