6 Things You Learn Training, And Owning, Service Dogs
If you're old, sick, or disabled, we have the perfect solution for you: Get a dog! Of course, that's our solution for every problem, but an educated service dog might work especially well in your case. Humans have been breeding dogs for thousands of years for every dumbshit task we no longer feel like doing ourselves, but it wasn't until the past century that we began training them to help people with physical or mental disabilities who can't manage their daily lives alone.
We sat down with a few people who train service dogs, as well as a few who own service dogs and rely on them every day. As usual, what we discovered is more interesting -- and more ridiculous -- than we would have guessed ...
You Can Bring Your Pet Anywhere -- If You Call It A Service Animal
Service dogs are allowed to go places that normally do not allow animals, such as planes, restaurants, the movie theater, and Discovery Zone. They're allowed this special privilege because they've been trained and certified as official helper animals. But, let's say you want to bring your bulldog or condor or whatever into the movie theater with you -- how do you go about getting them certified as helper animals? Well, here's how to do it: 1) Get a sheet of paper; 2) write "THIS IS A SERVICE DOG" on it in crayon. Your new document means exactly as much as any service dog certificate.
Yeah, "certifications" can be purchased online for a fee, even if your dog has no training whatsoever. As a result, when you see someone with a supposed service animal, it might be specially trained to help them with a legitimate disorder. It might be an "emotional support animal" for a bullshit problem they made up. Or, it might be any random pet because the owner may be an asshole. And that majorly pisses off people such as Colin Wong, who genuinely needs his guide dog every time he leaves the house.
Colin recalls going to a department store one time with his dog, Wednesday, whom he got from Guide Dogs for the Blind, and getting attacked by another dog patrolling the aisles. Stories of guide dogs getting mauled by other dogs are disturbingly common, because of people like the owner of the dog who attacked Wednesday. That owner insisted it was normal for his "service dog" to attack other dogs all the time. "It's clearly not your service dog!" countered Colin. "Service dogs are conditioned not to attack other dogs. That's like day one of service dog school!"
Day two is conditioning them not to set up illegal cock-fighting rings.
Unfortunately, thanks to fraud service dogs, there is some mistrust of all people with service animals, even legitimate ones. Wednesday escapes scrutiny because Colin is clearly blind, as is obvious to anyone who doesn't share his disability. But let's next introduce you to Raven Richard-Bordeau, who gets harassed all the time about Dyson, her Mexican hairless dog who accompanies her wherever he goes. Raven has clinically diagnosed depression and anxiety, and doctors recognize her need for a companion animal such as Dyson, but that doesn't stop store clerks and restaurant hostesses from constantly calling shenanigans on her. They routinely ask her to produce Dyson's certification papers. Dyson does have a certificate, but Raven doesn't carry it around on her person everywhere she goes, and you're legally not allowed to demand to see it.
Although, if you get caught with a fake service animal in the state of Florida, you can be thrown in jail for your dickitry, so maybe bring along the certificate just in case.
"I'm sorry, but that dog looks Kenyan, ma'am."
Some Service Dogs Can Smell Medical Conditions
Not all service dogs lead people safely through traffic or keep them from having a panic attack in a public place. Dogs have a sense of smell that borders on magic, and various law enforcement agencies have been using them for years to sniff out illegal drugs, bomb-making materials, and unregistered mutants. Sherry Mers, a dog trainer from Colorado, recognized the potential for service dogs to be used to sniff out common fatal allergens such as peanuts. Pretty soon, her dogs were licensed as medical service animals and were accompanying kids to school to sniff out and steer them from any toxic allergens. Except, well, some families claim their service dogs they got can't spot peanuts at all, so, um, maybe test your pooch out before shelling out the 20 grand to bring one home.
And once they're out of the packaging, they lose all value.
Other medical service dogs are trained to sniff out things that we didn't even know had a scent. For example, hypo alert dogs are trained to detect when a diabetic's blood glucose goes too high or low. "The running theory," says Raven, "is they can smell or otherwise sense the changes in their person's sugar levels," but no one exactly understands what's going on here. Scientists have tried their own means of measuring blood sugar noninvasively using a breathalyzer, but we haven't quite hammered out the kinks yet, forcing diabetics to constantly stab themselves with needles in order to test themselves. Yet, medical service dogs can detect blood sugar quicker and more accurately than even our best machines with just their noses. And they alert you to danger by licking you awake, which is a function that most medical devices will not perform.
And then we have dogs such as Patra, a rottweiler/German shepherd mix from Missouri who could sense when her owner is about to have a seizure. She would warn her owner with an urgent nudge behind the knee 15 minutes before an impending seizure (some other seizure dogs are able to sense it hours beforehand). Nobody trains dogs to do this -- some of them are just born with the ability.
Seizures suck, but getting a heads up and
licks/nuzzles to help recovery sucks less.
As for the others, well ...
Some Dogs Are Too Stupid To Be Service Animals
As with any program that requires hundreds of hours of demanding training, there are some washouts who can't make the cut. Take Virgil the chocolate poodle, who spent much of 2012 training as an assistance dog for autistic kids. Virgil seemed to do fine in preliminary classes, but then the final exam rolled around, overseen by an administrator flown in from another city and held in a million-square-foot suburban mall on a Saturday afternoon. This is a less-than-ideal set of circumstances for all but the most obedient of dogs -- a fact that Virgil emphatically proved by thunderously failing his exam.
The first part of the test, recalls his trainer Francey, consisted of basic commands, and a bunch of kids running around the mall proved much too distracting for Virgil's concentration. Next came "behavioral obedience," which consisted of the examiner dropping a scoop of ice cream next to the dog's tail to see if he could resist eating it, which Virgil could not. Then came the part of the test wherein Virgil had to walk without Francey to see how he handled the separation, while Francey observed from a distance. Virgil responded by taking a shuddering dump on the shiny linoleum floor, which is an immediate disqualification (the vest that service animals wear is supposed to impart on them that it's not pooping time, and that's a big reason they're allowed places other animals aren't).
He's still a good boy -- just not at that job.
And so the career of Virgil the service dog came to a sudden, irrevocable end. Nowadays, he attacks hair clips and barks at toothbrushes as a D-list YouTube celebrity, which honestly is a better career trajectory than any human being who has shit themselves in public could expect.
Keep in mind, their standards for behavior have to be high because some of these dogs are in charge of saving their owners' lives. For instance ...
There Are Autism Service Dogs That Hold Their Children On Leashes
If you ever see a dog in a service vest walking with a kid, you might want to take a look at the leash connecting the two of them. The kid isn't holding the dog back, and the dog isn't leading the kid (the way a guide dog does). The leash connects to a belt around the child's waist, and it's there in case the kid suddenly decides to start fleeing. That's right -- service dogs are also used to anchor autistic children.
"Many children with autism have bolting behaviors, in which a child will dash away without warning," says Misha Winterfeld, who has raised service dogs for eight years. And when the child decides to make a dash for it, it's the dog's job to hold fast with all its weight. In a controlled setting, it looks something like this:
... and while it's not all that fun to see the kid cry and strain to pull the leash, it's probably less fun to watch an unrestrained kid running into oncoming traffic. Usually, though, it won't even get as far as the child pulling at the tether. "The child will often cease their bolting altogether," says Misha, "due to the close connection he or she shares with the dog." Why run off in a random direction when you have a cuddly best friend tied to you at all times?
Example: You're having trouble forcing yourself to scroll past this pooch.
The dog calms the kid in all sorts of ways. For instance, an autistic child is much less likely to have violent outbursts when he or she is tied to a dog. With a special "calm" command, the dog nuzzles the child or rests its head in the kid's lap when noises or sights overload his or her senses. And for extremely low-functioning kids with autism, the dog could be the best friend he or she will ever make:
"Many children with autism are nonverbal or have trouble communicating with other people," says Misha. "Dogs don't pressure you to speak. They thrive on nonverbal communication, thus connect very well with their child. The children are able to give affection, as well as receive it, in their own way and in their own time."
Service Dogs Know Way Less Than You Think They Do
We're not going to bother wowing you with how awesome guide dogs are. You already know how awesome guide dogs are, and you rightly crumble with emotions when one leads her owner out of the North Tower on 9/11 or goes blind with age and gets a guide dog of his own. But, while these dogs have some amazing training, resist the temptation to look at any dog and say, "This boy is a GENIUS!" It's literally all in the training -- none of them have any concept of the disabilities they're meant to be treating.
They tried teaching them, but after eight years of undergrad and med school,
most dogs died before finishing their residencies.
"Dogs don't have the idea of what blindness is," says Colin. For an animal to know that you have an individual mental state, and to further realize the two of you perceive the world differently, takes a huge level of intelligence, and there's no reason to think dogs have it. Casual experiments show that dogs still look to their blind owners for instructions about tasks the owners can't see. Colin's dog Wednesday guides him perfectly well, but she'll guide sighted people in just the same way because she was trained to do so (by trainers who, of course, could see just fine).
"You keep petting me, and I'll lead you anywhere you want to go."
Guide dogs also aren't quite the expert navigators you might think they are. "There's a myth," says Colin, "that guide dogs can lead their owner to a specific destination." Colin's dog can lead him to, say, the railway station, but she does this by recalling memorized movements, not by navigating spatially. That means she won't be able to take him there if they begin from somewhere new -- not without backtracking all the way home first. Imagine playing a huge open-world game such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for the first time and only being allowed enough time to get familiar with your starting area before getting randomly dropped somewhere else in the world and being stripped of your map. That's exactly how good a dog is at finding a specific location -- it may get you there eventually, but it will be an effort worthy of song.
Some Service Dogs Are Trained By Prison Inmates
Service dogs can take years of all-day training before they're ready to work. Even dogs selling for thousands of dollars can't generate enough to pay a trainer for that long, and volunteer trainers don't have enough free time. So some dog training schools turn to America's premier source of cheap labor: prison.
You might have heard about this partnership from HBO's Oz (which featured such other real-world prison innovations as magic aging pills and an astrally-projected murderous Luke Perry). While the prisoners don't quite have the same training skills as most qualified professionals on the outside, they are able to successfully teach the animals to operate lights, fetch objects, and follow all sorts of basic commands. Sometimes, the dog's disabled future owner gets to visit the prison and participate in the training, and interactions between an eight-year-old autistic child and a convicted killer go surprisingly well.
"The dogs coming out of the prison program are really well behaved. They sure do like to dig, though."
The dogs get so much individualized attention that they learn twice as fast as they do in normal training schools. It's a fine introduction for them to the world of law enforcement -- better, anyway, than running into all those cops who shoot service dogs.
The training is even good for the inmates. According to statistics from a Philadelphia dog training program, inmates who trained dogs ended up reoffending only one-third as often as their dogless counterparts. Prison violence also goes down because, as one Maryland officer put it, the program fosters empathy in prisoners, softening their hearts. The dogs literally taught them how to love.
Snuggles > Street cred
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