Taxi Cab Confessions

Exploring cultural biases against dogs—in Iraq and at home.
By Beth Finke, July 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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