Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Devyn Pereira Fighting for Independence
Update: On Wednesday, February 22, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Ehlena Fry, the disabled Michigan girl whose school refused to let her bring her service dog Wonder to class. The decision, am 8–0 ruling by the justices, makes it easier for students with special needs to seek redress for discrimination in federal court. The justices sent the case back to a lower appeals court to determine whether Ehlena’s complaint involves the impermissible denial of a proper special education. Learn more about Ehlena and Wonder in the article below.
Devyn Pereira and Hannah, her service dog, move through their day as one. Clipped to Hannah’s harness, the nine-year-old is both safe and as independent as possible. If Devyn tries to roam, the 110-pound, white Bouvier des Flandres sits down, stopping the child with the weight of her body.
Before Hannah came into her life five years ago, the little girl had to be carried or transported by wheelchair to the school bus loop. Now, she walks beside Hannah. The dog is also trained to detect seizures and alert adults so medication can be administered.
Devyn was born with Angelman Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that affects speech and mobility, and causes developmental delays, autism and seizures. The Gates Chili Central School District, located in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., permits Hannah to accompany Devyn to school, as long as her mother pays for a dog handler. Heather Pereira’s position is that her daughter is Hannah’s handler, and she only needs minimal assistance from school staff (a one-on-one school aide and a nurse are also with Devyn daily).
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) agreed, and in September 2015, sued the school district for violating Devyn’s civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). School officials refused to comply. On August 7, U.S. District Court Judge Charles J. Siragusa dismissed the school district’s motion for a summary judgment (a method for promptly disposing of legal actions that are without merit). This means the case will go forward.
“People ask me all the time, why do you think the school is doing this? Why do you think that they are making this so difficult?” says Pereira. “When Gates disregarded what the DOJ said, it became clear this isn’t a matter of ignorance, it is blatant defiance … Devyn’s school is using her disability against her. Her level of delay does not erase her rights. It does not make her less worthy of the compassion and respect all parents want for their children.”
Most children are able to bring their service dogs to school without a hitch, according to Ron Hager, senior staff attorney with the Washington, D.C.- based National Disability Rights Network. But families who face prolonged resistance from school districts find themselves spending enormous amounts of time and, in some cases, money trying to convince school administrators to allow these service animals in their classrooms.
The number of legal disputes between families and school districts over this issue has increased in the last five years, says Hager. In the fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case involving Ehlena Fry, a 12-year-old Jackson, Mich., girl with cerebral palsy who was banned from bringing her Goldendoodle service dog, Wonder, to class.
“Our case is specifically about whether people bringing disability cases have to jump through a lot of administrative hoops first,” says Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which brought the suit with the Frys. Steinberg says he is confident about the outcome of the Supreme Court case, noting that a child with a disability should not have to choose between her education and her independence. “Give Ehlena her day in court and we will prove that the district violated the ADA,” he says.
In some instances, school officials have prohibited a service dog on the basis that the district was already meeting all of the student’s educational needs. However, preventing children from bringing their service dogs to school disrupts the special bond between handler and animal, says Tiffany Denyer, founder of Wilderwood Service Dogs in Maryville, Tenn. “It doesn’t work unless you send the dogs to work.”
When Fairfax County School District in Virginia refused to allow Andrew Stevens, who has severe epilepsy and is developmentally delayed, to take his German Shepherd service dog, Alaya, to school in 2010, his family reached out to the national media, even appearing on The Today Show. When interviewed by the media, Kim Dockery, Fairfax County Public Schools assistant superintendent, said she was concerned about keeping Andrew and the other students safe. The district ultimately allowed Alaya to accompany Andrew. “I think they’re afraid of new things they don’t understand,” says Angelo Stevens, Andrew’s dad.
Heather Pereira began advocating for her daughter’s right to take her service dog to school six years ago. When she talks about the ongoing conflict with Gates Chili school officials, you can hear the weariness in her voice, but the determination is still there, too. In 2011, the district allowed Hannah to accompany the preschooler to school; then, that summer, Pereira was informed that in order for the service dog to continue to be permitted in school, she would have to pay for a dog handler. Pereira complied, but she also hired a disability rights attorney and ultimately filed a complaint with the DOJ’s civil rights division.
In September 2013, two investigators traveled to Rochester to interview Pereira, school administrators and classroom staff. Nearly two years later, the DOJ found that the district was in violation of ADA requirements and ordered it to reverse its policy and pay more than $25,000 in damages. The New York State Education Department also found in Pereira’s favor.
This battle could prove pricey for the upstate New York school district. From October 2013 to May 2015, Gates Chili incurred more than $34,000 in legal expenses related to the case, according to documents obtained by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper through a Freedom of Information Act request.
A detailed report revealed how the DOJ reached its finding:
“Since D.P. began working with her service dog, she has learned to communicate with the dog through hand gestures and signals. Her service dog interrupts certain behaviors caused by her autism (such as meltdowns, wandering and repeated body movements). Her service dog also alerts adults to oncoming seizures so they can take precautions before the seizure occurs. In short, with the help of her service dog, D.P. is both safer and more independent at school.”
The federal agency also found that requiring staff members to unhook Devyn from the dog from time to time and to occasionally remind her to issue a command were “minimal and reasonable accommodations.”
Two weeks later, the school district challenged the ruling and filed an appeal.
“It’s extremely rare for a school district to fight the federal government. To actually litigate—I’ve never seen it,” says Ron Hager, who has been a disability rights attorney for decades. Gates Chili Superintendent of Schools Kimberle Ward declined a request for comment, saying that she could not speak on a pending matter.
The school district just doesn’t get it, says Kristin Small of the Empire Justice Center in Rochester, one of Pereira’s lawyers. “It does not get to choose how Devyn Pereira, as a person with a disability, travels through this world. That is Devyn’s choice alone, or her mother’s, as long as she is a minor,” she says. “Just as it would not be permitted to tell a person in a wheelchair, ‘I know you prefer to use the wheelchair, but … just try crutches instead,’ it is not appropriate to say to this child’s mother, ‘I know you would like her to bring the dog, but we think she can do fine at school without it.’ The fact that Devyn’s use of a service animal is an inconvenience to the school district is irrelevant. If the school can reasonably accommodate that choice, it must do so.”
Waiting for Justice
Hannah was trained at Tiffany Denyer’s Wilderwood Service Dogs, which specializes in providing service dogs for people with neurological diseases, including autism, psychiatric disorders, dementia, PTSD and brain injuries. According to Denyer, “About half the dogs are rescues; the rest come from breeders we have relationships with.” She looks for dogs who enjoy work, are calm and easily adapt to change.
In 11 years, she has placed about 200 service dogs. Each undergoes roughly 18 months of training; the first six months focus on general tasks; the rest is geared to meet the individual handler’s needs. The dogs learn about 50 commands and are taught to be low maintenance; Hannah goes the entire school day without food, water or having to relieve herself.
Hannah cost $16,000, but some trainers charge $25,000 or more per service dog. Many families, including the Pereiras, fundraise for months in order to purchase a dog. Denyer estimates that 10 to 20 percent of the families she works with have encountered problems getting schools to fully accept their service dogs.
Heather Pereira calls Hannah a “gentle giant.” “She has such a calm, graceful presence, even when Devyn gets ramped up about something,” she says. “Devyn never asks to be untethered from Hannah. That says a lot for their connection.”
This fall, Devyn will enter a fourthgrade special education class. Pereira says she is amazed at the growth she has seen in her daughter, attributing much of it to her connection with Hannah.
“Devyn is doing things with Hannah we never thought she’d be able to do. If Hannah is lying down, she’ll tug on the harness to make her get up. She taps the ground so that Hannah will lie down. Before, Hannah guided Devyn all the time; now, Devyn is the one guiding Hannah.”
As fall approaches, the Pereiras and the Frys wait for justice.
“We hope that the school district realizes they don’t have a strong case and negotiates a settlement,” Pereira says. “The pressure to make this better for Devyn and all who follow is real. Every parent knows they will not be around forever and so we work to create a world that not only accepts our child’s differences, but more importantly, embraces them.”
Ehlena and her dog Wonder win in the U.S. Supreme Court. From Reuters:
The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with a disabled Michigan girl whose school refused to let her bring her service dog to class, making it easier for students like her to seek redress for discrimination in federal court.
The justices ruled 8-0 that Ehlena Fry, 13, and her parents may not be obligated to go through time-consuming administrative appeals with the local school board before suing for damages for the emotional distress she said she suffered by being denied the assistance of her dog, a goldendoodle named Wonder.
Read more about their victory here.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Days Are Forever
The first rule in handling: Always keep your dog on your left side.
Handling is dominated by the left. Your number, rubber-banded to your left arm, will be checked by the ring steward, who stands to the left of the entrance to the conformation ring, regulating the order and spacing of the competitors. The ring itself is in the shape of a square, marked off with thin white ropes looped through copper posts staked into the grass. When it is your turn to enter the ring, you must keep the leash in your left hand and the dog on your left side. You walk around the ring counterclockwise, turning smoothly to the left at each corner. Once you complete a lap, you stop and stand your dog, taking care to ensure she is stacked nicely and on alert.
One by one, each dog is examined by the judge. When it is your turn, you walk your dog to the center of the ring, where the judge will be kneeling on his/her left knee. The judge will be looking to see how well your dog maps to breed standards: inspecting her bite, spanning her chest, comparing leg flexibility, and running a hand through her coat, creating Mohawk-like ridges in the fur along her spine. After the judge finishes the physical examination of your dog, he/she will often have you walk your dog in a straight line out and back, or perhaps in a triangle, or maybe even a figure eight.
Once the judge has seen every dog, each handler-dog pair takes another lap, after which the judge lines up the dogs in the order of their placement. First place goes to the far left, sixth place goes to the far right. If there’s a tie, there will be a walk-off.
By this point, the judge will already have an opinion on the physicality of the dogs. What makes a difference now is how well the dog moves. The judge looks at the dog’s grace, power, and rhythm, and everything else fades away. Your heart pounds, blood roars in your ears and you don’t even notice the whispers of the crowd, or the heads turned in your direction. All that matters is your dog, and the sound of her paws swishing through the grass in a two-count cadence. Where you stand—on the left or the right—depends on this final walk.
Handling rule number two: When doing the walk-out, always keep your dog between you and the judge.
My parents got Deegan as a wedding present. He was predominantly white, like all Jack Russells, with chestnut-brown ears and matching spots above his tail. Deegan was my parents’ first child, and they took him everywhere: to work; on weekend hikes; and once, even into the movie theater. On a whim, they brought him to a dog show in Suffolk County and loved it so much that within six months, they were members of the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America (JRTCA).
Mom, Dad and Deegan were a little family of three for several years, until three more additions came along: Annie and Duffy, a mother-son Jack Russell duo, and me. Deegan took to his role as big brother like a fish to water. He allowed Annie and Duffy to share his chew toys, he never snapped at them when they stole his treats, and he taught them the best way to jump onto the counter. He allowed me to dress him up in doll clothes, he never snapped when I tugged too hard on his leash, and he slept at the foot of my bed every night from the day I was born to the day he died.
Deegan was my protector and my playmate, but even his patience had its limits. One day, I was eating dinner, my plate filled with carrots, applesauce and dinosaur (aka chicken) nuggets. Deegan was at my feet and I was under strict instructions never to feed him from the table. But I was a bored and curious three-year-old, so I decided to see what would happen if I pretended to give him part of my meal. I picked up a chicken nugget and moved it up and down, side to side, near Deegan’s face; his eyes followed the nugget’s every move. Then I got more daring in my movements, adding zig-zags, stars and figure-eights to my repertoire. I was able to react fast enough to save the nugget from two close calls, but then my luck ran out. On Deegan’s third attempt, he captured the chicken nugget as well as part of my finger. My shrieks pierced the air as I stared at the bright red blood bubbling from the puncture marks, staining my skin and swirling down my finger.
Handling rule number three: Never bait your dog.
In the terrier group, when the judge examines your dog, he/she will consider a variety of aspects related to how fit your dog is to hunt, which is what Jack Russells were originally bred to do. Is your dog’s chest small and flexible enough to go underground? Does she have a scissor bite? How are her legs—are they parallel?
By the time I was old enough to show in Child Handler, Deegan was 10 and no longer had the energy needed to be a show dog for a five-year-old girl. So instead, I showed North Country Clementine. Clemmie, with her brown ears bordering on orange, came to live with us after Nonie, our close family friend, passed away. For the first few months we had her, Clemmie hardly ate and she never wagged her tail; all she did was sit by the door, howling and scratching at the screen, waiting for Nonie to come back for her.
After a few months, Clemmie finally adjusted to her new life with us, which is when we realized that she was actually quite the rebel. If Deegan was my big brother, Clemmie was my wild little sister. She never came when called; she jumped up on the kitchen counter and ate our dinner at least twice a week; and she always escaped our yard, which was especially awkward when she ran to our neighbors’ house.
Our neighbors owned one of the largest garbage companies on Long Island, and they were extremely wealthy. Their house had the only gated driveway on the entire street, and they tended to keep to themselves, choosing to skip block parties and other community events. Although they seemed nice enough, we were fairly certain that they were in the Mob.
Early one Saturday morning, Clemmie went pelting out of our yard, through the hedgerow and over to the neighbor’s house. My dad, sprinting as fast as he could, arrived just in time to see Clemmie and the neighbor’s dog barking at a raccoon. The neighbor dashed out of his back door, took one look at the scene, then reached into the pocket of his bathrobe and pulled out a handgun. He shot the raccoon dead in the eye. Needless to say, after this incident, we tried even harder to keep our distance.
Handling rule number four: If something doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t.
You can show in child handler from ages 5 to 10, after which you move up to the Youth Division. While Child Handler involves only Conformation, Youth Handler also includes agility, go-to-ground and obedience. Clemmie was my Youth dog for nearly my entire career, from my first Child Handler class at five years old to my last regular season Youth Handler class at 15, and these 10 years of showing together resulted in an incredible partnership. We became so familiar with one another’s movements and so aware of each other’s presence that I never tripped over her leash in the Conformation ring and I never had to worry about her running off during agility, even when she went off-lead.
I was the one who crawled through tunnels to teach her how to do agility. I was the one who dug her out of a go-toground tunnel to save her from a skunk. And I was the one who helped her whelp her first litter of puppies after she went into labor when my parents were away. In return, Clemmie was with me as well. She was the one who memorized the agility course on the first run-through and picked up the slack when I forgot which element came next. She was the one who was with me when I won and when I lost. And she was the one who comforted me when Deegan died, curling up next to me on the couch with her head in my lap and offering silent companionship to replace the one I had lost.
The week before the 2010 U.S. National Trial, I got a text from my parents during school; they asked me to call Millie, our good family friend, to see if I could borrow her dog Intensity to show the following week. I didn’t bother responding. They thought Clemmie was too old and had been nagging me for weeks about finding another dog to show in Youth, but I wouldn’t hear of it. I had always shown Clemmie, and that was that.
Six days later, I became the Youth High Score National Champion, something Clemmie and I had worked for throughout our entire career.
But I didn’t win it with Clemmie.
The same day I received the text message from my parents, I found my dad waiting for me at the door when I got home from school—a rare thing, as he normally worked late into the evening. He told me to go into the living room because he needed to talk to me about something important.
My dad, a veterinarian, told me that not only had Clemmie thrown up her breakfast that morning, she had also thrown up blood. He was pretty sure she had Lyme disease, and thought there also could be an obstruction in her small intestine, so he took her into the vet hospital to pull bloods and get an X-ray. On the way, Clemmie had a seizure, but seemed to recover after my dad dosed her with phenobarbital and put her on fluids. However, a few hours later, she had another seizure.
This time, she didn’t make it.
Handling rule number five: If something out of the ordinary happens, prepare yourself for all possible outcomes.
I announced my retirement from the Youth Division a few weeks after the 2010 National Trial. I still had a few years of eligibility left, but wanted to end my career on a high note, and knew that my experience wouldn’t be the same without Clemmie. Finally winning the title I had worked so hard for was an incredible moment, but no matter how sweet the victory, nothing could offset the fact that Clemmie wasn’t there with me. Nothing, that is, except for a new dog.
That’s right. My parents got me a dog.
Ginny is unlike every other dog in our house, not only because she is the only brown-furred Border Terrier, but also because she is the only Terrier we’ve ever had who is solely a pet. We don’t show Ginny, nor will we ever. She goes on walks not because we need to leash-train her, but because we want to take her out, sometimes for a swim in the pond. She is groomed on a regular basis not to keep her coat in top shape, but because her fur grows so fast that it gets in her eyes. She is on a diet not because we want her to look fit in front of a judge, but because it’s in the best interest of her health, especially with all the treats I sneak her when my mom’s back is turned. She is much calmer than our Jack Russells, choosing to sit behind me when I’m cooking rather than bark at the stove.
Deegan was my childhood, Clemmie was my adolescence and Ginny is my now. She’ll never be with me in the Conformation ring nor in the agility tunnels, not even at a go-to-ground, but she will be there when I graduate from Villanova, when I get my first job, when I move out on my own. She has never known the handling part of my life, and never will, but she knows me today, she will know me tomorrow and she will know me for all of her days that follow. Ginny is not my Youth dog, but I no longer need one. I’m growing up, and Ginny will be there as I do it.
The last rule in handling: Always stand by your dog— after all, your dog will always stand by you.
News: Guest Posts
On September 8th the vein on my forehead started throbbing. Garmin had posted a video ad on Facebook for its new Delta Smart smartphone-based dog activity tracker that includes an electronic shock feature.
“Your dog wasn’t born with manners,” Garmin wrote. The video showed pictures of a “mail carrier alarmist” Schnauzer, a “blinds shredder” Whippet, and a “counter shark” Border Collie, to set up the point that, with their new device, consumers will be able to use electric shocks to teach their dogs to behave. The video has since received hundreds of scathing comments and has been shared more than 2,000 times.
Though Garmin has been selling e-collars for years, the Delta Smart system has caused a community of dog lovers to speak out in protest. In fact, I created a Change.org petition on Friday to ask Garmin to remove the electric shock feature from the device. As of this morning, the petition has garnered more than 5,000 signatures from across the globe. (I have not received a response from Garmin yet.)
Perhaps it was the Facebook ad that called attention to this controversial topic—it was the first time I had heard that the company sold e-collars. But it might also be because the Delta Smart system pairs electric shocks with an exciting new GPS technology for dogs. Dog guardians without training will have the ability to send electric shocks to their dogs’ necks by a mere tap on their smartphone screen. They may not be aware of the fact that using such collars can have serious repercussions.
Organizations including the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the Pet Professional Guild and the UK Kennel Club have all spoken out against the use of shock collars, and countries including Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Austria have banned the use entirely.
“Countless evidence indicates that, rather than speeding up the learning process,” wrote Susan Nilson, Niki Tudge and Angelica Steinker on behalf of the Pet Professional Guild, “electronic stimulation devices slow it down, place great stress on the animal, can result in both short-term and long-term psychology damage, and lead to fearful, anxious and/or aggressive behavior.”The IAABC (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants) also has just issued a position statement coming out, strongly, against this device, remarking that: “We believe this device has the potential to cause harm to dogs and should not be recommended by behavior consultants, trainers, or used by members of the public. This is because both Bluetooth and smartphones have the potential to introduce excessive latency. Latency is the delay between inputting something into a system, and the system’s output.” See the full IAABC statement here..
Will Garmin remove the shock feature from its new product? I’m not so naïve to think that will be an easy sell, but whether it happens or not, at least people are talking about the dangers of shock collars. With each signature to my petition, my forehead vein throbs a little less.
Learn more at on the change.org petition.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog parks have come a really long way in the past 20 years. Once deemed a mild curiosity (and perhaps an irritant) by most city and county park departments, they are now at the top of the list of community “must-haves.” Since 2007, their numbers have grown by 80 percent, according to a recent report from the Trust for Public Lands, which surveyed the nation’s 100 largest city park systems.
As noted in their report, 2016 City Park Facts, “Nearly every big city now has at least one dedicated dog park, often with a name that reflects the creativity and exuberance of the movement. Fort Worth pups play at Fort Woof, Memphis pets frolic at Overton Bark, Dallas dogs run at My Best Friend’s Park and Atlanta pooches scamper at Freedom Barkway.”
As we all know, we’re hooked on dogs and love our outdoor R&R time with them, watching them make new friends as we share the latest with other dog folks. Park planners and advocates are catching on; as Peter Harnik, who led the study noted, “Americans love dogs, and parks increasingly reflect that fact as people want places to get outside and take their dogs with them.”
According to the report, the top five dog-park cities are Henderson, Nev.; Portland, Ore.; Norfolk, Va.; Las Vegas, Nev.; and Madison, Wisc.
We have to hand it to all those “exuberant” dog park advocates: our hard work has paid off.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
1. TOY STORY West Paw Design has a new toy in its collection. The Zogoflex Air Wox is a crazybouncing, three-legged tug; there’s always a place to grab, and its squishy texture is soft on teeth (and hands). Plus, it’s guaranteed against dog damage. What more could you ask?
2. TRAVEL TIDY Take to the hills, the beach, the park or the trail with your dog and Dublin Dog’s Multi-Purpose Field Bag. It opens like a suitcase, has lots of compartments for your training gear, and comes with a dry cinch bag that holds several days’ worth of kibble or treats.
3. POO BE GONE We all do it—walk briskly holding our dog’s leash in one hand and a full poop bag in the other. The Leash Pod, which also dispenses bags, allows us to skip the indignity. Put a full bag in the hidden bin, and when you spy a garbage can, release the bag into it.
4. HANDS-FREE FUN If you love to run with your dog and would also love to have a little more control, Iron Doggy’s Runner’s Choice bungee leash is for you. It attaches to a lightweight belt by a sliding snap buckle and has a series of knots and handles that help you keep the pup on track.
5. RETRO CHIC Your dog doesn’t care what her dish looks like as long as it’s full, but you’ll appreciate Waggo’s Too Hot vintage ceramic dog bowls, which echo casserole dishes of days gone by. They come in four colors and two sizes—two- and four-cup capacity—and are dishwasher and microwave safe. waggo.com
6. TASTY TOPPER Honest Kitchen calls their Functional Liquid Treat a “treat with benefits.” The tasty instant bone broth also has turmeric, the potent kind, and can be used as a between-meal drink or to enhance your dog’s regular meals. It may also tempt picky or reluctant eaters. (Good for cats, too.)
War is hell, the saying goes, and not just for soldiers. The highly trained military dogs at their side pay an equally severe price. Sculptor James Mellick has memorialized these dogs— and through them, the soldiers with whom they served—in a series of seven life-sized works. The Doberman missing a foreleg, a German Shepherd with a prosthetic paw, a Belgian Malinois with a metal plate: as hard as they are to contemplate, these dogs seem undaunted, a testimony to Mellick’s sensitivity and dogs’ innate, in-the-moment nature. Carved from cherry, poplar, sycamore, walnut and cedar, the sculptures came to life through a long process of designing, laminating, carving and finishing. Fine details—the bone structure under the fur; the curve of a leg; expressions conveyed by the eyes, brows and ears—are informed by Mellick’s lifetime with dogs as well as his current canine housemates, a Weimaraner and a rescued Lab/Weimaraner mix.
In his sculptural work, he says, his intent is to “reach a unity of shape and content, so that the secondary forms and shapes within the body of the dog not only serve as symbols of the meaning, but are also important design elements in the composition.”
This isn’t Mellick’s first dog-related artistic foray; he’s been investigating and experimenting with dogs as metaphors for more than 30 years. His first was Stacking Dogs (1985), a 12-foot tower of dogs ranging from an Irish Wolfhound to a Chihuahua, a comment on human arrogance, he says. His Canine Allegory Series (1997) also reflects his belief in dogs as talismans. “I see the dog as a totem animal of humans, a parallel self, if you will, who has the goods on us. Think about the dog’s unconditional love, trust, vulnerability, and the therapy and healing they offer. Look into their eyes and they are either saying ‘I love you’ or ‘What the hell are you doing?’”
He displayed three of the dogs—two German Shepherds and a Malinois—at the 2015 Vietnam Dog Handler Association reunion in Nashville. The veteran dogmen were drawn to them, Mellick says. “The dogs were a big hit, with the guys taking selfies with them, and many, many conversations took place around them. Men were wiping tears away. They released many emotions that had been locked up.” Their reactions aren’t hard to understand. Military dog-team jobs have always been dangerous: detecting explosives, scouting the enemy and taking part in search-and-rescue missions. Many don’t survive, and those who do tend to be deeply affected by the experience.
Mellick feels strongly about our nation’s ambivalent response to the men and women who serve in the military. As he told an interviewer earlier this year, “It’s one thing to be against war, but things really go south when people turn against the soldiers who serve. Young people today put themselves in harm’s way not because they were drafted but because they’ve volunteered. And because there is no draft, many of us don’t see the cost and we don’t feel the pain.”
In Wounded Warrior Dogs, Mellick makes us look straight at things we’d probably prefer to avert our eyes from—he makes us feel the pain and see the cost, both to the war dogs and their battlefield partners.
Wounded Warrior Dogs:
This exhibit has no connection to or association with the Wounded Warrior Project charity.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
In her new book, Pit Bull, Bronwen Dickey thoughtfully examines the history, stereotypes, fiction and societal worries surrounding a breed that was once thought to be an American icon. In this excerpt, she scrutinizes the science behind a misunderstood and complicated behavior.
The Victorian dog-show mania of the mid-nineteenth century not only created hundreds of new breeds, but also created two possible categories of bloodlines within many of them: working bloodlines, in which behaviors were most important, and conformation or show bloodlines, which prioritized appearance over behavior. The “washouts” from the conformation lines usually went on to pet homes. The dramatic increase in the number of breeders also allowed for more physical and behavioral variation within each breed, with the most popular dogs also being the most varied. Today, Labradors from American show lines are much shorter and fatter than they were even twenty years ago, while Labradors from British field lines are leaner and leggier. Dogs from these two strains may not only look different, they may also have drastically different behavioral profiles.
When breeders stop pushing, the car rolls back down the hill, and canine behavior drifts back to the middle. Exaggerated traits that are not selected for and not adaptive will mellow out and disappear over time, which is what appears to be happening in both the American and European dog populations. The overwhelming majority of modern dogs live as pets, rather than workers. Great Danes are no longer used for boar hunting. Siberian huskies do not pull sleds. Rhodesian ridgebacks do not bay lions, and most dachshunds will never see a badger, let alone kill one. Rather, these animals are physical reminders of the way the world once was. As the historian Scottie Westfall says, “Dogs are artifacts.” Though it is common to attribute a dog’s behavior to the task it was historically “bred for,” many of us fail to consider that most of today’s dogs are “bred for” the work of being companions, and have been for many generations.
In 2005, Kenth Svartberg, a zoologist from Stockholm University, collected data from more than thirteen thousand dogs from thirty-one breeds that had been subjected to a standardized behavior test and sorted them according to behavioral traits such as “playfulness,” “curiosity/fearlessness,” and “sociability.” After analyzing the data, Svartberg and his colleagues found that there was “no relationship . . . between the breeds’ typical behavior and function in the breeds’ origin.” He did, however, find that dogs from working lines (not breeds, but lines) retained more of their historical working traits than dogs from show lines, leading him to conclude that “basic dimensions of dog behavior can be changed when selection pressure changes, and . . . the domestication of the dog is still in progress.”
Pit bull breeds are not exempt from this trend. Unlike pointing or retrieving, both of which increase a dog’s ability to feed itself and its offspring by hunting, fighting isn’t one behavior but a complex series of behaviors that put the animal at tremendous risk. As highly social creatures that negotiate and renegotiate their relationships over time, most dogs depend on shared resources for their survival. If removed from human society, a dog that indiscriminately attacks or kills its own kind doesn’t live very long. While it’s certainly possible to breed for certain types of aggression (toward humans or other animals), it’s much harder to breed dogs that match the profile that fighters say they want: an animal that is indiscriminately accepting of humans, selectively reactive around other dogs in a specific environment—the pit— but tolerant of dogs outside of it, one that “doesn’t signal its intentions,” and also “doesn’t feel fear or pain.” They may as well be describing the American unicorn terrier, because these are all genetic dead ends.
No researcher has yet located an “aggression gene” or a set of aggression genes, despite years of genomic analysis. While conducting his research at Bar Harbor, John Paul Scott considered aggression “a poor scientific term [that] chiefly functions as a convenient handle to relate phenomena described in more objective terms to practical human problems.” At best, today’s scientists can only make educated guesses about certain components of canine reactivity, like the startle reflex (which multiple studies indicate is heritable) and individual pieces of the agonistic repertoire (freezing, fleeing, defensive postures, vocalizations, etc.). But this requires that researchers clearly define and isolate the behaviors they are observing, which is always a challenge. It’s possible, for example, that what was once called “rage syndrome” in certain lines of the English springer spaniel and English cocker spaniel is not one condition but several that were mistakenly grouped into one category. A few studies in mice and dogs have shown that disruption of the 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) receptors in the brain, which regulate the neurotransmitter serotonin, may be linked to specific types of impulsive aggression, but in both animals and humans, the 5-HT receptors can be damaged by stress and trauma that occur both in utero and after birth. Yet even these possible neurological links have been observed only in dogs from tightly closed gene pools. They are not widely passed from dog to dog in an open breeding system, like the passing of a disease.
“Let’s assume that you and I are working to breed the most dangerous aggressive fighting dog in the world,” Kris Irizarry, the geneticist at Western University, told me. “And we want this dog to turn and attack any human being, child, or any other animal relentlessly and never stop until it dies, 100 percent of the time. That’s our goal, okay? Now, let’s make the crazy assumption that we achieve that goal, and we produce, I don’t know, fifty dogs, a hundred dogs, even a thousand dogs that all have the same amount of this supernatural trait. For our purposes, we’ll call them ‘Crazy Dogs.’”
As he previously pointed out, “The moment our dog mates with any other type of dog, half of that genetic material is lost, so now you have a litter that’s only 50 percent Crazy Dog. If that litter reproduces, then their offspring are only 25 percent Crazy Dog. Then it goes down to 12.5 percent, 6.25 percent, et cetera. Within only seven generations, you’re at 1 percent Crazy Dog, and that’s assuming you were 100 percent successful at the beginning, which we know isn’t true of any breeder or any type of dog. Especially when you’re talking about complex behaviors like fighting, it just doesn’t work that way. There are probably constellations of genes, maybe even hundreds or thousands of genes that are contributing to that behavior. You have to get the right neuron shape, the appropriate amount of neurotransmitters, all these things.
“So,” he continued, “the idea that any dog that has an ancestor—however many generations back—that had a head shape that cast a shadow against a wall that looked like the shape of a dog that bit someone in the pants . . . the idea that this dog is now going to be biting people is absolutely ludicrous! Americans watch too many zombie movies.”
A number of other studies have confirmed that dogs lash out most frequently from fear and anxiety, not “rage.” Not every dog that displays these behaviors has been abused, neglected, or formally trained, but overwhelmingly, the factors most highly correlated with dog aggression, such as the dog’s early development, its level of socialization with people and other dogs, how it is contained, and which training methods the owner uses, are completely within the owner’s control. Research indicates that these factors are far more important than the physical shape of the dog in determining its behavior.
Our own perceptions and expectations of the animals we encounter play a role in this, as well. “Dog breeds develop reputations,” writes the biologist Ray Coppinger, “and those reputations color people’s interactions with them.”
The fearful responses of people to a perceived aggressive breed “teaches” the shepherds or pit bulls to be aggressive with people. As the dog walks the streets, some people, almost imperceptibly, will take a step back or away from the dog. In two weeks the dog can become aggressive toward people. If people treated a golden retriever the same way, in theory one would get the same results.
Are shepherds genetically aggressive? Yes! Where are the genes for aggression? In their coat color and shape. It is a feedback system, where each time a person steps back from the shepherd because of its coloring and shape, the dog becomes more responsive to the move, and the people react more demonstratively to its movement, and so on. Can you train the dog not to be aggressive once it has learned to be? Probably not satisfactorily.
Okay, then can you breed people-aggressiveness out of shepherds? Of course! I’d start by breeding shepherds to have yellow coats and floppy ears. “Gameness,” however one defines that elusive quality, has never been studied in the laboratory with other variables held constant. Nor is it defined with any consistency. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist—there’s much anecdotal evidence that it does—but we have no way of measuring it. And, as we know, not all pit bulls come from fighting stock, anyway. The Stafford and AmStaff are show breeds, as is the American bully. Most APBTs come from conformation/ pet lines as well. So, the selective pressure for “gameness” was relaxed for most pit bulls between 80 and 150 years ago. As a result, many have retained their looks but not their historical working drives.
If we want to own dogs, their teeth come along. It is up to us to learn how and when dogs use them and to keep our dogs out of situations where they feel they need to. Aside from that, we must also accept that sometimes accidents and misunderstandings, even tragedies, can happen. As much as we may want them, there are no simple answers.
Excerpted from Pit Bull by Bronwen Dickey. Copyright © 2016 by Random House. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Wellness: Health Care
As the mom of two young children, I’m always checking the weather forecast. Jacket or sweater? Rain boots or sneakers? As a veterinarian with the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), I rely on a different forecast, the Companion Animal Parasite Council findings published by my veterinary colleagues, which tracks the intensity of pet diseases from year to year. Here’s what to expect for the remainder of 2016.HEARTWORM DISEASE FORECAST: STORMY
Veterinarians anticipate a rise in heartworm disease because of the unusual weather pattern created by El Niño. The warmer temperatures and wetter conditions create an ideal breeding environment for mosquitoes. When an infected mosquito bites a dog, the larvae are injected into the dog’s skin. They migrate through the body, finding their way to the large blood vessels of the heart and lungs. There, they mature to the size of cooked spaghetti. These tangled masses of worms can cause heart failure, and even death, if not treated early.
Expect to see cases skyrocket in:
Heartworm disease is prevalent in the Lower Mississippi River region and this year it’s expected to spread to:
All dogs need to be protected from heartworms, even those who rarely venture outside. The one mosquito that flies through your open window and bites your dog just might be infected with heartworm larvae. Preventives are available in the form of pills, topical liquids and injections. All kill the larvae once they enter the bloodstream. The AAHA recommends year-round heartworm prevention.TICK-BORNE DISEASE FORECAST: PARTIALLY CLOUDY
An infected tick can spread a number of life-threatening diseases when it bites a dog. The most common are Lyme, anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis, and their prevalence varies by region. Some dogs with Lyme disease will run a high fever, experience painful joints and exhibit swollen lymph nodes. Others will present no signs at all. Untreated infections can lead to kidney failure and death.
In regions where Lyme has been living comfortably for years, the incidence is expected to rise. These regions include:
Recently, the disease has spread to:
These states may have a higher-than-average occurrence the rest of the year.
Historically, Lyme has thrived in New England, but, oddly enough, the incidence there is expected to fall below normal this year, perhaps because more owners are vaccinating their dogs.
If you live in an area where ticks are abundant, take precautions to keep your dogs safe. Your veterinarian will prescribe a tick preventive in the form of pills, topical liquids or collars. In areas where Lyme disease is prevalent, she may recommend vaccination.
Anaplasmosis causes disruptions in blood clotting, which results in bruising, internal bleeding and nosebleeds. Signs of Lyme disease also present in anaplasmosis.
Anaplasmosis shows moderate to high activity in:
Ehrlichiosis displays signs similar to both Lyme and anaplasmosis along with eye, liver and spleen infections. Above-normal incidence of ehrlichiosis is expected in:
Just like the human flu, canine influenza is spread by one infected dog sneezing or coughing on another. Two strains of canine influenza are present in the U.S. H3N8 has been here for years, but a vaccine has kept it at bay. A new Asian strain, H3N2, hit Chicago last spring, causing a local epidemic; dogs didn’t have a natural immunity to the strain and there was no vaccine. Since then, H3N2 has infected more than 1,000 dogs in more than 25 states. Fortunately, H3N2 vaccines were developed not long after the outbreak, which likely curbed the spread. It’s difficult to predict how the flu season will play out for the rest of the year. With so many dogs on the move with their owners, and not all of them protected by vaccines for the new strain, the disease could spread quickly. If you plan to travel with your dog, visit your veterinarian for a vaccine protocol.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Excerpt from The Underdogs by Melissa Fay Greene
A German Shepherd mix slated for euthanasia watched Karen Shirk from behind the bars of his cinder-block cell in a cacophonous county animal control building. With his long black muzzle and imploring brown eyes, he looked at her with that heartbreaking shelter-dog mix of worry, fear, confusion, and hope. “This is a good-looking boy. Do you know anything about him?” Karen called from her wheelchair to a nearby worker. “Can he sit? Can you sit, boy? Sit.”
The dog sat. His haunches trembled with the sincerity of his “Sit.” He tentatively raised one paw a few inches above the floor, in case the stranger also wanted “Shake.” She didn’t say “Shake,” so he lowered his paw quietly and put his whole focus back into his excellent “Sit.”
He was an “owner-surrender,” though there was no coercion or “surrendering” about it: his people, for reasons unknown to the shelter, had brought him here to be disposed of. In crowded shelters, owner-surrenders are among the first to go: without the required ten-day “stray hold” bestowed upon lost dogs or cats for whom someone may be searching, the owner-surrenders quickly join the ranks of the sick, the injured, the elderly, the pregnant, the nursing mothers and their newborn litters, and the defamed pit bull breeds—no matter how gentle—to be euthanized one by one by one, usually by lethal injection …
The scrape of shovels and splash of water and the homesick yelps of imprisoned dogs ricocheted around Karen and the German Shepherd mix as the dog sat for her on the cement, making worried eye contact, in the most important and possibly last audition of his life. Did the shelter dog understand on any level that he had won Karen’s attention, however briefly? As he gazed unflinchingly and longingly into her eyes, was he aware that he’d captured the attention of a human being, something in scarce supply in a county animal shelter? Of course he knew. He was begging her, with his eyes, not to leave him.
“I’m going to give him a try,” Karen said to an employee. “Let’s take him outside.” The worker stepped into the pen and clipped a leash to the dog’s collar.
On the way down the cement hall toward the steel exit door, the shepherd, leashed, stayed beside Karen’s wheelchair, but his paws moved double-time, like a speeding cartoon character whose legs accelerate into wheeling blurs. Outside, the dog blinked in the sunlight and barely knew which way to run first. Just in case, he briefly sat again, tremblingly, joyfully. When the passenger door of the van opened to him, he bounded into the seat, wiggled in happiness, settled in, and never looked back. He moved into the cabin with Karen and her own dog, Ben, and soon began training for Karen’s first child client, a twelve-year-old girl with paralysis. Soon two rescued Golden Retrievers joined them, one for each of the adult women who’d requested dogs. It was a happy messy life for Karen, the start of her finding a way toward the life she wanted. The hospitalized preteen squealed with joy when she saw the German Shepherd mix for the first time and named him Butler—“because he’s going to be like my furry butler!” When his mobility training was finished and he was placed with the family at home, Butler broke the no-child barrier among service dog agencies, among the first service dogs in the world to be trained for a child.
He was a great success! He heeled beside her wheelchair, slept on her bed, and always sat up extra straight and tall when told to sit, since this was evidently his winning skill. The girl’s laughter rang through the house again whenever Butler, unable to contain his love and happiness, stood up, propped his front feet on the armrest, and leaned into the wheelchair to lick her cheeks.
“Am I too old for one of your dogs?” strangers phoned to ask Karen. “Is my child too young for one of your dogs?” “Am I too disabled?” “Am I disabled enough?”
Karen told everyone the same thing: “If your life can be improved by a dog and you can take good care of a dog, I’m going to give you a dog.”
A couple with a ten-year-old son with autism phoned to say that their boy constantly ran away and they’d hoped a service dog might keep track of him, but the service dog agencies had all denied them. This was again new territory. Karen knew that placing service dogs with adults with invisible disabilities, like post-traumatic stress disorder or seizure disorder, was the cutting edge of service dog work, but it hadn’t yet been tried with children. It was a tall order, quite different from training Butler for mobility work with a child.
Back to an animal shelter she went. Despite the forbidding prison-like appearance of the place and the collective hysteria of the stressed and frightened dogs, Karen knew there had to be animals there with high intelligence and fine dispositions. The problem was that their panic at the harsh, crammedin, and grating conditions of captivity concealed their true natures. The confinement in cement cells with industrial drains in the floor made the dogs seem ferocious, impossible to tame, even insane. They bared their gums and barked in fear, scaring away adopters.
As Karen wheeled through the cat room on the way to the dog kennels, cats stuck their forearms through the bars of their stacked-up cages, waving their paws around in blind search for human contact. Karen stopped to stroke the arm of one cat; the lean middle- aged tabby instantly withdrew his arm and flipped onto his side in the cage in winsome appeal. He’d waited so long for a tummy-rub! He stretched out and began to purr. But Karen couldn’t reach that far into the cage and had to move on. She knew that virtually none of these adult cats would see daylight again.
Tail lowered, ears flattened, face downcast, Patches, a Beagle mix, managed just a couple of tentative halfhearted tail-wags from the back of his cell. His overtures hadn’t beguiled anyone in the nearly twenty-one days of his captivity and his time was up. Karen positioned her wheelchair outside his cage for a closer look. Every morsel of emotion rushed into the dog’s moist trembling nose. He approached and shyly pushed his nose through the chain-link barrier.
“Okay, boy, I see you,” she said. When he was led out of his cage by a handler for one-on-one time with Karen, the little dog was so excited, shaking so hard, he couldn’t avoid peeing a little on the cement f loor. Like Butler before him, he left the shelter riding high in the passenger seat of Karen’s van, his mouth wide open with happiness, his ears rippling in the wind he hadn’t felt in a long time.
Before pulling onto the state road, however, Karen sighed, stopped, wheeled around, pulled back into the parking lot, and called out her window to a staffer to bring her the middle-aged tabby cat.
Patches, the rescued Beagle mix, became one of the first dogs in the world (similar work was beginning in Canada at that time) trained in autism assistance. He may have become the first dog in the world trained to track a single child. Now when their son disappeared, his parents cried: “Patches! Find Kevin!” And Patches took off to find the boy, wherever he was. One night he tracked him to a stranger’s backyard three blocks away. The land sloped down to a stream; Kevin, in his pajamas, was peering into the water when the dog interrupted his reverie. “Patches just saved our son’s life again,” the parents emailed Karen.
The cabin filled up with rescued dogs. “It’s a wonderful feeling when we see one of our animals adopted by 4 Paws!” said Mary Lee Schwartz, executive director of the Humane Association of Warren, Ohio. “We’re happy when a dog gets adopted to a normal home, but when one gets adopted to a home when he’s going to help someone, we’re thrilled! I can’t think of a more exciting thing to happen for a dog, especially one on Death Row.”
Another shelter worker commented: “People are surprised that we have such highly talented dogs coming through our shelter, capable of performing the functions of service animals. But of course we do.”
All shelters have them: indescribably marvelous animals just waiting to be given a chance.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Study finds that pets are beneficial to families with autistic kids.
Animal assisted therapy has helped kids with a range of disabilities, but a new study has been looking at the effect of pet dogs on the whole family. A collaboration between researchers at the University of Lincoln and the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation has been looking at interactions between parents and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The study found that families with dogs experienced improved functioning among their ASD children and a reduction in the number of dysfunctional interactions between the parents and children.
The lead researcher, Professor Daniel Mills, says that while there's growing evidence that animal-assisted therapy can aid in the treatment of children with ASD, this is the first study to explore the effects of dog ownership. The team's work is also unique because the research looks at the effects on the family unit, as opposed to only looking at the ASD kids.
"We found a significant, positive relationship between parenting stress of the child's main caregiver and their attachment to the family dog," says Professor Mills. "This highlights the importance of the bond between the carer and their dog in the benefits they gain." The reduction in stress was not seen in families without a dog.
I can only imagine the anxiety and stress that parents of children with autism feel, but it's heartening to see the important role dogs play in our lives.
According to HABRI Executive Director Steven Feldman, "We have strong scientific evidence to show that pets can have positive effects on these quality-of-life issues. Families with an autistic child should consider pet ownership as a way to improve family harmony."
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