Yes He’s a Service Dog

Recently there has been a lot of press about fake service dogs.  Articles are written about how to spot a fake dog.  What can you do if you see someone with a fake dog.  How easy it is to fake that your dog is a service dog.  It has become something of a cause de jour.  The only problem is, that can make things so much harder for people who have a legitimate need and a trained dog assistant.  Especially for people who do not look all that disabled.  Here’s a news flash: service dogs are not just for people who have visual impairments any more.  They can be trained to help with everything from physical mobility issues to PTSD.

I have had severe anxiety my entire life. Pair that with ADHD and a tendency towards panic disorders and I can be one spastic mess of a human if I am left untreated.  I have tried many medications over the years, from Ritalin to anti-depressants.  Probably the worst experience was with Zanax.  My hyperactivity means that’s that drugs are pushed through my system much faster than the norm, and that drug hit me like a sledge hammer.  I felt like I was in a waking dream every moment I was on it.   I’ve self-medicated with smoking and gambling. Both which caused issues much more severe than the original problem.

Unlike many people, I am not self-diagnosed.  I have been under the care of doctors, therapists, psychiatrists and counselors.  This has been an on-going issue since I can remember.  I was severely injured a couple of times as a child and I hid the injuries from my parents because I was so worried about how they would react.  Bear in mind, my parents never laid a hand on me. I had no rational basis for this fear.  It is part of my disorder.

When we adopted Ray something funny happened.  He was able to sense when I was getting anxious and he would solicit my attention to break the cycle of panic.  And it worked.  I had never experienced that ability to stop my feelings from escalating.  I came to depend on his talent to read my emotions, my breathing, and my anxiety and to react appropriately to help me cope. When we traveled to South Dakota together to attend the signing of the anti-bsl bill I learned that he was able to even help me with the anxiety of flying.  All without being trained.  Ray was NOT a service dog, but he had the instincts that would have made him an amazing one if he’d been trained.  Natural dog behaviors do not make a dog a service dog.  They must be trained to complete tasks on cue in order to meet the legal definition of an assistance dog.

When Ray died, I realized that I not only had lost my heart dog, I had lost someone who had helped me function normally.  That loss was so profound, I found myself back in counseling, trying to make sense of why my grief was so paralyzing.  It was my counselor who first suggested that what Ray had provided on his own could be duplicated by a trained service dog.  She actually wrote me a prescription for a service dog, something that is not a requirement, but which has proven to be beneficial more than once.

We adopted Bubba G specifically to train as a service dog.  When I reached out to Coloradogs I was looking for a large, calm, easily trained, highly motivated dog who did not have any major dog aggression issues. The rescue suggested Bubs, and fellow Vicktory mom Rachel volunteered to take him on outings to see how he did in public and the workplace.  He passed with flying colors.  Based on her recommendations, I adopted Bubba sight unseen.   The day after he came home he was evaluated by Sherry Woodward to see if he had the right demeanor for service dog work.  That was also the day he met his trainer Keith Hightower. 

Bubba and I went through group and individual training to teach him what he needed to know to help me with my issues. He is a natural although some skills came harder than others.  We worked on training for about 18 months before he got to where he needed to be for service dog status.  I came to depend on him so much, that it was a real issue when I started a new job in a new town and had not yet been approved to have him at work with me.  The six months I went to work without him were nerve wracking and exhausting.  Thankfully he was eventually able to come to work and he makes every day so much easier for me.

Yesterday we were walking over to McDonalds for lunch.  Bubba was wearing his service dog vest which I generally only put on him when we are going in somewhere new (fyi vests are NOT required on service dogs but having them can stop a lot of hassle).  An older couple walked into the building right before us. The man started to hold the door for us when his wife (or whatever she was) said something I couldn’t hear, and he let the door close in my face.  I opened the door and told Bubba to enter and the woman spins on her heels, barging past us, saying loud enough to make sure I could hear “I’m not going to eat any place that allows a dog in the building” and then she made eye contact with me and spit out “fake service dog” before leaving the building. Wow….

I can understand the frustration with fake service dogs. I’ve been in Walmart when small yappy dogs are dragging their people around and snapping at others.  But if you see someone with a dog who is obviously well-trained, with perfect public access manners, you cannot assume it isn’t a necessary accommodation for his or her handler.  And frankly, it isn’t any of your business.  It is up to an individual business to challenge the handler if they think something is wrong.  And they can only ask if that is a service dog and what has he been trained to do.  If the handler answers those questions and the dog is behaving appropriately, the dog must be allowed anywhere the general public is able to go.   If a dog is barking, soiling or marking, or acting aggressively a business has every right to ask the handler to remove the dog. 

Bubba is my best buddy.  But even more importantly, he allows me to feel normal in a world that can be overwhelming.  We have been incredibly lucky in most of our public interactions, but it only takes one bad experience to increase my anxiety going forward.  Please think before you accuse someone of having a fake service dog. 

Losing a Beloved Companion

Our beloved RayRay

Almost every day I see a Facebook post that someone’s beloved companion has passed away.  Each and every time it sends a stabbing pain through my heart.  I feel for their suffering and wish I could ease it for them.  

In just the same manner as those dealing with human loss, these loving caregivers will need to transverse the five stages of grief that Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross introduced us to in her book “On Death and Dying”: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  No one can make things easier, and each person will deal with their grief in their own way and in their own time.

Those who are not “animal people” will never understand.  But those who have welcomed beloved companions into their lives know all too well that the loss of a “pet” (how I dislike that word) is every bit as painful as the loss of a human family member.  In some cases, it is even harder.       

Dogs, cats, birds, horses and all other companion animals are not just living obligations that we allow into our lives.  They become so much more: a friend, a companion, a soul mate.  In some cases, they become just as close as our children.  And their loss strikes at the center of who we are as humans.

Human children grow up, move out and move on with their own lives.  Our companions never do.  They don’t ask for money, or argue politics, or ask to use the car.  They don’t roll their eyes at our old-fashioned ideas as our human offspring are wont to do.  They are always glad to see us and act as if we’ve been gone forever each and every time we come home. They are loyal, they are loving, and they think we are absolutely wonderful just the way we are.  Is it any wonder we grieve their loss so strongly?

Thankfully there are studies which validate what we are feeling.  A 1988 study in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling asked dog owners to express how close their companions were to them.  A majority of respondents placed their dog as close as their closest family member.  In an unbelievable 38% of cases, the person responding said their dog was their closest family attachment.  

A study that was published in 2002 showed that the death of a beloved companion is every bit as devastating as the loss of a spouse or significant other. 

I know first hand how strong the grief can be.  When Ray died it was one of the most significant losses I have ever experienced.  Today, more than four years later, I still tear up when I think about the night we lost him to an unexpected blood clot.  When it happened I couldn’t understand why I was reacting so strongly to the loss of a dog.  It took time and the assistance of a really good counselor for me to begin to understand.

Grief is not just an emotion, it is a state of being.  Sorrow will roll over us in unexpected waves.  At first, it is hard to even catch a breath as we are pummeled by the tidal wave of grief.  Slowly, with time, it begins to recede somewhat.  But just like the tides of the ocean, it never really goes away. For the most part it becomes gentler and less devastating. But there are always those moments when we are once again pulled underneath the current of pain.   Eventually it becomes a constant awareness, but it no longer rules our hearts or minds.

It is so important to give yourself permission to grieve.  You have lost an incredibly important emotional attachment.  It doesn’t matter if others understand.  You need to acknowledge your loss and recognize the sorrow and emotions.  Do not allow others to tell you how or how long to mourn.  It is not their loss and they have no say in what you are experiencing. 

I will always miss Ray.  I will always have those moments where I think of him and cry.  But now I can celebrate what we had together instead of just grieving his loss.  And that is what I wish for all my friends and family as they experience this most painful of life’s transitions.

There is a legend at Angel’s Rest that I absolutely love.  The gravesites are ringed by hundreds of windchimes.  Every single time there is a placement ceremony (funeral) at least one wind chimes rings out loud and clear.  Even on the stillest of days.  According to the story told by the caretakers, when an animal is placed he is finally free to run to the Rainbow Bridge. His body is now young, and strong and healthy. When he gets there and sees all of the happy animals and humans he is so excited that he jumps and twirls and runs, raising a wind which comes down to earth and touches the chimes.  Just so we will all know he is happy and safe now.  And that is the thought that I hold closest in my heart.  Somewhere Ray is young and healthy, strong and happy and is running free awaiting the time I will join him.

Towel Bonking is Barbaric

How ironic that a video of a trainer named Jeff Gellman using a rolled and rubber banded towel to forcible “bonk” a dog would show up on my Facebook page just after I wrote a lengthy blog post on punitive training methods.   The full video can be found here. The incident takes place at about the 3 minute mark.

This video made my stomach hurt when the dog reacted in fear and pain, yipping and jumping away. It was no different than if the man had reached out and punched the dog in the head.  And then I noticed that he used his foot to retrieve the towel from beyond the dog’s reach before bending over to pick it up.  Gee…I wonder why.             

There is no need for this type of abusive training any more.  We know better.  And just because something works doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. 

But here is the thing I found most disturbing about that video, beyond the abuse.  This man’s timing is abysmal, and he is going to get someone hurt.

In the longer video that he has posted I watched while the dog was reactive to a dog across the room but responded quickly to his handler and sat down at her side almost immediately after reacting.  Then he looked to her for validation of what he had just done.  What am amazing time to reward good behavior.  We WANT dogs to check in with us.  We WANT to reward them when they do the right thing.  When the distracting dog is brought back into the picture you can see the dog begin to tense, but instead of jumping up and barking/pulling again, he immediately looks at his person.  And then…right at that instant, when the dog looks up for guidance, he was hit, at close range and impressive force but absolutely no warning, with the rolled towel.

What in the hell did you just teach that dog?  You taught him that checking in with his person can be scary and painful.  This dog was already trying to curb his inappropriate behavior.  That is  the time to positively reinforce his progress, not teach him the exact opposite.  If this happened again you would be well on your way to insuring that dog never, ever checks in with his handler, and as a potential service dog, doing so is beyond critical.

You don’t have to beat a dog to teach them.  You just don’t. Not ever.  

We Cannot Save Them All-Nor Should We Try

I started writing again a couple of weeks ago for the first time in two years.  Began a new blog and have published a couple of articles.  Those were both lead-ins to this story I knew I needed to write, but which I have been avoiding.

Some of you may have noticed when my blog went silent and I no longer posted articles and opinion pieces on social media. I didn’t stop writing gradually.  I stopped suddenly and completely on December 4, 2017. That was the day that Bosco attacked me and changed my world forever. Until now I have never written about (or even really spoken about) that night.   It was too life-changing, too violent, too painful and too traumatizing to even begin to wrap my head around, let alone make sense of it all for the outside world.

In part there was some undeserved shame involved.  Kevin and I were extremely vocal pit bull advocates, and now I had been injured by a pit bull terrier type dog.  The anti-pit crowd had a field day with the event. In their minds it validated everything they were saying about pit bull type dogs.  In truth, it validated what we had been saying all along; that each dog is an individual. A product of breeding, training, socialization and experiences.  And in Bosco’s case, in all probability, physical health and well-being.  Bosco didn’t attack me because of his breed, he attacked me because something went haywire in his brain.

When we look back at videos of Bosco it is extremely apparent that he was in a steep downward spiral behavior-wise.  Day by day, week by week, his behavior deteriorated.  This was not an emotionally/mentally healthy dog and strange things tended to set him off unexpectedly.  But his biggest bugaboo was “stranger danger” and we could not safely have any other person in our home with him there.  The day that we were expecting a visit from the internet service tech, Kevin and I took turns driving him around for hours.  And when he got home and realized someone had been in the house, he was frantic and reactive.

Although Bosco always had questionable people skills, he had amazing dog skills. And that’s when we really noticed we had an issue… when his dog skills started deteriorating rapidly.

One evening he and Turtle got into a scrap and it quickly escalated to something that could have ended badly for Turtle, as she has no teeth to protect herself, but the tenacity of her former fighting life to keep her from backing down.  Kevin got his hand in the middle and took a bite and was out of commission.  I grabbed the citronella spray and sprayed it into the snarling knot of dogs which successfully drove them apart.  But without even taking a beat, Bosco launched himself at my arm, biting me badly through a sweatshirt and was ready to come back for more if I hadn’t sprayed him directly in the face.  He scared me to death that night because there was no one home in his eyes when he went for me.

The next day I was seeking advice from my manager and some of the behavior specialists at work.  I really was looking for someone to validate what I was thinking; that this dog was not safe and needed to be euthanized.  Against my better judgement I allowed people to convince me that I needed to try to work with this dog.  I was directed to try nutritional supplements, increased exercise via a treadmill instead of walks as they were too triggering, and finally drug therapy to try and keep him on the right track.

Then the night of December 4th came. It was quiet time for the dogs so that our birds could come out of their cages and socialize.  That meant that the dogs retired to separate rooms or crates and got a kong or a marrow bone to keep them occupied.   We generally kept the door of the crate in the living room closed because Bosco would try to kill any other dog who went in there in front of him. I was just leading him into his room when Turtle nudged the crate door open and went into it in anticipation of receiving her bone.  Bosco lunged past me and went for Turtle.  I raced to try and hold the door of the crate closed with my leg and he decided that if he couldn’t get to Turtle, I would do just fine.  He took me down before I could even realize what was happening, severing a finger on my left hand and totally shattering all the bones in my right arm from wrist to forearm.  If Kevin hadn’t grabbed a can of bear spray that was a gift from Vicktory Dog Lance’s people, I would have died right here on the floor. 

Bosco had to be killed that night while I was being ambulanced to a hospital an hour and a half away.  He didn’t get the dignity of a calm and supported, peaceful euthanasia.  Instead he endured the trauma of his own emotions and behaviors and died in a state of reactivity and violence. He deserved better.

That night changed my view of the words No-Kill. 

I am eternally thankful that Bosco attacked me, and not someone else.  I could not have lived with myself if he had gotten loose and attacked a child or even an adult.  I found out very graphically how quickly a human can be incapacitated by an attacking dog.  I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, ever.

Bosco should have been humanely euthanized the first time he bit me.  There should have been no question. If he could react that way to someone he lived with and cared for, he was not a safe dog to have in a home.  I should not have allowed myself to be talked out of taking the steps I knew to be necessary.  But here’s the deal….the culture of No-Kill has made it almost immoral to euthanize any dog, even one who needs it.  Bosco was suffering just as much as if he’d had a medical issue.  His emotional and mental health made for a poor quality of life, and it should have been ok to help end his pain before something bad happened.

Yes, we want to save dogs who are healthy and adoptable.  No dog should ever be killed who could thrive in a home.  But in some ways, I believe it is immoral to try and save dogs who cannot have a decent quality of life, regardless if it’s because of a debilitating physical issue or a mental one.

A dog who is not safe around humans should never be adopted into a home.  And we need to stop stigmatizing people who make the call to euthanize their dogs for an issue that they recognize.  If Bosco had been suffering from cancer no one would have said “boo” about ending his suffering.  But it was made very clear to me that it would not be acceptable to cross him due to what was viewed as a behavioral issue.  

There are many, many happy healthy dogs we should concentrate on saving.  But we need to be realistic about dogs who may not be safe to save.  There are finite resources out there, let’s utilize them on saving the dogs we can.  We cannot, nor should we, try and save them all.  

  1. As usual, so well written. I worked in a state agency handling programs for mentally & physically challenged kids. Thru…

  2. Just another uneducated “pittie-hater”. ANY breed with the appropriate physical and social attributes suited to service work can be trained…

  3. Bubba is no service dog. He’s a ESA dog. There’s a big difference and insult to service dogs everywhere to…

No, Your Dog isn’t Alpha

Alpha Dogs are NOT a Thing

Hey people – your dog isn’t a wolf and he/ she isn’t trying to dominate you. Really. And the sooner we stop believing in those lies the better our dogs’ lives will be.

Among the recent comments on a post I wrote about shock collars, there were several folks who espoused dominance theory or showing a dog who the alpha is in the relationship.  Boy, do those people have it wrong.            

Almost all behaviorists and most trainers who have formal education are aware of that fact.  But the myth of canine dominance has a life of its own and has proven difficult to stomp out.  Unfortunately, shows like the Dog Whisperer keep this debunked theory in the spotlight, even though it has been disproven with time and research.

So, for those who might not be aware: there is no such thing as canine behavioral dominance, and the alpha theory is based on two total erroneous beliefs:

  1. That wolves in the wild live in packs where there is constant shifting of the pack hierarchy, as wolves struggle to become the alpha male/ female.
  2. That dogs are descended from wolves; therefore, we should look to wolf behavior to understand canine behavior.

In the 1930’s and 40’s a Swiss behaviorist, Rudolph Schenkel, spent his days studying a pack of unrelated captive wolves in Switzerland’s Basel Zoo. He witnessed constant struggles among the wolves, with the strongest of them earning the best of the resources available.  He erroneously took this behavior and applied it to wolves in the wild.   However, wild wolf packs are a tight-knit family group of mom, dad and various aged offspring.  As the young wolves grow up, they do not battle their parents for control of the “pack” they simple leave to start families of their own.  The wolves in the zoo didn’t have the ability to strike off on their own.  Their behavior was no more a reflection of “normal” wolf behavior than prisoner behavior is of normal family dynamics.

Dogs are not wolves.  The two species split evolutionarily 15,000 years ago when man began to domesticate the dog.  Dogs never live in a pack the way wolves do. At best they will travel in a loose social group when running at large.  In a household with multiple dogs they tend to take turns deferring to each other based on the day, the circumstances and how they feel. 

Multiple articles, research studies and books have been written debunking the alpha theory, so why does it remain so prevalent? Why can’t people let it go?  Because sometimes the training methods that go along with dominance theory work.  So, there is just enough reinforcement to keep the theory alive in the mind’s of people who haven’t learned better.  The problem is, dominance theory-based training can make a shy dog permanently frightened, and a confident dog aggressive.  It works best with happy go lucky, emotionally balanced dogs who learn despite our bad behavior. 

Many behaviors considered to be dominant are actually based in fear and aggression. If a dog is frightened of something he’s going to act out to get it away from him. It’s our job to help figure out how to make a situation less fear invoking. If we use a dominant base training method we may actually compound the issue.

Dogs are remarkably opportunistic and amoral.  They don’t do things to prove they are in charge, they do things to reward themselves.  They jump up on the furniture because it is comfortable and close to the people they love.  They counter-surf because the food they find there rewards their behavior.  They aren’t trying to supplant us as head of the family.  They know we aren’t dogs.  They are just trying to get what they want when they want it.  A dog who refuses to do as we ask isn’t trying to show he’s the boss. He’s telling us we haven’t made the behavior rewarding enough to perform.

Rather than subscribing to the heavy-handed training philosophy that defines the alpha movement, take the time to research and learn about applied behavioral analysis and relationship-based training. Your dog loves you and trusts you to do what’s right.  Don’t stress that trust by acting like a dominant jerk.

Shock Collars are for Lazy Trainers

Shock Collars are for Lazy Trainers

Here’s a question for you: are shock collars a great training tool, part of a “balanced” trainers toolbox or are they unnecessary articles of abuse?  Are they a easy way to teach proper behavior in the right hands or are they a method of forcing compliance?

I take my belief that shock collars are an unnecessary and horrifying training tool from some of the most amazing trainers I have ever had the good fortune to work with. The late great Pat Whitacre. The amazing Tamara Dormer. The talented Jen Sevrud. The incomparable Sherry Woodard. The excellent Keith Hightower. These people taught me goal of training is to help the dog figure out what you want and how to do things your way. That a dog who reasons things out and makes the choice to learn will always be a better companion than a dog who has been forced or coerced.

Pat Whitacre once told me, when I was working with Oscar the Vicktory dog, that dogs don’t know they’re doing it wrong.  Dogs are truly amoral and do not have a sense of “right” or “wrong”.  They just understand that something is rewarding or not rewarding.  It is our job to make doing things our way more rewarding than doing things their way. A dog who decides its worth more in treats or attention to listen to you will be more inclined to always listen to you.

 Let’s put it in human terms. Say you’re told by your employer that you have to learn computer coding and learn it now. You have no basis of knowledge to start from. And the trainer provided doesn’t speak your language, so you must try and guess what they are trying to teach you.   The trainer sits you down in front of a computer, gives you little or no direction, raises their voice and gestures aggressively when you hesitate. Demeans you and tells you you’re stupid. Every time you make the wrong choice a buzzer sounds and they pop you upside the back of the head. There are only a couple of ways you will react. You’ll either get angry, yelling back at the trainer, and ultimately might even lose it and pop them back. Or you’ll become too afraid to even try. You’ll hesitate from fear or uncertainty and your brain shuts down. You will become very quiet, very contained and just do the things you’re absolutely certain are right.  You lose your spark or any initiative. You have developed learned helplessness. This is what we do to our dogs when we use punitive training methods. 

On the other hand, your employer provides a trainer who expresses enthusiasm at the thought of working with you.  She provides you with excellent cues to help guide you in making the right choices. The times you make an error, either nothing is said or you are encouraged to try again. Every time you get something correct, she celebrates with you and rewards you in a manner that is meaningful for you. (Hello chocolate for me!)  Each success makes you feel more confident and eager to learn more.  It becomes a partnership and you are having the time of your life.  The days you work with this trainer become something you truly look forward to. 

Which training method is going to make you a better employee?  Which one prepares you to do the right thing when you are alone in front of the keyboard?

 Scientific studies have shown us that punitive training methods are reinforcing… for the trainer. It’s easier for the trainer. And because it’s easier they tend to lean on it more and more. The more they use a shock collar to train the more they will rely on a shock collar to train. It’s lazy. It’s not doing the homework to figure out what motivates the dog. It is not relationship-based training. And if that’s all you rely on to train, I really feel sorry for you, because you don’t understand dogs at all.

Want to learn more?  For the novice trainer or pet owner there is some incredible information available on Victoria Stilwell’s website Positively.com.   This is a great article: https://positively.com/dog-training/methods-equipment/training-equipment/shock-collars/

For professionals or those who do a lot of dog training, this article from the Pet Professional Guild has plenty of links to peer-reviewed papers:http://www.petprofessionalguild.com/shockcolla

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus you own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.

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