Working Like a Dog

Smart, energetic and eager to please, Montana’s working dogs get the job done

August 31, 2000

By any measure, the presence of dogs in our midst is as old as the hills. Their companionship and service predates recorded history and is more ancient than the domestication of horses, agriculture, written and perhaps even spoken language. Some might reasonably argue that before monotheism ever gave rise to a word for God, there was already a word for Dog. Few creatures have earned as respected and honored a place in our culture and in our psyche.

And yet, after thousands of years of canine ubiquity, during which we have been as likely to worship them as gods as dispose of them as trash or vermin, we still possess only a limited understanding of what makes them tick. Though we have tinkered for centuries with their genetic blueprints and can boast some degree of understanding of the secrets contained in their keen sense of hearing and smell, as often as not it appears they know as much about us—or more—as we do about them.

One would think that all the attention heaped upon dogs would have eroded their mystique by now, but it appears just the opposite is true. As we discover more ways for dogs to make our lives easier, to assist in our living and improve our physical and mental well-being, their mystique only grows. This obsession with dogs and their seemingly miraculous ways may also blind us to what is best for them, and ourselves.

Such discussions are not just esoteric debates for ivory tower ethicists and animal rights activists. What we do not know about dogs is as important as what we know, and until we acknowledge our misconceptions, we will likely continue to view them as the unlikely mix of the cuddly, adorable puppy, the Lassie-like savior of lost children and miracle healer of the sick. Bred out of our thinking is the simple fact that they are, after all, just dogs.

For this story, I interviewed four women and the dogs who work with them. The tasks they perform run the gamut from recreation to basic life skills, from herding to healing. I claim no expertise on the nature of dogs beyond that which I’ve gained by raising three of my own, and by three years I spent training Search and Rescue dogs in Texas until my older dog, Katie, was forced to retire due a training injury complicated by the onset of hip dysplasia. These days, Katie is a couch potato, easy-going, well-fed and probably more in touch with my true nature than I am of hers.

Vera and Doc:
Hands by her side
By now most of us are accustomed to seeing service dogs in public, vigilantly walking beside the blind, deaf or mobility-impaired. However, it’s revealing to visit a service dog and his partner in their home, when the dog is not “on,” but free to be a dog.

“I thought I was doing really well when I first got Doc,” Vera Mace, 24, tells me, as her 6-year-old golden retriever gives me the requisite once-over sniff and silent approval, then settles in for a nap. “And then it was like, Wow! Life is so much easier. It doesn’t have to be this stressful.”

Vera and Doc have lived together in East Missoula for the last two and a half years. Due to a rare, degenerative nerve disorder that impairs her mobility and limits her reach from her wheelchair, Vera has called upon Doc to become her hands when hers will not suffice.

A trained service dog from PawAbilities of Missoula, Doc is adept at the many skills service dogs perform for the mobility-impaired: He turns lights on and off, gives money and accept change from cashiers, hits elevator buttons, retrieves items dropped on the floor, and even pushes her back into her wheelchair if she falls forward. Most importantly, Doc makes sure Vera always has her voice—by retrieving the telephone when it falls on the floor.

At home, Doc gets to be a dog until he’s needed for work. As he snores through our interview— an embarrassing habit, Vera says, during college lectures—she lets me in on some of his quirks. Doc took a while to get used to people with hats and dreadlocks, and still isn’t a big fan of Halloween costumes. Likewise, he finds movies and concerts too loud, and will, on rare occasions, growl at someone he doesn’t like. Usually, she says, it’s because Doc senses her own uneasiness.

Not surprisingly, the demand for service dogs far exceeds the supply that come out of the 100 or so non-profitgencies nationwide who train and place them. Like most people with service dogs, Vera was on a waiting list for more than two years before she got Doc. She was lucky. Her insurance company agreed to cover his $10,000 price tag.

Since service dogs are like athletes whose skills will atrophy if not exercised, Vera is vigilant about making him perform certain tasks even when she doesn’t need him to. Among them is one that would be the envy of many a dog owner.

“We were in a restaurant and there was a french fry on the floor, and he looked at it, then looked at me, and I said no, and he walked right by it,” Vera recalls. “That one really amazed me. But, he did lay down on the floor and stare at it.”

There’s a tendency when meeting a service dog to assume that his year or two of intensive training has completely short-circuited thousands of years of evolutionary hard-wiring.

“Some people ask, ‘Why don’t you let him pick up food?’ Because he’s a dog. He will eat food,” says Vera. “They’re dogs. You can’t expect anything different.”

Karen and Tupper:
A healing touch
Strutting like a general through the halls of the rehabilitation wing of Missoula’s Community Medical Center is a diminutive but energetic canine whose efficacy as a working dog extends well beyond the limits of his physical stature. Tupper, an 8-year-old cairn terrier, looks like he’d be more at home riding in a picnic basket on the back of a bicycle than sporting the work vest of a dog engaged in medically sanctioned therapy.

It’s a common first impression, since the most famous member of Tupper’s breed was Toto of The Wizard of Oz fame. And perhaps the association suits him since Tupper’s primary job, as a certified therapy dog with STAR Dog Services of Missoula, is to help patients recover what they’ve lost and find their way home again.

STAR Dogs (STAR is an acronym for Support, Therapy, Assistance and Rehabilitation) are among the more recent additions to the pantheon of dogs and other service animals gaining acceptance in the health care and rehabilitation professions. STAR Dog Services, a non-profit group born in Missoula just three years ago, was an outgrowth of a graduate degree project at the University of Montana to study the interactions between 10 dogs and their handlers as they were trained. At the time, there were less than 2,000 therapy dogs in service nationwide. Today, there more than 40 certified therapy dogs in Missoula alone.

Technically speaking, therapy dogs are not service dogs as defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act, though they are put to work in a wide variety of clinical settings, from hospitals and day care centers to hospice homes and drug rehab units, anywhere that patients do not have access to their own pets or companion animals.

On this particular afternoon, Tupper and his handler, Karen Erickson, are visiting Stephan, a wheelchair-bound stroke victim with diminished memory and partial paralysis. Although Stephan’s movements when petting Tupper are somewhat rough and clumsy, therapy dogs are trained to cope with situations and behavior that might frighten or provoke other dogs: uncoordinated or lurching movements, seizures, restraining hugs, boisterous groups of children, sudden loud noises, even angry outbursts.

Obviously, patients are not required to participate in animal-assisted therapy—“It’s one of the few forms of therapy that patients can say no to in the hospital,” Karen tells me—though few opt to do so. And while a plethora of studies attest to the curative properties of animals, from reducing high blood pressure to relieving anxiety, insomnia and depression, the most telling indicators are the anecdotal accounts, of which Karen has plenty.

“Tupper and I went into a nursing home and were working with a woman who hadn’t spoken in two years. The staff had never seen her speak or even smile,” Karen recalls. “After one week of working with the dog, the staff almost fell over when they came in. She was bending over, smiling and talking to the dog.”

On another occasion, Karen and Tupper were asked to help an 18-month-old infant who had not yet learned to crawl, but only laid on her belly kicking her legs. “All we had to do was put the dog 10 feet away in a ‘down-stay’ command , and that little girl learned to crawl like that!”

The “therapy” itself is anything but high-tech, and can be as simple as allowing a patient to pet or groom the dog, or just allow him to lay on the bed or sit on a chair. (STAR Dogs are bathed and groomed within 24 hours prior of their visit and are trained to not lick patients to prevent cross-contamination.)

The point, Karen explains, is to stimulate a patient’s physical, cognitive, social and emotional skills. At times the therapy is structured and measurable, with goal-oriented tasks designed to improve motor skills or coordination. Other times, the dog is simply there to “meet and greet.”

In the room of one patient named Jerry, Tupper does little more than sit on a chair at the bedside and stare. Although it’s easy to be skeptical that Tupper’s mere presence is having much therapeutic value, Jerry soon begins reminiscing about the dogs he once knew.

“I had a German short hair named Heidi,” Jerry recalls. “She was my constant companion. I’ll tell you, losing her was like losing a child.”

Jerry slowly launches into a story about a hunting trip with his son near an old cottage in Minnesota. In minutes he’s recalling names, places and experiences from years past, even laughing about how the dog refused to point out game one day after his son missed an easy shot at a ring-necked pheasant.

Soon, the hidden power of dog therapy reveals itself. For Jerry, as with most dog owners, the times spent with our dogs can be among our finest and most enduring memories, in our favorite places and in the company of those we love most. Whether such therapy is quantifiable is immaterial. The mind is a powerful healing tool, and few treatments are more restorative and life-affirming than good memories.

Peggy and Tyler:
Running herd

I catch up with Peggy Shunick and Tyler, her 7-year-old border collie, in a smoky field just west of Missoula. Peggy’s Evaro home has been under a pre-evacuation order for weeks due to wildfires, and rather than waiting until the last minute, she has moved out her 12 dogs and relocated her 30 sheep to this rented pasture.

Peggy herself is an interesting breed, an unlikely combination of old-school Montana sheep rancher, expert dog trainer and academic who holds a Master’s degree in Animals in Public Policy from Tufts University. Currently, she is completing her Ph.D., at the UM School of Forestry studying how human behavior affects wildlife management decisions.

Peggy and Tyler are running the sheep around in tight formations—“Like fetching a big, moving herd of tennis balls,” as she puts it—using a combination of voice commands, a herding stick and Tyler’s herding instinct that has been bred to fall short of actual predation. Meanwhile, our conversation runs from practical training tips to the ethical dilemmas raised by the burgeoning and largely unregulated service dog industry. Peggy spends a lot of time watching service dogs in public and doesn’t always like what she sees.

“What I see are a lot of dogs that are very well-behaved that lay beside a wheelchair. What dog couldn’t be taught to lay beside a wheelchair?” Peggy asks. “There are a lot of worthless dogs being put out being called service dogs. That’s a disturbing trend.”

Although the ADA has a clear definition of what constitutes a service dog, there are no state or federal guidelines for their certification, training and upkeep. And that, Peggy says, has created a false sense of security, especially as policymakers have begun embracing the social and economic benefits of service dogs.

In 1998, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services became the first Medicaid program in the nation to acquire and place service dogs for disabled Medicaid recipients. In an effort to head off criticism that the state was using public funds to purchase “very expensive pets,” DPHHS adopted strict standards for their training, certification and maintenance. Still, Peggy remains skeptical.

“There are some groups out there doing a good job with training, but we don’t always know who they are,” Peggy says. “We were fast to embrace service dogs because we wanted this adjunct for disabled people, and we’re very disabled-oriented right now. But I think we leapt in with rose-colored glasses.”

The problem, she says, is similar to what she encounters with people who ask her to train their dogs, but are quickly dissuaded when they find out what’s involved.

“What it comes down to is that people, especially Americans, want fast, easy fixes to everything,” she explains. “They don’t want to know that it’s going to take three months to teach one skill, or a year or two to get a really great working border collie. They want the quick, easy fix, and that produces neurotic dogs.”

The trend becomes more problematic as the definition of “service dogs” expands into new areas, such as seizure alert dogs, which reportedly can detect the onset of a human seizures up to an hour or two before it occurs. Seizure alert dogs are trained to warn their owner and take protective action, such as laying on the patient or shielding them from falls. Like cancer-detecting dogs, another new addition to the service dog arena, scientists remain baffled about what changes in human physiology the dogs detect. Still, seizure dogs are being placed throughout the country, including some through the DPHHS program.

“How can you ethically train these dogs unless you can induce a seizure in a patient? You can’t,” Peggy says. “And you want me to spend how much on these dogs? That’s crazy.”

As for the immediate task at hand—herding sheep—Peggy admits that not much has changed over the centuries. The main thing, she says, is teaching your dog to stop and self-calm when you tell them to. The rest, she says, “is all just window dressing.”

“We have this perspective that dogs are these mythical creatures,” Peggy says. “We forget that they’re just dogs.”

Jeanne and Team White Paws:
Call of the wild

Anyone who thinks sled racing is not a labor of love has never visited White Paws Kennel outside of Kalispell. As we enter the backyard of owners Jeanne and Paul Strahl, the labor side of the equation becomes readily apparent. Scattered across the yard and up the hillside are 38 Alaskan and Siberian huskies, tethered to posts, peeking from dog houses and running in frantic circles. Immediately heads rise, ears perk up and clouds of dust lift up from the teeming horde. Then the barking begins.

“Look at that. Aren’t they beautiful?” Jeanne asks, proudly surveying her mighty pack.

As Jeanne runs down their names from memory—“Bandit, Gracie, Sawyer, Jocko, Tyson, Bruno, Echo…”—my mind reels with the sheer logistics of tending this massive horde. Jeanne is up every morning at 6:30 hosing down the dust, feeding, watering and tending. (Her husband, a DNRC firefighter, has been gone much of the summer.) On average, the dogs consume about 40 pounds of food a day in the summer, more during the winter when in training. Factor in the chore of keeping each one exercised, socialized, spayed and neutered, shots, and the Herculean chore of scooping 38 dogs’ worth of poop.

Jeanne is diligent about the work, putting in as much as 10 hours a day, which is apparent from the cleanliness and friendliness of her dogs. In fact, though she’s been racing for only three years and already won several races, she speaks most proudly of the trophy she won last year at the Seeley/Lincoln 100: “Best Cared For Team.”

Visiting sled dogs during the summer is like seeing an Indy race car in a showroom. The speed and raw energy is palpable, but you’re left to imagine how they perform under optimal conditions, which, in the dogs’ case, are 20 degrees below zero on a snow-covered mountainside at 2 a.m. (Apparently, Jeanne’s dogs run better at night.)

Despite a popular misconception about mushing, sled dogs are never whipped, but gladly run for miles until they are halted, injured or drop from exhaustion. (Jeanne tells the story of one yearling, Tracker, who wasn’t getting enough sleep at the checkpoints and kept falling asleep during the race.) A good team can run 75 to 100 miles between checkpoints in races that run hundreds of miles and last days, even weeks, at a time. Interestingly, many of the decisions are made by the dogs themselves, such as how fast they run and what side of the trail they run on, with steering done with verbal commands. I ask how they decide which dogs run in the lead positions.

“You don’t decide. The dogs decide,” she explains. “You put every dog you own up front. If they want to be the leader, you’ll know. If they pull you off into the woods and get all tangled up, they’re not interested in being the leader.”

Although it seems cruel to see so many dogs chained up all day and unable to play with one another, Jeanne explains that it prevents fights over territory and dominance. Still, the dogs require ample socialization to work together as a team.

“It’s just like humans,” she says. “If you want to play a team sport, you guys have to get along, right?”

On top of the hours of dog maintenance, sled dog racing is no walk in the woods for the musher. It demands months of physical and mental conditioning and the ability to endure bitter cold and being deep in the wilderness for hours at a time. And since many dog teams sleep better when away from the hubbub of the checkpoints, many mushers choose to sleep on the trail and tend to their dogs themselves rather than relying on a handler.

Still, despite split paws, broken wrists and unexpected snowstorms that can leave you lost in the dark, Jeanne says that she’s almost always sorry to see a race end.

“You train the dogs and go out there in the middle of winter and get into the wilderness and you’ve got these 12 dogs in the zone working really well together, and all you can see is what God created,” she says. “You can just feel the Great Spirit out there. It’s so awesome.”

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