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Working Animals Only Need Apply

Posted by at 5:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (28)

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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  • Leo says:

    Laura J. B. using a prong collar is so cruel and illegal in many countries for good reason, only someone with zero understanding of dogs would ever use these instruments of torture, if you dont believe me, put it around your neck and pull it! There is no bond with any animal if its terrified of you and no bond with you for inflicting pain on your pet.

  • Leo says:

    Laura J. B. using a prong collar is so cruel and unnecessary, if you dont believe me, put it around your neck and pull it! There is no bond with any animal if its terrified of you.

  • joe horne says:

    I completely agree. Many of these service animals spend long hours just sitting with a leash next to their owners instead of being able to enjoy dog activities. They basically are expected to sacrifice their lives for their owners and have no time for themselves. While I have never observed a disabled person being unkind to the animal themselves, I am sure it happens and I am very concerned about the way they are trained and also how they are viewed. They are virtually ignored, not even supposed to be petted or interacted with as it might be a “distraction” while the blind or disabled person is praised for being so independent. A lot more should be done to care for these animals and insure they get sufficient time to rest, have fun and just be dogs. Here they are working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with no compensation and completely undervalued. Other means of helping the disabled should be looked into as substitutions such as robots or human carers and any working animals should have similar rights to human workers, regulated hours, decent “pay” in the form of good food, toys , leisure time etc and retirement benefits in the form of guaranteed homes and care when they are too old or sick. The same should apply to police dogs, horses, etc.

  • K Johnson says:

    I think service dogs are definitely animal cruelty, and I have observed terrible treatment of these dogs from the so called disabled people they are with. My question has always been, if these people are so disabled that they cannot care for themselves, who is taking care of these slave animals. How can a disabled or blind person, when at home, correctly take appropriate care of any living animal. When I see the sad look on these animals out in public , I am outraged!

  • Michelle says:

    Yeah I am actually friends with the person who’s dog was distracted and cause her to have a massive seizure due to the dog missing an alert. People are do naive. They will believe just about anything they see or hear now a days and take offense to everything. I’d love to know myself what “the dead eyes of a service dog” look like. I have a service dog myself and this dog lights up when she knows she is going out for work. She loves it. And I actually do let people pet her if they ask not just walk up and distract her from what she is doing. First off that’s rude to to in any situation for all reasons you should never pet another person’s animal without thier consent as you don’t know if the animal is agression or not and thay opens a whole new can of worms. Second most people with disabilities are not out and about all the time we are at home because we are so sick we can barely get out of bed. *Look up the spoon theory* I as well as pretty much every service dog handler I know and I know plenty give thier dogs all the time in the world to enjoy themselves and act as dogs. My dogs personally loves to play and all I do for the most part is play with her at home. When we are going out she has a “baby” stuffed toy for the car ride and plenty of treats and water bottles for when we are out. She enjoys the outings as we don’t just always go to the store and back. Just because some one had a bad experience with a certain organization does not mean at all that all organizations are bad nor handlers. It’s not fair for handlers to get bashed for something one group does. And for the most part all my other friends with service dogs practice nothing but positive reinforcement training on their dogs and most organizations are switching over to that as well. Do I think it’s sad that some dogs need to be rehomed because they weren’t a good fit as a working dog? Absolutely yes. What people don’t see is how much it breaks our hearts when we have to do so. We have bonded to these dogs and love them very much so and we don’t think it’s fair to force them to continue to work if they aren’t a good match. Some dogs get super anxious in crowds or get nervous in public so it’s not fair to keep a dog working in those conditions, so yes they get rehomed. Only to a great fit however. We don’t just hand them down to the first person that comes along. And I have never known personally anyone trying to rehome an SD that didn’t give it a a HUGE effort in getting them a loving home. We love our dogs very much and would not force an unhappy dog with a broken spirit to continue working. It’s is not a 24 hr job till the day they take their last breath like people here are perceiving it to be. People need to get more educated on the manner before ranting on something they see little of or know nothing about. I feel we as handlers as very little of people that concerns out dog. All we ask is to please not distract or pet the dog especially without asking. Sadly it’s mostly adults that have problems with this rule and have a tantrum like a child when told no. Sorry but people need to grow up and I know that comes of mean but I don’t really care truth hurts. People need to be up to date on the laws too as it is illegal to disrupt a service animal from working and you will be fined. Sorry but thay means no kissy noises allowed either. I hope I somewhat shed some light on this issue and if not oh well I tried.

  • deb says:

    I loathe the idea of service dogs. There is a story going around the internet of a person who pet a service dog causing trouble to the guardian. In the comments, everyone is criticizing the person who pet the dog. Makes me SO angry!!! Animals are NOT here to give THEIR lives to us precious humans!! Not in ANY way! They have their OWN experiences to have!😣😠 I’ll stop here, but I get a real kick out of the word “humane” It is based on the word”human” and we are not in any way the same as the meaning of the word.

  • Deb says:

    I am against the idea COMPLETELY. I am sick to death of a world that sees animals as secondary sentient beings, here for humans. I don’t care if they have special skills to detect medical issues, get technology for that. I have seen too much abuse. I have animal activist friends who shock me in their treatment of animals. I worked at a farm sanctuary, again shocked. Friends of mine, shocked. We just do not get that they have feelings. I DIDN’T GET IT MYSELF.

    So, tell someone that a dog is there to serve them, well, they are off and running. When dogs are adopted out as regular pets, and they have a special gift, that’s fine. When dogs are adopted out to help emotions, train THE PERSON, not the dog. I can tell you two out of two instances where the dogs were in TERRIBLE situations due to the emotions of their owners. The OWNER needs to be screened. Let us please stop USING animals… For ANYTHING. Let us take their special traits and let them enjoy them. They weren’t here to serve us. If we look at how to serve disabled people and forget about the use of animals, there will be a multitude of new discoveries. Animals are NOT here to serve humans. (I can’t proofread this, it won’t scroll.)

  • caitie says:

    Very sad that you had this experience and it’s terrible that Murphy had to endure that however if done properly these dogs are happy. Yes they are focused but when the vest comes off they are probably the most spoiled animals in the world. But when the vests are on yes they need to be focussed. I’m part of many groups for service dog training advice and they even think a dog may be being mistreated or punished for not responding properly they will call the SPCA in a heartbeat. I’m getting my service dog in a couple months and I’m rescuing a dog to give then a second chance at a good life. So the dog is not a slave they are not being broken. They are loved member of the family that help us every single day. We love them and would never mistreat them. And if a dog doesn’t want to be a service dog there is no forcing them. We respect their decision and they are either kept as a pet or an ESA or we make sure they have a wonderful loving home where they can chase rabbits in the fields or do whatever makes them happy. I’m sorry you’ve had this experience but those are the big corporations that only care about money not the people that they are trained to help.

  • wolfhart says:

    You’ve said it exactly how I think. People look at me in horror when I say I dont support the guide and assistance dog organisations. I have a very happy assistance dog for mental illness i trained myself and he’s happy because he’s treated with respect and allowed to be a normal dog and be naughty, chase rabbits, scavange, swim. Many a time we haven’t been able to go where we’ve planned to because he’s got muddy along the way. It’s an enormous emotional life for an assistance, guide dog and its heartbraking seeing so many used and abused. My dog loves and respects me because I love and respect him.

  • Service Slaves says:

    I always wondered if so-called Service Dogs are so well trained, why do the trainers and owners drape them with signs telling others not to do something so innocent and kind as to PET THEM! And don’t say it distracts them, look at the show dogs that get petted constantly by their handlers DURING THE SHOWS. It is a stupid industry practice started by some numbskull who got in the biz for the bucks, or was so incompetent they couldn’t train their animals to do both.

  • Jason F. says:

    Dear Michelle,
    Thank you for your excellent article regarding service dogs. You couldn’t have said it better when you said, “..a life of servitude..” While I understand that many people believe their lives are improved because of their service dog, in many cases, those dogs have paid and continue to pay a huge price. It is hopeful that some day technology will become advanced enough to replace living beings used as slaves.

    I have witnessed on many occasions that empty look in the eyes of service dogs and I am always saddened to see this.

    I present one question to those who defend the service dog culture. How would you like to do the service dog’s job, 24/7 for the rest of your life?

  • Alexandra W says:

    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.

  • James says:

    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!

  • Laura J. B. says:

    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.

  • Nicole Hay says:

    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.

  • Cheryl says:

    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.

  • Cheryl says:

    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.

  • Molly says:

    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.

  • Jennifer says:

    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..)

  • Pamela says:

    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.

  • Roxy says:

    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.

  • Tucker says:

    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!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I also AGREE with the person who said PETA should look in to this!!!!!!!!


  • 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.

  • Michelle says:

    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.

  • Jackie Ennis says:

    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.

  • Teresa says:

    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.

  • jewel says:

    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.

  • Team Logan says:

    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.

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