We had a few very INTENSE training opportunities this weekend for us and for Casper. I am sure later this week Casper will give you his own input about how things went down. We had a couple of successes and a lot of failures. It’s fine… those failures are learning experiences for us all and worth a LOT more than any success is. However, it is exhausting and frustrating for all those involved. For my part I have decided to write about what it really takes to be a service dog because I don’t think people have any clue, even people who know a lot about these dogs. I want to put us all in their place and imagine working under the same circumstances these dogs do. First I will let you know about our greatest issue this weekend so that you understand what is prompting this post.
We went to Salem, MA this weekend. We LOVE Salem! Casper has been there during the off-season. We go a few times a year. Usually the first 2 weekends in October are busy, but manageable so we thought we would give it a shot. Of course, the gorgeous weather turned to drizzle by the time we got there and there was traffic so we were already in kind of poor spirits, but we soldiered on. As I think about the things we encountered I think it might be best to just make a list, so here we go:
1. Due to the government shut down the Visitor’s Center was closed, which is where the best public bathrooms are. This means that the place was full-out port-o-johns instead. Try imagining getting a Dane in one of those. Most shops do not have restrooms for patrons and restaurants require you to purchase to use one. AND…those places are TINY and hard to navigate. We know of a large and very convenient bathroom in a cafe we frequent. The patio was full of yipping dogs that made Casper pull Dan down and then he was turned away from the restroom for not being a patron. (On a side note…as we left that day the Salem Fire Department, right next to where we were parked, let Dan and Casper use their restroom.)
2. The place always has lots of dogs. At least half of the dogs there this day were very poorly behaved and should not have been allowed in a crowd like this.
3. Kids are everywhere. You know Casper loves human puppies!
4. People are wearing weird costumes and masks.
5. Shops are TINY and hard to navigate and no one wants to step aside and let Casper get by. Yet, he is a pro in these tiny spaces and maneuvers so amazingly. Never knocks something over. (Tiny hallways are different. They make him nervous and usually we can’t go down them. For example, to go to the bathroom at the back of some places.)
6. He apparently does NOT like voodoo dolls. You know, Salem in October. We found some at a shop and he would NOT move forward. Honestly, I can’t blame him.
7. Big booming drums and “here ye, here ye” makes him shake as bad as bagpipes do.
8. No one seems to know (especially adults) that you DO NOT just pet someone’s dog. Service dog aside, you don’t just pet a person’s dog without asking. And you DO NOT go at their face squealing. Again, adults were doing this. Some were asked more than once as they approached to please not pet because he was working and they still advanced. One squealed and rushed at Casper (who was already nervous, see number 7) and I almost clocked him with the bag in my hand. This was the first time I actually yelled at someone for trying to pet him. We try so hard to be polite, but give me a freaking break!!!!
9. If you see a dog who is excited about another dog (service dog or not) and his owners are trying to hold him back that does not mean “he needs to learn how to do his job better.” That means that he was already beyond distracted and doing his job was next to impossible at that exact moment. You try doing you job in the same circumstances, lady!
10. All of this happened within about 40 minutes. Dan was only pulled down once and Casper was immediately back in his control. Every incident that was less than acceptable on Casper’s part was 100% brought on by people who do not think at all about anyone but themselves.
So, there you go. Again, Casper will tell you more detail, but you really needed to know this for what I have to say. And remember that this was just in 40 minutes of one day. We encounter some of these, and other things, daily. (For example grocery store freezers and fridges make a hum that makes him nervous, but we get past that. Or he sees a squirrel or something. You never know what might happen.)
Now bear with me while we explore most of these issues from a human standpoint.
We will start with the bathrooms. Size is a huge issue. Dan has to use the handicapped bathroom stall with Casper. And even individual bathrooms might be too small, have a narrow hallway or even have a very strong air freshener that really bothers him and he won’t go in. Imagine you are with a friend. Maybe the friend needs you help because they sprained an ankle or something, who knows. That friend wants you to squeeze in a tiny bathroom, or worse, an outhouse. Would you be happy, or even willing, to go in there? Imagine if it smelled just HORRIBLE to you. Is if fair that you be forced to go in, especially if you could just go to a better bathroom down the street or on another floor? Not really. We don’t consider this to be a training issue. It is just not fair to require him to go in a tiny smelly space when it is just a little extra work to go elsewhere. (Another thing to keep in mind when you are wishing you could take your dog everywhere with you.)
Now imagine you are working, whatever you do whether it is in an office, a school, driving a truck, and throughout the day (or even just once) someone brings a dog in. Do you stay focused on your job? I know I wouldn’t. I would be pretty excited about playing with that dog!!! Or maybe it is a mean dog. This barking nasty dog comes in and is nipping at you. Do you stay calm? Probably not. So, then why would we assume a service dog should? (But you know, so many of them learn to work despite this and Casper is better everyday. I would never learn to not get excited about a dog!!!)
So, you are concentrating on your work and a parade of screaming, giggling, running kids surrounds you. Can you concentrate?
Is there something that scares you? Clowns? Chucky? Honey BooBoo? Try working with that popping in and out unexpectedly.
You are focused, really hyper into your work because you know someone is depending on you. Maybe your job, like mine, means you are trying to troubleshoot over the phone with someone. Or maybe you are giving a presentation. Suddenly a HUGE booming noise starts just by your head. How well are you concentrating now? Maybe it's bagpipes. In fact, let’s think about this one. A dog has super hearing. I tried to imagine what these super loud to me noises sound like to him. My best comparison is my smoke detector. I HATE that sound. Imagine it is going off and it is RIGHT NEXT TO your ear. Do you jump? Does it hurt? Can you work effectively?
What would you do if a random stranger came up and started stroking your hair or just got right in your face? Working or not you probably would not react well. Or maybe it’s someone you know well and they give you a wonderful shoulder massage. Are you concentrating well during that? What if that stranger in your face seems threatening to you because of the manner of their approach? Yeah. Probably not doing your work ethic a lot of good.
Now let’s add another angle to this. You chose your job. Whether you like it or not, you chose to do it. A service dog did not. He is born into it. When service dogs are working they are happy. This is what they are made to do and they love their job and their handler. If they don’t feel well - they still work. If they don’t want to be somewhere - they still work. They work 24-7. It is like being a mom. You just don’t get to take vacation.
Almost everything I mentioned above is eventually overcome by a service dog after they reach a certain point in training. There are usually one or two issues they will always struggle with (often seeing other dogs or getting pet) but they are still doing better than I ever would. So, when someone says he needs to learn how to do his job I get mad. Really mad. He is amazing for how young he is. He still has some room to grow, and so do Dan and I, but how do we learn if we stay at home and worry about whether he will be perfect. If I was worried about perfect behavior we would never take the kids anywhere. Or me for that matter!!!