Here are some of the things my service dog, Sky, does for me:

She makes me laugh.

She keeps me warm at night.

She makes me feel safe.


She’s the reason I take a long walk every day.

She gives me something and someone to think about every single day that’s not me or  my troubles.

She teaches me new things all the time. She inspires me.


She helps me understand another species, how they think, how they move, what they care about.  And this helps me to understand species I don’t live with, to know better how to observe and think about other creatures with whom we share our world, to understand that, like Sky, they feel and they contemplate.

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She’s the best ice-breaker ever and so I get to talk to lots of interesting people.  But only when I feel like it.

She gets smiles pointed our way.  Lots of smiles.

She’s the best company ever and so despite having a disability, I don’t feel isolated or alone.  She helps me to feel connected and a part of things.

She notices things I wouldn’t notice without her.

She makes me feel loved, no matter what a mess I am at the moment.

She’s always happy to engage with me, to play, to learn, to just be quietly together.


And none of these things are what make her a legal service dog.  Not one.

According to the law, in order for a dog to be a legal service dog, her handler must have a disability and the dog must do something, on command, to help her person function, to enable her person to be as much as possible like everyone else.  A service dog must give you back (some of) what your disability has taken away.

Yes, she does that, too.

Yes, I am immensely grateful for all of it. Good dog, Sky.

Sky at Chelsea Piers

Sky at Chelsea Piers


What are you training him for? the tourist in the elevator going up to the High Line asks.  Or How long does it take to train a service dog?  A better question would be How do you teach a dog to alert seizures? because no one knows the answer so I wouldn’t be obliged to have a conversation when all I want is quiet and the company of my dog.

On the other hand, how do you train a dog to alert seizures? Of all the things service dogs can do, this one thing has to rank as one of the most valuable.  A seizure coming with no warning, as many do, means you can fall to the ground while crossing the street.  You can fall and break a bone.  You can fall and hit your head.  Or your poor face. It means you wouldn’t know to take your medication so you wouldn’t be able to minimize the seizure.  It means you’d wake up to strangers staring at you, if you woke up at all.

But a person without epilepsy cannot train a dog to react to or predict seizures.  How would they do that?  You could fake it for a human, but not for a dog.  The dog does not react to play acting.  He is reacts to an impending internal storm.  And a person with epilepsy cannot train the dog because if there is no warning and a seizure starts, the person is out of commission.

So how do you teach a dog to alert seizures?

You don’t.  The dog teaches himself.


It is by being with his human 24/7 that dogs learn to respond to medical conditions.  On their own, they figure out how to help with pain, indicate low blood sugar, get a stuck limb moving, calm anxiety, and yes, while it helps tremendously to say, Good dog, letting the dog know that this behavior is exactly what you want, that he is, if not already there, on the right track, you can’t always do that.  And in that case, the dog, on his own, will have to figure things out.  He will need to know what to do when he senses a seizure coming.  He will need to know how to behave while the seizure lasts. He will need to know how to help bring his person back.  And when he does that, he is more precious than rubies.

Remember that it is natural for a dog to understand the difference between sick and well – he comes from an animal who hunts to survive and no animal who hunts could survive without this knowledge. When you’re hungry, when there are young back at the cave to feed, you want the easiest catch, not the one who will fight back and might injure you.  You  want the lame, the old, the less fit.  And our domestic dogs still have this knowledge but luckily they use it to help us, not to have us for lunch.



Will any dog learn to alert seizures?  Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case.  And there’s the real difficulty. But chances are, given a very strong bond and the constant companionship of their person, a dog with a strong sense of nurturing would do the job. And given the alternative, it sure is worth a try.

Sometimes it seems as if the cheaters are flying all over the map with their fake service dogs and those of us with legitimate service dogs are being denied access.  Perhaps that’s because it’s easier to be a liar than it is to be disabled.  If your disability is exacerbated by stress, just the stress of travel alone can put you in a bad place, a dangerous place.  Too many what ifs.  Too many issues.  Too many things to manage, the leash, the rolling bag, the backpack, your passport, ticket and driver’s license.  And, then, the questions.

Here’s what I learned and it applies to flying with a service dog as well as access to commercial buildings, hospitals, restaurants, cabs, long distance trains, schools, the place where you work, your apartment etc. (Below: Sky looking out the plane window on our flight home from Alaska.)ALASKA 248

  1. Make sure people can see your dog is a service dog by using a vest (yes, anyone can buy them on line but that doesn’t mean real service dogs don’t wear them) with one patch – or, at most, one patch on each side.  Do not (can I repeat that? yes, I can) do not load the dog’s vest with information that no one will read and which will make it appear that the lady or gentleman (that would be you) doth protest too much.
  2. If the municipality where you live registers service dogs, do whatever they ask to register your dog.  This will give you a letter, a card (not the one you buy on line PLEASE) or, as in our case, a brass tag.
  3. Pay careful attention now.  THE LESS YOU SPEAK, THE BETTER.  If your disability exacerbates with stress, and whose doesn’t when you think about it, you do not want to argue with anyone ever.  When asked if your dog is a service dog, show your letter, card (only a real one) or tag without saying a word.  Want more “speak no evil,” as it were?  Good.  Get a letter from your doctor – not the kind you pay for from a doctor who has never seen you and says you need an emotional support dog, but a real letter from your real doctor. Keep a copy of the letter in a plastic bag in your dog’s vest and use when necessary in lieu of arguing.
  4. Goes without saying but when did that ever stop me!  Your dog’s manners and your manners as a service dog partner should be impeccable.  (Translation: better than perfect.) It’s not about your dog.  It’s about your disability and the help your canine partner offers you every hour of every day. Yes, the law gives you the right (the dog has no rights) to be places with your service dog where pet dogs can’t tread, but be grateful anyway.  Be polite.  Thank the flight attendant who made sure you were seated in bulkhead.  Thank the person who holds the door for you. Tell the lifeguard at the gym where you swim how grateful you are that he makes sure no one pets your dog while you are swimming.  Thank the cab driver who picks you up after five others speed by and if you can, thank him also with a little bigger tip (not necessary, but nice.)
  5. Okay, in the weird but true category.  You love your dog and just like everyone with a pet, you love to take pictures of your dog even though your dog is a working service dog. You even like to take pictures of your dog where other dogs are not allowed.  Fine.  This is America.  If the guard in the museum doesn’t mind, have your fun.  But…2468
  6. don’t take pictures where it might undermine the serious purpose of having your service dog with you in the eyes of others. I rarely if ever take pictures in restaurants.  I shoo my dog under the table or have her lie quietly next to my chair.  A restaurant is not a great place to make a fuss over your dog.  It, like other places you get to go, is a place where the dog should be unobtrusive.  The ability of your dog to be unobtrusive is, in fact, one of the ways he will appear to be what he is – a real service dog. (The guard at the Musee Picasso fell in love with Flash – see above – and even asked us to write down his breed.  The gallery where the sculpture was was nearly empty and so, with the guard looking on with stars in his eyes, we took a few fun pictures.)
  7. When you answer questions, be prepared for them to never end.  This I learned the hard way.  And, yes, I still do talk to some people about what my dog does, but it’s a judgment call.  When some people ask the first nosy question and you answer it – she helps me with a disability (the proper answer by law) – there’s a follow up, or three or eight.  What disability?  What does she do? How does she do that?  When it’s nosy/friendly, it’s up to you.  When it’s official, show your letter or tag, and if need be, your doctor’s note.
  8. KNOW THE LAW.  The law if your protection.  Read it.  Print it if you like.  Stay within it. Use the correct terminology. Tune-up your dog’s training from time to time. Take superb care of your “medical equipment,” a balanced life of work and play, of time to rest and lots of  love.

    Find the stick!

    Find the stick!

As some of you already know, someone asked not to pet my service dog because she was working replied, She doesn’t look very busy to me.  As many service dogs do with their partners, Sky watches me to see when I need her.  Even from several feet away, she can dowse for pain.  Because she watches me, particularly when we are out away from home, she’s there when I need her without my asking for help.  She’s there, sometimes, before I know I need her help.  One might say she’s thinking all the time. Thinking.  But she doesn’t look busy, at least not to the uneducated eye.


A seizure alert dog just looks like any other dog, like anyone’s pet dog, even a minute before he detects an oncoming seizure and offers a life-saving alert.  Distract him with chit chat or handling and he may miss the chance to give his person enough time to find a safe place and/or take medication.

The dog who alerts low blood sugar, who helps with balance, who monitors the human heart, who can stop an autistic child from running into the street, the dog who warns against allergens, the dog who helps a partner to get up out of a chair or up off the couch, these dogs may not look busy when, in fact, they are.  Because thinking doesn’t show the way, say, paving a driveway does, or herding sheep.

Makes me wonder if I look busy when I’m thinking about what I want to write. Because most of my thinking is done away from the desk, on a walk, sitting  in front of and ignoring the TV set or just watching the clouds roll by, my dog at my side.

Scan a girl and her dog

I know some people don’t understand that dogs think, and certainly not that they think of anything other than when their next meal is coming and when someone might throw a ball.  But if you aren’t busy, you might sometimes notice how thoughtful and intelligent our dear dog friends can be. Sometimes they reveal their intelligence by their response to a suggestion or the environment, to a crying baby or a lamb buried under the snow.  Other times, their thinking doesn’t show.  They’re doing it alright, but they just don’t look busy – unless you assess the situation and give it a little thought on your own.

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Many years ago, a then prominent veterinarian wrote in a book about dogs that since when a dog was tied to a tree, if he twisted the rope around the tree he could not figure out how to untwist it, dogs had no reasoning power.  Perhaps I should give the man credit – because statements like this were some of the reasons I began to write about dogs.

First, you cannot judge the intelligence of another species by the standards you would use to test members of your own species.  In order to assess the intelligence of a species, you have to understand what that species needs to do in order to survive.

Judging the IQ of dogs by their relative placement in AKC trials is also non-productive.  For one thing, it assumes that all breeds of dogs are alike and think alike.  Not so, and therefore simply using test scores only tells you which breeds are best at the arbitrary activities being tested in AKC trials.  And perhaps, which breeds have the tolerance for the sort of repetition it takes to teach perfect heeling, a feat which has nothing to do with the true, inner life of dogs.

Then there’s the towel test – or whatever it’s called.  Drop a towel over a dog’s head.  The faster, we are told, he gets it off, the smart the dog.  No way!  Drop a towel over a Shiba’s head and he will keep it there as long as possible because a Shiba will never, ever in a million years let you know that something you have done (or he has done by mistake) is annoying.  Drop a towel over a Golden Retriever’s head and he might well keep it there because you want it there.  Drop a towel on a laid back pit bull’s head and he’ll sigh, lie down and take a nap.

We created different breeds of dogs because there was work to be done and we humans needed a dog with a great nose, a desire to herd, a penchant for digging to get to rodents, long legs and good lungs for the chase etc.  Look at the dog’s body and begin to understand the way he views the world.  All the same?

As for real brilliance, as for the ability to reason, check out a service dog. For some, given the job of assessing the well-being of a partner also means making judgments about others in need.  Sometimes that means alerting others, even saving the lives of people who are not their partners, as well as assisting their partners in miraculous ways day in and day out.  What about the dog who saves his family from a fire or rouses the parents when a child is in trouble or leads a blind master out of a damaged building or finds a lamb buried under the snow? What about the dog who can open the refrigerator and get his own snack?

If you think a dog tied to a tree can be taking an intelligence test, you have a lot to learn about dogs, about what’s important to them, about the way the think and see the world, about their real skills, the kind they can exercise when not tied to a tree by a rope.  If you think dogs are dumb animals, you’ll never “see” the smart stuff they do, not even if it’s right in front of your face.

Seeing intelligence in another species means letting all our preconceived notions about that species float away.  It means looking at what’s there in front of us and asking ourselves why and how and what.  Why did that dog do that?  How did that dog know to do that?  What abilities does that dog have that I, as a human, do not have?

I am asked all the time how my service dog knows when I am in pain, how seizure alert dogs know when a seizure is coming, how some dogs who hunt run not after the game but toward where the game is going, how dogs know good people from bad ones.  I don’t know the answers, but if you tie me to a tree and the rope gets twisted up, I do know how to untwist it.


The thing is, I mean, like what has happened to our use of language?  OMG, it’s unreal, you know?  Like who writes properly now?  Do you wince at all the grammatical and spelling errors on Facebook, in texts, etc.?  No matter.  Let’s talk about language and dogs.

Like if you use a different command, or suggestion, when you want your dog to lie down, say, then no wonder he’s confused.  Addled.  Non-compliant.  Like, OMG, he has no idea what you mean.

Scan OY 2

You needed clarity of speech in order to communicate effectively with your dog.  You need to be precise.



Figure your dog wants to cooperate, but, hey, like if he doesn’t get it, how can he?  So don’t talk so much that he turns his floppy ears off.  And when you do talk, say exactly what you mean.  Say it clearly and simply and do not change the commands, or suggestions, if you prefer.  Sit means sit.  Down means down.  Sit down means nothing, unless you have a dog like Oliver.  I was learning to be a dog trainer and began to wonder which would mean more to a dog, a verbal signal or a hand signal.  So I put my dog on a sit stay, walked away, turned around and gave him the hand signal for down while telling him to come.  Oliver lay down, then got up and did a lovely, proper recall.  The thing is, not every dog is that cooperative, attentive or well-trained.  So especially in the beginning, give your dog a break.  Cut the chatter and up the clarity.  You’ll notice the difference and OMG, so will he.

As always, thanks for stopping by.



There’s so much talk lately about people claiming their pets are service dogs and while I know that lots of service dog users, including myself, have disabilities which are not apparent to the casual, or even the staring, observer, still it seems to me that many of the dogs I see who are in places where pets are not permitted are not service dogs at all. At least that’s what I discern from the behavior of the dogs and their humans.

So here are some new ways to tell if a service dog team is legitimate.

You ask to pet the (service) dog and the dog’s human either pretends not to hear you or, instead of speaking, blocks your reaching hand with her hand.

You speak to a companion about the (service) dog and handler in a loud voice that everyone within a mile can hear, assuming the person you are talking about cannot, for some reason, also hear you and that very person starts cursing under her breath about your rudeness and stupidity and wonders out loud where the hell you were brought up where no manners at all were taught.

You stare first at the dog, then at the handler’s eyes, then back at the dog, then back at the handler’s eyes and the person fails to thank you for the free eye check-up.

You very politely ask the person what her disability is and she refuses, simply refuses, to tell you the most painful and personal thing in her whole life, despite the fact that you are a total stranger and that it’s none of your fucking business.

You pet someone’s (service) dog while their attention is elsewhere and when they catch, excuse me, when they notice what you are doing, they appear to be very very very annoyed. Excuse me again but can you imagine how many times a day people want to pet this working dog?


And can you imagine what it does to a working dog to be distracted dozens and dozens of times a day?

So, in all of the above cases, the dog and human team have passed the “Is that a real service dog?” test with flying colors.

Now here’s a little story I may have told you before. I am at the gym where I swim, where my service dog waits for me at the foot of the pool, and I meet a lovely woman who does not ask me what my disability is and with whom I have a nice, normal conversation. And then she tells me that there’s another woman who comes to the gym with a service dog. I think I would have heard, but you never know, so I ask her what the dog looks like and she says, Just like yours. And then she says, But that woman is not friendly, the way you are.

So, not always, but usually, when Sky and I leave home to go out into the greater world beyond, we are, by and large, two bitches. And if you walked in my shoes (9 narrow) or her cape (small), you’d understand why. Or you could just think about the above. That would work, too. As always, thanks for listening.


The first time I flew with a service dog, my dog, Dexter, an 84 pound hunk the ASPCA had told me would be a 14 – 16 pound dog (which he was on the way to 84 pounds), took up the foot room of three people.  Dexter didn’t fold.  But the other two people were so delighted to have him there that one folded her coat into a pillow for him and the other kept her feet on the bulkhead wall from New York to California.


Walking from security to where I had to wait to board my plane was another story. I was yelled at several times.  Someone took my dog’s credentials and disappeared for a long time.  When he returned, he just shoved them at me, unhappy that he couldn’t “get that dog out of here,” as he had suggested.  So one thing has remained the same.  People love to see a well-trained service dog on a plane.  The other, getting screamed at in the airport, is now history.

Along with more understanding of how dogs can help humans with disabilities, something else has cropped up.  You can now buy “credentials” on line.  You can pay a doctor you have never seen to write a letter saying your dog is a service dog.  And some people, more and more people, are giving in to the temptation to cheat, to take their pets, often untrained pets, onto planes by claiming they are service dogs.

But buyer beware.  To my delight and surprise, leaving Italy a few days ago, all ten pages of my dog’s paperwork were carefully checked.  Airlines are becoming more scrupulous about the animals they allow on board, as they should be.  No one’s yelling nowadays, but they are checking.  And this is a good thing, because otherwise the cheaters will bring back the bad old days where overwhelmed with untrained fakes, screaming “Get that dog out of here” will once again be the status quo at airports.

When my Border collie, Sky, wants to play, I often send her to find a ball, and sometimes, I let her know where to look.  She understands under and on, as in “It’s under the bed,” or “It’s on your crate.”  These hints are old hat.  But the other day I had noticed that a colorful selection of balls had ended up under my desk and so when Sky came and gave me the look, dancing around, backing up, “C’mon.  Let’s play,” without giving it much thought, I told her to look under the desk.  She went straight there and a moment later plopped a ball onto my lap.  But here’s the hitch.  I’d never sent her to look under the desk and when she frisked the area, she’d never looked there.  In fact, when I am at the desk, I am working and when I am working, I don’t want to be bothered.  As a result, I had never used the word desk before.  The desk is mine, all mine.  It’s my woman cave.  It’s not a place where I interact with dogs.  It’s a place where I write about interacting with dogs or draw pictures of dogs interacting with each other, with humans or thinking about doing so.


So how did Sky do this?

Did she know what desk meant because it was not the bed or the crate or the bookcases I often name?  Did she know what desk meant because she heard me say things to my husband like “Leave it on my desk”?  Or did she pick up the picture I formed when saying, “Look under the desk,” the picture of a tennis ball, a squeaky ball and a high bouncer nestled in the far right corner of the knee hole?

Why is it that humans think we are the only thinkers around?  Why is it that we need to believe that animals can’t reason, that they have no feelings, that they have no moral code?  I know that this is changing now, at last, but it is changing very slowly.  For every parent that tells a small child, No, you can’t pet that lady’s dog.  That dog is working now, there are ten or twenty parents who shriek, DOGGY, when they see my working dog.  There are still so many people who think their dogs are dumb when the truth is that they, the humans, haven’t figured out how to communicate their thoughts and wishes with another species (or maybe even their own!)  Pets are still acquired without thought, left on their own all day, dumped in shelters when their humans are bored or disappointed with them. And on a more personal note, why is it that intelligent observation is ignored until, years later, SCIENCE comes up with the astonishing news that, say, dogs and humans get a rush of oxytocin when they gaze into each other’s eyes.  Like really, good people, unless you’re made of cement, you knew that all along.


Not so fast.  One of the most important phrases for humans to use.  When the doctor is writing a prescription or checking his calendar to see when he can do your surgery.  When the veterinarian wants to give your dog yearly vaccinations or neuter your puppy.  When you find an amazing “fact” on Facebook that changes everything.  When the newspaper or the TV reports an incident.  When there’s a new diet or face cream or exercise program that will keep you young.  When there’s a new breed of dog, a little of this plus a little of that.  When the pet shop tells you they don’t get their puppies from puppy mills.  I could go on and on, but who has the time!

It’s a pain in the ass to do your research, but do it.  Because sloppy thinking, not giving a shit, stupidity and plain old self interest are informing some of the things you are reading and being told and worse, not to mention greed.  Greed is big.

Not so fast.  Making sure things add up correctly can save the day, maybe even a life.




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