Service Animals: A ‘Chosen’ Career Path or a Life of Servitude?

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Many people see the relationship between service dog and handler as a beautiful, symbiotic bond, but some animal rights activists view it as harmful. Are service animals ‘happy’ working? We asked the experts.

Amanda Bagwell-Chase, a self-proclaimed animal rights activist, proudly wears a T-shirt displaying a lion’s paw print next to a human handprint, referring to Cecil the Lion and symbolizing unity between animals and humans. But on several occasions Bagwell-Chase has been the target of public ridicule while wearing this shirt. The reason? She wears it while holding the harness of her service dog, Patsy.

“Strangers at malls have called out, ‘How can you wear that shirt when your guide dog is stuck in a harness, forced to take you places all day?’” But Bagwell-Chase, who just became president of the Student Animal Defense Fund at Valparaiso School of Law, where she is a student, doesn’t see it that way. She says Patsy sees her guide work as a game, and she feels Patsy is better off out in public with her than alone in her apartment all day. Bagwell-Chase, who had her dog trained at Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in New York, believes Patsy chooses to work as her guide dog.

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Courtesy of Amanda Bagwell-Chase

Bagwell-Chase is not alone in her belief that this is “chosen work.” One of the leading guide dog schools in the country, Guiding Eyes, located about an hour outside of New York City, discusses the concept of “chosen work” on their website, stating, “Only those dogs showing the self-confidence and composure necessary for guide work are assigned to undergo guide dog training. These dogs have shown enthusiasm and desire to undertake the tasks of working in harness. This is why Guiding Eyes says that each dog chooses its own career.”

Guiding Eyes’ class supervisor, Kathryn Poallo, who oversees the guide dog instructors as they prepare the dogs for service, says training is based on operant conditioning — patterns, a programming of lessons starting with targeting behavior, basic obedience and then targeting door handles, steps and so forth. They move on to training the dogs in residential areas and then in cities. The rewards vary from play to food to verbal praise. While the dogs do look at many of the exercises as a game, Poallo says it goes beyond that. “I think eventually they start to see how big of a job it is.”

Poallo reports that more than half of their puppies in training make it as professional guide dogs. However, that’s where some animal activists begin to worry. What happens to the “dropouts” when they are not useful for service?

Poallo says they may enter a different career path, such as an assistant dog for a different type of disability, a police or detective dog, or they may return to live with their puppy raisers. There is also a long list of people waiting to adopt these dogs. This seems to be consistent with the options at most reputable service dog schools.

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But that’s not the only concern for some activists, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA’s stance on service animals is clearly written on their site: “Optimally, humans should be relied upon for support of the disabled rather than working dogs and other animals — it is too common for animals to be exploited and abused.”

While PETA is not saying that all service dog handlers mistreat their dogs, they are concerned about those who do. Their site states, “Some people love their working dogs, but others don’t, which means that working dogs cannot count on having a home where they will be treated well.”

However, others point out that the mistreatment of dogs also occurs among pet owners. And to be clear, PETA is not just singling out service animals. They are also against many practices, such as breeding, that are common with both service and pet dogs.

Fortunately, most service dog training organizations have home visits in which field reps check on the service animals they have matched with clients, a practice that far exceeds the checks and balances offered after most people purchase or adopt pets. Poallo says that Guiding Eyes does “zone visits” after a year or so, to check on their guide teams in person. There is also an extensive, selective admissions process at most major service dog training schools, ensuring that the handlers are capable of caring for a dog.

PETA also expresses concern over some training practices involved in training service animals.

While practices vary at different schools, most widely respected programs have moved toward more positive training practices, such as positive rewards. Guiding Eyes has been using food rewards in recent years, which they have seen to be very effective. Poallo says people need to know the dogs are always loved, well cared for and very respected for what they do. She also adds that they always work with the dog’s best interest in mind, and the dogs are never in any danger. “I think you have to respect the gift that these dogs can give,” she says.

“I think you have to respect the gift that these dogs can give.”

—Kathryn Poallo

PETA’s senior vice president of cruelty investigations, Daphna Nachminovitch, put out a statement indicating that she does have respect for certain canine-human helping relationships but has concerns about others: “Animal-assisted therapy programs can be wonderful for dogs if they are adopted from shelters, are trained through positive reinforcement, and live in people’s homes as permanent members of the family — such as hearing dogs for the deaf placed through groups like the Sam Simon Foundation. But people should be wary of programs that breed dogs, which contribute to the homeless-animal overpopulation crisis and may discard puppies who are deemed unsuitable. Other dogs may face repeated abandonment as they’re raised with one family, given to another, and retired with yet another.”

Others within the dog-loving community have different perspectives on what constitutes cruelty and whether certain practices that PETA deems detrimental are even bothersome to dogs. Neil Ewart of the London Dog Forum writes that, while we as humans are often upset when a dog-human relationship changes, it’s actually very natural canine behavior. “Dogs are pack animals. For them, a change of leader is perfectly natural. When the top, or ‘alpha,’ dog is usurped from his position by a young upstart, then the rest of the pack reasserts their individual positions of status very quickly. Each dog then gets on with its own life within the pack with the odd challenge being made to the new leader. Usually, this is dealt with firmly, and all becomes peaceful again.”

Ewart goes on to write that, while dogs may initially miss their previous owner, they usually adjust quickly and the loving environment makes the larger difference. He says it’s the humans who usually have the more difficult time adjusting to a dog leaving and can often feel hurt when their previous dogs seem to adjust to new homes without any visible signs of missing them. “We humans do find this difficult to accept, as it is so alien to our own behavior patterns. Virtually all domestic dogs will also accept a change of leadership, provided the situation is handled sensibly. There should be no need for the dog to necessarily experience any stress.”

Ewart points to guide dogs as examples of this smooth transition, because most handlers, trainers and puppy raisers report observing guide dogs that appear well adjusted and do not show signs of distress. And according to the websites of most guide dog schools, handlers are able to adopt their dogs as pets once they retire. If a handler is not able to care for the dog for any reason, it is often in the dog’s best interest to go back to the original puppy raiser or a loving family, friend or neighbor who already has a relationship with the dog.

Bagwell-Chase maintains that part of the debate boils down to misconceptions that archaic practices are still being used when in reality there are many more ethical techniques used today. She encourages handlers to remember they are a walking education for the public and to be aware of their interactions.

Misconceptions or not, the question of whether service animals are “cheerful givers” still lingers.

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To really delve into the question, someone would have to observe working dogs over a long period of time. If only there were a more neutral yet highly qualified third-party researcher who could report on such matters.

Oh, wait. There is. Dr. Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center (ACCC) at the University of Arizona, is dedicated to the study of how animals think and behave. He and his colleagues study how dogs, including working dogs, understand the world and how their work can help or constrain them. They have followed dogs longitudinally to see which dogs will be successful.

MacLean reports, “Obviously if a dog hates what they’re doing, they’re not going to do a very good job at it. Similar to people. You have to first have inherent motivation to do it. You can train a dog to do lots of things, but if they’re very reluctant, that process can go downhill over time.”

One of MacLean’s most fascinating findings in relation to the enjoyment levels on working dogs came about the way most major discoveries do: by accident. It was an incidental finding from a recent study that has not yet been published. “What we found is that, in a population of dogs that have been specially bred for 50 years to have good distinct characteristics, those dogs tend to have higher oxytocin levels than pet dogs.”

Oxytocin, often nicknamed the “cuddle hormone” or “love hormone,” is responsible for social bonding.

MacLean was quick to add a caveat, stating that the control group included all kinds of breeds. For a more accurate finding, a study of oxytocin levels among the same breed, with a control group of the same breed, would offer more accurate data. While the finding is not conclusive, he says it warrants further investigation.

When asked which came first, the oxytocin levels or the service, MacLean says the oxytocin levels are probably higher as a baseline, but says it’s possible the work done by a service dog does help the levels rise. That aspect could be investigated further if oxytocin levels were measured both in puppies and then again when they grow into adult dogs.

From an ethical standpoint, MacLean says it’s helpful to discuss in the context of an evolutionary perspective. Dogs have evolved over 18,000 years to work alongside humans. “If you take dogs as a species out of a human world, they don’t do as well,” MacLean points out.

“If you take dogs as a species out of a human world, they don’t do as well.”

—Dr. Evan MacLean

But he’s also quick to mention that dogs are very individual. “Not all dogs are the same. Some dogs might really enjoy this kind of work, and some dogs might not. It would be responsible of us to identify dogs that are happy doing this work.”

And that’s exactly what the ACCC is trying to do alongside Canine Companions for Independence. They’ve had a long-standing relationship with the organization, and while they don’t directly inform anything they do, they try to measure things that turn out to be good predictors.

“Science happens alongside the practice. It’s an area that we’re both interested in. It’s a wonderful collaborative relationship.”

So perhaps in the end, the question is not if service animals happily choose their careers but why certain canines choose to be helpers. As Dr. MacLean likes to say, it’s worth further investigation. end


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