Bring Cara Back! Stolen Service Dog!

Imagine experiencing severe anxiety over the smallest unknowns or changes in your plans. Some of you might not have to imagine it because it’s real for you, but for the rest of us, it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to simulate.

For 9-year-old Otto, anxiety is a manifestation of autism, and it can make it impossible for him to function. Variables that seem small to most of us can make or break his day, and his one constant is Cara, his Skilled Companion (a type of assistance dog) from Canine Companions for Independence. Tragically, she was stolen on Friday afternoon, and his family is desperate to find her.

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Above: Cara rests her head on Otto’s chest. Otto smiles; Cara has a look of contentment.

Cara was last seen at her family’s home in La Jolla, California, on Friday afternoon. She is not microchipped, nor is she wearing a collar, due to a hot spot on her neck. She’s a 55 pound lab-retriever mix, and is highly trained, so will respond to commands such as “here,” “sit,” and “down.” She has a tattoo in her right ear of her ID number: 11695. She’s also on medication for a bad ear infection, and will have gone without it for a few days now, so her ears are likely sensitive and red.

The family is offering a reward for her return.

If you see something suspicious, contact the San Diego Police Department at 619-531-2000 or 858-484-3154 regarding case # 14039621.

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Friendliness—it’s in the DNA of most service dogs. We know that they work hard to stay focused while they’re on duty, but few things give my own service dog greater pleasure than saying hello to a stranger, and I bet the case is the same for yours. Unfortunately, that quality which makes them so lovable also makes them susceptible to kidnapping, and unlike kids, we can’t teach them to be wary of the strange man offering candy.

The American Kennel Club reported a 31% increase in dog thefts from 2012 to 2013; perpetrators are getting braver, even sneaking into fenced backyards and targeting easy-to-steal, high-value breeds.

How you can help:

Share this post or any you may have seen on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Stolen dogs can end up anywhere, so don’t ignore them just because you don’t live in Southern California.

Check your area’s craigslist and newspaper for dogs for sale.

Print the flyer and take it to your local pet food store, dog park, and anywhere else dog lovers might go.

Keep your eyes peeled. There have been news stories in the San Diego area, and if the thief has caught wind, he or she may have dumped Cara. If you see a lab wandering, use the “here” or “sit” command; if the dog responds, check the ears for the tattoo number listed above.

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Above: Otto crouches facing a beanbag chair on which Cara, his 55 pound lab, lies. Otto’s mother is hugging him from behind.

Thank you in advance for helping to bring Cara back!

Things That Are Awkward With a Service Dog

As much as I love my big, adorable, squishy helper, she can make life really awkward sometimes. It’s probably a little like having a small child, except people mostly expect to see children in public.

Using public restrooms.

It’s really uncomfortable to talk to Bright in the bathroom when other people can’t see what’s going on, but unfortunately, it’s also necessary. No matter how quietly I speak to her, it echoes, so I usually whisper, but that’s even weirder because, when whispered, sit sometimes sounds like sh*t, and down can sound like d*mn. I’d hate to know what the lady in the next stall is thinking as she hears me whispering what sound like expletives to no one while I sit on the toilet.

Then there’s the tail or nose under the stall wall issue. One time, a lady actually screamed when Bright’s tail slid into her stall.

Bright in the bathroom

Eating at Asian restaurants.

Let’s not dance around the truth, here. When taking a dog into an Asian restaurant, there’s about a 50% chance I’ll be met at the door by a lady in her 50s or 60s who is adamant that we stay outside. (I should mention that the other 50% of the time, the experience is usually great!) Yeah, I’ve heard all the jokes about dog meat in Chinese food, but honestly, I find that this is usually a small, family owned business and the lady greeting me at the door only knows the health codes that prohibit animals from restaurants, and she’s not aware of the ADA which allows them. Really, what makes things uncomfortable is the language barrier. Try explaining ADA laws to someone whose primary English vocabulary revolves around the restaurant industry. There’s very little overlap there. It’s painful for both sides.

"Ma, I think I need thumbs for these."

“Ma, I think I need thumbs for these.”

Wedding ceremonies.

Bright has army crawled her gorgeous mug into at least one fancy ceremony photo, and nearly tripped the bride on her way down the aisle at another wedding. Come to think of it, these were both cousin-in-laws of mine. Actually, they were the last two family weddings we went to. We’ve probably been blacklisted.

This photo belongs to Erin Sleezer.

This photo belongs to Erin Sleezer. Where’s Waldo?

This photo also belongs to Erin.

This photo also belongs to Erin. At least Bright was invited to be in this one.

Riding next to strangers on airplanes.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the process, when I fly, Bright lays on the floor in front of me in the bulkhead. News flash: The width of an individual’s space on the plane is far less than the length of Bright. So usually, when Bryan and I fly together, she takes up a little of my space and a little of his, and we’re good. She makes a pretty fantastic ottoman, actually. The last time I flew, though, I was alone and got seated next to a lady who’d just had knee surgery and needed to be able to extend her leg. And she was wearing black yoga pants and said the dog hair didn’t bother her, but she kept picking it, so it obviously did. And her kid wanted to say hi to Bright, and I wanted to let him, but she kept saying no.

In other circumstances, I’ve been seated next to people who LOVE dogs. For 3 or 4 hours at a time. Captive. Miles in the air. With no way out. And they carry photos.

Help.

Waiting at the gate for our first flight together. Oh, the adventures we were in for.

Waiting at the gate for our first flight together. Oh, the adventures we were in for.

Being anywhere near people who are afraid of dogs.

Oh for crying out loud, I thought you were dying, or that there was a man with an axe behind me.

When I emerge from a bathroom stall with a dog you weren’t expecting to see, the appropriate response is not to scream, point, and run away. If you’ve got that serious a phobia, for your sake and mine, please, seek professional help.

When we pass each other on the sidewalk, if you’re uncomfortable with the dog, cross the street or something. Stopping in the middle of everything to gawk and make a scene is not going to get us past each other any faster. In fact, you’re blocking the sidewalk, which is preventing you from getting away from me. Please move.

This is the face Bright makes when she's unamused by such antics.

This is the face Bright makes when she’s unamused by such antics.

Walking, since I’m not blind.

Nevermind that I walk like a newborn giraffe. If I’m not seated in a wheelchair, sometimes, people can’t fathom that I’m not either blind or training Bright. It’s one thing to be unaware of the possibilities and to ask questions, but another thing entirely to be totally unable to articulate any kind of normal question. Staring at me with your eyebrows raised, your nose wrinkled, and your eyes crossed is not a form of a question – it’s awkward, and it makes you look like a Klingon. It also makes me think you’re weird, it makes you feel weird, and it makes anyone observing think you’re dumb.

I have very few photos of me standing with Bright, so there. That's me, standing like an idiot.

I have very few photos of me standing with Bright, so, there. That’s me, standing like an idiot.

You Knew Better, Right?

As Service Dog users, we’re quick to point the finger at the general public for making our lives difficult.

Here’s the thing: At least most of them can plead ignorance.

I have news for you if you have a Service Dog. You cannot plead ignorance to etiquette or laws. When you call your dog a Service Dog, you lose that privilege. If you’re not prepared to be held accountable for your dog’s behavior, don’t call him or her a Service Dog, and don’t take advantage of the laws that provide public access rights. Continue reading

How Do You Do It?

Ask any Puppy Raiser for any organization what question he or she is asked the most; I’d be willing to bet my life and Bright’s that it’s something to the effect of, “How can you raise and love a puppy, then just give it away? I could never give them up!”

There have been about a thousand blog posts written and graduation speeches given that answer The Question, but I always enjoy hearing from individuals about what motivates them to keep doing what they do. Continue reading

Speaking Italian to My Dog

I’m posting it on the blog so I have to do it: I’m teaching Bright Italian.

No, I do not currently speak Italian, but I’m working on that.

But why, you ask?

Well, for one thing, I’m sick of strangers giving my dog commands. Can I get an amen? Continue reading

Brenda and Buffy: How Can I Help You?

Imagine dropping your phone while sitting on a barstool that your bum happens to be glued to. All together now: “Oh no! Not my phone!” Getting up is not an option. Now imagine that the stool has armrests.

Can’t reach the floor, can ya? Stinks, doesn’t it? It’s a situation that users of power wheelchairs find themselves in every day (except the barstool part).

Add to that equation a smart and capable dog who responds to the drop by looking up at you with big brown eyes that say, “Need help?”

The situation’s starting to smell better. Continue reading

Not Just Cute

Recently, I’ve had some conversations regarding the current marketing theme for many non-profits that provide Service Dogs – the cuteness of the dogs and pups. Our culture, particularly the socialmediasphere (yep, all one word), is obsessed with cute animals; my Facebook feed is blasted with memes of sad puppies, videos of babies and dogs singing together (it’s had more than 8 million views on YouTube), and canines wearing glasses. Continue reading

A Public Service Announcement

My life with Bright provides me with some unique opportunities to educate people about Service Dogs and life with a disability, and also to teach common sense. These opportunities come in many forms, but there’s one situation in particular that blows my mind every time it comes up.

I grew up with dogs. I had a Westie when I was little, and got my first big dog when I was 13; one of the first things I learned was that it’s dangerous to surprise an animal. Dogs don’t like being the last ones to find out that someone’s about to touch them, so I was taught to always approach them from the front and give them a chance to sniff me out.

Apparently, there are a whole lot of children out there who were never taught that lesson. Pretty frequently, in fact, I hear parents and children approaching me and Bright from behind, and parents saying, “Look at the puppy! I bet it’s soft – why don’t you go and pet it?” Then, inevitably, I see a little hand in my peripheral vision, reaching out to grab Bright’s tail or touch a back leg.

I’m very happy to say that I’m confident that Bright will always respond appropriately, but I’m always shocked at the lack of respect people – especially adults with children – have for the power of a canine’s jaw.

Bright has lots of experience with babes.

Bright has lots of experience with babes.

Consider this post a Public Service Announcement:

Never Approach an Animal from Behind

Dogs are not people. When people are surprised, our reaction is usually fear in the form of a yelp or laugh, and maybe a little jump. But we’re past the point in our evolution where we’re constantly on the lookout for predators (although, maybe we shouldn’t be…), and dogs aren’t. When surprised, they often go into fight or flight mode, and in most cases, fight is the most viable option for them. While the jumpiness can be overcome through breeding and training, which it is in the case of a true Service Dog, that’s not the case with most pets.

For example, my mom grew up with her aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents all living on the same block. There were lots of animals – chickens, cats, dogs, rabbits, even a pet skunk named Flower. She knew how to behave around dogs, and she was still injured by one when it was surprised. I remember her telling me the story of the time she was standing next to of one of the neighborhood German Shepherds, petting his back, when a cousin tugged on its tail. Since she was within striking range, my mom ended up with a hole in her hand when the spooked dog reacted to what it perceived as a threat.

To be clear, this kind of behavior is different from aggression – notice I said the dog bit her hand. It didn’t attack, maul, or instigate a fight unprovoked; it just reacted to what it thought was danger. While this kind of reaction to fear isn’t acceptable for a Service Dog, most pet owners don’t know enough about canine behavior to avoid situations like the one my mom experienced.

Fortunately for the kids that come up behind Bright and yank on her tail, they won’t end up with holes in their hands. I love that I get the opportunity to talk to them about safety with animals, but my heart’s a little afraid for kids who learn this simple lesson the hard way.

An Invitation

Parents: If you’ve read my blog before, you probably know that the most important part of etiquette with Service Dogs is that you ask before petting. That always applies, but I personally rarely say no to a young child or to you as a parent because it gives the you the opportunity for a teaching moment. You can walk your kiddo to the front end of the dog and explain why it’s important not to sneak up, pull tails or ears, or poke eyes. It seems like a small thing, but you could be saving your child serious injuries and trauma in the long run.

I love dogs. I’m comfortable with them, and I enjoy learning and teaching about them. One of the most important lessons we can learn is that dogs aren’t people, and if we want to understand them, we can’t apply human psychology. Respect the differences between the canine and human worlds, and please teach your kids to do the same.

Loving our Community

Over the last several weeks, Bright and I have gotten to participate in several events to raise awareness of or benefit CCI, and we’ve just loved it. To give you a little idea of what we’ve been up to, here are some photos of the events!

March 26, we visited 5th graders at a school in Saratoga.

The school had a full day of special programming in the form of a Health and Science Fair. Presenters came from many different kinds of organizations and institutions. CCI was asked to be there in order to represent a very unique cross-section of health and science, where assistive technology meets the animal kingdom. Continue reading

Fake

“I’ve been thinking about getting my dog one of those vests so I can take him everywhere!”

The other day, a guy approached me while I was working and said, “I’ve been looking into getting one of those therapy dogs like you got there. I figure I can buy one somewhere, then I can have a buddy with me wherever I go just like you!”

Yeah, that actually happened. I bit my tongue and refrained from responding with, “Would you like an injured spinal cord to take with you everywhere you go, just like me, too?” Continue reading

Blood, Sweat, and Tears

If that title didn’t get your attention, I don’t know what will.

There’s a question that I get asked a lot, and I never feel like I have enough time to do the answer justice: Did you train her yourself?

I’m going to give you a really quick overview of the journey of a CCI puppy from birth to retirement, but my plan is to spend the bulk of this article paying homage to the people behind our four legged life savers.

So for starters, No. No, I did not train my dog. Continue reading

Traveling Light

Traveling. One of the most exciting, and potentially stressful things I do.

I love to travel. I love seeing new places and meeting new people. I especially love seeing places I’ve only seen in movies and on TV before. The first time I went to New York City, I just had to get to the diner from Seinfeld; it felt so crazy walking around and arriving all of the big landmarks that I’d only ever known on a screen.

As it turns out, traveling gets more complicated as you get older. If you’re a wheelchair user, you understand the need to pack light; if you can’t carry it on your lap or strap it to your back or chair, you can’t take it. When I was in college, I’d visit my boyfriend, who lived halfway across the country, and I’d pack for two weeks in a 20 liter backpack. I never checked a bag, and I was very proud of my low-maintenance status. Continue reading

“You’re so lucky.”

“…treat people with understanding when you can, and fake it when you can’t
until you do understand.”
Kim Harrison

Before you read this article, I want you to know that it isn’t meant to feel like a rant. Quite to the contrary, I’m opening up a personal subject to try to help you understand something that can be sensitive for a person with a disability.

I’ve used a wheelchair my whole life, and ironically, I’ve been told over and over again by able bodied people, “You’re so lucky.” Continue reading