work of dogs
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Office dogs never complain about the size of their cubicles or staying late
Ever wonder what it would be like to have your dog with you at work, nestled under your desk? If you needed a break from paperwork or phone calls, you could go outside for a relaxing walk or a game of fetch. Minor irritants would melt away when you looked into those adoring doggie eyes or heard that solid tail thump.
A surprising number and variety of businesses now recognize the added value of allowing dogs in the workplace, and not just on the annual “Take Your Dog to Work” day. Increasingly, what started out as occasional canine visits have grown into standard practice in offices around the country. Likewise, official pet policies are now part of many employee handbooks; the rules not only address proper pooch-related etiquette and behavior, they also provide non-dog people with assurance that their needs are taken into consideration.
But a document weighed down in legalese doesn’t explain the amazing transformation that can happen to a company and its people when dogs are welcomed. People who perhaps would never have met or spoken to one another are drawn to the dog in the cubicle or out in the parking lot. A shy person feels free to greet the dog and kneel down beside her for a friendly lick. A fearful person bravely reaches out a hand for the dog to smell, and delights in her cold nose.
And of course, those with dogs never tire of hearing compliments about their pups or seeing colleagues enjoy their company. Even more gratifying is the chance to field questions from curious non-dog people and to help them begin to understand why dogs matter. All of these encounters provide co-workers with opportunities to engage in face-to-face conversation, something that is increasingly rare in this technology-driven world.
We took a look at some of the companies that welcome dogs, and—once we recovered from our surprise at the number—decided to dig a bit deeper into a representative selection. Here are four stand-out examples of corporate American dog culture.
“Every day, she gets petted and praised by others,” says Herdener. “She has half a dozen or so very good friends who see her once a day. It’s really a community of dog lovers. There are probably three dozen people I know only because of my dog. Dulce is more social than I am, so she’s a nice ice-breaker.”
Approximately 24 to 36 dogs come to work at Amazon’s corporate headquarters, a 12-story former VA hospital in Seattle, Wash. Herdener says it’s not surprising that dogs would be allowed in this old Art Deco building, which dates from the 1920s. However, when they move to a brand-new downtown facility in a couple of years, he says it’s a foregone conclusion that the dogs will still be welcome.
In order to bring a dog, the employee must first register him/her and agree to certain rules and regulations. For example, all dogs are required to be up-to-date on vaccinations, housebroken and on-leash except when they’re in an office with the door closed or behind a baby gate.
Considering the number of dogs, there are surprisingly few skirmishes or co-worker complaints. “It comes down to common sense and common courtesy,” says Herdener. “Even people who don’t love dogs appreciate the policy because it makes it a more casual environment. When you go through the hiring process, it becomes clear what our corporate culture is. People make a choice—either they subscribe to it or they don’t.”
Besides helping forge new relationships, allowing dogs in the workplace also gives employees peace of mind. “We work long hours,” says Herdener. “If the dog was at home, you would run home quicker. The fact that you can bring her adds to productivity. As hard as you work, you do have time to pet or play with a dog. I love my job and I love this company, and I have to say that one of the reasons why is the fact that I get to have my dog by my desk.”
Ben & Jerry’s
Visitors and job applicants quickly learn that dogs are part of the Ben & Jerry’s team. “If they sit in the lobby for a few minutes, they’re more than likely to see a dog going outside. I’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re a dog-friendly place,’” says Greenwood. “It’s part of the tour. ‘This is the design department—Momo is there; Jack is in R&D, Allison’s in retail, Scout is brand new…’ They’re just like your co-workers.”
Momo is a 10-year-old Pomeranian-Terrier mix who comes to work with designer Lisa Wernhoff every day. “I live an hour away, and I don’t have a job where I can rush home to let her out,” says Wernhoff. “But because of the pet policy, I can bring her here.”
In 2000, Wernhoff and a volunteer group—folks with and without dogs—created the official pet policy in a proactive, team effort. “It spelled out the need to respect people who are scared of dogs or are allergic,” says Wernhoff. “No dogs in any conference room, lunch room, or bathrooms; no dogs hanging outside your little cubicle, in the aisles, or public spaces. It spelled out where dogs could go potty. We didn’t want people complaining, and tried to head off any problems.”
Obviously, dogs benefit from the attention, treats and petting they receive throughout the day. But the employees also enjoy the physical and mental breaks that come with having their dogs at work.
“For me, the biggest benefit has been taking a physical break from my computer,” says Wernhoff. “I’ve had lots of issues with ‘frozen shoulders’ and doctors constantly told me to take more breaks. Having my dog here, I have to go out at mid-morning, noon and mid-afternoon, minimum, which forces me to take those breaks.”
Another employee, who had been bitten as a child, never liked dogs, but after spending time around the well-behaved Ben & Jerry’s pack, she got over her fear. Eventually, she acquired two Golden Retrievers, who now accompany her to work; she takes them out for a half-hour in the middle of the day for a walk or to chase sticks.
“It’s a stress reliever,” says Lineberry. “There have been tons of studies showing that having dogs around calms your nerves and is good for overall health. If I’m working really hard on a project and I need a break, I’ll walk to my neighbor’s office and scrub her dogs a little bit and give them some treats.”
The nonprofit health information provider began as a three-person company in 1975. Today, there are more than 200 employees. Dogs have played a part in its culture from the first day, thanks to Healthwise’s dog-loving CEO, Don Kemper, who currently shares his office with a Bulldog mix named Tuba.
As the company grew, it became clear that a formal dog policy was needed. The company’s culture is based on “teamwork, respect and do the right thing.” The first sentence espouses that philosophy: “At Healthwise, people come first. It is the policy of Healthwise to provide a safe, nonthreatening and healthy work environment for all employees.” It goes on to say that, with the exception of service dogs, “having dogs in the workplace is a conditional privilege, not a right.”
There are situations in which a dog might not be welcome, for example, if a co-worker had allergies. An employee must request permission before bringing his/her dog into the office. If the dog interferes with another employee’s ability to work, the dog must stay at home. There is a “three-strikes” rule for dogs who demonstrate aggressive behavior, such as growling, barking or lunging. If three formal complaints are lodged against the dog, he is no longer welcome in the workplace. Of course, biting is never tolerated.
If a problem arises, the Healthwise Hounds—a group made up of both dog- and non-dog people—encourages the person to talk directly to the dog owner. If the person isn’t comfortable with that, an anonymous email may be submitted and the Healthwise Hounds will follow up.
There are a few people on the Healthwise staff who are afraid of dogs, so dog owners know to keep their pooches away. Many dog owners will thoughtfully post a sign on their office door. “A girl on my team has a little sign—Hi, my name is Miko. I’m here today and I’m a friendly dog,” says Lineberry.
The Healthwise offices are located in Boise’s beautiful foothills, and employees and their dogs take full advantage of the many walking trails that surround their workplace. The company encourages everyone to respect the trail system by cleaning up after their dogs, and has thoughtfully installed disposal-bag containers in the parking lot to make it easy for them to do so.
It’s hard to imagine curious noses and wagging tails among fragile items like the crystal, china and other collectibles for which Replacements is known, but Vice-President of Human Resources Jeanine Falcon says that it’s allowed speaks to Page’s generous philosophy. (His 11-year-old Miniature Dachshunds, Toby Lee and Trudy Mae, are very popular around the office.)
Falcon has three dogs, but only two of them are comfortable in a busy office environment. Her dogs—10-year-old Bear, a Border Collie mix, and Zola, a 14-month-old Bernese Mountain Dog—attract plenty of visitors, which she feels helps her do her job better.
“People stop by just to see the dogs all the time,” says Falcon. “I don’t know if they’d come by just to see me, though I’d like to think so! It demystifies the HR department and the executive offices, makes them comfortable and homey.”
Replacements’ formal pet policy requires each dog to be current on vaccinations, on a six-foot leash at all times, and polite to people and other dogs. “We emphasize that your pet’s behavior is your responsibility,” says Falcon. “If they chew a computer cord or growl at somebody, you may get some feedback on that. If that happens, we have a conversation with the employee: Do some training, try again in three months. We don’t fire many dogs.”
Falcon recalls that the company’s dog-friendly policy was particularly comforting when her oldest Bernese Mountain Dog, Bella, passed away. “It’s nice to know that your colleagues understand. At other places, you could call and say, ‘I’m not coming in today because my dog died,’ and they’d probably say, ‘Yeah, right.’ Here, they know the dog. They’re not pets, they’re family members, and I think that understanding really helps.”
Truth be told, we expected to hear tales of the challenges that came with having canines as part of the workforce. After all, people can be emotional about their dogs, and that can easily lead to misunderstandings. Surely there were people who would complain about shedding, barking or allergic reactions. But in all cases, it seems that these companies’ dog cultures are a natural extension of a healthy working environment, one in which employees are treated with respect and encouraged to proactively voice concerns before they turn into potential problems.
However, none of these companies, or the hundreds of others who welcome canines to the workplace, would have dogs if it weren’t for concerted grassroots efforts by empowered employees (who are occasionally aided and abetted by a dog-loving CEO). According to Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, “The dot-com revolution of the ’90s converted so many people to working at home or in a cubicle all day that interpersonal contact started on a down slope, and people started looking more and more to their animals for companionship.” By allowing dogs to come to work, companies help their employees connect on a more human level, and a sense of community that goes well beyond retreat-induced teambuilding is born.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A comforting canine presence provides victims with a safe harbor
It’s everyone’s nightmare: You’re the victim of a serious crime. Your world collapses—you’re frightened, stunned, physically injured and completely overwhelmed. Police and prosecutors interview you about the smallest details, forcing you to relive the experience over and over. Eventually, you’ll have to face the perpetrator in court, testifying and once again reviving the horror. Emotionally paralyzed, you don’t know if you can do it.
Now imagine the same situation, but this time, a special dog rests at your feet during every interview, sits with you outside the courtroom as you wait to testify—perhaps even goes up to the witness stand with you—and stands beside you at sentencing when you give the court your victim-impact statement. This four-legged victim/witness advocate—accompanied by his human counterpart from the victim advocate’s office—helps you remain calm and reduces what can be a traumatic part of the legal process. You stroke his soft fur, gaze into his warm brown eyes and feel the reassuring weight of his head resting on your foot. He’s there for you, giving you exactly what you need at that moment: strength to get through this part of the nightmare.
This is not a totally speculative scenario. In Washington’s King and Snohomish counties, two innovative prosecuting attorney’s offices have begun using highly trained service dogs to help victims of crime, and the dogs are having a positive impact. Not only do they assist victims, they also boost morale for the prosecutors and victim advocates who deal with the often-horrible consequences of crime on a daily basis.
Upon returning to Seattle and her office, Stephens began thinking creatively, wondering if service dogs might assist in the legal setting. On days that Jeeter could not accompany Sean, Stephens took the dog to work with her. She was the Drug Court prosecutor, and thought Jeeter might help kids with their recovery. She was right—the children quickly adopted Jeeter as their mascot. “One day in my office lobby, a boy, sexually abused by his mother and who [had] sexually abused his sister, glommed onto Jeeter. I didn’t know this at the time, but the prosecutor was offering a deal to get him to testify against his mother, and the boy was backing out. The boy asked to play with Jeeter. I asked him, ‘Would it be easier to talk if Jeeter was with you?’ He said yes, so the plea discussion was rescheduled. At the next meeting, I said, ‘Everyone on the floor!’ so the boy could sit and hug Jeeter. Defense counsel, prosecutor, cop—everyone sat on the floor. It worked. He told them everything that had happened.”
This was an “Aha!” moment for Stephens: The King County prosecutor’s office should have its own facility dog to work with victims. She started with her office’s sexual assault unit. No response. She pushed. Some were receptive, others, not so much. Things stalled. Finally, Stephens arranged for King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng and members of the sexual assault unit to meet Jeeter. “Jeeter convinced them,” Stephens recalls with a laugh.
As Maleng recalls, “When Ellen came up with the concept of using Jeeter with victims, without hesitation I said yes. I had an intuitive feel for what it could do; I understood from my heart what the program was all about, having grown up on a dairy farm with Collies who were an integral part of our family, offering companionship and unconditional love in sad or hurtful times.” Maleng marvels that—decades later—dogs are becoming a part of the justice system. “I center on their healing power within the justice system. There is so much hurt—the victims, families, even members of our office—from exposure to trauma and anxiety. So within this environment, the dogs contribute to justice.”
Eventually, Ulrey began the CCI application process, which starts with a written essay describing the need for a dog. When she was turned down because CCI was concerned that their highly trained dog would be underutilized, Ulrey was ready to give up, but Stephens wouldn’t let her. Together, they attended a CCI dinner in Seattle and performed some magic on a CCI staff member who had once worked in a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Ulrey reapplied and was accepted. In December 2004, she went to CCI’s Santa Rosa facility for training and to be matched with a dog.
Ulrey’s training group consisted of five people and five dogs. The first three days, each participant was asked to work with each dog for a half-day; they were assisted and observed by CCI staff. “I got Brielle—I call her Ellie—on the second day. She was a nightmare! She was stubborn. She wouldn’t listen to me. I felt horrible. I was in tears by the end of the afternoon. At the end of the third day, we were asked to rank in order the dogs we wanted. I wrote: Any dog but Ellie,” Ulrey recalls. The next day, they brought the dogs out, one at a time, and matched them to people. “Ellie was last, and she got me. By the end of that day, I’d fallen in love with her. She’s a sturdy character, where the others were more eager to please. She’s calm and self-possessed, which is perfect for the criminal justice system.”
Ellie was placed into service immediately, and was an instant hit. “She’s a real morale booster for everyone in the office,” says Ulrey. “It’s a high-stress environment, with gut-wrenching trials involving victims of violence, sexually abused children, aggressive defense counsel, lives at stake. Even the security guards at the entrance to the courthouse enjoy her.” Ellie is believed to be the first service dog in the nation to be officially placed in a prosecuting attorney’s office.
Ellie works three days a week. Currently, Ulrey is in charge of the King County prosecutor’s juvenile court unit, where Ellie visits kids in detention or in court. Both Ellie and Jeeter also help with victim interviews in the main office. When she’s not working, Ellie’s life is much like that of any well-loved and pampered dog: one day a week in doggy day care, lots of off-leash park time, runs and walks with Ulrey. Ulrey can’t think of any negative aspects to Ellie’s training, demeanor or work (with the exception of an occasional embarrassing episode of diarrhea at the courthouse). She never growls, is completely reliable with people and other dogs, and is a wonderful companion.
Stephens’ desire to see victims helped by these dogs didn’t end with the success of Ulrey and Ellie. One of Stephens’ friends happens to be Janis Ellis, prosecuting attorney for Snohomish County, King County’s northern neighbor. Stephens planted the bug, and before long, Heidi Potter, victims’ advocate in the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, applied to CCI. In November 2006, Stilson, a handsome black Lab, became the second service dog to be placed in such a setting.
CCI continues to monitor the program. According to Jeanine Konopelski, CCI’s National public relations manager, “This is a new venture for CCI and we are still evaluating to see if the specialized training and skills put into CCI facility dogs are a necessity for this type of work. Certainly, the work has proved to be valuable—there’s no question about that.”
Helping Victims Cope
The successful prosecution of a criminal case often depends on the ability of a victim to report and then testify regarding the details. With children—especially traumatized children—this can be extremely difficult. In just the few months that Stilson has been assisting victims in Snohomish County, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tobin Darrow has seen a significant positive impact. “I think Stilson [provides] a wonderful, warm reception. Initial victim interviews are often when a decision is made whether [or not] to start a case. We close a lot of cases when victims—children especially—can’t or won’t talk. Stilson allows the victim to start talking. It takes children time to develop trust with a prosecuting attorney, so Stilson is very helpful there. Or when kids have to wait—it’s very hard on them, waiting for their turn to testify. Stilson is calming and reassuring.”
Mark Roe, deputy prosecuting attorney in Snohomish County’s Special Assault Unit, agrees. In a recent case, an 11-year-old girl had to testify against her father, who had sexually abused her. Stilson comforted her while she waited in the hallway, and was in the back of the courtroom as visual reassurance as she testified. Mark, who admits that he wasn’t a proponent of the service-dog idea in the beginning, now concedes that there are clear benefits, especially with children. He said that Stilson’s calm and quiet demeanor is what convinced the judge in this particular trial to allow him inside the courtroom. “It’s funny that Stilson’s being profiled in a magazine called Bark, because I’ve never heard him bark!” Mark added with a laugh.
Heidi Potter recalls a case in which Stilson accompanied her and Tobin to Harborview Medical Center’s trauma unit to interview a shooting victim, who had been left paralyzed by his injuries. The man had been bound in duct tape, beaten with a baseball bat, shot in the neck and left for dead. When Stilson entered the hospital room, the man was delighted, and spent the next 10 minutes petting him from his bed. When Tobin asked him about being shot, the man began to talk, recalling how he had thought he was going to die; then, crying, he abruptly stopped speaking. Stilson, who had been lying on the floor, stood and put his head on the man’s lap and stayed there until the man recovered enough to continue. Stilson then lay back down on the floor beside the bed. “I didn’t give Stilson any command. He just did it,” said Heidi.
Even if a victim doesn’t have to testify at trial because the defendant pleads guilty, they may still have to face the defendant at sentencing. Preparing for—and anticipating—the sentencing can be highly stressful. Jessica Haight, 24, is a rape victim who spoke at the sentencing of her abuser in a recent Snohomish County case. “I thought I was going to be a strong chick at sentencing,” she said, “but I was fixated on the guy. I started crying. I didn’t understand why the victim advocate asked if I wanted Stilson in the courtroom with me. But they brought him in and he laid his head on my foot. I noticed I was playing with his ears. I’m pretty sure I rubbed a bald spot on his ear!”
As Jessica spoke by phone from the victim advocate’s office for this interview, Stilson was lying on her foot. Jessica had “a million and one dogs” growing up, and has two now. Still, “I never would have thought of a therapy dog helping me. I saw guide dogs for the blind. But, me? I enjoyed [having] him in the courtroom. It was an extremely positive experience. It changed how I think about dogs, about therapy dogs. It should be a victim’s right to have a therapy dog in the courtroom.”
That thought is echoed by every prosecutor, victim/witness advocate, victim and legal system player who has seen these amazing dogs in action. Their use in prosecutor’s offices—and particularly in courtrooms—is still in its infancy, yet the benefits are clear and the trend is growing. We can all hope that someday soon, service dogs in this setting will be the comforting norm.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Pioneering program gives both women and dogs a second chance
Connie lathers a small brown Terrier in a waist-high tub. She wears a T-shirt and waterproof apron, and wields the gallon jug of shampoo as though it were much lighter. Her face is pink and shines from the heat of dog dryers and exertion.
“She’s a little mad about this whole ordeal,” Connie says, referring to the bather, Bella, as she massages soap down the dog’s legs and paws, rinses, and scrubs her muzzle with no-tears shampoo. She works quickly with the confident, gentle touch of a seasoned pro.
She is a pro. Mawyer has been working with dogs since 1995, and, if all goes well, she’ll continue until her release date, which is currently set for 2017. An inmate at the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor, about an hour south of Seattle, she is one of 13 women working in the Prison Pet Partnership Program (PPPP). Only a select few of the total inmate population of more than 800 learn kennel management and grooming skills and provide these services to the public.
On the face of it, PPPP is a simple voc/ed program, preparing women to work in the pet-care industry after they are released. But unlike toiling in the kitchen or the laundry, or participating in horticulture, construction or welding workshops, women in this program work with warm, furry, affectionate creatures. In prison, that makes all the difference.
“Because most of the programs deal with inanimate objects, you don’t continue to grow emotionally,” says Mawyer, who was 21 when she began serving her time. “This program has allowed me to mature. I think I would have shut down. You can’t do that with dogs. You have to leave your emotions open, therefore you’re emotionally learning and growing.”
In addition to her grooming duties, Mawyer is training a pair of rescue dogs, Alaska and Stella, to become service, seizure or therapy dogs, or to live as pets. Most program participants eventually train rescue and shelter dogs.
“It seems like no matter what dogs have gone through,” Mawyer says, “they still come out being very loving, helpful and ready to do something for you. That’s the miracle of working with dogs.” It’s tough to reconcile Mawyer’s crime with her compassion and insight, except to imagine that she illustrates the rehabilitation ideal.
The Power to Change
“It is important to feel and be loved, and a dog can do that for you,” Sister Pauline said in an interview with Lifetime Television, which made a film about her, Within These Walls, in 2001. “This is the first step in healing; then you can continue on and grow to even greater things.”
It is this simple idea that persuaded Dr. Leo Bustad, a veterinarian studying the human-animal bond at Washington State University, and a pioneer in animal-assisted therapy, to advocate for Sister Pauline’s dog-training program, which she launched at the Gig Harbor prison in 1981.
By 1991, the private nonprofit organization, working under contract to the Department of Corrections, expanded its mission to include kennel and grooming services. Inmate trainers have helped place more than 700 dogs in working partnerships or in homes as “paroled pets.” And the program has been emulated, at least in part, at prisons all around the country and internationally.
That’s what inspires Jesyka. Her first dog in the program was a brindle-furred Greyhound mix named Leif. “He was really, really skinny and sick. He had ticks all over him,” says Jesyka, who overcame a serious bug phobia to clean him up. Jesyka, who has long carrot-blonde hair and talks a mile a minute, is more than halfway through a 15-year sentence. She sits at a picnic table in the center of the dog annex. Next to her are Leif and his person, Ashlee Eddy, and Ashlee’s mother, Carol Blakely. It’s been a long while since dog, client and trainer have seen each other.
Eddy struggles with serious learning disabilities and suffers as many as 30 petit mal seizures a day. Leif’s job is to nudge her hand to bring her out of a seizure or to stand guard and bark a warning if she freezes or collapses in a public place. Until Leif came into her life three years ago, the 22-year-old had to be kept under constant surveillance. Now, with Leif at her side, she doesn’t need so much monitoring. She can bathe alone, hang out with friends, walk outside by herself. She talks about working for a veterinarian someday.
“We went to prison to find freedom,” Blakely says. “I knew that a dog would help Ashlee. I didn’t think that it would impact all of our lives like it did.” For the first time in decades, Blakely is able to sleep through the night.
During the training, Jesyka and Eddy became friends, and the inmate-trainer basks in her young client’s obvious success. “In here, time stands still,” Jesyka says. “Your friends have had their jobs for 10, 15 years. Have their cars paid off. Part of their house is paid off. Kids. A husband. And what do I have? I have Ashlee. If it ever came down to that, if I ever had to say, you know, like when you go to heaven, What have you done? I’d say, ‘Ashlee.’”
Benefits Ripple Out
They also appear to have better success on the outside. Of the 140 participants for whom program director Elizabeth Rivard has records, only four have re-offended (a little less than 3 percent, far below the state average recidivism rate for women of 35 percent).
Those with disabilities and limited means benefit too. They receive the life-expanding assistance and companionship of a service dogs for free. Assistance Dogs International estimates the average cost of training a service dog to be $10,000. Dogs also get a second chance.
“We would have a much higher success rate if we bred dogs for this purpose,” says Rivard. Only one in 15 to 20 dogs make it as service animals; the others become pets. “But the mission of this program is a second opportunity.” Rivard says it’s the “power of change” that has kept her at the prison for almost 10 years.
Christa knows all about dogs and second chances. She was an inmate working in the office at PPPP when a batch of year-old Poodle and Labradoodle puppies came in. Rescued after nine months in a hoarder’s basement, they were encrusted with feces. “You’d touch their skin and it would just crawl,” Christa says. Among them was a black Standard Poodle named Ramone. For six months, Christa dedicated every free moment to him. “You’re not supposed to sleep with your dogs in the program,” Christa says about the dog who shared her pillow. “I was like, yeah, that’s not going to happen.”
Ramone came a long way under her care, but after two months with an adoptive family, he failed to bond with them, and was returned to the prison shortly before Christa was to be released. She had served a little less than half of a 14-year sentence, and is serving the balance of her sentence on community placement. She was permitted to take Ramone home with her.
“It was really scary, because they’d never let anybody take a dog home before. It was like, ‘Oh great, she’s just getting out on the streets, so let’s give her a dog,’” Christa remembers. “It was just crazy. But I love this dog and I couldn’t imagine being without him and he couldn’t imagine being without me.”
She moved to Bellingham, north of Seattle, where she now lives with two of her three teenage daughters and Ramone. Soon after her release, she landed a job in customer service at the Whatcom Humane Society, where she worked for more than two years. On the day we talked, she’d just received a glowing review after six months working the front desk for a veterinarian—a stellar comment not only on her job performance, but also on her own efforts and the program that helped her land on her feet.
Groom and Board
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Canine skills put to work in aid of the world’s vulnerable species.
With her head slightly lowered and a telling wag of her tail, Briar—a German Shepherd of Czechoslovakian origin—cast an expectant glance in my direction. Her body language was loud and clear: She had found what we were looking for and congratulations were in order. Sure enough, hidden in the depths of the prickly scrub in front of Briar was a desert tortoise, the focus of our pilot study in southern California’s Mojave Desert. Imperiled by habitat loss and other anthropogenic effects, desert tortoises are of grave concern to conservation biologists, but their camouflaged presence is difficult to detect with the human eye.
In an attempt to find more tortoises, researchers are teaching new tricks to old friends who happen to have an uncanny sense of smell. Indeed, dogs are becoming an important asset to conservation efforts in myriad ways—from sniffing out wildlife to warding off predators that might otherwise meet their demise if involved in conflicts with people. While dogs have long been valued for their ability to benefit people, today’s “conservation dogs” are enhancing our ability to protect many wild species whose fate may largely depend on us.
The Nose Knows
Canine detection capacity has recently been put to the task of curbing the illicit trade in wildlife and wildlife parts—a multibillion dollar industry that threatens African elephants, Asiatic black bears and many other species worldwide. Responding to this crisis, a handful of nations have trained dogs to detect wildlife contraband. In 2000, for example, the Korea Customs Service and the Animals Asia Foundation introduced a yellow Labrador Retriever named Simba, Asia’s first wildlife sniffer dog. During his two-year stint at South Korea’s Incheon Airport, Simba uncovered more than 80 stashes of bear bile and gall bladders (traditional Chinese medicinals), snakes, seal penises, and even four live baby monkeys.
Meanwhile, Ecuadorian detector dogs regularly search boats traveling back and forth from the Galapagos Islands, sniffing for smuggled shark fins (used in shark-fin soup) and sea cucumber; one successful “find” resulted in the confiscation of 1,537 shark fins. The Kenya Wildlife Service’s website notes that “the presence of sniffer dogs at airports is a powerful disincentive to potential ivory or rhino horn traffickers,” and the South Africa Police Service’s Border Collie, Tammy, has been so effective at finding smuggled abalone that she has her own German Shepherd bodyguard.
According to the wildlife trade watchdog group TRAFFIC, the US is the world’s largest consumer of wildlife products, many of which are imported illegally. In 1996, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) hired Mason (another yellow Lab) to detect wildlife contraband at border crossings in southern California. Mason had been trained to alert on live birds, reptiles and bear gall bladder, and was being trained on ivory at the time of his retirement in 2001. Unfortunately, Mason was not replaced. Sandy Cleava, a spokeswoman for the FWS’s Office of Law Enforcement, acknowledges that wildlife detection dogs “have the potential to be helpful, but we don’t have the resources to pursue a program at this time.” (By comparison, the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency currently employs 1,200 canine teams to detect drugs, explosives, chemicals, currency, agricultural products, and concealed humans at ports of entry and border patrol stations across the country.)
Not surprisingly, detection dogs are in increasingly high demand for wildlife research, both for finding scat and live animals. Recognizing the potential for such dogs to advance science-driven conservation, in 2000, four biologists founded Working Dogs for Conservation—a Montana-based organization that works nationally and internationally to bring detection-dog services to wildlife field studies. Earlier this year, they helped train US Geological Survey dogs and handlers to search for bird-decimating brown tree snakes in Guam, while an existing partnership with Wildlife Conservation Society will take them to the rugged Idaho/Montana border to find grizzly, black bear, mountain lion and wolf scat. “I’d like to see the day when detection dogs are as accepted as other techniques in wildlife research,” says co-founder Aimee Hurt.
As more and more biologists express interest in using dogs, Hurt and her colleagues see a growing need for nationally recognized standards to assure quality control. “Researchers need to be able to count on a competent detection-dog team, as well as have reasonable expectations for what that team will be able to accomplish. Standards are likely the best means to that end.” (See “Conservation Dogs Down Under” sidebar.)
“I got tired of people grabbing a gun to solve the problem,” says northern Wisconsin organic farmer Mary Falk. Falk has successfully used livestock guarding dogs to protect her sheep from predators for twelve years. Having first experimented with guard donkeys and llamas, she found that “the only thing that gave us satisfaction with predator control was dogs.” The Falk family’s 200-acre LoveTree Farmstead, which produces pasture-raised lamb and award-winning sheep cheese, shares its wild landscape with wolves, coyotes, black bears and the occasional cougar. With a half-dozen guardian dogs looking after her flock, Falk has no trouble sleeping at night—a radical change from the days when her sheep had to be penned next to the house for safe-keeping.
Encouraged by her positive experience, Falk began breeding livestock guarding dogs, viewing them as integral to both farming and carnivore conservation. Many others apparently share her view—in 2000, the USDA published a survey citing that 28 percent of US sheep producers enlist the help of guarding dogs in their operations. While there are plenty of case studies to support their efficacy, USDA expert Roger Woodruff says the best proof is in the pudding: “Lots of people are still using livestock guarding dogs.”
Good Dog for Bad Bears
This technique uses Karelian Bear Dogs, aversive conditioning and positive reinforcement to teach bears to avoid situations that bring them into contact with humans. Assaulted by loud noise, pelted with harmless rubber bullets and beanbags, and chased by the barking dogs, “problem” bears learn that being around people isn’t worth the trouble. Bear shepherding also includes education on the human side of the equation: Wildlife managers and the general public are taught how to reduce conflicts with bears by altering their own behavior.
Over the past nine years, bear shepherding has prevented the needless destruction of many bears in the US, Canada and Japan. And, due to its safe and effective protocols, WRBI has never had a dog, bear or human injured during this activity, which occurs 200 to 300 times a year. In spite of its effectiveness and charismatic appeal, however, the Karelian Bear Dog is definitely NOT for the casual dog owner, Hunt is quick to point out. “This breed does not make for a good pet, as they were born to leave you to hunt,” she explains. “It takes many hours of training to produce a companion dog.”
While all conservation dogs require significant training, a mounting body of evidence suggests that they’re well worth the investment. Dogs embody a unique blend of intelligence, resilience and sensitivity, and a willingness to work with people who are committed to working with them. It will ultimately be up to us, of course, to dramatically reduce the ever-growing ecological footprint of humanity, and to learn how to live with wildness in a manner both graceful and compassionate. But how fortunate we are to have such loyal companions to help us along the way.
News: Guest Posts
You gotta see this
Editor's note: Some very insightful comments from our readers has put this video in a better context. Take a look for yourself and then read that the great Bark readers have to say!
Three-year-old Alida Knoblock and her trusty service dog Mr. Gibbs are breaking new ground with their amazing partnership. You have to see it to believe it.
News: Guest Posts
After a long battle, Corporal Megan Leavey adopts Sergeant Rex
At last, a happy ending for Megan Leavey, an injured ex-Marine who has been fighting for years to adopt the German Shepherd with whom she spent “every waking moment” during two terms in Iraq. Together, they patrolled for IEDs, weapons caches and suicide bombers. In 2006, Leavey suffered a traumatic brain injury in an explosion that also injured Rex, and he was by her side during the rehabilitation process.
After she retired from the Marine Corps in 2007, she attempted to adopt Rex, but at seven-years-old he still had several more years of military service ahead. At 10, he retired and Leavey renewed her efforts to bring him to live out his days with her in Valley Cottage, N.Y.
With no luck, until now.
Today, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) announced the Air Force had signed off on Leavey’s adoption request—largely thanks to Schumer’s intervention on her behalf and a 20,000-signature strong petition.
Don’t you just love it when the girl gets the dog?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
N.Y. State trains homeless canines to join the police force
Recently, I was reading about a superstar police dog and discovered a really cool fact—about one-third of New York State's police dogs are rescues.
This particular German Shepherd, Sgt. Harry J. Wheeler, was found wandering the streets of Brooklyn eight years ago. Fortunately, he was taken in by Glen Wild Animal Rescue, which thought his keen perception and protective nature would make him a great police dog. Soon after Sgt. Wheeler was enrolled in a 20-week training course with the New York State Police canine division and now serves in Binghamton, N.Y.
During his years on the job, Sgt. Wheeler has helped find six bodies in police investigations, including locating the body of a missing boy that police had been unable to find for months. This find led to the murder suspect's conviction.
Training rescues to assist the police is a win for the homeless dogs, the police and the community. There's no question that Sgt. Wheeler is one talented pup, proving that shelter dogs really can do anything!
News: Guest Posts
It's never too early to learn about these great dogs
My Seeing Eye dog and I visit elementary schools to teach kids about disabilities, service dogs and teamwork. During my talks with the kids, I explain three rules to keep in mind if you happen to see a guide dog with a harness on:
The students at the school I visited recently seem nonplussed by these rules. They’d already read my children’s book Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound, and, more importantly, one of their teachers is raising a puppy for Leader Dogs for the Blind. She brings black Labrador Retriever puppy Rory to school with her every day. At home, she and her husband and their four children all volunteer their time, money and efforts to raise puppies, and once the pups are a year old they return them to Leader Dogs headquarters in Rochester, Mich., to begin intense training to become a guide.
Rory was already at school when his puppy raiser and her youngest son met me and my Seeing Eye dog, Whitney, at the train station. The little boy in the back seat admitted he cried when he said goodbye to Mack, their first pup.
“We all did,” his mom added. “But we know it’s all for a good cause.”
Policies and practices vary in the different guide dog programs in North America. Leader Dogs allows puppy raisers to name the dog they take home. (Mack was named for Michigan’s Mackinac Island, where this family first learned about Leader Dogs.) The Seeing Eye, where I train with my dogs, opts for naming puppies at birth to help keep track of them all.
Another difference: Seeing Eye grads don’t meet the families who raise their dogs as puppies. Leader Dogs has an “open adoption” policy, which got mixed reviews from the family raising Rory now. The mom enjoys keeping up with the man in Baltimore who is partnered with Mack, but her young son lamented that attending the Leader Dog graduation meant “having to say goodbye to Mack all over again.”
At school, the puppy-raiser/teacher got a kick out of watching my Seeing Eye dog Whitney turn her head left and right, scanning the environment as she led me through the school. “They don’t do that when they’re puppies,” she observed. “It’s so fun to see the finished product!” She wondered if Whitney might like to meet Rory. Whitney would have *loved* that, but she is so new to her job that I thought it might be prudent to keep her on a, ahem, short leash.
The two dogs did catch each other’s eye when Rory went out to “empty” during a lunch break. Rory barked out a greeting, but Whitney did not respond in kind. She sat up and her ears perked, but she stayed quiet, setting an example. After all, Rory is still learning. He’s just a pup, not a professional. Not yet, at least.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Lab leads man up all New Hampshire's 4,000-foot mountains
Only 46 people have climbed all of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot mountains, but this weekend Randy Pierce and his trusty Yellow Labrador, Quinn, will attempt to become the first blind person and guide dog to accomplish this formidable challenge. As if that wasn't already an incredible accomplishment, they will have finished this goal in a single winter.
Seven years ago, a disease rendered Randy blind and unable to walk. Confined to a wheelchair, it took Quinn to inspire Randy to overcome his disability. Eventually. Randy was able to walk again and, with Quinn's help, he started to hike mountains.
Now Quinn is nearing retirement age for a seeing eye dog and Randy decided to hike all 48 mountains this winter as their final big goal together. He is sharing his story online to raise awareness for his nonprofit, 2020 VisionQuest, which inspires people to reach beyond adversity and achieve their highest goals.
Randy and Quinn place a lot of trust in each other, and Quinn is one amazing dog to be able to guide Randy through the difficult mountain terrain. I love that their special relationship has allowed them to overcome a challenge that many people would consider impossible.
The team expects to finish the last mountain on Saturday. You can wish them good luck via their blog.
News: Guest Posts
The miracle and mystery of service dogs
There was a wonderful story in The New York Times Magazine ("Wonder Dog," Feb. 2, 2012) this weekend about a Golden Retriever named Chancer and a boy with fetal alcohol syndrome named Iyal. The story focuses on a truly compelling frontier in service dog training and placement—where dogs work with people suffering from “invisible disabilities.”
Chancer was trained at 4 Paws Ability in Ohio, which has its own incredible story. Karen Shirk founded the organization in response to her need for a service dog, after a diagnosis of myasthenia gravis at 24 landed her on a ventilator. She has dedicated herself to providing service dogs to people, like her, who have traditionally been denied canine assistance.
It is inspiring to read about how Chancer has transformed Iyal’s life. The dog intercedes and comforts him during tantrums and even seems to anticipate and intervene in situations that might set him off. For the first time, Iyal can sleep through the night with Chancer at his side. He’s more articulate and able to think more logically than before.
Chancer’s ability to calm and comfort, to entertain and to act as an ambassador in the world are things all of us who share our lives with dogs—even those who aren’t specially trained—can recognize and appreciate.
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