Congratulations, Ryan!

Yellow Lab Ryan and bBlack lab Koala relax in a play tunnel
Ryan, left, and Koala, caught up on guide school news during Ryan’s visit to Florida in late February.

Our friend Ryan finally got to retire.

Ryan, a yellow Labrador, is — or was — a guide dog. He was all set to retire in March. He had his retirement planned and new toys lined up. He thoroughly enjoyed his last work trip, a visit to friends in Florida, and he looked forward to hanging up his harness.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Ryan wasn’t the only essential canine worker who had to do overtime due to the pandemic. Hundreds, maybe thousands more, had the opposite problem: Their start dates for their new jobs were delayed indefinitely.

But things are slowly starting to reopen, and Ryan was finally able to retire in early June. He even got to help train his successor. Since Ryan’s human wasn’t able to attend training camp in New York, the new dog and a human trainer came to Ryan’s house. The human trainer showed the new guy the ropes in the mornings, while in the afternoons, Ryan let the youngster know how things were going to work around the house.

Finally, just in time for summer, Ryan is retired. He’s looking forward to some well-earned rest and relaxation.

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.

What You All Want to Ask

Koala, a black labrador, wears a life jacket. She sits on a chair with the ocean behind herThe night before their cruise, many of the 29 guide dogs teams stayed at the same hotel. These dogs got a head start on greeting old schoolmates, as their humans met or caught up. Many of the teams had been at the Continuing Education Seminar couple of years earlier, or had been in training together, or had met at other events.

Portable dog toilet area on ship deckThe next day, the teams, along with several hundred other passengers, boarded a huge ship. Naturally, they all wanted to know the same thing you’re now wondering: Where do the dogs go to … you know?

In the case of this group: Deck 10, near the front of the ship, just off the main elevator lobby. For some dogs, that was a very long trek from where they were bunking.

The crew set up about 10 potty stalls. Some were plastic containers topped with astro-turf. Others were large metal litter boxes with, yes, dog litter. Not to be confused with cat litter, dog litter consists of hard, absorbent pellets. The astro-turfed boxes seemed to collect the pee. In either case, the dogs’ humans were expected to pick up solid waste.

Ship staff did an admirable job of keeping the place clean-ish.

“Ish” because of many issues.

Foremost, it’s windy on a moving ship. It’s hard to balance. The astro-turf rugs shifted in the wind. Some dogs flat-out refused to try the doggy port-o-potties. Others tried, but got rattled when the astro-turf rugs slipped and slid as they crouched. Many of the refusers visited the nearby deck floor instead.

Also, the human partners, coping with their own balance issues on the moving ship, along with their dogs’ skittishness and their inability to actually see where their dogs had eliminated, sometimes failed to thoroughly clean up.

Koala took it all in stride. She’d visit several stations, and, having caught up on the news, would take care of business without a fuss.

sign reads "service / working dogs are not pets and should not be petted or talked to at any time."Carnival, the cruise line, deserves special mention for the ways the dog teams were accommodated. Outside each dining area, and in other prominent places, staff had posted large signs telling people not to pet or talk to the working dogs on board. Many passengers who talked to guide dog partners mentioned the signs or said they knew they weren’t supposed to talk to the dogs (though most proceeded to do so anyhow …).

The staff ran a private safety briefing for the guide dog teams, and the leader had clearly undergone training on working with blind people. His descriptions of how to find a life jacket, what the front and back would feel like, and how to find and secure the clasps and belt were clear and full of rich description. Each guide dog had her (or his) own life jacket!

Carnival even hired interpreters for members of the group who are have both visual and hearing impairments. Through the magic of something called protactile communication, the interpreters provided a more complete experience for these passengers. Protactile communication uses touch to convey information beyond an interpreter relaying what another person is saying; it includes description of what is going on in the environment and allows for deeper two-way communication.

 

Guide Dog Haiku

Deni Elliott learns to work with Guiding Eyes Alberta, who is now retired.

Several Guiding Eyes dogs’ human partners recently posted haiku and other poetry to a graduates’ email list. The poems show their appreciation and love for their guides. A member of the list asked (and received) permission to share some of the poems, which appear below. Feel free to add, in the comments section, your own service- guide- or pet-dog haikus, odes, ballads … or tributes in any literary form.

Naughty puppy face
Harness on, working face on!
What to do without?

Night comes, harness off
Naughty puppy face once more
We dream together.

 

The trees and sky breathe
My golden girl goes forward
Our hearts together

 

My vision as wide
As a dog can see, hear, smell
Guiding Eyes radar

 

Walking by my side
You safely show me the way
Teamwork every day

 

Our talks as we walk
Open volumes clearly spoken
Unheard by strangers

 

They don’t know our language
We speak silently yet so loudly
RIGHT!  LEFT!  STOP!  I LOVE YOU!

A movement, a language, a laugh
in voices so clear to us
So invisible, so silent to strangers
Roxanne, I hear you

You speak more loudly
“You do, too, when you smile at me.”
I smile back
A wag of  tail
A snort and shake of collar
A lean against your leg
A huff, a snort.
I smile back

Strangers never know
We laugh out loud at them
Out loud but silently
Our talks when we travel
Volumes never heard so clearly spoken
So secret, so open

 

The partnership and communication between guides and their humans is unusual, but service-dog partners and working-dog partners often experience  a comparable connection. True communication develops best in relationships where both partners’ roles are recognized and each acknowledges the necessity and the significance of the other’s contribution. This idea goes to the heart of the Thinking Dog Blog and my reasons for writing it, which is why I wanted to share these heartfelt tributes to guide dogs, both working and retired.

A Dog Can Help You With That …

Whatever you need help with, chances are, a dog can help out. Need help finding your way around? Easy-peasy. Need a guide who also lets you know about important sounds? Dog’s got that handled too.

Funny thing is, not too many humans believe that dogs can do all that (and more). Fortunately for some people, Guiding Eyes is an organization that takes chances on people — and dogs.

As someone who’s sure that we haven’t come close to tapping dogs’ full potential, I see this as a sign that Guiding Eyes (or GEB) really “gets” dogs in a way that few people, even dog professionals, do.  This understanding leads the organization and its trainers to willingly take on challenges that few people would even think possible: Tasks that require a belief in dogs’ ability to be adaptable and to become creative problem solvers, for example. GEB dogs do things that it’s really not possible to teach them without a shared understanding and buy-in to shared goals, so the trainers have to know that dogs are capable of higher-level thinking, problem solving, and working toward goals.

What do I mean? GEB places dogs with a tremendous variety of clients, including individuals who have both visual impairments and another disability, such as a mobility or hearing impairment. The clients whose dogs alert to sounds as well as guiding range from people who are legally blind and hard of hearing to individuals who are both blind and deaf. I could be wrong about this, but I believe that GEB is the only U.S. guide dog school that is willing to provide these clients with a guide dog. In any case, it was the first organization to do so.

As registration opened for the Guiding Eyes continuing education weekend, a number of these grads registered. Planning committee member, grad, and GEB consumer outreach and graduate support manager Becky Barnes Davidson waved a magic wand and somehow found funding to bring a cadre of interpreters to the weekend, ensuring that all of the grads could participate fully in the events.

Deborah and Gypsy walk togetherI had the opportunity to chat with one of these grads, Deborah Groeber. She got her first Guiding Eyes dog in 1987. GEB didn’t yet have its “Special Needs” training program, which got off the ground in 1990, but, Deborah said, it was the only guide dog school willing to try training a guide for her.

Having guide dogs has, of course, made a tremendous difference for Deborah, especially in her frequent travels. She describes traveling with her dogs (current guide Gypsy is her fifth) as “phenomenally different” from traveling with a cane.

“I think Gypsy is a great match for me because she loves going from the suburbs into the city every day, loves taking trains, buses, escalators, stairs, revolving doors and working obstacles and construction sites. She is bright, confident and self-motivated, but she also loves praise and food rewards,” Deborah said.

Deborah is about to participate in another unique Guiding Eyes program. Gypsy is nearing retirement, and Deborah’s next guide will be a member of GEB’s new program, Running Guides.

Running Guides perform the usual guide dog work as well as guiding their partners while running. The first Running Guide team graduated in 2015. And Deborah’s dog will, as Gypsy has, learn to alert her to sounds, such as smoke alarms, phones, and doorbells. Deborah knows how to teach her additional alerts as needed. Sometimes Gypsy figures it out on her own, too.

Once, not long ago, Gypsy alerted her to a carbon monoxide alarm when Deborah’s husband was traveling for work. Gypsy is not allowed in the basement, Deborah explained, but she kept alerting to the basement door, because she heard the unexpected sound of the alarm. She’d not been trained to respond to that sound, but somehow understood that it was an urgent problem. Deborah got both the CO and smoke alarms, Gypsy told her which one was making noise, and she was able to respond and resolve the problem.

That story underscores the connection and communication that develop between members of a guide team. Many of us plain old pet-dog owners, who have the good fortune to be able to see our dogs’ body language and hear their vocalizations, are nonetheless unable to figure out what they are telling us. And I bet most of our dogs would react to an alarm and try really hard to get us to do something about it. That we’d all die of carbon monoxide poisoning anyhow would not be the dogs’ fault…

As someone who has tremendous faith in dogs’ abilities to figure things out, communicate, get what they need, figure out what their humans need, and so much more, I am not amazed that a single dog can perform both guide and hearing work, with a side gig as a personal fitness trainer. I am impressed that enough people at Guiding Eyes believed in dogs back in 1987 to give combined guiding and hearing dogs a try, and that the organization is continually coming up with new ways to stretch and grow the partnerships between their amazing dogs and clients.

Amazing

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I spent a recent weekend at an event that brought together guide dog teams, puppy raisers, and trainers, all from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a New York-based organization. It was a “continuing education” weekend, offering training and coaching for teams, education on dog related topics ranging from breeding for success to technology that eases travel for guide dog teams, and opportunities for people who work with guide dogs to meet the people who raised and trained them. Nothing like it had ever happened before at any guide dog school.

The weekend was three years in the making. The idea was initially met with skepticism from the training staff, though it was immediately embraced by the grad teams and puppy raisers. As teams arrived at the hotel, those of us who had planned the event and were checking them in began to have doubts. 80 guide dog teams in one hotel? What were we thinking? Arriving dogs, on recognizing kennel buddies, puppy pals, trainers, or, best of all, their puppy raisers — their first families — momentarily forgot their manners and bounced, danced, and wagged with joy. Grads, meeting familiar friends and encountering new ones, were equally emotional. The dogs, at least, quickly remembered their excellent breeding and top-notch training and focused on getting their partners to their rooms. Which was no small challenge in the most confusing hotel I’ve ever seen.

Over the weekend, humans and dogs continued to amaze. An army of volunteers, primarily puppy raisers, escorted blind attendees to tables in the dining room and helped them navigate the extensive buffet meals. In sessions, anywhere from a dozen to eighty calm dogs relaxed under tables and at handlers’ feet, oblivious to distractions. They worked through bustling hallways and deftly steered around other teams, running children, concrete pillars, and tempting indoor gardens of lush vegetation.

The weekend was important for so many reasons. Puppy raisers, including some who have been raising and socializing puppies for more than twenty years, got to see living, breathing examples of how their hard work and devotion improves lives. Graduates got to meet the wonderful people who raise the puppies who become their partners. All of us met new friends (or finally met in person people we’d been communicating with for years!). Everyone got a better understanding of what it takes to turn a tiny puppy into a working guide.

This special event provided enough information and stories for several blog posts, which I’ll write and post over the next weeks. Most of all, it was an outstanding example of how capable, creative, and flexible dogs — and their human partners — truly are.

Early Retirement

Alberta_closeupThe one constant in life with dogs is change — and that can be tough sometimes.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: Alberta is retiring. Alberta and Deni are a match made in heaven if ever there was one. They adore each other, and Alberta is a cuddly, affectionate Mommy’s girl. For all her goofiness and antics, though, Alberta is an outstanding guide dog, a creative problem-solver, and the life of any party (or classroom … or faculty meeting …). In harness, she’s a consummate professional; off-duty, she’s an eternal puppy. Her love of fun will serve her well in her early retirement.

Alberta has a rare type of tumor in her eye. She will have surgery to remove the tumor (and the eye) this week, and she will retire from work as a guide dog. She will move to Montana later this summer to live with her cousin Mack and Mack’s parents.

Bayboro_Blonde-smAnd, knowing Alberta, she’ll figure out a “retirement job” soon enough. Maybe she’ll build on her experience as the model and spokesdog for 3 Daughters Brewing’s Bayboro Blonde Ale. Or further her media superstar career, launched by an article in the Tampa Bay Times, frequent blog appearances, and a USA Today story.

I’m sure she’ll continue to delight and amaze everyone she meets. I’ve learned a lot from her about doggy humor, intelligence, and empathy. She taught me how dogs can pass the marshmallow test, which turns out to be pretty similar to the way young children do it (they distract themselves). She taught Deni, the Dog Training Club of St. Petersburg, and dozens (hundreds?) of dogs and handlers that Rally and other dog sports are a great way for guide dogs and their humans to let off some steam. She’s helped Deni navigate torrential downpours, bizarre obstacles, and hostile vehicle and foot traffic, especially in crowded airports; in fact, she’s so good at it that Deni has no idea how many (thousands of) people Alberta has gently but effectively nosed out of their path over their too-short three years together.

While she’s leaving her job, she’s not leaving this blog; I hope to continue to follow her adventures from afar (and sometimes in person). And I’ll continue to tell Alberta stories whenever they’re relevant to revealing the amazing cognitive abilities of our canine friends.

Deni has a tough few weeks or months ahead: getting used to life without Alberta, waiting for a new guide, then adjusting to the new dog. Despite her delicate, petite physical appearance, Alberta leaves some pretty big paws to fill.