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.

 

Dogs to the rescue!

Koala, a black Lab, studies her iPad

I have a confession to make: The real brainpower behind the Thinking Dog blog comes from Koala. She’s shown, above, reviewing drafts of blog posts on her iPad.

She wanted to be sure that no one missed the important news that her distant cousins are going to save humans from themselves by fixing this whole coronavirus mess.

Eight Labradors are learning to use their super power to fight the COVID-109 pandemic: Their noses.

The University of Pennsylvania has a working dog research center dedicated to figuring out innovative ways to partner with dogs. Their latest project is coronavirus-sniffing dogs.

Dogs have already demonstrated their ability to sniff out viruses, which apparently have unique odors — either from the virus itself or from the body’s response — that dogs can detect before an infected person is symptomatic. Dogs are ideally suited for this job. Their detection ability is better by far than available detection equipment, and they can easily travel and work anywhere that humans gather.

Coronavirus-detection dogs could be more accurate than taking people’s temperatures. Their potential to sniff out contagious people who have no idea they are infected could make it safer for people to travel and resume other activities. A similar project in the UK aims to deploy these canine superheroes to airports to screen passengers.

Airports offer so many opportunities for working dogs — I wonder how the vegetable-sniffing dogs, the explosive-sniffing dogs, and the virus-sniffing dogs will all get along. Koala would like to point out that all of these hard-working airport employees deserve potty parity. She’s appalled at the conditions of the airport restrooms she’s expected to use while working and traveling and believes that the dogs who actually work at the airport deserve far better!

What’s a Dog to Do?

Cali thrusts a slightly rumpled newspaper at her human.

By Deni Elliott

Weeks of sheltering in place have taken their toll. Even our dogs have gotten bored with the stale smells in the same circuit of empty sidewalks that they’ve walked morning, noon, and night, day after day. We’re all looking for ways to amuse our canine companions, including people, like me, who are visually impaired and partner with guide dogs.

Guide dogs are used to as much socialization and stimulation as their human partners normally have, and they can’t have Zoom happy-hours to compensate. Pre-virus, guide dogs’ daily lives were filled with work: leading their people to the office, going to meetings, running errands at lunch, meeting friends for dinner or going to the theater at the end of the day. Now they are as likely as their previously active human partners to be climbing the walls. They grumble and sigh, “When are we going to DO something? When are we going to GO somewhere?”

People paired with guide dogs know that we need to go out for regular walks on harness to keep our dogs’ guiding skills sharp. But that still leaves a large part of every day. Here are some suggestions from Guiding Eyes for the Blind grads that would engage any inquisitive canine who has a basic obedience repertoire:

  • “Hide-and-seek” is an easy game for a start. Leave the dog on a sit-stay in one room, go into another, and call your dog. Have a treat ready for when your dog finds you. Take your friend back to the starting place and repeat. You can get progressively tricky by hiding behind the couch or drapes or crouching down next to the bed. If you want to teach a new recall skill, introduce a dog whistle, clicker, or simply clap your hands.
  • Deborah Groeber, a retired attorney, adds a level of difficulty with “Find it.” She shows her guide, Iris, a favorite toy, then leaves the dog on a sit-stay while she hides the toy in another room. Deborah returns and tells Iris to “find it.” The dog seeks out the toy and returns it in exchange for a treat. The work for Iris gets progressively harder as she hunts the toy down in places she is not likely to look, such as behind the shower curtain or in the corner of a bookcase. But the last “find it” is purposely easy so that the game ends with Iris feeling successful.
  • Victoria Keatting, a massage therapist and member of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind Graduate Council, is using her extra time to teach guide dog Watson to solve interactive puzzles, which she bought from Chewy.com. Treats are hidden in compartments that the dog can reach only by manipulating levers or spinning disks with his nose or paws. Once Watson understood that the treats Victoria placed didn’t fall through for him to retrieve underneath the puzzle, he enjoyed the dexterity practice.
  • Some of us are using our time at home to have our dogs help out with the daily chores. At our house, Golden Retriever Cali fetches the morning paper, and Guiding Eyes Koala deposits the dogs’ food bowls, after meals, into waiting human hands for washing. Both dogs are supposed to put their toys in the toy basket before bed, but that’s most likely to be enforced only after a human gets startled by tripping over a squeaky toy. (Watch Koala stack the food bowls.)
  • As even the best of friends can sometimes seem underfoot, author Peter Altschul sends guide dog Heath off for a weekly playdate with a friend’s dog. Unlike the concern raised if neighborhood children play together, there is no worry that an exhausted dog will bring home COVID-19.

Unlimited snuggling, petting, additional pampering, and connection create the silver lining that our dogs enjoy as we shelter at home. But every household has its boundaries. At our house, dogs are allowed only to watch our morning yoga routine. They no doubt privately laugh at the funny human tricks. But no canines are permitted on the mats. Following the internet instructor is enough for the people to handle before coffee without dog feet, tails, and happy tongues complicating our poses.

 

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.

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!

Cali Is Excited about Meeting Her New Best Friends

Cali is sure you’re going to be her new best friend!

Cali and I are working on becoming a visiting “therapy” dog team.

We met with the coordinator of the Wind River Canine Partners Therapy Dog Program this week for our first evaluation. We spent about an hour walking around in a Cabela’s store (very dog-friendly). Cali was excited about going shopping! And meeting new best friends!

I had warned the trainer that Cali’s main weakness is getting overly excited about meeting someone. Anyone. Especially men. She saw exactly what I meant when Cali pulled, hard, toward her. A random stranger in a parking lot? Clearly Cali’s long-awaited best friend. Oh wait, that clerk just inside the door: Definitely a best friend. Oh, there’s another one … and a shopper. Oh! A family with a kid!! A dog in a shopping cart!

After greeting a few people, Cali got down to shopping. It’s hunting season in Montana, so … lots of weird lure-type things with feathers? The plastic packaging wrap did not throw Cali off the scent, and she found them fascinating. She was not at all interested int he fake and dyed feathers, only the natural ones. She loved the fishing lures too. Mild curiosity about the actual equipment. No interest in plastic antlers.

Then … the toy department. The hobby horses who made neighing and galloping sounds were mildly interesting. But the small rocking horse, pink, with sparkly green eyes: Downright terrifying. It had a face. It moved unpredictably. And it was looking at her. She was not going near that thing no way no how … well, maybe just a quick sniff. Oh, wait, someone dropped a cookie nearby; maybe she can just reach over and … it’s looking at her again!

That was scary.

More people to greet, more toys to sniff. What’s this? A fake man with no head? Humans have the weirdest toys … Uh oh, that horse again. Huh, maybe it’s okay with cookies …

It was a tiring trip. Cali slept all the way home.

Cali passed with flying colors. Perfect temperament, obviously loves meeting people.

The handler? She needs some work.

Once we’ve improved our handling skills, we can start visiting. Cali would like to try visiting people at the hospital or maybe the veterans center. Anyplace without rocking horses is fine.

Retirement with Dignity

statues of 4 dogs and a soldier at the military dog national monument
Military Working Dog Teams National Monument, San Antonio, Texas

Texans recently amended their state constitution to allow police K-9 handlers to adopt their dogs when the dogs retire from active duty.

That it required a constitutional amendment is a bit shocking, but kudos to Texans for doing the right thing.

Illinois passed a similar law not long ago, as did the city of Raleigh, North Carolina. I’m still trying to find out how many other states and cities need to pass these laws.

The issue is that in many places, police K-9s are considered, and treated as, equipment. Police officers don’t get to keep their old weapons, cars, handcuffs, etc. And the dogs were lumped in with all that stuff.

It’s clearly a horrible approach and a despicable way to treat a partner.

The US military only changed its policies in 2000 to allow placement of retiring dogs with adoptive families — and only funded repatriation of these dog heroes in 2016.

With all the attention showered on Conan, the dog who participated in the recent raid that killed an ISIS leader, it’s clear that Americans value working dogs and their service. I’m sure most people would be horrified to know that many of the dogs don’t get the retirement they deserve. I’m going to follow this issue and see what I can learn about how other states treat their dog heroes.

 

Your Dog Is a Logician

Koala, a black Labrador, rests. She's wearing her guide harness.
Koala loves to cuddle

Guest Post by Deni Elliott

Guiding Eyes Koala and I have few conflicts, but those that we have get tiresome for the person-side of the partnership. Licking. Koala is a licky dog. I don’t like to be licked. I think I have found a solution to the licking conflict and realized something more about canine language comprehension.

I’m not unreasonable. A quick kiss now and again is appreciated and fair exchange for an ear scratch or a snuggle. But, spare me what became a nightly routine: The enthusiastic leap when I invite Koala to come up on the people bed for a cuddle, ending with her upper body on my chest and nose at my chin. “Oh, you let me up on the bed!” her body language says. LICK. LICK. LICK. “I’m so happy to be up here!” Rapid tail wag. LICK. LICK. LICK. “I’m such a lucky dog!” LICK LICK LICK. My plaintive, “Enough!” or commanding, “Off the bed!” ended the licking, but ignored Koala and her intent. This was not how I wanted to end the day with my canine partner.

Recently, I invited her up on the bed and, as she came close to my face, I calmly and nicely said, “If you lick, you’ll need to get off the bed.” Koala stopped. She lay down next to me with more restraint than usual, nose close to my chin. Her tongue slowly reached out to touch my face. Again, I said, “If you lick, you’ll need to get off the bed.”

She stopped. Sighed. Relaxed against my side so that I could stroke her head. Soon she shifted to her back so that I could rub her belly. No licking, just a peaceful, happy dog. A few minutes later, I said that it was time for her to go to her own bed, which she did without protest and without being rejected. I heard Koala settle down on her dog bed next to her Golden Retriever sister and thought about why my warning worked.

Conditional reasoning starts with compound sentences that use “If, then.” Dogs know the “if, then” construction. Sometimes the conditional is time, such as when Pam says, “We’ll go for a walk, and then I’ll give you dinner.” Koala and Cali know the concepts of “walk” and “dinner,” but on hearing this sentence, they head for the door, not the dinner bowls. More often the conditional is action: “If you get the paper, then I’ll give you a cookie,” “If you sit quietly for a few minutes, you’ll get your dinner,” “If you come here, then I’ll rub your ears the way that you like.” The “if, then” condition sets up a trust relationship between dog and human. Dogs that stop coming when called do so because they think that their humans have fallen down on their part of what should happen when they obey.

Koala’s understanding of the “if, then” connection when I said, “If you lick, you’ll need to get off the bed,” was even more complex. This sentence had a condition — If you lick — but a negative consequence. Koala needed to turn the sentence around to reason, “I don’t want to get off the bed, so I better not lick.”

And even more complicated was her realization that she’d have to get off the bed in a few minutes anyway to go to her own bed and that that part of the nighttime routine was not a punishment. The question was whether she could control her licking so that she got a cuddle on the people bed for a few minutes first.

Koala’s success was evidence for her ability to master human language and what is implied by what her people say. Its mastery that all of our dogs are capable of achieving. The limitation is with us humans, who often fail to see how asking our dogs to use their conceptual abilities can make life easier for both humans and canines.

Drug Dogs Forced into Early Retirement

Hundreds of drug-detection dogs are taking early retirement, their jobs disappearing as marijuana legalization makes their skill set obsolete. It’s not the dogs’ fault; the blame lies with human myopia.

A police dog wears a star-shaped badge.

Dogs can be taught to identify pretty much any scent, even scents that humans cannot detect. The dogs who sniff out cancer or flag diabetics whose blood sugar is dropping, for example, are responding to scents that humans cannot smell.

Dogs can also be taught to reliably distinguish scents and alert to more than one scent. And they can of course be taught to respond to each scent with a unique behavior — a bark, sitting, lying down, spinning in a circle. It really doesn’t matter what; the dog can learn it.

But the humans. Oh, the humans.

There are the trainers who take the “easy” path of teaching their canine pupils to give the same alert to any contraband. Easier to teach. Easier for the handler to remember. But it makes the dog’s skills useless when you no longer want her to alert to marijuana.

There are the humans — trainers, handlers, lawyers, judges — who do not believe that dogs can discriminate the scent of meth from the scent of marijuana. Or who do not believe that dogs can reliably signal which one they’ve detected.

For these reasons, many drug-detection dogs who’ve served faithfully and honorably are being pushed out of their jobs. In places where marijuana is now legal, basing an arrest on the dog’s say-so is too risky. Defendants can argue that the dog alerted to a legal substance.

Many detection-dog trainers are have already stated training dogs on other forms of contraband but not marijuana. And new recruits,  who’ve graduated with this newfangled curriculum, are stepping up to take the retiring dogs’ jobs. Even so, there are sure to be younger dogs caught unprepared as the job market shifts, new grads whose skills are outdated before they’ve had a chance to shine. The thousands of humans forced to adjust when their jobs vanished will understand how tough this can be.

The retirees’ future is not bleak, however. Most of these dogs are headed into a cushier retirement than many people can look forward to. Many of them have years of experience under their vests and deserve to enjoy their golden years. And who knows? Some may pivot to new careers. I hear there’s growing demand for conservation dogs