Beth Finke

Beth Finke's book, Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound—about her bond with her Seeing Eye dog—won an ASPCA/Henry Bergh children's book award. Follow Hanni and Beth's travels on the Safe & Sound blog.

News: Guest Posts
State of Wonder and Bookstores
Beth Finke meets Bark contributor and fan, Ann Patchett

Harper and I made sure to hobble in early. I alerted the strangers who joined us at our table that there was a dog underneath, and when one of them lifted the tablecloth to have a look, she said, “Oh, a black Lab. How sweet!” My Seeing Eye dog is a male yellow Labrador Retriever. She’d mistaken the behemoth black cast on my foot for Harper.

We were at the Women’s Athletic Club on Michigan Avenue to hear my fellow Bark contributor Ann Patchett (best-selling author of Bel Canto and Truth & Beauty) talk about her highly anticipated new novel State of Wonder. As her talk came to a close, she let us in on her next project: opening an independent bookstore.

“I live in Nashville, and we don’t have any bookstores,” she said, lamenting that the city’s independent bookstore, Davis-Kidd, went under last December. The Borders store in Nashville closed a few months later. “It’s weird to have a book and not have a place to sell it in your hometown.”

The author paired up with former Random House sales rep Karen Hayes in January, and the two of them hope to open Parnassus Books in Nashville before Christmas. Karen will be doing most of the work putting the store together. (“She knows which cash registers to buy, stuff like that.”) Ann plans to use her author cred to bring attention to her new store, and, in turn, to independent bookstores everywhere. “I heard you all sigh when I said we didn’t have a bookstore in Nashville,” she told us. “And you cheered when I said we were going to open one of our own.” She challenged us all to do our part, too. “Now, get out there to your own independent bookstore and buy a book!”

We all had a chance to meet her challenge right away: The Book Stall, an independent bookstore in Winnetka, Ill., had copies of State of Wonder for sale at the presentation. Ann Patchett couldn’t help but admire Harper as he guided me to the table to have her sign a copy for us. The future bookstore owner and I chatted about our work for The Bark as she signed. (Among other contributions, Ms. Patchett wrote the introduction to Dog Joy: The Happiest Dogs in the Universe.) “I love that magazine!” she proclaimed loudly enough for other fans in line to hear. “And I don’t just write for The Bark, I read it, too!”

Before picking up Harper’s harness to have him guide me away from the table, I told Ann Patchett how much I enjoyed the audio version of Truth and Beauty—she recorded it herself. She poo-pooed the compliment, “Hope Davis, you know, the actress? She reads this one,” she said, drumming her fingers on the signed hardcover in my hand. “She’s really good.”

Guess I’ll have to buy the audio version once it comes out. I know where I'll order it from, too: Our local independent bookstore!  


News: Guest Posts
Paradigm Shift for Seeing Eye Dogs
Deploying a clicker and treats to help a hesitant guide dog

Five months ago (has it been that long already?) I returned with my new dog from the Seeing Eye School in Morristown to piles of snow here in Chicago.

Poor Harper had never trained in snow. Was that why he was cowering on our walks to the Loop now? Does he miss the snow? Or maybe it’s a delayed reaction to the van that turned right in front of us. The driver didn’t see us crossing, she said. Her van brushed Harper’s face, and he pulled me back from harm so strongly that I fell. My head crashed on the concrete. Maybe that near-miss still has him scared.

Harper’s cowering started one day when I had a meeting downtown at Willis Tower. Halfway there, along a normal length of sidewalk, Harper crouched to the ground. Wouldn’t budge. Not forward, not backward. After trying everything I could come up with to get Harper to move, I finally accepted help from a stranger. The man walked Harper and me to Franklin Avenue, and when Harper caught sight of the Willis Tower he took off like old times.

On the way home, though, he cowered again. Four different times. Then he cowered on the way to and from the memoir-writing class I teach, on the way to and from the pool where I swim, on the way to and from the train station to visit my mom in the suburbs. We eventually got to all these places, but it was like driving a car that stalls all the time. It was miserable—both for Harper and for me.

“It really doesn’t matter why he’s acting this way,” the instructor from the Seeing Eye said when I called the training department for help. “He just can’t act like this.” They arranged to send an instructor out for a home visit.

Nicole spent her first afternoon with us just observing. Harper did not hold back. In one short walk, he refused to go all the way to the corner at an intersection, he veered right when we crossed, and then wouldn’t follow my command to turn right so we could take a walk to the park. He did get me home, though, and over a cup of tea Nicole assured me I hadn’t done anything wrong to cause Harper’s behavior. “We’ve just gotta work on how you react when he behaves like this,” she said.

Nicole suggested we try clicker training. Award-winning Seeing Eye instructor Lukas Franck had taught us clicker training while we were in Morristown last December, and I’d used it at home to teach Harper to find the elevator button in our hallway.

Clicking and giving Harper a treat to reward him for getting to the curb went counter to everything I’d learned when training with my previous Seeing Eye dogs Pandora and Hanni. Back then we were strongly discouraged from rewarding our dogs with food. Heap on the praise instead, they told us. Guide Dogs are allowed in restaurants, amusement parks, receptions, food courts, you name it. They have to be able to keep on task without being distracted by food.

Lukas—and then Nicole—assured me that the Seeing Eye had tested the clicker-training method extensively. I could use treats as rewards and still expect Harper to ignore food distractions in restaurants and the like. I was skeptical, but desperate. I decided to give it a try.

And you know what? It’s working! For the past couple weeks, I’ve been clicking the clicker every time Harper gets me to the end of a block. He understands that the click means “you got it!” and he knows that the sound of the click means he gets a small treat. Harper hardly ever cowers anymore; he’s in such a rush to get to the end of the block to collect his reward!

Harper’s work is not perfect—well, not yet, at least—but it has really, really improved. This week I’ve started weaning him off the clicker—in other words, I don’t click at each and every curb anymore. So far he’s still getting me to the end of each block without cowering, and his tail wags with pride when he does. Atta boy, Harper!

News: Guest Posts
So You Think You Want to Train Guide Dogs?
A challenging and rewarding career

Earlier this month, my Seeing Eye dog Harper and I gave a guest lecture to an animal sciences class at the University of Illinois. I told the students what it’s been like transitioning to a new Seeing Eye dog, and I went over some of the qualifications necessary to become a Seeing Eye trainer/instructor.

Trainers at the Seeing Eye need to have a college degree, and then they can apply for an apprenticeship. While some instructors go right from college into a Seeing Eye apprenticeship, most of the instructors I’ve talked to worked at other jobs before deciding to train dogs.   From the Seeing Eye website: “Staff instructors are full-time employees who hold college degrees from various fields of study and have successfully completed three years of specialized on-the-job training. They relate well to dogs and people and are physically fit, since their jobs are physically demanding and involve working outdoors in all weather. Some of our current instructors came from teaching, business consulting and rehabilitation fields. Some were in the military and worked with dogs before, and many started out as kennel assistants here at The Seeing Eye.”   Steve Newman—the very handsome (from what he told us) man who trained Harper and me—earned his college degree in accounting. He has his CPA, too, and worked as an accountant until he realized he likes working with people more than numbers. He found a job as a headhunter, but when the economy went sour, so did that career. After that, he spent a lot of time at a Starbucks, using his laptop to apply for other jobs.   Turns out that Steve’s Starbucks of choice was the very one Seeing Eye trainers use to teach dogs to navigate tight places. He was so taken by the string of beautiful dogs coming in and out of the coffee shop that he asked one of the trainers what it took to become an instructor.   “I knew I loved dogs,” he says. “And I like working with people, too, so I decided to apply.” During his interview, Steve was warned about the long hours (including some overnights when the students are first matched with their new dogs). “I’d worked as an accountant,” he says with a laugh. “Long hours didn't scare me.”   Steve got the job, passed the three-year apprenticeship, and has been training Seeing Eye dogs ever since. It was my great fortune, and Harper’s, too, that Steve was the one assigned to my group of four last December. He’s a smart man, loves the dogs, is good with all sorts of people and is easy to laugh.   During my lecture at the University of Illinois, I reminded the college students that guide dog instructors don’t just work with dogs. They work with people, too. We blind folks are all different ages, and we have all sorts of different backgrounds and experiences behind us. Some of us are newly blind and still adjusting, others have been blind our entire lives. Although some of us might be easy to work with, a lot of us are brats. We test our teacher’s patience. God knows I tested Steve’s, and he passed!   The Puppy Place (a website created by a group of volunteers who raise puppies for guide dog schools) says it well:   “Guide Dog trainers must work with a variety of dogs within a given size range. A great deal of walking and upper body strength is required to mold hyper young dogs into responsible workers. In the beginning, when working with dogs alone, this may not seem bad, but soon the apprentice must team dog training with people training. You can’t leash correct your blind student, or give him/her a dirty look and expect the undesired behavior or wrong actions to stop. You must verbally communicate while physically managing to keep up with the dog. Coming out of yourself to work with both dogs and people is a special skill and not one to be taken lightly.”   Schools receive hundreds of applications every year from people who want to train guide dogs, so even opportunities to become an apprentice are rare. Most guide dog schools do require instructors to do an apprenticeship, and some apprenticeships last as long as four years. From my observation, apprentices work very hard. And from what I hear, salaries are quite low.   I have no idea what people are paid once they pass the apprenticeship and become full-fledged instructors. Considering that guide dog schools are nonprofit organizations, I would guess the pay is far below what a lot of today’s college-educated people expect to earn. If you’re looking for job satisfaction, though, this kind of work must be pretty dang rewarding.   For general information about working as a dog guide trainer or instructor, check out the various dog guide school websites. That, or just start hanging out at the Starbucks closest to the school you want to work for!


News: Guest Posts
We Love Our Puppy Raisers
Rutgers students volunteer with future Seeing Eye dogs

I’ve been home three months with my new Seeing Eye dog Harper. He’s a two-year-old yellow bundle of Labrador energy, and not a day goes by where I don’t think of—and thank—the wonderful volunteer who raised him as a puppy. Harper and I trained for three weeks at the Seeing Eye last December. Before we left for home, our instructor read me Harper’s “puppy profile.” Each person who volunteers to raise a puppy for the Seeing Eye is asked to write up a little report. You know, to let us in on what our dogs lives were like before we met them.

  Here’s an excerpt: Harper was attending classes at my university (including attending the graduation!), going on buses and trains, attending other club meetings, university equestrian team shows with 20-plus horses, a trip to the airport, going on a plane but not taking off, emergency vehicles, malls, stores, fairs, the beach (his favorite), on a boat, in pools, overnight charity events, elementary school presentations, a retirement/recovery home, soccer, football and hockey games.   Whew! Harper is one well-traveled dog, and he did all that even before he was a year-and-a-half-old! And yes, you read that right: He was raised on a college campus; he’s a Rutgers grad. An article on the Rutgers University Seeing Eye Puppy Raising Club website describes these generous students who volunteer their time to raise puppies for us.   “To truly stop and spend a few moments observing the volunteers of the Rutgers University Seeing Eye Puppy Raising Club, you’re struck too by their obvious affection for and commitment to their charges—cute, adorable puppies with names like Elroy, Yankee, Harper and Oz.”   Did you read that? The article mentions Harper! What a sweet little puppy he must have been; imagine the attention he got on campus. College students at Rutgers have been providing a welcoming home for Seeing Eye puppies since the year 2000, when the Rutgers chapter of the puppy-raising program began.   After leaving the Seeing Eye breeding station, seven- or eight-week old German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and crosses of these breeds are placed with puppy raisers until they are 16- to 18-months-old. Raisers train the puppies in basic obedience, house manners, how to walk on a leash, and expose the dogs to real-life situations they might encounter once placed with a blind person like me.   But back to Harper’s puppy profile: His puppy raiser said Harper loves squeaky toys, so we knew to give him some of those when he came home with me to Chicago. She also said that he loves being talked to in a singsong voice, so just imagine how much I sing to him now. My favorite part of Harper’s puppy profile: “He is the coolest dog I’ve ever had. His personality is a great combination of independence and affection.”   Amen to that. THANK YOU, Harper’s puppy raiser. And thanks to all the other wonderful, generous volunteer puppy raisers out there. You are our heroes.


News: Guest Posts
New ADA Regulations Narrow Service Animal Definition
But will it solve the problem of badly behaving humans?

Starting today, March 15, 2011, only service dogs and trained miniature horses are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Monkeys, rodents and reptiles, among others, are no longer permitted to accompany individuals with disabilities into places of public accommodation.

  Department of Justice regulations (implementing Title III of the ADA) used to define a service animal as “any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance for the benefit of an individual with a disability.”   The ADA revisions going into affect today were drawn up after some disability advocates asked the Department of Justice to crack down on people who were faking or exaggerating disabilities in order to get their companion animals into places of public accommodation. Starting today, a service animal is defined as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.”   Notice the specific word dog in that sentence. Aside from one provision for miniature horses, other species of animals (whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained) are no longer deemed service animals.   It really does make it harder for the rest of us when an animal or his handler’s poor behavior causes people to think badly about service animals. I’ve heard stories about helper parrots pecking at shoppers in stores, a therapeutic rat that quelled anxiety in his owner but caused anxiety to others, and comfort pigs going crazy on airplanes. In my own life, however, the only negative service animal stories that have affected me personally have been about dogs.   The last time I went to a Cubs game, I was stopped while trying to get into Wrigley Field with my Seeing Eye dog. The man taking tickets said he didn’t know if the dog was allowed. I pointed to the harness, told him she was a Seeing Eye dog. He was skeptical.   Turns out that a week earlier someone had brought a puppy to Wrigley, claiming the dog was a service dog. The dog misbehaved, and fans sitting nearby complained. After that, the people working the gates were told to scrutinize anyone coming in with a service dog.   In addition to being despicable, faking a disability to gain privilege is fraud. It also results in increased scrutiny of people with legitimate disabilities. I’ve had this happen to me at Crate and Barrel on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. At a jazz club in the Loop. At a sandwich shop in our neighborhood. I was stopped at the door at each place. At the first two, the doorman checked with a supervisor before letting me through with my Seeing Eye dog. At Jimmy John’s, they just kicked us out. We haven’t been back.   As the very first school in the U.S. to train guide dogs for the blind, the Seeing Eye has worked for nearly a century to give guide dog’s public access. I didn’t really have a problem with having this access extended to qualified service animals of any type—helper pigs, parrots, monkeys, you name it, as long as they were qualified.   I wish the powers that be could have somehow revised the law to regulate the behavior of the animal rather than its species. And as long as we’re cracking down, why not start with the species that is most at fault here: humans.  


News: Guest Posts
Guide Dog Leads Man to Safety After Quake
Pair weaves through wreckage for three hours after Christchurch earthquake

Blair McConnell had the bad fortune to be at work in Christchurch on February 22, 2011, when the earthquake hit. His luck changed when he dove under his office desk. His guide dog Kiwi was there waiting to help him. A story in New Zealand’s Sunday Star Times describes noble guide dog Kiwi leading McConnell through fallen masonry and concrete to safety. “I grabbed his harness and he was quite keen to get out,” said the Telecom sales rep.

  “We had got out of the building and into the middle of Hereford Street with hundreds of others when the second big aftershock hit. There was lots of screaming and hysterical people.” Stories are flying around New Zealand about Kiwi walking his blind companion all the way home, and McConnell is quick to dispel those rumors. The 8-year-old curly-haired Labrador/Retriever cross did stay calm, McConnell says. And it’s true the beloved guide dog threaded McConnell through the carnage and rubble along the banks of the city’s Avon River for three long hours. In the end, though, a stranger stopped to give the pair a ride home, which has left McConnell feeling “a bit of a fraud,” knowing he got a ride, but: “I’m quite sure he would have walked me home that day if he had needed to.”   I don’t doubt that for one minute. One of the many, many reasons dogs have been selected to guide people who are blind is that strong canine homing instinct. My new Seeing Eye dog Harper has only been home with me for three months, and it’s amazing how good he already is at retracing his steps home and finding known destinations. I’m confident he’d find our way home in a crisis, I just hope I never have to find that out!   And PS: If someone offered Harper me a ride after an earthquake, I’d take it.


News: Guest Posts
Dogs Only
Federal government narrows service animal definition

If you have a disability and want to bring your helper parrot, monkey or snake with you in public, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. Revisions to the Department of Justice’s ADA regulations were signed by Attorney General Eric Holder last Friday, and they exclude exotic animals as service animals.

  Monkeys, rodents, and reptiles, among others, will no longer be permitted to accompany individuals with disabilities into places of public accommodation. The only animals who will qualify as service animals are … dogs.   DOJ regulations (implementing Title III of the ADA) used to define a service animal as “any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance for the benefit of an individual with a disability.”   The revised regulations define a service animal as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this new definition.   These regulations will take effect six months after the date they are published in the Federal Register, and at risk of being labeled a species-ist, I must confess I look forward to the changes. I use a trained service dog who adheres to high behavioral standards. When you travel around with a dog like this you get an earful of stories about other service animals: Helper parrots pecking at shoppers in stores; comfort pigs going crazy in airplanes; a therapeutic rat that quells anxiety in his owner but ends up causing anxiety to others instead.     Seeing Eye pioneers worked long and hard to open the doors and give our dogs public access. Opening ADA legislation to even more animals who may not truly be qualified could possibly ruin the good name our Seeing Eye pioneers have worked so hard to build over the years. My hope is that limiting the number of allowable species will stop erosion of the public’s  trust in our well-behaved, helpful—and absolutely necessary—service animals.   


News: Guest Posts
Guide Dogs for Cats and Dogs?
Amazing stories of seeing-eye canines.

A story in the Daily Telegraph about a blind Border Collie who has his own guide dog didn’t surprise me. I’ve heard a number of stories about dogs acting as guides for blind animals. One news story—about a dog who guided a blind cat to safety after Hurricane Katrina—was even made into a children’s book.

I learned about Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival at the ASPCA/Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award ceremony last month. Named in honor of ASPCA founder Henry Bergh, the award honors books that “promote the humane ethic of compassion and respect for all living things.” (My own children’s book about my Seeing Eye dog—Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound—won a Henry Bergh children’s Book award in 2008.) The awards are given out annually during the American Library Association convention, which met in Chicago this year. As difficult as it was to give up our crown, Hanni and I were thrilled to learn we’d be handing it over to the likes of Two Bobbies. Here's the book's 411:

“During Hurricane Katrina, evacuating New Orleans residents were forced to leave their pets behind. Bobbi the dog was initially chained to keep her safe, but after her owners failed to return, she had to break free. For months, Bobbi wandered the city’s ravaged streets, dragging her chain behind her, followed by her feline companion, Bob Cat. After months of hunger and struggle, the two Bobbies were finally rescued by a construction worker helping to rebuild the city. When he brought them to a shelter, volunteers made an amazing discovery about the devoted friends—Bob Cat was actually blind! He had survived the aftermath of the storm by following the sound Bobbi’s chain made as she dragged it along the ground.”

Hanni and I met the Two Bobbies co-authors—Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery—at the ceremony, and they were as endearing as the two friends they wrote about in their book. Books that win the Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award are available at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) online store and your purchase helps the ASPCA in its “ongoing efforts to educate children about animal awareness and create a more humane nation.”

News: Guest Posts
Taxi Cab Confessions
Exploring cultural biases against dogs—in Iraq and at home.

An NPR story this week reported that U.S. soldiers are teaching Iraqi security forces how to use bomb-sniffer dogs—with one particular challenge. “Sniffer dogs are universally recognized as the most effective means of detecting explosives," the reporter explains. "But in Iraq, as in much of the Arab world, dogs are considered unclean.” That's a challenge.

“The greatest tool you have in your inventory when working with dogs is love. A lot of dogs, that's what they work for, just your affection,” says Army Staff Sgt. Aaron Meier, an American adviser to the Iraqi National Canine Program. “Some of the people who have shown up are willing to play with the dog but they are not willing to go to the next step and really love the dog up. We’ve shown them that when they do that, they get better response from the dog.”

I know what Sgt. Meier means. I’ve seen—okay, felt—how affection motivates dogs to do a good job. With all Hanni does for me on a typical walk, can you imagine the bag of treats I’d be lugging around if I rewarded her with food?! Not to mention the pounds she’d put on—she wouldn’t be able to carry her own weight, much less pull me behind her.

Seeing Eye dogs, like bomb-sniffer dogs, work for love. I talk lovingly to Hanni as she guides me through traffic. “Atta girl, Hanni!”  She leads me around a pothole, and I tell her she’s sweet. I laugh as she glides me past garbage cans, lampposts and countless other obstructions. “You’re good, Hanni!” Every time Hanni stops at a curb, and every time she sits at the top of a set of stairs to let me know where we’re at, I crouch down to give her some love. “Good girl, Hanni!” She wags her tail in appreciation, and we carry on.

Except when someone impedes our progress. Cab drivers, for example.

Many of the cab drivers here in Chicago come from the Middle East, and just like the security forces in Iraq, they see dogs as unclean. I understand their cultural taboo, but hey, if these drivers are working in the U.S., they have to abide by American laws. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, service dogs helping a person who has a disability are allowed in cabs.

I have taken two drivers to court for refusing to let Hanni and me into their cab. Both were found guilty. Each was fined $500 and each had his license suspended for 29 days. I do not dance with joy about winning these cases. Thing is, I really like cab drivers. They’re hard workers. I like chatting with them. I tip them well. I feel a sort of bond with cab drivers—many of them are minorities, like me. Many of them are qualified for other jobs, but they’ve had to settle for something else. Like me. I know driving a cab is their livelihood. I don’t like the idea of their licenses being suspended.

But I don’t like being refused a ride, either. I have a feeling that city cab drivers talk to each other a lot. I’m hoping word gets out that drivers are getting their licenses suspended for refusing a service dog. That way, maybe I won’t have to file complaints anymore.

News: Guest Posts
A Service Dog Who Bites?
Poor training is not fair to the dog.

A story in the San Francisco Weekly ("Service with A Snarl") describes Tita, a Chihuahua service dog who helps a man named Charles Esler deal with bipolar disorder. A happy, feel-good story, except for one thing: Tita bites. Tita regularly chases and lunges after people in public parks. She snarled and barked at a guard at the Social Security Administration. She bit Esler’s primary care provider. And during SF Weekly’s interview with Esler? She bit the reporter.


"'She’s vicious,' Esler says with a smile, cradling the dog, which licks his face with abandon. 'If you were to approach a guide dog without acknowledging yourself, I’m sure a guide dog would bark, too.'"


Actually, no. In her recent article for Bark, "The Making of a Guide Dog," Jane Brackman explains that  puppies who can’t learn appropriate ways to deal with stress do not get placed as guide dogs.

“All dogs are born with default positions that they revert to when stressed. The reaction can be anything from anxious whining to more serious issues such as biting. The higher the stress, the more pressure on the trigger. Puppy socialization programs provide an opportunity to identify environmental stressors and modify the reaction, or failing that, release the dog from the program to a companion home.”

Poor Tita! Training proper behavior is as much for the dog’s comfort as for the human who will eventually work with that dog. It seems inhumane to expect an untrained dog to feel relaxed and confident in public situations such as large crowds, public transportation, and all the normal places we humans don’t think twice about. Seeing Eye puppies are gradually introduced to all kinds of these things and carefully socialized from birth. This way, when they finally go out with a blind person, it’s no big deal to hop on a train, take a bus, be in a stadium full of screaming fans, or be around other dogs and new people. They’ve done it all and seen it all by then. Nothing bothers them. And if it does, they are rejected from the program and placed where they belong: in a companion home.