As the holidays roll around again, many of us are preparing to host an annual holiday party. As you prepare your guest list, does it include someone partnered with an assistance dog? And if so, do you know how to make sure all your guests, both human and canine, feel welcome?
While most people are familiar with guide dogs that assist individuals who are blind or have partial vision loss, there are a variety of assistance dogs trained to help people impacted by spinal cord injury, hearing loss, post traumatic stress disorders, diabetes, or some other medical need.
More and more people with medical and physical limitations are discovering how assistance dogs can enhance their daily lives. There are multiple types of assistance dogs that provide an array of physical and mental support to their human partners.
Service dogs assist their human partners by carrying or retrieving items, pushing buttons (for example, on an elevator), opening and closing drawers, providing assistance with balance while dressing, helping with household chores and much more.
Hearing alert dogs alert individuals with hearing loss to specific sounds, including phones, doorbells, sirens, smoke alarms, crying babies and other humans.
Medical alert dogs respond to various types of medical events such as epileptic seizures, changes in blood sugar, heart attack, stroke, cancer and other potential medical emergencies. These dogs may be trained to alert their owner of an approaching medical event, pull an emergency cord, lick their owner’s face to notify him/her, or even retrieve the phone for a 911 call. Some dogs possess the ability to predict a medical event and will become restless or push against their partners to warn them.
When you invite someone who is partnered with an assistance dog into your home for a social gathering, there are some things that you need to be aware of in order to ensure that all your guests feel welcome. People are often confused about how they should behave around a working dog. After all, who can resist a gorgeous working dog, especially at a festive event?
It is important to recognize that although this is a social event and your guest is attending as a partygoer, their assistance dog is on the job and not in party mode. Your guest is dependent on their assistance dog for one or more medical needs. It is important not to distract their assistance dog. You should never speak directly to the dog or offer any type of food without first seeking the owner’s permission.
I often refer to assistance dogs as highly trained Olympic athletes who may be on special diets with strict feeding schedules. Unsolicited attention and food can be distracting to the dog and could be detrimental to their human partner’s safety and independence.
If you are aware your guest is partnered with an assistance dog, check in with him or her ahead of time and ask if there is anything you can do to accommodate him and his assistance dog while they are at the party. Share with him the best place to toilet his canine partner and ask if you can provide any water or snacks while the dog is at the party.
If you are hosting the party at your home and you have pets, consider placing your pets in a comfortable area away from the assistance dog and his human partner. Your family pets may not understand why a strange dog has entered their home and territory. Segregating the animals provides a safer environment and can reduce unnecessary stress.
When you are preparing the party area and placing chairs and other décor, consider allowing ample space for your guest and her assistance dog. You don’t want to isolate them but, you want to provide enough access area for the team to easily negotiate the area and mingle with other guests.
If you are really striving to be the “hostess with the mostess,” you may want to be aware of how other party goers are interacting with the working dog. Are they fearful of the dog or are they paying too much attention to the working dog? If so, you may need to provide some gentle reminders that this is a working dog and guests should not be touching or addressing the dog directly. You and your guests should always speak directly to the individual partnered with the dog. And, no one should pet the working dog without asking permission from their human partner.
Some of your other guests may be anxious or nervous about an assistance dog at the party. Don’t be afraid to reassure them that assistance dogs are highly trained to provide a variety of critical services to their human partner. Party goers with assistance dogs deserve the same respect as other party goers. That being said, you do have the right to ask the dog to leave if it is not behaving appropriately and jeopardizes the safety of other guests.
Keep it simple and remember these tips to ensure that everyone remains in the holiday spirit whenever they are meeting or approaching a working assistance dog and his or her human partner:
- Do not touch the Assistance Dog, or the person it assists, without permission.
- Do not make noises at the Assistance Dog; it may distract the animal from doing its job.
- Do not feed the Assistance Dog; it may disrupt his/her schedule and diet.
- Do not be offended if the person does not feel like discussing his/her disability or the assistance the dog provides. Not everyone wants to be a walking-talking “show and tell” exhibit.
Remember, it’s the holidays and everyone just wants to relax and enjoy the doggone party!!
As an experienced assistance dog handler, you may consider yourself to be a total “dog person,” but that doesn’t mean you should assume it’s OK to approach every unknown dog. For me and Whistle, getting up close and personal isn’t always the best approach.
When I am out alone with Whistle and an unknown dog approaches us, it always makes me somewhat leery until I can discern whether the unknown dog is friendly or unfriendly.
Experts at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine give guidelines on various situations and say that in many cases, it’s best to not approach unknown dogs at all.
- Is the dog tethered with no person with them?
An unattended dog on a leash or tether might be more aggressive than usual. Even a wagging tail is not a surefire sign of a happy dog. It can also mean the dog is excited or aggressive. If the dog is in “his territory,” such as their yard, it could be an even worse situation, with the dog feeling trapped and that he needs to defend his territory.
- Is the dog leashed with their owner?
Always ask permission before approaching any dog, no matter how friendly they might appear. Once you have permission, invite the dog to approach you rather than vice versa. Don’t pet the dog on top of his head but offer a closed hand for him to sniff. Use a soft voice.
- Is the dog unleashed with their owner?
Whether you’re in a dog park or out on the street where the owner just isn’t following the leash law, it is not safe to initiate an interaction with the dog. In this scenario a dog might feel like it needs to protect the owner.
- Is the dog unleashed with no owner nearby?
Avoid contact with dogs in this situation. You really can’t always read the dog’s body language. If the dog approaches you and appears aggressive, you should stand still and avoid eye contact.
When I got my first assistance dog, I was trained to use my wheelchair as a buffer between an unknown dog and my service dog. And, in an extreme case, I was taught how to use my wheelchair to protect myself and my dog. Fortunately, I have only had to use this tactic once or twice during my life with a service dog partner. But, I can tell you that the aggressive dog did not like having a 200 pound wheelchair roll over his paw and it was a great diversion to give me and my dog some time to get out of that situation.
In one extreme case, my husband, Franz, had to intervene when a unknown dog came running out of a florist shop to attack Ramona when she and I were entering an outside elevator in Washington, D.C. Franz had to get aggressive with the dog in order to get him to stop the attack. It was a scary experience and it definitely had a negative impact on Ramona’s psyche. After that incident, she became more sensitive to unknown dogs.
Have you had any issues with unknown dogs? And, if so, what tactic worked for you and your assistance dog?
My husband, Franz, service dog, Whistle and I recently had the opportunity to travel to Orlando, Florida for work. While we were there we took some time to visit Universal Studios. We are big Harry Potter fans and we were interested in visiting the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction at Universal Studios in Orlando.
As a wheelchair user with a service dog, I was a little nervous about accessibility. Boy, were my concerns quickly put to rest. Prior to our trip, I read a helpful article written by Kleo King, the senior vice-president of ABLE to Travel and Accessibility Services that was published in the November/December 2010 issue of Action the magazine of the United Spinal Association entitled “Accessible Wizardry in Orlando”.
The article discussed accessibility for the various rides as well as the streets and shops in Hogsmead. However, it did not mention accessibility regarding service animals.
As we entered the Universal grounds, we made a bee line to the back of the park to the Harry Potter attraction. Like two anxious children, Franz and I entered the gates of Harry’s wizarding world with awe and excitement. We followed the smooth cobblestones toward the Hogwarts castle.
To our amazement, we entered the castle and were quickly greeted by a young man dressed as a Hogwarts student. He led us through the winding corridors toward the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. This is the crown jewel of the Harry Potter attraction. As we wound our way through the castle, he highlighted some of the main attractions which included Dumbledore’s office, the infamous Sorting Hat, and a brief encounter with Harry, Hermione, and Ron.
It was truly magical. Our guide took us to a separate area where I could board the Forbidden Journey ride. It was a private area where an attendant, also dressed as a Hogwarts student, summoned a car that would whisk us away into Harry’s world where we would come face to face with a dragon!
As the car was summoned, another friendly Hogwarts student greeted me with two options. Would I like to place Whistle in a crate/kennel while Franz and I rode the Forbidden Journey? Or, if I did not want to place him in a crate, would I prefer for him to hold Whistle’s leash?
I chose the crate. He opened a door and in a small room there was a large, wire crate. Whistle looked practically giddy when he caught a peek of the crate. Before I knew it, Whistle was laid out for a much deserved nap and Franz and I were off on a new adventure.
Although it always makes me a little nervous to be separated from Whistle, I gave a sigh of relief knowing that he would have a few minutes of peace and quiet while Franz and I went to rescue Harry, Hermione and Ron from the dragon.
My next delight came when it was time to actually board the ride. To my joyous surprise, I had complete privacy while I investigated the car and explored how I would safely transfer from my wheelchair into the ride. With the privacy we were provided, I was easily able to transfer into the ride and Franz was able to safely park my wheelchair in an area close to Whistle’s crate.
As we were safely secured into the ride, the music started, the wind began to blow and we were whisked away into the world of Harry Potter. It was pure enchantment. For five brief minutes, I felt like I was riding a broomstick on the Hogwarts grounds. As a wheelchair user for almost 40 years, I love any opportunity that gets me out of my wheelchair and flying through the air at fast speeds. It was utter bliss.
And, the icing on the cake was that Whistle was content being snugly secured in his crate under the watchful eye of the Universal attendant. Throughout the day, we visited and revisited Hogwarts along with other attractions. Franz and I rode the Forbidden Journey three more times that day and we even rode the Dragon Challenge roller coaster. Whistle used each opportunity to get a few minutes of sleep before he went on to his next adventure.
I was so impressed that the Universal staff had given so much thought to their guests’ individual needs. They graciously welcomed us at each ride and offered Whistle the opportunity to stay with an attendant or be placed in a crate. Now I know that not every service dog and their handler will want to utilize a crate, but for me and Whistle, it was a wonderfully safe and secure option.
And knowing that Whistle was safe and happy, made our experience at Universal Studios that much more enjoyable. We are looking forward to more magical visits to Universal Studios and Harry Potter’s Wizarding World.
Have you traveled through an airport since the U.S. Department of Transportation required airports to install service animal relief areas? Whistle and I flew to Washington, D.C. last week. We traveled through the Chicago Midway Airport and Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C.
We had a three hour layover on the way to Washington, D.C. in Chicago. I was so disappointed to see that the relief area was outside the secured perimeter at baggage claim. My caregiver took Whistle out and they had to go through security. We asked security if they could come back through the line any faster and were told they would have to go through the normal line. This was awfully time consuming and even though we had a three hour layover, we barely made our next flight. The security line was extremely long.
On the way back, Dulles did have a fenced in dog relief area. However, it too was outside of the secured perimeter and requires handlers to return through security. Once we landed at Chicago Midway, the security line was so long that we felt my caregiver would not have enough time to take Whistle out to the relief area and return through the enormous security line.
We asked a TSA official and a Chicago police officer and they both informed us that she would have to return through the security line with Whistle. They made no attempt to assist us and they didn’t really seem to know what I was talking about when I asked about a service dog relief area.
What we needed was a TSA security escort as a reasonable accommodation to get Whistle to the relief area and back through security so we could access our gate in a reasonable amount of time. That’s not what we received.
Poor Whistle did not have the opportunity to relieve himself and he was desperate to go out once we landed in Albuquerque. The Albuquerque airport does not have a specific dog relief area either. There is a grassy area that is unfenced and located outside the security perimeter where he relieves himself. And of course, there are no baggies or readily available trash bins.
I am contemplating filing a complaint with all three airports regarding their lack of compliance with the Department of Transportation requirement. I do not like to file complaints but I fear if we don’t self-advocate, this lack of responsiveness will continue indefinitely. Have you had any airport experiences with service dog relief areas? Did you file a complaint?
Have you heard of a courthouse dog? They’re not legal experts, but these specially trained dogs are being used in the criminal justice system to help provide support for crime victims and their families, and even for social workers or other staff members.
Increasingly, courthouse dogs are being used in states across the country. Although they’re called courthouse dogs, these dogs often work not only in the courthouse, but in facilities like child advocacy centers. Courthouse dogs are typically therapy dogs; however, some of these working dogs may have more advanced training as assistance dogs and can even work as medical alert and response dogs.
Daisy is one example of an advance trained, assistance dog pulling double duty as a courthouse dog. I had the privilege of interviewing Lori Raineri and Cameron Handley about Daisy, and her role at the Yolo County, California Multi-Disciplinary Interview Center (MDIC) on Working Like Dogs at www.petliferadio.com (please feel free to listen in to their full interview).
Lori personally trained Daisy as her assistance dog. She loved Daisy so much that she felt compelled to share Daisy’s talents with others. Lori reached out to her local District Attorney, Jeff Reisig, about creating a courthouse dog program. Reisig loved the idea and connected Lori with Cameron, the director of the MDIC. Through their joint efforts, the Yolo County pilot courthouse dog program was born!
The program’s goal is to reduce the trauma a child goes through when dealing with the stresses of the criminal justice system. Daisy helps calm the children and others participating in the process. She also helps them begin to trust again and to start the healing process. For professionals in the system, Daisy provides some relief from the emotionally draining situations they deal with day after day.
Daisy is there at the Center to greet the children when they arrive, and if they want, she can be with them during interviews, medical exams, and in court. Daisy knows a large number of commands, even in multiple languages. She can do tricks to break the ice, but then gets down to business, just quietly being there, comforting the children and their families during a tough time.
You can listen to the complete interview to discover more about how this public-private partnership was developed, all the tasks Daisy performs, and even how this unique government worker commutes to the office. You can also get ideas about how you might be able to start a similar program in your community.
I was so impressed with the work Cameron, Lori and Daisy, are doing together. I hope you are, too. I was also excited to see that the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (www.iaadp.org) are including a session on Courthouse Dogs at their upcoming Conference to be held September 25, 2010 in Seattle, Washington.