Not All Dogs Are Career Dogs

Koala, a black Labrador, wears her guide harness.The post about Ida last week and some conversations with a local service dog trainer got me thinking about the many reasons that dogs don’t succeed in a career as a service or guide dog.

For Ida, the issue was anxiety; she was uncomfortable with unpredictable sounds, with airplane travel, and possibly with other unavoidable features of life as a working dog.

Why else might a dog bred or selected for training as a guide or service dog be released?

For many puppies, and even adults or working dogs, leaving the field is the result of a health issue. Alberta retired 7 years ago after losing an eye to a benign tumor.

For others, it’s temperament. They are too nervous to work safely in public spaces, for example. I’ve known dogs with top-notch skills who simply couldn’t function in a busy public place where pets aren’t expected to be, like a grocery store or a restaurant, or even a busy park.

They may be uncomfortable around unfamiliar dogs; Deni has encountered untrained “service” or “support” dogs in airports and other public spaces who growled or lunged at her working dog. These dogs are too scared and reactive to be safe working in public.

Some dogs have specific fears, like dogs who are afraid of thunder, that mean they cannot focus on their work.

Sometimes, the problem is behavioral: A dog who is so obsessed with food or distracted by squirrels or tennis balls, for example, that she cannot focus on her work will be released.

Working dogs need to be calm under all circumstances, keep working even when they are tired, and not react to other dogs, cats, small (or adult) humans who invade their space and touch them or repeatedly call their names. They need to be flexible and resilient and able to regroup, change direction, and keep their handlers safe.

Working as a guide or service dog asks a lot of a dog and exposes the dog to many things pet dogs never have to worry about. It’s not surprising that many dogs who begin the training don’t complete it. Or, like Ida, once they see what the job is like, they quickly realize that they are overwhelmed.

I am glad I met Ida. She’s a sweet, smart girl. I’m also happy for her that she will have the kind of life she needs and deserves.


Not Meant to Be

Black Lab Ida wades into the water to stand near Deni, dressed in shorts and tank top, holding a long blue leash.
Ida’s first visit to the dog beach

A guest post by Deni Elliott

The partnership that develops between a well-bred and trained guide dog and a visually impaired human looks and feels like magic. However, as was the case with Ida and me, sometimes things just don’t work out.

Alberta, my first Guiding Eyes dog, and her successor, Koala, matched me perfectly in very different ways. I wasn’t surprised that Ida was not like the others; I thought of her as my sensitive girl.

However, after three weeks with me, Ida made it clear to my Guiding Eyes home trainer and me that she really didn’t want to be a guide dog. I am grateful that Ida made her choice before we set out together on a trip in which she would have needed be comfortable at my side while I gave a professional presentation in Chicago, attended some meetings in Salt Lake City, and then got to know her golden retriever sister and life in Montana, with many hours in airports and flights on Delta in between.

Ida got the life that I suspect she wanted all along — being a pampered pet with the family who raised her from the age of 8 weeks to 16 months. My previous two guides are happy too: when Koala retired after more than 6 years of guiding, she happily returned to her puppy raiser. Alberta, who retired early due to an eye tumor,  is now 12 years old. She lovingly watches over my toddler grandniece, who has shared food with the dog since she was old enough to fling it from her high chair.

I will be fine, even though I miss having a dog at my side and am temporarily using a white cane to help with navigation. Guiding Eyes training staff and placement specialists have come to know me well over the past 10 years; They are working hard to find my next perfect match.

My first two Guiding Eyes partners taught me that dogs with different temperaments can be equally good guides:

  • Alberta exuded confidence. Give her a challenge, and she’d rise up on her toes to say, “Bring it on!” More than once she responded to my uncertainty by nuzzling me to say, “We can do this.”
  • Koala was my introvert, analytical and thoughtful about new environments, but five weeks into our relationship, she flew with Pam and me to Israel without complaint and happily worked trains and open air markets in Jerusalem, as well as guiding me safely up and down the centuries-old stairs that traverse Tzefat.

Ida was brisk, responsive, and responsible when in harness and loved being praised and rewarded for her good work. That’s why she was matched with me in the first place! But, when off duty, she increasingly startled at unexpected sounds and sights, including wind in the trees and birds flying overhead. Within a few weeks, she could no longer shake off whatever surprised her and became more intensely anxious more of the time. Ida taught me that a smart, creative dog can hide her true feelings in her eagerness to please — at least for a while.

A successful guide partnership is a tapestry of collaboration, cooperation, communication, and trust. My dog trusts me to know our ultimate destination and give her clear directions about where we are heading. I trust the dog to alert me so that I can navigate curbs and stairs and locate door handles and empty chairs. She steers us safely around obstacles that I would run into or trip over. Most importantly, she quickly gets us out of the way of vehicles that might run us down. The partnership works only when dog and person agree that the dog has final say in all guiding decisions. We live by the Guiding Eyes mantra: Trust your dog.

Sometimes puppies decide as early as 8 weeks that they are not cut out for the intensity of guide work; others make their reluctance clear as adolescents when learning guiding skills. Dogs past their prime slow down when they are in harness, signaling to their partners that they are ready to retire. Unfortunately, as with Ida, sometimes the dog’s decision comes at a sad time for all of the humans involved: When placed in a real life partnership, they decide that a guide dog’s life is not for them.







Introducing Ida: A New Thinking Dog!

Black lab Ida holds a green rubber toy with her right paw while chewing on a Nyladbone wedged inside it
Ida uses a toy to hold her chew bone steady.

The Thinking Dog Blog finally has some wonderful news to share: Deni recently welcomed Ida, a new guide dog, to the family!

Ida, who just turned 2, is a black Labrador retriever from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

She’s a great addition to the Thinking Dog clan: She’s smart, seems to be an adept problem-solver, and learns quickly. As a young Lab, she’s also high-energy and very playful.

Black Lab Ida wades into the water to stand near Deni, dressed in shorts and tank top, holding a long blue leash.Like Deni’s first Guiding Eyes dog, Alberta, Ida loves it when Deni — or anyone, really — notices her cleverness and comments on how well she’s doing her job. She’s super-friendly and feels entitled — obligated? — to greet people on walks, even starting to head up sidewalks or driveways if neighbors are outside when she’s on a (non-working) walk.

Like Koala, she’s a bit analytical and likes to think things over. During her first visit to the dog beach (on a long leash!) she needed to think about whether sand, surf, and starfish were good things.

Ida inspects two small starfish on Deni's handOnce she felt comfortable, though, she had a wonderful time. And, back in the fenced dog run area near the beach, she raced around joyfully with another young dog. And, on her second visit, she ran playful, joyful circles as she made friends with other dogs and stepped tentatively into the rough surf.

Black Lab Ida yawns as she rests near the huge bill of a flamingo sculpture, with Deni standing next to her
The Tampa-St. Petersburg airport features a gigantic (and possible scary) statue of a flamingo

Ida is a happy, bouncy, curious, very social dog who is eager to play. She is still settling in and learning what the life of a working grown-up dog is like, of course, and she might have found the giant flamingo sculpture at the Tampa airport a little unnerving … but who wouldn’t?

She’s also still learning Deni’s routines — and quickly picking up the “extra” skills that all of Deni’s dogs learn, like finding a trash can as soon as she’s done “parking” (a euphemism for pooping).

She caught on quickly to opening gifts on her 2nd birthday — and gleefully played with her new toys! She likes to use her paws, standing on one gift to keep it in place as she removed the tissue-paper wrapping. And she holds her toys while playing with or chewing on them.

Ida is young, and adjusting to a new dog — especially after several years with a precise, polished pro like Koala — is going to be a challenge for Deni. But the two seem to have forged a close connection already, with Ida responding quickly when called even while running happily with another dog.

Their next big adventure together will be a visit to Montana in May — including a few days at Yellowstone. I hope Ida isn’t afraid of bison!

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Is Koala ‘Quiet Quitting’?

Koala, a black Lab, studies her iPad
Sometimes, a girl just needs a day off

Koala is ready to retire. She’s not enthusiastic about going to work lately, especially when travel is involved. I definitely empathize.

She might be part of the “quiet quitting” phenomenon — what managers have dubbed the increasing number of people who are showing up and doing their jobs, but no longer taking on extra work, making themselves available 24×7, and consistently going over and above what they’re being paid to do. It’s an offensive term, especially since many organizations are short-staffed and/or haven’t given many raises or promotions in the  past couple of years. Irritating or not, it’s definitely a thing.

But I don’t think that’s what Koala is doing.

She is, to be fair, doing her job but not eagerly offering new services or thinking up shortcuts, as she used to. So it looks a little like a mini quiet quit.

But her job has gotten a lot more challenging and stressful. She’s spending far more hours at the office than ever before; working more late nights when she’d rather be at Rally class; and hanging out under far more of the nicest restaurant tables in St. Pete until past her bedtime.

I don’t think she’s quiet quitting so much as pushing for a better work-life balance. And she’s not worried only for herself; she knows that Deni is also stressed and exhausted from the frenetic pace of their work life.

Some might say that she’s “mirroring” Deni or taking on some of her stress. But I don’t think that’s it exactly, either.

I think that Koala, a sensible and extremely intelligent dog, is doing what dogs do, far better than most humans: She’s living in the moment. And when she doesn’t like what the moment holds, she pushes for changes the only way she can. If she needs to slow down, she slows down … and (she hopes) pulls Deni into the slow lane alongside her.


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!