Cura and I have been together since 2009. We want to thank all of you who followed the early days as well as those who popped back on occasion during the long hiatus. Training was done, the days passed, and we were settling into our life together.
Fast forward: Cura is slowing down and a new member of the family is in training. On top of that, we are all busy with our new calling . . . Running the Training Department for Paws and Stripes. Join us on our journey!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Welcoming Access

I have alluded to the fact that Cura and I are frequently warmly welcomed by most businesses. There are a couple of incidences that I would like to highlight at this point -- particularly since I have posted on my difficulties in this area before (without identifying the businesses, of course, given our litigious society). Some information will be very specific while others will be less detailed. However, unlike my posts dealing with negative experiences -- I will happily provide specific information about those businesses that, in my experience, have either welcomed or encouraged my patronage as a person with a service animal.

I have frequently been met with smiles and compliments at the Walmart on Unser in Rio Rancho as well as the one on Coors in Albuquerque -- there was one incident of a challenge, but most times I was welcomed right off the bat. I frequent both of these locations often and have almost always been welcomed warmly initially and am convinced that the only 'challenge' that I experienced was either an innocent or a legitimate concern by an employee that had not registered Cura's vest (I still find this a baffling, but legitimate reaction) or was overly exuberant about their responsibilities since, once it was brought to the employee's attention, we were welcomed without further protest.

Hello Deli on Jefferson NE in Albuquerque on Monday 27 July: We descended upon them with several challenges: a grandmother using a walker, a service dog (Cura), AND a pet dog (Skye). They not only welcomed us all to their patio, they graciously volunteered to bring the dogs a bowl of water! After the initial offer, at least two other members of the staff came out and asked if anyone had brought the dogs water -- this was a rather hot day (somewhere in the 90's) so this attention was very appreciated. While I always attempt to insure that I have Cura's needs taken care of to the best of my ability (yes, I manage to forget things once in a while), it is VERY pleasing when a business is willing to provide for my service dog while they are providing a service to me. Hello Deli certainly managed to do this when we were there -- thank you very much!

Scalo on Central SE in Albuquerque 28 July: OH MY GOODNESS! What a lovely experience! Once again, we were on the Patio, but only because the person who arrived first thought that Skye would be with us in addition to Cura. But, because of our plans for the day, Skye was not with us -- while there is a possibility that Skye will, eventually, become an assistance animal, that decision has not yet been made and she is not in a training program as of yet, so does not have the same access as Cura. First, I would like to compliment Scalo on the patio environment that they provide -- despite rather high temperatures, the patio is quite pleasant. On top of that, our waiter graciously asked if he could provide Cura with some water. Unfortunately, I neglected to note the name of our server (something that I have now vowed to remedy when I am out and about from now on because I want to give credit to individuals when it is warranted -- and this server DEFINITELY warranted it!). All I can do is try to give as much information as possible in the hopes that this individual will be recognized by his employer for his excellence. Prior to my disability, I was a server at a restaurant and I am both sympathetic to the stresses of the job and I also have very clear expectations of what warrants exceptional service, and what we received that day was, without a doubt, exceptional (even my father of Scottish descent, who frequently conforms to the monetary stereotype, loosened his purse to acknowledge the service we received this day). As I am sure you have already figured out -- our server was male. In addition, he sported a closely shaven/bald head and a crucifix around his neck. We were the only party on the patio at the time. There were four of us in the party along with Cura -- one of which was my grandmother who, while physically challenged, is very decisive and alert. In addition to making sure that Cura's needs were taken care of, our server also gave me ample opportunities to reinforce Cura's training. Not only is she supposed to be friendly in public when given permission, but she is also supposed to avoid contact and distraction. Our dog-loving server gave me the opportunity to reinforce both responses to public overtures. Thank you!

Satellite on Alameda in Albuquerque (several instances): While there is nothing overly exceptional here -- it is just as important to me to have a 'normal', 'uneventful' experience as it is to have an exceptional one. Every time I have gone to Satellite, I have had a very calm, normal, unstressful, experience. We have always been on the patio because Skye has been with us, but I have always been the one to go in and order and not once has anyone reacted to Cura's presence. Thank you, Satellite, for helping me to feel just like any other customer!

Flying Star in Bernallio on Saturday 25 July: Very similar to my Satellite experiences, this breakfast at the Flying Star was very mundane. But it is VERY important to realize -- from my perspective, having a rather mundane experience is actually desired. Ultimately, I wish to have the same service as any other customer at a restaurant -- the difference is that "I" includes both myself AND Cura. So, making sure we both have a comfortable experience goes a long way in my book. Flying Star managed to provide a pleasant experience for both Cura and I when we visited. While it was not an exceptional experience, it WAS a normal one and, in my life, normalcy is warmly embraced!

These are some of the local businesses that are providing me with normal or exceptional experiences. Thank you so much. Regardless of whether it is a "normal" or an "exceptional" experience -- BOTH are greatly appreciated. I will gladly recognize future positive experiences with details and share less than positive experiences by providing ambiguous details -- just stay tuned!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Denying Access

Okay, so I feel that I must preface this post with a disclaimer . . . the majority of the time I do not run into this problem AT ALL -- frequently I am equally amazed at the positive and welcoming reactions that I encounter. In fact, several reactions in particular have impressed me recently so I am confident that a number of future posts will concentrate on more positive experiences . . . I promise. But for now, I want to address the issue of individuals and businesses attempting to thwart (either overtly or subtly) many state laws and the federal law by attempting to deny service dogs and their handlers or charges access to public areas.

It is amazing to me how many people come up to me and tell me that I can't bring Cura into a particular place. But what amazes me even more is that when I inform them that she is a service dog, their response is some version of 'Oh, she is? I didn't know . . . ' Now, I realize that I have not put up any pictures of Cura when she is in her working gear (after all, usually when she is working I am not in a position to be snapping pictures). I will now remedy that . . .

Cura 'off-duty'

In her vest

In her pack

In her cooling coat

As you can see, Cura is VERY clearly identified as a service dog at all times, particularly when she is working. When she is not working she only has a badge attached to her collar that identifies her but when she is working she is either in a vest, a pack, or a cooling coat (or some combination of the three) ALL of which have SEVERAL patches identifying her as a service dog AND asking that people not pet her (they don't always work, but that will probably be a whole other blog).

As you can see, her vest and pack are red -- very noticeable against her black coat -- and her cooling coat is silver -- again, anything but invisible! I am baffled that so many people apparently do not realize that Cura is a service dog. I can only imagine what people that don't put clear identification on their dogs go through -- after all, it is my understanding that legally it is not necessary for a service dog to wear anything that identifies them as a working animal (though it certainly makes things easier if they ARE identified). In fact, it can get down right expensive to get the equipment -- even for a person like me who is bargain shopping and buying less costly items.

As baffled as I am about people attempting to deny us access directly despite Cura being clearly identified as a service dog, there is a more passive aggressive response that I find even more disconcerting, probably because I have not figured out a consistant method for dealing with it yet. This passive aggressive response does not involve any direct contact with the individual in question. Instead of coming forward and telling me that I can't bring Cura inside the establishment, they just follow us around 'keeping and eye on us'. I have come to think of these people as 'lurkers'. Lurkers are different from the people who leave us alone but are fascinated by the whole service dog concept and watch us with a smile on their face, some form of positive expression, and a sparkle in their eyes. Instead, lurkers are hanging around with a sour look. I believe that they are just WAITING for Cura to do something that will allow them to make us leave. After all, Cura may be legally allowed to be there, but if they can make a case that she is being disruptive to the business or customers, legally she can be asked to leave -- and even can be banned from the premises permanently.

Unfortunately, the two most obvious occurrences of this happened in a national department store -- a rather surprising situation for me. I must admit to being naive and assuming that any national department store would train their employees on the proper way of dealing with service animals and, to be fair, most of the stores, department or otherwise, have been very supportive and respectful of the fact that I had an assistance animal. This particular store, on two separate occasions, resulted in two different members of staff 'trailing' me. I felt as if I was followed throughout the store, but I must admit that I am not 100% sure that was actually the case -- I may have only been shadowed through that particular employee's department.

Why is this more disturbing to me than a person coming up to me and trying to get me to leave? Well, for one I feel like I am being stalked by a person that does not have positive intentions toward me -- disconcerting, to say the least. Also, in such situations, I am not given an opportunity to counter what I see as their aggression. But, more importantly, the whole situation tends to make Cura a bit jumpy and distracted (ironically increasing the chances that the lurker could claim she is disrupting business). I have not yet worked out whether Cura is reacting to the lurker directly or if she is reacting to my discomfort over the situation. In a way, I hope it is the latter because, from a training perspective, that is simpler to deal with because to solve Cura's discomfort, I just need to control my reaction to the lurker which will likely just be a matter of figuring out how to deal with the situation. If Cura is being affected by the lurker directly, that becomes more complicated to deal with -- though not impossible.

I am very divided about how to deal with lurkers. A part of me wants to go up to them and ask if I can help them -- meanwhile, potentially informing them that they are affecting Cura's ability to do her job by shadowing us and, therefore, breaking the law (this is the more practical and assertive part). Another part of me just wants to ignore the situation and get out of there as soon as possible (the non-confrontational part). Still another part wants to go up to them and tell them to bugger off and leave us alone (definitely a confrontational part, influenced by my stay in Scotland)! These are only the three most prominent reactions, there have been others. So, I am not sure (yet) how to deal with lurkers, but I know that I must figure it out for both Cura and my sakes. Note to self: Remember to have a chat with Rick and Heather about this one!

Interestingly enough, one of the local papers recently ran an article directed at individuals with service animals suggesting that, if any business challenged their right to access, they should not only inform the representative of the business of the fact that they are breaking the law, but that they should call the police and report the incident so that the business could be cited for the violation (presumably to prevent the business from attempting to deny access to future service animals and their charges who would not be inclined to assert their rights and insist on being allowed access). Now, while there are already one or two businesses that I would be more than happy report if they give me a hard time one more time (personally, I find this a bit disturbing since I have only had a service animal for four months), I am not sure that calling the cops would be my first reaction if I ran into any resistance by a particular business. After all, my gut tells me that, usually, it is more a case of individual employee ignorance of the law than overt discrimination (I DO know that employees at one business believe that they are acting on the instructions of the owner, but my optimism prompts me to also believe that they have misunderstood or missed the clarification that there is a difference between 'dogs' and 'service dogs'). Therefore, I personally am more inclined to give both businesses and individuals the benefit of the doubt. So, as frustrating as direct challenges and lurkers can be, I think that I will only pick up the phone for repeated or exceptional offenses. Some may see that as overly generous, but I see it as being flexible and understanding -- maybe it is because I am a teacher by profession, but I tend to see these situations as opportunities to educate. Like a teacher, I believe that if the lesson is learned there is no need to penalize the student -- however, if the student repeatedly 'fails the test' then they must suffer the consequences of their actions (or lack thereof). So, businesses be warned -- while it may not be my FIRST reaction, I do have former students that will attest to the fact that I am not shy about failing those who consistently show an inability to grasp the facts and act accordingly.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Don't laugh -- even if it IS funny

There are some things about training a service dog that can be rather amusing. I was reminded of this over the weekend when we went to the Herb and Lavender Festival that was held in Santa Fe. The reaction is not unique to Cura, apparently it is one that many dogs have -- and when you think about it, understandably so.

Imagine if you will, being a dog and walking along, doing y0ur job and minding your own (and your charge's) business -- suddenly you encounter a life sized statue of a person or -- as happened this weekend -- of a mule! In both cases, here is a figure that looks like a living creature but does not smell or move like one! Figure out how to process THAT! Now -- think about the mannequins that are popular in the shops. Since working with Cura, I have noticed that many of them are the size of a normal adult or child human being, but they lack important body parts -- like heads, hands, and/or feet. Combine that with the fact that they don't SMELL like the humans that they look like and you can be dealing with anything from a slightly wary to a completely FREAKED OUT dog!

While this is not a new challenge in our training, it is one that took on a new dimension this weekend since, prior to this, it was primarily humanoid shapes that bothered Cura. I find the whole situation very funny. Not just because Cura is spooked by a statue (though that is rather humorous in a baffling kind of way) but because it frequently takes me at least 30-60 seconds for me to figure out WHY Cura is all of a sudden unwilling to walk at her place beside me -- and there have been a few times where it has taken someone else pointing out the trigger to me for me to 'get it'. I am sure that my utter confusion during these moments is hilarious! They certainly are to me once I solve the mystery, work the trigger, and then have a chance to reflect on it -- so I can only imagine an observer's take on the whole thing!

Let me explain . . .

For the most part, when we are out and about, Cura behaves in certain ways. Either she is doing just what she is supposed to be doing -- kind of 'floating' at my side -- 0r she is slightly out of place, just ahead of where she should be, putting a little bit of pressure on the lead. But, when she notices a life-like, non-live statue/mannequin she moves as far away from the trigger as she can get, given the slack in the lead. Most of the time, this means shifting to my right side, behind me. This is because Cura usually walks on my left side and she rarely reacts strongly to 'strange' things on my right. Instead, it is the things on the left that she reacts to -- it is almost as if she doesn't notice things on the right, but I know this is not accurate because, frequently if there is something or someone on the right, she will either turn her head or prick her ears briefly in that direction (not the ideal reaction -- but she IS still in training). But, her reaction to things on the left is VERY different.

Rick and Heather have provided insight into why this is the case . . . if you are between your dog and the item in question, the dog's reaction is more subdued or nonexistent . . . if the dog is between you and the item in question, the dog's reaction is enhanced. So, if you find yourself in a situation where you have to pass another dog or person that your dog (pet or service) will not be comfortable with -- put yourself between your dog and the trigger, your dog's reaction will be much less fussy. (I have seen and experienced this so it is not something that magically only trainers can do -- though it may seem that way at times -- it really works!)

So, back to this weekend . . .

Here we are at this festival and we have been near this particular mule statue several times throughout the day, but we have either walked by it so that I was between Cura and the mule OR we were near the statue but not directly passing it -- focused on another destination. Up to this particular point, Cura didn't react in any way to the statue -- it was like she didn't notice it -- and (I am sorry to say) I didn't even register its presence.

In an effort to gather our party together, Cura and I were on a mission to track down members of our group that were in the museum and, to get there, we had to pass this particular mule statue on my left hand side (translate: Cura was between me and the statue). There I was, walking toward the museum door and, all of a sudden, Cura was no longer floating by my left side, but had swung back and to the right and balked against moving forward. I was baffled because I just had not registered the mule statue. Both the person who pointed out the trigger to me and myself found Cura's reaction humorous -- it was all I could do to keep from laughing! But, that does not provide Cura with the assurance to deal with such encounters, so it is a less than productive response to these kinds of situations. Instead, Cura has to be 'worked through' the trigger. This means that she has to be passed by the statue and asked to perform her service skills near it until she performs them without a severe reaction to the statue. This does not necessarily mean NO reaction, although that is the ultimate goal. Instead, this has to be seen as a process where improvements are seen as successes -- ultimately, continued improvements will result in the ideal reaction to the situation. Perfection is not usually the first success so it is not realistic to expect it. (This is related to Cura's 'storm triggers' which, I am sure, will be discussed in other posts.) Instead, the key is to diminish the reaction each time. Eventually, the result will be no initial reaction at all. Challenge met and overcome!

I wish I had some footage of Cura's reaction -- but it was quite hot so I limited what she was carrying to her cooling coat (to keep her from getting overheated) and vest with my absolute essentials in it rather than her pack -- which, admittedly does not usually include my camera (though maybe a rethink on the 'essentials' required in her pack). So, no humorous pictures or video (sigh).

I was able to work Cura through the more severe reaction to the mule -- with a combination of obedience commands and a few passes, she was walking by the statue with0ut balking. She may not have been happy about it and would still glance warily in the direction of the statue, but she walked by it staying in place by my side. Whooohoooo! (remember -- celebrate the little successes!) So, while the challenge has not yet been overcome completely, we are meeting the challenge and managing to improve our results.