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!

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An Open Letter To The Vigilantes

To the Vigilantes:

We need to reimagine what it looks like to hold people accountable for taking advantage of and misusing things like service dog laws and accessible parking spaces, cause you’re breaking my heart.

Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate and admire your enthusiasm and zest for encouraging others to do the right thing and shaming them when they blatantly disregard the law. You’re braver and more dedicated than I.

There’s one small problem when it comes to many disability-related issues, though: The majority of them are not visible to the naked, untrained eye.

“No, I have a sense for these things. I can tell,” you say.

Let me clear something up for you. Playing detective by watching someone park in an accessible spot and exit the vehicle in a standing position, then concluding that he or she has stolen Grandma’s parking permit is not a demonstration of your sixth sense. It’s actually a shining example of what happens when you make assumptions – you look like an ass. Or something like that.

You’re trying to help. Great. I love it. But let’s see what happens when your well-intentioned attempts are ill conceived:

An 18 year old me, freshly moved into my dorm room after a summer of fighting with the college administration about whether or not my service dog would be allowed on campus and whether all of my classes could be moved to accessible spaces (everything was a struggle that first year), emerges from Target with a lapful of dorm essentials and two of my best friends. We have a well-rehearsed routine; I go right to the driver’s door and grab the handle for stability as I stand up, and one of the guys grabs my chair and loads it into the back of my Rav4 while I get situated in my seat. Normally, we’d pull out of that accessible parking space and be on our way without a second thought. Not this time.

“You don’t look real disabled to me,” shouts a big ugly guy with a beard from across the parking lot. (To be clear, I like beards.)

“Excuse me?”

“I said, you don’t look disabled!” he yells with growing animosity, and gives me the finger.

Yep. A grown man gave an 18 year old girl the finger.

Not just any 18 year old girl. An 18 year old that had undergone a bunch of painful operations and spent much of her young life fighting to be treated as an equal to her peers, all because of that disability you’re not totally sure she has.

This was after a surgery I had 3 years prior to this particular story. I was 15.

This was after a surgery I had 3 years prior to this particular story. I was 15. That I didn’t “look” real disabled at the time of the incident should have been a celebration, not an accusation.

My response to him that day isn’t even worth mentioning because I was so caught off guard. I think I just mumbled something about my wheelchair. I was mad and embarrassed, and all I could think about was how unfair of him it was to make such a personal judgment about me. (Any assumption about a person’s disability is very personal, by the way.)

Clearly, he hadn’t seen my chair; so, what did he see?

As he pulled into his parking spot in his huge, obnoxious, gas guzzling pickup truck, he saw three young people getting into an SUV that was displaying a disabled parking placard and parked in an accessible spot. He made a quick decision about what he saw: Regardless of the placard, these people didn’t fit his idea of disabled, and therefore, they were doing something wrong. Maybe he had a more “traditionally” disabled family member so it felt personal to him, or maybe he was just on a crusade because it made him feel like he was in charge. What he’ll probably never know is that he hurt the person he was supposedly trying to help.

I’d just won a battle with mainstream culture – my college – and this encounter totally put a damper on my victory. You see, confrontations like this are just nasty little reminders that I don’t really fit into anyone’s idea of normal. Not able bodied enough to be a normally regular, but not disabled-looking enough to be normally disabled. I’m not just being melodramatic when I say it wrecked my day.

I’m not the only one with stories like that one, and it’s certainly not the only one I have. Most of my friends who have disabilities – particularly young adults who drive and work – have had similar experiences. There was a story that made headlines a few months ago about a man in his 30s who had his BMW parked in an accessible space with his placard displayed. A stranger made an assumption based entirely on the type of vehicle and stuck a nasty note in the door handle. Turns out, this guy is an incomplete quad, just like me, and just happens to be professionally successful. Imagine that. A guy in a wheelchair who works hard and makes enough money to buy nice things. Unbelievable.

His wife responded by posting a photo of the note and a response to it on Facebook, and she brought up an excellent point. That is, if seeing a successful, hard-working person with a disability (or their possessions or significant others) causes such cognitive dissonance, it’s a problem. On the one hand, we want to empower people with disabilities to be independent, and on the other hand, we don’t believe it when we see it.

Mixed messages, folks. My head is spinning. I’m tired of being commended for being so normal (excuse me while I gag) one minute and then stared down ten minutes later when I pull into an accessible parking space or walk into a business establishment with my service dog. I’d really love to live in a world where, if I ever have a child with a disability, I don’t have to say, “Now be sure to look really disabled, Sweetie. We wouldn’t want one of those crazies ruining our day.”

I swear I’m not just here to complain. I have a solution, and it’s actually pretty easy. Are you ready, my Civilian Crime Fighters??

Instead of getting prematurely angry and making accusations, keep your cool and…wait for it…ask a question.

A couple of months ago, I was trying to find a parking space in a crowded public lot, and there was a car idling and not displaying a placard in an accessible space, and there was a woman in the passenger’s seat. This was the lot where I parked for work, and a lack of placards in the precious few accessible spaces was a common problem, so I was especially irritated. If I’d acted on it, I’d have thrown a fit and told her to move, but because I’ve been there, I knew that sometimes people forget to put their placards up. Maybe the driver had a disability and had just forgotten.

I got out of my car, tapped on the passenger’s window, and asked if she had a permit to park there. Her response: “Oh! I forgot to put it up! I’m sorry!”

Whether it was the appropriate use of the placard or not wasn’t up to me to decide, and it’s not up to you, Dear Vigilante. As any well adjusted human being knows, there’s often more to a story than meets the eye. If her response had been, “No, but my friend just ran inside and we’ll be gone in a minute,” I’d have guilt tripped the crap out of her and then told her she had to the count of ten to get the car out of that spot or I was calling the police. I’ve done it before. It’s quite vindicating, but only when I’m certain that the offender is actually offending.

So, what about identifying fake service dogs? A reader sent me a message recently and said she’d be happy to confront people if she knew how to tell if a dog was legitimate or not, and she wanted to know if I had any suggestions. The truth is, you really can’t tell just by looking. You can definitely tell whether a dog is well mannered or not, but it’s impossible to know if they’re legally compliant.

Two people might have poorly behaved service dogs – one with a hidden disability and one with a visible disability – and I guarantee you that the person with the hidden disability will get harassed and the other won’t, at least not on the issue of legitimacy. The problem of a bad service dog is totally separate from that of a fake one, so please be careful not to confuse them.

My suggestion: Again, ask a question. “Oh, what a pretty dog! I’m really interested in service dogs…do you mind if I ask how she helps you?” In this scenario, you’ve expressed interest instead of suspicion. If the dog’s legitimate, the handler will likely be happy to indulge you, at least for a minute, and no harm done. If not, the handler will either feel embarrassed and make up a lie, or they’ll confess, which actually happens more than you’d expect. Some people have no shame. None.

If they confess, you have the opportunity  to give them a piece of your mind, and then, by all means, please do. Unleash the fury you’ve kept bottled up since your last family get-together or you child’s last soccer game (that referee was a damn joke, and you know it) and make sure the entitled, conscienceless jerk has nightmares. You’re my hero.

Can we agree that it’s not nice to scream at (or leave notes for, or stare down, or whisper about) people who aren’t doing anything wrong, though, and that it might be worth the little bit of extra work to avoid making them feel like garbage? And can we also agree that it’s time to open our minds to the idea that folks with disabilities might look just like folks without them?

You’re reasonable people, so I think we can.

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

There’s a Dog for That

Last week, I went through the legally recognized types of working dogs for people with disabilities in the article, What Constitutes a Service Animal? (Edit: Thank you, Sarah, for saving me from my poorly punctuated fate.) If you’re not familiar with the laws regarding Service Animals, I’d strongly encourage you to read it before continuing, or you might wind up very confused. Continue reading

Body = Bad. Food = Delicious. Dog = Good.

I think most people with disabilities feel guilty about taking advantage of accommodations at one point or another. I won’t get into what I think plants that seed now; that’s another whole article. But I really don’t think I’m alone in that.

There are days when I’m getting around so well that I feel guilty about using Disabled Parking even with my chair and dog. There are times when I feel a little bad that I don’t have to pay at the parking meter. I wonder sometimes if I stole a stellar service dog from someone who might have needed her more.  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

Jackpot!

I have a FANTASTIC story for you all:

For Valentine’s Day weekend, Bryan, Bright, and I had a little staycation. We hadn’t gotten away from work since moving to California in late October, but the budget only allowed for so much so soon after the big move, so we took Friday off and had a really nice little weekend in San Jose.

Bryan’s accumulated about a gazillion Hilton Honors points through work, so we spent some and stayed at the Hilton downtown, just to get away from the nagging to-dos that would surely distract us from fun. Almost everything we did over the course of the weekend was because there was a Groupon or other special offer, and man, did we milk it. 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

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

Rub a Dub Dub

A pup in the tub!

About once a day, someone says, “Wow! Your dog is so beautiful!”

Guess what. That takes a lot of work. Continue reading

Team Profile: Meet Noah and Happy

Meet Noah. At 12 years old, he’s your typical pre-teen. He stays up late, goes to school, takes piano and horseback riding lessons, probably sasses his mom from time to time, and until last November, he really wanted a dog. Continue reading

Why do you need that dog?

Yes, I really do have to answer that question on a pretty regular basis. Sometimes it’s even followed with, “She pulls you? Can’t you push yourself?”

Wait. Wait a darn minute.

In my sans-Bright moments, I’m often asked, “Don’t your arms get tired pushing your wheelchair all the time? Why don’t you have handles?”

So which is it? One half of the peanut gallery thinks I’m being lazy for using a dog for propulsion; the other half thinks I should get handles and let another human be responsible for my mobility. Continue reading

An Introduction to Questions, Comments, and Suggestions

Is that your dog?

That’s so cool! I was thinking about getting my dog one of those vests so I can bring him everywhere with me!

How do you know your dog gets to go to the bathroom enough?

That looks just like MY dog!

Umm…can you…er…see me? I mean, you’re blind, right? You don’t look blind.

Why does your dog look sad? Your dog looks so sad!

Why do you need a service dog? You don’t look like you need one.

Did you train that dog?

[Parent to child] Never pet service dogs. They bite.

[Parent to child] Ooh, look at the puppy! Go pet it and I’ll take a picture!

You’re going to run that dog’s foot [or ear, or head, or tail] over. 

That dog is underfed (whispered to companion – not to me); look at how skinny it is!

This list, I lament to say, is far less than complete. Usually, in the moment, I respond with the most polite, obvious answer I can conceive. I’m really excited to elaborate a bit.