Social Distancing When You Can’t See the Distance

Deni walks along a path with Koala, a black Lab. Deni wears a face mask.Guest post by Deni Elliott

Guiding Eyes Koala gives me advance warning when we are about to cross paths with another dog. I can feel added tension in the rigid handle attached to her harness. She keeps walking us straight down the sidewalk, but as the person and dog get closer, I can feel Koala rise up. She walks on her tippy-toes, restraining herself from sniffing as we scoot past the dog.

A person alone on the sidewalk is way less interesting; as far as Koala is concerned, they might as well be a trash can to walk around. In that case, Koala is likely to walk by without giving any indication that there is something that needs my attention. It isn’t until I hear footsteps that I realize that the obstacle we are passing is a living, breathing human being.

In this period of cautiously returning to public contact, what my guide dog communicates has become an urgent matter of concern. Guide dogs know how to squeeze and weave themselves and their partners around any obstacles. They aren’t likely to understand the concept of staying six feet away from others. So, the question for people who are blind or visually impaired is: How can we manage social distancing when we can’t see the distance?

I’ve found that the answer depends on how crowded your community is and on whether the guide dog team is navigating outside or inside.

In areas with lower population and more attuned neighbors, if people see a guide dog working in harness, they may naturally cross the street or provide space. In high population areas or or where sighted people are more focused on their phones than on other pedestrians, the guide dog handler will have to take a more proactive approach.

When walking on harness outside, if the guide dog signals that another dog is nearby, the handler should ask the person approaching to keep the distance. “Please stay six feet away,” is normally all that is required.

It’s harder when your guide gives no warning, and the handler suddenly finds herself  shoulder-to-shoulder with someone on the sidewalk. Again saying, “Please stay six feet away,” is kinder than shouting, “Can’t you see that I’m blind?”

Working a dog in harness inside in the COVID-19 era provides new challenges that most guide dog teams can’t overcome on their own. Some grocery stores have designated aisles as one-way. Any place open for business has six-foot markers for people standing in line at the check-out counter. People with visual impairments are not likely to see any of this. It is kind for sighted shoppers to offer directions, but unfortunately, many sighted people just stop and stare.

The blind or visually impaired person can do some advance planning to make the trip to the store as efficient as possible. If the store has special hours for vulnerable populations, it is good to take advantage of the smaller crowd and the likelihood that the other shoppers will also be working to keep distance. This is one time that it is a good idea to call the store in advance, explaining to the manager that the need for employee assistance. That helper can quickly locate items and help the guide dog team stay out of the way of others, while everyone maintains a six-foot distance.

Some people have pulled out their long white canes as an additional signal for sighted people to keep the right distance. Others who aren’t coordinated enough to handle the dog in harness on one side and cane on the other – I’m one of those – may need to provide additional visual cues for those around them. Vests, tank tops, and tee shirts that say “BLIND” or “VISUALLY IMPAIRED” in high contrast are used by athletes and are available at ruseen.com. These draw more attention to disability than most of us would like in our daily lives. But at this time in the world, it is better to be noticed than infected.

 

What’s Missing from the Conversation

Alberta, a now-retierd yellow Labrador guide dog, leads DeniI wrote a post a few weeks ago about proposed new rules for flying with service and support animals. Lucky for me, most Thinking Dog readers are kind and thoughtful individuals.

Deni wasn’t so lucky. That could be because she had more than 2,000x as many readers as I generally do … in just the first 3 days (and no, that’s not a typo).

The comments on her article, and on the proposed rules at the DoT site, reveal much about our society. And why the concept of ESAs has been so badly abused. They follow several general themes:

  • People who hate animals, kids, anyone who writes about animals, and pretty much the whole world. (These are best ignored.)
  • People who think all animals should be banned from airplanes, including guide and service dogs, due to their own (or others’) allergies. (Not gonna happen.)
  • People who say they cannot or will not fly if they cannot bring their ESA.
  • People who use service animals and oppose any sort of behavior or health check or documentation.

What is missing from this conversation, as well as from the laws and proposed new rules, is attention to the animals’ welfare and needs.

Some of the people who can’t or won’t fly without an ESA could well be able to meet the legal threshold for a service dog. Others have generalized and severe anxiety or anxiety specifically about flying, so the presence of an animal is of comfort and helps them cope.

I am sincerely empathetic. At the same time, I think that’s a lot of responsibility to place on an animal, especially one that has not been trained to work under stressful circumstances. Public access is stressful for any animal, but especially one that essentially lives in a familiar home, rarely leaving except, in the case of some dogs and cats, for walks around the neighborhood. Airports and airplanes are about as stressful a situation as I can imagine.

I also worry that someone with severe anxiety would be stretched to the limit taking care of their own needs and would be unable to safely handle an animal, intuit and meet its needs, and keep themselves, the animal, and other passengers safe.

The untrained pets used as ESA are often terrified by the commotion, cramped quarters, noise, smells, and general awfulness of airports and airplanes. And that is exactly the problem: No one is evaluating the animals or training them to get used to public access. People with ESAs do not have the right to take them in public (the ADA gives that privilege only to people with both a disability and a trained service animal) and no training is required, so even if the people wanted to prepare their animals, they cannot legally do so.

Like other pets, most ESAs spend the majority of their time at home. Then, suddenly, they are taken to the most stressful place possible, by a person who is extremely anxious. As a living being with needs and fears, the ESA needs and deserves the protection of its person — a person who at that time is very unlikely to be able to provide that protection.

The law currently allows anyone whose mental-health professional (or internet store) supplies them with a letter attesting to their own need for the animal. Nothing addresses the suitability of the animal or its welfare, and nothing safeguards the public from terrified animals (mostly dogs) behaving like terrified animals: Growling, yowling, snarling, lunging, biting, peeing, etc. It’s a testament to how resilient and generally amazing dogs are that there have not been far more bites.

I am a former service dog trainer and am adamantly opposed to creating barriers to access for people with disabilities. At the same time, I do not think it is possible to protect public safety — including the safety of service dog teams — without limitations, such as a public access test and health requirements.

Public access with a service dog in a no-pets area is a privilege that does not include the right to endanger others or trample their rights. The ADA builds that in; a service animal that is dangerous or behaving inappropriately can legally be excluded even if the person has a disability and the animal is fully trained to mitigate that disability. The current ACAA rules on ESAs do not. And it is not reasonable or realistic to expect TSA officers or airline gate agents to be able to assess which animals are safe and which are not — and to be effective at barring those passengers and their animals.

There are ways to make health checks and public access tests easy, certainly no more complicated than getting a disabled parking placard in most states.

Thousands of dog trainers are capable of administering a CGC test, for example. A public access test could be similar, and it could be conducted by any certified dog trainer in a place the team goes anyhow, like Walmart or the supermarket.

Keeping your dog healthy and being able to show that the dog is vaccinated are minimal standards when taking your dog anywhere, even the dog park.

I don’t see these as huge obstacles or burdens. One comment I saw talked about the nearest Walmart being over an hour’s drive and said having to go to a testing site would be an enormous burden. If that person never, ever goes to that distant Walmart, or anywhere else in public with their service dog, they wouldn’t need to do the test. If they do go there, even rarely, doing a test there once every year or so is not a huge ask.

Airlines could help out by keeping paperwork on file, though, as they keep seating preferences and contact details for mileage club members. Asking people to jump through the same hoops every time they fly is absurd, especially for anyone who flies multiple times a year. Linking the health certificate and other info on the team to a flyer’s frequent flyer profile, with a flag for annual updates, is very easy in our digital age.

Allowing only trained, professionally evaluated animals to fly in the cabins of airplanes, and asking that other animals either remain in carriers that fit under a seat or that their owners make other arrangements is common sense. It respects the rights and safety of people with disabilities who have trained their (mostly) dogs and rely on those dogs’ assistance. It also respects the rights and safety of everyone else.

My comments are, of course, my opinions; reasonable people may well disagree. I think that Deni wrote a solidly researched article that presents a real problem and suggests viable solutions. I encourage you to read it, read the proposed rules, and comment. The 60-day comment period opened Feb. 5 and ends in early April.

Doggy generalists and doggy specialists (part two)

Cali eyes a bowl of ice cream
Is that for me?

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about dogs learning to generalize — to apply a cue in different environments. Dogs can also learn to specialize.

What I mean by that is that they can learn that a cue or rule applies only in very specific situations. For example, I have a TV-watching sofa in the basement that is dog-friendly. I have a living room sofa that is not dog-friendly. The dogs know that they are allowed on the downstairs sofa but not the living-room sofa. (Though, when’s she’s feeling grumpy, Cali has been known to sneak onto the living room sofa, quickly jumping off when I approach and faking nonchalance as she heads to the bedroom …)

Even more specific — the dogs know that they are allowed on the bed only when a particular blanket, the “dog-proof cover,” is on the bed. When that cover is being laundered, Cali will poke her head into the bedroom, scowl (yes, she scowls), and stalk off.

Koala knows to check with her mom about getting on beds and furniture in new places when they travel; she recognizes when a “dog-proof cover” has been deployed and it’s safe to jump on. She’s also much better than Cali about following the rules.

Wylie, Deni’s German Shepherd guide dog several years ago, learned an interesting lesson: Puppy Wylie was chasing wild turkeys in the front yard of Deni’s Montana home when the turkeys played a little prank on him. They led him on a wild chase … right into a wasps’ nest. Wylie never chased turkeys again. Unfortunately, he failed to generalize the “don’t chase wildlife” rule and continued chasing deer until he had some firm training.

Dogs generalize and specialize about all kinds of things. They learn which things are their toys and which things they are not allowed to chew on — even when they share a home with small children whose toys look a lot like dog toys. They learn what they are and are not allowed to eat. They might know to bark at some noises and not at others or that they can get on the bed only when invited.

Dogs’ ability to specialize and generalize can get humans into trouble.

What if, for example, you have been strict about not feeding the dog from the table, teaching your dog to lie quietly while you eat. But … your spouse sneaks her treats on the sly.

You’ve begun to notice that, although the dog behaves while you are eating alone, if your spouse is there, she begs. Even worse, whenever anyone else is over, she hovers hopefully, testing each new person to see whether he’s a stickler for your rules — or is a softie, like your partner.

This points to a universal human failing: Inconsistency.

The dog has learned not to beg from you at the table. She has not generalized the rule to “no begging at the table.”

Instead, she has taken what you intended as a general rule and figured out that not all the humans know or care about this rule. Indeed, she has exploited the begging loophole (along with her long blond eyelashes and her talent at manipulating your humans…) to establish two different rules: She has determined that the specific rule is “do not beg from mom” and the general rule about begging is “it depends.”

Then, she has decided that she needs to figure out which rule each new human uses. Some will be sticklers; some will be softies.

Unfortunately, the more people in a household, the more likely it is that they will enforce rules inconsistently. Even in a household of one, alas, it is possible (likely!) to enforce rules inconsistently, leading the dog to learn rules that are quite different from what was intended.

 

Dog News Round-Up

Conan, a Belgian Malinois, smiles for his portraitLet’s wrap up 2019 with a look at a few good-news stories about dogs!

1. More dogs have great jobs

A 2-year-old Labrador in Chicago that solemnly swore to uphold the law and comfort children is working hard in the Cook County courthouse. Hatty, the dog, was trained in part by inmates. And her job is to comfort children or others with anxiety or mental illness who are testifying in court cases. Hatty is a role model for dogs everywhere.

2. Dogs who travel for their jobs are getting better working conditions

Slowly, slowly airlines, the FAA, and others in the airline and transportation arenas are coming to their senses and enforcing some (very minimal, but there’s hope …) rules around which non-humans are allowed to fly and what behavior is acceptable. Service dog teams are involved in the struggle as more and more horrifying stories of untrained emotional support animals interfering with their work emerge. Everyone deserves a safe and respectful work environment, including service dogs.

3. Dogs are teaching humans about compassion and empathy

The heartbreaking story of an ill, orphaned giraffe was made a tiny bit less awful by the dog. Hunter, a guard dog, befriended the young giraffe immediately. And when Hunter realized that his friend was ill, he remained with the baby giraffe night and day, even keeping vigil after the giraffe died.

4. People with dogs live longer, happier lives

It’s long been known that dog ownership alleviates loneliness and social isolation and encourages people to get more exercise. Now we can add improved longevity after a heart attack or stroke to the list. A Swedish study found that individuals who had had either a heart attack or a stroke and who lived alone had a 33% lower risk of death following a heart attack and a 27% lower risk of death following a stroke.

5. Romance thrives

Sometimes, the girl next door is just the one. A romantic at heart, Harry just knows that Holly is the girl for him. This golden boy has been courting his love for seven years. He politely asks her parents if she can come on dates, and he even brings her presents.

6. Heroic dog makes full recovery

Conan, the dog hero who took down an ISIS leader, made a full recovery from injuries suffered during the operation. The Belgian Malinois, who is a noncommissioned U.S. military officer, was also honored at the White House for his brave service.

Have a wonderful 2020, and please be on the lookout for good-news dog stories to share here!

Friends Forever

Happy brown dog on grass
This photo from the Daily Dodo website shows a grown-up dog who recognized her foster mom.

Dogs have long memories. They’ll recognize a person they love even several years after they last met.

A news story a few weeks ago about a woman who found her missing dog after 12 years as well as one about a pup who recognized her foster mom after a year reminded me of a couple of similar experiences.

I fostered a puppy once in Israel. She stayed with me for a couple of weeks before I found her a great home. Several months or a year later, I was walking down the street in downtown Jerusalem, and this huge dog walking toward me got very excited. Always a sucker for a cute dog, I stopped to say hi. And realized it was the foster puppy, all grown up.

And just this past summer, Cali and I were walking along the river in Missoula, when Cali spied a friend waaayyyy down the path. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether Cali sees an actual friend or a friend she hasn’t met yet, but she was very excited. As we got closer, I recognized friends we hadn’t seen in a couple of years.

Dog lovers, they stopped. The husband recognized us, but the wife had eyes only for the dog. She commented on how friendly this dog was as she petted and cuddled Cali for a few minutes  … and finally looked up to see me and her husband stifling our laughter. Of course Cali was happy to see her! Cali adores her!

This of course confirms that our dogs do really love us. And, in the case of the lost dog, underscores how important it is to microchip your dog (and keep the registration current) — that’s how that Florida woman in the first example was reunited with her dog after 12 years!

To me, it also means something else: The current trend toward acknowledging that dogs and ther sentient animals are different from inanimate property is long overdue. We need to do a better job of looking out for their interests and considering their well-being.

A Mind of Her Own

A dirt path, some tall grass and trees. Cali, a golden retriever, is hiding
Where’s Cali?

I was talking to a friend the other day who said of her dog,”She’s smart. She doesn’t obey, but she is smart.”

I said that obedient is not at all the same as smart, and maybe the least obedient dogs are some of the smartest.

There’s a lot of disagreement over how to define or measure “intelligence” in non-humans. Some dog writers and scholars equate trainability and / or obedience with intelligence. I disagree.

Life is certainly simpler and often more pleasant if your dog generally does as you ask. But, unless the dog is likely to face severe punishment for disobeying, I don’t think that following orders has much to do with intelligence.

Cali is a case in point. When it really matters that she listen, she usually does. But one area where we constantly clash is that, when we’re in an off-leash area and I decide it’s time to go home, she nearly always disagrees.

Cali is nestled among grass and weeds, well hidden
Found her

She’ll then play her favorite game, “Snake in the Grass.” She lies down in the tallest grass she can find and suddenly, coincidentally experiences a bout of total deafness.

She does this at home, too, but the grass is greener and shorter so she’s not actually invisible (unless she’s hiding among the raspberry canes).

It’s not that she doesn’t know what I want; she knows. She simply disagrees and is asserting her own agenda. Often, she’s right; our hike or play session was much too short. She is not at all sympathetic to the argument that I need to get back to work (she thinks I work far too much).

She shares her own opinions often — in choosing the direction of our walks or picking a toy or choosing to sleep downstairs instead of in her bed in the bedroom or any number of things. She can be very determined, too.

She knows her own mind, has preferences, and figures out ways to communicate them. I see these as signs of intelligence — more than simply and consistently doing as she’s told. Though that would be nice sometimes.

Of Course Your Dog Loves You

The New York Times published an interview with one of my favorite ethologists, researchers, and authors, Carl Safina this week. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but I am going to focus on the most important part: Of course our dogs love us.

If Carl Safina says so, it must be true. In addition, he says that dogs, as well as elephants, primates, and more, have consciousness.

None of this is news to people who know dogs well — but it is great to see scientists willing to talk openly about these ideas. As little as 10 or 15 years ago, talking about dogs having consciousness would have ended a person’s research career.

Safina describes his reasoning: “What is love’s fundamental emotion? It’s the desire to be near loved ones.”

When you’re home, where do your dogs hang out? If they hang out with you, when they could choose any other room, well … they want to be with you.

I’m trying really hard to be OK with the fact that Cali spends a lot of the day on my bed, watching the neighborhood — while I am upstairs working.

(To be fair, she spends a large part of most days up there too and is wherever I am in the evenings and when I am not working.)

If you’re not convinced by your dogs’ behavior, read some of the MRI studies by Gregory Berns and others. Your dog loves you … and it’s not only because of the treats and belly rubs.