Every good dog needs an education, not just the teaching of basic commands, but enough of an understanding about the ways of the human world they share with us to make appropriate decisions when circumstances require them to do so.

As many dogs do not.

 

Will your dog learn not to cross the street when cars are coming?  Probably not, but she definitely can learn to wait at the corner or the curb or whatever you have to separate pedestrians from traffic.  Will your dog learn the command “Use your inside voice”?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  But she can discern the difference between letting her hair down at home, so to speak, and manners befitting an outdoor cafe, a trip to the hardware store, a walk through a street fair.  How will she learn these things?  With education that is not robotic.  With education that encourages, even requires her to think and make decisions and to do so mostly for the pleasure of getting it right.  And by allowing her to figure things out when she is ready to do so.

When I take a service dog in training, meaning in my case, a puppy, to a restaurant, I do not ask her to sit or lie down next to the chair I am sitting on or under the table.  I usually tell the pup, this is your space for now, and proceed to converse with both the waiter and my companion.  Of course I do not ignore the pup.  I always watch her out of the corner of my eye.  At first, the pup will stand there.  What?  What!  What…  And then the pup, observing that I am happy to be where I am, will relax and either sit, fine with me, or lie down, also fine with me.  If you are lucky enough to be training a pup when you have an older, trained dog, the pup will merely copy the older dog.  Oh, he’s relaxed.  I think I’ll lie down, too.  Either way, the pup has made a sensible decision, and aside from perhaps an ear scritch, needs nothing from you.  Why not give a treat, say?  Because the emphasis is on the rightness, the comfort, the calmness, the satisfaction, the safety of making a carefully thought out, appropriate, sensible decision.  And the beginning of making good decisions when you are not around to give you opinion or a reward.

Are you teaching your pup to heel?  Good for you.  When you say the command, eventually your dog will fall in at your side.  But the dog who has been allowed to make sensible decisions will also fall in at your side when you are walking in a crowd. And like a service dog who often will help other people when that’s an appropriate thing to do (yes, it is appropriate sometimes), your dog may begin to decide when there’s something she can do without being asked.  She may get close to you or someone else who is feeling bad or sad.  She may put herself between you and something causing you to be stressed.  She may even bring a toy or ball when you are the one who needs to play.  She may pull you into the park, but not into the street.  She may – but don’t count on it – make the sensible but heart wrenching decision not to steal the defrosting roast.  Yeah, well, maybe that’s more sensible than we can count on.  But still.

As always, thanks for stopping by.  It was the sensible thing to do!

 

 

 

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I have partnered with INSIDE THE BOX MEDIA to sell some of my favorite drawings, as well as brand new cartoons, as lovingly enlarged prints, hand signed and ready to be framed.  These can be purchased through insidetheboxmedia.com/store and look wonderful big.  Here is one from the first series.  Please go to the site to see the others.

 

As requested, I am putting up a few small, original pen and ink drawings for sale as well.  These drawings can be purchased directly from me.  They are $310 each, including postage.  If you are interested in one of the original drawings, please message me via Facebook and I will tell you where to send the check and reserve the drawing you have chosen.

A few weeks ago, sitting in the hot tub after my swim, the two other people soaking away aches and pains began a discussion about Sky, my service dog, who, as usual, was parked at the side of the hot tub inches from where I was sitting.

“Isn’t it natural,” one of them asked, “for dogs to want to go up to everyone and be petted?”  Translation: Not letting me pet your dog is cruel to her.

“And what if someone on the bus is allergic?” the gentleman asked, a smile on his face as he question my rights, always nasty, always with a smile on his face.

No, it is not natural for a working dog to want to be petted by everyone.  Working dogs often have no interest in other people at all when they are on the job.  Mine will make exceptions for people in wheelchairs.  Go figure.  And I sometimes, but not always, make exceptions for cute children by asking Sky to give (insert name here) a kiss.

And no, while most service dog partners (real ones) are as polite as possible when out in public with their well trained dogs, someone else’s allergy (God, do I have stories about this!) does not take away the rights of someone with a legitimate (do I repeat myself?) service dog.  In most cases, staying as far apart as the space allows will solve the problem.  I actually shared a Via car with a mother and her allergic daughter.  As they got into the cab and the little girl got excited seeing Sky, the mother merely said, “Don’t touch the doggy.  Remember your allergy.”  They sat in the “row” behind me.  Sky was on my lap.  No problem at all.  Most issues can work out but not if the assumption always is that the person with the dog has no rights at all.  We are not all cheaters and while you can’t always see what’s ailing someone with a service dog, the dog can and she can do something about it as well.

For several decades, Crohn’s disease made me a bleeder.  If you are so lucky, so lucky, that you don’t have any health problems and that you don’t know anyone with Crohn’s disease, and that you never had transfusions going into both arms at once because you nearly bled out, then let me just state this amazing fact.  Since Dexter, my first service dog, I have not had a bleed and have therefore not needed a transfusion.

So, nope, you cannot distract my dog because you are feeling needy.  I, in fact, am needier than you are and need her attention, her energy and her help.  And yes, I can travel on the bus, even if another passenger is allergic.  Somehow, we will work it out and both get where we need to go.

The world is big enough for people who need to be saved by the generous, unobtrusive, gorgeous work their dog partners do and the rest of the population, those who love dogs and would like to pet every dog they see, those who sometimes get congested when they are right next to a dog and those who respect the rights of disabled people even when it means keeping their hands and the story of their lives to themselves.

As always, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for stopping by.

 

 

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.

Dexter

 

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.

Scan a girl and her dog

 

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.