Une vie de chien, partie III: Uber-friggin-tastic

For the record, that subtitle would be in the “sarcastic” typographical emphasis, if ever there were one.  You know, the one right next the bold, underlineitalics, and strikethrough.  If someone could get on that, I’d appreciate it.

The sarcasm is not directed at my lovely Max; no, it is directed at the ride-share service and the horrible experiences I had with them in the fair city of Providence, RI, back in July.

Let me get the liberal stuff out of the way first: yes, I know about the implications of using Uber when it comes to its treatment of its drivers (this is a great undercover report) and taxi union complaints.  BUT, – and here comes the disability stuff – these are the kinds of decisions people with disabilities have to make when access isn’t a dream.  The Providence bus system isn’t bad, and the busses are fine in terms of me being able to get on and off, but for me, walking more than two blocks to get somewhere can take a while and takes a toll on my horrid ankle, especially in the rain.  I was going to be going back and forth a couple times a day over 3 or 4 days, so Uber was more economical than a taxi.  I thought Uber was a necessary evil

I’ve taken Uber a few times but try not to make a habit of it, for the reasons stated above.  I’ve never had a problem in Indianapolis, and the time or two I’ve taken it in Boston was fine as well.  Alas, Providence was a different story.  Maybe it’s the drivers, maybe it’s the city, maybe it’s the fact that I was riding alone for the first time, but it was less than desirable either way you slice it.

My first ride was in the evening, and it had rained.  I make my request, and it says my ride will be there in 5 minutes. Yay!  Usually, my worry is that the car will be a big one and I won’t be able to get in, but it says it is a Prius.  Ok, I can do that.  Next, I get a notification that my driver is “deaf or hard of hearing and uses ASL to communicate.”  I think, “That’s interesting.  I’m glad to know that Uber uses drivers with disabilities.”  (I’m not going to get into the whole deafness-as-disability discussion here, so don’t get your panties in a wad, as my mom would say).  The guy arrives and looks at Max and is visibly unhappy, so I point at Max’s “Service Dog: Access Required by ADA Law” patch.  The dude doesn’t get out of the car to help, so I try to get Max on the floor between the front and back seats, but it’s a no-go.  Not enough room; it’s a Prius, after all, and not the larger Prius V either.  The guy’s getting upset that Max is getting the seat wet, but I try to get him to understand that the seat needs to be moved forward, but he waves my attempts at communication aside and grumpily drives us to my destination.  I was put off by the experience but thought that it was an exception and chalked it up to the fact that sometimes it can be difficult when the disparate needs of two disabilities collide.

So, I looked up service dog stuff on the Uber web site so I could be better armed in the morning. This is what I found:

Please note: all drivers are required by law to transport registered service animals. If you experience issues using Uber with your service animal, please reach out to us by reporting an issue with your trip. help.uber.com

I decided that things might go more smoothly if I let the driver know ahead of time.  Yeah, that’s it.

“Ride” #2.  I request my ride.  He’ll be there in 10 minutes.  It’s an SUV.  Ok.  I’ve got my foldable stool.  I have time to let Max sniff around for a bit.  It’s all good.  I press the “contact driver” option and type a message: “FYI – I am traveling with a service dog.  He can go in the back.”  Notification: “Oops. Your driver had to unexpectedly cancel your ride.”  What?  Coincidence?  I think not.  Good news is that the new driver is just up the street.  I don’t chance it.  I do NOT contact the driver.  He’ll just have to take me.

Ride #3. The new driver gets there, and he’s a nice, older man.  He compliments Max’s manners and helps me get him into the car in a good position.  I apologize for his wet paws, and he says, “no problem.  People get the floor wet, too.” Ok.  Maybe it’ll be fine from here on out.

Ride #4. I’m no fool; I’m not contacting the drivers any more.  They have to take me: it’s the law, dammit.  The guy pulls up and is not happy: “We’re not supposed to take dogs.” I said, “It’s a service animal; you have to.”  He’s foreign, so I explain a bit, and he acquiesces.

Ride #5.  Similar to #4, except this time, I don’t explain. I just say, “he’s a service dog; it’s against the law to refuse.” And I just get in.

“Ride” #6.  The end of my seminar.  I’m sick of this Uber crap. I’m not in the mood to argue.  I’m tired; it’s hot.  Maybe I’ll try to walk to the bus stop.  I get about a block and a half: “nope,” says my ankle, “not going any further.” So, I stop at a little cafe, grab a drink and get on the Uber app.  It’s rush hour.  He’ll be there in about 15 minutes.  So, I sit on the steps outside with Max and follow the car on the map.  Oh, here it comes.  I see the car make and model coming down the street… and pass us.  Hmmm.  Maybe he didn’t see us. That planter is sort of hiding us.  I see on the map that he is turning around the block to come back.  Ok.  Good.  It was a mistake. I “contact driver” and type: “we’re just outside, on the steps.”  The car comes back around… and passes us.   Notification: “Oops. Your driver had to unexpectedly cancel your ride.”  WTF!?!?!

Ride #7.  The new driver arrives.  He’s super nice, and when I try to get Max on the floor, he says, “he can sit on the seat.  It’s ok.” He hears me using some French with Max, and he comments that he’s Haitian, and we have a nice, enjoyable ride.

I call my friend C, with whom I was staying, to tell her I’m on the way.  And, I tell her I’m irritated.  A true friend, she’s got some bubbly in the fridge!

I go into my room and put my stuff down, and I just need a little cry.  Like I said, I was tired, hot, and achy.  I can get weepy when I’m mad about things involving my disability.  It’s already difficult enough to make it through the day most of the time, but when you’re already grumpy and one more person stares, a kid laughs, or someone won’t give you a damned ride, you get a little angsty.  I’m getting my cry on when C unwittingly comes in, and I turn around all pathetic and whimpery, and then she’s nice to me, and I go into the ugly cry.  She gives me a hug, and says, “you know, it’s about the dog, it’s not you.  Not because you’re a dwarf.”  Think about it and say, “I guess. Yeah.  Ok. Let’s have that bubbly.”

We had a lovely dinner with wine and cocktails.  But it ain’t over, Uber.  I’m gonna write a blog post about you, jerks.

I did some research, and this isn’t the first time people with disabilities have had trouble with Uber.   They are currently being sued for refusing rides to the blind… oh, and one driver put a guide dog in the trunk.  The National Federation of the Blind filed a civil suit against Uber for such treatment, and this is how Uber responded:

Uber had requested the case to be dismissed, on the basis that its contracts require customers to take disputes to arbitration and argue their complaints as individuals, not in class-action suits, according to SF Gate. The ride-hailing company also argued that it is not a “public accommodation” and therefore not subject to ADA requirements.  http://www.citylab.com/politics/2015/04/a-guide-dog-discrimination-lawsuit-against-uber-will-move-forward/391293/

Not cool, Uber.  Not cool.  What about that thing I found on your help page about requiring drivers to transport service dogs?  Hmmm?

In response to such problems, in 2013, the California Public Utilities Commission established that ride-share companies (e.g. UberX, Lyft, and SideCar) are under their authority and thus are subject to accessibility compliance.

And, it’s not just about dogs.  It’s also about people with wheelchairs, and there are groups suing both Lyft and Uber over that as well.

Beyond what I found on the Interwebz, I reached out to a disability studies listserve in which I participate, asking for some stories.  One respondent, who uses a guide dog, relayed multiple instances where he was denied a ride and even indicated that he tried Lyft – to no avail –  simply because Uber had been so horrible.

All of these instances have left me standing on a curb somewhere trying to find a ride home or just to run weekly errands. I have reported all instances that I have experienced to both Uber and Lyft. Now every time I request an Uber, I am always a bit fearful that I will get left on the sidewalk again.  ~H

Another person commented that he had used Uber to travel with his guide dog to a skilled nursing facility to spend time with his loved one and had not had problems.  He did note that this was his first time using Uber and that the ride had been organized by the facility.  I’m not sure how businesses set up rides, but maybe they can actually talk to a person?  Or, maybe as the respondent said, “Maybe [X (city in the West)] is more dog-friendly than other cities, but all the drivers were informed that I was blind and travel with a guide dog and uniformly the drivers have been terrific, accepting my dog and giving us a friendly ride.”

Perhaps there needs to be a button that says, “I am traveling with a service animal” or “I have ADA requirements.”  Couldn’t the driver then receive a notification, much like the one I received about my deaf driver, that the client requires accommodation?  A notification that reminds the driver that it is illegal – and may be enforced with dismissal – to refuse service?  It would seem awfully suspicious if your driver canceled that ride!

Before I finish this post, I want to go back to my conversation with C about the the ride refusals being about Max and not about my dwarfism.  At the time, I sort of half-heartedly agreed (because I was thinking about the bubbly) and said something about if not feeling like it, or some other blah blah.  Well, I’ve been mulling it over, thinking about why it bothered me so much, if it really was just about a dog.  And, I think she’s right: in the driver’s mind, it is about the dog.  They aren’t refusing a ride to a dwarf; they just don’t want a dog to mess up their car.  But, then I thought about the times people in wheelchairs have been refused.  Are the drivers refusing the wheelchair and not thinking about the person?  That sounds ridiculous.  But, the more I think about it, the more I think it’s probably the case.

This gets us to larger issues about living with a disability.  Yes, a wheelchair might be inconvenient to you, the able-bodied.  Yes, you might have to get out of the car to help fold up a walker and put it in the trunk.  Yes, my service dog’s hair might get on the seat.  To what extent are people with disabilities separable from the mobility aids we use?  If my aid is an inconvenience, then that sends the message that I am an inconvenience.  And that’s what hurts.  To the average person, the thing and the person aren’t the same; however, to a person with a disability, the thing (the wheelchair, the walker, the cane, the prosthesis, and yes, the dog) make our lives infinitely better.  They are, to some extent, an extension of our selves.  If you reject the thing that makes my life livable, you are rejecting me.  It is personal; it’s about my person.  It is another message that the normative body is the correct body, that the world does not have to move and change for the Other body, that public space is not for us.  To the disabled body, this is another way of signaling the desire to put us back in our place: hidden away.

This is the thinking against which the disability justice movement fights: the notion that deviation from the norm should be met with fear/disgust/anger/etc. by the “normal” and with shame/loneliness/self-loathing/etc. by the “crippled.”  You see, to be a disability activist is to refuse to be hidden and to risk being treated with those same fears, disgust, and anger.  (I could go on and on about how this is even further exacerbated by the historical burden of dwarfism and the “freakish,” but I’ll save that for another post).

To engage the public with “crip pride” is to risk being told by the world that you are an inconvenience, that if you want to be out and about, you shouldn’t threaten normative ideas about the body, beauty, space, and independence.  What normative society really seems to want out of the disabled is the “super crip.”  You know what I’m talking about.  That “extraordinary” cripple who is “just like you” “in spite of” X, Y, Z.  Doesn’t that make you feel better to know that I can be just like you?  That you can forget about my disability, even if I can’t?  The onus is on us to make you feel better about yourself, and about us.  It’s friggin’ exhausting.

One more thing before I go… This has got me thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement and what it says about White Privilege and how blind even the very intelligent and ultra-progressive can be to it.  This tendency of the majority is to put the burden onto the minority to explain themselves and to make that majority feel better about themselves, i.e. their privilege is real.  Why is everyone so upset about the #BLM interruption of the Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle?  Because we want to feel good about being liberal, free-thinkers, and being confronted by a group of people who demand recognition – a seat at the table – reminds us of our privilege.  It doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves; on the contrary, we feel guilty, and we don’t like it.

So, next time you are confronted with whatever social justice issue that makes you uncomfortable, think about it.  What really makes you afraid?  That your privilege might be taken away, or that you have so much of it?

Members of minorities who wish to preserve their self-definition need to define themselves in opposition to the majority. The more accepting the majority is of them, the more rigorously they need to do so, because their separate identity collapses if they countenance its integration into the majority world. Multiculturalism rejects the 1950s vision of a world in which everyone is subsumed by uniform Americanness, and chooses one in which we all inhabit our own treasured particularities. In his classic work Stigma, Erving Goffman argues that identity is formed when people assert pride in the thing that made them marginal, enabling them to achieve personal authenticity and political credibility. The social historian Susan Burch calls this “the irony of acculturation”: society’s attempts to assimilate a group often cause that group to become more pronounced in its singularity.

Solomon, Andrew (2012-11-13). Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (Kindle Locations 610-616). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Une vie de chien – Partie II

Wow.  I bet you thought I’d disappeared.  I did, into the abyss of a semester back after a sabbatical.  But… I’m baaaaaaack!

As promised, this is part two of my discussion on service dogs, and this post is all about the training process.  As I mentioned in Une vie de chien – Partie I, Max and I trained together for a year before he graduated from “service dog in training” to “service dog.” That’s it. That’s all it took.  Boom.  Done.  Mic drop.

Kidding.  Kidding.  It was one of the most intense experiences in my life, and that includes grad school and the dissertation years.

Beyond picking out a rescue dog (of course) who had the necessary qualities (I worked with a behaviorist for this part, though this post gives you the idea), I had to pick a trainer.  This is difficult business.  There aren’t many trainers out there who do service dog training, and even then, you have to mesh with the trainer as much as you do the dog, and the dog with the trainer.  I was lucky enough to find a one Mr. Jim Turner, an amazing behaviorist AND trainer.  He’s got a blog right here on WordPress.

I can’t say enough about Jim.  Right from the beginning, he let me know what to expect from the process and let me know, more than once, how difficult the task that lay ahead.  This was a commitment.  To Max.  To myself.  To training.  To Jim.

This commitment meant beginning with three sessions per week, lasting usually about 2-3 hours, on top of my already full work schedule and long commute.  Three days per week, I traveled from Indy to Muncie to Richmond.  Often, I did not get home until 9pm or 10pm, and then I had to turn around and go right back to it the next day.  In between training sessions, I did training at home, at the office, in stores, in restaurants.  At home, we had regular formal sessions.  Out and about, every moment was an opportunity.  Beyond my chic purse, I got to add the additional bling of a clicker and a handy treat bag, filled with desiccated hotdogs (no nitrites, of course) and other such yumminess.

At the beginning, when Jim met with me and Jeevan, he had said (not verbatim, creative license here): “You know, this is going to be tough.  You’ll always be training.  You’re going to carry treats, and you’re going to train whenever you see a moment.  Things are going to take longer, and it can get frustrating.  It will be frustrating at times for Jeevan when he sees your relationship with Max grow and when it’s difficult for you to pay attention at a restaurant because your mind is always partially on Max.  You have to be ready.  Go home.  Think about this.  If it’s right for you, and I’m right for you and Max, call me, and we’ll start.”

It was daunting to be sure, but we were ready.  Jim evaluated Max, and though he was a wild child then, he had potential.  He asked what I thought a service dog could do for me.  At that time, I was struggling with a failing shoulder and needed help carrying things, and I could really use something under my legs when sitting in chairs.  Jim’s response?  “A dog as an ottoman?  Hmmmm.”  Turns out, Jim was right: I never did train Max as an ottoman.  Though, from time to time, he likes to get under my feet and rest his head on my shoe, but that’s not one of his service tasks; it’s just because he loves his mama.

We began with the basics that all dogs should have.  Max was a blank slate and could only “sit,” so we had to begin with: down, stay, wait, leave it, loose leash walking, etc.  Those are fairly easy, but service dogs have to have these skills down pat before they can even move on to service skills.

We did clicker training, which is a form of positive reinforcement training.  You first teach the dog that a click means a reward (treat, love, kisses, “good boy”).  Then, you mark a desired behavior with a click and reward.  Eventually, you mark the behavior with a command.  The real trick is to click at the right time and with the correct behavior.

For example, when we were training Max to “stop” on command (mid-walk, mid-trot, whenever).  As SOON as Max stopped for any reason, “CLICK!”  TREAT!  At the beginning, the stopping is pretty much when you stop, but you CLICK!  and TREAT! The wheels start turning in the dog’s head:

MAX:  “Oh, I get a treat, if I stop. I’m going to stop.”

AMY: “CLICK!” TREAT!

MAX: TREAT!!!!!!!!!! I’m a good boy!  Good Max!  I love stopping!  Stop.  Stop. Stop.

Then, you start adding the command: “STOP!” “CLICK!” (if he stops). TREAT! “GOOD STOP!”  Rinse, lather, repeat.

This is marking desired behavior.  We used this to train Max such commands as: stop, wait, fast, slow, leave it, etc.

Brevity-cartoon

The extra interesting part of training was the complex behaviors, and this requires shaping behavior using successive approximation (that’s what it’s called, right Jim?).  Jim is extra awesome at figuring out this part.  You begin by naming the desired task and then figure out the steps to get there.

EXAMPLE: Pushing a button to open a power assist door

  • Desired behavior: pushing button
  • Required skills: 1) recognize object to push; 2) push; 3) apply pressure.

For this, Jim knew that Max needed to first offer a paw.  For this, we waited until Max placed a paw near us.

JIM: “CLICK!” TREAT!

MAX: “Wha? What did I just do?  Hmmm.  I’m going to randomly do tricks and see what happens.  Sit. Down.  Kisses.  No?  Hmmm.  This guy is dumb. I’m going to poke him.”

JIM: “CLICK!” TREAT!

MAX: “What?  Weirdo.  Not sure what I did again.  Sit.  Down. Kiss.  Sit.

JIM: ….

MAX: “NOTHING?  Man!  Poke.”

JIM: “CLICK!” TREAT!

MAX: “Dude! It’s the paw!  Paw!!!!! Poke.”

JIM: “CLICK!” TREAT!

MAX: “Awesome! Poke.”

JIM: “CLICK!” TREAT!

MAX: “That’s it!  Poke. Poke. Poke.”

JIM: “CLICK!” TREAT!  Good touch!

You get the idea.  Once you mark the behavior with a command (“touch” in this case), you begin clicking and treating ONLY when the behavior is offered AFTER a command.  The idea has to be yours, not the dog’s.  To make sure this is the case, you can test it with multiple commands.  For example, if you say “sit,” the dog should sit, not offer a paw. Try a couple of different commands, then say the new one.  Once you consistently get the correct behavior, your dog has got the idea.  Even so, go home and PRACTICE!!  I had to keep a log of our home practice sessions:  I had to log: 1) each skill we practiced; 2) How long we spent on each one 2) How many times the correct behavior was offered; 4) any distractions; 5) notes.

Wait.  How is this related to pushing a button?  A hand is not a button, and “touch” is not “push.” This is the cool part.

Once Max had the idea of touch down, we added a target.  We’d say “TOUCH” and, with a yellow square in our hand, we’d click any time he’d offer a paw near the marker.  The idea is that you reward the behavior, being lenient at first, and getting stricter as you move on.  Eventually the dog only gets a CLICK! when it puts the paw on the marker.  Then, you move the marker.  On the floor.  On the wall.  On your thigh.  The dog eventually associates touch with a target.

Wait.  That’s still not pushing!  Ok, ok.  I’m getting there!

In the end, we want Max to apply the correct amount of pressure on the target. This is “PUSH!” Jim had me buy an “easy” button for practice.  You know, one of these:

easy

We put the target on the button and began clicking and treating when the button was pushed hard enough to get the trademark, “that was easy!” Then, we marked that behavior with the command “PUSH!” We eventually moved on to doors, door openers, grocery carts.  Now, Max can PUSH! this:

Max learning to push a grocery cart.

And this:

button

And even this:

images

It’s true, some doors are too heavy for him, and it’s too heavy for me, but he gives me that extra power.  We do it together!

For a more visual idea of how this happens, look at this cool little example:

You can see that it is quite the process.  Now imagine this for every complicated skill Max and I had to learn together.  Now you know why I spent the better part of a year exhausted!

Here is a list of the skills Max has (totally forgetting some).  Don’t confuse the skill with the command.  For the most important commands, I chose words that aren’t always obvious to others because I can’t have other people trying to tell my dog what to do.  Sometimes people feel that they can tell me he doesn’t mind very well because he doesn’t listen to them.  The mark of a good dog on duty is that he doesn’t mind anyone but the handler!

  1. Sit
  2. Down
  3. Stay
  4. Wait
  5. Stop
  6. Leave it
  7. Heel
  8. Watch me
  9. Greeting behavior
  10. Refocus behavior
  11. Go to X (bed, rug, towel, mat, etc).
  12. Get it (keys, pencil, paper, credit card, bottle)
  13. Give it to X (a person, me or anyone else)
  14. Drop it (on floor, in garbage, etc.)
  15. Hold (keep whatever he has in mouth until I say so)
  16. Slow
  17. Fast
  18. Push (cart, button, door, etc.)
  19. Pull (door, wheelchair, cart, coat sleeve, socks)
  20. Touch
  21. Left
  22. Right
  23. Forward
  24. Backward
  25. Crawl (good for getting into small spaces)
  26. Under (table, chair, etc.)
  27. Up (onto something)
  28. Off (off of something)
  29. Brace (stiffen his front legs to act as a sort of cane)
  30. Help mama (i.e. go into service mode when he’s not actively on duty – mostly at home)
  31. Bark on command
  32. Spin right (helps to get into tight spaces)
  33. Spin left (helps to get into tight spaces)
  34. Sideways right
  35. Sideways left
  36. Follow (usually when I am in my wheelchair and am being backed up; he follows in front).
  37. Pee on command
  38. Poop on command
  39. Go find
  40. Step up (bracing for going up step)
  41. Step down (bracing for going down step)
  42. Dance with mommy (just for fun)
  43. Command to get harness on
  44. Command for service position
  45. Command to finish service
  46. Command for bedtime
  47. Let’s go
  48. Thank you!
  49. Up up: Get in car and wait for harness to be attached to security belt before getting all the way in
  50. Stand

Not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea.  Here’s another list for your perusal.

But… there’s more to training than that.  There’s public access training.  This means that, once your dog has a good skill set, it needs to be able to perform these skills EVERYWHERE and with distractions, like: kids, walkers, wheelchairs, food on the ground, other dogs, squirrels!, people he loves, loud noises, people talking to you… etc.

This is the most important, and perhaps most frustrating part of training, and I will get to that in Partie III!  Also, there will be more about the wonderful Jim because he helped me not lose my mind during this crazy part of the training.  I promise not to wait so long until the next post.

Une vie de chien: Partie I

I’m ending my holiday hiatus with a post about life with a service dog.  Well, several posts probably, because there is way more to life with a service dog than you think.  Sure, it’s great to have your best bud with you everywhere you go, but it’s about more than that.  Way more than that.  It’s about partnership, responsibility, a deep bond, and an ever deeper gratitude.

Today’s post is going to concentrate on the paradox of my life with Max; or, the way in which having a service dog mediates my disability, while also making it more visible.  A dwarf more visible, you say?  Yes, ’tis possible.  I’ll get there, but let me digress, as I am wont to do.

Just before the holidays, I did two things that got me settled on this being my next post: 1) traveled to New Orleans on vacation; 2) read Susannah Charleson’s book, The Possibility Dogs.  Charleson’s book offers profiles of several psychiatric service dogs and their handlers, interspersed with her own story of training a “demo” dog, the ever clownish Jake Piper.  It got me to reminiscing about my own experiences training Max, who is also an eternal clown.

Jake Piper, the demo dog

Jake Piper, the demo service dog.  www.possibilitydogs.org

Like Jake Piper, Max is a rescue, whom I trained one-on-one with a certified canine trainer and behaviorist.  It was one of the most intense endeavors I have undertaken, yet also one of the most rewarding.  I don’t think I would have truly appreciated the effort that goes into training a service dog without doing it myself first.  Another post will go into my training days with Max, but I think it’s worth mentioning here that service dogs are amazing animals whose training goes beyond skills and into behavior and compassion.  Before I get where I’m going (yes, I’ll get there), I want to urge you all to respect these dogs and their work and to respect them and their handler when they are working.  Do not talk to them, pet them, or even look them in the eyes.  These are open invitations for a dog to break their concentration, which could be harmful to the handler if their safety depends on the dog.  Part of the dog’s job is to focus on his partner; the partner’s job is to look out for the dog.  Sometimes, that means being harsh with well-intentioned people who try to interact with your dog.

Although The Possibility Dogs is about psychiatric service dogs (Max is a mobility service dog), it offers some valuable insight into daily life with a dog:

Another handler notes: “And here’s the kicker: It’s a kind of trade. For all the good help a service dog gives, that same dog makes you visible. If for you a ‘normal’ life is about being able to be anonymous, good luck. You and your dog and your disability had better be prepared for stares and questions . . . and sometimes accusations. It’s not all bad. A lot of the attention on the dog is supportive. But there’s almost always a spotlight. It slows you down.”

Charleson, Susannah (2013-06-04). The Possibility Dogs: What I Learned from Second-Chance Rescues About Service, Hope, and Healing (p. 38). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

It’s the notion of being in the spotlight that I want to talk about.  In my post “Welcome to Lilliput,” I wrote about how having dwarfism necessarily puts me under the spotlight, but having a service dog has not changed that so much as it has shifted the focus.  Obviously, my disability is not an invisible one; on the contrary, it is one of the most outwardly visible ones you can have, as my body is so far from the norm.  However, it is very easy for people to assume that the disability stops there: with height.  I’m short, so I can’t reach things, and I can’t walk as fast on those short legs.  Full stop.  Think again.  For some dwarfs, this is the end of the affair, but for a great number of us, there is a lot of complicated anatomy inside that odd, squat body.  (You can read more about dwarfism and disability in one of my Dwarfism Awareness posts).  (You can learn more about The Possibility Dogs project on their website).

I like to say that being a dwarf, or at least my particular experience of it, is to live in a liminal space, to inhabit the realm of both the visible and invisible disability.  For, I am so visibly different, yet to many, so invisibly “disabled” by my body.  I spent a good deal of time in college and grad school attempting to repress the disabled part of my persona.  I walked with crutches for 10 years, but leaving for college offered me the opportunity to shed those walking aids in a place where few people knew me from my life before.  Where my crutches helped me with speed and distance, I used a bike on campus to get from here to there.  In grad school, I used the T or a car.  This worked well for me until the long gap since my last major surgery started to close in on me in my late 20s, when my hips, which had long been severely arthritic, began to protest in earnest.  This was the beginning of a new phase of my life, and what I now see as the moment when I needed to start “owning” my disability.  I’ve had 5 artificial joint replacements in 9 years.  I’ve learned that the gap from my last osteotomy to my first replacement was the exception, not the norm.

Accepting the toll that my lax tissues take on my body has been a difficult journey, but to be honest, it started with the decision to get a service dog.  My husband had been kindly nudging me to get one for a long while, but I was always “looking into it.”  I don’t know what clicked, but I finally acquiesced in 2011, around my birthday.  Ironically, Jeevan and I were at the local shelter looking at some potential candidates, and I was walking a ginormous, yet gentle, St. Bernard (can you imagine that?) when my shoulder just gave out in pain. No reason. I had reached for my bag, and it just gave up on me.  I had been struggling with “bursitis” (self-diagnosis) for years but had begun weight training in hopes of strengthening the muscles.  In the end, those strong muscles did put off the inevitable for a while. The X-Rays showed the truth: my shoulder joints were gone.  Who knows how long they had been like that?  When you have arthritis everywhere, it just creeps from one place to the next without you knowing, taking secret root in your psyche.  Just another thing that hurts.  You don’t notice the toll it takes on your health.  The fatigue, the slowing-down, the grumpiness, the depression.  Again with the digression!  But, I spend time on the background info because it’s essential to my service dog story.  I had to come to terms with these things, to take stock of them, before I was ready for life with a service dog.  To get a dog was to admit that I couldn’t do it all on my own, or that I could, but at a dear price.

After the “shoulder incident” at the shelter, I ramped up my search for a service dog candidate.  I contacted a behaviorist to talk about what kinds of behavior a dog needed to show service potential.   Any breed has potential, she said, but it’s true that Labradors and Goldens are very successful mobility dogs due to their retrieving instinct.  Furthermore, with a breed rescue, you are much more likely to know the dog’s history than from a shelter.  This is so important for a service dog because even thorough evaluation at the shelter doesn’t tell you everything that a life with a foster can.  This is a dog who will go everywhere you go, who will encounter reactive dogs, people, and children. This dog will be an ambassador for other service dogs.  Everything’s gotta click.

I found my match through Lucky Lab Rescue.  This is truly an amazing rescue, entirely run by volunteers.  Not only did I end up with the best service dog a girl could have, but we have now fostered three dogs with them, and I have seen the work that goes on behind the scenes, and these people are amazing.  They are dedicated, and so organized.  And compassionate.  They led me to Max.  I filled out an application and was forthright in my intention to train the dog for mobility work, and I hoped this would not go against me in the end.  It did not!  An adoption coordinator called me and said that there was a list of dogs who would probably work, but I had to meet Max.  And, meet him I did.  He had me at woof.  He was 1 year young and a clown even then.  But, he was also confident, self-assured, but kind.  He was unflappable.  Four men banging around in a large truck with a lift?  Whatever.  I got this, lady.  You want me to meet your other dogs?  Even the crazy cattle dog rescue who hates everyone?  I’m a charmer, lady.  A charmer, he was, and is.  He’s the best.

The day I met Max.  Look at that face!

The day I met Max. Look at that face!

Again, I’ll get into the actual training later, but I want to talk about what Max does for my disability.  As the handler in the excerpt said, having a service dog puts you in the spotlight.  I’m used to the spotlight, but I’m used to the kind of spotlight you can pretend to turn off.  Someone staring?  Oh, I’ll just pretend I don’t see it.  Some kid just pointed me out to their mom (who pretends it didn’t happen)?  I can pretend it didn’t happen, sometimes.  (You’re lucky if I do).  I can just go on with my day if I desire.  With a service dog, it’s different.  As I said before, he’s an ambassador for all service dogs.  When someone makes what they think is a hilarious comment about how “hard” his job is when he is sleeping in a restaurant, I think it is my duty to say, “how many dogs do you know who could sleep while people step over him with steak?” It’s his job to be good while we aren’t working.  Sometimes, it’s his job to sleep, to lie down, to let people step on his tail, to let a chip fall by his face, to ignore the world that is not me.  This is tough, and many people seem to think it is their job to tempt him or to get him to break his service and then make a comment when he does.  What would you do if someone kept calling your name and telling you how pretty you are?  You’d wag your tail, if you had one.

I have to admit that I was too friendly about this behavior in the beginning, and so I let it slide, and now there are a lot of people around my small town who talk to Max.  Mostly, it’s when we’re not actively working, but I’m sorry I let it happen anyway. It’s not fair to him to turn back now; he wouldn’t understand.  I’m lucky that he resets very quickly.  He’s got a greet command and a command to get back to work.  I’m lucky he listens, really lucky.  Believe me, with my next dog, I will not do this again.  For the love of all that is right in the world, don’t pet the damned service dog. Don’t make kissy noises.  Don’t talk to it.  Don’t even ask.  It’s hard to say no, especially if you’re a people pleaser.  Make it easier for everyone: resist.

It’s also true that having a service dog slows you down. It is a huge responsibility.  Just “running in” a store is darned near impossible.  You have to gear up the dog, get the dog in the car, seatbelt the dog in, drive to wherever, get the dog out, stop and educate people, get your stuff, get the dog in the car, seatbelt the dog in, get in the car, driver home.  It’s a bit easier when, say, I want to run in my favorite coffee shop (go Roscoe’s!); they know him there, and they know he’s a service dog.  I can just put on his gentle leader and run in for coffee because I know I don’t need to use his bracing harness. Sometimes I brave places without his harness if I know I won’t need him to brace, but it makes me nervous.  There is no requirement that a service dog wear a vest or harness, but it helps.  Max does have a little badge that hangs off the leash, but I’m always risking some questioning when he’s not fully geared.

Max fully geared, under my feet on a plane.

Max fully geared, under my feet on a plane.

The other thing I have to put up with is the famous question:  What does your dog do for you?  This is fine from a business owner or employee, but it is intrusive in any other context.  It feels like I am constantly justifying my need for Max.  I am sure that that is not the intent, but it gets old, fast.  The ADA has this to say about service dogs:

When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.  http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm

I usually respond to random people asking this question with, “he’s a mobility dog, and I use him to brace., but he knows well over 50 skills.”  I don’t try to elaborate on what’s wrong with me.  Sometimes people push, but mostly they respect that.  I just wish they wouldn’t ask.  It’s personal.

Traveling ain’t a picnic either.  I have to pack for me, and for Max. He needs food, treats, a ball, some chews, extra poop bags.  I have to remember peanut butter for the airplane to help pop his ears.  Security is a nightmare.  New cities mean new people, and new service dog cultures.  Colorado is a dog place.  It seems everyone has a dog, and in the mountains, people let their dogs hike off-leash.  I hate this.  I hated it before, but I really hate it now.  Yes, your dog is friendly, but please, he cannot greet my dog.  He’s working.  See that slippery rock in my path?  He’s going to help me over it, but if your dog distracts him, he’s not concentrating and not bracing.  Put your dog on the leash!  New Orleans is also a dog city, and there are a lot of homeless people with dogs off-leash.  Makes me nervous.  I hope your dog is friendly, but if not, does it have vaccinations? Also, one bad encounter with a dog could ruin Max for service.  He cannot become afraid of dogs.  Paris is also a dog city, and my Lord, there are a lot of yippy dogs out there.  They tried to get Max every friggin’ day.

Max helping me snowshoe!  This is one of the ways he helped return me to a fuller life, even if people don't leash their dogs.

Max helping me snowshoe! This is one of the ways he helped return me to a fuller life, even if people don’t leash their dogs.

All this being said, I have to also say that having Max is worth every annoyance.  He has made my life easier on so many levels.  Traveling is a pain, but less of a pain than it was before.  Paris used to be so tough on me with its uneven sidewalks and steep curbs.  I prefer busses over the Metro because there are no stairs to navigate into subterranean stations, but there is that one big step, and the crowds.  I always hated getting places.  People never thought of me as disabled, so they wouldn’t offer seats or help. This last time in Paris, though, people offered to let me on first, and offered to help me up that step, even as Max was there to brace, and they offered me a seat.  He braced all over the cobblestones and awkward curbs.  He braced me all the way down the Pantheon steps, which don’t have railings.  This was, in fact, the first time I have been to the Pantheon. I have always avoided it because of the steps.  Thanks to Max, I got to see my beloved Hugo, Césaire, and Zola in their resting place.

Max enjoying the Eiffel Tower.

Max enjoying the Eiffel Tower.

Max takes me out of that liminal space and puts me firmly in the disabled camp. He mediates my disability by making my world wider, safer, and more mobile.  He also helps to mediate the fatigue, the slowing-down, the grumpiness, the depression.  He mediates stares.  People are usually way more excited to see a service dog than a dwarf, and that is fine with me, in the end.  I’d much rather have to educate people about Max than be the object of curiosity.  Children love to see Max (often mistaken for a horse, due to his saddle-like harness).  I’ve always had to educate people about disability, it’s just shifted somewhere else.  It is tough to always be in the spotlight, but I guess I prefer the gaze to be cast on my Max.  He’s a ham and loves to wag his tail coyly as I explain why he can’t be petted to a little kid.  It takes time, but it’s a worthy moment.  I’d really like to live in a world where I didn’t have to explain any of these things, but that’s a bigger job.  That’s why I write this blog.