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Working Animals Only Need Apply

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Working Animals Only Need Apply by Michelle RiveraA while back, I was asked to start a program in the Palm Beach County Jail that brought together inmates with puppies who were to be raised and trained as service dogs. At the time, I thought it was a great honor, and I dove into the project with a great deal of enthusiasm and passion. It soon became apparent, however, that I was not the best person to train the inmates to train the dogs.

As a dog trainer, I only use positive reinforcement techniques. If Spot wants the treat, he has to do something that I request him to do. But the organization providing the puppies had a very different idea on how dogs should be trained. It was “old school” on this, and it wouldn’t budge. So the organization ended up hiring a trainer who had no problem yanking hard on the necks of 8-week-old puppies and forcing them to bend to her will.

Have you ever wondered why service dogs are so very well behaved? It’s because they are born into a culture of servitude. At 8 weeks old, they are placed with a “puppy raiser,” a person who will foster the puppies and raise them until they are about 18 months old. During that time, the puppy raiser is instructed on how to train the puppies. By the time those puppies are turned back over to the organization, they are expected to have a particular set of skills on which to build. The puppies rarely had time to just be dogs. Their toys did not belong to them-rather, they belonged to the handler/trainer and were used only at certain times of the day when the puppy was to interact with a person. Food is given out in tiny increments during the day and has to be “earned.”

The puppies are then turned over to the organization that kennels and trains them to perform a multitude of tasks, from opening doors to picking up items dropped on the floor. They are trained to ignore tennis balls, rabbits, other dogs … in essence, everything that stimulates dogs. On the other hand, these dogs usually get to go everywhere that their guardian goes, which is surely more stimulating than being left home while one’s guardian is off at work for eight hours. So one could argue that it’s a trade off.

But is the price too high? PETA’s vice president of cruelty investigations, Daphna Nachminovitch, noted many concerns in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

I also became aware of the challenges of placing dogs who “fail” in the program. I was told about a wonderful golden retriever named Murphy who had been raised to become a service dog but didn’t make the cut. He was completely trained and healthy, but it seems he refused to pick up things off the floor and “hand them over” to someone in a wheelchair. Since this is a critical skill for a service dog to perform, he was dropped from the program. He was put in a kennel and all but forgotten, with little effort made to find him a suitable home. What to do with him?

Murphy had become a sort of persona (canine-a?) non grata. Since he didn’t pass the test, he couldn’t be placed with a disabled person. He was already neutered (thankfully!), so he couldn’t be used in the program’s breeding effort to make more puppies. Murphy languished in that cage for two years before I heard about his case. Since I was working as an animal-assisted therapist at a drug rehab facility at the time, he was given to me to incorporate into my work. Surely he could cheer patients in need of a little animal therapy. I mean, how hard is that?

Turns out it was a little too hard for Murphy. He was terribly depressed. He moped around like Eeyore on Winnie the Pooh. I took him to a vet-he was fine. I hired a dog psychic-he was depressed (gee, thanks). And I finally figured out that his spirit was broken. He had never been allowed to be a dog, so he wasn’t really sure how to act. It took more than a year of full-time, day in and day out happy talk, cheerful chatter, dancing, and singing (not well, but loud, very loud)-and even a few hours of doing the Irish Jig before he would even wag his tail. He’s a member of my family now and acts like a dog most of the time, but he’s still very subdued. People think he’s a lot older than he is. I tell them he has an old soul, and maybe that’s true. But I think it has more to do with how he was raised.

And so I have to wonder, are we doing the right thing by forcing these dogs into service? Is a life of servitude a good life for a dog? I’m not sure. I am not talking about dogs who can pick up on epilepsy or heart problems or serve as emotional support animals. Many of those dogs tend to be companion animals who have demonstrated an ability to do something extraordinary. Many of the hearing-aide dogs are shelter rescues, so the programs don’t contribute to the companion animal overpopulation crisis. My concern is for the dogs you see in the store with the vest that says “working animal-do not pet.” If you look into the eyes of those dogs, you don’t see joy there but resignation. I know I will get responses telling me what great services these dogs perform, guiding eyes for the blind, hearing ears for the deaf, hands for those who can’t use their own. I get that, I do. I know that they are out there in the world doing wonderful things. I just think that maybe we should stop for just a minute and think about what the dogs get out of it.

Maybe there’s a better way. What do you think?

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    Team Logan says...

    January 4th, 2010, 8:50 pm

    There is a better way. I’m sorry you had the experience you described but not all service dog organizations are like that. I have a wonderful and joyful service dog from an organization that used only positive reinforcement and did not kennel their dogs. She was fed regular meals (not just “food given out in tiny increments that had to be earned”), had her own toys, three non-service dog Lab sisters who she could just be a dog with and showered with love and affection from her puppy raisers who we still get together with. Just this weekend someone at the store I was at told me they could see her tail wagging from all the way down the aisle as she “handed over” something that I dropped from my scooter.

    And yes, she was trained to ignore tennis balls and other dogs while she is working but when the vest comes off she is just a regular dog. I make sure she has plenty of play time and exercise, probably more than most pet dogs get. Just today she worked for one hour at my doctor’s appt., then we went to the dog park for two hours. Her favorite place is the beach where we won a photo contest for a shot of her rolling in the sand in joyful abandonment.

    I’m also so surprised to hear about Murphy. Most programs I know have long waiting lists for these “career change” dogs. Dean Koontz’s Trixie is a prime example. Perhaps Murphy had a career as a “demo dog” for those two years before he was placed with you?

    So what do the dogs get out of it? As you mentioned, getting to go out with their partners and not languish at home in the back yard or a crate for eight hours a day. The best in health care and nutrition as it’s important to keep our partners healthy. Plenty of mental stimulation and playing fun “games” like picking up keys. Yes, we make it a game, that’s why her tail was wagging.

    jewel says...

    January 7th, 2010, 5:28 pm

    I think that these dogs do wonderful things and should continue to do so. Many dogs would be euthanized rather than this, since taken from shelters, HOWEVER, I think we need to focus on the trainers. There should be humane, ethical, and positive reinforcement training by loving handlers. This may be an area that pita should focus on.

    Teresa says...

    January 8th, 2010, 5:50 pm

    I know a few guide dogs and I am surprised reading this article. The dogs I know are very happy. I do not know specifically about what training these dogs had and what I’ve read here is concerning. I can only say the dogs I know are very happy, very smart and do ignore everything while working, but when not working, they are treated like a dog. I’ve often thought my dog would have a better life as a working dog, being with their owner all the time, everywhere.

    Jackie Ennis says...

    January 8th, 2010, 5:54 pm

    I’m glad someone else feels this way. All one has to do is look into the dead eyes of a service dog and realize that it’s no life for any animal being made to serve under any circumstances.

    Michelle says...

    January 8th, 2010, 10:51 pm

    Thank you for your perspective. I only wanted to open a dialogue. My experience with Murphy was really quite heartbreaking and I agree with you that most of these dogs are sought after and there is a waiting list. However, the organization where Murphy came from is not one of the major ones and does not do things right, and so he fell between the cracks. I did find that CCI did not use positive reinforcement all of the time and I couldn’t bear that. But I am glad to know that you treat your service dogs with respect and admiration. They deserve that much.

    dorothy schieber says...

    January 9th, 2010, 3:41 pm

    i dont believe we have the right to make working slaves out of other animals. all working animals need rights and salaries, ie food, activities, and interactions that are enjoyed by their species. also time off and vacations. i always feel sad when i see horses, mules etc. working away with no thought of what they would like to do. same for these service dogs. if we dont respect their needs we have no right to use them.

    Tucker says...

    January 9th, 2010, 5:05 pm

    YES, dogs do great services, but I agree with making sure the Animals are WELL TAKEN CARE OF and NOT JUST USED FOR SERVISES, AND SHOULD BE PLAYED WITH ALOT, LOVED AND PRAISED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I think it is more of the trainers that need to be WATCHED AND THAT NEED TO HAVE CERTAIN GROUNDS TO BE A TRAINER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    NOT GIVEN REGULAR FOOD TIMES,NOT BEING PLAYED WITH, EXERCIED,OR HAVING THERE OWN BED AND TOYS AND SO MUCH MORE, IS DOWN RIGHT WRONG,SO WRONG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I also AGREE with the person who said PETA should look in to this!!!!!!!!

    WELL PETA??

    Roxy says...

    January 9th, 2010, 6:15 pm

    Thank you for bringing this issue into the light. I, like many others stand confused on this issue, but your article has helped me to understand even more that animals are not slaves, whatever the reason.

    Pamela says...

    January 11th, 2010, 4:46 pm

    Thank you for your article. I had never thought about it before. Poor animals, subjugated into becoming “things” for profit. This isn’t service, this is slavery.

    Jennifer says...

    March 23rd, 2010, 1:49 pm

    Goodness, I know I’m a little late to the discussion on this one but it seems to me you are looking at one badly run school and claiming it to be the situation at all of them.
    Pamela: regarding your statement that you don’t like animals becoming “things” for profit, many service animal schools do not charge the handlers. They provide the trained animals and team training for free.
    I do know that some of the older schools use training practices that many see as cruel, but I know that many of them are gradually moving towards a kinder approach. If people would be willing to work with them on that instead of just demonizing the entire service, there would probably be progress.
    Jackie: I find your statement about “the dead eyes of a service dog” very insulting. I have known many happy service dogs. I’m sure you all will see it as a bias that I was raised in a home with working guide dogs, but I know that every time my mom picks up that harness her guide comes running; tail wagging, eyes bright, and eager to adventure.
    Perhaps what you’re seeing in their eyes is focus, many of these dogs take their jobs very seriously, because they understand that a life is depending on them.
    Maybe they’re just bored, because they’re in the grocery store again. I’m sure you get that look on your face at work.
    All of my mothers guides have taken their jobs very seriously, and all of them get a lot of play time at home. In fact her first, Liesel, used to fetch tennis balls at the park. If someone threw a ball while Liesel had her harness on, she would not have gone for it. She knew the difference.

    Wow I wrote a lot there, so er, to summarize, some schools use training practices that I don’t approve of, and bring attention to that and bringing about change would be a good goal. I know some dogs don’t enjoy the work of a service animal and I agree that those ones should just be pets, but the ones that are suited for it deserve the enrichment that it brings. Most companion dogs are left home alone for several hours a day, not many get to go to Disneyland. (Guides are allowed on car-style rides like the peter pan ride, Chances face when he saw the robotic sheep dog was adorable..)

    Molly says...

    May 19th, 2010, 5:15 pm

    You have completely missed the mark here and I wonder where you have gotten your information–have you ever raised a puppy for Canine Companions for Independence, been to team training, given of yourself to help disabled children and adults while working in unison with a wonderful dog in a positive way, a dog who gets great care and love and the satisfaction of working–yes, the dogs love to help and are eager to be part of a team. And they have plenty of play time too. I invite you to a CCI Graduation ceremony to open your eyes.

    Cheryl says...

    May 27th, 2010, 2:34 pm

    I am the proud partner of a very lucky service dog who was rescued (not bred), and trained solely by me using positive methods. Sage goes everywhere with me, is never crated, and is rarely even leashed (doesn’t need it). She gets to romp and dig at the beach, sun herself on the deck if she likes, sleep on her choice of a cushiony dog bed, an old sofa, or a fluffy pink faux sheepskin rug — or the bare floor if she prefers. I was making healthy homemade treats for her until we had to cut back because she liked them too much and was getting overweight. The back seat of my car is “hers,” and the only time I’ve violated her space is when I moved and she had to share that space with a few boxes several times, for a distance of 2.5 miles. When we walk, she often gets to choose our route, as long as it’s long enough to give us our daily exercise requirement. Sage knows the difference between work and play time, and behaves appropriately in many diverse settings. She even has her own friends, and more people know her name than know mine.

    I belong to a large organization of service dog teams, and any time somebody mentions PETA on our listserv, it provokes a firestorm because of the false impression that all service dogs are mistreated and lead a dull, thankless life. On the contrary, most of us cherish our canine partners more than even many pets are cherished, because of all the amazing things they do for us. Some on the list have even complained that spouses and friends have become jealous of the attention the SD receives, and most often, they say they’d rather give up the human relationship than change the relationship with their dog. How could we mistreat or neglect someone who has become such an inseparable part of our lives?

    I have left a message with a PETA staff member requesting clarification on this issue, and have suspended all donations until it’s resolved. We can no more condemn all service dog teams than condemn all shelters — there are good and bad everywhere.

    Cheryl says...

    May 27th, 2010, 2:45 pm

    Oh, I forgot the heated pad next to my computer desk — Sage can also repose on that when she likes. As an animal activist and long-time vegetarian, I can say with certainty that most companion dogs would jump at the chance to trade places with her.

    Nicole Hay says...

    May 5th, 2011, 10:43 pm

    I am disturbed by this. However, I don’t think we should throw it out. I used to have dishabilitating asthma. I have a service dog that I trained myself. She would wake me up in the middle of the night and bring me my inhaler. I always let her be a dog. She had tons of toys, lots of trips to the beaches and dog parks. I took her swimming on a regular basis. A service dog can be any breed, any mix or mutt. They don’t have to be certified and they give hope and happiness to countless disabled. They no longer see your oxygen tank or inhaler or wheelchair. They see the dog. They build confidence. I no longer need her as a service animal because I went vegan and I have immense improvements. I think that the main thing that needs to be fixed is the trainers/breeders and then we can move forward from there. Lets just keep doing what we are doing. Everything eventually will fall into place.

    Laura J. B. says...

    February 20th, 2012, 12:44 am

    I cannot keep quiet on this. I am a disabled person in a wheelchair. I have a service dog. I use a prong collar with her. It does not hurt her, it makes her more responsive. She makes my life fuller, and at the same time, I have never once seen her happier than when we are out in public and she is helping me. Not when she’s eating treats, not when she’s playing ball. This is what she was born and trained from her infancy to do, and it means something. The bond she and I share is far stronger than anything either of us would ever experience if she were a ‘normal dog.’ Please consider all sides to this argument before you judge.

    James says...

    January 3rd, 2014, 9:05 pm

    I totally agree about the training! What you described is awful! I have a service dog and he is NOT like that, nor was he trained cruelly to my knowledge. My dog LOVES his job. I mean, you can tell when a dog is excited about something. When I pick up his harness to put it on him, he wags his tail like mad and jumps his head and leg through like a pet dog gets excited when you pick up a leash for a walk. He acts like nothing makes him happier, not even his toys, feed, or treats. Not even the belly rub he demands every morning!

    Alexandra W says...

    February 13th, 2014, 9:22 pm

    Laura J. B.
    Wheelchair or not, the fact that you use a prong collar on your dog is very telling. Those are considered animal abuse and prohibited by law in many countries, as are electroshock collars.
    If your dog needs to be forced to respond to you by the threat of spikes around her neck, you are doing something wrong. Just ask yourself how you would like someone to hold a leash attached to a prong collar around YOUR neck.

    This article has certainly raised awareness to something I did not know about. Let’s just hope most service animals are raised with kindness, and treated with the love and dignity they deserve, as described by some of the commenters above.

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