Blind-Sided: The Dilemma of Contemporary Service Dogs
Have you ever noticed that when we humans think about combining two different components we automatically assume that the result will be the best of each? There are multiple examples of this concept in the animal-related world, with the natural or artificial breeding of animals from two different breeds or species being the most familiar. We cross a Siamese and a Persian or a dog and wolf and assume any offspring will possess only the best qualities from each of their parents. But this month I’d like to discuss a different kind of hybrid: working dogs who also are expected to fulfill the definition of loving canine companions.
The idea of working dogs who also display and accept the kind of overt behaviors many of us associate with love may strike some as so normal that it’s my suggesting there might be something problematic about this that’s the weird part. Surely, you might be thinking, few would doubt the benefits of such double-duty animals for their human companions. Not only do those people get all the practical benefits of a good working dog, but also all the warm fuzzy emotional benefits of a good companion.
True. But if we look at this from the animal side of the relationship, the picture may not be quite so rosy. Fulfilling these dual requirements may become a dilemma for the dog if the criteria for each function are mutually exclusive.
Let’s look at a hypothetical situation to see how this works.
Imagine a service dog named Lizzie, and the man with whom she lives, Steve. Lizzie is a trained professional working dog whose purpose is to ensure her blind owner’s safety. It’s her job to recognize, analyze, and properly respond to a collection of sometimes unpredictable changes in her environment under equally unpredictable circumstances. Even though she functions as her owner’s eyes, her visual perceptions are those of a dog not a human; she’s much more sensitive to motion, has a limited range of detail vision, and sees her world in shades of blue, gray, and yellow. Additionally she perceives her surroundings using her enhanced hearing, sense of smell, and other perceptions that further result in a perceived reality which it quite different from our own. Nonetheless, Lizzie must interpret what she sees as it relates to Steve as well as to herself. And in spite of thousands of years of co-evolution and domestication to the contrary, she must be willing to disobey Steve—such as moving him to the right when he wants to go left—if he wants to do something that poses a danger to him.
This brings us to the first human-made dilemma that Lizzie must face. Like many service dogs, her early experience included exposure to a wide variety of people and animals under all kinds of conditions. Unfortunately, the goal of this exposure wasn’t that Lizzie would learn to calmly and confidently ignore these as insignificant distractions, which is what she must do when she’s guiding Steve through complex environments. Instead, she was expected to respond to them in a “positive” manner that was often defined as actively soliciting attention from them like many pet dogs do. And what better way to do this, this line of thinking went, than to expose her to as many such distractions as possible under conditions those humans also consider positive? Similarly, more social animals who enjoy romping and playing with other dogs were seen as superior to those who accept the presence of other dogs, but can take them or leave them.
A second dilemma facing Lizzie is a variation on the first. The same kind of reactive human-canine and canine-canine interactions reinforced in Lizzie’s early socialization experiences were further reinforced by her formal training for service work. At this time, techniques employing reward (usually, but sometimes punishment) further supported the message of other-control instead of self-control, other reinforcement instead of self-reinforcement.
Given this background, we can appreciate how much intelligence and focus it requires for Lizzie to do her job well. We also can appreciate the challenges she faces in fulfilling her function in a wide variety of environments, including many usually off-limits to dogs. And, finally, we can appreciate the amount of self-control, self-confidence, and self-reinforcement successful service animals must possess, in spite of any early experience or training that communicated the opposite, in order to fulfill their function in the most stress-free manner.
Pause here and imagine you’re a service dog charting the safest course for your blind person as he travels around his suburban neighborhood, travels by bus or subway to different locations, and moves through those locations, often for hours and on a daily basis. During that time you must be on the look-out for possible dangers and patiently ignore people and other animals, as well as any other distraction that would undermine your ability to ensure your person’s safety.
How would you feel at the end of the day?
Well, maybe it’s because I’m older, but if I had to work that hard, I’d be ready to relax and kick back when I got home. I’d want some kind of activity that enables me to completely forget about all those responsibilities for a few hours and a good night’s rest.
Unfortunately, some service dogs aren’t that lucky. They’re expected to be on-demand, on-duty 24/7. In addition to keeping him physically safe, Steve expects Lizzie to cuddle and otherwise comfort or cheer him up when he’s down. He also expects her to function as a social facilitator, chasing balls tossed by his grandkids and making a big fuss over them and all their friends. And if his guests bring their dogs along when they visit, he expects Lizzie to romp and play with them, too.
At this point you might very well be thinking, “That’s why these dogs are exposed to a form of socialization that trains them to do this.”
And I agree that the result is a total win-win situation for the person the service dog serves. But I repeat, what about the dog? If she’s paying attention to doing her job, she can’t be goofing around with other people and animals. And if she’s paying attention to them, she can’t be focused on him. And if she’s with either group, she can’t relax. As a result, she must choose and the best she can experience is a win-lose situation.
I originally chose a picture of a service dog statue for this commentary because I wanted a neutral illustration. At the time, I dismissed the fact that the statue made me feel sad as a result of what I knew about those animals who succumbed to the stress inherent their work. No one else would notice, I told myself.
Imagine my surprise when I went to the photographer’s site and read her comments about how, when she first saw the statue from a distance, she thought it was a live service animal who had been abandoned by his/her person. This possibility was in her mind because such an event had actually occurred and been reported in the news.
Does the irony of an abandoned service dog hit you as hard as it hits me? A service dog who is more trouble to the person than the dog is worth? For me, it’s a gut-puncher right up there with a service dog who has stress-related behavioral problems, let alone one who is given mind-altering drugs to treat them. If you depended on a working dog’s ability for your own survival, would you want that ability undermined by medical or behavioral problems, or any negative side-effects of drugs?
The more I considered all sides of this issue, the more it seemed reasonable that there also could be some service animals out there who might consider running away…
For me, this is yet another one of those matters involving animals that I think we need to reconsider in light of the different expectations maintained by those involved. Traditionally, good working dogs were valued and respected the same way one respected a skilled human worker. Such relationships didn’t preclude affection or even love. But it was understood that, although the demands on the animals might be great when the need for their skills was great, they also deserved down-time and a certain amount of privacy during which they could do what they chose. It was understood that not only would this enable the animals to do their work better, it was the right and humane thing to do to.
It’s so easy to think that doing the companion thing with us is the best reward that any animal could want. But for service dogs charged with the responsibility of keeping people safe, sometimes the best reward is to give them some peace.
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