Archives for posts with tag: service dogs

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.


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She was hand picked for the job because, in a well-bred litter of working Border collies, she appeared to be the most sympathetic.  Before she could see, she would scrabble across the rug to press against the breeder’s hand and when another puppy fell asleep alone and woke up cold, it was this puppy, then called the little dark tri, who left the warm pile of sleeping puppies and went to him, curling herself around him so that he could go back to sleep.

She learned quickly, copying Flash, my second service dog, doing the job before she knew why she was doing it.  She’s attentive, well-behaved in public (and sometimes even at home), patient and so wise it startles people, including me.  She figures out somehow, it looks like magic, that there are places she goes with me, places she knows where other dogs do not go, where she needs to be unobtrusive.  She knows how to navigate museums, airports, restaurants.  She knows how to disappear, but be there when needed.

Here are some of the questions I have been asked:

Doesn’t she get affection from anyone but you?

Does she ever get a vacation?  Does she ever get to go anywhere without you?

Why are you so mean to her? (Me, shocked: What do you mean?)  Why don’t you ever let me pet her?

And, of course, the infamous, What do you have and what does she do for you?

Pity the poor service dog, forced to be with her partner all the time.  Does she dream of being left at home along all day, like a normal dog?  Pity the poor service dog.  She’s not allowed to be distracted by people who just won’t let her do her job.  Pity my poor Sky, forced to travel with me rather than by herself.

Most service dogs, dogs blessed with work they and their partners value, get lots of time at home to play, to rest, to loll around and be given treats, to be brushed and groomed and fussed over, to play with other dogs (ours has one of her own!),   Most service dog partners know how to exercise their dogs – or get help from people who can, how to play games, even if they play from bed or a wheelchair, how to talk silly, be quiet, give a working dog a balanced, satisfying, wonderful life.  Most service dogs work hard, yet they are treated like royalty because that is exactly what they deserve.


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?



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.

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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.



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.






If you have an invisible disability and want to learn about the help a service dog can give you, if you want to learn more about dogs, if you want to know what a great breeder does before you get to bring your puppy home, if you want to laugh – or cry, if you want to see some really really good photos of dogs, if you want to see some telling, funny drawings of dogs, if you want to read about how one dog taught a complex job to another dog, if you want to understand how your dog’s genetic predisposition to do a job informs his life, if you have an iPad or a Kindle or a Nook, for $6.99 you can read DO BORDER COLLIES DREAM OF SHEEP? and never look at dogs the same way again.

Yesterday, when Sky wanted to play, I sent her to find a toy.  When she had searched the room and came up empty, she spied something she thought I could throw for her to retrieve.  But when she got there, ready to fetch it and bring it to me, she saw it was a pair of socks I had dropped onto the floor.  (So, you’re perfect?)  She hesitated and came back to me empty-handed, as it were, deciding that it wasn’t appropriate to make the sock into a toy.  I told her she was a good girl and off we went together to find one of her toys.

Of course, because she’s a service dog, Sky makes decisions all the time.  Service dogs for invisible disabilities such as diabetes, epilepsy, coronary artery disease, fibromyalgia and Crohn’s disease, to name a few, often help on their own, figuring out first what the issue is and then subsequently when their help is needed.

But what about the pet dog?  Surely she shouldn’t make decisions when you say Come or Down, unless, of course, the decision she makes is to do what’s asked of her quickly and cheerfully.  After all, quick obedience to either of those commands could save her life.  But are there times a pet can make decisions?  Are there times when she should she do so?  And if so, how would you teach her to make good ones?

Every creature needs to use her mind and part of using one’s mind is making decisions.  So, yes, decision making can be a good thing and, moreover, it can help your dog to grow up.  A dog who can make appropriate decisions when it is appropriate for her to do so will be a more interesting companion, more reliable, smarter, possibly even more helpful, even is she is a pet.  After all, pet owners get colds, flus, the occasional headache and it’s lovely when a dog can decide that today is a day to lie quietly on the bed and be comforting, not a day to lob toys and my person.

The best way to teach a dog how to make sound, appropriate decisions is really, really simple.  It is easiest to start this with a young puppy.  Walk around your house with the pup, initially on leash, then off leash, and monitor the puppy’s behavior.  When the pup picks up a toy, softly say “Good dog.”  When the pup picks up a shoe – or a sock – softly say, “No,” and replace the shoe or sock with one of the puppy’s toys.  Don’t leave the pup with a blank slate – saying no but not telling the pup what will get her praise.  Teaching not that but this will help your dog view the world in a better way, teaching her that some things are yours and other things are hers, teaching her that making good decisions is a very good thing.  Be clever.  Be subtle.  Be persistent.  Take your little walks many times a day.  Take them until your puppy becomes trustworthy, knowing that some things are for chewing and others aren’t.    But don’t stop there.  Also praise your pup for exploring, for being friendly to other animals and to humans, for curiosity but not for theft, for playing with you gently, for waiting for her food bowl to be put down.  The list is long, but time with your puppy is precious and whatever you teach when she is young will pay you back one hundredfold.

Continue when you go outside.  Encourage your puppy’s appropriate choices and discourage bad choices, replacing a bad decision with a good one when that’s possible.  As your pup grows, and her confidence grows, if you put your mind to it, you will continue to see that she makes decisions all the time and you will be able to quietly, softly encourage the good ones and quietly softly replace the bad ones, helping her to become a thinking adult and a fine, appropriate companion.  Remember, praise should not interrupt what a pup is doing.  Think of it as something in the background.  On the other hand, your disapproval, because what the pup is doing is potentially dangerous or inappropriate in some other way, that should disrupt.  That should stop your dog and give you a chance to show her a better decision, something as she grows that she will become better and better able to do on her own. Don’t be afraid to say “No,” because it’s not a four letter word.  It’s merely a tool to teach your dog how to think.







Today, at the dentist’s office, my teeth were cleaned by someone new.  At one point, when Sky got up and came over, the technician said, “She doesn’t want to be alone.”  I was sitting on the floor of the locker room with Sky on my lap and someone passing by said, “Oh, I knew you spoiled her.”  When Sky was on my lap on a plane, several people said, “Awwww.”  And when she is on the job, standing at my side or waiting for me to catch up, people will suggest she’s scared or shy, because “her tail is down.”  In each case, my service dog was working, doing the job that is her life’s work and her passion.  She comes over when she knows I am in pain or when my stress level shoots up.  She sits on my lap to help with pain.  And when she’s on the job, her tail is down.  She’s a Border Collie.  That’s what they do.

Though I would love to educate the public (people without service dogs), there’s no way I can explain to every person who comments what’s really happening.  For one thing, some of the comments are made when I am hurting.  Others are made on the fly.  By the end of the comment, the person is gone.  And some people, no matter how carefully you explain, are so full of knowledge that they just won’t get it.

There are so many times that we humans jump to conclusions.  Rather than waiting to see, rather than asking, rather than doing a bit of research, we grasp an answer and we think we know what’s going on.  Things are often much more complex than we like to think they are.  Easy is comfortable.  There.  I get it.  But sometimes we cannot bear the anxiety that can come with doubt.  Or we need to blame someone, fast.  Or we need to dismiss an incident by feeling we know the answers.  You know I am no longer talking about service dogs.  Or dogs of any kind.

But let’s go back to dogs.  Let’s go back to a different kind of service dogs, the ones who went to comfort the grieving, the ones who wagged their tails and pushed their big broad heads into hands, into laps.  And even in that case, when the comfort seems so obvious, so welcome, so touching, even in that case there is more than meets the eye, because those dogs were changing the body chemistry of the people they befriended.  They were doing more than offering unconditional affection.  They were showing each person they touched that they could and would feel better, that despite the horror, life would, somehow, go on.




Even when far away from home, a dog needs as many of her usual routines as possible, a chance to retrieve, familiar food, sleeping in the bed with her partner, a little work, a little play, a lot of walking and exploring.  The more a dog is socialized, the more places a dog gets to go, the better that dog will do traveling away from home, away from what is familiar.  This is true for any dog, but all the more true for a service dog who, despite the fact that you are on vacation, has to keep her mind on her job.  I have never found this to be a problem.  Instead, I find that while away from the usual surroundings, service dogs are even more attentive, that their sense of responsibility is heightened.  This does not mean that service dogs don’t like to travel or that they don’t enjoy exploring new places, new smells, new sights.  Mine have all loved it, both the sense they seem to have that they need to be more alert than usual and the wonderful chance to smell and see new things.

When I went on book tour with my first service dog, Dexter, he was in awe of cactus.  Since it was new and strange, totally out of his experience and obviously not like any other plant he had ever seen, he kept alternating smelling the cacti and urinating on them, happy as a lark as he did so, pulling me along from one to the next.

The first time I took a dog on a boat was in San Francisco and Flash, my second service dog, loved being on the water.  I have found since then that all my dogs feel happy on a boat, even on the Zodiak whale tour we took in Nova Scotia.  Despite getting wet, Sky seemed content as the boat rose and fell with the waves, the water coming over the edge every time we splashed down.  Monk went so crazy on the swamp tour we took in New Orleans, he appeared to want to jump in and swim with the alligators.  We held tight!

When we travel, we change the dogs’ eating habits, offering the same food, as best we can, that they eat at home, but feeding only once a day instead of twice.  To make things easier for them, I switch to the once a day feeding, with just a snack in the morning, a week or so before we leave.  I take extra hikes with them, to get myself ready for all the walking done on vacation, and since we often go to wilder places than New York City, we usually take the dogs to the zoo a week before leaving so they get to see creatures they do not usually bump into in the city.  We do lots of extra brushing, often a bath and check with our veterinarian to see what sort of protection the dogs might need where we are going, heartworm pills for New Orleans, Frontline for Alaska.  I always give the dogs’ training a little tune-up before leaving.  While vacation often means hiking in a national park, it also means navigating a crowded airport, so tightening up their work is a good idea.

For me, apart from the fact that I need my dog with me, the pleasure of traveling is immensely increased by having my dog along.  Even when the change I experience is stressful, that crowded airport, for example, I feel safe and secure when I look down the leash and see Sky navigating to our gate or looking back at me to make sure I am okay.  Traveling with a service dog means more conversations with locals and other travelers, friendlier service in restaurants, nicer stays in hotels.

If you are lucky enough not to need a service dog, many of the pleasures of traveling with a dog are still open to you.  In France, you can take your dog with you when you go out to eat.  In many places, motels or hotels are dog friendly.  Walking around a city or hiking in the country, having a dog along and seeing the world through her eyes adds immeasurable pleasure to the joy of traveling.  And there’s always a field, a park, a plaza where you can toss a stick and show your dog that traveling is as much fun as staying home, only moreso.

Dexter was nearly a blank slate when he came home to live with me so many years ago.  Of course he had inherited traits from his parents, but because he was dumped at the side of a busy road, along with four litter mates, at three weeks of age, he didn’t have his mother with him to teach him the important lessons he needed to learn in order to live a good, happy and productive life.  And because he was at the ASPCA for the next three weeks, it’s unlikely anyone had the time to work with him, to carry him around, to roll a ball for him to pounce on, to give him a name.  While other dogs his age, luckier dogs, were getting enrichment, he wasn’t getting much.  But fortunately, he wasn’t alone.  He had his litter mates with him.  And unfortunately, someone had given the pups even more company.  Another litter was in the same cage, and they were all sick.

Once Dexter came home with me, initially as a foster dog because he was too young to adopt, and once we got rid of the infection he has picked up from the other puppies, two things happened.  First, my German Shepherd, Scarlet, decided that she must have given birth, because, lo and behold, there was a puppy in the house.  Scarlet began to take care of Dexter and to teach him the things his mother would have taught him, to pay attention to his elders, both human and canine, to play gently, to follow her wherever she went and, of course, to worship and adore her.  And second, I had Dexter in a safe area in my office and would stop writing whenever he woke up and work and play with him.  At first, he couldn’t track a ball rolled five inches.  But then he could.  And then if I rolled it under something or tossed it over something, Dexter would know how to find it.  He learned his name quickly and learned to follow me as I called Puppy, Puppy, Puppy and walked around the house.  He learned to sit before I put down his bowl and to lie down when I patted the floor.  He learned to listen to words.  He began to learn to think.

When we went out, I put him in my jacket and zipped it up so that only his face was showing and that way, with Dexter listening to the beat of my heart, we went everywhere.  He was too young to put down for the first couple of weeks, but at an arts and crafts fair, a nice lady put down a section of The Times for him – which he made good use of – and then took off her lovely bracelet and gave it to him to play with.  From the safety of my jacket, Dexter saw and heard the world.  And so when it was time for his tiny feet to hit the pavement, he was a city dog, raring to go.

The nice folks at the A, as it is called, said he was part Jack Russell or part Smooth Fox Terrier and that he’d grow up to be a 15 pound dog.  All my dog trainer friends agreed, 15 pounds, maybe 18 pounds.  He gained two pounds a week, growing bigger and stronger and smarter every day.  In the end, he weighed 84 pounds and though we were surprised, we loved every single one of them.

As he matured, I continued teaching him, new words, new games, some tricks, all the basics and then some.  But he has some tricks of his own up his sleeve.  Dexter knew when I was in pain, something that happened too frequently because I have Crohn’s disease, and he knew exactly what to do when that happened.  He would lie next to me, pressing tight against me, the furnace-like heat of those 84 pounds soothing the pain away and his presence helping me to release the good chemistry that chases away pain.  Eventually, Dexter became my service dog, the first ever for Crohn’s disease.

As I continued to teach Dexter new things, some for fun, some because we needed them for his job, he became more and more capable of learning, a far cry from the nearly blank little puppy I’d adopted.  Teaching a dog gently and slowly, adding activities, games, commands, words for everything, hand signals, whistle signals, anything interesting you can think of will expand his mind and make him a better companion and a more interesting friend.  And paying attention to what he knows on his own and to what he is doing, will do the same for you.  Beyond that, the message is clear.  If you rescue a dog, he will rescue you right back.  And amen to that.


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