Patrick, GUGP's 2015 Guide Dog Puppy

Patrick, GUGP's 2015 Guide Dog Puppy
GUGP Website

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.