Patrick, GUGP's 2015 Guide Dog Puppy

Patrick, GUGP's 2015 Guide Dog Puppy
GUGP Website

15 March 2016

My puppy keeps barking!

Barking is a natural behavior for dogs, and some dogs bark more than others. Some bark at certain things, some bark at everything. Sometimes it is an alert bark, sometimes a happy bark, or sometimes a protective bark. But for a service dog, barking is almost always a no-no. Nobody wants to be seated in a restaurant at a table next to a dog that barks because they heard a noise or someone that looks weird to them walks by. Or be in a hotel room next to another room that has a dog staying in it that barks at every bump or noise. One of the worst is walking with your own dog and having someone else walk by with a crazy reactive dog that goes nuts when it sees your dog. Unfortunately, I seem to be the poor person walking by with the crazy dog-reactive dog.
Patrick barking at other dogs has been an issue since we got him as a baby puppy. He is great with dogs he knows but very reactive when he sees dogs he doesn’t know. Around 14-16 weeks of age he was making pretty good progress and doing better and we were very excited by his progress. And then while on a hike (on a trail where dogs are supposed to be leashed) an off-leash Golden came running up to Patrick, Ricki, and me. It stood in front of us and stared. Well, Patrick really didn’t like that and went into a huge barking fit that went on even after the owner of the dog came and took it away from us. That one moment set Patrick’s progress back—all the hard work and training seemed to just disappear. After that day, Patrick was very reactive with almost every dog he saw on a walk or out in public. We had to start our training all over again.
How can you fix this issue? Every dog is different and will respond to training differently. This is our first time working a puppy through this specific issue. I have raised puppies in the past that were very fearful of different situations and the best thing for them was to take a break for a few weeks and not expose them to what was bothering them. Patrick, on the other hand, does better the more stimuli you give him. As an experiment I decided to take him to a pet expo a few months ago where we knew lots of dogs would be there. He barked a little bit with excitement when I got him out of the car, but then no more while we were there. Although I had a hard time keeping him from pulling at times while walking, to my surprise he was quiet despite being around over 100 strange dogs. Now this hasn’t fixed the problem but it was definitely a step in the right direction. 
Since then I have been working Patrick to walk quietly around dog parks—not in them, just around them. There are multiple dog parks close to where we live, so it is easy to work him at many different locations. My goal is to be able to walk Patrick up to the fence and have him watch the other dogs inside running and playing, all while being able to remain calm and quiet. We aren’t there yet but making baby steps. 
We are also making trips to pet store, where the goal is to be able to walk calmly and quietly through the store even if he sees another dog. Once again, he isn’t perfect at this yet, but making progress. For me, it is a lot less embarrassing to be in a store that allows dogs if Patrick lets out a bark or two, than in a store where we may run into a pet dressed as a service dog and he lets out a couple of barks (and yes, this has happened). 

Patrick can smell if there is a dog close by him and his body language does change. One time, we were shopping in Target and I noticed his body language change. Sure enough, someone was passing by with a small dog in the shopping cart. I got lucky that Patrick didn’t see it in the cart and we were able to continue without any outbursts. 
We are also now attending dog training classes to get Patrick around other dogs in a controlled setting. I purposely put him in a class called “dogs with attitudes” so that he would at times be “set up” to be around other dogs that bark at things, because he will often bark if another dog by him barks first. After attending two classes I already see some improvement. I did have to laugh a little bit when I first joined that out of the seven dogs in attendance five of them were German Shepherds.

I will admit that I do get a little anxiety when working Patrick in public. I never know when we will come across another dog. While Patrick is doing much better when multiple dogs are around him, it seems to be the surprise appearance of a single dog that sets him off the most. His barking is embarrassing at times.One time we were walking in a mall and he saw another dog across they way and barked. He completely frightened the people walking in front of us, who had no idea that Patrick was behind them. Not to mention that a 65-pound Shepherd barking can be a little scary to some people. 

Another time we were having lunch with a friend and were seated outside on the sidewalk because Ricki and Ozzy were there as well. Along came a person walking down the sidewalk with their dog. That dog barked at us and then everyone was barking. That was probably our most embarrassing moment.
Patrick’s barking issue isn’t going to away overnight. Issues like this take a lot of time, work, guidance, and patience to get through. Despite this issue being frustrating and embarrassing at times, I still have high hopes for Patrick. He has been making progress in the right direction and he is so solid on almost every other aspect a working service dog needs. He settles nicely, has great relieving habits, is very confident, super smart, loves to learn new things, and most of all seems to love to work. I hope that by sharing some of my struggles with Patrick’s training I can help other people who are raising not feel so alone with their struggles. Puppy raising is a journey with good days and, well, let’s just say not so good days. I have learned with past puppies not to give up when things are hard—sometimes they will really surprise you. Some puppies take a little longer to mature and learn, so give them a chance to grow and learn at their pace.


01 March 2016

Don't get your kid a dog

When I was seven, like a lot of kids, I asked my parents for a dog. Like most (smart) parents, they said no. They told me I could have one when I turned nine.

I turned nine. They said I could have a dog when I was 13.

I used to be kind of bitter about this. Many of my friends' families had dogs, and they didn't have to be 13. How unfair!

But as I've gotten older, I realized that what my parents did was brilliant. And if they hadn't, I doubt I would be the type of dog person I am today.

Since I had to wait for what seemed like forever for my first dog, I researched. Well, as much as an elementary-school kid can. I went to after school care at the local Rec Center, where once a week or so they'd troop all of us off to the library down the street. Methodically, I managed to check out and read every single book in their dog section. Every week, I'd return the five or so books I'd taken the past week and get the next five on the shelf.

I learned about all the different breeds I could. My parents thought it was a hilarious trick that I could be walking down the street and immediately rattle off the breed of every dog we passed. I learned about what happened when you put time and effort into training a dog, and what happened when you didn't. I learned about The Seeing Eye, the oldest guide dog school in America, based in Morristown, New Jersey. I realized that my dream dog (at that time a German Shepherd) was probably not the best choice to have in a townhouse where it would have to amuse itself alone for six to eight hours.

By the time my parents and I seriously began our search for my first dog, I knew pretty well how to pick a dog suited to our lifestyle. We needed a young adult dog; nobody was ready or willing to take on the challenge of a puppy. We could offer about an hour of walking a day, so a high-energy large dog was out of the question. Short coat was a must, since extensive grooming wasn't and still isn't my favorite thing. We decided to adopt, and went through several shelters before arriving at Pets In Need, a rescue I'd done a report on in sixth grade. (When I was in school, if you gave me an open-ended project you could bet money that it would either be about Jackie Robinson or dogs.)

There, we found Buddy, a black Lab mix with some emotional baggage. I wanted him; the parents were less sure. Finally, I convinced them. My mom called Pets In Need and discovered that just that morning, someone had walked in and adopted this dog who had been in Pets In Need's care for more than twelve months.

I was devastated. But just a short time later, Pets In Need called to tell us that a two-year-old female Doberman mix had come in, and they thought she'd be perfect for us. She was gorgeous. She was sweet. She wasn't loud or pushy. She, like Buddy, had certain baggage; she had had at least one litter, and had a somewhat shy and reserved temperament. We brought her home and named her Angel (not because she was so lovely, oh no—because I was and still am obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and she had to be named for the vampire with a soul, Angel).
Lots of kids, when their parents get them dogs as soon as they ask for them, lose interest fairly quickly. To be honest, parents need to expect that on some level, and not turn the dog into some kind of life lesson where if the child forgets to walk him, the parent returns the dog to the shelter (yes, this happens). I, on the other hand, had been waiting six years for this dog. I was so ready. I had enrolled us in a training class, I was getting up early to walk her before school; if Angel needed something, I was going to do it. Except for walking her alone late at night, which became my dad's job.
Angel and me a few weeks after we got her.
I made a ton of mistakes with Angel, and she taught me a lot. I still cringe when I think about how often I walked her on a Flexi leash let out to its full length, or how I let other dogs get in her face to "say hi." I did not keep her nails nearly as short as they should have been. I also let her wear nylon collars her whole life (mea culpa!).
But Angel was a perfect first dog. Within three days of coming home, she was refusing to be confined in the dog-proof front hallway. So we let her have the run of the house, and she never destroyed a thing or stole a morsel of food. She was super food-motivated, so I had a fantastic time in training classes with her. She learned to be a lady in public, and everyone loved her. I was able to take her anywhere that dogs were welcome and know that she would behave properly. She wasn't a service dog, but looking at old photos, I realized that we did do a rudimentary type of deep pressure therapy together.
Angel did freak out during thunderstorms and when she heard fireworks, but otherwise, you couldn't have asked for more in a dog. I was heartbroken to leave her with my parents when I went to college, and crushed when she passed away while I was in Michigan in December of 2007, and not home with her.

Because of Angel, and how I had to work and wait for her, I was a much better dog person when I got Juno, my wild woman turned service dog. Angel taught me how great life with a dog is when you fulfill that dog's needs. I don't just mean food and shelter—I mean proper exercise, mental stimulation, and affection. She also taught me that Dobermans are the best. I'd known Dobermans most of my life, as my childhood best friend always had a rescue Dobe in the house, but being quite a short person, I was often intimidated by them. They were basically at eye level with me a lot of the time, after all. But once I got Angel, I knew I always wanted a Doberman or Doberman mix in my life.
Without the work and wait for Angel, and the rewards that followed, I wouldn't have become so passionate about dogs and dog training. It's not enough just to love dogs. I was and am constantly learning new things about dog body language, dog etiquette, dog training, the works. I am convinced that you cannot be a successful owner-trainer of a service dog unless you are devoted to learning constantly about dogs in general and training specifically, as well as doing all you can to improve your own training techniques. Training has to be something you think about every single day, something you're passionate about, something you want to talk with people about endlessly.

I doubt I would have developed my passion, and therefore my skills, if my parents hadn't made me wait six long years for a dog. So, Mom and Dad—thanks for NOT getting me a dog when I asked for one. It was a really good decision, and one I'll be grateful for the rest of my life.


16 February 2016

Dobermans are service dogs, too!

As you might have guessed, my service dog, Kaline, is a Doberman. It's not a breed that is commonly used in the service dog world, although they are gaining some popularity. Working a Doberman can sometimes be a bit different than working a Lab or Golden.

Happily for me, Kaline generally does not get questioned as to his legitimacy due to his breed. We do get a ton of comments along the lines of: "I didn't know THEY used Dobermans as service dogs!" (No word yet on the identity of the mysterious "they.") The one major access challenge we've had as a team, oddly, was because of his custom-made, very professional-looking mobility harness. Apparently it looked like some sort of extreme control device. (Pro-tip: If you try to control a dog's movements with a mobility harness, you will fail. Spectacularly.)
Kaline in his big mobility harness.
Most of the public seems conditioned to think that dogs of a certain (read: medium to large) size wearing service dog gear are "real." This has worked out nicely for me with Juno, a big black mutt who does look a little Labby, and with Kaline. You will get a little more scrutiny with an uncommon breed, as far as behavior goes, but it's generally not extreme. Obviously this is not so handy for handlers of small service dogs, who regardless of breed or impeccable behavior, seem to be viewed largely with suspicion.

If you love taking advantage of photo opportunities, Dobermans will certainly help you there. Kaline, anyway, is a huge ham. He absolutely loves to pose for photos. Where some dogs (read: Juno) require high-value bribery like string cheese to put their ears up nicely for a picture, all Kaline needs to see is that camera. Once, while he was having an off-duty romp at a beach, Kaline galloped past a guy with a massive camera who was getting pictures of the scene. Kaline screeched to a stop, made a U-turn, and began cavorting in front of the camera, much to the photographer's delight. While I don't usually like to be in photos myself, I love few things more than taking photos of Kaline looking handsome.
This was a completely irresistible photo-op.
The big issue Kaline's breed can cause is some bizarre questions and assumptions from members of the public. If I had a dollar for every time someone tried to begin a conversation by asking, "Does he bite?" Kaline's collar collection would be twice the size it is now. This should go without saying but: 1) all creatures with teeth have the capability to bite, and 2) any dog who is likely to bite without provocation should not, and generally is not, working as a service dog.

Many children will ask if he's a police dog, which I find completely adorable. Less than adorable is when parents, though usually not on a regular basis, use Kaline's breed to frighten their children away from him. While I appreciate parents who educate their kids about why they shouldn't pet working dogs, it's quite unnecessary to tell the children that if they go up to Kaline he will bite them. Kaline's major failing with kids is he really loves to kiss them. And given that he's at face level with small children, sometimes that can surprise and startle them; this is why he only gets to greet kids taller than he is.
"Of course I would love to pose on this rock!"
And then there are what I like to call the storytellers. Every service dog handler can tell you about the innumerable times someone has interrupted an errand to tell them, "My dog at home looks just like yours! Only a different breed, size, color, and gender. ... She died last night." When you have a Doberman, or other perceived "scary" breed, you get a special kind of storyteller. These are the people who, after they've asked permission to pet your Doberman, will launch into a long and intensely uncomfortable story about how they, or their sister's boyfriend's second cousin once removed, was horribly mauled by a Doberman. That's when you smile and nod—and wish you could just disappear.

You might wonder why Dobermans are so uncommon, given how fantastic they can be as working dogs. Being taller than most Labs and Goldens, they can be a better choice for people who need mobility. They tend to be very in-tune with their handlers' emotions, a plus as long as you can keep that from becoming serious separation anxiety or overprotectiveness. They're incredibly snuggly and delightfully low-maintenance when it comes to grooming. They're also fun to train and quite intelligent, if not so very biddable as Labs and Goldens.
A love of snuggling means Kaline is great at deep-pressure therapy.
However, Dobes tend not to be the best choice for first-time owner-trainers or handlers. They're much more likely to give you the "Make me, why don't you" face than a Lab or a Golden. They can also become overprotective if their handler isn't careful to curb those tendencies. They are a guarding breed, after all, and if the handler allows it, a Doberman will take on the handling of a situation, which can end badly for everyone.

They're also well-known for health problems, despite the tireless work of ethical breeders. One of the major health issues that crops up in Dobermans, as well as the most devastating, is dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a heart disorder that is inevitably fatal. It generally crops up in older dogs, and there isn't yet a reliable genetic test for it. By the time a breeder learns that one of their dogs has the condition, the dog is likely to have been bred already.

Dobermans aren't the greatest candidates for service dog programs, in the sense that they tend to bond very strongly to their person, and may have major difficulties shifting that bond to a trainer or trainers, and then again to a new handler. While you can't go on autopilot with any dog and expect it to maintain its training without regular refreshers, doing this with a Doberman can be especially bad.

Then you have the diva aspect. Dobermans' shiny, beautiful coats are pretty much only for show. They get cold very easily, and aren't shy in the least about informing you about their distaste for the situation. If I take Kaline to a baseball game in Oakland in the summer, for example, and don't bring his various jackets and his cocoon-blankie, he will shiver dramatically, fix me with utterly miserable puppy dog eyes, and poke me every inning to see if it's finally time to go. Ask him to lie down on a marble floor without his mat, and he'll drop his head into your lap and stare at you mournfully: "But it's so cold on the floor. I couldn't possibly lie down here."
Kaline enjoying summertime at the ballpark.
There's also the fact that almost nothing pre-made will fit them. This works out pretty well for me, since I'm a complete gear-nut and have several friends who make high-quality custom harnesses and other equipment. Nonetheless, it does tend to get expensive, and it was quite sad when the PetJoy vest that I loved to use on Juno just would not fit Kaline, no matter how I adjusted it.
My favorite old vest. Alas.
The best part of working a Doberman, when it comes to the general public, is that you attract other Doberman people. I was somewhat prepared for this, having graduated from the University of Michigan. If you wear Michigan gear anywhere in the world, you will inevitably be greeted with cries of "Go Blue!" from perfect strangers who also went to Michigan (we're everywhere). It's very similar with a Doberman. Since Dobes are not terribly common, either as working dogs or pets, lovers of the breed tend to get delightfully enthusiastic when they see one out working as a service dog.
Sometimes we attract both fellow Wolverines and Doberman aficionados.
It's lovely being able to educate receptive people about the versatility and all-around greatness of the breed. Like any breed, they're not for every person. But many times, when someone who has been scared of Dobermans all their life sees one working calmly and quietly in public, that can be just the impetus they need to ask some questions and find out that Dobes aren't scary after all. Kaline, even though his breed as a whole is usually fairly aloof with strangers, loves getting to say hi to new friends, and is so sweet and goofy that he can usually change people's minds about his breed. There are few things more gratifying than opening someone's mind about Dobermans.
Kaline makes a new buddy.


09 February 2016

Why I call my service dog medical equipment

Medical equipment comes in many forms to help mitigate many types of disabilities. There are wheelchairs, insulin pumps, canes, oxygen tanks, and more. There are also dogs. Yes, those cute, cuddly, lovable creatures that many of us just ooh and ahh over. As a dog lover myself, I definitely get that big smile and sometimes the giggles as I see a cute pup or a breed I love walking down the street or playing with their owner in the park. However, there's a big difference between a pet dog and a service dog. The latter is, indeed, medical equipment.

When my service dog, Sulley, gears up and we head out that door, he is working. He's no longer just a dog. Really, he isn't a dog anymore. He's my highly trained and very much needed medical equipment. He is my monitor for my anxiety levels to let me know before it gets out of control. He is my guide when fibromyalgia leaves me in a heavy fog and I can't think or function well. He's my movement when my legs feel like they are on fire, or when I'm extremely fatigued from living with chronic pain. He's my hands when I drop something and I worry that bending down will mean vertigo and a possible fall. He becomes as much an extension of me as any other medical equipment does for another disabled individual. He serves a very important purpose: to keep me safe and able to live my life.  
Recently we took a trip to one of our favorite places, Disneyland! Sulley loves it because it means lots of work. The crowds, the noises, and other distractions can be very triggering and very difficult for me to deal with. Without Sulley, there's no chance I would be capable of going and enjoying as much of it as I do. There's another aspect of it, though, beyond the basic over-stimulation of the parks, that makes it tough for me as a disabled individual who uses medical equipment—particularly the kind that is furry with a beating heart.

"Oh my gosh! Quick, kids! Look at the doggie! Look, look, look! Say, 'Hi, doggie!' He's so cute!"

Now, some of you might not understand what the big deal is. A parent is simply helping her children to enjoy a moment of a very adorable dog passing by. They might not even be encouraging their kids to pet, though that does happen despite Sulley's multiple stop signs and "do not pet" patches affixed to his vest and harness. Fortunately, this is such a frequent occurrence that I can share a few things that have happened in the past.

1) Due to my panic disorder, I startle extremely easily. Loud screams, even of joy, can cause me to fall and hurt myself, cause a panic attack, cause me to have such a sudden burst—then decrease—of adrenaline that it leaves me very dizzy and fatigued.
2) These noises can distract my service dog from his job due to him needing to investigate the sound, even for a second, to determine what caused it. If he's in the middle of mobility work and needs to turn quickly to investigate a sound, that can put me in harm's way.

3) He could attempt to seek attention, as he is still a dog and has off days, which would require me to correct him.

In these situations, I do my best to make a short but educational statement to people while still moving on. Confrontation is very taxing on me and can trigger my anxiety, so by keeping it short and to the point, I hope to avoid any medical issues on my end. This, in turn, makes it so the cute dog they want to enjoy doesn't have to work harder after an anxiety attack from a confrontation.

"Do not distract my service dog. He's working."

My point here is clear, at least to me.

1) Do not distract my service dog. (This is a service dog who needs to focus.)

2) He's working. (This dog has a job.)
Sulley after retrieving a credit card on the floor and placing it back on the counter.
Sadly, this is all too often met with hostility. I'm called everything from "rude" to many various expletives. I'm yelled at because "we were just saying hi!" I'm told I shouldn't have a dog in public that can't be played with.

This particular trip, it dawned on me that there was something happening with these exchanges. They didn't see or hear "service dog." They saw and heard "service dog." No emphasis in the world would help them see past the word that meant "adorable fluffy plaything here for my entertainment." They couldn't see the harm in greeting, petting, calling a dog. Obviously, he's friendly and not a biter. What's the harm? They saw a dog. They didn't see medical equipment.

The remainder of the trip, I practiced. I do my best to practice responses to people so that my anxiety won't get in the way of what I want to say. The rest of the day and back at the hotel room, I practiced. I asked friends to randomly pop questions about my dog at me. I failed at responses over and over, and grinned when I would finally get one right. The next day, I felt a bit better. I felt nervous, but ready to deliver my new responses to the public when they intruded on my day.
Sulley doing deep pressure therapy to lessen a fibromyalgia flare or panic attack.
Sulley is no longer a service dog. He is, and always has been, my medical equipment.
I placed Sulley in the crate provided at the roller coaster and began to board. An employee ran over while I struggled into my seat, squealing about my cute dog and demanding to know his breed.

Deep breaths. You've got this. You practiced countless times.

"I don't feel comfortable discussing my medical equipment."

She looks confused. Please go away ...

"No, no. I mean your dog!"

More deep breaths. Stay calm, you've got this!

"No, you mean my medical equipment."

NAILED IT! Did you see that lightbulb come on?!

Just as the employee scowled a bit and rolled her eyes, there was a pause. I could see it click in her head. She never even thought that the dog, my dog, was medical equipment. It lit a fire in me. The rest of the day, I struggled through getting the proper words out. It began to get a bit easier. I began plotting new ways to say things. What to say if someone said something terrible back to me. It was brilliant!
I felt confident and self assured that I could handle these confrontations. More and more people throughout the day had their lights turned on. Even if it was just a teeny spark, it happened every single time. Something that never happened when I explained him as a service dog.

"Ma'am, keep your child away from my medical equipment."

"Sir, do not distract my medical equipment."

"Interfering with my medical equipment is a crime."

"I am not comfortable discussing my medical equipment." (Insert rude reply.) " ... And that is why I am not comfortable. Good day!"

On an ending note, I would like to point out that never once do I say "sorry" or "please." When it comes to my safety and that of my dedicated medical equipment, it is never, ever a request. I also will not apologize for not wanting to be grilled about my medical equipment, or having it played with or distracted. This does not make me rude. It makes the person forcing their way into my personal space, and interfering with Sulley, rude.

No one, disabled or otherwise, deserves to feel intruded upon or made into a spectacle. Remember that service dogs are medical equipment, and respect their and their handlers' space.


02 February 2016

The rights of businesses

Most people are aware that service dogs must be permitted to accompany their disabled handlers into non-pet friendly businesses. Unfortunately, many business owners are not aware that they too have rights concerning service dogs, and whether or not those service dogs are legally allowed to be in their business. There is much misinformation and fear surrounding the rights of service dog handlers, and thus, business owners. This article hopes to clear up some of these misconceptions, and to educate businesses on their rights, outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

What is a service dog?

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a Service Animal as:

“A dog that has been house broken and individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.  The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability.”

Contrary to popular misconception, a service dog can be any breed, or combination of breeds, of any dog. This could be your standard Labrador Retriever, or it could be a Terrier mix. Breeds are not discounted based on size, breed specific legislation, or public opinion. I personally work an American Bulldog/English Pointer mix named Cow. You cannot determine whether or not a dog is a service dog just by looking at their appearance.

You also cannot determine a service dog by the gear they are wearing. The ADA permits disabled handlers to work their service dog in whatever gear they so choose; this includes working the dog completely free of any identifying gear. Some handlers choose to dress their dogs in a singular vest or cape with patches identifying the dog, and possibly asking the public not to pet or distract the dog. Some handlers require more intricate gear to accommodate their disability, such as a guide harness, or a mobility harness. Some handlers use a simple bandanna, a leash wrap stating "service dog," or no gear at all.

What if I don't think a dog is a service dog?

This is a fair question. Unfortunately, as any business owner will tell you, there has been an influx of pet owners dressing up their pets in vests and bringing them in public by claiming they are a service dog. Most businesses leave it at that, despite the dog’s misbehavior, out of fear or being sued or vilified by the media for discrimination.

As a business owner or employee, you have quite a few rights in this situation. First, per the ADA, you are allowed to ask two questions of any service dog handler:

(1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.”

What do they mean by "task"? A task is considered any trained behavior that mitigates the handler’s disability. For example, this includes, but is not limited to, mobility and balance assistance, medical alert (cardiac alert, diabetic alert, seizure alert, blood pressure alert, etc.), guiding, alerting their Deaf handler to sounds, pulling wheelchairs, picking up dropped items, performing grounding tasks for psychiatric disorders, medication reminders, seizure response, blocking the individual from a crowd, removing the dissociated handler from the public space, alerting a person with PTSD that a stranger is coming up behind them, and more.

What is NOT meant by "task," includes, but is not limited to, emotional support, comfort, protection, intimidation, or any other benefits unrelated to disability. While service dogs may provide comfort by their mere presence, this is not considered a task under the ADA. If the animal is not trained to do anything else but provide comfort or emotional support, then they are not a service animal, even if their owner is disabled. More importantly, service dogs MAY NOT be used for protection or intimidation. Service dogs may intimidate people by their very presence, but this is not considered a task, and is highly frowned upon by the Department of Justice and other handlers. Service dogs should not have a high protection drive, and should not automatically protect their handler unless genuine harm is befalling them. After such an event, service dogs should be reevaluated by a qualified behaviorist to confirm that they are still fit to work around the public.

What about documentation or certification that the dog is indeed a service animal? This will come as a surprise to most people, but there is no such thing as a certification or registration for service dogs. As a result, there is not legal identification or "paper" for service animals, and asking for one will only get you a long lecture by the handler, a sobbing handler in the middle of a panic attack, or a call to the Department of Justice or the police. In my personal experience, the people who carry and offer identification for their dogs are typically pet owners who have paid $75 to "register" their pet on a scam website in return for a vest, identification card, and paperwork stating that the dog is a service dog. This does not require any training or proof that the person is disabled and the dog is trained. It’s simply a scam that needs to be made illegal and prosecuted. Of course, this does not include paperwork from specific programs that some handlers carry as an extra precaution, or the fake identification that some legitimate handlers carry and use as a last resort if asked for it by an uninformed manager, as the handler’s disability prevents them from educating the often-belligerent employee.
Pumpkin Balancing Level: Expert
This, unfortunately, is not considered a task.

How can I tell if a dog is a service dog?

Despite the lack of uniformity and identification amongst service dogs and their handlers, there are a few good ways to tell if a dog is really a service dog. The most important, and surest sign of a dog’s legitimacy and training is behavior. Behavior always shows, whether it be the behavior of the dog or the handler.

A service dog will have their basic obedience down pat. They will not be incessantly sniffing merchandise, soliciting attention or barking at passersby, taking products off shelves, or leaving their handler to explore on their own. While some handlers do carry their small service dogs in their arms or in a sling, businesses do not have to allow dogs in shopping carts or baskets, and service dogs should never be on the business’ furniture unless their task demands it, such as performing deep pressure therapy on the lap of the handler. However, even during this task, the dog should not be using this opportunity to sniff food on the table of a restaurant or merchandise on higher shelves. The dog should be focused on their handler, not on the benefits of being higher than the floor. 

However, there are some tasks that appear to be the dog out of control. For instance, my service dog, Cow, will perform a gradual alert if I am shut down and need to be led out of the public area. First, he will nudge my hand with his nose. If I don’t respond, he will graduate to more incessant alerts, such as pawing at my leg, with him finally ending up jumping his front half into my lap, pawing at my chest, howling quietly, before he hops down, and grabs his leash in his mouth and attempts to pull me. If I’m unresponsive to the first quieter, more subtle alerts, he will always end up performing the alert that looks as if he’s just misbehaving. Seizure alert dogs also occasionally use barking if their handler is unresponsive to their alerts. 

It takes a trained eye to spot the difference between a service dog performing a task, and a pet dog throwing a fit, but the differences are there if you know what to look for. For instance, the service dog will always be focused on their handler, and will be trying to get the handler to do something, even if it’s not immediately obvious what that something is. For me, it is to allow Cow to lead me outside and to a safe, quiet place. For others, it could be to lay down to prepare for an impending seizure. Either way, the dog will have an obvious goal in mind, and they will not just be barking wildly and jumping on passerby. Seeing both in person often allows the layperson to discern the difference.

No dog is perfect, no matter their level of training or professionalism. This applies to service dogs as well. All service dogs have their bad days. The days where they don’t ignore the person calling out to them, or they sniff at some merchandise, or their handler doesn’t notice that their dog has an upset stomach. These things have happened, or will happen, to every single handler, no matter the training of their dog. For every handler, this is mortifying. 

We are often our dog’s biggest critics, as our dogs are an extension of ourselves. The important thing is that we take actions to control our dog’s behavior. If a service dog is soliciting attention from passerby, their handler will correct the behavior. If the service dog is throwing a legitimate hissy fit because they do not want to be doing their job that day, the handler will take immediate actions to control or remove the dog. 

Pet owners who are fraudulently representing their pet as a service dog will usually do none of these things. I’ve had pets in vests attack my service dog, doing their best to hurt him, while their owner just laughs and shrugs. I’ve seen pets in vests urinate all over merchandise, as their owner looks around and walks away as quickly as they can. Service dog handlers are not looking to get away with things. We are just trying to go about our lives. As such, we take responsibility for the actions of our medical equipment, no matter how humiliated and close to, or way past, tears that we are.

Cow thinks that if he stares deeply into my soul and makes googly eyes—also known as checking in—I’ll give him food. He’s usually right.

What can I do about out-of-control dogs?

Service dogs must be under the control of the handler at all times. Service animals must be leashed, tethered, or harnessed at all times unless this interferes with the handler’s disability, or the dog’s ability to perform their job. If unable to leash the dog, the handler must still maintain control of the dog through signal, voice, or other commands. If a dog, even a legitimate service dog, is out of control and the handler takes no appropriate and effective steps to correct the behavior or remove the dog, then staff may request and demand that the dog be removed from the premises. If the handler removes the dog and wishes to obtain goods and services without the dog, this must be allowed. Out of control could include, and is not limited to, jumping on patrons, barking incessantly or in a non-alert, handling merchandise, showing dangerous or aggressive behavior, urinating or defecting on the premises, or wandering alone without the handler.

Why should I risk my good name by removing possible service dogs?

Even when I’ve had dogs who are obviously pets attack my dog, businesses have been afraid to remove the pet, despite the danger it poses to myself, my medical equipment, and any other member of the public, including children who may run up to and hug or pull on the dog. Businesses are afraid that they will be sued or that the owner will immediately go to the media and cry discrimination. 

These are legitimate fears. Many a pet owner has attempted, and sometimes succeeded, in ruining businesses who have asserted their legal rights against their out-of-control pet. In these cases, service dog handlers have risen up to defend the business and reveal the fraud by the pet owner. In fact, service dog handlers generally prefer business owners to assert their rights. Too many good service dogs have had to be expensively rehabilitated or retired early because of an aggressive pet in a vest who attacked them while they were working, because the business was unaware of, or afraid to assert, their rights. 

I am writing this article because I want businesses to start asking me the two questions. I want businesses to listen to me when I beg them to please, please remove the aggressive dog on a flexi lead that tried to rip my dog’s face off when it saw us. I want them to stop being afraid of fraudulent pet owners who know that they have the power to make businesses cower under the threat of litigation and bad media, and who use that to endanger the safety and life of myself, my medical equipment, and every other patron they come in contact with, as well as the life of their “beloved” pet when that pet is pushed over their threshold and bites a kid.
Cow is a sensitive flower who has a lot of feelings about everything, including the floor.

Is that it?

Not at all! I couldn’t even begin to cover everything in this article. I only covered the major points. If you’d like to learn more about the specifics of the Americans with Disabilities Act in concern to service dogs, you can visit their FAQ. For a “too long; didn’t read” version of this article, go ahead and read the ADA’s Business Brief. For more information about service dogs and what they do to help disabled persons like myself, check out the rest of Growing Up Guide Pup. There are videos, articles, and cute puppy pictures made specifically to inform the public about service dogs and their many attributes.


19 January 2016

New Year's Resolution

Part of being a service dog handler is transitioning from one dog to another. Unfortunately for us, service dogs can't work forever. Each dog has his or her own quirks, strengths, and weaknesses, and the transition can be hard.

You're with your service dog practically 24/7 for years on end, which means you both get used to each other's needs, signals, likes, and dislikes. Changing partners is a huge adjustment, and it's nearly impossible not to make comparisons between your previous and current dog (usually in the older dog's favor).
At Muir Woods with baby Kaline (then still in training) and Juno
(then still working mostly full-time).
Which brings me to my New Year's Resolution, which I'm going to do my best to keep: I want to stop (as much as I can) comparing my current partner, Kaline, to his predecessor, Juno. Well, except for right now, since I think it'll be interesting to do in a blog post!

Juno started service dog training when she was an adult, nearing middle age. Even when she was a pet, when we first adopted her, her general M.O. was to follow me around until I sat down somewhere, then curl up at my feet until I was ready to go somewhere else. You can see how that was a really handy tendency when she started working.
Juno during her training period at the San Francisco zoo with
her mentor, Jolanda (front), and SDIT pal, Hunter (left).

Though she was something of a hot mess as an under-socialized adolescent, by adulthood, Juno had grown to be an unflappably calm, solid presence. The only thing I can think of that ever fazed her during her working career was a performer cracking a whip on stage during a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas.
Juno ignoring the festivities of Gay Pride in San Francisco
to pose for a photo.
Juno is also an extremely eager, creative learner. Not only will she do almost anything for food, she also took readily to clicker training. If she doesn't get rewarded for one behavior, she'll start running through a repertoire of behaviors and even think up new ones. Teaching her to do new things—like retrieve, carry objects around, and open and close drawers—was nearly always delightful and struggle-free. (Extinguishing bad behaviors, like her adolescent dog reactivity, was a struggle, though we eventually succeeded!)
With Juno in Las Vegas.
And another fabulous thing about Juno: Being part Lab, she has a basically Lab-shaped body, and thus every single piece of gear I ever got her fit her like it was custom-made for her. You don't appreciate that until you get a weird-shaped dog, let me tell you!
"Everything fits me, and I fit anywhere."
As you can see, Kaline had very big shoes to fill.

Kaline started training as a baby puppy. I like training dogs in general, but I especially love training puppies. They're a blast. But I'd never had my own puppy—Juno was adopted at 18 months, and my first dog, Angel, was about two when we got her. As a puppy, Kaline was a pretty quick learner, food-motivated like Juno, but it was exhausting being out and about with him. I thought I'd been pretty vigilant when working Juno—you're always on the lookout for possible distractions or threats to your service dog—but I didn't have to worry about her behavior. Not so with a puppy! Everything we encountered was a training opportunity: both a blessing and a curse. I quickly learned to wear a bait bag at all times so as not to miss one of these opportunities.
SDIT Kaline works on blocking (also known as covering).
He also wasn't, and isn't, nearly as creative about learning as Juno. Kaline does very well with luring (using a treat to help show him the desired behavior), but becomes easily bored and frustrated if he isn't getting hints. He won't just come up with new behaviors; he'll sit there and stare at you, then decide that your food isn't actually that enticing and go find something else to do.

Did I mention that nearly all of Kaline's gear beyond simple cape-vests has to be custom made? There's a reason he's lovingly known as the Princess Diva.

Where Juno is fairly aloof with strangers, Kaline is a social butterfly with both dogs and people. He just assumes that all new dogs and people are going to love him and be his new best friends. It was much harder for him to learn to ignore people trying to distract him, and it's something we are constantly working on. So many things that just came naturally to Juno, Kaline had to learn, sometimes laboriously over weeks. He had trouble learning to hold a long down-stay, so I began attending the "classic" movies religiously with him every Wednesday night. The ticket packages were cheap ($30 for six movies) and the movies sparsely attended—fewer people to notice if we had any trouble! I think we ended up getting three of those packages, and by the end his long down had improved markedly.

Teaching him to retrieve to hand seemed to take forever. What Juno picked up during one slow night at work, back when I had a job that wasn't dog-centric, Kaline took over a year to put together. Juno is very quick and doesn't need much amping up; once she realized there was a cookie in it for her if she picked things up and gave them to me, all I had to do was point, receive the object, and feed her. What Kaline needed was his Auntie Sonja, a soft zip-up pencil case full of high value treats, and for me to get SUPER EXCITED about everything to do with retrieving. Food just wasn't enough when it came to learning that. He needed me to be far more demonstrative than I'd ever been with Juno. Once Sonja helped me come to that realization, his retrieve improved swiftly and we're now to the point where I can use retrieving an object as Kaline's reward for doing something else.
During a long, boring airport wait, I can now
entertain Kaline with retrieving games.
Enough about Kaline's shortcomings. Now that we've had our own place for a year, I've come to realize anew just what a fantastic partner he is. For one, he is just about the most hilarious dog, service dog or pet, I've ever met. He makes me laugh every single day. Much of the time he falls asleep with all his feet in the air. Sometimes he finds tennis balls on our walks and, since he knows if he can get it home he can keep it, will doggedly carry the slimy object for a mile or so and then cuddle with it when we get back. He also has a huge obsession with sardines, and watching him struggle to contain himself while I make his dinner is endlessly entertaining. Kaline is quite a silly boy when he's not working, and he has no inhibitions about showing it!

Things that Juno does because I ask her, Kaline does because he absolutely loves to do it. Juno is not, in general, a cuddler. She would do deep pressure therapy for me, but she would get off whenever I told her and be very glad to be finished. Kaline will sometimes just do DPT, because he already knows I need it, and he will refuse to get off if he senses that I am still not calmed down enough. As an added bonus, he adores cuddling in bed and basically sleeps on me or pressed against me as tightly as possible. This might sound like annoying bed-hog behavior, but for me, it has improved my sleep tremendously.
Kaline delights in snuggling (off duty) and deep pressure therapy
(on duty).
Momentum pull, a task I use a lot and which Juno never found all that wonderful, is Kaline's calling. Where Juno never really got past needing a target person to follow, Kaline learned to pull in a straight line, follow directional commands, and seek out the path of least resistance in record time. He loves it. He's great at it. It's something you can end up taking for granted, since it seems so natural for him (much like holding long downs was natural for Juno).
Kaline in the early stages of his
momentum-pull training.
And while as a puppy, Kaline could be momentarily unnerved by random things—a fire in a fireplace, period costumes, large plastic figurines—as an adult, I think he's even more solid than Juno.
Kaline as an adult in front of the fireplace that scared him
as a SDIT.
His reaction (or lack thereof) to fireworks never fails to amaze me. We can be in the lower deck at a ballpark, with fireworks being set off on the field, and he just chills out on his mat, either watching the show or staring at me in hopes of getting rewards. I taught him early on that loud noises of all sorts mean he's probably going to get food, and have never regretted this!
Fireworks in Toledo—"Food now?"
He lay by my feet in the front row of Odysseo, a Cavalia show featuring about 30 horses performing each night, and had no problems (well, he didn't really like being splashed by cold water at the very end of the show, but can you blame him?). He still doesn't particularly like trucks rumbling by very close to us, but otherwise, nothing fazes him.
At Odysseo.
Learning to teach the way Kaline learns best—which is not always the way Juno learns best—was a really big part of us becoming a good working team. In some areas he needs more or different motivation than she does, while in others, where Juno needed a ton of encouragement, Kaline's got it, thank you very much, and please stop chattering, Mum. It took a long time, but for about a year and a half or so, we've been working smoothly as a team. It's become much less me showing him what to do and how to do it, and more both of us just knowing what needs to be done.

He now knows all my weird little signals, and I know his. For example, I taught him to shake off on cue because 1) I really don't like it when he does that inside restaurants and 2) even when he's out of gear, each shake off seems to last several minutes, like I just soaked him in water. Kaline knows he isn't supposed to shake in restaurants or when he's doing harness work, so he'll let me know if he needs a quick "shake break" by doing what looks like a head tremor. He'll just twitch his head a couple times, and then wait for me to take him to an appropriate place and give him his cue.

It takes a long time to reach the level of comfort and trust with your new dog that you had with your previous dog. And even though I've had that for a while now with Kaline, I still compare him to Juno (along with other friends' service dogs) far too often. Sometimes you forget that your previous partner had some things they struggled with, and some working quirks you found annoying. No dog is completely perfect, and even the ones you think can do no wrong have off days. It's important to appreciate everything that's wonderful about your current partner, and that's what I've set as a goal for 2016.

Because one day, I'm going to be training NextDog. (Hang out around service dog handlers enough, and you realize that we are constantly thinking about and tweaking plans for NextDog. It never stops.) And when that day comes, I know I'll be wishing I could just work with Kaline forever.