Farewell, Wrangler …

Wrangler, a yellow Lab puppy, chews on a tennis ball toy in an orange pen
Photo from Today Show website

A dog who used his charm, good looks, and luck to spread knowledge of guide- and service dogs has died. Wrangler was only 6 when he died in July of liver disease.

He became famous as a Guiding Eyes puppy who was puppy raised on The Today Show. As an adorable 10-week-old Labrador puppy, Wrangler made his TV debut. He grew up on camera, educating millions of viewers as he learned his manners and early skills. The studio, as well as his home life with a carefully selected puppy raiser, exposed Wrangler to the many sights, sounds, smells, and experiences that shaped him into a calm, confident, resilient adult dog.

An initial job as a guide dog didn’t work out for Wrangler, and he moved on to a second career as an explosives detection dog for the Connecticut State Police. In his short life, Wrangler showed the best of what a dog can be and touched many, many lives and hearts.

 

How Clean Are Dogs’ Paws?

a dog paw and two human hands connect
My paws are clean. Are yours?

A common objection heard from people who dislike (or fear) dogs and don’t want to allow dogs to enter their space is that dogs are dirty.

In response to too-frequent denials of access to assistance dog teams, some researchers in The Netherlands decided to check into this contention. “The main argument for denial of access is that dogs compromise hygiene with their presence, which could cause a health hazard. Meanwhile, people are allowed to walk into and out of public places freely,” they wrote.

They recruited volunteers — 25 assistance dog teams and 25 pet dog / human pairs. The volunteer dogs and humans took 15-30 minute walks together, then allowed the researchers to collect samples from their paws and the soles of their shoes (respectively). The researchers tested the samples for Enterobacteriaceae (a common cause of hospital infections), Clostridium difficile, and other bacteria.

And guess what?

The dogs’ feet showed significantly less bacterial contamination than the people’s shoes. “The general hygiene of dog paws is better than that of shoe soles,” the report concludes. They speculate that dogs’ habit of grooming themselves, including their feet, could be the reason — even people who remove their shoes before going into their own homes rarely clean the soles of their shoes. Dog saliva contains high levels of “antimicrobial substances,” the study says.

In addition, some people routinely clean their dogs’ paws upon returning home. I do that if we’ve been walking where people have used snow-melt chemicals or lawn “greening” chemicals or if Cali is excessively wet and muddy.

To be fair, dirty paws are not the only reason that people think that dogs will bring dirt into their houses or businesses. I haven’t found a study that compares the amount of biological ick (yup, that’s the scientific term) humans shed vs. dogs but … I suspect that goldens and labs would not come out on top. Then there are the drooly breeds … Let’s quit while we’re ahead.

What Happens When a Service Dog Retires?

Yellow Lab Ryan and Black lab Koala relax in a play tunnel
Ryan, left, and Koala, enjoyed a short vacation in Florida just before Ryan’s 2020 retirement.

When a service or guide dog is no longer able or willing to work, what happens?

Many of them stay with their families, living a life of leisure, enjoying many belly rubs, and watching some young whippersnapper do “their” job. Poorly, of course.

But not all people who partner with service or guide dogs can keep their retired partners. There are many reasons for this: Some are elderly folks or people who live on a very tight budget, and they simply cannot care for a second dog. Some are busy professionals who travel frequently and feel that they owe their retired dog a better life than frequent stays at a kennel and long, lonely days while they — and the new dog — head to work. Sometimes a guide or service dog retires because their partner dies or becomes seriously ill.

Whatever the reason, the guide or service dog’s partner or family often looks for a retirement home for the dog. Often extended family eagerly step up: Deni’s first guide, Oriel, spent a couple of years with family in Indiana before moving to Florida to live with us. Alberta, who retired young due to an eye tumor, lives with Deni’s nephew & family, including her new charge — a human puppy!

If family placement is not an option, many guide dog partners ask dog-savvy friends and acquaintances; I was a finalist in the retirement-home search for a Guiding Eyes dog recently, but the dog opted to stay closer to her partner rather than move to Montana (her loss …).

When neither of those options works out, guide and service dog schools generally place the dog with someone on their extensive waiting lists. These are usually volunteers, donors, puppy raisers (perhaps even that dog’s puppy raisers!), or others with ties to the school.

The dogs never end up panhandling for cookies or living under a bridge somewhere.

Celebrate K9 Veterans!

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

A reader let me know that National K9 Veterans Day was on March 13.

The U.S. has had canine service members since 1942. Our brave canine service members sniff out explosive devices, patrol, serve as guards, track people, and do so much more. They also provide companionship and comfort to human service members serving in difficult situations.

Other canines serve veterans as service dogs, including supporting veterans with PTSD and helping them adjust to civilian life. While these dogs are not actually K9 veterans, they deserve a mention for their service as well!

A local K9 veteran, Sergeant Bozo, began his service at Fort Missoula as a young puppy. At the age of 4, Bozo was promoted to the rank of honorary master sergeant and joined the Fourth Infantry. After Sergeant Bozo’s tragic death, he received loving tributes from newspapers all over Montana. He was buried with full military honors, it’s said, possibly in the military cemetery at Fort Missoula (though that was against the rules and has never been confirmed). His footprints and name are scratched into a cement marker on the site of the old post, though, and local lore holds that he was buried there. And the Sergeant Bozo Memorial Dog Park is located nearby, in a large park now located adjacent to the historic fort. Cali and her friends honor Sergeant Bozo’s memory with frequent walks there.

The Military Working Dog Teams National Monument in Lackland, Texas, honor all U.S. military dogs. And military dog heroes are honored with monuments across the country, from New York to California, and there’s even one on Guam. If there’s no monument you can visit, consider honoring military K9s — veterans and active duty service members — with a donation to an organization that sends care packages to canine teams, trains service dogs for veterans, or helps K9 veterans find loving retirement homes.

 

A Win for Service Dogs!

Koala, a black Lab, studies her iPad
Koala is booking her next flight

The Department of Transportation released its new rules regarding travel with service dogs. This long-awaited ruling amends the Air Carrier Access Act’s (ACAA) regulations on travel with service animals. The 122-page ruling is available on the DoT website. An FAQ is also available. More than two years(!) have passed since DoT first requested public comment.

The ruling is worthwhile reading. It describes several issues considered and summarizes the comments and arguments presented around each. I’ll summarize some of the key points here, and let you delve into the details on your own.

The new rules take will effect January 11, 2021, after publication in the Federal Register on December 10, 2020.

1. Alignment with ADA on definition of a service dog

The ACAA has adopted similar wording and a similar approach to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) in defining a service animal as “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.” More significantly for the traveling public, the ACAA is doing away with any requirement that airlines allow passengers to bring so-called Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) on board without paying a pet fee.

It also requires that airlines treat psychiatric service dogs the same way it treats other service dogs. Many airlines had treated these as ESAs and/or required additional documentation or other “hoops” for passengers traveling with psychiatric service dogs.

The amended ACAA excludes miniature horses from travel in the cabin of an airplane.

2. New paperwork requirements

The new ruling includes a paperwork requirement for all travelers with service dogs. Using the DoT official Air Transportation forms, each traveler who is accompanied by a service dog will be required to attest that the dog has been trained to assist with a disability, the dog behaves safely in public, and the dog is in good health and current on vaccines. If the traveler has any flight segments that are eight hours or longer, they must further attest that the dog “has the ability either not to relieve itself on a long flight or to relieve itself in a sanitary manner” (what counts as sanitary is unspecified).

Airlines can require that the traveler provide the forms up to 48 hours in advance of the flight if they’ve made their flight reservations by then. Airlines cannot, however, require that passengers traveling with service dogs check in earlier than other passengers or check in in-person. If a traveler’s reservation is made within 48 hours of departure, the airline can require the passenger to present the completed forms at the departure gate.

3. About the dog

Airlines may limit a passenger to two service dogs. Whether the passenger has one or two service dogs, though, dog(s) and human must all fit within the space of the handler’s seat and foot space on the aircraft. And they can require that the dog be “harnessed, leashed, or tethered” at all times in the airport and on the aircraft. This is a departure from the ADA, which makes allowance for unrestrained service dogs if that’s necessary for their work. The rationale given in the ruling references the unique environment of an aircraft and situation of being in close quarters, in a stressful environment, with no escape.

If a service animal is too large to fit in the passenger’s space, the airline must offer to move them to another seat with more space, if one is available in the same service class; move them to a different flight; or transport the dog in the cargo hold.

Airlines are not allowed to ban a service dog based on its breed (though some are still trying to do so). But any dog can be excluded from a flight if they exhibit aggressive or unsafe behavior.

A win for pets, too

These new rules aren’t perfect and won’t solve all the problems working dogs face when confronted by fake or poorly trained service animals, but removing ESAs from the picture will certainly reduce the frequency. The numbers are staggering — Airlines for America, an airline trade association Deni found recently while doing research, concluded that more than a million air travelers brought their ESAs aboard in 2018. The number of websites where pet owners could purchase “credentials” transforming their pets into ESAs, while also conveniently purchasing official-looking vests and tags, grew in a trajectory similar to the number of traveling ESAs, while the number of passengers paying pet fees plummeted.

Many of these pets, as I have written before, receive no training and are terrified when taken from their usual safe home life into the bustle of an airport, the stress, along with strange noises and smells, of an airplane, and then, too often, removed from their carriers to be clutched by their anxious owners who are somehow comforted by the presence of their traumatized pets. Not surprisingly, the number of complaints about scared animals doing what scared animals do had climbed as the number of ESAs skyrocketed. The DoT fielded 700 complaints in 2013 — and 3,000 in 2018, according to Deni’s research. These range from animals eliminating on planes to snapping, nipping, and serious bites.

Dogs trained by reputable trainers or guide- or service-dog training schools receive many hours of public-access training and pass rigorous evaluations. But not all service dogs are trained that way. And some dogs are fine in 99% of public settings but are terrified by air travel. So the new law is not a guarantee that the dog in the next seat will be as perfect as Lassie. But, while it doesn’t close every loophole or solve every problem, the new restrictions are likely to make working-while-traveling a lot safer for thousands of guide and service dogs — and their human partners.

They Did It!

close up of dog nose
The “big gun” to combat COVID-19 spread

The Finnish dogs win!

In late September, Finland launched a pilot program using dogs to detect travelers carrying COVID-19 at the Helsinki airport!

Of course, we can’t go there right now, so we cannot see the dogs in action (yet).

Several organizations in the U.S. are also training COVID-sniffing dogs, but the Finns got there first.

The dogs will sniff samples voluntarily provided by arriving airline passengers, and the passengers and dogs will have no contact. This is a good model, since some people are afraid of — or allergic to — dogs.

The dogs are extremely accurate, and can even detect COVID-19 before the standard testing can: Anna Hielm-Björkman, one of the researchers, said that the dogs may be better at spotting coronavirus infections than PCR and antibody tests. They “can also find [people] that are not yet PCR positive but will become PCR positive within a week,” she said.

Dogs’ noses are truly amazing, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of what they can do!

 

A Nose for … Ferrets?

Deni stands with golden retriever Cali and Guiding Eyes Koala in the woods
A gorgeous day for a hike in Montana!

I’ve written about Working Dogs for Conservation before, but I thought it was time for an update. They’re on my mind because we spent a recent Sunday hiking around a beautiful Montana property as part of a fundraiser for them. Tough work, I know, but Cali and Koala decided that we were up for it, so off we went.

Working Dogs for Conservation trains dogs to search for all kinds of rare and endangered wildlife and plants. They’re based here in Missoula, and they do a variety of interesting projects here and around the world.

Working Dogs for Conservation logo features a dog standing in the grassLocally, besides the hike / run fundraiser, they also partner with REI to clean up popular dog-walking and hiking areas.

But their real work is in conservation, obviously. A new project in Arizona uses telemetry — remote data collection and transmission — and radio-collared ferrets to hone their dogs’ ferret-tracking skills. They use the telemetry equipment to locate ferrets. The handler doesn’t know the exact location of the ferret, only the general area. The dogs signal a find by lying down next to a burrow that has a ferret inside. The handler can then check the data report to verify the dog’s find. The dog’s reward is a ball game. (Cali would love this job!)

The dogs in training are good at this. They successfully identify burrows where a ferret is or has recently been 97% of the time. I don’t know about you, but I probably make a lot more errors than that in my work …

Their dogs also identify watercraft infected with invasive mussels in Montana, detect invasive insects and weeds, combat poaching and trafficking in endangered wildlife … and more.

There’s a lot to like about Working Dogs for Conservation. They train rescued shelter dogs, for one. They’ve started a program called Rescues 2the Rescue that networks with shelters all over the US to identify high-energy, intense dogs. These dogs are hard to place in family homes, but are often ideal candidates for search, detection, law enforcement, or other skilled work that requires a high drive. Rescues 2the Rescue matches up the candidate dogs with trainers and organizations who can employ them.

They also really “get” dogs and respect dogs’ abilities. “Their extraordinary abilities help us collect more and better data in the field, and their potential to find conservation targets is seemingly endless,” the website says.

Check out this organization. Better yet, if you’re in a position to donate or volunteer, consider helping them out.

 

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!