Good Dog: Behavior & Training
When shopping for a trainer, look behind the advertising language.
If you live in a big city like I do, you’re overwhelmed with choice for just about any service you can think of. I could get a different coffee and haircut every day of the week and never leave my local neighborhood. This is great, in theory, but how do I choose the best place for my morning latte? Who should I trust to get my hair faded just right?
Choice is also a benefit when you’re looking for a dog trainer, but you can end up facing the same kind of issues, with a lot more riding on the outcome than a bitter drink or a less-than-stellar ’do.
So how do we find the right trainer if we have only Google to go on? Online reviews are hardly fair and balanced, but we don’t always have the luxury of a personal recommendation. The answer is to learn how to interpret the language used on dog-training websites.
Think of a trainer’s website as an infomercial. Although we know it’s designed to convince us to sign up, if we’re savvy we can also pick through the language to find clues about a trainer’s methods and beliefs. Let’s start with the most common word, one that pops up on almost every trainer’s site: effective.
Of course, we all want our dog trainer to be effective. Who would sign up for Dave’s Ineffective Dog Training? We’re spending time and money trying to help our dogs become well-mannered citizens, and we don’t want to feel like our efforts have been wasted. However, there are many different ways to accomplish training goals, some more fraught with potential pitfalls than others. Efficacy is important, but ethics are important too, and are something that trainers also reflect in their word choice.
Words like compassionate, fair and humane indicate what trainers believe about themselves, but they don’t add much clarity for potential clients. All three are subjective terms; what I believe represents compassionate training might not be what you envision. Besides, what counts as humane and compassionate is determined by a trainer’s beliefs about how dogs learn and how best to teach them, so these words raise questions rather than answer them.
Trainers also use a relatively small number of more specific, objective sounding terms on their sites. Because these can provide a general idea of the kinds of things that might happen to a dog during training, it’s useful to understand what they mean. Following is a list of the most commonly used.
Trainers who describe themselves as “force free,” or some variation of “purely positive,” will never deliberately use pain or fear in their training. They will focus on finding ways to reward a good behavior that is incompatible with the behavior they don’t want to see, like sitting politely instead of jumping up on guests. Often, they’ll use a clicker and treats, paired with ignoring the dog when he’s doing something inappropriate.
The key thing to remember here is that although these trainers might see themselves as using only positive, gentle methods, what really matters is how the dog sees things. Force-free trainers who put clients’ dogs in situations where they feel uncomfortable, or who can’t teach their guardians the skills required to carry on after the session, can cause frustration and anxiety and even reinforce undesirable behavior.
Trainers who describe themselves as “balanced” may use everything from electronic collars to clickers in their approach. The balance here is between things designed to punish bad behavior and things designed to reward good behavior. However, not all balanced trainers will use every tool, or the same balance of rewards and punishments. Some will use punishment only in certain cases, others will use it most of the time. Many balanced trainers make distinctions among different breeds of dog, or different types of problems that they believe won’t respond to the kinds of reward-based approaches on which force-free trainers rely.
For example, many balanced trainers claim that although dogs can learn tricks using a clicker and treats, they can be taught to avoid rattlesnakes only by associating the snakes with something unpleasant, like a shock. Force-free trainers strongly disagree with claims like this, which has led to serious rifts within the dog-training community.
LIMA AND HUMANE HIERARCHY
These terms are less common than the previous two, but they are gaining traction in professional circles as a way to explain both an ethical stance and a practical approach to dog training. LIMA stands for “Least Invasive Minimally Aversive,” meaning that with any set of possible interventions, the trainer will always try whatever is least likely to cause pain or punishment first, only moving to more potentially unpleasant options if he or she feels the need. (This position is endorsed by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.) The Humane Hierarchy was developed by Dr. Susan Friedman as one way of organizing potential interventions, from most to least punishing. A trainer who uses these terms is engaged with the latest thinking on ethics and wants to display this engagement to potential clients. It’s very unlikely that trainers who align themselves with LIMA will use punishment, especially for basic obedience issues.
BOOT CAMP (and other military terms)
This kind of language usually suggests that the trainer believes in punishment as the best way to manage behavior. Trainers who sell themselves as providing this type of intervention often also subscribe to ideas about dominance and “being the alpha.” They appeal to frustrated owners who are faced with dogs who seem rude and out-of-control, but their approaches can be harsh and lead to suppression, not modification. Trainers who describe themselves or their approach in this controlling, militaristic language are probably best avoided altogether.
NO SUBSTITUTE FOR SUBSTANCE
Although being able to parse these terms and understand them gives us more of a picture of how a trainer operates than the words “humane and effective,” it’s clear that each label still represents a spectrum of beliefs and approaches.
The only way to get the clearest possible information is to ask trainers directly. That means you’ve got to shop around, get in front of trainers, and ask unambiguous and substantial questions about what is going to happen to your dog, and why. Dog behavior consultant John McGuigan proposes the following questions, which every trainer ought to easily be able to answer: What will happen to my dog if she gets it right? What will happen to my dog if she gets it wrong? Are there less invasive alternatives to what you propose?
These questions don’t cover everything, and they can’t inoculate you against a marketing spiel, but they’re a good place to start. If you’re not comfortable with the answers you get; if the trainer becomes evasive and starts using concepts like “energy,” talking around the question or invoking his or her years of experience; or if the answer involves anything that is designed to cause pain, to startle or to do anything else unpleasant, think twice. It’s your responsibility to exercise due diligence when choosing a dog trainer, and it’s always better to risk being seen as a busybody than it is to put your dog in a situation you didn’t want or expect.
Dog's Life: Home & Garden
Home Design Tips for Dog People
When Vern Yip talks style, we listen. Not only is he a multi-talented fabric and accessory designer and an HGTV Design Star judge with multiple seasons under his fashionable belt, he and his family share their Atlanta home with big dogs. Following are a few fieldtested pointers. For more decorating advice, pick up a copy of his new book, Vern Yip’s Design Wise: Your Smart Guide to a Beautiful Home, from Running Press.
• While I prefer the idea of a comfy dog bed with a great-looking, washable cover next to the main seating area, if you want your dog on the sofa, go for a low-maintenance, stain-resistant indoor/outdoor fabric or distressed leather. Many leathers scratch easily, so it’s best to avoid anything with too fine a finished surface. (Washable slipcovers also work in these instances, but staying on top of keeping them laundered does add to the chore list.)
• Does your dog sleep in your bed? If so, avoid dry-clean-only fabrics for duvets and decorative bedding items. Sending bedding out to the dry cleaner with any frequency can get expensive. Alternatively, place a dog bed alongside your bed. Having multiple dog beds throughout your home is a great way to keep your canine companions with you but off the furniture.
• To keep your house looking clean, go for rugs and upholstery with patterns, which tend to hide dirt and hair better than solids.
• If you have tall dogs with long tails or active dogs who run through your rooms, secure your easily damaged decorative items with museum wax. Museum wax can be purchased online and in many hardware stores, and doesn’t permanently stick to surfaces. However, objects secured with it won’t move until you intentionally sever the bond. Test a bit of the museum wax in an inconspicuous spot to be sure it won’t harm whatever surface you’re working with.
• Select furniture that goes all the way to the floor or has taller legs, which will allow you to see under the piece. Dog hair is notorious for traveling everywhere; when your sofas and chairs are on small, low-profile, block legs, it’s easy to miss all the hair that collects underneath, and vacuuming it up means moving the furniture.
• Is your dog a drooler? If so, avoid silk for upholstery, curtains or any other material surface. Silk is a beautiful home décor fabric but it does stain.
• When you refinish wood floors, choose a durable product such as Bona Traffic, a waterborne commercial and residential hardwood floor finish, to help ward off claw dings.
• Consider carpeting your stairs or installing a runner. Smooth surfaces such as wood, stone and tile may be easy for your dog to negotiate when he’s younger but can cause problems as he ages. Carpet not only protects your steps, it also provides dogs with reassuring extra traction.
• Putting in a tiled floor? Use bigger tiles to minimize grout joints. Tile is wonderfully hard wearing, but grout can become stained, dirty or damaged; smaller grout joints (¹/₁₆-inch is ideal) help keep that to a minimum. Fewer and smaller grout joints are also beneficial if your dog has an accident, since grout tends to be porous.
Dog's Life: Home & Garden
These bubbling fountains, shelters and other creations are treats for pets and inspiration for other owners
Houzzers, we put out the call, and once again you answered. Your unconditional love for your pets shines through with the care and thought you've put into building things that make them happy. And your projects have also made your patios and yards more interesting. Get ideas from some homegrown responses to pets' love of the outdoors — and to the need to keep pets safe and comfortable. Have a look, then please share your own outdoor pet project.
In Arizona’s hot climate, plenty of water for dogs is imperative. Houzz user Diane Way created this fountain from bored green granite and river rock, with underground circulating water that a sprinkler system freshens once a day. “Luna loves it, and it’s just her size,” she says.
By Reader Pet Projects, original photo on Houzz
"After my two large dogs starting drinking out of my neighbors' birdbath on a regular basis, and seeing some great ideas on this site for dog-friendly backyards, I decided that I would make my own water fountain for them," says Houzz user katiek78.
"I wanted something that I could afford and would circulate the water to try and keep things from growing in it." She fashioned the doggy fountain from a planter and a garden pond pump, and the dogs can't get enough.
By Reader Pet Projects, original photo on Houzz
Everyone loves a porch, including Houzz user jkpp04's dog Oscar and his friends. The dogs spend a lot of the day outside and have a great shelter to enjoy.
By Reader Pet Projects, original photo on Houzz
Houzz user osvold11 recently completed a dog-friendly backyard makeover. Oz has this fetching strip.
By Reader Pet Project, original photo on Houzz
There is also a sunning and resting spot for Pilar in osvold11's yard. The yard does not have any lawn, and all of the plantings are tolerant of the dogs' doing their business and can recover from heavy pet use.
By Reader Pet Projects, original photo on Houzz
"To help our dogs, we built 'windows' into our privacy fence," says Houzzer Amanda Naughton. It has stopped one dog from trying to dig underneath the fence, and the other just enjoys checking out what's going on beyond the yard. "To help them with the neighbors' dogs, we put a window from our yard to their yard. Now our two dogs and their two dogs can sniff and see each other, so there is a lot less barking."
The two windows in the fence gates were such a success, Naughton built the dogs a raised and covered corner area, called "the fort."
When Houzz user dzanoff designed a garage with a guesthouse over it, a doghouse was included in the design. The exterior entry gives access to an indoor space underneath the stairs that includes a light, a raised bed and a heated water dish for winter. Visiting kiddos also like to use the dog space as a fort.
This little shelter was inspired by a garden shed on Houzz, and it even has its own dog weathervane. "I made this doghouse for my mom's two pups and painted it to match the house," says Houzz user Feels Like Home. The house also serves as a pass-through with a doggie door to the inside on one end. Inside is a carpet to wipe wet paws on, and the structure gives the pooches shelter on rainy Seattle days.
News: Guest Posts
There are few more joyfully optimistic moments in life than the day you bring a new dog into your home. Your new bundle of fluff will add a new dimension to the household, helping you to see your home in new ways, providing unexpected moments of love and humour, and bringing demonstrable benefits to your mental health. But that element of surprise a pup brings can turn into stress when your new best friend discovers ways to damage your stuff – or herself – that you had never imagined in the days of anticipation before picking up her up.
The right preparation is crucial when introducing a new dog into your family, and even if you’ve had dogs before, chances are it’s been a decade or more since you went through that difficult teething period – so a little refresher is called for. Every dog has it’s own needs, and you’ll want to check with the breeder or rescue home as to your new pal’s particular dietary and exercise needs – and any emotional quirks of which you need to be aware. Shop for the toys, tools and barriers you’ll need in advance, and set out a plan as to which areas of the house she will be allowed in, and where on your property she will sleep, play, go to toilet and so on. Ensure everyone in the family knows the rules, and their own responsibilities.
Once she arrives, it can be tempting to just play with and dote on her until you both collapse exhausted on the sofa – but establishing some ground rules straight off is essential. Take her to her toilet place, and remain with her until she’s done: do this regularly until she knows where’s where. If you already have a dog, introduce the new siblings on neutral ground. To your first dog, this suspicious character will be an intruder on their territory, so getting them to bond is a sensitive business.
There’s a lot to consider in preparation for bringing a new dog home, but thankfully this new infographic breaks it down into a handy checklist. Be sure to go through it in detail before pooch arrives, and you’ll be set for a beautiful – and fun-filled – life together.
A guide to bringing a dog home for the first time [Infographic] by the team at Santa Fe Animal Shelter
Dog's Life: Travel
From the moment my partner, Dave Hoch, and I decided to embark on a world cycling tour in 2015, our Australian Shepherd, Sora, was a crucial member of the team. Leaving her behind wasn’t an option. Sora is part of our pack: if we go, she goes. After years of work and training, Sora—whom Dave had adopted in 2008 as a “last chance,” three-year-old project dog—had become a well-behaved adventure companion. However, she never seemed to shake her mistrust of new people and need to challenge other dogs, and we came to accept that this was just part of who she was. So, imagine my surprise when I walked out of our hotel in a Chilean Altiplano village earlier this year and saw Sora standing between two preteenagers, being vigorously petted. They said that their own Australian Shepherd had recently passed away, and Sora reminded them of their pup.
Why was I surprised? Sora is not exactly kid-friendly. Their uncontrolled movements and loud noises terrify her, and she tends to react by growling and lunging. Yet, these two young people got in her face, crowded her and petted her like she was the dog they once had. And she seemed to revel in the attention.
Who is this dog?
The answer to that question begins with what turned out to be an experiment in trust. Determined to have Sora with us on our trek, we focused on providing her with opportunities to associate strangers with positive experiences. The program relied on our understanding of Sora’s needs, explicit communication and treats—lots of treats.
From the beginning of our tour, which started in Norway, we allowed frequent, short interactions with inquisitive strangers on the street or in the homes of hosts along our route. We overcame language barriers by demonstrating how to meet Sora while avoiding direct eye contact with her; how to stand next to, not over, her; and where to pet her (under her chin). Slowly, Sora began to form positive associations with strangers. She began wagging her tail at initial greetings, and would sidle up to people and solicit their attention. As her confidence grew, so did our confidence in her.
Once we hit the Balkans, we no longer feared her reaction to humans. Dogs, however, were another matter. There, dogs roam the streets, and when a new tail comes to town, everyone wants to get in on the greetings. To assuage our anxieties , we developed a routine that worked for Sora.
We never allowed head-on meetings. Instead, other dogs got their sniff on from behind as we petted and praised her. We observed her body language: was she stiff and ready to fight, or was she wagging her tail and grunting, which signified her intent to play? As we made it possible for Sora to engage with dogs gradually and on her terms, she became more relaxed and far less combative.
In more than 15 months of travel through 20 countries, we accomplished a feat we previously thought impossible. Taking Sora out of our home environment, where encounters with new people and dogs occurred only occasionally, the series of micro-introductions while traveling transformed her into a more social, confident dog. While she still has moments of distrust, her behavior has evolved from a handicap to an occasional slip.
We have walked Sora through the streets of busy cities like Istanbul, Turkey, and Santiago, Chile, where dogs sprinted toward us in droves, and stayed in the homes of complete strangers with both children and dogs. This was made possible by exposure, being clear with others about what she needs and taking it day-by-day.
Sora sleeps at our feet each night and snuggles between us each morning. She’s a constant reminder to play, and helps us meet new friends. As we zoom by, kids squeal and adults grin. Having her with us amplifies the adventure.For more on Jen, Dave and Sora’s big adventure, go to longhaultrekkers.com
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Recently, our dog Lola got a little too personal with a skunk and wound up with a face full of stink. To remove the offensive smell, we very carefully washed her with the go-to formula of 4 cups hydrogen peroxide, ¼ cup baking soda and 1 teaspoon dish soap—that did the trick. Her leather collar was still pretty smelly, however, so I took another approach for it. After soaking it in warm water with 2 teaspoons baking soda and letting it air dry, I applied Skidmore’s Leather Cream with beeswax to both sides to recondition and soften it up. That not only worked like a charm, it also added a refreshing aroma.
Dog's Life: Travel
National Conservation Lands
National Conservation Lands protect 32 million acres of this country’s most ecologically rich and culturally significant landscapes. Each is different, not only in terrain but also in history. These lands are made up of National Monuments and National Conservation Areas and similar designations, Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, and National Scenic and Historic Trails.
They are overseen by the Bureau of Land Management and, unlike other public lands, such as those administered by the National Park Service, they have a much more tolerant policy about off-leash dogs.
There are more than 30 sites in the western states in which you and your dog can freely explore. It’s important to note that while dogs need to be on-leash in developed areas and campgrounds, generally, they are not required by law to be leashed in the backcountry. However, in some regions, for their own safety, dogs should be under leash control; hunting and fishing are allowed on most of these lands, more reason to keep the safety of your dog in mind. Be sure to follow the rules at each individual park, and—of course—to pick up and pack out your dog’s waste.
Steese National Conservation Area
Agua Fria National Monument
Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area
Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument
Ironwood Forest National Monument
Las Cienegas National Conservation Area
San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
Sonoran Desert National Monument
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Fort Ord National Monument
Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument
Carrizo Plain National Monument
King Range National Conservation Area
Mojave Trails National Monument
Piedras Blancas Outstanding Natural Area
Sand To Snow National Monument
Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument
Browns Canyon National Monument
Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area
Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area
McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area
Basin and Range National Monument
Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area
El Malpais National Conservation Area
Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument
Prehistoric Trackways National Monument
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument
Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area: the cave is off-limits to all but scientists. Around the Fort and backcountry trails are fine.
Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument
San Juan Islands National Monument
Fall is a great time to visit. For a complete listing of dog-friendly National Conservation Lands, see conservationlands.org
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Have you ever noticed your dog taking interest in something you are watching on the television? If so, you may have wondered what they might be thinking, or if they are even seeing the same things that we are, or in the same way that we are.
As it turns out, dogs do in fact notice and understand pictures that they see on the television screen, as well as the sounds that accompany them. These days, with the evolution of television and more high-resolution and digital broadcasting, dogs literally see a brand new picture, with much more clarity than before. There are even scientific studies in which the results show us how they see and process images, why they are attracted in the first place, and whether or not they understand what they are watching.Is There Any Proof?
A 2013 study shows that dogs can pick out pictures of other dogs apart from humans, and group them into categories using only visual clues. It is a known fact that like-species gather for social interactions and dogs recognized and were drawn to their own species on the television screen more readily than images of anything else. Possibly an evolutionary measure based on breeding needs, it is an important facet of a dog’s life.
There is even a channel especially for dogs on HDTV called DogTV. The channel has more frames per second than regular television and is specifically colored for a dog’s specific sight. Since dogs can process visual information faster than humans, what they see is quite different from what we see.
Herding dogs, in particular, are motivated by moving objects (think flocks of sheep). They watch the television much more intently that other breeds for this reason.Depth Perception
Human depth perception is the ability to distinguish a 3-dimensional worldview from the 2-dimensional images from the retina. This comes about from the human cognitive ability to reason and formulate similarities of experiences. For dogs, the term could more readily be described as depth sensation as their means of locating objects that they have seen.
The evolutionary adaptation known as binocular vision allows the eyes of some mammals to move in simultaneous directions, also known as "vergence". When something is view close up, ocular convergence is promoted. Seeing objects in the distance, on the other hand, promotes ocular divergence. Both canine eyes then work together in a state known as fixation where two different images come together to create depth sensation, which is promoted by binocular overlap.
This comes into play while dogs watch television in that they realize the objects are not actually with them, but on some other plane all together. It doesn’t thwart their curiosity, however, and often leads to complete fixation on the images on the television screen.Field of View
The term "field of view" describes how different parts are seen at any given point in time along the visual plane. Dogs who are predators have a very narrow field of view and depend more on binocular overlap to, or depth sensation, to visually locate and isolate prey. Their maximum field of view is about 240 degrees, while animals of prey have a nearly 360-degree field of view, for protection reasons.
This field of view possessed by dogs may immediately attract some breeds to a moving picture, but once they determine that there’s nothing really happening, they may quickly lose interest.Detecting Motion
Humans have many more cones in their eyes than dogs do, therefore human eyesight is very sensitive to movement of bright lights. A dog’s retina’s, which have far fewer cones, are much more sensitive to lower light situations. They are also much more capable of noticing a moving target and can hone in on moving objects at further distances than stationary objects that are quite near them.
This ability to monitor movement is another reason dogs are capable of seeing and paying attention to television. They may not have a good idea of what is going on within the program, but they can see that action is taking place. When their curiosity is satisfactorily peaked, they will pay more attention.Dogs and Television
Old style American televisions that work from tube technology have a frame rate of 60Hz, meaning that the frame refreshes sixty times per second. Newer television, models known as HDTV, refresh at a much faster rate. Many images on the television screen appear stationary to humans, as their rate of vision is slower than that of the television. At about 50Hz, images would appear, to the human, to look like images from a flipbook. Dogs, on the other hand, get the flipbook imaging up to 75Hz, so the images have to have a higher refresh rate to appear fluid to a dog.
To dogs, the older televisions reflect images that they perceive as simple flickers of movement or light, however, the newer televisions present more fluidity and make images appear more realistic to the canine eye’s abilities.
Some dogs even use face-tracking as a means of identifying and relating to information they see on the television screen. However, as a study has shown, face-recognition in dog’s is a trained behavior that can cause dogs to focus on the images that they see on the television screen, effectively overshadowing their natural abilities and responses in this scenario.
Dogs are initially attracted to the television because of certain sounds that they hear. Once the noise has their attention, and they then find out where the sound is coming from, they begin to focus on the images and, depending on the breed of dog and the way their eyes function, interact with the stimulus or not. It was found that some of the sounds that elicited the most response from dogs was other dogs barking or whining, the sound of the human voice giving friendly commands or praise and the sounds of squeaky toys.
Dog's Life: Travel
Camping in style
RUSTIC + LUXE + DOGS
Glamping is for those who prefer to take their outdoor experiences with a side of luxury. Like the name—a mash-up of glamour and camping— suggests, it’s a world of tricked-out cabins, yurts, trailers and treehouses that offer appealing creature comforts, including hot water, an indoor bathroom and protection from the elements. Recently, Glampinghub.com, a leading purveyor of rustic-luxury accommodations, introduced a special service for dog-friendly destinations, both here and abroad. Prices range from $138 per night for a yurt in upstate New York to just under $1,700 per night for four tented cabins on a Montana ranch. It’s a new way to experience the call of the wild.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Devyn Pereira Fighting for Independence
Devyn Pereira and Hannah, her service dog, move through their day as one. Clipped to Hannah’s harness, the nine-year-old is both safe and as independent as possible. If Devyn tries to roam, the 110-pound, white Bouvier des Flandres sits down, stopping the child with the weight of her body.
Before Hannah came into her life five years ago, the little girl had to be carried or transported by wheelchair to the school bus loop. Now, she walks beside Hannah. The dog is also trained to detect seizures and alert adults so medication can be administered.
Devyn was born with Angelman Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that affects speech and mobility, and causes developmental delays, autism and seizures. The Gates Chili Central School District, located in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., permits Hannah to accompany Devyn to school, as long as her mother pays for a dog handler. Heather Pereira’s position is that her daughter is Hannah’s handler, and she only needs minimal assistance from school staff (a one-on-one school aide and a nurse are also with Devyn daily).
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) agreed, and in September 2015, sued the school district for violating Devyn’s civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). School officials refused to comply. On August 7, U.S. District Court Judge Charles J. Siragusa dismissed the school district’s motion for a summary judgment (a method for promptly disposing of legal actions that are without merit). This means the case will go forward.
“People ask me all the time, why do you think the school is doing this? Why do you think that they are making this so difficult?” says Pereira. “When Gates disregarded what the DOJ said, it became clear this isn’t a matter of ignorance, it is blatant defiance … Devyn’s school is using her disability against her. Her level of delay does not erase her rights. It does not make her less worthy of the compassion and respect all parents want for their children.”
Most children are able to bring their service dogs to school without a hitch, according to Ron Hager, senior staff attorney with the Washington, D.C.- based National Disability Rights Network. But families who face prolonged resistance from school districts find themselves spending enormous amounts of time and, in some cases, money trying to convince school administrators to allow these service animals in their classrooms.
The number of legal disputes between families and school districts over this issue has increased in the last five years, says Hager. In the fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case involving Ehlena Fry, a 12-year-old Jackson, Mich., girl with cerebral palsy who was banned from bringing her Goldendoodle service dog, Wonder, to class.
“Our case is specifically about whether people bringing disability cases have to jump through a lot of administrative hoops first,” says Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which brought the suit with the Frys. Steinberg says he is confident about the outcome of the Supreme Court case, noting that a child with a disability should not have to choose between her education and her independence. “Give Ehlena her day in court and we will prove that the district violated the ADA,” he says.
In some instances, school officials have prohibited a service dog on the basis that the district was already meeting all of the student’s educational needs. However, preventing children from bringing their service dogs to school disrupts the special bond between handler and animal, says Tiffany Denyer, founder of Wilderwood Service Dogs in Maryville, Tenn. “It doesn’t work unless you send the dogs to work.”
When Fairfax County School District in Virginia refused to allow Andrew Stevens, who has severe epilepsy and is developmentally delayed, to take his German Shepherd service dog, Alaya, to school in 2010, his family reached out to the national media, even appearing on The Today Show. When interviewed by the media, Kim Dockery, Fairfax County Public Schools assistant superintendent, said she was concerned about keeping Andrew and the other students safe. The district ultimately allowed Alaya to accompany Andrew. “I think they’re afraid of new things they don’t understand,” says Angelo Stevens, Andrew’s dad.
Heather Pereira began advocating for her daughter’s right to take her service dog to school six years ago. When she talks about the ongoing conflict with Gates Chili school officials, you can hear the weariness in her voice, but the determination is still there, too. In 2011, the district allowed Hannah to accompany the preschooler to school; then, that summer, Pereira was informed that in order for the service dog to continue to be permitted in school, she would have to pay for a dog handler. Pereira complied, but she also hired a disability rights attorney and ultimately filed a complaint with the DOJ’s civil rights division.
In September 2013, two investigators traveled to Rochester to interview Pereira, school administrators and classroom staff. Nearly two years later, the DOJ found that the district was in violation of ADA requirements and ordered it to reverse its policy and pay more than $25,000 in damages. The New York State Education Department also found in Pereira’s favor.
This battle could prove pricey for the upstate New York school district. From October 2013 to May 2015, Gates Chili incurred more than $34,000 in legal expenses related to the case, according to documents obtained by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper through a Freedom of Information Act request.
A detailed report revealed how the DOJ reached its finding:
“Since D.P. began working with her service dog, she has learned to communicate with the dog through hand gestures and signals. Her service dog interrupts certain behaviors caused by her autism (such as meltdowns, wandering and repeated body movements). Her service dog also alerts adults to oncoming seizures so they can take precautions before the seizure occurs. In short, with the help of her service dog, D.P. is both safer and more independent at school.”
The federal agency also found that requiring staff members to unhook Devyn from the dog from time to time and to occasionally remind her to issue a command were “minimal and reasonable accommodations.”
Two weeks later, the school district challenged the ruling and filed an appeal.
“It’s extremely rare for a school district to fight the federal government. To actually litigate—I’ve never seen it,” says Ron Hager, who has been a disability rights attorney for decades. Gates Chili Superintendent of Schools Kimberle Ward declined a request for comment, saying that she could not speak on a pending matter.
The school district just doesn’t get it, says Kristin Small of the Empire Justice Center in Rochester, one of Pereira’s lawyers. “It does not get to choose how Devyn Pereira, as a person with a disability, travels through this world. That is Devyn’s choice alone, or her mother’s, as long as she is a minor,” she says. “Just as it would not be permitted to tell a person in a wheelchair, ‘I know you prefer to use the wheelchair, but … just try crutches instead,’ it is not appropriate to say to this child’s mother, ‘I know you would like her to bring the dog, but we think she can do fine at school without it.’ The fact that Devyn’s use of a service animal is an inconvenience to the school district is irrelevant. If the school can reasonably accommodate that choice, it must do so.”
Waiting for Justice
Hannah was trained at Tiffany Denyer’s Wilderwood Service Dogs, which specializes in providing service dogs for people with neurological diseases, including autism, psychiatric disorders, dementia, PTSD and brain injuries. According to Denyer, “About half the dogs are rescues; the rest come from breeders we have relationships with.” She looks for dogs who enjoy work, are calm and easily adapt to change.
In 11 years, she has placed about 200 service dogs. Each undergoes roughly 18 months of training; the first six months focus on general tasks; the rest is geared to meet the individual handler’s needs. The dogs learn about 50 commands and are taught to be low maintenance; Hannah goes the entire school day without food, water or having to relieve herself.
Hannah cost $16,000, but some trainers charge $25,000 or more per service dog. Many families, including the Pereiras, fundraise for months in order to purchase a dog. Denyer estimates that 10 to 20 percent of the families she works with have encountered problems getting schools to fully accept their service dogs.
Heather Pereira calls Hannah a “gentle giant.” “She has such a calm, graceful presence, even when Devyn gets ramped up about something,” she says. “Devyn never asks to be untethered from Hannah. That says a lot for their connection.”
This fall, Devyn will enter a fourthgrade special education class. Pereira says she is amazed at the growth she has seen in her daughter, attributing much of it to her connection with Hannah.
“Devyn is doing things with Hannah we never thought she’d be able to do. If Hannah is lying down, she’ll tug on the harness to make her get up. She taps the ground so that Hannah will lie down. Before, Hannah guided Devyn all the time; now, Devyn is the one guiding Hannah.”
As fall approaches, the Pereiras and the Frys wait for justice.
“We hope that the school district realizes they don’t have a strong case and negotiates a settlement,” Pereira says. “The pressure to make this better for Devyn and all who follow is real. Every parent knows they will not be around forever and so we work to create a world that not only accepts our child’s differences, but more importantly, embraces them.”
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