work of dogs
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Restoring mistreated and abandoned sled dogs to health.
I push the glow button on my watch. Midnight. An enormous black cat and a Pit Bull mix snooze contentedly on my bed. I, too, was sleeping deeply, and it takes me a moment to remember where I am: a one-room cabin, 20 miles east of Fairbanks, Alaska.
I climb down a ladder through a hole in the floor of the loft into a dog den and gingerly pick my way between paws and tails to a portable indoor john, hidden under the kitchen sink. It’s probably more than 20 degrees below zero outside, and I’m glad I don’t have to bundle up for a trip to the outhouse.
When I sit, 22 pairs of eyes glint in my direction. In the moon glow, the cabin is a dreamy dog domain, unlike any gathering of canines I’ve ever seen. Quiet and contented, they are sprawled on the couch, chairs, rugs, and under and on top of the raised bed in which my human host—Arna Dan Isacsson—sleeps. They lose interest in me quickly. One or two slip through the wool-blanket flaps of the dog door; others readjust, snuggle into one another and hunker down for more sleep. I climb back up my ladder feeling more like a wolf-child than a writer researching a story.
In the morning, the evening’s strangeness is gone. I wake to a dehumidifier’s noisy drone. In the bone-dry Fairbanks climate, this industrial-strength appliance will suck nearly three gallons of water—liquid dog breath—from the atmosphere every few days. Isacsson is heating coffee and doing yoga stretches with her “deputy,” an intense, tricolor Border Collie mix named Gari. She is why I’m here. I’ve traveled to the epicenter of competitive dog sledding to see how this transplanted Swede rehabilitates canine castoffs in a way no one else has the time, energy or faith to try.
Only a few dogs are inside this morning—comfort-seeking pups such as the delicate tan-and-white 14-year-old Husky curled up in the crook of the couch. Ten years ago, this sled dog was saved by one of Isacsson’s friends, who came across her as she was being beaten by a musher while she was still harnessed to the team. Isacsson has asked me not to use the dog’s name for fear the incident will be linked to that high-profile musher even today. Many of her dogs are here because they have troubled histories associated with mushing (from the stress of life on a chain to physical abuse, neglect or simply having been dumped), but she is careful about criticizing neighbors and friends.
Instead, she offers an alternative that is part rescue and part example. Since the early 1990s, Isacsson has lived with both her own and rejected dogs, as few as eight and as many as 30 or more, in as close an approximation of a natural pack as she can manage. She believes that by integrating them into the group, the often mistreated, last-chance dogs can be restored to a state of physical and mental health, and some day, thrive as companion animals in her home or with others. Her well-mannered crew testifies to the success of her method.
Dogs trickle in and out while we get ready for a hike. As she prepares breakfast and cleans up, they seem to visit with her and each other. “They need a social landscape,” Isacsson explains. “The experience of gnawing and grooming together satisfies something in their limbic system. It’s as important as food and shelter.”
Elaj (pronounced Ely), an Australian Shepherd who looks out of place among the mostly Husky mixes, climbs into Isacsson’s lap when she sits down. While she is a key component in his universe, she points to the pack as the active agent.
“I’m the camp counselor. I call the shots. But it’s the group that heals the dog. I just reinforce it. I allow for it,” she says. “I credit the success of rehabilitation and restoration of these often compromised dogs to the powerful healing dynamics that exist within the family pack structure. Many less desirable behaviors are simply being replaced by constructive peer influences and by just being allowed to live life as a dog where there are clear pack boundaries.”
Camp K9 Kin, as she calls her home, is a free-run kennel on 14 birch-covered acres. One partially cleared acre or two is ringed in cyclone fencing, which includes six expansive pens with doghouses opening onto a large central play area that Isacsson refers to as the courtyard. Her cabin sits inside the yard at one end. Most of the time when she is home, the dogs have free range of the courtyard and pens. Smaller groups are sometimes allowed beyond the boundary for reconnaissance in her woods and intense chase games along the fence line. When she goes to work, she leaves some dogs in the central area and others in pens with pen pals. No one is chained.
“There are people who think I spoil my dogs,” Isacsson says with a smile, and it’s true that her camp is nothing like the dog yards that dot most of Alaska. In the standard setup, sled dogs spend their lives among grids of doghouses on chains just long enough for them to circle their house or climb inside and maybe interact with neighboring dogs. In many households, sled dogs never come inside even when pet dogs are permitted indoors. Their only entertainments are running in a team and mealtime. Summers can be especially dull, since some mushers stop exercising their dogs due to the heat.
Warm months at Camp K9 Kin include hiking, swimming, berry-picking and splashing around in swamps. In the yard, Isacsson sets up plastic pools as oases for drinking, cooling off and more grouping. In addition, she creates a bone yard; at night, after the dogs have enjoyed a fresh batch of raw bones, she collects them and then buries them in a pen. The next morning, the dogs race out to dig up, strut with and rebury the bones. Doghouses and the roots of a downed tree provide elevated perches for the dogs who like to watch over the yard.
She calls this the “layered life.” It’s the physical expression of the hierarchies and relationships in the group. The same sort of layering plays out on the various planes in the cabin. “Without having a tested hypothesis, I can tell you it’s very important for them to have this layered life,” Isacsson says. “They spend about 50 percent of their time working out these dynamics. I provide a wide spectrum of opportunities so they can find balance.” For a dog on a chain, she says, “there are no layers. There are absolutely no options at all.”
Watching Isacsson move among her dogs—in a knee brace, in case an exuberant pup plows into an old injury—is a revelation. A Pit Bull mix, a German Shepherd, several Border Collie mixes and a plethora of Huskies romp and play and snarl. There is lots of contact, some minor scuffles, but no fights—it’s high energy without the anarchy. They are mostly left to their own devices with one another, although occasionally, she runs interference for weaker, marginalized dogs, such as an old gray Husky named Payak, who has never really been accepted, or Yasmin, a silky new addition who is blind.
Her approach is informed by behavioral ecology; field studies of bears, wolves and wolverines; mythology; professional kennel management; gut; and endless, patient observation. She pays close attention to the pack, and they pay close attention to her as she communicates in English, Swedish and French, with body language and with animal sounds. She grrrrs and caws. She’s been called the “Mexican ‘dog whisperer’s’ Swedish twin.”
“I think the reason people make the comparison is the way that the dogs respond,” Isacsson says. But she doesn’t call herself a trainer or offer quick fixes, although she advises her dogs’ adoptive families for years and does consulting for people having trouble with their dogs. “I’m about connecting to the dog and finding a place for the dog in my life. I’m not about solving problems. I’m about relationships. That’s why mushers have problems with their dogs; they talk about correcting.”
Exercise is the other essential element of the Camp K9 Kin regimen. During my visit in March, when Isacsson traditionally takes off several weeks to journey with her dogs in the backcountry, we sled, hike, skijor and play games, including hockey-style fetch on the frozen Chena River or in the yard with a bandy stick.
What becomes obvious after a few days is that this is a physically demanding life in an extreme climate that would break down most people. In addition to the rigorous exercise, daily maintenance consumes time, energy and finances. It takes hours to pick up waste, replace straw in dog houses, clip nails, trim fur, massage limbs, chop and stew meat and fish (which she does on a porch stove even when the mercury hovers well below zero), treat ailing dogs, wash blankets, vacuum, repair gear and on and on. Isacsson makes ends meet with a night job, processing satellite images of Earth at the University of Fairbanks, and through the generosity of friends and supporters. Still, take one look at her biography, and it’s hard to imagine her anywhere else.
The 45-year-old with classic Nordic looks—straight blond hair cut short, blue eyes, fair skin and ruddy cheeks—is the daughter of a Swedish actress, Mona Dan-Bergman, and a prominent watercolorist, Arne Isacsson. Her first name is a hybrid of theirs. They divorced when their daughter was three. After they split, she led a divided life—spending six months with her mother and six months with a foster family. At 12, she lobbied unsuccessfully to live with her foster family full-time. The months with her mother, who Isacsson thinks was probably manic-depressive, were difficult. The young girl ran away frequently and often hid in a hollowed-out tree.
Today, she’s adamant about calling her work foster care. “I don’t call myself a rescue,” she says. “I’m just kind of like a halfway house. I was a burden to the commons for a while because I was in foster care. Now, in my mind, I can repay the debt.”
As a child, Isacsson pretended to have been raised by wolves, an idea she thinks was originally inspired by The Jungle Book. “I think kids who are traumatized live in a fantasy world part of the time. The world of imagination can become the only balanced part of your life,” she says. “I have memories that aren’t really memories from my life. That pack of wolves I was raised by, I know now that it’s not real.”
She fed her fantasy by reading everything she could about canines in the wild. When she discovered there were no wild wolves in Sweden, she became outraged. In 4-H, she studied Turkish livestock guardian dogs and ways to manage livestock without eradicating predators.
She attended a farm high school, where she raised a litter of German Shepherd puppies for an entire year. “I was part of that pack, living with them in a barn. Yet, it was always clear that I was a human and they were dogs. They had leaders in their mother and father, as well as growing siblings, but still I too was their leader. It was an experience that no book or person could ever have prepared me for.”
On my last day in Fairbanks, we take the dogs out sledding. I know the dogs on my team—Jordy, Ilso, Raanin, Lappy, Sachiko and Kaepen—pretty well by now, which makes watching and encouraging them very satisfying. With the White Mountains in the distance, we glide through the gentle ups and downs and curves along a ridge. The only sounds are our heavy breathing and the sled runners crunching over snow-dusted ice. The sun, the wind and the team invigorate me. It’s easy to see why people fall so hard for this experience.
It’s warm, so Isacsson and I run, rather than ride, uphill, and take frequent breaks in the shade so the dogs can munch snow or roll to cool down. It would be fun to go all-out, but their benevolent leader is not willing to push these dogs to a point where they could be injured or become exhausted. That’s one reason she’s not a competitive musher.
Still, she has serious pedigree. As a teenager, she taught herself Nordic mushing. She constructed a harness out of horse halters, hooked her German Shepherds up to a kick sled and let them pull her across the fjord ice. After moving to the United States, she worked for three leading mushers, including four-time Iditarod champions Doug Swingley and Susan Butcher. She was an ambassador for Scandinavian mushers and a production assistant on a PBS Iditarod documentary.
But mushing in the U.S. is different than it is in Scandinavia. In Isacsson’s native country, for example, keeping dogs on chains is illegal, sled dogs are usually allowed in homes and top mushers keep only about 30 dogs (as opposed to as many as 100 in U.S. kennels). Abandoned or dumped dogs aren’t a fact of mushing there, either, as they are here.
As much as she enjoyed being paid to live and work with dogs, at some point she realized she couldn’t be part of an organized sport that treated dogs like ATVs. Today, mushing plays a very different role in her life. “It does not define who I am,” she says. “I don’t have dogs to fulfill my mushing experience; I mush to fulfill my dogs’ experiences.”
The sport still drives her. Not only does she provide a home and healing for mushing rejects, she also wants to be seen as a workable model for kennel management. She has offered her vision to anyone who will listen, at mushing symposiums and during three years on the board of Mush with PRIDE, an organization established in 1991 to address the care of dogs and the public perception of the sport.
Still, she is realistic. Huge kennels and tethering aren’t going away anytime soon. So her short-term push is for kennel owners to create time and an environment for dogs to socialize off the chain. As a starting point, she recommends either perimeter fencing around yards or building large playpens so dogs can be allowed some free-run play together. She invites people to see her operation, to bring their dogs for a visit. She has even offered to help install fencing. And even this compromise on her vision, she knows, will be a tough sell.
When I check back with Isacsson six months later, she’s added three dogs and built three more pens. It’s snowing when I call, normally a cause for joy, but she’s demoralized. She’s on her way to take in her 27th dog, one of a large group of dogs that were being slowly starved to death. She’s stretched and doesn’t want to add to her pack, but this one is the son of her couch-loving Husky. “He’s family,” she says, to explain why her heart is overruling her head.
But the real punch in the gut, she says, came in July. A puppy she’d placed with good friends five years earlier was returned because of pressures in their life. She was crushed.
“I started thinking about it, wondering am I just enabling people?” says Isacsson, who always promises to take back dogs if necessary. “It was really an eye-opener. I’m thinking about not taking in any more dogs.”
I’m stunned. That she feels hopeless is a rift in the Force.
By the time I hang up, it’s almost 6 PM in Fairbanks, probably just about time to feed the dogs at Camp K9 Kin. During my visit, mealtime struck me as the realization of Isacsson’s vision. While many of the dogs are fed in pens with their pen pals, as many as eight to 12 eat together in the big yard.
Isacsson sets the metal bowls in a ring, like a canine Round Table, and stands in the center with two white plastic buckets. She calls a hungry dog, who then sits in front of a bowl that she fills with a scoop of kibble and two ladles of warm stew. Once the bowl is filled, she and the dog look into each other’s eyes. Until that happens, she waits. Then she says “okay” in Swedish. The dog lunges at the food. She turns to the next bowl, calls another dog, working her way around the circle. One dog at a time sits, waits, connects, eats—and leaves his or her pack mates unmolested.
After the meal, she’ll head inside for her own dinner of soup, cheese and Swedish flatbread. At some point, a howl will rise up in the yard. They do it every night after dinner. It’s eerie and beautiful and seems intended for her. Then Isacsson will walk onto her porch and call out, “Thank you.”
Could she really give that up?
With two dozen dogs keeping her busy, Arna Dan Isacsson has not had time to create a website, but she can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Pet pen pals lend a loving paw
The diagnosis of cancer is life-altering for all who are touched by it. When a child or a loving pet bears this burden, the tragedy seems particularly unfair, and brings cancer’s arbitrary and random selection home on a whole new level. Today, cancer is the number-one natural killer of dogs, regardless of breed, gender or age. In Denver, Colo., a unique support program is helping young human and canine cancer patients cope with their illness.
Enter Anne Ingalls, Colleen Chambers and YAPS—Youth And Pet Survivors—a pen-pal program that pairs children who have cancer with dogs (and in one case, a cat) also suffering from the disease. The participating child-dog pairs currently number 10, with some having enjoyed relationships spanning the last several years.
Ingalls, a registered nurse specializing in pediatric oncology at Children’s Hospital in Denver, describes the inspiration for YAPS as a “divine spark.” The program took shape after Ingalls was invited to join the board of directors of the Animal Care Foundation.
“There was a lot of discussion about what sort of program we might create that would blend these two populations of veterinary patients and children,” she says. “Children with cancer are very restricted [as] to what outside environments they can be exposed to, because of the heightened risks of injury and infection. Hospitals enforce these restrictions very stringently. That’s why we came up with the pen-pal concept—to bypass those restrictions.”
Colleen Chambers, surgical technician and practicing manager of the surgery department at the Veterinary Referral Center of Colorado, keeps a book featuring pictures and biographies of all the participating animals. Dogs include Mary Jane, a Labrador; Sandy and Emma, both Golden Retrievers; a West Highland Terrier named Max; Ram, a Doberman-Labrador mix; and Bonkers, the program’s only cat.
“The children choose their own animal, often deciding on an animal that’s gone through the same type of cancer and treatments as they themselves have,” says Chambers. Each child also receives a copy of the book Annie Loses Her Leg but Finds Her Way, written by Sandra Philipson and illustrated by Robert Takatch, the true and very inspirational story of an animal who survives great adversity. A plush Annie doll also comes with the package.
After being paired, the children stay in touch with their dogs via letters and email. The owners of the canine participants respond for the dog. The owners, who include former teachers, educators and psychologists, are carefully screened to ensure their suitability and capacity to relate to the experiences and challenges that surround the disease.
The children are selected based on criteria that include energy levels and motivation. “I know a lot of these kids personally,” says Ingalls. “The nurses I work with also refer children to me, and I consider the factors of each case. It’s got to be something they want to do. We want their parents to support them, but not do the writing for them. Some kids who express interest initially look through the book and ultimately tell me that they’re just not up for it right now.”
One young man who recently made the decision to join YAPS is Sean Flanagan, an 18-year-old Denver resident. Sean’s canine partner is Boone, yellow Lab, who lost his right front leg. Sean and Boone met for the first time in late September at Bark in the Park, the annual YAPS picnic—one of several annual group events where kids, dogs, owners and families spend time getting to know one another, face to face.
“He’s great, he’s got so much energy,” says Sean of Boone. “He’s a lovable dog. We rode around together at the picnic in a golf cart, and he had his head in my lap.” In the basket behind the golf cart rode the Flanagan’s family dog, Maggie, a Miniature Schnauzer. “Maggie was the smallest dog there,” says Sean, “but she got along with everyone.”
Both the VRCC and nearby Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital are actively involved in exploring new cancer treatments in animal populations, providing advancements in the treatment and control of the disease, as well as hope for eventually declaring victory over it. CSU’s comparative oncology program rates as the largest of its kind in the U.S. Specialists in medical oncology, nutrition, radiation therapy, surgical oncology, pathology, physics and specialty nursing work in concert with researchers to implement state-of-the-art, individualized therapies in chemotherapy as well as photon and electron radiation.
Dr. Robyn Elmslie, a board-certified veterinary oncologist at VRCC, blends traditional medical approaches for fighting cancer with innovative treatments that include gene therapy for localized tumors and electrophoresis (see below).
YAPS offers therapy on an entirely different level, one that addresses the emotional component of the illness. Says Chambers, “There are a lot of pet therapy programs out there, but this one appears to be unique.”
Ingalls agrees, expressing her hope that other children’s hospitals and veterinary centers around the country might eventually add this program to their treatment options. She also hopes that one day, YAPS is international in scope.
“This could become a world phenomenon,” she says. “Ultimately, of course, part of the success will always depend upon the depth of the connection made between the child and the pet.” Often, strong and enduring relationships are forged between entire families, and the YAPS program becomes a healing experience for all involved.
“The kids get really attached to the animals,” says Chambers. “They’ll tell things to the animals they won’t tell to people, even family—they feel free to express their deepest fears. Animals are nonjudgmental, and they don’t carry the emotional stigmas that people do. They come through the experience of disease a lot stronger than most people.”
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Volunteers teach young dogs new tricks
Picture your dog in a high school cafeteria at lunchtime. A food fight breaks out. Muffins fly, meatballs roll. Would your dog watch with stoic composure? Silvia Lange, of Nicasio, Calif., tells the story of a teenage puppy raiser in her local Canine Companions for Independence group who found herself in this situation. “I doubt many other service dogs are socialized to food fights. It was a lucky break.” The puppy in question reportedly handled both the temptation and the bedlam with aplomb. And Lange, an eight-year veteran of puppy raising, knows that a wide range of experiences is key to preparing a puppy for life as a service dog.
The subject of service dogs—whom the ADA defines as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability”—triggers predictable reactions in dog lovers. Tribute is paid to the good-naturedness of the dogs. Admiration is expressed for the ingenuity of the trainers. All very true, of course. Service dogs often spring from marvelously mellow-tempered parents and have gone through intensive and complex training, carried out by gifted animal trainers. But if the first step on the journey to a great service dog is careful breeding, and if the last mile is training at the highest level, the considerable distance between the two is socialization.
According to Dr. Ian Dunbar, socialization is “the developmental process whereby puppies and adolescent dogs familiarize themselves with their infinitely varied and ever-changing social and physical environment.” In layman’s terms: Anything you want a dog to calmly accept as an adult, you must introduce him to repeatedly and in a positive manner during the first 18 months of his life.
Consider what that means for puppies in service dog programs: They have to ride in cars, buses and trains; perhaps do some sailing; and ideally, become familiar with an airplane cabin or two. They must visit restaurants and hotels as well as libraries, movie theaters, shops and supermarkets. They need to be utterly comfortable with crowds, escalators, fountains, skateboards, strollers, toddlers, and construction noise. They have to go to school, go to the office, go to the basketball game. And naturally, the home environment must be as mundane to them as their own noses. The vacuum cleaner? So what? The next-door neighbor’s cat? Couldn’t care less. But most service dogs are born on the campuses of the organizations that train and place them. They first open their eyes inside a kennel, not a living room.
That’s where puppy raisers enter the equation. They are volunteers—school-age children or retirees or anyone in between—who give puppies loving temporary homes. What’s more, they teach their young charges basic manners and arrange for a steady stream of educational experiences. When you see an adolescent dog wearing the telltale service dog jacket, there’s likely to be a puppy raiser at the other end of the leash.
A puppy raiser’s responsibilities differ from one program to another, but some requirements are practically universal. For example, most organizations ask their puppy raisers to feed a particular brand of food, use only an approved style of training, have the puppy sleep indoors and agree to provide daily exercise and socialization. Costs for food, transport to and from training classes, and veterinary checkups rest with the puppy raiser, too. The duration varies, but 12 to 18 months is common, and the work usually begins when the puppy is eight weeks old. In return for all this, the organization provides ongoing support, training and community.
Silvia Lange, who began raising puppies as a retirement project, was unsure at first about taking on such a big commitment. What if she wanted to travel, or even move? “That was before I realized what a great network of people Canine Companions have nationwide,” she said. “I could move anywhere in the U.S. and find fellow puppy raisers to connect with. And we all dog sit for one another.”
Smaller service dog organizations also tend vigorously to their volunteer flock. “We couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers,” says Jorjan Powers, communications director at the Assistance Dog Institute at the Bergin University of Canine Studies, whose program depends on a handful of dedicated puppy raisers. “We want them to feel supported.”
Unsurprisingly, the question most often asked of puppy raisers by the general public is, “How can you give up this gorgeous puppy?” According to Blancett Reynolds of San Francisco, Calif., a puppy group leader who has raised six puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind, it’s never easy. “How do I deal with it? I don’t. I cry. Actually, I can’t even say goodbye to the dog. Someone at the kennel has to take the leash from my hand because I don’t want the dog to see me lose it.”
But she adds that people often imagine the surrender of the dog to be much worse than it actually is because they don’t know how the program works. “It doesn’t involve someone handing you a puppy and then showing up at your house 15 months later to rip the dog from your arms. It’s a collaborative project with a lot of support.”
When asked for her advice to people thinking about becoming a puppy raiser, Reynolds doesn’t hesitate. “Do it!” she says. “Pick up the phone. Puppy raising isn’t always easy, but it’s fun and very rewarding. The experience is valuable for anyone. It’s all about doing something for someone else and having a great time while doing it.”
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
From puppy to partner, guide dogs are a special breed
Each year, guide dog schools—independent nonprofit organizations that provide guide dogs for blind and visually impaired individuals—breed close to 3,000 dogs. When so many intelligent, loving shelter dogs are in need of homes, why don’t guide dog schools rescue dogs like some of the other service-dog programs? The answer lies in the nature of the work guide dogs are required to do. Dog jobs, like people jobs, are task-specific and require specific temperaments, some of which can be selected for through breeding.
The term “service animal” was first used in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act to describe an animal individually trained to provide assistance to a person with a disability. While at that time, guide dogs for the blind were the most familiar type of service animal, over the years, the variety of tasks service dogs carry out has increased to include dogs who perform some of the functions that an individual with a disability cannot perform for him- or herself, such as alerting people with hearing impairments, pulling wheelchairs, or carrying and picking up things for people with mobility issues.
Watching blind travelers confidently make their way through busy city traffic, you might think that the guide dog is doing the same thing—performing a task that the blind person cannot perform for him- or herself. In other words, it may appear that the dog is leading the blind person, but that’s not the case. Both of their lives depend on what the other one does, and neither is in total control at any given time. Neither dog nor person can cross the street alone without risk, but together, they do it efficiently and safely.
Terry Barrett, director of training operations at Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) in San Rafael, Calif., says, “In our earliest days, the 1940s, most of our dogs came from animal shelters. It soon became evident that we were looking for something very specific: Dogs who not only had excellent health, intelligence and temperament, but also exhibited a willingness to work and thrived on praise.” GDB’s breeding program was started in an effort to ensure a consistent supply of dogs with those specific traits.
By the late 1970s, new socialization methods (raising puppies in home environments) were proving so successful that shelter dogs, most of whom came from disadvantaged or unknown backgrounds, became less likely candidates for the work. As guide dog work intensified and breeding programs were beefed up, opportunities for shelter dogs all but disappeared.
Labrador Retrievers, who constitute about 60 percent of these working dogs, have proven to be the most successful guide worldwide, mainly because there is enough variation within the breed to meet blind students’ myriad needs. “The vast majority of our dogs are bred from our own specially selected stock, but a percentage are donated from other schools, through international programs and other means,” Barrett notes.
Regardless of lineage, guide dogs have distinct counter-intuitive characteristics in common. Because they are, to great extent, bred for a specific temperament, they are more like one another than they are like others of their particular breed. If they were children, their report cards would read: “Follows instruction, participates in class, very creative, assumes responsibility when necessary, shows leadership and works well in a group.”
Breeders aren’t selecting for these traits as much as they are selecting against others. They want a German Shepherd who is tractable, a bird dog who is not prey-driven, a herding dog who won’t nip people to negotiate busy pedestrian traffic. Unlike traditional breeders who select for niche traits such as pointing, herding or wire-haired coats, schools select for temperament characteristics that are broadly adaptable.
For decades, guide dog schools have conducted and recorded detailed observations on many thousands of dogs. This volume of information and the length of time it’s been collected have allowed schools to reliably classify and quantify temperament traits. Their ultimate goal is to find measurements that will predict guide dog success and estimate heritability of temperament traits that are important to working guide dogs.
Generally speaking, many dog temperament tests have proven to be ineffective and controversial. In addition, few tests account for the dramatic behavioral differences seen from one breed to another; what’s acceptable in a German Shepherd might be abnormal behavior in a Golden Retriever.
According to an article by Taylor and Mills in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Clinical Applications and Research (2006), what’s needed are systematic scientific tests that focus on the five key measurements of the quality of a temperament: purpose, standardization, reliability, validity and practicality. It would take a large number of dogs in a consistent setting to devise such a test, and this is where guide dog schools are getting involved.
For example, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, based in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., is working with trainer Suzanne Clothier on a novel temperament evaluation project that tracks the behavior of hundreds of dogs from puppyhood through maturity, investigating how best to identify, and then select for, a set of traits that reflects flexibility of behavior. As Jane Russenberger, senior director of the canine development center at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, observes, “Because we believe in it and, like other schools, need better temperament measures, Guiding Eyes is providing that opportunity by allocating large amounts of resources to conduct the temperament tests.”
Part of the drive to refine this process comes from the financial and emotional commitment made to each dog by both the school and the eventual handler. Although it varies from school to school based on geographic region, on average, it costs about $50,000 to graduate a person/dog team. This figure includes all costs divided by the number of teams the school graduates each year. (The 11 schools in the U.S. graduate about 1,500 to 2,000 teams annually.) The cost just to prepare a single dog for class is about $23,000.
Direct costs—breeding, feeding, vet care and puppy-raising expenses—consume about 25 percent of the budget. Another 20 percent goes into training dogs for class. About 35 percent goes into student selection, dormitory and class expenses, and follow-up services. Once the training is complete and the team returns home, it can be six months to a year before they are functioning optimally together. To assist in this process, schools continue to work with their graduates in their home locations. Some of the larger, better-funded schools provide follow-up services for the working life of the team, which can be eight years. (Everything is provided free of charge to qualified blind and visually impaired students.)
From Puppy to Partner
Careful control of what happens to a young dog during this critical phase of development is a crucial part of producing sound guide dogs. This is the time during which youngsters learn the canine equivalent of “please and thank you.” It’s also the best time to evaluate their health and identify risk factors that could lead to problems later in life. As Barrett notes, “From the earliest stages of their lives, GDB puppies and their moms are cared for by a team of experts, including full-time veterinarians and technicians supported by consulting specialists and volunteers. As the pups grow, our veterinarians continue to monitor their health and well-being.”
All dogs are born with default positions that they revert to when stressed. The reaction can be anything from anxious whining to more serious issues such as biting. The higher the stress, the more pressure on the trigger. Puppy socialization programs provide an opportunity to identify environmental stressors and modify the reaction, or failing that, release the dog from the program to a companion home.
As a handler explains, “Because we can’t see, we don’t know the particulars of what we’re commanding our dogs to do. The dog has to stand up to us, to get it through to us that something is there that we don’t know about, then find a way to get us out of a dangerous situation. A dog that isn’t comfortable holding his ground isn’t suited to the job.”
Guide dogs have to be able to generalize to new, complicated and sometimes abstract situations. It’s easy to train a dog to take someone to a chair. Training a dog to take a person to a place where no one else is sitting, whether it’s a college classroom or restaurant, is a more abstract concept.
Training cycles vary slightly, but generally, puppy raisers return 15-month-old dogs to the school, where they begin 18 to 20 weeks of formal training in the technical aspects of guide work. Using affection and positive reinforcement, the instructor trains the dog to respond to about 35 different commands such as forward, right, left, and find the door.
Weeks one through nine include obedience training, directional turns, negotiating obstacles, light city work, and street crossings. During week 10, dogs are introduced to traffic training. This is the point at which instructors determine whether or not the dog has the confidence and initiative to make the independent decisions needed to override many of the commands he’s learned in the previous nine weeks of training.
To traffic-train a dog, instructors capitalize on what comes naturally: Dogs will move away from an oncoming vehicle. By instinct, the dog will attempt to escape by running around, backing away from or bolting in front of the car. The trick is to control the dog’s movement with reinforcement, encouraging him to back up into the rigid harness handle even though he’s been instructed to go “forward.”
The dog doesn’t know he is signaling (indicating that it’s unsafe to go forward) but he “gets it” soon enough. The light bulb moment—when the dog realizes he is responsible for the person at the other end of the handle—is a deal-breaker for some dogs. They understand the dynamic of the partnership, but they don’t want to do it. It’s a moment puppy raisers anxiously await with mixed feelings. They want their dog to make it through training, but if he fails, they have an opportunity to keep him as a pet. Dogs who don’t want the responsibility go home to be companions. Dogs who meet the challenge move on to learning how to negotiate buildings, busy city traffic, larger street crossings, longer routes, escalators and elevator work.
After the dog is trained, the instructors teach students how to work with the dog during a four-week in-residence class. Person and dog work as a team, each contributing to a relationship built on trust that begins during class and deepens and broadens over time. Handlers are given surprising reminders of the trust they must have in their dogs, and those reminders usually show up the first time they override their dog’s decision to disregard a command. Tripping over a garden hose is minor compared to the consequences of stepping off a curb in front of an SUV making an illegal turn, but the lesson is the same.
Guide dog handler Sheila Styron, past president of Guide Dog Users, Inc., the largest organization of dog handlers in the world, explained what it’s like from the other end of the harness handle. “If a handler sits at a desk all day, his or her guide dog needs to be able to lie quietly for hours, and then be able to confidently guide the blind handler on to a noisy, crowded subway. It’s important to consider the wide array of other factors and interactions within the relationship between dog and handler that can contribute to the team’s success, difficulties or failure. The dance is extremely complex, and the magic extraordinary when all the elements fall into place.”
A Dog and his Girl
Could be a first for a service dog—a photo of Taxi, Rachel Benke’s seizure alert dog, placed side-by-side with her photo in their middle school yearbook. 14-year-old Rachel and Taxi have been inseparable for the past four years. Taxi came into Rachel’s life when her mother, Teresa Benke had a chance meeting at a party with Cindy Buechner, who trains seizure alert dogs. It was Cindy who suggested that a dog like Taxi would be helpful to Rachel, who was born with an abnormality to the right side of her brain and had suffered epileptic seizures since birth. As a young child she would have as many as 200 seizures a day, and when she was six years old she under went corrective brain surgeries, but prior to that she had been completely non-verbal and could only eat baby food. While her seizures were greatly reduced after the surgeries, she still has them occasionally. So it was a great relief to her family that now she has Taxi, who accompanies her to class at San Antonio's Hector Garcia's Middle School, and has been taught to alert family and teachers when she is about to experience a seizure. That is something that he can predict up to an hour and half before it happens. He also orients himself so he can break her fall if that were to happen. An example of his ability to detect a seizure was how he averted a pool accident, Teresa Benke explains:
“Once, when Rachel was swimming in the family's pool, Taxi suddenly bolted up and began slapping at the water. Rachel's parents took her out of the water, and 10 minutes later she had a seizure. On another day, when Rachel was going to play on the trampoline in the backyard, Taxi put his paws on her shoulders to stop her because he felt a seizure coming. Sure enough, one occurred a few minutes later. And as always, he was right by her side.”
It meant the world to Rachel to have a photo of Taxi at her side in their yearbook—just as he is with her every day of her life.
For other stories on how service dogs have helped their people, see:
Seizure Alert Dog Walks at Graduation Parade
Autistic Boy and His Dog
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Guide Dogs for the Blind changes training methods, and the results are amazing.
In the dog-training world, “crossing over” refers to switching from using old-school traditional training methods (catching the dog making a mistake and correcting that mistake) to modern positive- reinforcement methods (catching the dog doing something right and rewarding those good choices).
Quietly and without fanfare, Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB)—an organization with a rich history and proven track record of training safe and effective guide dogs—began the process of crossing over almost a decade ago. The results have been nothing short of astounding.
According to Michele Pouliot, GDB’s director of research and development, Karen Pryor Academy faculty member, international Freestyle champion and the force behind the switch, success rates have soared. Using traditional methods, roughly 45 to 50 percent of the dogs entering the formal training process made guide dog status. With the incorporation of clicker training (one type of positive reinforcement), 60 to 85 percent graduate and are successfully paired with a blind partner.
The transition officially began within the training department in 2006. Then, in 2013, GDB adopted an organizationwide mission of maximizing the use of positive reinforcement in all departments. Their current goal is to roll out the changes over a five-year period. All of the dogs in GDB programs— the dogs in formal training, of course, but also the breeding dogs, the smallest puppies and even career-change dogs— will benefit from the commitment to clicker training. For those in the formal training program, the advantages are already clear.
“The dogs are more enthusiastic, better thinkers and problem solvers,” says Pouliot. “Their attitude is over the top. They are confident of the job. They want to do it—they can’t wait to do it!” Pouliot says that dogs who are not part of formal training, such as the breeding dogs, will also gain from the transition. For example, rather than being wrestled on and off exam tables, breeding dogs will be taught to happily get on and off by themselves. This will eliminate some of the stress experienced by both dogs and veterinary staff.
People will also be affected by the switch to clicker-training protocols. Puppy-raising families, volunteers and the blind partners with whom the dogs are paired will all be learning the power of positive reinforcement training. As they are exposed to positive reinforcement, they will learn to notice and acknowledge what the dogs are doing right, rather than looking for mistakes. Those of us who have experienced this transition know that it has the potential to be life altering.
Karen Pryor, CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training, author of Don’t Shoot the Dog and the person largely credited with bringing clicker methods to dog training, is equally excited by how positive reinforcement training affects people. Pryor says that learning to train this way is rewarding, and the training itself can be a powerful experience.
As an example, Pryor says she watched a blind handler learn to teach his dog to find things like the mailbox and a signal- crossing button. “What was really amazing was watching this well-dressed man and the expression on his face when he got to reward his dog. He was empowered in this process, too.”
Pouliot says that the impact of clicker training on the dogs has been more than she originally expected. “We hoped we’d get the same performance, but a happier dog. What we didn’t expect was how much better the performance would be.”
One of the initial challenges Pouliot faced was teaching the dogs to ignore food in the environment. Trainers were concerned that using food in training might make it more difficult for the dogs to learn to leave other food alone—a fair concern, to be sure. What they discovered, however, was just the opposite. Clicker-trained dogs were much more successful at this than dogs trained with traditional techniques.
Part of what worked was having a specific food-delivery protocol—a list of food do’s and don’ts that helped make it clear for the dogs. For example, the dogs are not rewarded on the ground, only by the person handling the dog and only when the dog stands in a specific position. Pouliot says that consistency with the protocol is important to a dog’s success.
Like many monumental changes, GDB’s crossing over had humble beginnings. “I started with Guide Dogs for the Blind in 1974,” says Pouliot. “I grew up with them, learning traditional training techniques: waiting for the dog to do something wrong, correcting it and then praising for the right response.” She was entrenched in traditional training, as was the rest of the organization.
For Pouliot, the change began in 2000 when she explored clicker training with her own dogs and horses. Pouliot says that when she clicker-trained her horses—not just one, but all of them—to retrieve objects from across a field, she knew she was on to something very powerful. “That was my big ‘a-ha’ moment. I was so impressed with the success.”
Inspired, Pouliot went to work trying out clicker training with the guide dog program in mind. She conducted a few unofficial trials, training dogs who had already been dropped from the program for various reasons. One, a young female yellow Lab, was too afraid of other dogs to be successful as a guide dog. Pouliot began clicker training her with the primary goal of reducing her fear. Not only was Pouliot successful in turning around the dog’s fearful response—the young Lab went from being scared to actively engaging with the other dogs—but also, the Lab was able to finish training and go on to be a career guide dog.
This and other equally exciting results encouraged Pouliot and others at GDB to begin an official pilot program. Pouliot and one of the training supervisors, Lori Brown, would formally train two dogs using clicker techniques. Because she had previously worked with dolphins (where positive reinforcement training is the norm), Brown was a natural choice for the pilot program.
The other trainers chose the dogs who would take part in the program; their candidates were considered difficult to work with, which set a very high bar for success. But after just one week, the transition in attitude alone spoke in favor of clicker training. The dogs had switched from being low energy and lacking enthusiasm to being animated and excited.
Following the initial success of the pilot program, Pouliot and her colleagues began working on specific procedures and techniques. By 2006, GDB was educating all 65 trainers on two campuses in this “new” method.
“The transition wasn’t instant,” says Pouliot. “In fact, it has been a long journey.” Because they couldn’t stop the training program long enough to establish the new routines and teach all the staff at once, progress was incremental. “We had to teach the staff in small chunks. Each year, we would add new pieces.”
Pouliot acknowledges that it was a challenge at times. Consider trainers—good trainers with 20 or more years of experience— being asked to learn and embrace new methods. But once they saw for themselves how powerful the method was, everyone got excited, and the transition moved forward at a steady pace.
Guide Dogs for the Blind’s organization-wide crossover to clicker training has and will continue to have a tremendous and powerful effect on the people and animals associated with its programs. But the reach of this transition has already been felt far beyond the immediate scope of the organization. Pouliot and GDB have shared the success of their program with guide-dog trainers worldwide through a series of weeklong seminars.
Pryor says that what GDB and Pouliot have done is not just develop a model for training guide- and other service dogs, but also showed how to reach people and organizations entrenched in traditions, and how to help them successfully make changes.
She also points out that the success of this program and the lessons learned about working in a positive manner for positive changes have had a big influence on her own life, giving her better tools to help with organizational transitions.
The magnitude of change brought about by the use of principles of positive reinforcement will continue to ripple outward to the larger guide dog world, the even larger service-dog-training world and beyond. How far? Imagine the power when a family-dog trainer can say to a doubting client, “These are similar to the methods used by Guide Dogs for the Blind. Let’s give them a try and see if they might work for your dog, too.”
Special thanks to Michele Pouliot and Karen Pryor for their contributions to this article.
The Puppy Handoff
This is a touching story of a seizure-alert dog’s participation at a graduation ceremony at Idaho State University. This Pit Bull’s person, Joshua Kelly who was suffering from epilepsy recently completed his degree, but sadly had died in February. To honor his memory, Terrell Kelly, Joshua’s father, brought Cletus to walk the “stage” with him to pick up his son’s diploma, this gesture was met with cheers from all—a very moving moment indeed.
Culture: Science & History
During the summer of 1938, a frail 82-year-old man was forced by the Nazis to flee his home. On the train out of Vienna, along with other family members, was his Chow companion Lün. Upon arriving in Dover, in accordance with English laws, Lün was taken from him and placed in the quarantine kennels at Ladbroke Grove, London. Just five days after Freud settled into his new house, the weary exile ventured out on his first trip. This is how an Australian newspaper, The Referee, described the event:
Freud found his journey across London tiring. He seemed to find it a great effort to walk up the path to the front door, supported by his daughter, Dr. Anna Freud. But nothing could have kept the great scientist away from his dog friend. And yesterday I was told by Mr. Kevin L. Quin, head of the quarantine kennels, how Lün leapt to meet him at his approach, glad recognition in every gesture. “It was difficult to say which was more delighted,” Mr. Quin told me. “I have never seen such happiness and understanding in an animal’s eyes …. He played with her, talked to her, using all sorts of little terms of endearment, for fully an hour. And, though the journey is long for a man of his years, he said he was resolute in coming to see Lün as often as he can.”
It has been noted that any person who tries seriously to figure out human behavior will sooner or later come to appreciate the company of dogs. Sigmund Freud was no exception. At the onset of the Second World War, he was especially disillusioned with his fellow man. Freud had devoted his life to analyzing the contradictory and irrational aspects of the unconscious mind, a labor that made animals seem much easier to understand. His daughter Anna recalled that “[w]hat Freud valued in his dogs was their gracefulness, devotion, and fidelity; what he frequently stressed and praised as a decided advantage over men was their absence of any ambivalence. ‘Dogs,’ as he used to say, ‘love their friends and bite their enemies, in contrast to men who are incapable of pure love and must at all times mix love and hate in their object relations.”
The first dog to live at Berggasse 19, Freud’s Vienna apartment, was a German Shepherd named Wolf. Freud gave him to Anna in 1925 for protection on her long walks through the city. But Wolf’s services extended to other arenas—he once bit Ernest Jones (a colleague and future biographer) in 1927. Freud felt that Jones deserved it, probably because years before Freud had worried that Jones would seduce Anna on her first visit to England. In a sense Freud saw Wolf as substitute figure for himself, keeping Anna safe and punishing annoying guests. Years later Freud wrote Jones the following lines, again identifying with the dog: “Our Wolf, too, who once behaved with such unfriendliness toward you is now an old man, in his doggy way as old as me, i.e., over eleven years.”
But Wolf could also act as a surrogate for others. Freud admitted that he bestowed on Wolf the tender feelings intended for his grandson Heinele, who had died as a young boy. Animals played a similar role for Anna, who as an adult could more readily show affection for her father through the family dogs. On Freud’s birthdays she would always compose a canine poem and attach it to the dog’s collar. At first Wolf had the sole honor of delivering the birthday greetings, but in 1928 Freud acquired a dog of his own. This Chow, LünYug, was run over by a train in August of 1929 when she was only 15 months old. Freud was dejected and wouldn’t hear of getting a replacement. By the next spring, however, he was ready for another Chow, Lün Yug’s sister Jofi. This dog was to become Freud’s cherished pet for the next seven years.
On his 74th birthday, while away in Berlin for medical care, Freud received Jofi’s first doggerel verse:
Jofi who leaps/and through the door escapes,/ho slips the leash/and fights with enemies,/ho stretches out in greeting and/licks your hand, sends herewith/on May the sixth/a symbol that/should indicate/how she wants to change/and act more restrained:/wants to scarcely move when/doors are opened/does not want to bark nor scrap/nor run nor leap/hardly wants to drink or eat.
So speaks Jofi sad at heart/sorry that we are apart.
Jofi was always by Freud’s side—on his walks, at mealtime and even in his office with the famed upholstered couch. Freud’s longtime housekeeper Paula Fichtl remembered Freud saying that Jofi had a keen analytic insight into his patients. And Freud could always tell when the hour was up because Jofi would start to act restless. The poet and analysand Hilda Doolittle recalled feeling “annoyed at the end of my session as Jofi would wander about and I felt that the professor was more interested in Jofi than he was in my story.” It’s also likely that the patient depicted in the “Wolf Man” case study (so named because of his fear of wolves) had to face Anna’s dog Wolf during some of his sessions with Freud!
Freud often mentioned Jofi in his diaries, noting such details as her general health, her stays at the kennels and the fates of her litters. Moreover, he spared no expense on Jofi, including paying for a complicated operation needed to remove some ovarian cysts. On January 14, 1937, a few days after this procedure, Jofi died of heart failure, and Freud deeply mourned her. As he put it, “one cannot easily get over seven years of intimacy.” Ernest Jones observed that at this stage of his life Freud knew he couldn’t live without a dog. Jofi had originally come into the household with a gentler Chow named Lün, who was given away to friends because the two didn’t get along well. The day after Jofi’s death, Lün (named after Freud’s first Chow, Lün Yug) returned to Freud.
Lün not only helped Freud endure Jofi’s loss, she also helped lift his spirits as both his health and the political situation in Austria deteriorated. Ever since a cancer operation in 1923, Freud had been forced to use a jaw prosthesis that made it difficult for him to chew, and as his illness progressed he took great pleasure in seeing the dogs chomp down their food. But it was a Chow named Topsy who provided Freud the most vicarious relief during his protracted illness. Topsy belonged to Freud’s close friend and benefactress Princess Marie Bonaparte. While Freud introduced Bonaparte to psychoanalysis, Bonaparte turned Freud into a dog lover. More significantly, she would ransom Freud’s family out of Austria.
Before they fled Vienna, Freud and Anna collaborated on a German translation of Bonaparte’s 1936 work Topsy Chow-Chow au poil d’or (Topsy: The Story of a Golden Haired Chow). The book deals with Topsy’s struggle with cancer. The parallels between Freud’s and Topsy’s disease are quite uncanny—both had tumors on the right side of their oral cavities and both were treated with surgery and radiation. In fact, Marie Bonaparte had at different points consulted the same doctors at the Curie Institute in Paris about Freud and Topsy’s condition. Freud, Anna and Marie didn’t explicitly discuss the clear symbolism behind Topsy, but they were well aware that it helped them cope with Freud’s own cancer. Interestingly enough, after suffering a stroke in 1982, Anna tried to dictate a book about her Chow at the time—also named Jofi.
Although Topsy survived his illness, Freud became increasingly worse in England. While Lün was at the kennels, a small Pekinese named Jumbo was brought in to keep him the doctor company. However, Anna noted that her father remained loyal to Lün, so the Pekinese grew more attached to Paula the housekeeper. On December 6, 1938, six months to the day after Lün’s quarantine began, Anna retrieved the Chow from the state kennels. Freud thus enjoyed his last days in the company of Lün, but eventually his own beloved dog would not come near him due to the putrid odor emanating from his face. Lün’s rejection only added to his distress, and as the pain became intolerable, Freud decided to be euthanized with a lethal dose of morphine.
Freud confronted his own death—much like he had lived his whole life—in a logical and unsentimental manner. There was, however, one great exception. In a letter to Marie Bonaparte, he rationally explained that dogs provide “affection without ambivalence, the simplicity of a life free from the almost unbearable conflicts of civilization, the beauty of an existence complete in itself.” But then Freud revealed the slightly embarrassing kind of sentiment that’s familiar to all dog owners: “Often when stroking Jofi, I have caught myself humming a melody which, unmusical as I am, I can’t help recognizing as the aria from Don Giovanni:
A bond of friendship unites us both ….”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Therapy dogs attend marathon festivities
After the bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon, therapy dogs from the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministries were there within 24 hours. The group consists of 70 therapy dogs (all Golden Retrievers) from 10 states. Small groups of the dogs visit churches, schools, hospitals and disaster areas, offering the soothing, healing presence that only dogs can provide. Many survivors and first responders in Boston benefited from spending time with these highly trained and lovable dogs.
This year at the Boston Marathon and associated events, four dogs from this group will again be in attendance. Ruthie, Hannah, Luther and Rufus have traveled from Illinois to offer support and lots of opportunities for petting and loving. They are making appearances throughout the four days of events that conclude with the race on Monday, April 21, 2014. It’s the fourth visit of “Comfort Dogs” to the area since the events at last year’s race.
Every year, runners and fans of the sport watch the Boston Marathon. This year the audience is bigger because the whole world is watching. I’m so glad that these therapy dogs are a part of the celebration and that they have been part of the healing all year. They are contributing to making Boston strong.
An abused pup's remarkable friendship with a boy with autism.
April is both Autism Awareness and Prevention of Animal Cruelty month. This story of Jonny, the eight-year-boy with autism, and Xena, the horribly abused Pit Bull, present a powerful and heart-warming tale about survival and the indescribable bond we have with dogs. The pup was severely abused and starving to death when she came into the DeKalb (Georgia) Animal Services shelter, she was given only an one percent chance of survival. Jonny’s mom, Linda Hickey, had been following the pup’s story on Facebook and decided to take the chance that this pup would be the perfect match for her son. See how right she was!
Xena won the ASPCA’s Hero of the Dog Award in 2013, and is now in the running for the “emerging dog hero” award from the American Humane Association.
Linda Hickey poignantly tells their story in this video. Watch it to see why Xena deserves your vote.
For more, see this recent interview as well.
And watch Jonny sing “You Got a Friend in Me” to his best pal, Xena.
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