Archives for posts with tag: service dogs

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, we went to the farm where the sire and dam of the puppy who would be my first Border collie lived and got to photograph them working sheep for Dog Training in Ten Minutes, the book I was working on at the time.  First the sire was sent and moved the sheep around the field as instructed by whistle commands.  When I began to move to where I could get the shot I wanted, the breeder asked me what I was after and signaled the dog to move the sheep in such a way that I could get the shot from where I was.  I was very impressed.

At some point, the sheep got very close to the fence.  In fact, they were pressed up against the fence.  The male, commanded with the whistle to move them, hesitated for just a split second.  The breeder called him off and sent the female, heavy with pups which were due in a week or two.  She ran to the sheep and in a quick, sure move, poked her long nose between the first sheep and the fence, effectively and quickly sending the whole flock back into the field.  It was a graceful move, executed with confidence.  I was pleased to get the shot, a picture of my first Border collie working sheep in utero.

That pup, Flash, plied his trade in New York City,and wherever in the world he went with me, becoming my service dog.  My gamble was that, like the German Shepherd, the Border collie could take his inborn skills and apply them to tasks other than sheepherding.  Luckily for me, that was true and Flash became an outstanding worker, doing the work he was assigned rather than the work he was bred to do.

Flash at The Musee Picasso in Paris.

Flash at The Musee Picasso in Paris.

The other day, walking with my Border collie, Sky, on the totally crowded High Line, the elevated park made from the area where the trains brought produce into the city, I was reminded of the Flash’s mother, moving the sheep off the fence.  I was able, because of Sky’s skill, something passed down to her from her mother and her mother’s mother and all the working collies who came before her, to walk at a good speed despite the fact that the path was jammed with people. Sky took her pointy nose and moved ahead at full speed, inserting it between strolling tourists, the way Flash’s mom had inserted hers between the fence and the sheep. This neatly opened the way for her and for me, at the far end of the leash, to follow.  I always find it interesting to watch a dog work, whether she is using her skills to do the job her breed was designed for, or whether those same skills come in handy for doing something totally different, but equally as useful.

Sky and her sister, May, working sheep, with Denise Wall.

Sky and her sister, May, working sheep, with Denise Wall. And below, looking out the window of our Alaska Airlines flight home.


Friends come to visit and need to whoop up the dogs because that’s how they feel loved.  Look how excited they are to see us!!!  Good for them, bad for the dogs.

Someone who cannot control his young Rottweiler, even with a pinch collar, gets upset and yells at me because I hold up my hand like a stop sign, No, don’t bring your dog into my dog’s face.  Good for no one, this man who should not have gotten a Rottweiler.

People wait until the service dog’s human partner is swimming, in the shower, looking the other way or in the case of someone who is blind, at any old time, and handle the dog.  Or call the dog.  Or crouch in front of the dog, talking like a squeaky toy.  Not good, not good at all.

The thing is, sometimes it’s not about you.  Sometimes it’s about the dog.   So many people forget the dog part of the equation.  They never think, What does the dog need?  What is good for the dog?  What is that dog doing, that dog I want to distract so that it will give me me me some love? Or why on earth is there a dog at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Louvre (for godssake!), this restaurant, my gym, the Post Office?  Why is that dog on the bus?  Nope.  They don’t ask themselves any of those questions.

Sometimes it’s about the baby crying on the plane.  Bad luck that it annoys you, but the baby is in distress.  Sometimes it’s about the man in the wheelchair for whom you have to give up that front seat in the bus, the one that folds up, the one where the chair fits.  Sometimes it’s about the person coming right behind you, you know, the one you let the door slam on instead of holding it.  How much in a rush are you?  Sometimes it’s about the dog, enjoying a walk, sniffing things, feeling the wind in his fur, thinking his own doggy thoughts.  Does he need you to block his path and squeal at him?  Does the working dog need to have his train of thought interrupted?  Does the dog who is happy to greet you at the door need also to leap and bark and be hysterical because you dropped by?

Sometimes, oh, the humanity, it’s not about you.







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!

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.


springdogs 005

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.

springdogs 005

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.