Alas, I keep reading articles that tell me I shouldn’t hug my dog. I shouldn’t pet her on her head. I shouldn’t do this. I shouldn’t do that. Hasn’t anyone ever heard of body language? Don’t people look at anything other than their phones any more? A dog will tell you what’s OK and what isn’t. All you have to do is look.
Here’s a true story. When I went on book tour with Dexter, my first service dog, oh, you all know Dexter…
Well, I would take him off leash the moment we entered a bookstore, all 84 pounds of him. He’d go right for the audience. He’d sit in front of the first person and wait. If they smiled or reached out to pet his big head (his head, OMG), he’d put his front paws on the edge of their chair, one on one side of them, one of the other. He was big. He could do that. And he’d wait again. If they smiled or touched his warm, broad back, he’d lean forward. Step by step, waiting each time to see if his advances were welcomed, he’d get closer until he had his front legs resting on the person’s shoulders, his big cheek resting against their cheek. Me next, me next, people would cry. And he gave each and everyone a hug, making them all feel I was an excellent writer!
Can’t we do what my old rescue dog did? The occasional dog might not like a hand reaching over his head. Some dogs don’t like arms around them. But many, many do. Of course, like me, dogs don’t like the feeling of being trapped. They should always have an out, an option to end the hug. So, go step by step, until you know for sure what the dog wants. And if it’s a yes, sure, hug the dog, but with loose arms, gentle arms. Sure, massage the top of his head. But only after his body language and his eyes tell you he thinks it’s a good idea, too.
Sheesh, guys, if a dog can figure out how to do this, surely we should be able to figure it out, too.
We’ve always found it funny to imagine dogs thinking and acting like people, but now tests have been performed and at long last scientists are coming up with the same conclusions many of us had come up with long, long ago.
I recently wrote that when I am swimming, if I suddenly don’t feel right, all I have to do is make eye contact with my service dog, Sky, who is waiting at the end of the pool, and I feel better and can finish my laps. Now tests have shown that eye contact with your beloved dog causes a flood of oxytocin, the so-called love hormone, in both human and dog. Looking at your dog, petting your dog, snuggling with your dog, these normal activities cause not only a release of oxytocin but of serotonin and endorphins as well, lowering pain and making us feel just wonderful, and happily, making our dogs feel just wonderful, too.
Is it any wonder dogs chose to live with us, back when it was a choice, and that we continue to choose to live with them now?
The first time I looked at an Apple computer, I was so turned off I didn’t consider buying one. After all, I was a Serious Writer and when I had to delete something, I didn’t like the idea of dragging it to a little picture of a garbage can. So I struggled on with DOS and all the confusing things that came afterwards, putting up with all the insulting things my computer would flash onto its screen when I put in the wrong command. Being verbally abused by my computer just became part of my work day.
Now that I can ask Siri to make calls for me, I have been thinking about accommodation, how technology saves me from having to take off my sunglasses and put on my reading glasses when I need to make a call while out with Sky – and more appropriate for this blog, how we accommodate our dogs and make sure their needs are taken care of no matter their age or ours.
When our dogs are very young, they need frequent outings, gentle training, a smart introduction to the human vocabulary that will become one of the many connections they have with their mixed species families. They need to get used to the human world, to riding in vehicles, ignoring the vacuum cleaner, making peace with the cat. As they get older, they need enough exercise to keep their muscles strong and help them relax when there’s not much to do, but not so much that they are punched up to an impossible to deliver level. They need a human who can understand their signs and signals. They need stimulation, education, affection and time to just be. And as they age, and as we do, everything gets modified, but just as a good, long walk will help keep our immune systems humming, so it is with them. Together, at every age, we keep each other a bit healthier, a bit more sane, loads and loads happier. And those accommodations have been around a lot longer than Siri, even longer than the little trash can icon I use so often on the computer that never, ever verbally abuses me.
Years ago, when Mother Knows Best first came out, one of my clients was looking through the book and when she came to a photograph where there was much to get about dog behavior, about how to interpret what you see, about how to relate to your dog and understand the way they attempt to relate to us, in a picture that just happened and that I couldn’t get again in a million years, she said, “I have the same boots!”
Long before that, I understood the power of drawing, the way it can focus the eye on what’s important and eliminate what isn’t, like the trainer’s very chic suede boots. Long before that, I knew I could draw dogs to show what they were feeling, show it in a way far less subtile than their real faces, their real eyes, were apt to show it. And that sometimes, after seeing the cartoon, pet owners could see that their real dog was feeling sad, mad, glad, or even bewildered, just like the dog I drew.
More and more, I saw that I could shine a light on the behavior of both human and dog by leaving things out of the picture, the cluttered background, the suede boots, even the trainer’s other hand, the one that wasn’t giving the signal I wanted the reader to see. I could even leave out the trainer altogether, except for his or her voice, and still get the point across.
As important, I wasn’t one of those trainers who made people cry in class or made fun of them as they tried their best to learn what I was teaching – and good for them for wanting to learn something they didn’t know, something that would make sure they could live well and happily with whatever dog they had chosen, something that would make sure that dog would never ever end up in rescue. Instead, when I wanted to show them a mistake they were making, I could do it in a drawing. Yes, they’d get the point, but instead of feeling embarrassed and stupid, they’d be laughing when they got it, especially if the dog in the picture was mine and not theirs. Because what good does it do to pretend you don’t ever have a problem with your dog? All that does in alienate people. All that does is show them that you don’t know what it feels like to stand in their shoes. Better, I always thought, that they should know you’ve been there, where they are, and that whatever it is, it can be fixed.
There are other reasons why I draw. The drawings do more than make other people learn and smile, they do the same for me. Art (a term I am using very loosely here) changes the brain. A single drawing, painting or photograph can stick with you forever, shining light where before there was none, making you smile, helping you to relax and get on with it, even if the art is “just” a cartoon. In fact, I like the idea of pointing the way with drawing so much that I did a whole dog training book that way. Some of you already know it. If not, you can get a free sample via iBooks or Kindle, see if it’s your cup of tea, too. Meanwhile, it’s back to the drawing board for me! (Credit for that line entering our vocabulary goes to the cartoonist Peter Arno.) See you soon!
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.
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 hear 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.
Sometimes I find myself thinking that my previous service dogs did a better job than Sky is doing. They seemed more aware of when I was in pain and more willing to spend long periods of time pressed against me to chase the pain away. And then I realize, taking the same fox hole again and again as we humans tend to do, that the reason Sky seems less aware of when I am in pain is that, since she has become my service dog, I am hardly ever in pain.
Having a service dog can work like having a pain patch or those patches that help you to quit smoking or perhaps a morphine drip but one that leaves you alert and able to function well. The drip drip drip is the dog changing your body chemistry and keeping things humming as well as they can hum considering the fact that you have a chronic illness, whatever illness it may be. Whether the way I am now is a function of Sky’s magic, the magic all dogs have, or a function of the fact that like any other endeavor, we tend to improve with practice, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s both. But over the years, I noticed that the time it takes for the dog to chase away pain has gotten shorter and shorter. It could be akin to what happens during meditation or bio feedback. A kind of trust in the method develops and gradually, you no longer need all the steps to get where you are going. Gradually, you let the dog do what dogs do so well, cause a relaxation effect that allows our bodies to release their good chemistry, the stuff that diminishes the feeling of pain and increases the feeling of well being.
When I am swimming, Sky waits at the foot of the pool. If suddenly there’s pain, I just have to look at her and the pain goes away. Sometimes I don’t need to take the same fox hole again. Sometimes I understand how things work, that all the seeds planted by the service dogs who came before her have blossomed.
The dog who is willing to sit when asked to, alone or with a partner, is a dog who is ready and willing to learn. In fact, teaching the sit, or better still, the sit stay, is actually the fastest, easiest, best way to teach a dog how to learn. In the process, he comes to understand that he should look at you when you speak to him, that your words are a signal that he should do something, that he should perform a simple act and that each word has its own meaning, that it will always mean the same thing and that when he does the thing the word implies, you will be very happy. And since dogs can share emotions with us, he will be happy, too, especially when you express your pleasure by petting him and telling him what a good and brilliant dog he is.
Want to house train? Teach the sit first. Want to increase the wonderful bond between you and your dog? Teach the sit and use it when there’s something happy in store, dinner! a walk! a game! Oh boy. Want a dog who is comfortable gazing into your eyes, a dog who will learn the basics, the rules of a few games, the names of his favorite toys, the messages you send with your eyes? Sit’s the answer. It doesn’t matter where…
or with whom.
A simple sit can be deceiving. In fact, there’s nothing simple about it at all since it is the beginning of more connection and more understanding than nearly anything else you will say to your dog. Sit, Sky. Good girl!
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.
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.