work of dogs
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
These working dogs calm harried travelers.
Traffic on the way to the airport makes you late. Rushing, fearing you’ll miss your flight, you anxiously stand in endless check-in and security lines, annoyed at the delay. Your stress level increases with every passing minute. Finally clearing security, sitting to put your shoes back on, you notice something unusual across the room: an enormous harlequin Great Dane wearing a vest that says, “Pet me!” A smile breaks across your face and your blood pressure immediately drops. You say a quick hello to the dog and rub his soft ears, and the tension of the past hours melts away.
We’re used to seeing security dogs at airports, but those dogs are working— no petting allowed. The “pet me” dogs are a different story altogether, reflecting the industry’s growing understanding that helping passengers destress, especially during busy holiday flying seasons, has value. These dogs are all about being touched!
So far, some 30 airports across the country have therapy dogs on duty, and luckily for travelers, the number is steadily growing. The idea started at California’s Mineta San Jose International Airport shortly after 9/11 as a way to ease traveler jitters. Videos of those dogs at work convinced other airports give it a go.
The distinctively outfitted dogs and their handlers position themselves throughout the airport, from checkin to boarding—wherever passengers can use some calming canine love. Recognizing that not everyone loves dogs, the teams typically remain stationary in an open area so those who wish to greet the dogs can do so while anyone not so fond of dogs can easily avoid them.
One of the most recent converts to the service, North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport, began deploying professionally certified therapy dogs in March 2015. Currently, there are 15 dog/handler teams providing coverage daily between 10 am and 4 pm. Lauri Golden, the airport’s manager of customer engagement, supervises the all-volunteer CLT Canine Crew. “We wanted a way to create a sense of place,” she says. “Our airport is a hub for American Airlines; 70 percent of traffic is connections, so the passengers just see the facility, not the city.”
Initially, Golden worried about finding enough volunteer teams. However, the pilot program created to iron out the logistics was an instant success. “We expected that kids would like the dogs, but even more, it’s the adults benefiting from them,” she says. “They pull out photos of their own dogs; talk about ones recently lost; take selfies; ask the name, age and breed of the dog … lots of questions. The dogs create a gathering, an audience, which creates its own community as people talk to each other, sharing dog stories. They are our superstars.” The demand for teams is high, and Golden is constantly recruiting.
Max the Great Dane and his handler Fred McCraven make up one of the Charlotte teams. “When I asked Fred why he wanted to join, he was so honest: ‘I just want to show off my dog.’ Max is a complete sweetheart!” says Golden.
Fred thoroughly enjoys taking Max to the airport. “Some tourists just light up when they see Max, and take photos,” he says. “Some look at him funny, like, ‘Please don’t bring that big dog near me.’ I try to gauge peoples’ reactions. Even those who don’t come up to touch Max are smiling. I once met a woman who was traveling to her brother’s funeral. Her brother had a Great Dane as well and she took it as a sign her brother was okay.”
Los Angeles World Airports (LAX) was the third to create a therapy dog program, after San Jose and Miami. Heidi Heubner is director of Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) and volunteer programs for LAX. PUP, which launched in April 2013 with 30 teams, now has 52, allowing them to have dogs in most terminals every day of the week. Each PUP dog has his or her own baseball card–style ID, which is given to passengers as a keepsake.
Heubner enjoys observing the interactions between volunteer teams and passengers. “The dogs bring strangers together,” she says. “We’re often afraid to talk, or are on our devices, but with the dogs, people are sharing stories and photos of their own dogs, talking about where they’re going. I never get tired of watching them. Sometimes my face hurts from smiling so much, watching them in action and listening to what the passengers are saying.”
Therapy teams are also called upon to calm passengers when things don’t go as planned, Heubner notes. “One day, a f light was cancelled. A f light attendant asked if one of the dogs could visit with the passengers. The passengers loved it, were saying, ‘Who cares that we’re delayed! It was worth it to see the dogs.’”
Airport therapy dogs come in all sizes and breeds but the thing they have in common is that they’re all certified by one of the country’s therapy-dog organizations; for example, Charlotte and LAX use teams certified by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. New teams do an initial walk-through at the facility to make sure the dog is comfortable with the noises, smells and crowds of strangers. If that goes well, they’ll go through a more thorough vetting, with the human half of the team undergoing background and security checks. Once approved, teams typically work one day a week.
Dog-loving passengers rave about the programs. A letter sent to the Charlotte program expresses an often-repeated sentiment: It was like having my pups with me though they are miles away. The stress that is lifted when you see and touch a dog, it’s indescribable and it was the best part of my trip today. I cannot thank you, the staff that implemented the program, the handlers and the dogs enough for this remarkable program.
Clearly, these programs are positive for passengers and airport staff, but they’re also proving beneficial for the handlers. “Max has made me a better person,” says Fred. “I’m not a very social person, sort of a lone wolf, but taking Max to the airport has gotten me out and around people, improved my social skills. And it puts me in a good mood. Last week I had a bad day at work. I took Max to the airport and came home in a totally different mood.”
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Dog listeners do wonders for a child learning to read.
Sandi Martin, RN, always wanted a dog. But as manager of a Salt Lake City hospital’s intensivecare burn unit, she had a demanding job with unpredictable hours. Plus, during her free time, she gave talks at professional meetings on critical care and ethics. It was the job or a dog.
Martin chose a dog.
In 1999, she resigned from her job at the hospital and took a position with a community outreach program with a less stressful work schedule. She cut back on her presentations and bought a house. Then she started to look for a dog.
On one of her weekend outings, she went to the Salt Lake County Animal Shelter. She hadn’t intended to adopt a puppy, but when she saw a playful little Portuguese Water Dog with big feet, a big head and a tail that bent over her back, Martin fell in love. The pup, who had been at the shelter for 10 days, was scheduled to be euthanized the following Monday. Martin took her home and named her Olivia.
A little while after Olivia came into her life, Martin was talking with Kathy Klotz, the director of Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA), which had developed programs that brought dogs into therapeutic settings. At the hospital, Martin had seen firsthand how children with burns responded in a positive way to the ITA dogs.
In Martin’s experience, many of these children lacked focus, didn’t look forward to doing any of the tasks they were given and generally had low self-esteem across the board. But when they interacted with therapy animals, they seemed to develop more confidence in themselves. They forgot their limitations. Their focus improved, and they became more interested and involved in what they were asked to do.
Thinking about the remarkable turnarounds the dogs facilitated, the proverbial light bulb went off in Martin’s head. Could dogs do the same for children who had trouble reading? The next day, she called Klotz and arranged to meet up so she could run her idea past her.
Over coffee, Martin explained what she wanted to do: A lot of children with reading problems weren’t performing up to their grade level because they lacked confidence and self-esteem. Maybe letting them interact with a dog while they were reading would help them in the same way dogs were helping burn victims.
Their next step was to talk to the city library’s staff. Klotz says they thought the idea was “wacko,” but they listened. Nothing like it had ever been done. What if it worked? What if bringing dogs into the library and having them listen to children read aloud would make them more confident? It didn’t take long to find out.
Dog Day Afternoons
In November 1999, Martin and Klotz got permission to start a “Dog Day Afternoons.” It began with six children and six animals: five dogs (Olivia among them) and one cat. One of the first children who agreed to sit down with Olivia was a seven-year-old boy. Before he started, he looked at his shoes and in a quiet voice said, “I don’t read very well.”
“That’s okay,” Martin told him. “Olivia doesn’t either, but she loves to listen.”
Reluctantly, the boy began reading softly, turning to Olivia after every word. The next week, he brought his “Spot” book with him and read it to Olivia, pronouncing half the words correctly, a big improvement from the previous week. On the fourth week, he rushed into the library and in a loud voice announced, “Olivia, program at the local library called I’ve got a really cool book to read to you.”
Other children had equally remarkable experiences. A young girl who didn’t want to take part in the program but was persuaded to do so by her grandmother improved so much that a few years later, she won her school’s essay contest. The title of her essay was “Why Would You Want to Read to a Dog?”
There were other success stories. A sixth-grade boy who had recently come from Bosnia walked into the room with his hands behind his back. Though he wouldn’t come up to the dogs, he asked questions. Martin asked him if he would like to pet one of the dogs.
“I can’t,” he said. “It’s against my religion.” The boy was Muslim, and devout Muslims are taught that dogs are not to be touched. Martin was surprised—she wasn’t aware of this prohibition—but said he didn’t have to touch the dog; he could just read to him. Reluctantly, the boy sat down next to one of the dogs and began reading. The boy returned every week, selecting the same dog each time but never petting him. As with all the children in the program, there was a noticeable improvement in his reading. Later that year, the students in his class were asked to write an essay on what they wanted to be when they grew up. The boy who wasn’t allowed to touch dogs wrote that he wanted to be a veterinarian.
Next, Martin approached local elementary schools. Many of the teachers were skeptical, but after principals gave their approval, some agreed to participate. Once a week for 20 minutes, children who were having difficulty sat down with Olivia or one of the other dogs in the program and read aloud to them. The teachers could see an immediate improvement. At the end of the year, some had improved by two to four reading grades. Children who used to slide down in their chairs when it came time for reading aloud would now raise their hands. Teachers were delighted.
There were also some unexpected benefits. Concerned about a little girl’s bad breath, Martin made an appointment for her with the school dentist. Although Martin thought cavities might be the cause, it turned out to be a more easily remedied problem: the girl wasn’t brushing her teeth.
As a way to introduce the subject of brushing, Martin asked the girl if Olivia had dog breath. The girl sniffed Olivia’s mouth and said that no, she didn’t. Martin told the girl that Olivia brushed her teeth every day, then offered to bring the girl a toothbrush and toothpaste so she could brush too. The girl agreed, and Martin gave her the book Dog Breath to read to Olivia. The next time the girl saw Olivia, she blew at her and said proudly, “See, Olivia, I don’t have dog breath anymore.”
Sadly, Olivia succumbed to cancer when she was a little more than two years old. By then attached to Portuguese Water Dogs, Martin adopted another one, named her Zelda and incorporated her into the reading program. When Salt Lake City opened its new library in 2003, Zelda pulled the opening ribbon.
What started out as a specialized local effort is now Reading Education Assistance Dogs ® (R.E.A.D.) and has branches across the United States and Canada. As part of Intermountain Therapy Animals, registered R.E.A.D. teams can also be found in Europe and South Africa.
Reading With Rover
In Washington state, Becky Bishop, owner of a dog-therapy business in Woodinville, heard about the R.E.A.D. program at her local library. Bishop and her dogs visited people in hospice, and she noticed that while the people felt better after a visit, the dogs seemed to come away somewhat depressed. In 2000, looking for a way to perk up her dogs, she wondered if a library reading program for children might also be therapeutic for her dogs. Bishop described what happened next in an article in Edutopia magazine.
As soon as she brought her dogs to the library, both the children and the dogs lit up. Parents told her about the improvements their children had made in reading aloud after coming to the library every Saturday to read to the dogs, and her dogs seemed to be much less depressed after interacting with the children.
When teachers heard about the program, many wanted to bring dogs into their classrooms, but there was a problem: not all school districts allow dogs in the classroom. Not willing to give up, these teachers discovered that if they could get the dogs and their trainers screened and certified, the school district would relent. The dogs have become “rock stars” for the children, says Brian Daly, one of the teachers who got his school district to let him bring dogs into his second-grade class.
Bishop’s program, loosely based on R.E.A.D., is now known as Reading With Rover. The community-based nonprofit has more than 75 dog-and-trainer teams that regularly visit libraries, bookstores and, yes, schools in the Seattle area.
How It Works
School programs involving R.E.A.D. are highly structured. Dogs are carefully screened for temperament and then given special obedience training before they become reading buddies. Reading specialists choose the children they believe will benefit the most, and each child is paired with a dog.
Typically, the reader and his/her dog spend about 30 minutes together. First they play, then they sit on the floor and the child begins to read. Afterward, children are welcome to play with their dogs. The same dog meets with the child each time, which helps them develop a trusting and secure relationship. Sometimes, children and their dog listeners get together during school hours, sometimes after. It’s important that the two spend time away from other children so that the child doesn’t have to worry about being criticized.
The dog handlers sit in and gently help the child with mispronounced words and meanings. One of the ways they do this is by telling the child that the dog hasn’t heard that word before and asks if they can explain it. That way the child is less embarrassed because he or she hasn’t made a mistake —it’s the dog who doesn’t understand. The child moves from passive reader to active teacher.
Psychologists who specialize in reading tell us that children who don’t read as well as their peers often are frightened about reading aloud. When called upon to read in class, they’re intimidated. Because they find the experience stressful, something to be avoided, they scrunch down in their chairs, trying to be invisible. Not surprisingly, this usually leads to low self-esteem.
When children interact with dogs, there’s no peer pressure. They don’t feel intimidated. They’re not laughed at. They’re totally accepted. That in turn helps them forget about their limitations. The whole idea behind children reading to dogs is to get them to relax so that reading becomes fun.
A 1983 study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania monitored the blood pressures and heart rates of 38 children ages 9 to 15 as they read silently, to an adult and to an adult accompanied by a dog. It showed that having a dog in the room definitely reduces the stress children feel when they read aloud.
The payoff comes in the amount of fun they have during the process and, ultimately, how much learning goes on. When children are asked why they like reading to dogs, they say it’s because the dogs listen to them.
What more could anyone want?
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A “Dog-torate” in Occupational Therapy
Niko may very well be more popular than any Big Man on Campus has ever been. He’s not that big, and he’s actually not a man, but this Labrador Retriever spends far more time in college classrooms than most students, and he is adored. Niko is trained as a service dog, and is a key member of the Professor Paws Project at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa. The goal of this program is to help students in the occupational therapy program, healthcare professionals and members of the community learn about service dogs.
The world of service dogs is filled with information that is not common knowledge. Because people are not aware of all the ways that service dogs can, well, be of service, many people are missing out on additional ways to live independently and in fully satisfying ways. More education is part of the solution.
Not very many people know all the ways that service dogs can help people with disabilities, or the proper etiquette to observe around a service dog. Fewer still are familiar with what protections the law offers to service dogs and their people. This lack of knowledge usually means that people may behave in ways that are annoying or unhelpful in the presence of a service dog. For occupational therapists, such gaps in their knowledge could mean doing their jobs less effectively. Service dogs are often underutilized in plans to help a person achieve independence and improve their higher quality of life. The Professor Paws Project at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa aims to change that. With Niko’s help, professors at OU-Tulsa are able to educate students about service dogs with practical, interactive hands-on experience and demonstrations.
By teaching students and other members of the community about service dogs, Niko helps reduce the barriers faced by people who need and work with service dogs every day, and that means that people’s lives are enhanced by the program. Over 500 people receive education each year through the Professor Paws Project, which was developed by Assistant Professor Mary Isaacson. To honor this contribution to the community, the City of Tulsa has just designated May 9, 2017 as “Professor Paws Day”. On that day, Niko will officially walk in the graduation ceremonies. (Think of it as Niko receiving his “Dog-torate”.)
Niko is not the first service dog to be involved with the education of occupational therapy students at OU-Tulsa. Before Isaacson trained Niko, she trained a service dog named Samson, and began incorporating him into her classroom instruction. Samson regularly attended classes, which allowed her to demonstrate the specific ways that a service dog can have an impact on a person’s daily life. Whether it is opening the fridge, retrieving dropped items, helping remove someone’s socks, or turning lights on and off, students were able to see what a difference such assistance can make to a person with a disability.
After training, Samson was placed with a high school student with cerebral palsy. That was 6 years ago, and now Samson lives on a college campus and continues to assist the same person. Having Samson participate in classes during his training and before his placement was so beneficial to students that people recognized the value of having a dog present on campus permanently.
As a result, the goal all along for Niko has been different than for Samson. Rather than being placed with someone as a service dog or working directly with patients, Niko will remain at OU-Tulsa in order to continue educating people about service dogs. As far as staff at the university know, the Professor Paws Project is the only program of its kind. However, its success suggests that this might not be true for long.
For the past couple of decades researchers have been looking at the role that pets, especially dogs, have to play in rates of allergies in children. Many have found that, what is being termed the hygiene hypothesis, is indeed correct, meaning that a little dirt early in life helps to stave allergic diseases, including obesity.
A new study by Anita Kozyrskyj a pediatric epidemiologist of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, found further evidence of this dog-human linkage and how this lessens the development of everything from obesity to asthma.
Starting in 2013 she wondered if she could pinpoint what and how this might be happening. Her team collected fecal samples from 4-month-old infants in the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) pilot study. Of the 24 respondent infants, 15 lived in house with at least a dog or cat.
What they found was that within the households with pets, the children had a higher diversity of microbes in their guts. Microbes, as we now know, can be a good thing for our gut microbiome and immune systems actually develop alongside our gut’s “germs.” Meaning that if babies grow in a more “sterile” pet-free environment, they would be more unprepared to “fight” germs as they grow up.
Kozyrskyj noted, "The abundance of these two bacteria (Firmicutes microbes) were increased twofold when there was a pet in the house," and added that the pet exposure was shown to affect the gut microbiome indirectly—from dog to mother to unborn baby—during pregnancy as well as during the first three months of the baby's life.
Also interestingly, this study suggested that the presence of pets in the house reduced the likelihood of the transmission of vaginal GBS (group B Strep) during birth, which causes pneumonia in newborns and is prevented by giving mothers antibiotics during delivery.
Kozyrskyj’s study confirms and expands on the work that many other researchers have shown that some “dirt” can be beneficial and help to ward off disease. Including one, conducted at Kuopio University Hospital in Finland in 2012, that concentrated on infants during their first year, and investigated the effect of contact with dogs on the “frequency of respiratory symptoms and infections.” Information about the length of time a dog spent indoors was also gathered, and turned out to be one of the key indicators.
The results were eye-opening. Children with dogs at home were healthier overall, had fewer infectious respiratory problems, fewer ear infections and were less likely to require antibiotics. Researchers considered these results supportive of the theory that children who live with dogs during their early years have better resistance throughout childhood. They also found that the effect was greater if the dog spent fewer than six hours inside, possibly because the longer dogs are outdoors, the more dirt they bring inside with them. The more dirt, the more “bacterial diversity.” This diversity is thought to have a protective influence by helping the child’s immune system to mature — that is, respond more effectively to infectious agents.
Then a 2013 study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, found that living with dogs may prevent children from developing asthma. Mice fed a solution containing dust from homes with dogs developed a resistance to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a childhood airway infectious agent. RSV, which is common in infants, is linked to a higher risk of childhood asthma. According to Dr. Susan Lynch of the study team, “Exposing the gastrointestinal tract to pet dust and other microbes early in life prepares it to respond appropriately to a variety of invaders. But since our modern lifestyles involve living in immaculate houses, our immune systems often overreact instead.” Early childhood is a critical period for developing protection against allergies and asthma, and exposure to pets can help.
The idea that our microorganisms may to some extent be collectively beneficial is intriguing. People and dogs have been exchanging microbes for at least 30,000 years, since the first little cave girl kissed the first proto-dog puppy smack on the muzzle. That’s a long history of sharing. It’s possible that our microorganisms are at least symbiotic, and perhaps even played a role in the dramatic domestication of the dog.
As was reported in Nature: Researchers suspect that our long association with canines means that human and dog microbiomes may have developed in tandem. The microbiome of a baby growing up without a dog (and of a puppy growing up without a human) is, in a sense, incomplete. “All of the people alive today probably had ancestors who lived in tribes that hunted with dogs,” says Jack Gilbert, director of the Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago in Illinois.”
Since 2013, Canadian researcher, Kozyrskyj has expanded her pilot study from 24 to 746 infants, around half of whom were living in households with pets. Her team then compared the babies' microbial communities.
The results were basically the same, microbial life flourished in the infants living with pets. And not only that but the “team was now able to show that babies from families with pets (70% of which were dogs) had higher levels of two types of Firmicutes microbes — Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, which have been associated with a lower risk of allergic disease and leanness, respectively.
“Pet exposure can reduce allergic disease and obesity” later in life, added Hein Min Tun, a veterinarian and microbial epidemiologist and a member of Kozyrskyj’s research team.
And while it might be too soon to predict how this finding will play out in the future, they don’t rule out the concept of a “dog in a pill” as a preventive tool for allergies and obesity. Or, as we much rather see, “dog as the pill.”
The Shepherd’s View
Last year, in his Bark review of James Rebanks’ remarkable memoir, The Shepherd’s Life, Donald McCaig observed, “It isn’t really a book about dogs. It’s about a world the dogs make possible. It’s the best book I’ve read this year.” Other reviewers also sang its praises; for example, New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani called it “utterly compelling,” and named it one of the Top 10 Books of 2015 (it was also on our list). So, we were thrilled to see that Rebanks has a new book, The Shepherd’s View: Modern Photographs from an Ancient Landscape, replete with his lovely and compelling photography and poetic essays. On its pages, he shares with us a unique view of the pastoral world of England’s Lake District. We caught up with him recently to find out more about these working dogs and his remarkable partners, Floss and Tan, the sheepdogs who help him tend the flock.
Bark: Where would shepherds would be without sheepdogs—would it even be possible to do the job without them?
James Rebanks: A shepherd isn’t a shepherd without a sheepdog, just a fool running round achieving nothing on a mountain. Sheep are quicker than people, and on their own terrain, impossible to manage without a good sheepdog. To gather the flocks on our mountains (we call them fells) takes 5 to 10 shepherds and shepherdesses, and 20 or more sheepdogs. They are our main tool, and key to what we do.
BK: How can you tell if a dog will be good in the field? Is it breeding? Are skills passed along genetically?
JR: We start training dogs when they are very young, so they learn their names and to come to us. They progress as the months go by, until they are fully trained at about two years old. My youngest dog, Meg, is a year-and-a-half and can do nearly all the work of my mature dogs, Floss and Tan. She has learned from them. Well-bred dogs from good families are incredibly gifted, and show their raw talent and focus as puppies. So I think a lot of the instinct is there, waiting to be harnessed and focused through training. Nature gives you the potential, but nurture determines how well that instinct and natural potential are harnessed.
BK: What makes a good working sheepdog? Does the environment determine how well they can do their jobs?
JR: I like a classic Border Collie-type sheepdog. I think they look right, but that is just vanity. All that really matters is how well the dog works. A pup comes to its new owners to start its new life at eight weeks old. Choosing a puppy is about knowing the working quality of the parents. Floss and Tan came from a noted sheepdog breeder whose dogs are remarkably good workers. Different types of landscapes require different types of sheepdogs; fell land requires dogs with stamina and an ability to hunt sheep out of bracken.
BK: Do sheepdogs have different skill sets?
JR: Yes. Some sheepdogs have strong “eye” (power over the sheep with their gaze and presence), and those kinds of dogs like working in small fields close up to the sheep. Others work best in the mountains and across big spaces; they can hunt sheep out of crags and rocky screes. This kind of dog is best for the fells.
All dogs have different character traits; some are confident, others timid. Part of training is learning to connect with the dog and to communicate with it and get the best from it. Floss is a very strong, confident dog who likes to work up close; she tries to dominate me and the other dogs. Tan is quiet and shy, and I have to encourage him and praise him. I change my tone of voice depending on which one I am working, or I can unsettle Tan.
BK: In your first book, The Shepherd’s Life, you said that it’s possible to “make a mess” of training a sheepdog. How does that happen?
JR: The thread between shepherd and sheepdog can easily break. The dog is often trying desperately to please the person she works for, so if you speak in the wrong tone, or get frustrated or cross, you can shake the dog’s confidence, or scare or sicken her and spoil her love of the work. But perhaps the commonest mistake is that the dog just doesn’t understand what the shepherd wants, and becomes disheartened.
A few years ago, I felt I didn’t understand training as well as I should, so I sought expert advice from a trainer called Andy Nickless, who makes DVDs about training sheepdogs. I use his training method and find it works very well.
BK: In the same book, you wrote, “Shepherds hate other people’s dogs near their sheep.” What kind of harm can off-leash pet dogs do?
JR: To sheep, dogs are just wolves. But the sheepdog who is well known to the flock becomes less stressful and scary, and they know it is under the shepherd’s control. A stray, unknown dog —which is often out of control— causes them stress. It may chase them until they collapse from exhaustion, or miscarry; it may attack and kill them. Even tiny dogs can do this. And even the nicest, friendliest family pet can be excited by fleeing sheep and become momentarily wild as the adrenaline kicks in.
So that’s why I hate other people’s dogs near my sheep: they are all potential disasters. Dogs should be kept on leads near farm animals, for everyone’s sake. Responsible dog owners can help by persuading others to do the right thing. And for that, we are grateful.
A new film looks at a young man and a dog both in need of a place to call home.
In A Stray, Adan, a young, homeless Somali immigrant played by Barkhad Abdiarhman (Captain Phillips) is paired with a homeless dog. This compelling film, written and directed by Musa Syeed, is only his second narrative feature. Syeed, clearly influenced by the neo-realism of the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, chose to center his story in a community of Muslim Somalians living in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.
In this society, Adan is on his own, unfocused and confused. Similar to many refugees, he tries to assimilate, although he’s not sure what that really means, as well as to stay in touch with his own culture and religion. Then, while on a job delivering food, he hits a stray dog, played with charming realism by Ayla, a Terrier mix.
The dog is uninjured, but then Adan, with no resources of his own, is burdened not only by a creature who needs to be cared for but also, one his religion considers unclean. Adan feels helpless in this situation, ill-equipped to know what’s best for himself or for the dog. Slowly, we see Adan growing into a kinder, more focused person, a change inspired, perhaps, by the incipient bond he forges with the dog and his efforts to do the right thing by her.
This film provides the viewer with insight into a social milieu with which most of us are entirely unfamiliar, that of refugees and their struggle to survive in American communities. Also, in a revelatory scene, into the Native American community; each group finds it difficult to understand the other’s “outsider” status. The film’s ending is influenced by a lesson an imam shares with Adan: A man was wandering in the desert and finally found water, but near the well, there was a thirsty dog. The man filled his shoe to give water to the dog before drinking some himself, and God granted the man heaven.
We spoke with the film’s writer/ director, Musa Syeed, and Ayla’s handler/ owner, Karen Radford, to find out more about what informs their work.
Bark: What inspired this film?
Musa Syeed: My wife found a stray dog shortly after we got married. We are both Muslim, and we were raised to believe that dogs are dirty—you can’t touch them and that kind of thing. Over the weeks we had the dog, I unexpectedly developed a relationship with her. She was a black Lab/ German Shepherd mix, and was such a happy puppy after my wife nursed her back to health. But we were moving to another state, so we decided to take her to the shelter. I had a connection with her, even though I had to give her up. I had this regret, and I started to look at this attitude toward dogs. It isn’t just a religious thing; there are lots of layers to it, and I wanted to make a film about that.
Bark: How did you come to incorporate the dog into the film, and as such an important character?
Musa: I wanted to write a story about a Muslim kid and a dog, like those typical classic American stories. We all grew up reading White Fang and those kinds of books, and I wanted to tell that story from a new perspective, reflecting the new America, in a way. I had that idea in the back of my mind. I also wanted to tell a story about the Minneapolis Somali community and the thematic connection between this community of refugees that’s trying to make a home for itself and a dog who also needs a home. For me, the interesting thing is how unlikely pairings such as these happen and how they find a way to connect, and to love each other in a way, despite the barriers between them. In this case, the question was, how can you love something you can’t touch? That was something I thought was an interesting challenge to show, and it is something that reflects this moment in America. There is a lot of division, and how we bridge it is what’s important to me.
Bark: How did you connect with Karen and her dog Ayla?
Musa: A local [Minneapolis] animal trainer, Debi Pool of Animal Talent Pool, has a catalog of 60 or 70 dogs, and she showed us pictures and some videos. I thought that when we did close-ups, people needed to see the dog’s eyes for that personal connection. Ayla has nice eyes, and her look was really great, her scruffy look; plus, she was the right size to fit into the bag!
Bark: Tell us more about Ayla.
Karen Radford: We adopted Ayla through Secondhand Hounds [Eden Prairie] about five years ago. She was found wandering in a ditch. We don’t know her exact mix, but we speculate Jack Russell and West Highland Terrier. True to her Terrier type, she’s excellent at hunting up vermin, and she still loves wandering in ditches. One of my hobbies is to train dogs for sports like agility and flyball. So although this is Ayla’s acting debut, she was very amenable to training.
Bark: Musa, could you tell us about directors or movies that have influenced your filmmaking?
Musa: There are neo-realism films that focus on a dog, especially Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D., about an older man and a dog, although in that story, he wanted to get rid of the dog so he could commit suicide. And then there was a 2008 American film, Wendy & Lucy, about a woman who has to give up a dog in order to save herself.
I was inspired by those films, but I think that oftentimes, it’s easy to be sentimental with dogs and to use them to manipulate audiences, to tug at their hearts. I deliberately didn’t push that too hard. In some films, the dog dies or goes through some brutality, and I also didn’t want this film to be about that. I know people will see that this film is about a refugee and a dog and think that something really devastating will happen, but it doesn’t go there. I wanted to tell a story that was more lighthearted and healing for the people watching it.
Bark: Even though we know little of the main characters’ backstories, they feel multidimensional. Was much of the filming off script, or improvised?
Musa: There was some of that. When I wrote the screenplay, there were certain things I thought were simple, things a dog would just do, like barking; I didn’t realize that it’s a skill that has to be trained. So a lot was understanding what we had to prepare Ayla for and, importantly, what she was up for doing. There was a scene where she was supposed to jump and run around and she didn’t feel like it at that moment, so we had to find a way to work around her. She can’t take direction from me. It was more about respecting where she was, and trying to shape scenes to where she wanted to be.
Bark: Karen, how did you go about training Ayla for more scripted scenes —for example, when she needed to jump into the bag?
Karen: We didn’t have much time between when we were selected and when we shot the film, so we worked on the basics. For the bag-jumping, she had breakfast in her bag every morning. I have another dog, and they would have a competition to see who got to be in the bag. We made that bag really rewarding. We practiced throwing a shirt over her, having different people pick her up, having her ride with someone in a wheelchair. The challenge was that we didn’t know what would happen from day to day, or where the scenes would be filmed, so we didn’t have a chance to visit beforehand. As Musa said, we just had to work with the challenge that dogs don’t generalize. Even if I had her do a behavior at home, that didn’t mean she would do it the same way in an apartment or in a park.
Bark: There’s a scene where Adan bathes Ayla in a bucket. Did you have to train specifically for that?
Karen: One of the challenges of that scene was that she wasn’t allowed to shake [the water coming off her is considered “unclean”]. I can’t take credit for actually teaching Ayla not to shake when wet. However, I taught her a rock solid “watch me,” which we used when she had to stand unattended in the bucket, and I taught Barkhad how to handle her when he was bathing her so she wouldn’t shake all over him. After the scene was done and Barkhad was out of range, Ayla was allowed to shake to her heart’s content.
Musa: Karen brought that bucket to the set. I have to commend her for being more than just the owner/ trainer. She helped with props and other things. It made the movie better —having someone on-set like that to collaborate was really great.
Bark: Tell us about the cultural divide over the concept of pet-keeping.
Musa: There are differences in opinion within Islamic law about the impurity of the dog, and that can often be exaggerated. It comes less from the religion itself than from cultural practices and not being exposed to dogs. Also, when immigrant families have to feed themselves, pet-keeping seems like a luxury. Besides religion, there’s a racial/cultural component. And then at the end, people have to realize that keeping the dog is harder for him than it is for other people, not just because of religion but also because of social and economic factors. So I hope that people see that there are layers to that choice, and appreciate it.
Are the rules governing service animals on airplanes about to change? The US Department of Transportation’s advisory committee on accessible air transportation met recently to consider refining the presents rules for Emotional Service Animals. Ever since 2003 when the DOT revised its policy on service animals to include emotional-support animals, there have been no restrictions for these animals and no real definition of a service dog. As Jenine Stanley, who serves on the committee and is with the Guide Dog Foundation, has noted there are no real rules as to what is a legitimate service or support animal.
“Once you board your plane with your animal and you say ‘I am coming with a service animal,’ i.e. an animal that is trained to medicate my disability, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether it’s true or not,” she said. Which is why the U.S. DOT wants to change the rules.
There have been numerous complaints from fellow travelers about the wide assortment of species, from miniature horses, pigs, boas, cats, and of course, dogs, that have been accorded the status of ESA and who usually have scant training about how to behave on an airplane. Some of the complaints have also been generated by people who have highly trained and skilled service dogs, such as seeing-eye dogs. Many of the ESA pets on planes can also distract (to put it mildly) a service dog from doing her job.
One key issue the committtee looked at was: Should specific species be defined? If so, what are they? The group suggested only dogs be listed as service animals, and dogs, cats and rabbits qualify as emotional support animals.
Another complication surrounding ESAs are the legal ramifications to the mental health professionals who are providing certifications. The University of Missouri recently conducted a study about the possible conflicts this presents to psychologists. Cassie Boness, a graduate student in clinical psychology, says these requests for certification for emotional support animals present several potential conflicts for mental health professionals.
“There are no standards for evaluating the need for an emotional support animal, whereas there are concrete rules to determine if someone is eligible for a service animal. These emotional support animal letters are formal certifications of psychological disability, and the psychotherapist is stating, by writing such a letter, that the person needing the emotional support animal has such a disability and that the presence of the animal addresses that disability.” Jeffrey Younggren, professor of clinical and forensic psychology, believes that the evaluation process should address the specific psychological issues that are going to be improved, and not just that the owner wants to be with their pet. They also noted that the lack of scientific guidelines regarding emotional support animals would make it difficult for the psychologist to defend this certification letter in court.
Younggren noted that "the study recommended was two fold: First, that these letters not be written by treating therapists for ethical issues but that they should be written by forensic evaluators/psychologists who do not have a dual role with the client. Second, we stated that, since these are disability determinations, there needs to be some type of comprehensive psychological assessment of that disability and that assessment should directly assess how the presence of the animal ameliorates the disability."
The working group committee members include representatives from American Airlines, Psychiatric Service Dog Partners, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind and America’s VetDogs. Key issues about service animals can be found here.
Stanley said she expects the new rules to be out for public comment within the year and to be set within three years.
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.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The education of a scent-detection dog.
Jaco pulls me hard past the cars in the driveway, slowing to run his nose across the seam of each trunk. The Prius, the Leaf, the old Mercedes, our Honda Civic covered with road dust and acorns. It’s an obsessive-compulsive habit from his early adolescence in the Czech Republic, where he had started to learn to detect explosives. I keep him moving. Someday, however, he may have to search car trunks for the scent of human remains. Because I’d like him to do that, I don’t actively discourage his vestigial nose sweeps.
Jaco is two years old, a compact sable German Shepherd with a stiff, cream-colored ruff of fur encircling his neck. He looks like a cross between a wolf, a tortoiseshell cat and Queen Victoria. I first met him outside a working-dog vendor’s kennel in North Carolina. His name was Jack then. He was 17 months old, recently flown in from the Czech Republic. Many U.S. law enforcement agencies get their detection and patrol dogs from Europe, either directly or via vendors who go over and bring back dogs they think show promise for law enforcement or for ring sports such as Schutzhund. I had decided to go the same route for my next cadaver dog.
I had never considered bringing home an adult German Shepherd before. I’d always started with fuzzy pups with milk teeth and elastic brains ready to be molded. This time, we’d get a dog who was already a bundle of muscle, with huge ivory fangs and a mind of his own. My husband, David, and I talked a long time about this unfamiliar dog-acquisition route. David asked me uneasily how a dog bred and raised for law enforcement or military work might fit into our small household and my world of volunteer search and rescue. Would the dog bond with me? With David?
Of course, I assured him breezily. Look at all the cops who have dogs they adore, and vice versa. They rarely get them as pups. I didn’t tell David that I knew some cops who greatly respected but didn’t love their dogs. And while rare, I’d seen a few cops who were afraid of their own dogs.
When the vendor brought Jaco out to meet us, he eyed me obliquely, then walked stiff-legged over to David, stood at his side and growled gently at him. David stood still and avoided making chirrupy, encouraging noises. The vendor wasn’t disturbed in the least; she approved of that wariness. That was the East German border patrol lineage coming out.
This particular dog, the vendor told me earlier via text, was “a lot of dog,” “a working fool.” Maybe too much dog for me? I needed a dog to work alongside me, not climb up the leash after me. I was a volunteer who wanted a dog to find dead people, not seek out suspects. I didn’t need a dog who considered every stranger, or my husband, as a potential bad guy.
But the qualities one looks for in any scent-detection dog, whether for law enforcement or volunteer purposes, are similar: A dog with drive. One who can hunt for scent for hours and not give up. Those qualities can be easier to find in the thousands of young German Shepherds, Dutch Shepherds, and Belgian Malinois brought over each year from Europe to populate law enforcement K9 units in this country. These dogs—usually with ribs showing as a result of pacing in their kennels, being chronically underfed and then shipped long distances—arrive with the stench of kennel urine. They don’t arrive with cheery notes from their trainers. Or warning labels.
With imported “green” working dogs, it’s hard to know exactly how they were trained, what kind of health they’re in or what sort of personality they have. They all seem to have good noses (and a love of launching at a bite sleeve or a Gappay ball). We didn’t know if Jaco was housebroken or if he’d ever been in a home. We didn’t know if he was going to retain his suspicion of David.
Jaco’s early training had clearly involved bitework. When I brought out a section of rubber blast hose a few days after we brought him home, his teeth chattered with eagerness; he was trying to cap his own drive with that chatter. Then, he levitated and grabbed it, jolting me hard. He saw a jute bite sleeve at a training venue and dragged me to it, head low, gaze fixed, digging his nails into the concrete floor to get to it. The first few times I brought him into a warehouse, he was sure it was to play the bad-guy game. He glanced around quickly, ears pricked, forward on his toes, looking for a decoy skulking in a corner.
About a week after Jaco came to live with us, one of our neighbors saw him gazing at me with his enigmatic umber eyes. Leaping across species and gender boundaries, she declared, “He looks at you just like he’s a mail-order bride!” But I didn’t want Jaco for his gaze—which, by then, we were pretty sure wasn’t sociopathic—I wanted him for his nose. And I wanted that nose up and running as soon as possible.
I had spent eight years searching for the missing and dead with Solo. Only months after he died at the age of 11, we got word from the vendor that she had a good working dog prospect for me to assess. Part of me wanted a puppy, but I also wanted a dog who was sufficiently developed to allow me to see if, as an adult, he would have what I needed: the drive and mental stability to search for hours in bad conditions.
Not unlike a vaguely suspicious spouse who realizes it might be good to know more about his mysterious mail-order bride, I did an Internet search and stumbled upon an early video of Jaco trying to find a PVC pipe filled with Semtex (a plastic explosive notoriously popular with terrorists) under one of several milk crates. I say “trying” because Jaco wasn’t very good. I could see both his sincerity and his hesitation. He was 14 months old then, with tufts of hair going every which way, like a teenager who had just fallen out of bed. Is this what you want? He kept glancing at the trainer, and then back at the three plastic crates. One had the pipe underneath. He offered a tentative down next to it. It looked as though he hadn’t bothered using his nose. He was smart enough to cue off the trainer, who kept her foot planted on the positive crate.
The video gave me pause. I had expected a bundle of muscle and drive with a superfine nose, all parts installed and in working order. I wondered if this was why Jaco had been sent to the United States.
Still, I wanted to get going. I wanted to fill that handsome sable head with new marching orders, a world of toys and treats, a rich vocabulary, and so many new people he would soon realize how wonderful humans were (even if I knew better). In my American ignorance, despite all the evidence that he was mostly goofy and playful, I wrongly assumed that he’d had a puppyhood devoid of play and stimulation. I wanted to teach him to fetch and tug, and sit, and down and heel.
Most importantly, I wanted to expose him to the entirely new range of odors he would need to recognize to start searching for the dead. Those odors are as complicated as people; forensic scientists have identified at least 480 volatile compounds emitted by human remains, and the list keeps growing.
As I prepared to institute my complex battle plan, a more experienced friend—one who had trained many more search dogs than I—stopped me and gave me advice that I hated. “Sometimes,” my friend said, “doing nothing is better than doing something.”
I’m not exactly Zen, so it took time to understand what she was saying. When her simple remark sunk in, I realized that it was the best training advice I’d ever received. Making Jaco sensitive to what I did or said, teaching him to gaze adoringly into my eyes before he moved? That was the wrong approach. The definition of “doing nothing” depends on the individual dog, but in general, it means slowing down and not tossing a dog you don’t know into a scrum of people and new situations he’s not comfortable with, flooding him instead of teaching him. It means not rushing into training that might backfire.
I backed off my ambitious initial plans. Instead, David and I cuddled Jaco. Oddly, he liked that. We taught him to get in his crate without a fuss and wait for his food rather than scrabble to get out. He learned to navigate our slippery stairs without hesitation, and to stay off the counters. He had only one accident in the house. We taught him to tolerate his nails being Dremeled without grabbing our hands in irritation. I took Jaco into tobacco warehouses and deserted office buildings, and he stopped eyeing dark corners with as much suspicion. But I didn’t invite some of my wonderful but voluble friends over to meet him, and I didn’t parade him around the farmers’ market.
I waited. We bonded. And he didn’t growl at David again. Instead, when he saw my husband, Jaco’s mouth would fall open in a delighted grin.
TEACHING OBEDIENCE TO ODOR
A month after he came to live with us, Jaco and I went to see Lucy Newton, who’s quiet and exacting. She likes dogs. And most people. Unlike me, she is settled within herself. She has a couple of decades of experience training search-and-rescue dogs, patrol dogs, human-remains detection dogs, narcotics dogs, conservation dogs. I have enough experience to have had some success, but I’ve had notable failures as well. I also had some bad habits. It wasn’t just Jaco who had things to learn.
Lucy breaks tasks down into their smallest increments, partly for the handler’s benefit, sure, but largely because it helps the dog. Her directions to me were specific and clear: Open Jaco’s crate in the car. Clip his leash to his flat collar. Clip the collar on Jaco. Don’t hurry. Gather yourself. Only then, let him leap to the ground.
A chartreuse tennis ball on a string waited on the ground where he landed. His eyes glowed, his teeth snapped and he pranced into the nearby garage, the tennis ball clenched in his jaws, its short string hanging from his mouth like the tail of a dead mouse. After four weeks of cold turkey on any toy that resembled a ball, after four weeks of bonding boredom, Jaco finally got his fix.
Lucy waited for us at the back of the large garage, standing on a platform behind a bank of eight identical plywood boxes hanging from a rail. Part of a detection-dog training system developed by K9 trainer Randy Hare, the boxes had big PVC pipes sticking out of their tops like chimneys and clear plastic covers that could be raised and lowered on their fronts. Tinny rock music blared from a radio in the corner. Jaco ignored the music. The floor was slippery. Jaco ignored that. His mouth was full of tennis ball, and he was straining at the end of his leash. He’d been ball deprived and he didn’t want it taken away from him.
Without fanfare or a single word, Lucy dropped another tennis ball on a string down one of the box’s chimneys. She made it jerk around like a psychotic puppet. The trap was set. Jaco’s eyes widened. Forget that saying about a rabbit in the mouth being worth two in the bush. So untrue. He dropped the sodden ball on the concrete, then lunged toward the herky-jerky ball in the box. I lurched along behind, trying to keep his leash loose. Lucy, a masterful puppeteer, kept the tennis ball on the string both inside the box and inside Jaco’s jaws with slow, methodical tugs. His tail wagged slowly, his eyes were slitted in ecstasy.
That particular box held more than a bouncing ball. Wafting from a hidden compartment was the scent of human remains. As he blissfully tugged, Jaco got constant hits of this scent. That’s why Lucy let Jaco bogey that ball. That’s how you addict a dog to a scent. It was Jaco’s first step in learning the most important concept a detection dog needs: “obedience to odor.”
This moment was why my friend hadn’t allowed me to teach Jaco to “watch me” or “sit” or “down” or “give” or “fetch.” Or “come,” for that matter, as important as it is. Those would come later. For a scent-detection dog, one desire should override everything else: getting to the odor, wherever it’s located. That was what Lucy was teaching Jaco with Randy Hare’s box system. Other training techniques work, too. But this particular method made Jaco’s job simple and mine even simpler: I just had to get out of his way; he could essentially teach himself. He learned that three things were connected: if he could get as close as possible to a particular odor, he’d get a ball and a fun tug.
Over the next two weeks, in two 10-minute sessions each day, I watched Jaco transform from a hesitant “Is-this-it?” dog into an obsessed “I’m-at-the-box-with-the-scent-so-giveme- my-tug-game!” dog. Lucy, occasionally a tease, would wave a tennis ball on a string in front of his face, and he’d ignore it. If it wasn’t right next to the scent, he knew the ball wouldn’t put up a fight. Lucy threw a bunch of balls onto the floor, where they lay enticingly, like sirens on a rock. Jaco, now wiser than Odysseus, ignored them. He knew those balls were a trick, that the only time he’d get a ball to fight properly was if he had his head buried inside the box that contained the scent of human remains.
Other boxes had other scents: dead squirrel, kibble, deer bone. His nose quickly rejected them to find the box that made the ball come down the chimney. Lucy put ladders and chairs and slippery cardboard in front of the bank of boxes. After worrying and thinking hard, Jaco leapt over them, then shoved them aside with his nose. And there was the plywood box containing human remains. He planted his nose there. Lucy waited several beats. So did Jaco, his head cocked, fixed, like a fox at a mousehole. At last, as he knew it would, the good tennis ball came down the chute. And Jaco got his game. I make it sound so simple. Oddly, it was.
THE GAME’S THE SAME
We took the game outside the garage, and Jaco generalized quickly. No boxes with chimneys? Never mind. They’re not part of the scent-ball-tug triumvirate. He started to find scent source in the yard, in the woods, in the warehouse, in the alley behind a large home-improvement store. He was always astonished and pleased. His head would bob up and down like one of those toy drinking birds, almost touching the source, swinging up to make sure that I was coming to reward him, bringing it down to fix his nose as close to the source as he could get. The rules never changed; the game was the same.
Of course, this didn’t happen overnight, and, like any scent-detection dog, Jaco’s a work in progress. As am I, his handler. But as Jaco learns to find the scent of human remains hung in a tree, buried in the ground, downwind, upwind, in the heat and in the rain, on short searches and long searches, I’m watching him with joy. He’s not perfect. No dog is (nor is any handler). He adores chasing insects, possibly a vestige of his past life, when he was in a kennel and bored and flies were a great distraction. But he’s learned that a live tennis ball is more fun than a fly.
He needs no command. A tennis ball on a string is waiting on the ground when he leaps out of his crate. He grabs it. We go to wherever the training search starts. I show him a second ball, he drops the first, grabs for the second and misses, and I tuck both into my pocket. This ritual betrayal is his signal to start the hunt. His eyes light up, his mouth opens and he leaps away from me. Game on. Recently, I hid training material in an acre or so of deadfall and heavy brush and mud, the kind of mess created by a flooding river. A brisk wind whipped scent through the fallen trees and debris. He’d never worked in conditions this physically challenging.
So that he couldn’t track me back, I started him in an area away from where I’d walked to plant the material. I tucked the tennis balls in my pocket and he threw his head and ran. Within a minute, he was working more than 150 feet away from me, balancing on logs at the outer edge of the pile, then working his way back in. I could see him lift his head as he found scent drifting through one side of the pile. He ran around the edge, working to get ever closer. I stood there, watching him teach himself, watching his intense focus, watching him learn a new search pattern in the jigsaw puzzle of logs and branches. I was a bit worried about this new and precarious environment. He was not.
For Jaco, the tangle of wood, wind and mud was simply in the way of the three things he wanted: Scent. Ball. Tug.
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.
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