Thinking Dogs ♥ New York

Alberta and Deni trainingService dogs in New York got a great Christmas present from Governor Andrew Cuomo: official recognition as the state dog.

While some states choose a breed as the official state dog, and many states (gasp!) have no official dog, New York took a novel and wonderful approach. This article from points out that breed doesn’t matter; only education and ability.

The original legislation designated service dogs as the official state dog. The governor expanded the law to include working dogs like police K9s and search-and-rescue dogs, and the lawmakers have agreed to officially expand the definition.

Four paws up to New York legislators for recognizing the contributions of service dogs. Other working dogs are also heroic and deserving of recognition, but a tiny, possibly very cynical, part of me wishes the honor had been kept, as originally intended, for service dogs only.

Unlike this recognition, the “me too”-ism that wants to lump a whole bunch of dogs in with service dogs for special attention or privileges usually is negative, as described in this New York Times column: When Dog Owners Are Off the Leash.

Maybe my grumpiness stems from having read the two stories only moments apart.

While the writer of the Times column admits to schadenfreude at the news of a celebrity couple getting caught and penalized for smuggling their two dogs into Australia, breaking several laws, including avoiding the required quarantine — he also freely and unabashedly admits to committing similar misdeeds. Stating that “half the people” he knows do it, he relates stories of many other people smuggling dogs into no-pets venues, lying to get them on airplanes, and smuggling pets across borders. He even acknowledges having a fake letter attesting to his dog’s status as an emotional support dog, commenting that the law is so vague that it’s easy to cheat. The motivation ranges from simply wanting to avoid paying pet fees on airlines to feeling entitled to have your pet with you wherever you want. Even if that requires that you lie about having a disability and pretend that an untrained pet is a trained service dog.

While the author of the column briefly mentions that this fakery “makes life difficult for those who really need” service dogs, he seems not to care. He sounds much more irate about the high fees that airlines charge to transport small dogs, and approvingly cites a few recent changes, including posh hotels that now allow dogs and the news that Amtrak has started allowing small pets to ride on some trains.

The thing is, though, that faking it is not OK — and is not trivial. So many people are doing it that it really does interfere with legitimate working dogs’ ability to do their jobs. And their safety. I’ve seen so-called service dogs come tearing out of airport shops, snarling and dragging their people, reacting to people or working service dogs.

And, as my students who train service dogs have pointed out, allowing untrained pets into more and more public spaces might not be the best solution. As a pet owner, I love discovering new places that I can take my dogs. But as a person who understands the ins and outs of training and working with service dogs, I also understand the problem.

If pet dogs are very well trained and socialized and the owners are skilled handlers who are aware of what’s going on around them, then no harm is likely to be caused; unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. Most dogs are poorly prepared for the stresses of public spaces, and many dog owners are poorly equipped to handle their dogs safely and appropriately — or they are simply oblivious. As is often the case, a good remedy is more education. Education of dog owners — and of business owners, about how to spot and deal with fakers.

Kudos to New York for recognizing and increasing awareness of the incredible work that service dogs do. Let’s hope it will help more people understand how vital service dogs are to people who truly need them — and how harmful it is to fake it.


Potty Parity for Pets, Pros

A new era for traveling dogs

Jet-setting working dogs, along with small traveling pets, have reason to rejoice! They are on their way to potty parity.

A recent trip took me through several large airports, and I noticed something new in Detroit: A service dog and traveling pet relief area inside the secure area. Update: A new relief area was opened at O’Hare airport in October! From the pictures, it looks a lot like the Detroit one.

Now, according to the law, this should not be a novel find. Air carriers are required to ensure that all traveling service dogs, whether departing, arriving or connecting, have access to appropriate facilities. The relevant law, 14 CFR Part 382 (Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel) Subpart D, 382.51(a)(5) states: “In cooperation with the airport operator and in consultation with local service animal training organization(s), [air carriers] must provide animal relief areas for service animals that accompany passengers departing, connecting, or arriving at an airport on your flights.”

Sadly for all those dogs running between flights with their legs tightly crossed, if these facilities exist at all, they are most often outside the terminal — meaning that they are on the wrong side of security if you are transferring to a connecting flight. Solutions have included teaching dogs to use pee pads, then taking them into the family restrooms that are commonly found in airports to squat alongside their human partners; running them outside — then trekking back through security; or asking airline personnel for an escort to the tarmac, where many a service dog is too distracted by the unusual scents and sounds to, uh, deliver the goods. A tight connection can make either of the last two options impractical. The outdoor pet relief area might be at the very far end of a terminal — or even a few terminals away, making for a very long trek.

The situation is finally improving, though, with a few airports now providing potty facilities inside the terminal.


The first one I discovered was in Seattle; I found it — and I am being very generous — rather disappointing. When I was there, a few years ago, it offered essentially a large litter box, some pee pads, a dirty concrete floor and a trash can. A dog I was traveling with turned up his nose and decided to hold on until we reached our destination where, he hoped, some grass — or even a patch of dirt — might be available.

Detroit’s offering elevates indoor canine commodes to a new level. I hadn’t been through the Detroit airport in a while, and the new facilities, in the center of the main Delta concourse, were quite a pleasant surprise.

IMG_1815First of all, the service dog relief area contains two stalls, each offering the dignified or shy dog a reasonable degree of privacy. A shared hand-washing area, presumably for the humans’ use, divides the stalls. Each stall offers a small fire-hydrant-shaped urinal (female dogs might find these distasteful, but we must all adjust to this dawning era of non-gendered relief facilities, mustn’t we?). The hydrant occupies the center of a smallish patch of fake, very green, grass. Bags and trash cans are also provided. The nicest touch, however, was the built-in sprinkler system. With the push of a button, cleanup is accomplished, leaving the stall fresh and green for the next working dog in need of a restroom.

Let’s hope this becomes the new standard for powder rooms for peripatetic pooches.

Thinking Dogs

A young Jana thinks about how to get the peanut butter out of her Kong
A young Jana thinks about how to get the peanut butter out of her Kong
Do dogs think?

Many of you are thinking, Of course they do!

So, why am I even asking that question?

I recently taught a class on dog intelligence where we tried to decide what and how dogs think and how to define dog intelligence. I had just seen the movie The Imitation Game, and I mentioned the scene where the police investigator asks Alan Turing whether machines think. Turing’s response (paraphrased considerably) is that, if someone we know has different taste than we do — likes a book we hated or loves a food we don’t care for — we wouldn’t say that the person is not thinking, but that his or her thinking is different from ours. In the same vein, machines do not think as humans do, but they can follow a process that approximates human thinking, according to Turing.

Human thinking is conscious and active — that is, we are aware that we are doing it and do it intentionally. It is an attempt to understand something, solve a problem, answer a question, create connections or meaning. Human thinking is mostly done in words, though, as Temple Grandin points out in many of her books, people with autism do not always think in words but often in pictures or even video.

Dogs don’t necessarily think in the same ways as humans — or agree on everything or reach the same conclusions — but I would argue that dogs’ thinking is more similar to humans’ thinking than a computer’s is, if only because dogs are conscious and machines are not.

So, the simple answer is: Dogs do think, but they do it differently from the way humans think. They probably do not spend a lot of time planning for retirement or worrying about the bills or speculating about which stocks to invest in, for example. They do not appear to worry about things that they cannot control (unless it seems that dinner might be late …). They might think about their next meal or the dog beach or the cute shepherd down the block — not so different from some of what people think about.

All grown up and still thinking about how to get food out of her toys ...
All grown up and still thinking about how to get food out of her toys …
But even where their thoughts might meander to some of the same topics we’d think about, I bet that dogs do it very differently. While dogs are often taught to understand many, many words, I doubt that dogs actually think in words. Alexandra Horowitz, in Inside of a Dog, suggests that dogs think in smells and maybe in pictures. That makes sense when you consider how powerful their experience of scent is.

Another wonderful dog book, How Dogs Love Us by Gregory Berns opens the door a little bit toward understanding how thinking in smells might work. Berns trained his own dog, and then several other dogs, to lie still in an MRI so that he could get images of their brains — while they were awake. He did several experiments, including one where he mapped dogs’ reactions to the scent of a human from their own family and the scent of a different person. He also mapped their responses to a familiar and an unfamiliar dog. These tests, and others that measured response to cues indicating a desirable reward (bits of hot dog, I think) and cues indicating no reward, showed that dogs brains look very much like human brains. Dogs scenting their own humans showed similar responses to humans viewing photos of their loved ones, for example.

Regardless of how they do it, evidence that dogs think is all around us. When they bring a toy and ask us to play, beg for a bite of our sandwich, or stand by the door asking to go out, they are thinking and planning. The dog who creates a diversion so he can steal a coveted bone from his sibling dog is thinking and planning. The ability to anticipate where the Frisbee will come down and then to jump in a graceful arc to meet it reflects thinking (and a far better grasp of physics than I ever had). Service dogs show their thinking skills constantly in their ability to intuit what their partners need and offer it. The examples are endless; share yours in the comments!

Service Dog Appreciation Week!

service dog week

As National Service Dog Appreciation Week draws to a close, I want to draw your attention to an article I co-authored with Deni Elliott. It is a discussion of the current and growing problem of fake service dogs and “inappropriate” service dogs, that is, dogs who may be trained to assist a person with a disability but who are not trained for public access and/or have a temperament that makes them unsafe in public spaces. Unfortunately, Deni and other service dog partners are encountering more and more dog-reactive dogs, which makes it challenging and unsafe for their dogs to work.

Our proposal, which might be controversial, suggests a solution. We hope this article will be part of a larger debate in the service dog community as well as among policy makers and will ultimately help find a solution. You may download the article from Deni’s website or from the portfolio page of this website.

Clothes Make the Dog

For as long as I have worked with service dogs in training, I have known that putting a service dog cape or harness on a dog sends a clear signal: “ Now, you are working!” With many dogs, the working dog and the off-duty dog behave so differently they could be two different dogs. Wylie is an extreme example — on harness, he will work past distractions. He still notices cats, for example, but his strong work ethic keeps him focused on the job at paw. But take off his harness and he is all-dog — party dog. We call him the frat boy. All he wants to do is play. And, maybe, if we’d let him, drink beer.

Wearing his harness, Wylie is all business

Last week, The New York Times gave me an explanation for this phenomenon: enclothed cognition. The study’s authors say that we think not only with our brains but also with our bodies. It’s long been known that our clothing affects other people’s perceptions of us; now researchers are learning that how people dress affects the way that they see themselves and the way that they think and behave.

The study cited by the NYT found that people who put on a “doctor’s” lab coat were better able to notice subtle incongruities or differences in images they saw. For example, they noticed that the word “red” was colored green, or they found more differences in very similar photos. Those wearing the “doctor’s” coat did better than test subjects who merely saw the coat, better than subjects who wore the coat but were told it belonged to an artist, and better than a control group who had no white coat presented in any way.

“Enclothed” cognition is an extension of embodied cognition. Just as washing hands has been shown to be associated with ideas of moral purity and people who carry large clipboards feel important, dressing in certain clothing awakens specific associations in our minds — and these associations affect our behavior.

It’s not much of a leap to recognize that dogs are affected in a similar way.

Off duty and ready to party

Putting on a cape signals to a Pet Partner dog that it’s time to go on a therapy dog visit, and putting a cape on a service dog says that playtime is over. Some dogs even have better leash manners with their capes on. When two working service dogs, who also happen to be pals, meet while on duty, they might greet each other warmly and with a wag of the tail, but they will quickly settle back into their calm, unobtrusive working roles. Take those same two dogs on a walk together, or watch them at one of their homes when neither is on duty, and you will see very different dogs and a much higher level of energy!

Just as some people quickly exchange work clothes — and professional persona — for comfy yoga pants and an informal attitude as soon as they get home, some dogs, like Wylie, demonstrate a wide gap between “all business” and “let’s get this party started.” And there are dogs (and people) who clearly know that something special is expected of them when they are dressed for work but who maintain a consistent personality, on duty or off. Each dog’s different degree of “enclothed” cognition helps us respect the truth that all who live with and love working dogs quickly learn: a service dog partner is not a robot, but an individual who makes voluntary choices to do her job. The study’s authors wonder whether the effects of a person’s daily work uniform eventually wear off — or become habit. Do the clothes, in the end, define the dog?

Through a Dog’s Eyes

Through a Dog’s Eyes is the title of both a book and a companion DVD, which features a documentary about the placement of service dogs, focusing on twin boys with cerebral palsy. The book is written by the founder and director of the service dog organization that placed the dogs; the book describes several closely bonded human-dog teams. The author, Jennifer Arnold, does a wonderful job of weaving delightful anecdotes into her book and drawing lessons about dogs from them. Though it is not a training manual, Arnold does describe some common dog behavior problems — from the dog’s perspective. She does so in a helpful and dog-friendly way that will help owners see why the traditional methods of “correcting” these behaviors don’t work.

Arnold’s view of dogs might be astounding to some readers, however: Arnold states, for example, that dogs demonstrate “theory of mind,” providing several examples. In this, she’s willing to go farther toward recognizing dogs as thinking decision makers than most dogs experts. Even so, I don’t think she goes far enough. She clings to a common but, I think, incorrect view of dogs that dismisses the idea that dogs can “know better,” that is, that a dog can make “the right” choice, even if it goes against his training, instinct, or even self-interest. She cites as one example dogs who take food from counter-tops, stating that “nothing that hunts for a living will leave available food untouched unless they are not hungry, and even then they may take what’s available.” This not only echoes the familiar, if incorrect and outdated, view of “dogs as wolves” (after all, how many domestic dogs hunt for a living?) — it’s simply not true.

Dogs can be taught not to take what’s not theirs; all of the dogs I have trained have learned that lesson in early puppyhood.

Another area where I hesitantly venture to disagree with Arnold is that I think she over-idealizes dogs, sometimes making them sound too much like the “good wives” described in 1950s marriage manuals: eager to please, living only to serve, selfless, and heroic. I do not mean to detract from dogs’ many good qualities — I find dogs to be the most interesting and pleasant companions around — but I have certainly encountered in all dogs individual preferences and agendas that don’t always mesh with the ideas of the humans around them. Their individuality and complexity is what makes them interesting to be with, and I think that painting them broadly as helpful and eager to do our bidding shortchanges them.

Arnold and her organization (Canine Assistants, a top service dog organization located in Georgia) are strongly opposed to the use of force in training and she presents her viewpoint articulately. Since she and I studied with the same mentor (Bonnie Bergin), we advocate nearly identical approaches to educating dogs. Arnold strongly emphasizes the bond between the human and the dog in her methods of raising and educating dogs, and this comes across strongly in her book.

Overall, the book is a fun and heartwarming read and will give readers not only a new appreciation for the wonderful abilities of dogs but a great insight into the ways service dogs transform people’s lives as well.

Never Too Young to Learn

ImageBergin University has a litter of adorable black Lab puppies. (I know, puppies are all adorable, but I’ve always been a sucker for black Lab puppies.) The puppies started school last week. The puppies also turned four weeks old last week. That’s right. Four weeks. They’d had their eyes open for a full week before training started, so, honestly, I don’t know why the student trainers waited so long.

Sadly, there are still people who think that you can’t start formal training until a dog is a year old. Some more liberal people say that puppies can start training at six months. Then there are those smart puppy owners who get their pups into puppy kindergarten as soon as they can — usually once the pups are vaccinated. But even that is late. Puppies start learning the day they are born, if not before.

So why do people traditionally wait so long to begin teaching their puppies? In the history of dog training class that I am teaching this semester, the students have finally emerged from the cruel, punishment-focused training years of the early to mid-1900s. By the ’50s, people were starting to understand that so much emphasis on punishment actually got in the way of learning. A few trainers — Blanche Saunders, Winifred Strickland, and others — began incorporating praise and even rewards into their training! But the prevailing methods, up until the 1970s, were pretty harsh. Only older, stronger dogs could stand up to the punishment and the trainer’s lack of communication — and actually “learn” anything. Lots of dogs were deemed untrainable because they shut down or defended themselves by snarling or biting when treated harshly.

Learning "Sit" ...

Fortunately for puppies and people who love them, trainers like Milo Pearsall and Ian Dunbar began teaching that, like young children, puppies are eager and quick learners. Furthermore, the younger they start learning how to learn, the better they get at it. In a sense, your puppy will be “smarter” if you train her early. These trainers introduced a now-popular and ubiquitous concept:  puppy classes.

... and "Shake"

Human parents of a new puppy can reduce the number of bad habits and undesirable behaviors the puppy learns by enrolling the youngster in puppy kindergarten. Here puppies learn what to do — and what not to do — and develop good manners early on, all without harsh punishment. Good puppy classes emphasize socialization — ensuring that puppies are exposed to lots of different kinds of dogs, people, sounds, sights, smells, and experiences — all in a controlled, positive way. This helps puppies learn that new things are not always scary, that their human families will keep them safe, and that the world is an interesting and fun place to explore.

So, back to my students. These special Lab puppies are future service dogs. Thanks to Bonnie Bergin’s enlightened early training, fewer puppies need to be “released” from the program, and more will become grown-up dogs capable of doing the work needed by their owners, who have disabilities. What these puppies are learning now will pay off: The tiny bits of mushy puppy food offered as a reward for sitting or coming when called are helping the puppies build two-way communication with humans. The puppies are learning to think and problem solve, which will enable them to become full partners to the people who will rely on their assistance. Training sessions are short — only a few minutes at a time for the little pups  — and fun.

The good news is that, nowadays, training that is fun is not just for puppies. Family dogs of any age can benefit from modern training approaches that emphasize positive reinforcement, rewards, and keeping training fun. Breeders can start working with puppies at four weeks; those “adopting” a new puppy at the ripe old age of eight weeks — or an older dog — can start as soon as the dog comes home. Your dog can start today. What are you waiting for?

Special thanks to Dearing English for the puppy training photos captured from her video of the first day of training. Puppies were four weeks and one day old.