Archives for posts with tag: Carol Lea Benjamin

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.


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.



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.




Years ago, when I began dog training, Manhattan was full of trained dogs.  After all, you had to ride in an elevator with your dog and sometimes he wasn’t the only dog there.  You had to navigate streets full of people and other dogs.  You lived in an apartment where other dogs passed your door on their way home.  And you took your dog to the bank, the dry cleaner, the hardware store and to lunch at outdoor cafes.  So logic would have it that your dog needed really good manners, that he’d hardly ever misbehave.


Now I see people feeding their dogs.  Make a poop, have a treat.  Sit at the curb, here’s a cookie. Don’t jump up and try to steal food off the table at an outdoor cafe, here’s some other food instead.  But I don’t see trained dogs.  I see dogs looking at food pouches or pockets, not at the clues and emotions in their person’s face.  I see dogs who do not know how to work and I wonder, what happened to all those horrible, cruel trainers of yesteryear who turned out such happy, secure, well-behaved dogs, dogs who could be off leash in Central Park and come back when called, dogs who knew how to stitch together commands that made sense in context so that they weren’t just obeying, they were working.

Dog training, at its best, is a meeting of two minds.

Both photos from "Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep?"

Both photos from “Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep?”

Think about it – it is the meeting of two minds of two different species.  And it works.  It can be accomplished.   Start with your new puppy by walking around the house, asking your dog to follow you.  Use your voice to entice.  Use your body language.  Be inviting.  If your dog is older, a teen or an adult, add a leash and take the exercise out of doors.  From this gentle, good beginning, your dog learns to pay attention to you, to follow your lead, to watch your face and body language, to want to be with you, to be near you, for the pleasure of this relationship.  And take it from there.

Gadget-free dog training.  A meeting of two minds.  Where it’s at, folks.  Where it’s at.


bandh 050

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.

Drawing of Carol Lea with Flash from DO BORDER COLLIES DREAM OF SHEEP?

Drawing of Carol Lea with Flash from DO BORDER COLLIES DREAM OF SHEEP?

the flasher

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?



Sometimes you have one idea of how to spend your time and your dog has another.


man with book, dog with ball


What’s a person to do?  First, it’s really great to make note of what the dog wants to do, to understand and encourage his attempts to communicate with you.  But does this mean that you need to do whatever your dog wants to do whenever he makes his feelings known?  Certainly not.  Impossible.  Hardly ever.  OK, maybe sometimes.

It’s wonderful for your dog to know that sometimes when he requests a game, a biscuit, a walk, a snuggle you will drop everything and make his wish come true.  But it’s also important for him to know, as we all must, that at times a dog or a person needs to wait, that instant gratification, though appealing, is not a reasonable expectation 24/7.

Sure, sometimes put down the book and play a little ball with your best friend.  Sure, sometimes say Go lie down, or whatever, when you dog pesters you with his tennis ball for the one hundred and sixth time in a morning.  Communication is a beautiful thing and communication between species is a kind of miracle, but still, your dog should understand that while one hundred and five times is OK, one hundred and six might be pushing his luck.







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.


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.




Before: staying at home a lot because you never know when (pain, seizure, low blood sugar, panic attack, muscles freezing up and refusing to move, falling and other balance problems, PTSD, etc.) will strike.



After: going out into the larger world away from home, knowing help is right at your side, feeling confident and safe instead of isolated and afraid, being able to have a job or work more productively at home, being able to make plans with friends, have a life, be happy despite your disability.


We humans, sometimes a little slow on the uptake, are learning more and more ways that dogs can help us live better, happier, more productive lives, quietly and gracefully offering help when help is needed.  Best friends indeed.



housing dog away from home

La Paz


When training your dog, increase his ability to think, his confidence, your pride.  As he learns new commands, begin to string them together and see what happens.

Wait, Take it, Come, Out



As you admire your teaching ability and his learning, don’t forget that he knows things you don’t.  Be sure to observe him when he’s outside, when he’s meeting new people, when he’s interacting with other dogs.  Note what he does when you’re happy, when you’re feeling ill, when you plan to leave the house with him, or God forbid, without him.  Figure out what he thinks is funny so that you get it when he cracks a joke.  Take him seriously, too.  He’s so much smarter than you think!

Need more hints?  Here they are: