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.

Colt

No comments:

Post a Comment