work of dogs
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Guiding Miss Ellie
It was a few years into my post-corporate, stay-at-home freelance life that I had the brainstorm. Feeling lonely and useless, I had been driving my husband, Andy, nuts. My life felt small. And the smaller it felt, the more impossible I became. Disgusted by my self-loathing, and sick of taking it out on the one guy I loved, I realized that it was time to pull myself together and focus my energy on doing something positive and worthwhile.
I decided that the perfect solution would be to raise a guide dog puppy. Andy couldn’t object. Though our loyalty to our now deceased old mutt, Lucy, had made it difficult for him to commit to another dog, this would be different, I pointed out. It was only temporary — just a one-year stint. It would be fun. And think of the good we’d be doing!
“Go for it,” he said without hesitation, much to my surprise. I made the call the very next day.
I was excited. So what if I was a basket case at the Guide Dog Foundation’s orientation meeting, the thought of giving up a pup I hadn’t even met driving me to tears? I would be fine. I’d be doing good!
During those first few sleep-deprived weeks, I’d slap on Cathy’s little yellow “Future Guide Dog” vest and head out into the world, looking for some acknowledgment. This was no mere pet, that vest would scream. This was a dog with a purpose. She had a goal. We both had a goal!
There were plenty of times when I’d be rewarded with a “Good for you!” or a “Thank you for doing that,” from a total stranger. But more often than not, I’d be faced with the same reaction — one that made me feel like a low-life, or a criminal. Instead of being lauded for my selflessness, I found myself being lambasted for my heartlessness.
“You mean you’ll have to give her up? How can you do that? I know I couldn’t,” people would snort. My own sister questioned the whole setup. “It’s like giving up your adopted daughter!” she claimed, as she covered the phone’s mouthpiece to reprimand her adopted daughter.
At first I’d nod in agreement, eager for approval. “I know,” I’d say. “I don’t know how I’m going to handle it.” Sometimes I’d even point to the puppies’ 50 percent failure rate as a twisted sign of hope. But it didn’t take long for that to wear off. “Don’t say that to me,” I began to snap when people would ask the question. “I really don’t want to think about it.” And if I really wanted to end the conversation I’d add, “Besides, think of all the good she’ll be doing.”
The truth was, the thought of giving her up was starting to loom over our relationship with Cathy like a wobbly construction crane over a busy Manhattan street. In the privacy of our own home, Andy and I would often compare notes about how we felt about her. “She’s so bossy,” I’d say, stroking her velvety black ears. “And did you ever notice how clumsy she is?” sounding an awful lot like the me of the early stages in our relationship. “He’s too blond,” I’d try to convince myself, a wary child of five divorces. “And he wears white socks!”
“Stop being so critical of her,” he’d say. “She’s just a puppy! And speaking of puppies, have you seen my socks anywhere?”
One day, as I watched him endlessly lobbing a contraband Squeaky Monkey to a tirelessly leaping Cathy, I barked out a warning. “Be careful,” I cautioned. “I think you’re falling in love.”
He continued to toss. “You know?” he said. “I really do enjoy her. But I just don’t feel like I’m anything special to her.” “You mean you don’t think she’s special?” I asked, assuming he was referring to her rather generic Lab-like personality. “No,” he corrected me. “I mean I’m not anything special to her. I just don’t feel like we’ve bonded.”
I did wonder, and not for the first time, if this notion of feeling special might have been the missing link for Andy in his past relationships, specifically his first two marriages. But then again, I suspected that this might simply be his own way of keeping his heart a safe distance away from disaster. I wasn’t sure. Nevertheless, that night Cathy and I went out to sit on the front stoop, waiting to greet Andy when he came home. “There he is,” I whispered in her ear, as soon as I recognized his lopsided gait a half a block away. “It’s your pal!” I repeated, as her tail became a blur of motion. “Go get him!” I urged, letting go of the leash as he reached the bottom of the stairs. “Hi, honey. I’m so happy you’re home. Did you have a good day?” I asked, brushing his cheek with my lips as I took the grocery bags from his hand.
As the months passed, we both struggled with our growing affection for Cathy and with the increasing frequency of the dreaded question about giving her up. One day, as I caught up with the two of them after a run in the park, I heard Andy responding to a couple dressed in matching “I Love NY” sweatshirts. “You know,” he said, as he bent down to pat Cathy’s head, “we’re just enjoying every day with her.”
At first I had to laugh, recalling his reaction as she jumped on the bed at 5:15 that very morning. Barking. Loudly. But later I thought about how much truth there was in what he said. We were enjoying every day. And the longer she had been with us, the more in the moment we had become. There was no more judgment — she could do no wrong. And if she did? What was the big deal? It was only temporary, right? (Though I do offer apologies in advance to the blind person who may someday find themselves being dragged on their belly in pursuit of a squirrel. We did our best — honest.)
I tried out Andy’s line the next day at the dog run. “We’re just enjoying every day with her,” I claimed to the curious huddle of dog people. “And besides,” I added with a flourish of my own, “aren’t all relationships temporary?” Heads nodded, and voices mumbled, “True, true.”
And, of course, it was true. Didn’t my friend Judy’s husband literally get hit by a bus two summers ago? And what about my other friend, Amy, whose husband walked out on her, with no warning, after 24 years, leaving her sitting at the kitchen table, stunned, over her morning cup of coffee? Then there was Beth, who had married a guy who, 15 years later, decided he wanted to be a girl.
I took the lessons learned from Cathy to heart. But while I focused my efforts on a more mindful marriage, my little canine polygamist remained loyal to no one. Or everyone. It didn’t matter if you were a mail carrier, a garbage collector, a veterinarian or a homeless drunk resting on our sidewalk. All you’d have to do is smile at her, or utter the words “cute” or “puppy,” and she’d burst into her own little St. Vitus dance. It became clear that she’d just as soon go home with the super next door as with me. I couldn’t help but think of my niece as a toddler, when she first came over from Romania — constantly wrapping her arms around strangers’ knees in the mall. “Attachment disorder,” my sister had explained. “It’s a common bonding issue with adopted kids.”
In Cathy, however, I was reluctant to label it as a disorder. She was just a happy dog. As a hard-core pessimist, I admired her ability to remain ever hopeful that a forbidden chicken leg might fall off the counter, or that the neighbor’s cat might suddenly admit that he actually liked her. Whereas I couldn’t speak before my morning coffee (which Andy, in self-defense, faithfully brought to me in bed), Cathy always woke up happy.
After she had been with us for about six months, I noticed Andy singing in the shower, a spectacle I hadn’t been subjected to in a really long time. And that stupid trick he used to do before bed, where he’d kick his underpants up into the air and catch them on his head? It was back. Despite her alleged failing at making him feel special, it was clear that Cathy was making him happy, just by being happy. The next morning I watched, through one open eye, as she wiggled her butt and licked his ears. I struggled to sit up and speak. “Good morning,” I croaked, forcing a smile. Andy eyed me warily. “You okay?” he asked.
Cathy is gone now, in training. True to her nature, the day we brought her in she yanked mercilessly on the leash, eager to join her pals in the kennel, and never looked back. It was a tearful parting, for some of us. “Stay happy,” I sobbed, as I bent down to kiss her nose. Andy’s tears didn’t start until we got to the parking lot, just as they had after the first time we dropped his daughter off at college. The difference was, we knew the daughter would be back.
But honestly? Cathy could be back too. Exuberant extroverts don’t exactly make the best guide dogs. I have my doubts. In the meantime, I keep her picture smack in the middle of our living room, the way some people do with inspirational icons like John F. Kennedy or Jesus. I’ll never forget those deep brown eyes or those chubby jowls, but I know there will be days when I just may need a gentle reminder of a different sort.
And in the meantime, there’s Tiffany. A five month-old counter-surfing, toilet paper-pulling, knee-nipping, garbage-stealing future guide dog. But that’s a whole other story.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Riding along with a K-9 unit—a behind the scenes look at training, patrolling and bad guys
In the wee hours of the morning in Snohomish County, north of Seattle, Wash., a domestic-violence call comes over Officer Brandon McCullar’s radio—something about a man breaking his stepdaughter’s nose. He tells dispatch we’re on our way and tucks in behind another deputy’s car speeding toward the location. Lights flashing, knifing through the darkness, we seem to fly along the rural two-lane road. Up ahead, I see the other deputy take a hard, fast, right turn. We slow down. “Hang on, Lidar!” McCullar says to his partner, who’s standing on a special platform in the back seat. I take a quick look through the heavy metal screen and see Lidar looking straight ahead, alert and focused.
This is my second graveyard-shift ride-along with Officer McCullar of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and his K-9 partner, Lidar, a four-year old German Shepherd. I’ve become accustomed to the sights and sounds we encounter as we drive through the night, patrolling and responding to calls. My background in family law and domestic violence (DV) prevention means I also know that DV calls can be the most dangerous for responding officers. Tonight, I learn that DV calls often involve K-9 tracking if the abuser tries to run when officers arrive. Lidar is trained both to track and to take down fleeing bad guys. Maybe I’ll see him in action on this call.
I first met McCullar and Lidar in April 2010, when I went on a ride-along arranged through my office. I work as a deputy prosecutor in Snohomish County, in the Family Support Division, and have minimal, long-ago experience in criminal law. I’d always wondered what it would be like to ride along on patrol, so when this opportunity was offered, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. Luckily, my first choice, a K-9 unit, was available, and I was assigned to McCullar and Lidar.
We met at a precinct building in the southern part of the county for that first ride-along. When I arrived at 8 pm, the precinct seemed to be deserted, but a few minutes later, a sheriff ’s car pulled up and parked several feet from where I waited in my car. As soon as the deputy got out of his car, I could hear loud, aggressive barking; this was my ride-along, and his K-9 partner was upset about something! Was it me? The deputy approached my car and we introduced ourselves, and I commented on the barking. McCullar said that Lidar barked at pretty much everyone, especially when he was left in the car.
We went into the precinct so I could get a bulletproof vest and an official green jacket with the word SHERIFF in big, yellow, reflective letters on the front and back, and sign a ride-along waiver. When we returned to the deputy’s car, Lidar was quiet. This was even more unnerving; what if Lidar didn’t like me? I took a deep breath, opened the passenger door and got in. The only thing I heard was a thumping against the back seat where Lidar rides. I glanced back to see Lidar furiously wagging his tail. When McCullar noticed the thumping, he laughed and said, “Well, let’s introduce you two properly!” I got out and stood beside the car. The deputy let Lidar out and he trotted right up to me, tail wagging, eagerly greeting me and smelling me all over. I was amazed at the way this trained police dog could so easily switch gears. I’d like to think it’s because I’m a calm, dog-loving person and Lidar sensed that. It probably didn’t hurt that I was wearing the jacket, and that his partner was with me.
Around midnight, we took a break. Parking near a field, McCullar brought out a throw toy for Lidar. He removed Lidar’s work vest, a signal to the big dog that he was off the clock, and tossed the toy. When McCullar walked back to the car, Lidar brought the toy to me. He didn’t drop it; he just looked at me, daring me to pull. After checking to make sure it was okay, I tugged and tossed the toy a few times for Lidar, marveling again at his seamless transition from work to play.
Because it was a slow night, McCullar called another deputy and asked if he’d help with some impromptu protection training for Lidar. That deputy had the unenviable job of wearing the padded protective sleeve that Lidar would bite when given the command to take down the bad guy. It was fascinating to watch Lidar run toward and launch himself against the deputy/ bad guy, biting down on the sleeve until commanded to release. Though braced for the impact, the bad guy standin was still nearly knocked off his feet. McCullar focused on Lidar’s response to the release command. It was clear that Lidar loved this training exercise. I asked the other deputy what it felt like to have Lidar clamp down on his arm. “With the sleeve, it’s not painful; there’s just a lot of pressure. But I’m always amazed at the force of his body weight when he hits me,” he said.
Later, we saw something that reminded me what precious cargo our canine companions are in our vehicles, and how important it is to contain them safely. We heard over the radio that a car had crashed into a house. When we arrived at the cul-de-sac, we saw a barrage of red-and-blue flashing lights from a fire truck, aid cars and police cars. Neighbors were standing around watching, and local dogs were barking. An SUV had crossed a couple of lawns and run into the front porch of a split-level home. The vehicle’s front end was completely crushed, and it was pinned under the pillars supporting the roof over the home’s entry. Several firefighters in full gear were moving around the vehicle, trying to extract the older female driver, whom officers speculated had suffered a medical emergency; she was conscious, but her legs were trapped. There was also a dog in the car on the passenger-side floor, and he wasn’t letting anyone close to the woman. Everyone agreed the dog wasn’t necessarily aggressive; he was simply scared out of his wits and doing his best to protect her. But he had already bitten a firefighter and a police officer and they couldn’t get to the woman until the dog was controlled.
Then, one of the firefighters had a brilliant idea: he wedged a plastic body board through the passenger door, placing it between the dog and woman and safely containing the dog. The firefighters were then able to use the Jaws of Life to cut away the driver’s-side back door and the driver’s seat so they could remove the woman from the car.
Seeing this situation made me ask McCullar what would happen if he were shot—what would Lidar do? The deputy said that if Lidar had already been sent to take the shooter down, he’d keep pursuing until he subdued the target or was shot himself. If he pinned the shooter and McCullar couldn’t give the command to release, it might be difficult for other officers to get Lidar to back off; Lidar is trained to release only upon his partner’s command. That’s why McCullar works with other deputies, giving training seminars so they’ll know what to do if this unlikely situation occurs. The deputy’s worst fear is to find himself incapacitated, with Lidar standing over him, protecting him and preventing responders from rendering aid. Clearly, it’s a scenario no one wants to contemplate.
Now, several steps behind and off to the side, I cautiously follow McCullar into the driveway of the house with the violent stepfather. Lidar remains quietly in the car, eyes on McCullar. The scene is chaotic: four cars are parked in front of the house and several young people are milling around, crying and hugging each other for comfort. The officer we followed and another who arrived after us ask questions, trying to get a bead on the situation. One young woman—the victim—is very angry; she’s yelling and has blood on her clothes. She storms into the house and slams the door. McCullar follows her, and I instantly worry—who knows what might be waiting for him in there?
Emerging from the shadows, a man of about 50, short and heavy, stumbles toward a vehicle with the driver’s door ajar. An officer quickly grabs his arm and speaks forcefully, telling him to stop. “F*** you,” the man responds, trying to shake the deputy off. He has blood on his hands, shirt and shorts. The officer calmly puts the man under arrest, cuffs him and reads him his Miranda rights. When told to stand so he can be transported to the precinct, the man goes limp and uncooperative. By now, McCullar has come out of the house, and says to the man, “Sir, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. Will you help us get you standing?” The man’s reply is a string of obscenities. The two deputies drag the drunken, belligerent man by the shoulders to one of the other patrol cars and put him in the back. Looking around the yard, I notice a child’s red wagon full of potted geraniums decorating the front entry.
We get back into our car and Lidar relaxes. Then it hits me: not only is Lidar a comforting presence for McCullar throughout his work shift, but having a K-9 partner means you never have to transport drunks or murderers or other violent criminals to the precinct. No having to stop to pull the back seat out of your car and hose off whatever bodily fluids the suspect’s left behind. When I share this insight with McCullar, he smiles. “It’s just one of many benefits of being a K-9 team,” he says. If I were a cop, I’d definitely want a K-9 partner.
McCullar takes me back to my car at the South Precinct just before 4 am. I drive home, my stomach aching from tension, scenes from the night swirling in my head. All three of my dogs get big hugs.
This behind-the-scenes look gave me new appreciation for the work law enforcement officers do—patrolling our streets and handling enormously stressful situations, rarely receiving any thanks for their efforts. I heard a lot of raw language, dark humor and insider banter between the officers during my ride-alongs. Some people might find the gallows humor insensitive and callous, but I totally get it. They need to blow off steam. One of the ways McCullar does that is by throwing a toy for Lidar during their breaks, which strikes me as a good alternative.
A friend—a retired sheriff ’s deputy— had a K-9 partner who died in the line of duty, stabbed by a fleeing felon he tried to stop. Years after, describing what happened, my friend choked up and said he refused another K-9 partner because he couldn’t risk going through that pain again. My ride-alongs allowed me to witness how brave, strong, eager and willing police dogs are, working beside their human partners. It’s a 24/7 partnership—on the job and at home. The bond I observed between McCullar and Lidar is inspiring. I wish them both long, successful careers, followed by a well-earned retirement.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
It all started when Tiger’s agent, Nancy Novogard, called to ask if we would be available to shoot a feature film. I suppose I should add that yes, my adorable, three-and-a-half-year-old Terrier mix, whom I adopted when he was just nine weeks, has an agent. And while he’s shot a variety of photo spreads for magazines and books (Vogue, Bark’s DogJoy), appeared onstage with David Letterman, performed Off-Broadway, and now appears in a national commercial (CSX trains), he has never done a feature film.
“He’ll need to bark — incessantly,” Nancy added.
Of course, I was lying — just a bit. Tiger does “speak” on command, but to him this means ONE BARK, then stop. As dogs go, he’s just not a barker. That said, I have trained him to “count” — which really means BARK-UNTIL-IGIVE- YOU-THE-CUE-TO-STOP. Now, I just needed to keep it going.
The bigger problem, though, was that as Tiger barked, he kept moving closer and closer to me. How could I get the distance needed on a set while getting him to stay on his mark?
I called my friend Christine Mahaney, whose Border Collie rescue, Toula, has film credits aplenty. Christine is also an animal trainer/wrangler for dogs — plus myriad other animals ranging from rats and chickens to deer — in the Detroit, Mich., region.
“OK,” she said, in her adorable Midwestern accent. “Here’s what you do: Tie his leash to a banister or something, and start close — don’t let the leash get tight. Then back away — making sure he keeps the leash loose. Work slow. That’s what I had to do with Toula.”
A week later, I awoke to torrents of rain. I needed to get us to a studio in Queens for the audition, which meant hailing a cab, as Tiger is just too large (28 pounds) to carry in a bag on the subway. As a native New Yorker, I do not own a car.
Getting a cab when it’s pouring, however, is never easy. And with a wet dog…
A yellow taxi stopped. The driver looked at Tiger. I said, “I promise I will give you a big tip.”
We arrived at Kaufman Studios in Queens, just under the 59th Street Bridge. Tiger wandered around, sniffing, while I checked out the competition. There was an 18-week-old Tibetan Terrier. Adorable — but could he bark on cue? A three-pound Yorkie. Hardly the kind of dog a street kid would pick up. There was also a cute, terribly energetic Cockapoo, and a Poodle-y mix. One of the owners tried to practice as we waited.
I looked at Tiger, feeling snarky.
BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK!
I stopped wiggling my fingers and smiled, feeling all smug and cocky.
Dan, the prop master, led us down the hall to the audition room — really just a small office-like space. I noticed a poster along the way: Son of No One
Was that the title of the film we were auditioning for? I wondered.
We walked to the back of the studios. There were about five men, including director Dito Montiel, first assistant director Urs Hirschbiegel and a few others. Someone said, “OK — so let’s hear him bark.” I leaned down to take the leash off when Urs added, “Actually, he’ll be on leash for this.”
I smiled and handed the leash to Urs.
BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK! BARK!
After about five seconds I said, “How’s that?”
The men exchanged glances. “Great. OK — now we need — will he grab a pant leg and shake — like he’s attacking?”
Huh? Not so comfy or snarky now.
“Uh… no one told me that.”
“Well, can he?”
“He knows PULL.” I took out a toy.
Tiger grabbed the toy and pulled and pulled with all his might, tearing at the green alien stuffie. The men were not impressed.
“We need him to pull on someone’s pants.” Urs pulled on the bottom of his trouser leg. “Tiger,” he said with a German accent, “Pull on this.”
Tiger looked at me. He looked at Urs. He looked back at me.
“He hasn’t been trained to do that, but this is one smart dog. Give me a week.”
“What if we put the toy under the pants?” Urs put his hand out. I handed him the toy.
My sweet, smart puppy walked over, grabbed at the toy stuffed under Urs’ trouser leg and pulled.
The men nodded profoundly. “Great! OK — thanks.”
Dan walked me out, back down the corridor to the crowd. As we walked, he told me that they would need several pictures of Tiger, and confirmed my availability.
Two days later, we got The Call. That’s when things got real interesting.
I recalled the name of the movie and looked it up on IMDB, the movie database. There was a list of actors already committed to the movie: Al Pacino, Ray Liotta, Channing Tatum, Katie Holmes … I began to get very excited.
“Are you sure that’s the film?” Nancy asked. “We were told it’s a small film.”
“I met a guy named Dito. How many directors do you know of named Dito?”
I started training Tiger to pull on a pair of pants. Since that is a behavior not generally sought by the average dog owner — most people want to train a dog not to pull on pants — I pulled out Captain Haggerty’s How to Teach Your Dog to Talk. Captain Haggerty was, for many years, the trainer for dogs in movies. He recommended using a scented pad made of burlap filled with batting.
When I spoke to my friend Rick Caran, whose Yorkie, Jilli Dog, is the internationally known poker-playing pup, he strongly suggested that I only train to the scent — so that my dog wouldn’t think I wanted him to go around grabbing every pant leg he saw.
But which scent should I use? My Google search turned up an array of flavors: mouse, duck, rat and so on. As the idea of bringing rat scent into my New York apartment on purpose was not terribly appealing, I chose duck.
I dug out an old pair of pants, sewed the burlap pad reeking of mallard inside and started working. Sometimes the pants were just a tug-toy, sometimes I tied them to a chair and sometimes I put them on. I invited friends over to put on the pants and let Tiger tug. We rehearsed in the stairwell, the park, on the sidewalk — everywhere. Tiger became a terrific tugging Terrier.
I examined the rest of the script. Tiger appeared in more than eight scenes. Mostly, he was “background” — sitting on a chair, for example, but mainly he was going to need to bond with Jake, the young actor playing Milk. I prayed that Jake was a dog lover.
The night before the first day of shooting, I pulled out Tiger’s travel bag. Tiger started jumping around — he clearly loves working. I packed our things: pop-up crate, toys, blanket, duck scent, silent whistle, dog bowl, a selection of collars, brush, paper towels, baby wipes and treats, treats, treats. There were the regular treats from the dog store, but also, string cheese and slices of turkey hot dog.
The next morning we awoke at 5:00 am. More rain. I staggered out of bed. We arrived on location in the projects in Queens and were escorted to our “room” in the “honey wagon”— the colorful name ascribed to a trailer parked near the location. It was about 5 feet by 10 feet — with a toilet at one end. And it was freezing.
Still think movies are glamorous? Nancy and I set up the crate, dumped our stuff, trotted over to the breakfast wagon for some hot coffee, then settled down for a typical day on a movie shoot, waiting to be called to the set.
Four hours later, someone knocked on our door. “They’d like Tiger on the set, please.”
Tiger jumped out of the crate, eager and excited to work. I clipped on the treat pouch, threw on my raincoat, grabbed Tiger’s leash and away we went — down the rickety stairs of the honey wagon, through the mud, around the enormous puddle gathering around the clogged, neglected city drains, past the Kraft services tent and into the apartment building smelling of urine and who-knows-what. Inside, Tiger was introduced to a young teenager named Simone who was playing “Young Vicky.” They were immediately smitten with one another. Tiger would need to sit with Simone on the couch.
That was the extent of the direction. The only tricky part: I would have to be hidden from view, behind a thick curtain. The room where they were shooting the scene was so small, only the actors and the cameraman could be inside.
The next seven days were a variation on that theme — lots of waiting around, lots of free food, lots of rain and mud, and some work, generally with me crouching behind or between or below. We were fortunate that we had a company of actors and crew who generally seemed to care about Tiger’s well-being; they allowed us to bring him along to the lunchroom, and they treated him like a star. Jake Cherry, the young actor playing Tiger’s owner, was also wonderful and really took the time to bond with Tiger.
That said, it was not an easy job. Situations popped up on set every day that required a great deal of skill and patience and creativity. While general obedience training is important (skills like STAY, COME and, of course, SPEAK), it is not enough. The dog has to want to be there and feel comfortable around many, many people, lots of different noises, and all manner of other unpredictable situations. I had trained Tiger, for example, to play dead and hold that position even as someone leaned over him. What I did not train him for was for that someone to jump afterward.
I should add that Tiger was never in any physical danger during the shoot. As a matter of fact, the scariest scene in the movie was actually the easiest to shoot, as the behaviors needed were close to what I’d imagined when we prepared. Much of that is also due to the two representatives on set from American Humane, who were our advocates on set and off, ensuring that no animals were harmed.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Although once nearly eradicated in developed countries, bedbugs are on the rise. These tiny bloodsuckers don’t transmit diseases, but can leave itchy welts on you and your warm-blooded pets. It’s important to routinely check any place you or your pets sleep for the telltale dark stains of bedbug activity.
Dogs aren’t taking this bedbug business lying down, either. Some companies are training dogs to be the ultimate pest detectors. With their sensitive noses, dogs can sniff out a single bedbug, and even tell live bugs from harmless dead ones, helping pest control specialists work more quickly and use less pesticide.
If you suspect a bedbug infestation, contact your pest control specialist. Pets are especially at risk from the long-lasting pesticides used to kill bedbugs, but certain chemicals, such as pyrethrin, may be safe when used correctly, and a handful of companies do offer non-toxic solutions to the bedbug problem.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
In Oregon prisons, therapy dogs help close the gap between parent and child
While Rachel’s husband, Sean, did his time at Columbia River Correctional Institute (CRCI), a minimum-security prison in Oregon, she struggled to maintain the parent-child bond between him and their three children. She brought them to the monthly family visits, but the atmosphere was austere, controlled and, for kids, dull. Families sat on metal benches around a table, and several families shared one large, noisy dining hall under the watchful eye of guards.
For Rachel, precious bonding time was often spent keeping her youngest, a fiveyear- old girl with Down syndrome, from fidgeting. The older children, ages nine and 13, distracted themselves, asking permission to go to the bathroom or the vending machine. Rachel often had to cut short the family’s visits.
All that began to change about a year ago, when therapy dogs became part of CRCI’s “Children’s Events,” special occasions for the families of inmates participating in parenting classes. Sean and other inmates involved in the parenting program constructed a brightly painted and decorated room specifically for family events, so that the setting might be homier. “Having the kids’ area was way better; no metal chairs anymore. Earlier, it was more restrictive than school!” he recalls now from the comfort of his home, reunited with his family after completing his sentence.Rachel agrees, and also mentions how much the therapy animals who were part of the family events helped their youngest daughter.“She’d talk about the animals for a week after each visit. They helped the older kids as well—got ’em away from the vending machine!”
Rachel saw her developmentally disabled daughter blossom around the dogs. “Animals help her communicate, mellow her out.We have three cats at home, and just got a Beagle. My daughter is learning to say ‘Good boy!’ and ‘Awesome!’ and give our dog positive reinforcement.” During the family events, both kids and parents learn how to interact with pets. “They teach gentle ways of interacting, because most inmates are abusers, or had been abused—that’s why they’re there— and the program teaches them how to pet rather than smack or pull a tail,” said Rachel.
This innovative program—putting volunteers with therapy animals into prisons during special parenting events —is the brainchild of three creative and compassionate women who blended several resources and programs to create a brand-new vision.
Rozlyn Gorski had the initial idea. She is involved with Big Brothers/Big Sisters in Portland,Ore., and works with a subset of kids, Children with Incarcerated Parents. She knows how stressful and difficult maintaining a positive parent-child bond can be when a parent is incarcerated.
Gorski knows Heather Toland of DoveLewis, a Portland-area nonprofit emergency animal hospital with a large community-outreach and animal-welfare component.Toland is director of the Animal Assisted Therapy and Education program at DoveLewis. When Gorski wondered aloud if therapy dogs could help the kids she worked with, Toland quickly grasped the value of the idea, and signed on to help.
Gorski’s idea had merit. Toland possessed the ability to procure and train the volunteer handlers and dogs. But how to get them integrated into the prison family visits? Enter Dawnell Kirk,Western Regional Manager for Pathfinders, a nonprofit organization that contracts with the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) to provide parenting classes to inmates. Pathfinders is also a community partner with Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Kirk immediately saw the advantages of adding therapy animals to the family events, visits that were already a reward to inmates participating in parenting classes. Inviting the animals upped the reward ante significantly for the inmates, while also providing a clear therapeutic benefit to the families.
Kirk went to CRCI administration and asked, “What about bringing in some animals?”She then worked with the security manager to do just that. “They were so supportive,” she remembers. “We got the dogs in. They were a huge hit. The kids adore them. One gentleman said it was the first time he’d petted a dog in 10 years. It’s a nice place for children to learn to be with pets,”she says.“It’s a really good bonding moment for incarcerated parents and kids. Something to talk about with each other.”
Toland asked Kirk about bringing other types of therapy animals to the family events—in particular, a goat named Gracie. Once again, it was Kirk’s task to ask the prison administrator. “I’ll go down as the woman who got a goat into prison,” jokes Kirk. “Prison staff came down to see Gracie; everyone enjoyed it,” she said about that first event with the goat. Audie, a therapy cat, is also a popular visitor.
Indirectly, the animals help bring inmates into the parenting program. “Inmates not part of the program see the animals coming for the family events, and there’s more interest in the parenting classes,” which are voluntary, says Kirk. Each parenting course meets three times a week, three hours each day, for twelve weeks. “It’s very intense. It’s specific for incarcerated parents,” she adds. Those on the wait list can attend the family events with the animals, and a parent doesn’t have to complete the program to attend. Kirk isn’t worried that some inmates might sign up just for the animals, with no intention to complete the parenting course. “We track it,” she said. “It’s been a positive influence. One man signed up because he has three daughters. He wanted to be the class assistant. He was released to the community and has continued to participate at the Pathfinders Community Center with his daughters.”
Kirk’s next task was to approach Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP)—the maximumsecurity institution—about using therapy animals there. Kirk started warming up officials to the idea, describing the success at CRCI. She was surprised, and delighted, to be asked by the OSP assistant superintendent,“ Can the goat come?”Another door was opened. (Who knows—perhaps the OSP assistant superintendent was influenced by hearing how the CRCI superintendent had his photo taken with Gracie and used it as his official Christmas card last year.)
According to Kirk, the Oregon Department of Corrections supports the inmates as parents. Incorporating therapy animals into family events for those inmates participating in parenting classes is one way of making that support real.
The participating kids and parents all tell Kirk,“We want the animals back!”At every family event, the kids ask her,“Are the dogs here?!”Unfortunately, the animals aren’t available for every family event at every institution.Not yet. But if Kirk has her way, that won’t be the case for long. Just this spring, the therapy animal concept expanded to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the only women’s prison in Oregon, which already has a puppy-training program.
Kirk sees positive changes in the inmates interacting with the animals. “There’s a softening in their demeanor. Even those not participating in parenting classes ask to pet the dogs. It’s such a good thing. It’s therapy.” So far, she reports, there hasn’t been a single negative encounter, for animals, handlers or families.
Early on, those involved realized that the typical family visiting session at the prison was too noisy and busy for a basic “Reading-to-the-Dogs” program. They also wanted to include a humane education component.When the dogs come to a family event, everyone learns how to approach them and how to meet and engage appropriately; the kids learn how to brush the dogs, then are allowed to teach their fathers those skills. “The program is very new, but shows lots of promise,”Toland says.The idea is for the dogs to be a calming distraction for the children while inside prison walls, making the parent-child interactions more normal as well as providing a teaching opportunity and a communication bridge.
Toland determines which dogs and handlers participate in the program. “I keep pretty tight control,” she says. Volunteers take a skills-for-handlers course, and because of the dogs’ contact with multiple kids and the unusual environment, they also learn about coping skills for dogs. “Sometimes we have to help a handler recognize displacement in their dog, as in, ‘I’m done!’” Through DoveLewis, handlers can also take continuing- ed classes, such as silly pet tricks, massage and canine health.
This program—screening and training of volunteer handlers and dogs—is now a regular part of DoveLewis’s activities, along with its pet loss, blood bank, stray animal and wildlife care, and other animal welfare programs.
Penny and her dog Charity, a five-year-old yellow Lab, are volunteers in the prison program. Charity is a certified therapy dog, and the pair had often participated in Reading to the Dogs programs through DoveLewis. Toland mentioned the prison program to Penny and told her that this use of therapy dogs was different —for one thing, a thorough background check was required.“It sounded like something to try,” Penny says.
As their first visit to CRCI loomed, Penny recalls, “All day long I was hesitant.” She said to herself,“How can I get out of this? I was fearful for my personal —and my dog’s—safety. This was my first time visiting a prison.”
Two of the four volunteers going with Penny that day had participated before and they gave her tips on what to say,how to behave, what to watch for. Penny’s experienced mentors offered practical advice: Don’t wear denim (looks too much like inmates’ uniforms), no underwire bras (they set off metal detectors), and do wear a bright yellow T-shirt (DoveLewis’s color) so the group stands out as visitors.
Upon reaching the institution, the handlers went through security, starting with a holding room where cell phones, keys, jewelry and similar items were stored in lockers. Each of them then passed through a metal detector, alone. Their dogs were led through by a guard. “Charity acted as though this was a typical environment for her. I saw no sign of stress or anxiety. She was very calm,” Penny says.
Once inside, they were led to the family room.“It has cute decorations,murals, small furniture,”Penny says.“The inmates did all the murals, built the furniture, did the decorating. It was warm.” Then they were led to the cafeteria to meet the inmates. “All the guys were lined up in a row.We walked past them, 50 of them in jeans and denim. It was intimidating,” Penny remembers.
Penny and the other handlers brought their own mats and blankets for sitting on the floor with their dogs.They offered the kids books (each child gets one to take home), but mostly, “the kids loved brushing the dogs,” says Penny.“One girl kept coming back to brush Charity. I gave her lots of positive reinforcement.”
On a subsequent visit, in addition to Charity, there were two German Shepherds and a Rottweiler.“ Many of the kids were fearful of the other dogs. One guy said, ‘Last time I saw a German Shepherd is when he was pinning me down before I got arrested,’” Penny remembers, noting that the Rottie has painted toenails and a flower-print collar to make her less intimidating to the kids. The dogs are always on-leash during events. “It’s a therapy dog rule,” explains Penny.“The handler is always attached to the leash.But I can let a child walk Charity with both of us holding the leash.”
A couple of fathers without kids attended—they had ongoing custody issues, or their kids lived out of state. Those men were assigned to look out for the handlers’ needs.Penny found them all “amazingly polite.”At one event, the food served was pizza and ice cream.When a child offered some food to Charity and Penny politely said no, some of the fathers teased Penny, saying she was awfully strict and wondering if Charity was neglected.
“The flow of people during an event keeps moving,with only one or two kids at a time to keep the dogs from feeling overwhelmed,”Penny says.“It just seems to happen naturally. The kids are good at waiting for their turn. Charity got tired toward the end. She crashed when we got home.”
Penny believes this program helps make inmates better parents.“Many admit to me they’ve messed up and are paying their debt. They hope people will give them a chance. They really appreciate that the handlers and dogs treat them like regular members of society.”
One rule is that handlers don’t use names during visits. They remove all ID, even dog tags that have contact information. “Only one time did I feel slightly uncomfortable,” said Penny.“One inmate started asking me questions in conversation, but the questions got progressively more personal—too personal, I felt. He recognized it was too personal and changed the topic.”
Penny recalls how she mistakenly signed up for the first event at Oregon State Penitentiary. The maximum-security prison.Upon realizing her error, she figured she’d go anyway, but she then had a nightmare about it, so she backed out. She had similar anxiety about visits to the minimum-security facility, “but I had the nicest possible experience there.” Penny’s concerns are more for Charity than for herself—Charity, who has no choice in the matter, could be more easily victimized. Penny worries about even a minor negative interaction; she and Charity have too much invested in therapy dog work. “I don’t want to mess it up. I’d never forgive myself if Charity was traumatized.” So for now, Penny declines to volunteer for OSP visits, but continues to participate enthusiastically in the CRCI visits.
“This experience teaches you a lot about stereotypes of prisoners,” says Penny.“It’s been eye-opening,how appreciative, polite and considerate they are. It’s been good for me to see. They know they made mistakes, and they admit it. They’re trying to keep their kids from making mistakes, trying to be good parents. This restores your faith in humanity.Dogs help us do that. Charity is the connection; I’m just her chauffeur!”
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
[VIDEO] Writer/actress/“dog manager” Lorraine Goodman talks about dogs in showbiz
In our September issue, Lorraine Goodman gives us a behind-the-scenes look at Tiger, a rising dog star on the set of his first feature film. After putting a few dog years into last minute photo shoots (for everything from an Ikea catalog to Vogue), a national television commercial, and eight fruitless hours in David Letterman’s green room (bumped for the announcement about his girl troubles), the three-and-a-half year old Terrier mix got his big break earlier this summer. He went to work on The Son of No One, which “co-stars” such Hollywood luminaries as Al Pacino, Ray Liotta and Katie Holmes.Recently, Goodman talked to us (on camera, of course) about Tiger, who was “discovered” during a routine training outing in Central Park. An actress in her own right, with credits including a few seconds in The Departed, Goodman provides insider advice to Bark readers who think their dogs might be the next Benji.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Bear Dogs in Eco-Resort
Not many people commute to work on a boat. Even fewer can boast they travel to their job in a helicopter. But for Karma, boat trips and helicopter rides are all just a part of her job as a bear dog in the remote Canadian wilderness.
Karma is the first black Labrador to work at the Nimmo Bay Resort, a luxury helicopter adventure and fishing eco-resort on the coast of British Columbia. She and Oatie, an 11-year-old yellow Labrador, protect the guests and staff at this high-end resort when they’re out hiking in the woods or exploring the surrounding areas. The Nimmo Bay lodge is nestled in the Great Bear Rainforest, accessible only by helicopter or boat, so bear sightings are a frequent occurrence, especially during the fishing season, when they come down to the ocean and nearby river to feed.
Before life at Nimmo Bay, Karma had a rocky start; for the first two years of her life, she bounced from owner to owner. Then the resort’s owners adopted her and put her to work.
Though not your standard “bear dogs,” Karma and Oatie fulfill their roles with enthusiasm. On the trail, they race ahead, noses to the ground, then turn back when the coast is clear in order to check in with their hiking buddy. If they catch the scent of a bear, their body language changes dramatically; they stop, raise their hackles, and go ballistic with barking and growling. Oatie has even charged at some of the more stubborn bears and sent them on their way.
While the dogs are on the defensive when hiking, around the lodge they relax and become happy-go-lucky Labs again. They can often be seen perched in the front seat of a double kayak or balanced on the boards of a surf bike as they travel back and forth across Nimmo Bay, to and from trails and the tiny islands that dot the Broughton Archipelago area.
Last summer, Karma mastered the art of tightrope-walking the log booms that hold the floating lodge together, scaling them with a stick clenched between her teeth. She and Oatie enjoy daily baths in the glacier-plunge pool beneath the waterfall, and guests delight in throwing sticks off the floating wharf into the ocean for the dogs.
Karma and Oatie are best pals when on the job at the Nimmo Bay Resort—they even cuddle at night in their shared bed—but the off-season is another story. The two big dogs don’t do well when confined together in close living quarters with no wilderness to escape to during the day. And so, through a series of connections, Karma came to live with me in the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island.
City life took some adjusting to: Karma had rarely worn a collar, let alone been on a leash, which makes going out for a walk an adventure every time. She charges ahead of me, straining against the leash until she’s wheezing. When we reach an intersection, she barrels ahead, desperate to stay in the lead to look for bears.
When the beginning of the summer fishing season rolls around, Karma heads back to the Nimmo Bay Resort. Although it’s hard for me to say goodbye, I know that she’s living the ultimate in doggie life, out in the wilderness, collar-free, protecting others in one of the most beautiful and pristine places in the world.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Chile adopts groundbreaking victim-support program
“We need dogs like these in Chile,” said Seattle Police Department videographer Cesar Hidalgo-Landeros. It was 2007, and Cesar and I were in the middle of editing a training video about courthouse dogs, professionally trained canines who provide crime victims with emotional support during the investigation and prosecution stages. We had just watched a film clip of a five-year-old girl telling courthouse dog Stilson how she had been sexually abused.
At the time, I had concerns about the U.S. legal system embracing the idea of dogs participating in forensic interviews and appearing in the courtroom; I couldn’t imagine Chile being receptive to the idea. The deadline for our video production loomed, so we dropped the discussion and got back to work.
Two years later, my consulting partner, Celeste Walsen, DVM, and I gave a presentation on our “Courthouse Dogs” program at an Assistance Dogs International conference. One of the first questions came from a young woman in the back of the auditorium, who wanted to know if we could come to her country to tell people about this concept. Celeste and I love to travel, so I said, “Sure,” and then thought to ask where she lived. She said she was from Santiago, Chile.
Months went by, and I was caught up in my job as a deputy prosecuting attorney. Then came the invitation. The young woman whose request we had so casually accepted, Cecilia Marré, turned out to be the director of Chile’s Corporación Bocalán Confiar, and in June 2009, she wrote with a formal appeal for assistance. I rushed into Cesar’s studio and told him about Cecilia’s invitation. I also said that this remarkable coincidence meant that he had to travel with us. To persuade him, I added that his work with the Seattle Police Department might make the idea of using dogs with victims more acceptable to the law-enforcement officers who investigate these crimes. Cesar readily agreed to accompany us, and also offered to help with translating our presentations to Chilean government officials.
To prepare, I studied up on Chile’s criminal justice system, learning that the country had only recently adopted the adversarial model long utilized in the U.S., and that Chileans are passionate about implementing trial procedures that assure justice for everyone. In the meantime, Cesar entered a three-minute YouTube video, “Dogs in the Courthouse,” in a contest sponsored by the Washington State Bar Association to find the short film that best demonstrated a Northwest perspective on “Justice for All.” Cesar said that if he won, he would donate any prize money he received to Bocalán Confiar to help them promote a courthouse dogs program. In September, just two days before our departure for Chile, Cesar learned that he had won both the judges’ and the People’s Choice awards!
After a long flight, we arrived in Santiago and were greeted by customs dogs sniffing luggage for fruits and vegetables. To our surprise, these Labradors were working off-lead, with their handlers standing by, monitoring their behavior. As the dogs went about their business, they also accepted a few pats from the passengers. What a lovely introduction to the country this was.
Cecilia picked us up, and asked if we would be interested in seeing therapy dogs from Bocalán Confiar work with a physical therapist treating a disabled child. On our way to the facility, she told us that in Chile, veterinary students sometimes become certified dog handlers and assist physical therapists. We also learned that in some countries, the term “therapy dog” has a different meaning than it does in the U.S. In South America and Europe, for example, therapy dogs are what we call professionally trained assistance dogs.
When we arrived at the clinic, we saw Alejandra Santelices and her Labrador Retriever, Peseta, in a cheerful room, working with a physical therapist and a little girl. Peseta sat patiently across a table from the child, who had a bowl of dog kibble in front of her. She painstakingly dipped a spoon into the bowl, filled it with kibble and lifted it to Peseta’s mouth. She was delighted when Peseta ate delicately from the spoon.
Our next meetings were with the family-crime investigation unit of the Policía de Investigaciones de Chile (PDI) and Servicio Nacional de Menores (SENAME) of the Ministry of Justice, a child–sexual abuse treatment organization, to discuss their interest in implementing a courthouse dogs program. Two detectives picked us up, and we had an exciting ride through an assortment of neighborhoods to their headquarters. As we were escorted into the building, we saw a formal line of police officials waiting to greet us. Cesar had told us that in Chile, people air-kiss one another on the right cheek, but it was still a surprise to be greeted by these distinguished gentlemen this way.
Once the salutations were over, we made our first presentation to a group of about 10 high-ranking police officials. With Cesar and Cecilia acting as translators, we explained how professionally trained assistance dogs could help children and their families during the investigation and prosecution of sexual-assault crimes. It was very hard to read their expressions—we couldn’t tell if they thought we were brilliant, or crazy. But when Cesar broke out Seattle Police Department sweatshirts and hats, their demeanor changed, and we knew we had at least connected on that level.
Our meeting with the SENAME staff was entirely different. Here, forensic interviewers, a family court judge and therapeutic counselors made up the audience, and within minutes, it was clear they were ready to try anything to assist children and their families through this difficult process. We were told that there is a great deal of pressure to keep intrafamily sexual abuse secret, especially if reporting it meant that the father would be removed from the home. The mothers’ intentions are good, but they can easily become frustrated with the prolonged process. Not only are they usually unable to support their families by themselves, they see that their abused children begin to feel revictimized by having to repeatedly describe what happened to them. Cases were often dismissed for these reasons and, even worse, the children were not receiving the therapeutic counseling they needed to recover from their experiences. Maybe the dogs could make a difference.
To our delight, we were invited to a second meeting with the PDI investigators, one at which the entire staff was present. This time there were smiles, and the detectives were on their knees hugging the dog Cecilia had brought with her. Apparently, they thought we were more brilliant than crazy. In a leap of faith, the police had decided to work with Bocalán Confiar assistance dogs and SENAME to make a Chilean courthouse dogs program a reality. The deal was sealed when PDI detectives gave us souvenirs from their department to bring back to the United States. The following day, Santiago television stations and newspapers covered Chile’s decision to begin a courthouse dogs program. Suddenly, the issue of child sexual abuse was big news, and this innovative approach demonstrated that the government was willing to do all it could to address the problem.
What a lesson in humility! I had thought that Chileans were unlikely to be receptive to this idea, but not only were they interested, they established and funded a national program faster than has been done in our country. Now, we are lagging behind.
Recently, Teo Mariscal asked if we would be interested in helping him establish a similar program in Colombia. “Sure,” we said. “We love to travel!” Stay tuned…
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
It depends on what you want. Suppose you have a pet dog you love to death and want to do more with. Suppose your dog has “shepherd” or “sheepdog” in his name, maybe his breed is among the AKC “Herding Group”. Or maybe your dog is a “shepherd/mix” from the shelter.
If your dog is an AKC “Herding Group” purebred, it’s easy to find training and AKC “herding” trials. ASCA (the Australian Shepherd Club of America) lets more purebreds compete but If you’ve got a crossbred – or don’t know what your dog is, The American Herding Breeds Assn is your best bet.
At any of these events, you’ll meet people as crazy about their dogs as you are. You might earn a ribbon or initials after the dog’s name – if nothing tonier than “HCT” (Herding Capability Tested). These programs aren’t difficult and you and your dog will have a ball.
In fairness, I must warn you against traditional stockdog work and trials. Learning how to handle and train a sheepdog takes years. You’ll put miles on your car and your dog. You’ll be out in the foulest weather. You’ll need to understand not only your dog – no cinch – but sheep, cattle or goats too. Do you really want to be on a first name basis with a three hundred pound Suffolk ram?
All your most shameful mental qualities: your impatience, egotism, vagueness, vanity and inattention will be painfully and publicly obvious. Your dreams, fantasies and love for your dog will count for nothing. You won’t earn titles or championships. Ribbons and prize money will be rare and humiliations commonplace.
Welcome, sucker. If you’ve got this far, you’re probably too hard-headed to accept my most important advice: IF YOU WANT TO WORK A STOCKDOG BUY A TRAINED STOCKDOG. A started sheepdog (can fetch sheep, goes left or right on command and is starting to drive) will run you two grand, a trial winner as much as fifteen, a 9 or ten year old retired trial dog mightn’t cost more than a good home for him. Since you can buy the cutest sheepdog pup for five hundred, why spend the money?
Because in the long run, the high dollar dog is cheaper. Because you need training and THE TRAINED DOG TRAINS YOU.If you ain’t got the genes, you ain’t got no thing
Any dog can be useful on livestock: I’d lay my Labrador Retriever in a gateway to block sheep. But a few breeds have this powerful genetic urge to work stock. Alas, most dogs from the “Herding Group” are bred for dog shows and aren’t much more useful than my Labrador was Your best genetic bets are Border Collies, Kelpies, English Shepherds and Australian Shepherds – in that order. Shun show dogs and be deaf to breeder guff. If you don’t like the way mama works stock, don’t buy her pup.
You’ll need a plastic stick to extend your reach, a tie chain for your dog while he’s waiting to work, a leash, a collar with your dog’s id, and a 2$ plastic whistle which you won’t be able to blow although your kid will. You won’t need treats, halters, snootloops, clickers, choke, prong or ecollars.Your Sheepdog Guru
Stockwork often seems counter-intuitive and even with a trained dog nobody learns without a mentor. If you stick with AKC, ASCA and AHBA events, mentors are plentiful. T’were it me, I’d see my mentor’s dogs work before I signed up for his/her instruction.
If you’re determined to learn traditional stockwork, usbcha.com lists every sheep and cattle trial. Thats’ where you’ll find local, traditional trainers. After your pup is six months old, enroll him in your mentor’s sheepdog handler’s clinic.A BOOMING BUZZING CONFUSION
Your mentor will escort you and Shep into a small ring containing three or four docile sheep. You’ll unclip his lead and all hell will break loose. Shep will go after the sheep, the sheep will split and bolt, the mentor will be saying something as you’re praying that Shep won’t kill some wooly creature. SHEP WON”T LISTEN!!. HE’S ON ANOTHER PLANET!!!
That’s how everybody starts learning. Fun, huh?
Because it’s beautiful and because Shep will think it’s beautiful too. From the start you’ll have glimpses; momentary communication so intense, your and your dog’s mind will be one mind. Because one day you’ll be in difficulties and your dog will rescue you. Because one day last year I sent my Luke for sheep half a mile away, across three ridges; then down a steep backslope and Luke disappeared from sight for one minute, two minutes, three . . . four . . . and reappeared – so far out there he was a dot, but exactly where he needed to be. That tiny black dot was the most beautiful dog I’ve ever seen.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Hypoglycemia-detecting canines provide a safety net
Destiny, a small black Retriever, insistently nudged Breanne, her person, who was sleeping soundly. Over and over, she pushed her warm snout into Breanne’s face, finally jolting her into wakefulness with bristly whiskers and a wet tongue. Breanne has Type 1 diabetes, and Destiny alerted her to the fact that her blood sugar levels were plummeting into dangerous territory. This special pup represents the newest “breed” of service dogs, one who detects hypoglycemia and offers hope, freedom and better health to those with Type 1 diabetes.
Breanne Harris is a 22-year-old student at UC Davis and has lived with Type 1 diabetes since she was four. In those with Type 1 (sometimes called “juvenile”) diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t produce insulin, a hormone that regulates the conversion of glucose (blood sugar) into energy. Instead, the diabetic needs to obtain this vital substance from injections or an insulin pump. Type 1 diabetics walk a perilous tightrope as they juggle food and insulin, aiming for blood sugar readings of between 80 and 150, measured with a tiny, handheld glucose meter.
Many factors influence blood glucose levels. Too much—or not enough—insulin, food or exercise, as well as stress or illness, can easily upset the balance. Sometimes, in spite of the most diligent management, blood sugar runs dangerously high or low for no apparent reason, and this can have serious health consequences. Blood sugar that runs high over an extended period of time can damage vision, organs and limbs, so the diabetic tries to keep blood glucose as close to the “normal” range as possible. But vigilance can inadvertently lead to episodes of hypoglycemia, or “lows,” that result in unconsciousness, seizure, coma and even death; the lower the individual’s blood sugar goes, the less able he or she is to take the steps needed to raise it to a safe level.
Here’s where the hypoglycemia-detecting service dog can make a life-or-death difference. Dogs4Diabetics (D4D), a nonprofit organization based in Concord, Calif., is pioneering cutting-edge work with service dogs trained to alert their people or handlers to impending hypoglycemia. D4D founder Mark Ruefenacht first made the connection between dogs and diabetes eight years ago while training a puppy for Guide Dogs for the Blind.
One night, the puppy’s urgent whining awoke him. Mark, a diabetic, recognized the signs that his blood sugar was dropping rapidly. He also realized that the puppy had somehow detected the impending low. Trained in forensic metrology (the science of measurement), Mark began to explore the possibility of teaching dogs to detect low blood sugar. “We spent the next five years doing a lot of research to figure out how we could start a program,” he explains. “No medical instrument in the world can do what the dogs are doing with their noses.”
D4D dogs are generally career-change dogs from Guide Dogs for the Blind in nearby San Rafael, Calif. The dogs are highly trained by the time they arrive at D4D, and the intensive, specialized instruction they then receive, similar to the training for drug-detecting dogs, is customized to each dog’s learning strength. Without going into specific protocols, trainer Blancette Reynolds describes the “fluidity” that is essential to successful training: “Anything you do with any living creature is fluid, a work in progress. Sometimes I will modify my particular response to reinforce a particular behavior. And the criterion for each dog is a little different; for example, the bar is lower for a new dog.” The dogs’ training is so specific and comprehensive that they learn to expect a reward only after their handler or person has pulled out the glucose meter, tested his or her blood sugar, and gotten something to eat or drink. Only then do they receive that rewarding bit of kibble.
D4D dogs are trained to alert their handler when they detect a scent on the breath or in the sweat of someone whose blood glucose is dropping rapidly. The dogs can detect the scent from anyone nearby who might be “going low,” although they are trained to only alert their handler. The dogs graduate from the program when they can detect the scent with a 95 percent accuracy rate from across a room. Each dog alerts his handler with unique body language. After picking up the scent by snuffling loudly and inhaling as many telltale molecules as possible, Destiny alerts Harris by placing her paws on Harris’s lap or chest.
On Tuesday nights at D4D, dogs and their potential handlers test the waters with one another. People are focused and hopeful as they learn how to handle a dog and what to expect in public when accompanied by a service dog. Meanwhile, staff members are on the lookout for a special connection. “Many people are eager to be partnered with one of our dogs,” says director Carol Edwards. “But we don’t make placements according to a waiting list; instead, we pair up dogs and people when we see a special chemistry at work.” Once a match has been made, the dog and his handler work as a leashed-together pair 24 hours a day for up to two months. During this “umbilical period,” the dog learns to connect his person’s hypoglycemic scent with a reward. Reynolds explains, “It’s almost as if they are saying, I smell the scent. I’m going to let you know that I smell the scent, and then I’ll get treats!
At first, Harris didn’t believe that a dog could detect low blood sugar, but her skepticism vanished when she worked at a camp for diabetic children and accompanied a D4D dog on his midnight rounds. She became a believer when she watched the dog alert his handler to a sleeping child whose blood sugar reading was in the low 30s.
Just three weeks before the momentous night—the night when she didn’t wake up freezing in sweat-soaked linens—Harris brought Destiny home. Instead of ravenously raiding the refrigerator and experiencing the disorientation and emotional rollercoaster that accompanies midnight hypoglycemia, she simply lay in bed and drank a glass of juice. “It’s the best low I’ve ever had,” she confesses with a smile.
These days, Destiny accompanies Harris everywhere, wearing the blue vest that identifies her as a medical-alert service dog. Destiny’s presence in the car eliminates Harris’s concern about going low while driving, and in the classroom, Destiny sits by Harris’s side and gives her enough warning that she can grab a healthy snack without missing a moment of instruction. And at night, this faithful companion frees Harris to sleep soundly without the risks and fears of nighttime hypoglycemia.
The work at D4D holds promise for hundreds of thousands of Type 1 diabetics. For Mark and the other tireless volunteers at D4D, the bottom line is that these dogs relieve people of the fear of hypoglycemia, and they save lives. Most rewarding are the phone calls from parents who say, “The dog woke me up last night, and my child’s blood glucose was 40.”
Harris grew up with Lab mixes, and initially she looked forward to building a special relationship with her new dog; then she realized exactly how special that relationship would be: “When I first received Destiny, I was so excited to be able to care for a dog. This is really cool! I thought to myself. She depends on me for fun, for play, for food, for a good walk. But when she started to alert on me, it really struck home: I am the one who depends on her to literally save my life.” No glucose meter in the world can measure the depth of that bond.
Originally published as “An Immeasurable Bond.”
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