Fake Service Animals Aren’t the Problem!

It seems the one issue I can’t escape from lately is that of fake service animals. My social media feeds are littered with posts about fake service dogs being caught by the authorities, pleas for legislation to counter the abuse of public access, or warnings on how to potentially spot a fake service dog. Off the Internet, I’ve overheard conversations from family, friends, coworkers, and complete strangers on the topic. The one glaring thing with all this outrage is that its entirely misplaced.

Now here me out, okay? I get it. The idea of someone parading their pet around eschewing the law is immoral, reprehensible, and arrogant. I’m sure nearly every pet owner would like nothing less than to never have to leave their companion home alone. Even when they understand the vast difference between a pet and a trained service animal, people will still lament their jealousy over my guide dog accompanying me while their pet is home. Sometimes they’ll even remark how they’re sure that same pet would be just as well behaved. Regardless of the validity of such a claim, they still aren’t afforded that right.

I am not, however, in the least bit bothered by the “fakers.” First, because the law is on my side. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” This sounds really broad and there is a reason for it. Most service animals that you’re aware of are quite visibly recognizable either by their working attire or their partner’s disability. However, there are many service animals utilized for “invisible disabilities” or those that you can’t determine just from casual observation. There are dogs trained to detect diabetic shock and epileptic seizures, for instance. Since the United States has very strict laws about medical privacy, and working with a service animal does not supersede that right, the broad definition is a necessity. Of course, in my experience, considering the exposure you receive by the very nature of working with a service animal, handlers tend to be more easygoing about answering questions about their disability.

Possibly more to the point, the second reason fake service animals don’t particular faze me is that their merely being in the public is not doing me a disservice. Sure, I don’t want them there and it can be infuriating to witness someone breaking the law without any consequences. But if they’re “faking” the job of being a service animal properly then they aren’t misrepresenting me as a handler nor are they actively interfering with my guide dog’s ability to do her job.

The law is also on my side if that fake service animal isn’t behaving because it has provisions for misbehaving service animals. And yes, sometimes service animals misbehave. It’s easy to assume this is because the animal wasn’t trained properly, but the truth is any number of reasons could be the cause of misbehavior. Service animals are not furry robots; they’re living beings who have off days, get overwhelmed, or just act out. Whatever the reason may be, a misbehaving service animal is unacceptable. Specifically, the law states “that service animals be under the control of the handler at all times” and when this is not the case “and the handler does not take effective action to control it, staff may request that the animal be removed from the premises.”

After nearly twenty years of working with a service animal, I can say with certainty that awareness has grown exponentially about public access rights. However, more often than not while a proprietor may understand that service animals have to be allowed into their establishment they are not aware of their rights under the law. I’m of the belief that this is at least partly due to the paranoia of litigation that pervades, well, everything. Nevertheless, this is where your outrage should be focused: educating everyone about the law!

What we don’t need is more legislation to curb the supposed rampant fake service animals. Yes, there are pros and cons to a lot of potential ways to combat the abuse of the laws as they are presently written. I’m personally on the fence about many of them, but the big sticking point for me and many handlers here in the States is the issue of professional training. Presently, the law affords a handler freedom to choose between any trainer or program in order to obtain a service animal. This includes the right to train one’s own service animal. While all of my guide dogs have come from schools dedicated to training guide dogs and I personally anticipate that I will always utilize such services, every handler is different. Some relish the structure a program might offer, while others prefer the flexibility of their own training methods. Also, while there are many types of training programs, there are those who are unable to get the services they need from any of them.

In short, service animal handlers are not any more above the law than the fake ones. If you witness a handler not doing their job and/or their partner is causing a disruption in public, I urge you to call them out on it! Focus your energy on educating everyone about the law rather than wasting your time trying to defeat the very concept of those who might break it.

A Year with Nahla

I would feel guilty about the lack of posting, especially with regard to updating on Nahla, but I’m too overwhelmed by the simple fact that an entire year has gone by.

So much happened in such a short amount of time. The very day before training began, Uschi worked in harness for the very last time. And in the most bizarre twist of firsts, my father took her home with him, separating us for the first time. I’m still not sure who had a more difficult time with this.1

Nahla, doing her customary head tiltOf course, soon enough I was bombarded by my exuberant new arrival: Nahla.

For my part I always find the first day with a new guide dog simultaneously exhilarating and annoying. It’s an indescribable level of wonderful meeting your new partner for the first time, but it’s also so strange to go from a seasoned, well-behaved, and calm older dog to a mass of frenetic fur that is barely more than a puppy. Nahla was no exception. Also, she’s a whiner, which is a made only more obvious and irritating in contrast to Uschi who barely ever makes a peep outside of barking at the mail carrier.

The weeks of training went by in a blur even after Dad returned Uschi and I was officially outnumbered by the shepherds in the household. I don’t know why having double the amount of dogs equals well more than double the amount of work and resources, but let me assure you it does. Honestly, a lot of my two weeks of training was learning how to handle both of these dogs together. Chris, my Fidelco instructor, was bound and determined to leave us in a state where I could independently walk both of the girls securely. I admit I hadn’t even thought about such a thing until he mentioned it and was delighted by the idea if a bit skeptical. Uschi’s biggest issue has always been other animals, specifically dogs, and her reactions had grown progressively more alarming despite my best efforts to keep on top of it. But before we had concluded our training I was not only taking both dogs out to relieve simultaneously, I had also walked several miles with Uschi heeling beside me on my right side as Nahla guided me along.

This all wouldn’t be possible, however, if Nahla wasn’t such a solid guide dog. For one, she is absolutely unfazed by other dogs. At most she shows some awareness of them, but she doesn’t react in any significant way. Moreover as a breed, the shepherds tend to find work reinforcing and Nahla is definitely a prime example of this and is truly focused when in harness. Uschi, for her part, just seems to enjoy that she gets out still and is happy to trot along with us.

Anyway, you’re probably wondering at this point if all was so great and terrific, why the lack of posting? Aside from the usual “I’m busy and time is a thing” excuse, that is. Well, the thing of it is that stuff wasn’t all great and terrific. In fact, the first two months following training were some of the most stressful of my entire life working with guide dogs. There was always at least one dog sick in this house at any given time. Often it was both dogs. Generally, it was just Nahla. This eventually got to a breaking point where I called Fidelco in tears because here on the one hand I had this amazing new partner who was essentially perfect for me in all the ways I could imagine asking for, while on the other she was just constantly sick with this thing or another. Whereas my actually chronically ill dog was more or less fine. After Yara I had made it very clear that health issues were not acceptable and Uschi was only a concession in that her lupus initially didn’t hinder her ability to work.2 I ended the call with Fidelco very aware of our probationary status as a team, but hoping that all of these issues were just post-placement anxiety. Thing is, I’m entirely certain that was exactly the cause because it was like I flipped a switch on this dog. Literally, the next day she was all better and hasn’t had a single issue whatsoever since.

Once the dust of stress settled things just clicked into place in such a way that it’s hard to remember when I didn’t have to wrangle two shepherds. Nahla’s just inserted herself into life here in such a way that I didn’t realize we were missing a piece until she plopped herself into it. She’s a solid partner both in and out of harness. Working with her is smooth, her pace and pull are just perfect for me and I never have to cajole her into going on. If anything I wish I were ten years younger and even more active because this dog has energy to burn! At home she’s . . . well, let’s just say she’s managed to get her way a lot faster than any of my previous dogs. I could have fought her on getting on the furniture — and I was initially very determined that was a retired dog’s privilege alone — but between her very mature and calm attitude about such things and those pitiful stares of hers I caved. Yeah, I’m getting soft. As for Uschi, the two get along famously; they roughhouse when the mood strikes them, but mostly they’re pretty chill and I often find them snuggled up together, napping.

Happy anniversary, Nahla; may we have many more years to look back on and marvel about!

  1. To my credit I didn’t have accidents in the house, but I was most certainly disoriented sans a dog and guide.
  2. Despite showing signs of lupus from the day she arrived here, the erratic and debilitating symptoms didn’t manifest until a few years after her initial diagnosis. Initially it was thought she had a mild case that was easily treatable and wouldn’t affect her much at all.

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival #15: Freedom

[Note: My deepest apologies for the extreme delay in getting this posted. Much gratitude and thanks to Brooke of Ruled by Paws for compiling the submissions and writing up this edition of the ADBC.]

Assistance Dog Blog CarnivalOur friends Cyndy and Uschi have been dealing with ongoing computer problems, so they have asked me, the Rogue Hurricane, to take care of sharing the many great entries that were submitted for the 15th round of the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival.

This will be the very first time I have been given this amazing honour, so hopefully I do okay.

First up, we have our friends, Karyn and Thane, from the blog Through A Guide’s Eyes. Karyn writes about the wonderful changes she has experienced over the past six months, both with her personal health and in her partnership with thane while taking part in a program centered in the science of neuroplasticity. Please take a moment to read about the journey in their post titled “Now this is Freedom.”

Now let’s go visit Flo over at the blog, A Mutt and His Pack. In an entry called “Freedom,” Flo writes about the things a service dog handler must consider before going out each day with their canine companion, and about how to her, it’s all worth it.

I totally agree, I think I’m totally worth the constant worry and public annoyances, don’t you?

Next, we’ll go visit our Swedish friends, Nadja and Hera, over at the blog, Leye-Shprintse Oberg. In a post titled: “Freedom,” Nadja talks about the freedom of choice. She writes about her feelings of not being ‘normal’ wile using a white cane and how choosing to work with Hera has changed the way others think of her.

Mommy says she can really relate to this post because when she lost her sight at 13 and had to learn to use a white cane, she hated it and hated the way people thought of her. She told me that when she got her first dog guide, Gryphon, in 1997, she put her cane on the shelf and has never looked back. Now people see her as the “woman with the dogs”, and stare at us instead of at “the “blind woman”.

Here’s our fellow Canadians, Carin and Tansy, of the blog, Vomit Comet. In her entry, “The Freedom I find in a Guide Dog,” Carin writes about how her dogs have made life a lot easier, but if needed, she would still be able to survive without them.

Mommy says she can also relate to this post, but in my canine opinion, I think they’re both wrong…how could they ever survive without a cute, four-legged friend, like me, to watch over them?

Now it’s time to get a little more serious with our friends, L-Squared and Jack, who have written about the issue of irresponsible dog owners and the differing levels of prosecution from state to state if a service dog were to be injured. In their post, “Freedom Comes With Responsibilities,” L-Squared shares some frightening experiences her and jack have had with off leash dogs and irresponsible owners.

BIG SHIVER I am SO glad I wasn’t there. Mommy has encountered scary dogs and bad owners with both Phoenix and Cessna, but thankfully it hasn’t happened to me.

Next, we have Sharon Wachsler who has some wonderful news to share with us all… In her entry titled: “Freedom! I’ve Recovered My Health!” Sharon writes about the amazing changes her health has undergone through a program that involves a behavioural neuroplasticity brain retraining program. Please take a moment to read about her spectacular journey towards recovery.

Now let’s take a moment to welcome Natalie of the blog, Still I Can’t Be Silent. This is Natalie’s first time participating in the Carnival, so please take some extra time to leave a comment on her post. In her entry titled: “Freedom,” Natalie writes about the different ways in which service dogs provide their human companions with a sense of freedom.

Here’s another new carnival participant, please try and take some extra time to leave a comment for Joe. In a post titled: “Gaynor,” Joe tells us about his daughter Siobhan’s service dog. He writes about the first time Siobhan meets gaynor and about their partnership, as well as, about having to find her a retirement home and about her recent passing.

Awe, this entry had me teary, I am only 3 and don’t like reading about dogs passing away…in my short life, I have already had to say goodbye to my friends Phoenix and Aspen.

Guess who’s next…?

It’s our turn!!

Come check out our blog, ruled by paws. In a post titled: “Rogue is Freedom,” Mommy writes about yours truly!! She talks about what a difference I have made in her life and how even before I arrived, I was forcing her to go outside of her comfort zone and take back her independence.

Not sure how many of you know this, but Mommy and I went on a trip alone to Wyoming on an airplane in May. Mommy was a bit nervous about the trip, but I took charge and showed Mommy how amazing I am. I even passed the dreaded public access test with flying colours!!

So, that’s it. there are no more posts for me to read and write about. thank you Cyndy and Uschi for allowing me to take over your blog for a bit and help you out, it was fun learning about everyone.

OH!! Just one more thing to tell everyone. From now on, the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival will be organized by Cyndy and Mommy, so keep an eye on our blogs to see when and where the next Assistance Dog Blog Carnival will take place. We hope to see you all at the next one.

15 Years (and Then Some) of Learning

Ideally, this would have been posted last June to coincide with the fifteenth anniversary of partnering with my first guide dog. In fact, it was my intention to submit it for the twelfth ADBC. Months later, Brooke even tried to “help” me finally write this in the hopes that I’d participate in the thirteenth ADBC.

Collage of three black-and-white images of Yara, Dolly and Uschi in harness

Even though it seems to have gone by faster than it should have, fifteen years is a long time. Nearly half my life, in fact.

A lot has changed over that decade-and-a-half. I’ve changed a lot over that decade-and-a-half, which seems cliché but is nevertheless the truth. I’ve written about this previously, of course, and later expanded on the profound differences. But one thing I’ve not really stressed before is just how much I’ve learned as a guide dog handler.

The key things are probably the most obvious: I’ve learned about how to work with a guide dog, what a lifestyle change it involves, and the incredible life-changing effect it can provide. My knowledge of dog training has grown in leaps and bounds and evolved along with the differences that dog training has undergone since my time at Guiding Eyes. And with fifteen years experience as a handler, I have a better understanding of my specific needs and desires in a partner.

Over the years I’ve amassed a wealth of information about public access and discrimination due mostly to personal experience. Nothing on a grand scale by any means,1 but I have been more-or-less thrown out of a few stores, had a few issues with some restaurants, and met with a fair amount of discrimination when hunting for an apartment. My favorite incident is a rather hilarious story involving a liquor store that ended with me arguing with a policeman about NYS access laws.

I wasn’t even aware of how self-conscious I was about being blind before I started working with a guide dog. I coped by trying to hide my limitations, which is practically impossible to do when you are accompanied by the most visible sign of blindness. A fact that was actually the argument more than a few family and friends used as to why I shouldn’t get and didn’t need a guide dog, which is amusing to me since that was basically the whole point for me. At the time I wasn’t quite able to explain it or maybe I was just too much of a stubborn teenager and didn’t want to.

What really stands out to me, though, is what I’ve been taught by my girls specifically. I’ve gained firsthand experience in how profound a bond there is between guide dog and handler and along the way gained more than a few insights on life: Dolly with her joie de vivre reminded me to not forget to enjoy myself, even when it was a simple and small thing. Yara’s serious attitude always makes me think of how I can better do the task at hand. And, in her own unique way, Uschi has shown me that it’s important to embrace who you are, quirks and all.

Sometimes it’s hard to separate out the specific things I’ve gained by working with a guide dog, so perhaps that’s why I feel I should have far more to say on the subject. Which only proves the point that all three of my guides have made me acutely aware of how much I have yet to learn and so the lessons continue on.

  1. Arguably, there has been cause for a lawsuit here and there, but none that have been worth it in my personal opinion.

Colors and Blindness

It’s been brought up a few times in the past how my parents learned I was blind because it’s humorous. I know this because when I tell the story in person people always laugh. I guess imagining four-year-old me slamming her head repeatedly into a coffee table is just hilarious that way. For obvious reasons, physical comedy is one of those things I just don’t understand, but to be honest I find the story funny, too, because it’s just the type of ludicrous that convinces me I live in a sitcom. Also, I don’t remember the coffee table [insert head trauma joke here], which acts as a sort of buffer of detachment for me.

Stories like that, I have come to realize, are important not just because they make people laugh at my lack of grace or even because they might “loosen up” to the concept of disabilities, but because they make blindness relatable. Even the least clumsy of us can think of a time where they’ve inadvertently injured themselves on something unseen.

That’s the thing with being born blind that I find both fascinating and relentlessly difficult: relating to “normal” vision. I’ve always seen the way that I do — a world absent of color, depth-perception, and distance vision. One of my favorite things is listening to someone describe a sunset. My father has a particular talent with conveying the breathtaking beauty in astonishing detail. Except as interesting and vivid a picture he creates in his description there’s a point where he might as well be speaking to me in another language because I literally have no understanding of colors.

Growing up I loved to color. As a very little kid I remember having those big crayons that are easier for little hands to grasp and use. There were eight: red, yellow, blue, black, green, brown, orange, and purple. I remember them so well because they were among the first words I ever learned to read and this was so important because the black and brown both looked the same to me. Even the blue crayon itself appeared the same, but I knew when I used it that it didn’t look the same as the coloring I did with those other two crayons. I didn’t really understand why those two crayons had different names when they looked the same to me, but I did know that tree trunks were brown and not black so that seemed a good enough differentiation to my little kid mind.

For some reason enjoyment of coloring is interpreted by adults on almost a continuum of skill so after several years trying to keep my giant crayons working inside the lines I graduated up to the regular sized crayons and that inevitably led to the 64 crayon box. If everyone has their own version of an Unsolvable Puzzle in their life, the 64 crayon box is mine.1 Do you know that there are seven crayons in that box with red or some combination of red in their names? I do because to this day I still don’t understand why there is a red-orange crayon and an orange-red crayon. And what the heck is brick red anyway? I mean, bricks come in all different colors!2

Anyway, getting back to the point, suddenly coloring was so very different. Before the 64-box came into my life I only had two crayons that gave me a bit of confusion and required some extra attention to use. When I went through my new big box of crayons and grouped the ones that looked the same I suddenly had more than half the box in a pile of “black-ish.” And, as I already explained, the labels were far less helpful than my trusty 8-pack. I remember I reorganized the crayons from their original setup where they are grouped by color into something that made more sense to me. Essentially I put my eight trusty friends in the front and just dumped the rest back in the box. When I was feeling particularly adventurous I might sneak out a “new” color to draw with, but when the coloring books were spread before me I only ever picked up a different color if someone handed it to me as a suggestion.

So, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t just ask someone why there were a bunch of repeated, baffling crayons in my new box. Well, for one, I grew up in that strange time when children were taught some amount of manners so telling my parents their gift basically sucked wasn’t remotely a possibility. But more to the point, I didn’t realize I was confused by the crayons. I knew what colors were or at least I thought I did. I mean, we went over them in school and I knew the names of them and various facts like grass is green. Anyway, it became a moot point because it was around this time that I became interested in other art forms like origami and sculpting and making anatomically incorrect horses out of clay for 4-H didn’t require knowing what the heck magenta was.

However, I’m pretty sure if I had tried to explain all that back then it would have been met with bewildered confusion because it happens constantly now when I try to explain it! Here’s an example:

Person: You know you have two different colored socks on?

Me: No. Why, what colors are they?

Person: Well, one is blue and the other is green.

Me: Interesting. They look gray to me.

Person: Well, they aren’t. *indicating each sock* This one is blue and that one is green!

Me:*baffled* Okay then.3

What happens is basically a communication breakdown. The person here is trying to politely convey that my socks don’t match by pointing out their colors and I’m Just Not Getting It. Unfortunately for me that isn’t an excuse because even the most intellectually deficient person on the planet understands what blue and green are. We know that we all have to be taught our colors, but we learn about them at such a young age and after we’ve already had a lengthy visual understanding of them that they are such an ingrained part of our psyche we literally can’t comprehend how someone doesn’t understand them. So, no I didn’t just miss a few days of kindergarten and somehow my teachers managed to forget to check if I got that particular lesson. I’m color blind. I literally do not perceive colors; I physically can’t.

Complete colorblindness is an accurate description for me, but it’s difficult to explain in a way that’s understandable to others because the absence of color and the ability to perceive it are independent of one another. Semantics aside, it’s also a far more rare type of colorblindness than is generally bandied about. Red-green colorblindness is the most common and essentially is the inability to distinguish between the two, which is due, at least in part, because these colors are perceived in hues of yellow, orange, and beige. So, often when I say I’m colorblind it’s understood as I’m seeing some psychedelic version of whats actually there when in fact I’m just not seeing the actual color at all. Yes, I know I said my socks were gray above, but in all honesty I don’t really understand what gray is any more than blue or green!4

What’s really confusing to try and explain is that I don’t live in some drab world of blacks-and-grays. I know this because I can tell the difference between a black-and-white film where things tend to melt together in a sea of monotone blobs and reality where there is a vibrant array of contrast. It’s at this point that I lose any ability to really explain the differences because I don’t understand them any better than any other person. If I could transplant my vision into someone else head they would perceive the way I see completely differently than I do simply because they have an understanding of color perception and would be aware of the absence thereof. The same goes the other way, without an understanding of it, I can’t really paint a picture of the way I see.

What will really bake your noodle is that I have some affinity for the color red. Physically I can’t perceive it, but I can almost always pick out brighter reds — they look, well, warmer — and as yet I can provide absolutely no reason as to why that is. So, while I may never have another anecdotal story to help bridge the understanding of my particular form of colorblindness, I can at least say without guilt that red is my favorite color.

Incidentally, I’ve been told it’s my color. ;-)

  1. Yes, I know there are even bigger crayon boxes out there; that’s beside the point.
  2. It’s also a matter of contention for me, since I’m on the subject, that orange doesn’t smell anything like an orange.
  3. This used to happen so often that for the longest time I only wore white socks because even if they weren’t the same socks, they matched and people didn’t feel a need to point out my mismatched socks to me. And then eventually I found that boring and also keeping white socks white is virtually impossible so I started wearing socks with all kinds of funky designs on them and they almost never match.
  4. Gray to me is everything that isn’t white or black and that’s way too much variety to be what is actually gray.