work of dogs
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Is it possible for a dog to help in a recovery?
That first weekend, we weren’t sure we were keeping him. It was a trial placement.
As we drove the excited little Terrier away from his foster home—the two foster dads waving fondly from their front step—he dashed frantically around our car’s interior, clambering over everyone, scratching our legs, trying desperately to reach an open window—not to escape, it turned out, but so he could experience head-on the full 45 mph smash of wind in the face. In the front passenger seat, the scruffy brown mutt perched on my husband’s right thigh, curled his front paws over the lowered window, angled himself toward the side mirror, and stretched his torso and neck into the gale. The airstream peeled back the fur from his face, the lips from his teeth and the unshorn bangs from his eyes until the wild-eyed dog with airborne ears looked like a demon flying beside the car.
At our house, the little demon—a knee-high, wire-haired Terrier mix (something like a Cairn, I thought, though the foster dads thought Yorkie), two or three years old—streaked up the hardwood staircase and stumbled back down and flew back up and tripped back down. He flushed the two cats from their hiding places and chased them until they vaulted to furniture above his reach; he nosed the two elderly, bewildered dogs as they lay curled together in a dog bed; then he ran upstairs and downstairs some more. He’d been captured by Southern Animal Rescue at a Wal-Mart parking lot, where he’d lived and foraged as a stray. Evidently, neither the Wal- Mart parking lot nor the foster home had included stairs, for his interest in them was boundless. I was down there! Now I am … wait for it … up here! Bark bark bark! Watch out—I’m coming down! Bark bark bark!
He was enthusiastic about everything. He yapped at a peeved cat sitting on top of the piano and then pursued the other cat up the stairs lickety-split. He was getting good at stairs! The two elderly dogs, rousing themselves from their autumnal haze, raised their heads and knitted their eyebrows in looks of concern. Theo, an 11-year-old miniature Wire- Haired Dachshund, had pursued a lifetime career as first lieutenant to Franny, the stout, freckled, 13-year-old Rat Terrier. Now, imagining he needed to put a stop to these shenanigans (though Franny likely felt no such thing), Theo sprang into aggressive action and hurried to the bottom of the stairs where the new pup was playing Chutes & Ladders with himself. Teeth bared, Theo tried to take a snarling bite out of the young Terrier’s leg on his next trip to the bottom. The new guy yelped and ran back up. A few of the humans suddenly couldn’t remember why anyone had thought getting a new dog was a good plan.
In the fall of 2012, we had five teenagers living at home (ages 15, 16, 17, 18 and 18), two elderly dogs and two amiable cats. Our 24-year-old son Lee—the third oldest of our nine children (four by birth and five by adoption at older ages from Bulgaria and Ethiopia)—had just been diagnosed, to everyone’s astonishment, with a late Stage III colon cancer, so he had moved home. His beautiful girlfriend, Maya Selber, flew down from Philadelphia to join us on the surreal Long March into cancer treatment. This made for seven young people, two middle-aged people, three frequently visiting young adults and four animals under one roof. There was also the deadline (for me) of a book contract, and the pressure (on both my husband and me) of trying to keep everything and everyone afloat financially and emotionally.
“Stay away from the Internet,” the cancer survivors among our friends warned us. “The projections, the statistics, won’t do you any good. They won’t apply to your son anyway.” Our son was a statistical outlier—a 24-year-old with a disease that typically appeared among people in late middle age.
I had no trouble avoiding cancer websites. But I did have trouble working. It wasn’t just the demands of medical tests, consultations and hospital visits, as Lee bravely and compliantly began chemotherapy, radiation and daily self-injections, and faced two surgeries in the not-distant future. It was the fact that, even if I found a free hour, I couldn’t think about anything other than cancer. And the fact that, as a family, we were sliding into a group depression.
Lee happens to be an ebullient, generous, playful fellow. He excels at happiness and at including everyone in the fun. From a young age, he has been our family camp counselor, holiday planner and coach. He tells us when it’s time for touch football, when it’s time for charades and when it’s time to sit down and watch the Atlanta Braves on TV. He knows when we need to buy tickets and go to Turner Field instead. He knows when we need company (always), when it’s time to decorate the den for the start of the Falcons season and when I must buy the Settlers of Catan Expansion Pack for Additional Players. He knows when he and his siblings need to go to late-night bowling.
His professional life reflects his flair for play. He is a teacher and coach at a school for teens and young adults on the autism spectrum. Over the last few years, he has organized sports and games for Ethiopian orphans, for children hospitalized with heart defects, for teenage Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in Israel and for destitute children in Haiti.
In the summer of 2012, Lee and Maya created a children’s recreation program in the town of Kenscoff, Haiti. When they returned, Lee, always slender, startled us because he’d lost more than 20 pounds. He insisted he was fine; he must have lost weight from eating nothing but plantains all summer and from some gastrointestinal bug. Everyone agreed it had to be an amoebic infection. Until it wasn’t.
The day the GI doc phoned with the definitive diagnosis of an enormous malignant tumor, I found Lee sitting in the dark in the living room. “How are you doing?” I asked.
“I just feel so … lucky,” he said.
“If I were Haitian, I would die of this. If I were Ethiopian, I would die of this.”
That was his stance: gratitude—for family and friends, for Emory University Hospital, for Obamacare (that allowed us to carry him, at 24, on my husband’s law firm’s insurance policy)—and humor. The day the surgeon estimated that the tumor must have been growing for a decade, we pondered the news over dinner. “Lee,” I said. “This means that middle school, high school, working in Ethiopia, gap year in Israel, college at Oberlin, college in Israel, working in Haiti, everything you have done, you have done with cancer. Now you’re starting treatment. Sometime next year, you’ll experience life without cancer for the first time since you were 13 or 14.”
“My Major League Baseball career! It’s not too late!” he cried.
“Maybe you’ll have musical or artistic gifts!” I said.
“I won’t be the slowest of the six brothers anymore!” he yelled.
But Yosef, 15, our almost-six-foot-tall Ethiopian son, corrected him: “No, Lee, you will still be the slowest.”
Lee, already a Fantasy Football League player, created additional leagues that fall so that far-flung siblings, cousins and friends from Haifa, Jerusalem, San Francisco, Oberlin, Columbus and Detroit could remain in daily touch without mentioning the one topic he didn’t want to talk about. But, as chemotherapy and radiation took up more and more of his time, his energy flagged. Little by little, he passed on pickup football and front-yard soccer and driveway basketball. Then he began declining board games. Constantly obliged to fast or to follow a liquid diet, he stopped telling us when it was a good night for pizza, when we needed fresh bagels and when he hoped I would make lasagna. Because our younger children had experienced great loss in their young lives— the four Ethiopian children had been orphaned by disease, had lost siblings to disease—sorrow ran through our house. Behind closed bedroom doors at night, teenagers were crying.
I began searching the Internet for information. Not for information about colon cancer in 24-year-olds. For information about rescue dogs. It was pure fantasy to look at their pictures and to imagine leading one away to a life of love and happiness, dogs and teenage athletes, fields and woods. Searching the shelter and rescue websites every day for an adoptable, medium-sized dog became my great escape. Like Fantasy Football, it was Not Cancer.
For an animal lover, there are few harder things to look at than photos of dogs behind bars, especially those at county shelters with significant kill ratios. I don’t know which are sadder: the lackluster eyes of dogs who have abandoned all hope, who sit with slumped shoulders gazing down at the cement, or the still-bright eyes of dogs who, with pricked ears and lifted eyebrows, believe someone is coming for them. Photos of dogs in foster homes pierced me, too, because the pups lolling across someone’s lap in a back yard, with wideopen smiles, clearly thought they had a family, when in fact they were still in limbo, their futures uncertain.
“Do you think we should get another dog?” I asked my husband one night in a high-pitched voice as though expressing a sudden passing thought.
Despite the fact that we were in the midst of a major medical emergency, my husband, Don Samuel, a criminal defense attorney, the man who had agreed every step of the way about adding another child until we ended up with nine, said yes.
“Three dogs aren’t too many dogs?”
“Franny and Theo nap most of the time now.”
“And they say dogs are a great consolation for people going through cancer treatment.”
“You know Maya never had a dog? This would be such an amazing experience for her, something fun to come home to after a long day of sitting in the chemo infusion room.”
“Definitely,” he said, wondering why I offered so many supporting arguments for an idea he’d liked instantly.
I returned to the Internet the next morning with zest. I studied the names, genders, backstories, estimated ages and guessed-at breed mixes of scores of dogs. I attended weekend pet-adoption events. But I came home with only pet food.
I didn’t rush into a commitment, because actually bringing home a dog would mean I’d have to give up my fantasy life of browsing for a dog. I wasn’t sure an actual dog could replace this vicarious escape.
Then I saw a picture of the little brown Terrier. The photograph was blurry in the foreground—because he was pushing his trembly, wet, black nose too close to the camera—and blurry in the rear—because his tail wagged so fast. He looked boyish, mischievous, something like Lady and the Tramp’s Tramp. There he is! I thought.
Typing quickly, I emailed the rescue group (from which we’d adopted our black-and-white kitty the previous summer) and said, “We’re interested! Is he still available?”
I held my breath. How could someone so cute still be available even 60 seconds after his photo went up? He was still available!
“Do you want to go meet a dog?” I asked Lee.
“What??!! Really?” he cried. “Really?”
All the kids yelled: “Really? We’re getting another dog?!”
“I don’t know, I don’t know!” I said. “We’re just going to meet one.”
That Sunday at the foster home, the first thing I saw was a curious black nose busily poking here and there through the slats of the backyard fence. I recognized that nose! And here he came, tearing into the front yard, frisking through the grass to meet everyone.
It wasn’t love at first sight for me. For me it was more: Okay. And something like: He looks nicely proportioned.
It wasn’t love at first sight for anyone. “What do you think?
What do you think?” we all asked one another.
“Let’s give him a try,” said Donny.
“Do you have a clue how he is with cats?” I asked.
“Take him home for a week,” said one of the foster dads.
“The rescue group knows your family. See how he does with your cats.”
So we led him into the car and he squashed over everybody trying to get his head out a window.
He rampaged through the house all weekend. He sprinted into my bedroom, saw me reading on the bed, jumped up and bounced off the bed, and tore out of the room. He was a steel ball in a pinball machine. We were the levers.
“Are we keeping him?” we asked one another.
“If we’re keeping him, he needs a name,” I said. I felt unsure. I felt: not in love. I felt: I can’t even fall in love with him if he doesn’t have a name. I felt suddenly aware of the work involved in assimilating a stray dog into the household. The two cats and the elderly Dachshund had already signaled thumbs-down. Only the 12-year-old Rat Terrier, Franny, approved of him; she had accepted his polite licks and gestures of youth and respect. But then, Franny was a saint. I wasn’t. I thought: Can I—should I—really take him on at this time?
But he needed a home. We had one.
God knows we needed an infusion of joie de vivre. He offered that.
“Let’s keep him,” I said.
“What are you thinking? Of course we’re keeping him!” my husband laughed.
Lee and Maya assumed the responsibility of choosing a name. By Monday night, the little fellow became Bodie. By Tuesday morning, it was as if he’d always been Bodie. Maya touched him only gingerly at first; his rough fur felt greasy to her. (She’d grown up in one of those families in which a parent pretends to be allergic to dogs; she’d never been this close to a dog before.) She startled when Bodie nestled against her leg, or when he sat up and looked her straight in the eye, apparently asking for something. To be petted? She touched the top of his head cautiously, with one finger, and he settled back down with a groan of contentment.
When Lee bathed Bodie for the first time, Maya stood back, taking pictures with her iPhone. She laughed at his slicked-down, mournful look in the bathtub, screamed when he escaped and scattered water through the house, and marveled when his fur dried to a remarkable and colorful silkiness. (According to a later doggie-DNA test, the foster dads were right: there was no Cairn in him, but one parent was purebred Yorkshire Terrier). He wasn’t a monochrome brown dog: he was streaked with hues of wood-brown, gray, khaki and gold, growing lighter from his back to his front as though he’d been held by the nose and dipped in chocolatebrown pigment, which then ran off the length of him. The soft down on his narrow chest was champagne-colored.
He adapted easily to home life, to family life. He was naturally housetrained; the modest type, he preferred to conceal himself behind a distant tree or bush for elimination. He made peace with the Dachshund and the cats within the week. He waited for permission before jumping up on our beds: he sat, hoping for a word or gesture. If you forgot to invite him up, he gave a few soft reminder yips. He joined the teenagers on their soccer fields and stole the ball. His dog manners were excellent. Somewhere I’ve read that stray dogs are often the best socialized. He was instantly popular at dog parks, glad-handing everyone, chatting everyone up. He could have run for office.
When Lee was laid up for hours or days, Bodie snuggled loyally with him. He laid his face across Lee’s sleeping body with a melancholy look and refused to leave the bed. When Lee felt a little better, he pulled himself together in order to take Bodie for a walk; through the months of intense treatment, Lee’s walks were dedicated to Bodie’s health and happiness, as if they had nothing to do with his own. He had major surgery in March 2013. On the fourth day after surgery, Lee was able to leave his hospital floor and ride the elevator down to a small park on the hospital grounds. We brought Bodie to visit him. Such joy all around!
Maya fell head-over-heels in love with her silly pup. Watching her made me wonder if it was almost worthwhile to grow up without a dog so that, at 24, you could fall in love with your first one so boundlessly and breathtakingly. Whatever he did became her little nicknames for him: “You little licker,” she cooed. “You little barker. You little muddyface.” He was smart and eager to learn. She taught him to sit, to stay, to come, to shake, to fist-bump and to roll over.
Bodie was happy all the time. He trotted, smiled and wiggled with happiness. He loved every person in our family. In parks, he ran so fast, with such freedom and joy, that he nearly took flight. From the prick of his ears to the loft of his tail, Bodie had Not Cancer written all over him.
One night, Lee announced: “We don’t think it’s possible to love anyone more than we love Bodie. Are you saying people love their children more than this?”
“Hmmm, probably,” I said.
“That’s not possible. Bodie is the cutest thing on earth,” he said.
I agreed completely! Bodie is the cutest thing on the planet! My very first instinct—my lightning-fast reaction when I first saw his photograph—had been accurate. How on earth could I have thought only, “He’s okay” and “He’s proportional” when I first met him? How was it possible, that first weekend, that we hadn’t realized we were in the presence of someone so adorable and so incredibly gifted and special? Love was absent then, so we couldn’t see clearly. Now that we’re in love, we understand that Bodie’s gifts are just like Lee’s. He lives to make friends, to have fun, to share his extraordinary sense of everyday joy.
Lee’s cancer is in remission now, the 14 months of struggle, pain and treatment nearly finished. He, Maya and Bodie moved to their own apartment (situated on a dog park and next-door to a park and jogging trail). Bodie visits our house every day and (when Lee and Maya are out late with friends) he sometimes sleeps over. Thanks to his doctors, family, friends, Maya and Bodie, Lee feels that the past year—on balance— has been a great one.
Have you heard about the couple in Northern California who were out walking their dog on their property and stumbled upon the greatest treasure of rare gold coins ever found in the U.S? It was buried in eight old tin cans, under an old tree. It’s a great story and evidence that dog walking is definitely worth its weight in gold. The coins, all 1,427 of them, date from 1847 to 1894, the height of the Gold Rush, and have initially been appraised at being worth $10 million. One $20 gold coin, minted in 1866 before the slogan “In God We Trust” appeared on coins, is so rare that by itself could fetch $1 million. The couple, and their pooch, wisely wish to remain anonymous and have lived in this rural area of California’s Gold Country for several years. They did say that this treasure means that now they can keep their property, the man adding, “Like a lot of people lately, we’ve had some financial trials, I feel extreme gratitude that we can keep our beloved property.” The couple also noted that they want to donate some of the proceeds to the homeless and hungry in their area.
What treasures or special finds has your dog sniffed out?
For more news on this story.
We just got this wonderful note and video from Tamandra Michaels, a perfect representative for our slogan, Dog Is My Co-Pilot. She writes:
"I think I tried to share this video I had made of my puppy on your Facebook page, but not sure if was really seen. I just wanted to really share this, as I have your shirt on, and he is so fitting with “dog is my co-pilot.” You blogged about my last Shepherd, who pulled me in my wheelchair, and was a very special guy. I was so devastated to lose him. This current pup has really healed me, and is turning out to be just as special, a very amazing boy! He loves to pull me fast in the chair, but also developed this talent all on his own—and it has to be his idea ha ha. He pushes me with his nose, all over the place. It's just especially cool when I have your shirt on .… It fits my whole philosophy of training, too. Force free, truly a team mate, co-pilot :)"
You can read more about her and this amazing dog, Justice True, on http://journeywithjustice.com
From the Norwegian Association of the Blind
This is a very clever video from the Norwegian Association of the Blind about gaining access for their guide dogs. It's hard to believe that would be in an issue in a socially progressive Scandinavian country, but seems like it is one. So we hope this "Could Have Been Worse" video goes a long way in making it easier for them and their wonderful dogs.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A program for children with special needs.
For the past 14 years, my Bernese Mountain Dogs and I have been involved in animalassisted therapy activities through Marin Humane Society’s Special Human-Animal Relationships (SHARE) program. Together, we’ve visited senior residential facilities, our local hospital’s critical care unit, reading programs, classrooms for children with special needs and those involved in humane education, programs for at-risk and troubled youth, and Marin Humane Society (MHS) summer camps. My youngest Berner, Charlotte, has been part of the SHARE program for three years. She’s a gentle soul who makes an immediate connection with everyone, especially children, whom she loves.
In April 2012, Rachel Blackman— whose mother, Darlene Blackman, heads the MHS SHARE and Community Service programs—invited five SHARE teams (including Charlotte and me) to participate in a program she developed for her Girl Scout Gold Award project. Inspired by one of her cousins, who is autistic, and her participation in MHS summer camps, she named it Jumping for Joy.
Jumping for Joy focuses on children with autism and learning disabilities and their families. The six-week program, which is offered at no cost to the participants, provides the children with an opportunity to work with trained animal-assisted therapy (AAT) teams on a canine agility course. Before and after the agility-course work, children and dogs spend time together in the “therapy” part of the program, during which each child receives reassurance, nonjudgmental acceptance and unconditional love from the canine teams.
During the first week, the children and their families meet and spend time with the dogs and watch demonstrations of the equipment they will be using. The focus is on simple cues for each station. Weeks two through five are dedicated to helping the children learn to navigate the jumps, tire, tunnel, A-frame and table with the dogs. Each class involves a demonstration, practice on the course and learning a new skill, as well as time spent with the dogs. To assist the children, Rachel prepares laminated cue cards that show a dog on a particular piece of equipment and the single-word cue that should be used. The final session is attended by families and friends and includes demonstrations and practice. Then, each child takes a dog through the complete agility course and receives a special certificate and medal.
The children in the first session were all from the same school and were well known to each of the SHARE teams from our visits to their classroom. It was rewarding to watch the even deeper bond that developed between the children and the dogs throughout the six weeks of the program. The learning styles and attention capabilities of each child guided the manner and method of their instruction. As a result, all were successful; in the photos taken during the classes, their attention and focus on the dogs and equipment are obvious. Even more telling are the smiles and looks of relaxation and enjoyment on their faces. During our earlier classroom visits, one of the boys was usually reluctant to approach Charlotte. We returned to his class after he completed the program, and what a change! He wanted her to sit right next to him as we worked on his math and writing assignments.
The second session brought a mix of students from three different schools, which provided a few new challenges. Rachel was quick to identify each child’s needs and learning style and provided us with guidance on how best to work with them. A white board with a simple class agenda was helpful for one. For another, having a glove to absorb dog slobber made a huge difference. Each child worked with all of the dogs; however, the children were free to choose which dog they wanted to work with on any individual exercise.
When I reflect on the many AAT programs Charlotte and I have participated in, Jumping for Joy is one of my very favorites. It combines the best of everything: children with special needs, dogs who love and respond to children, and opportunities for the children to be successful in learning new and fun skills. And I absolutely love the fact that the program evolved from the dream of a 15-year-old animal lover. The joy on the children’s faces says it all.
If your local animal-assisted therapy organization would like to learn more about starting a Jumping for Joy program, please email Rachel through the Marin Humane Society; send requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suleika Jaouad is a 25-year-old woman who has been battling leukemia and chronicling this in a blog, “Life, Interrupted,” for the New York Times. In the most recent installment she introduces her puppy, Oscar. Having been wooed by a therapy dog as she during her first rounds of chemo, she had longed for her own dog. As she writes about the effects of the therapy dog visits:
“For the first time since I had fallen ill, I didn’t feel like I was being treated as if I were made of porcelain. The therapy dog made me feel like a human first, and a cancer patient second.”
She had to wait some time after her bone marrow transplant before the doctors gave her the ok to get a dog, but she finally did. At first little Oscar (a shelter adoptee) was a little more “work” than she had expected—as puppies can be:
“Oscar, unlike my caregivers, doesn’t care that I’m tired, feeling nauseous after my chemotherapy treatments. Every morning between 6 and 7, Oscar scoots over to my side of the bed and begins the process of baptizing me with his tongue until I wake up.”
But it didn’t take long for him to open up new worlds for her and help in her recovery.
“Although I was the one who rescued Oscar from an animal shelter, it has become clear that he’s done most of the rescuing in our relationship. … When we leave my apartment, Oscar bounds ahead of me, tugging at his leash as he guides me toward the dog park. For the first time in a very long time, it’s not the cancer that leads. It’s Oscar.”
Do read her whole column here.
A great story out of the UK about the “Woof to Wash”—a new invention that turns a washing machine into one that can be operated by a dog. It makes it rather simple to train service dogs to help disabled people to do their laundry with it. Dogs unlock the machine using a “pawprint” pad, then they pull a rope to open the door, close it with their noses and then bark to start it going. These dogs can even strip beds and fill laundry baskets, and then load and empty the machine too. Amazing, isn’t it?
Inventor, John Middleton had seen a video from the nonprofit, Support Dogs, showing how a dog can strip a bed and load a washing machine, so he thought that he could go one step further and come up with a “bark-activated” machine itself. So with a team of engineers and with the help of Miele, the home appliance maker, they completed this project in little over two weeks.
Support Dogs has trained service dogs using voice commands and hand signals so they can help their owners fetch post, turn on light switches, open doors, assist in dressing and undressing—and now do a complete laundry cycle
As Rita Howson, its director of operations, hailed the bark-activated washing machine and praised John for coming up with a simplified bespoke machine for their clients.
She said “A normal washing machine can be very challenging so the single programme machine is very helpful.”
We received hundreds of entries to our 2013 Best Places to Work contest from all across the country. We heard from two-person shops and large corporations who are dedicated to dog-friendly workplaces. We were introduced to a resident dog at a Hawaiian dental office who helps soothe jittery patients; we met shop dogs at bakeries (Momofuku Milk Bar in NYC) and a glassblowing studio (Glassybaby in Washington state), a rescue dog/mascot at a distillery (Tito’s Handmade Vodka) in Texas, several technology/internet firms (Advent, The Nerdery) and a handful of manufacturers (Jones Soda, Bissell). While each company had a great story to tell, three entries stood out, earning Bark’s special recognition and a year’s worth of Zuke’s delectable treats.
Midland School, Los Olivos, Calif.
The Midland dogs attend classes, watch soccer games from the sidelines, sleep on library couches and help herd the resident cattle. Dogs even play a role in academic research. Midland’s statistics class conducts an annual mathematical analysis of daily dog wanderings. Students attach GPS units to the collars of several dogs and track their movements around campus over the course of several days.
Dogs are so integral to the culture of Midland School that Headmaster Will Graham’s 2011 graduation speech centered around their importance: “An animal can teach a person to focus on the simple things … the important things … to care for and love something other than ourselves, to pick up a mess that we did not make, and to play. They reassure us, keep us from being restless, help us be practical and grounded, and make us smile.” He named the dogs alongside the graduating seniors when he issued diplomas.
PrintingForLess, Livingston, Mont.
KolbeCo, O’Fallon, Mo.
2014 Best Places to Work Contest kicks off September 1.
News: Guest Posts
Ellie is now nearly eleven years old. She still loves going to work every day and has no plans to retire. “She loves coming to work with me, and just seems to be getting better and better at her job,” says Page Ulrey, a King County Deputy Prosecutor and Ellie’s handler.
Ellie is the first facility dog who was trained specifically for use by a prosecuting attorney’s office, to assist victims of crime during witness interviews and courtroom testimony. I first wrote about Ellie, and Jeeter—the facility dog who helped get the idea going in Seattle, Wash.—in 2007. While Page prosecutes cases involving elder and vulnerable adult abuse, Ellie continues to help with a wide variety of cases within the office. Ellie has been working almost nine years now, and in that time has attended a trial every few months, perhaps as many as forty total. She’s had a huge, beneficial impact on how many victims of crime experience the legal system.
Ellie—and other courthouse dogs like her—had to do some convincing along the way. As in other states where facility dogs have been introduced into criminal courtroom proceedings, defense counsel and/or judges in counties across Washington State have often objected when a facility dog accompanies a victim or witness to the stand for testimony. This is especially true the first few times a facility dog is used. Some cases, after a conviction at the trial court level, are appealed in part on the basis that the dog created a bias in favor of the prosecutor’s witness and case, interfering with the defendant’s right to due process. In Washington, most of those cases ended in the state’s appellate level courts with convictions affirmed and the use of the facility dog approved.
Now, however, the Washington State Supreme Court has weighed in. After an appellate court affirmed a conviction and the use of Ellie to comfort a victim while testifying, the case was appealed again to the state’s highest court. The Washington State Supreme Court issued a decision September 26, 2013—State v. Dye— making it clear that the use of facility dogs in the courtroom should be allowed so long as certain facts are established and precautions are followed.
What makes State v. Dye an especially strong case for the use of facility dogs is that the defendant’s counsel made several common objections to the use of Ellie at trial—preserving the issues for appeal—so that the Supreme Court could address them in detail. The victim in the case, though 56 years old, was a developmentally delayed man who functioned at a mental age of six to twelve years. When interviewed by defense counsel prior to trial, Ellie comforted him. Page, as prosecutor at trial, laid the foundation for using Ellie to assist the victim because he felt anxious about testifying, much like any child would. Ellie accompanied the victim to the witness stand. Not only did defense counsel object to Ellie, saying her presence with the victim was extremely prejudicial to the defendant, but also because the prosecutor on the case was Page—Ellie’s handler—who could possibly signal Ellie in some way. And finally, defense counsel objected on the basis that the defendant and even defense counsel might have allergies to dogs, or be intimidated by the dog.
The Supreme Court said that trial judges may exercise their discretion in allowing a special measure such as a facility dog to accompany vulnerable witnesses. The analysis is the same in situations when child witnesses are allowed to take a doll or teddy bear with them to the witness stand. There should be a showing by the prosecutor that the witness would have difficulty testifying without the special measure. The trial judge can then determine whether the special measure would unduly prejudice the defendant.
The Supreme Court noted that Ellie’s behavior in the courtroom was never disruptive; she never left the witness’s side; and she never made any gesture (growling, lunging) toward the defendant that would cause a jury to consider him dangerous or untrustworthy. And finally, the trial judge instructed the jury to not make any assumptions based on Ellie’s presence.
The allergy objection has been a common one in the early stages of using facility dogs like Ellie in courtrooms. In the Dye case, the judge offered to allow the defendant to prove such an allergy with a note from his doctor, and if proven, make accommodations for him. The defendant never produced such a note and the objection was overruled. The Supreme Court approved this approach.
Both the Washington Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court upheld the trial judge’s decision to allow Ellie to assist the victim while testifying. A concurring opinion to the Supreme Court decision did voice some concerns, however. Justice McCloud felt that because Ellie was such a powerful symbol in the courtroom— “…her mere presence conveyed a deeply reassuring, yet silent, message of comfort, security and support”—that in the interest of fairness to the defendant, the trial judge might consider additional steps, for example allowing a facility dog to accompany the defendant’s key witness to the stand, to balance things out. Defense counsel didn’t seek such balancing steps, so no error occurred at the trial level. Justice McCloud was also concerned that a simple instruction to the jury to not draw any conclusions from Ellie’s presence was insufficient, that it’s well known that jurors often fail to follow a court’s instructions. “[T]he presumption that jurors follow instructions is especially inapplicable where the challenged procedure—here, the presence of the adorable dog Ellie—is a procedure that works only because it provides such powerful symbolism.”
There is still room for novel objections to the use of facility dogs in the courtroom. Those objections will wind their way through the appeals process. It’s all part of how our legal system sorts through these concerns and comes to the best possible solutions. Page isn’t worried. Ellie, and facility dogs in general, have become a common sight in King County’s courtrooms; most of the judges have become quite comfortable with their use. I’m sure that’s the case in many other jurisdictions across the country as well, and will become more common in the future.
As for defendants also having access to facility dogs in the courtroom, as suggested by Justice McCloud? “I think that's fair,” said Page. “Although I don't think the prosecutor's office is under any obligation to supply defense with a dog.”
State v. Dye, No. 87929-0, published September 29, 2013, can be found at:
Courthouse Dogs Foundation (www.courthousedogs.com) - promoting justice with compassion through the use of professionally trained facility dogs to provide emotional support to everyone in the justice system.
For the first report on courtroom dogs by Rebecca Wallick see, or for previous update .
A conversation with Cat Warren, author of the new book, What the Dogs Knows.
In the fall issue of The Bark, I gave a very positive review to Warren’s book, a story of “how she discovered what the canine worldview really is, and how she and her dog, Solo, learned to navigate it.” The following is a conversation with her and interviewer, Whitney Peeling.
Whitney Peeling: On the way to pick up your new German Shepherd puppy, you envisioned obedience rings and calm companionship, but this changed quickly.
You’re a professor, but you also do some rather unusual work outside of the university.
What made you take such a different route with Solo, training him to be a cadaver dog?
Some of your time with Solo is spent with others in the working dog world, including other handlers, trainers, breeders and police units. How have these relationships been important to you?
Death is an inescapable part of your work, and you address it matter-of-factly, yet with great respect. But is it sometimes difficult when your search leads to a body?
A handler and a working dog’s training is ongoing. What are you and Solo working on now?
Working dog training appears to be very much “a man's world.” What was it like for you, starting to train in that world?
As the years go by, it’s less difficult. The handlers and trainers like Solo. I try to be true to who I am: I'm a woman who likes working dogs and likes to train. I don’t want to be a law enforcement dog handler. It’s not a job I could do. And while I have some close professional relationships and real mentors in that world, boundaries are still important. I work hard to stay out of the way during aggression training, to not get in the middle of work conversations. If it’s a regular training and not a seminar, I don’t follow handlers to lunch or dinner break. Their world is unrelentingly 24/7.
Any group—whether it’s K9 handlers, or cops, or college faculty, or AKC confirmation breeders—is going to have its rituals and its special language. It’s going to have people who welcome you in and mentor you, and those who prefer to keep you at a distance, or even eye you with suspicion. I understand all those reactions, and I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve had several great mentors in law enforcement K9. It’s more work, no matter what, to have an outsider around when you are training law enforcement dogs. It can be challenging work, especially if you are doing it right, and really working the handlers and dogs so they are learning new skills. It doesn’t even matter whether that person is from another agency or a volunteer female handler like me. I have the same reaction when someone sits in on a class I’m teaching. I have to think more about what I’m doing.
Now, I have two K9 law enforcement units that I train with regularly. I’m fortunate. They are very different from each other, and I learn different things from each of them. It’s been more than seven years now since I started training regularly with law enforcement teams and watching at seminars. But it always feels new. I still get a thrill from watching the joy of a new handler who realizes for the first time what his dog’s nose can do.
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