Thankful for Birdsong | 30 Days of Gratitude, Day 14

I’m a musician, and melody is a constant presence in my life.  My roommates can attest to that.  They often comment, or tease, about my humming, and singing, and piano improvising at all times of the day, and occasionally the night.  I think maybe that’s what makes me appreciate birdsong so much.  They are participating in the same music-making that fuels my energy from hour to hour, and it’s life-giving, enchanting, even.

It reminds me of all the Disney princesses that make friends with birds.  Cinderella, Snow White, Mary Poppins (although she’s not exactly a princess), either way they all have this magically musical relationship with winged whistlers of various varieties, and in a way it’s quite representative of the reality.  There is something magical about it, an animal that can produce music at will, and does so as a regular part of their routine.  There aren’t many other animals like that.  May it serve as a reminder to make magic with our own music in our own routines.

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 12|Yorktown…1781

We visited Yorktown on Friday.  No no, not Yorktown like from Hamilton, Yorktown, New York.  I know.  These things can get confusing.  Friday was our day for night travel, so we did the route in the daylight early in the morning, then repeated it after the sun went down that night.  In between we had our visits with the vet.

Prim was very excited about the new route, so we worked on, you guessed it, steady.  She did the route very well, only overstepping one curb and not at all distracted by the grass and street furniture that we passed.  We encountered one loud truck that she stopped for, even though we were on the sidewalk.  She was just being a bit cautious, I think leftover from our traffic check activity on Thursday.  The night route went similarly, other than the fact that it was dark, but that didn’t change much about my perspective really.  Our trainer huffed and puffed behind us like usual, and we had a blast.

At the vet, I learned Prim’s weight, birth date, and health history.  The vet gave her a full physical, and pronounced her healthy but for a slight ear infection in one ear.  She will be on medication for that for the next several days and we will visit the vet a second time before we leave to make sure it is all cleared up… which reminds me.  I need to choose a vet for Prim in Nashville.  If anyone has any good recommendations, please let me know.  Oleta had a vet in Nashville that we loved and appreciated, but I would be interested in looking into others.  Crazy, but I do need to start thinking about getting settled in at home.  Only a week left of training now!

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 8|A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White Plains Building

There are days I just have to step back and marvel at the incredible phenomenon that is the guide dog team.  Dogs don’t naturally walk in straight lines.  They don’t naturally refuse to chase other animals or deny themselves food lying on the ground.  Most dogs don’t want to spend their days forging a path through pedestrians on crowded sidewalks, locating curbs, and playing in traffic… and yet these dogs do.  They love their job, and most, if not all guide dogs, seem to realize at one point or another that they aren’t just doing this for the food reward.  These are the sort of dogs that Guiding Eyes breeds, raises, and trains, and I feel so blessed to be able to experience life with now two of them.

Prim had a number of things thrown at her today.  It is only our sixth day together and we had two major traffic checks, plus a skateboard check (yep, skateboard. You read that correctly), escalators, crowded, narrow sidewalks, indoor work, and major distractions in the dog food isle at CVS.  That “major distraction” took the form of my class supervisor (who is also Oleta’s trainer and my instructor from 2011) tempting Prim with all sorts of very appealing squeaky toys while we did puppy push ups (sit, down, sit, down, sit, down, sit).  It was pretty hard not to look, and she definitely did struggle to listen to a couple of my commands, but we got through it well enough.  Honestly… can you imagine trying to concentrate while people danced around you with Chic-Fil-A and gift cards for pedicures and the latest technology gizmos, or whatever tempting treat might strike your fancy, and be expected to keep working at the same high performance without ever lunging for one of those waffle fries or gift cards or iPhones?  Mm… Chic-Fil-A… I discovered today that Chic-Fil-A doesn’t exist in this area, bless their hearts.  Anyway, what was I talking about?

Prim handled it all very well.  I was impressed with the way she dealt with the traffic checks.  One was on the left side of the street with a legal right turner.  She saw it coming ahead of time and stopped about ten feet away from the car.  The second was a car turning very illegally on the wrong side of the road.  That was slightly more startling to me as it was completely unexpected, but Prim just came to an abrupt halt, let the car pass, and continued to the curb.  It didn’t seem to throw her at all.  She got a cookie and lots of praise upon reaching the sidewalk.  She did her job very well.

Prim loves escalators.  I am sure that her trainers used a great deal of positive reenforcement with them, as they can be scary for some dogs at first, but I think Prim also just likes the ride.  She did very well pulling me to the edge of the metal plate and showing me exactly where the escalator started.  She is brilliant with targets.  When she hears the name of a familiar target (like the steps in this case) and recognizes it, she is there and fast, and she doesn’t stop pulling until we are all the way on top of it.  Since I have practically no vision, this is extremely helpful for me, because she makes it very clear where whatever I am looking for is, whether it be the curb, the escalator, the door, etc.

We are still working on slowing down a tad in certain situations.  For example, when we entered the CVS in the afternoon, we were moving so quickly the automatic doors didn’t quite have a chance to open all the way, so I got clipped by the still slightly closed sliding door.  We also had to slow in the isles so as not to knock any displays or innocent bystanders to the floor.  On our way back from CVS, we had a slight sniffing distraction with some trash cans (which, in her defense, did smell very strongly!), but as my instructor observed, Prim seems very responsive to my voice and a “Prim, leave it” was all she needed to get going again.

Shortly after that we crossed a street, made a right, and then I felt Prim angle over to the left a bit toward a building.  She approached the wall of the building, then made a quick right and continued along the block.  I wasn’t sure what had happened, until my instructor came up from behind to inform me that Prim had seen herself in a glass wall.  Apparently, Prim got all puffy and upset like, “who’s that over there?!”, until she realized it was her own reflection, got embarrassed, and quick changed her direction like, that didn’t just happen.  We laughed all the way back to the White Plains building.  There are days you have to marvel at the incredible phenomenon that is the guide dog team, and then there are days you just have to laugh… and with Prim, that’s every day.  This dog cracks me up.

Emotional Support Animals are Not Service Dogs: Why You Should Leave Your ESA At Home

There are currently four guide dog teams on my university’s campus.  Three black labradors and one yellow, all highly trained, well-socialized, well-behaved, and pretty darn good at their jobs.  All four of we handlers attended a 14 to 26 day intensive to train with, and learn how to care properly for these amazing animals.

And they are amazing.  Here are just a few examples of the tasks Oleta does every day to make my life a little easier.

  • Obstacle Avoidance

She is trained to walk in a straight line, but if there are obstacles in our path (trash cans, strollers, people) she can take us around them to continue on our line of travel.  I feel her movements through the harness and harness handle and am able to follow.

  • Object/Landmark Identification

She can locate stairs, curbs, doors, empty chairs, trash cans, pianos, and even one of my best friends by name if they are in the vicinity.

  • Intelligent Disobedience

This isn’t so much a task as it is a decision making process, or, an anti-task.  If I give Oleta a command that would be unsafe for her to perform, she will refuse.  For example, if there is a car coming that for some reason I do not hear, and I tell her to proceed forward into the street, she will refuse the command.

Other service dogs perform tasks like bracing for people with balance issues, alerting to various health related episodes, such as a drop in blood sugar or an oncoming seizure, object retrieval for people with limited mobility, as well as grounding, behavior interruption, reminders, guide work, etc for people (especially veterans) diagnosed with PTSD.

So, what do all these dogs have in common?

They are all trained to perform a task, or, as in most situations, a series of different tasks to aid their handicapped human handler.  Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, that is the definition of a service dog.

An emotional support animal DOES NOT fall under this category, and is not protected under the ADA to access all public areas.

Why is it, then, that I have met at least five animals on campus recently, inside of buildings, at least three of which I know are proclaimed “Emotional support animals”, and the other two I suspect may be the same.

One of these animals is an emotional support cat.  You should know that cats are not considered service animals in any context, and an emotional support cat is no more legally protected to enter most public accommodations than is an emotional support dog or turkey.

But the other four are dogs, and, if they are not service dogs trained to perform a task or tasks to mitigate their owners disability, they do not belong inside our campus buildings any more than the cat.

Why Do I Care?

  • Unruly behavior (especially gone unchecked) reflects badly on service dog teams.

If an emotional support animal behaves badly in public due to their lack of training and socialization, it casts a shadow upon highly trained service dogs, and may make it more difficult for service dog teams to access public areas in the future.

  • My dog may be distracted.

My dog is, to an extent, responsible for my safety.  I’m depending on her to find stairs, keep me away from the edge of platforms and stages, move me out of the way of obstacles, as well as oncoming people or doors that open into our path, not to mention finding doors or other landmarks that I may be looking for.  All of those things can be easily interrupted by the presence of another dog.  Of course, we have techniques for dealing with distractions, but   it only takes a second for my dog to lose focus at the wrong time, and for me to lose my balance on the edge of a stage or staircase.  Beyond that, I would just rather not deal with dog distractions at all if I do not have to, and an ESA that shouldn’t be there in the first place is one of those distractions that I (and other service dog users) could do without.

  • My dog may be in danger.

My dog has been specially bred and socialized all her life to be friendly with other dogs.  That may not be the case with an emotional support animal.  Even if your ESA is friendly with other dogs at dog parks or in your back yard, it does not follow that they will behave the same way in a stressful environment such as a crowded college coffee shop, hallway, or elevator.

  • ESA’s are not legally protected in most public areas.

It is simply disrespectful, both to service dog users and business owners, to take advantage of people’s ignorance of state and federal laws concerning service animals and ESAs… and if you think you can get around it by putting a service dog vest on your ESA, don’t.  There’s a little word for that… fraud—an act which in some states is considered a crime and punishable by law.

So what am I saying?

All that said, I am not writing this article to belittle those with emotional support animals or even the idea of having one.  I do wish to highlight some of the practical issues that arise when a person chooses to bring their emotional support animal into a public area where they are not generally permitted.  I have an incredible bond with my guide dog, and certainly understand the emotional benefits (and drawbacks) of having an animal, but for a service dog user, it’s about more than emotions.  Whether it be to alert us to a seizure, guide us to safety in the midst of a disorienting episode of PTSD, or keep us from walking off the edge of a stage, we are putting our very lives in our dogs paws.  Please don’t put us or our rights at stake merely because you want to bring your dog/ESA everywhere with you.

Thanks for reading, and a happy new year to all our two-footed and four-legged friends.