Sunday, January 31, 2016

Trooper and the TV

What do dogs think when they watch television?

I am sure dog shrinks can come up with an answer or two, but if Trooper and I can’t exchange reasoned critiques of the shows, what does it matter?

Yesterday Troop devoted several minutes of his valuable attention to the Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge, perhaps partly because that’s the brand of his dog food (this is in no way an endorsement).

He seemed particularly fascinated by the stunt in which a dog takes a flying leap into a swimming pool while trying to grab a target held tantalizingly above the water. One dog, a powerful hound of some kind, set a new world record with a 24-foot jump.

Maybe Trooper, being a highly trained hearing assistance dog, took a professional interest in the goings-on.

I do know that the PetSmart outlet in Evanston beams Animal Planet to little TVs by the upscale boarding enclosures. Whether or not that actually helps a dog pass the time in jail I don’t know. I guess it can’t hurt.

In any case, five minutes later and well before the end of the Incredible Dog Challenge, Trooper was fast asleep in front of the box.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Undocumented feature of a service dog

This morning, while we were tramping up Central Park Avenue in the fresh air, Trooper suddenly stopped and whirled around, his gaze transfixed on something behind me. I glanced back and stepped aside just as a small boy, evidently late for school, swept past close aboard on his bicycle. Whoops. Potential accident averted.

The other day, as I was preparing to cross Central Street, Trooper did the same thing. An ambulance, its strobes flashing and siren presumably wailing, approached a block away. There was no particular danger but I appreciated the heads-up all the same.

Those and other incidents have made me realize that a hearing service dog unconsciously performs a job it isn't necessarily trained to do: alert its handler to unseen environmental sounds. Most of those, of course, don't announce oncoming perils, but some do.

This gave me pause. I lost my hearing at age 3 1/2, and I've miraculously made it to 75 without being flattened by an unseen behemoth, let alone small boy, roaring up behind me on the sidewalk or roadway. God knows how many close calls there were that I was unaware of. Blind luck, of course. I don't believe in guardian angels.

Except for Trooper. Whenever I'm out with him, I'll watch his reactions closely. Some of them are just responses to ordinary noises like barking dogs or scolding squirrels, but others are important.

He's a shaggy little Early Warning System.

Monday, January 25, 2016

A small advance . . .

Trooper chills as his partner works the NuStep.
. . . but an advance nevertheless. At the Levy Center today, Trooper lay quietly beside me as I used one of the machines in the fitness center. It was a NuStep, and it makes alarming clanks and whirs that had spooked him in the beginning.

One small step for a service dog, so to speak.

 It was icing on the cake, however, because Trooper seems finally to have gotten the idea about heeling without pulling at the leash on our walks around the Levy Center corridor.

Jan. 28: Today he did the same task, lying quietly as I pumped the recumbent exercise bike. Good boy.

By the recumbent bike.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Hooray for Michigan

The state of Michigan, where Debby (and now Trooper) and I spend May through October, now offers two sensible new tools for people with disabilities who use service animals: a card officially identifying dog and handler as a registered service animal team, and an official state patch to apply to the animal’s vest.

The state hopes the new law will help schools, restaurateurs, shopkeepers and the like separate true service dog or miniature horse teams from fraudulent ones. 

It doesn’t conflict with the U.S. Justice Department’s guidelines, which declare that service animals and their handlers are not required to possess any kind of identification for access anywhere the public is allowed. The new Michigan tools are entirely voluntary.

If one prefers to go incognito, that’s fine. If one prefers some kind of visible official flag to help identify one’s dog or horse as a genuine service animal, that’s also fine.

I approve wholeheartedly. In fact, I’m going to apply for the tools. Even though my legal residence is in Illnois, the law provides for out-of-staters as well.

Now I'm hoping Illinois follows suit.

Details of the new Michigan law can be found here.

Service dog fraud north of the border

Besides us Yanks, the Canadians are also having great problems with selfish yahoos passing their pets off as service animals—so much so that in Calgary, Alberta, newspaper columnists are calling for licensing.

It already exists in British Columbia. Can it be far behind in the United States?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Trooper at play and at work

Wednesdays are always busy days for Trooper. In the afternoons we go down to Conan's house in Chicago's Edison Park to watch the grandchildren after school, and Troop gets to visit with Cousin Ginny, Conan's vizsla/Plott hound mix.

They tear around the back yard in mad abandon, Trooper mostly in the lead but Ginny occasionally catching up with her superior speed.

After supper it's off to Unleashed in Evanston and Trooper's Beginning Obedience class. There we work on several tasks, including "Puppy Push-ups," in which he sits and downs and sits in unison with my hand, concealing a treat.

We wind up with a task in which I say "Come!" and stick my arm out like a semaphore signal to tell Trooper I want him to approach me.

Is it any wonder that Trooper immediately crashes in his bed when we get home?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

More progress!

During his twice-daily training sessions, my hearing service dog Trooper now “works his sounds” almost perfectly. When Debby calls my name from anywhere in the condo, he jumps up on me without being encouraged and I follow him to the source of the sound, giving him a treat only when the task is accomplished.

Same with a knock at the door and the ringing of the phone.

But that’s only during the training sessions. Now I have to get him to understand that he’s on duty 24/7, ready to jump up on me wherever I am in the condo, whatever time it is, and take me to pay dirt. That’ll take some more work.

Rather than rely on structured sessions, suggests trainer Laura at Dogs for the Deaf, spring the sounds on him as a surprise at various times of the day. Lay a treat at the source of the sound, as we did early in his training. That’s not a step backward, she says, but a temporary reinforcement of what he already knows.

Onward . . .

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Trooper and The Dognald

Today Sarah Palin endorsed Donald Trump, but Trooper put the bite on The Dognald.

This clever doggie chew toy comes from a place called and costs $16 plus shipping. It does not have a squeaker, as do most stuffed toys. It has a grunter. Debby says the sound is decidedly unpleasant.

Ten minutes after we gave him to Trooper, The Dognald was in shreds. Perhaps he hasn't the legs the polls say he does.

Being a retired journalist, therefore objective and even-handed as well as unbiased and fair-minded, I am obliged to point out for my right-wing wacko friends and relatives that Barkshop also sells a Hillary Kitty doll complete with pantsuit and embroidered cell phone. (This one has a squeaker.)

No Cruz or Bernie yet, however, but if either of them gets his party’s nomination, you can be sure Barkshop will rise to the occasion.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Keep your distance. Please.

One continuing problem we have with Trooper is that he is a super chick magnet. Yes, the chicks are all in their 70s and 80s, and my impossibly cute service dog runs into them during our hikes every morning at the Levy Center, Evanston’s geezer hangout.

“Soooo cute!” they coo, homing in like buzzards to supper. Usually they’re upon him before I have time to react and say, “He’s working. Please do not pet him.”

They get such pleasure out of this little miniature schnauzer mix that I haven’t the heart to lecture them about admiring working service animals from a distance. It’s almost as if they think Trooper’s a geriatric therapy dog for them to cuddle.

I thought maybe a “DO NOT PET” sleeve to slip over his leash might help, and so I ordered one online from a “service dog” equipment site, despite my misgivings about its very likely selling stuff to people who want to pass off their untrained pets as service animals. (That's fraud.)

Upon its arrival Debby threw up her hands in horror. “It’s downright hostile!” she said. I have to admit I thought it’d be much smaller and visible mostly to people who bent down close. Nope. It exudes all the cheer of a “TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT” sign in the front yard.

So “DO NOT PET”  went into a drawer.

I’ve decided that the Levy Center is not a public place where service dogs work, but an extension of my living room where the family can pet Trooper all it wants.

Restaurants, public sidewalks, supermarkets, retail stores, movie theaters and the like, however, definitely are public venues and I’ll just verbally ask folks there, in as kindly a fashion as I can muster, not to interact with Trooper.

"He's working," I'll say. "Please don't pet. It'll distract him. Thanks."

Simple solution, yes? But will it work?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Piddling matters

More puzzling dog behavior:

Why, at the first likely light post or tree Trooper encounters, does he empty his tank in long and leisurely fashion, then, at the next dozen or so targets, give them an air kiss with a quick but squirtless leg lift?

Is he issuing a challenge to other dogs that might be watching, like an on-deck batter taking a vicious swing, hoping to intimidate the pitcher?

Or is this just a virtual mark of his territory, made only to check a virtual box in his head?

I need answers, but doubt I’ll get them.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Trooper and 'The Martian'

In certain situations, such as the sudden opening of an elevator door upon a person Trooper doesn’t know, he often emits a low, startled growl. Then the tail-wagging begins once the person is aboard and the elevator starts moving.

Last night we were viewing “The Martian” on the living-room TV when it happened again. Matt Damon was struggling to remove his helmet after being skewered by a flying antenna and left behind on Mars when Trooper suddenly sat up from his nap and growled, his eyes transfixed on the screen.

For five long minutes, as Damon removed the wayward antenna from his abdomen, Trooper watched intently, cocking his head, growling all the while like a small car with a bad transmission.

Then he grew bored with the events and fell back asleep. No tail-wagging this time.

We wondered what went through his doggy head. Was it suspicion at the unfamiliar sight of a human in a bulbous space helmet? Was it sympathy for Damon’s moans of pain? Or maybe he just didn’t like Damon as an actor?

We’ll probably never know, but I’m tempted to consult a canine shrink just for the hell of it.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Orphaned . . . again

Yesterday the unwelcome news came that Five Star Publishing, publisher of my Steve Martinez police procedurals, was shutting down its mystery line and no new titles were being acquired from writers.

Five Star will publish all those whodunits it has contracted for through March 2017, but after that, nothing. The scores of books languishing on its approved-but-yet-to-be-contracted for list will simply be orphaned, returned to their authors’ doorsteps without a goodbye. My novel The Riddle of Billy Gibbs, approved by an acquisitions editor more than nine months ago, is one of these waifs.

Yes, the fifth Steve Martinez novel, Tracking the Beast, will be published as scheduled March 16 and will be available for sale online as well as to libraries.

Five Star did not say why they were dropping the mystery line, but it’s not hard to guess the reason. Their wares are sold primarily to libraries and not marketed in bookstores. Mystery readers are getting older, demand for the genre has dropped in the libraries, and this marginal part of the publishing industry has had to retrench. (Five Star will continue to publish Western and frontier fiction, for which demand seems to remain high.)

It seems unlikely Billy Gibbs can find a home at still another publisher. When the Steve Martinez series was dropped by Tom Doherty/Forge Books, its original publisher, Five Star was happy to take on my new books in the series. It addressed a different market. But a second rescue is unlikely, for publishers expect their new authors to produce more and more over the years—and I’m 75. What’s more, the Steve Martinez well just possibly may have gone dry.

Am I disappointed? Yes. Am I crushed? No. I've been there before in this dog-eat-dog business.

After leaving Forge, I asked for the rights back to my first three Martinez novels and republished them as ebooks on Kindle and Nook, and produced an Amazon CreateSpace paperback omnibus edition called Porcupine County as well as three large-print books of Season’s Revenge, A Venture into Murder, and Cache of Corpses.

Unless a miracle drops from the heavens, I’ll do the same with The Riddle of Billy Gibbs. Look for it about Nov. 1 from CreateSpace, just in time for the holiday season.

Meanwhile, I'm thinking about a children's book or two featuring a hearing dog for the deaf named Trooper. That seems to have interesting possibilities.

Trooper goes to the blacksmith to be shod

. . . or, rather, washed, blow-dried and combed, ears cleaned and nails trimmed.

It was his first visit to the beauty parlor at Evanston PetSmart, and all signs were that Stephanie, the doggie beautician, treated him wonderfully.

There has been publicity about animal abuse at pet salons, but we saw none of that here, nor have we heard of any. We chose PetSmart on the recommendation of a popular neighborhood salon owner unable to take on new clients.

No clipping this visit, however. Subzero weather is ahead and Trooper will need every bit of insulation he already has.

Afterward, he smelled lovely. Of course that won't last long.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Jumping up

At Beginning Obedience at Unleashed in Evanston last night, trainer Meghan introduced us to the solutions for one of the most vexing habits of young dogs: jumping up on people.

Trooper and I sat that one out. He's trained to jump up on me. That's how hearing service dogs get their handlers' attention in order to lead them to the sources of the sounds they're trained to work.

But we do have to work on his jumping up on people who arrive at our house. That has not been a terrible problem because he is so little, being a miniature schnauzer mix. Yet he does need to learn his manners, trainer Laura from Dogs for the Deaf told us, and the best way is to make him sit at the door when someone knocks—and hold that sit.

Now that he's beginning to lead me to the door reliably when there's a knock, we're focusing on that sit.

Final cover wrap

Yesterday Five Star Mysteries, my publisher, sent along the final dust jacket wrap proof for Tracking the Beast, to be published March 16. Looks pretty good to me.

Click on the photo for a readable full-size rendition.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Working out

Of late Trooper hasn’t been completely cooperative on our daily morning hikes around the Levy Senior Center indoor quadrangle (13 laps to the mile).

At about Lap 7 the last few days, he had started pulling back on the leash, looking up at me me in the eye as if to say “WTF we doing this for, anyway?” 

I have had to drag him along, coaxing him to heel at a reasonable pace.

So I Googled the problem (Google is always your friend).

Various dog trainers say that getting a young dog to heel involves letting him do what he wants occasionally, namely stopping to smell the, er, roses. To a dog, a good walk is a sashay through scents, not a 10,000-step Fitbit score.

And so I have taken to letting Trooper lead the way with his nose for one quadrangle leg out of four, and then, when turning the next corner, picking up the pace briskly, even seguing into a trot for the next three legs.

He likes that. He’s willing to hustle three boring legs in exchange for the reward of one long and leisurely sniffing stretch.

Dog-and-Handler Shrinkology 101.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Dog parks and service dogs

Do not take your service dog to a dog park, trainers will tell you. Service dogs cost thousands of dollars to train and maintain, and are way too valuable to risk even in an apparently well run dog park.

Grief can come in the form of just one aggressive animal who will fight if he thinks he's being challenged. Some owners do not watch their animals' behavior and even think it’s funny for Brutus to beat up on smaller dogs.

Trooper is a 17-pound miniature schnauzer mix and wouldn't stand a chance against, say, a German shepherd with an attitude.

Many dog parks also are full of feces incivil dog owners can’t be bothered to clean up. These parks can be Petri dishes of disease.

Unexpected things can happen there. In Maryland last December, an off-duty Washington cop shot a hearing service dog inside a dog park when she thought the dog was endangering her. (Is this further evidence of trouble in police culture? Draw your own conclusions.)

Too bad. Dog parks, when well run by responsible management that requires proof of vaccination for rabies and other diseases, and are policed by owners who keep a careful eye on their dogs, can be excellent vehicles for socialization and burning off excess energy. 

Evanston not only has one of those but also a popular dog beach on Lake Michigan. Many’s the time I’ve watched dogs of all sizes frolic in the water with their masters close by. It all looks like great fun.

All else being equal, Trooper very likely would thrive in Evanston’s park and on its beach.

But I’m not taking the risk. In public he is always at my side and on leash, under careful control.

Trooper does enjoy socialization in obedience class and with a weekly visit to Ginny, my younger son’s vizsla/Plott hound. They dash about my son’s back yard in wild abandon and are good buddies.

If only portions of dog parks could specifically be set aside for service animals, areas where highly trained dogs could play among themselves with little or no risk of injury.

In Canada, Simcoe County in southern Ontario is considering fencing off part of its popular dog park solely for service animals and making it accessible to owners in wheelchairs.

I hope that Evanston will do that someday for its dog park and dog beach.

Monday, January 11, 2016


Routine may be deadly for some people, but routine is what it takes to train a service dog along with its human.

Trooper and I have settled into a daily schedule that varies very little. It goes this way:

6 a.m. Up and outside for a whiz.

6:15 a.m. Breakfast.

Service dog team power nap.
7:30 to 8 a.m. Sound work training with the call of my name, with the door knock, and with the phone ringing.

8:45 to 9:15 a.m. Poop walk up the alley off Central Park Avenue. That alley is a boulevard for neighborhood dogs, therefore full of encouraging scents.

9:30 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. A mile to a mile-and-a-half hike around the square hallway at the Levy Senior Center, paying especial attention to heeling. At about Lap 10 Trooper starts to lag back in boredom. Nothing interesting to smell, I guess, except geezers. But he does not seem to realize that in 5 degree weather, outdoor sports are inadvisable.

10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. We enjoy our various options—shopping, visiting, sightseeing, maybe lunching somewhere—and do so together, paying especial attention to Trooper’s behavior in public. In restaurants his deportment is very good, except that he chooses to stand for the first ten minutes or so instead of lie on the floor. He needs to learn to stay closer to me behind the shopping cart so that he doesn’t get run over by supermarket road rage.

Somewhere in that busy day, both Trooper and I take a power nap for 20 minutes or so. 

3 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. Whiz.

4 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. More sound work training. By this time Trooper is getting hungry, so he puts more oomph into running and jumping.

4:30 or 5 p.m. Trooper’s dinner.

6 p.m. Humans’ dinner, with Trooper lying quietly on the floor at my feet.

7:15 to 8:45 p.m. Wednesdays only: Beginning Obedience class at Unleashed Evanston.

9 p.m. Whiz, then bedtime. Trooper sleeps in a round doggy bed at my side.

Thanks to the added exercise, I’ve lost several pounds, and am sleeping more soundly. Routine becomes me as well as it does Trooper.

Sunday, January 10, 2016


Trooper has been with us for five weeks now, and we're starting to see pay dirt in the training process.

He is very close to the grail in one of his sound tasks: to jump up on me and lead me to Debby when she calls my name from elsewhere in the condo.

The last couple of days, he has been executing this task without our needing to place a treat at her feet to entice him to the site—and without my needing to encourage him to jump up on me with a "Hup!" command to get my attention. Debby stands in the kitchen, I sit in my office, and when she calls "Henry!" he runs to her, then to me, and jumps up on me. I say "What? What?" and he runs back to Debby to show me where the sound was coming from—and collects a treat.

Now that we've got this down pat, more or less, we need to work the sound with Debby in different rooms. Yesterday she called from the bedroom, and Trooper ran to the kitchen as he thought he was supposed to. She wasn't there, and so he looked into every room before he found her in the bedroom. That confused him and he forgot to go to me.

But we're getting there.

Saturday, January 9, 2016


It has not been a good week for service dog teams.

In Fayetteville, New York, a man allegedly punched out a disabled Army combat veteran because the vet wouldn’t let the man’s little girl pet the vet’s working service dog.

In San Francisco, a 49ers fan sued the team for kicking him and his service dog, trained to alert him to seizures, out of a game. The stress of the incident triggered an immediate seizure and the fan was hospitalized.

In Seattle, a Purple Heart veteran who suffers from PTSD was told he could not bring his service dog to a Veterans Administration inpatient program. The VA is exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act, and while most VA centers allow service dogs, some do not.

Clearly the world needs further training about service dogs. It needs to know that service dogs in public are working animals and should not be approached, let alone petted. It needs to know that service dog teams have the right under Federal law to be anywhere the general public is allowed—with a very, very few common-sense exceptions, such as swiimming pools and hospital operating rooms.

Trooper and I are fortunate that we have not yet encountered such problems, except mostly from well-meaning and friendly people who want to pet him when he’s working in public.

That happens a lot at the Levy Senior Center with my fellow geezers. Most of them accept my “Please don’t pet him—he’s working!” with understanding and good cheer, but a few think I’m being rude and give me dirty looks.

We’re helping train them as well as ourselves.

Friday, January 8, 2016


At 1 1/2 years old, Trooper is still a young dog testing his limits. Trained service animal in public he may be, but at home he's still full of mischief.

His latest trick is to go into "keep-away" play mode, ducking hither and yon whenever I try to get his vest and leash on. I could bribe him with a treat, but that's not a good thing to do anymore. It's just rewarding an annoyance.

But I think I've inadvertently hit on the solution. I open the door to the condo and step into the hallway, and in a flash he's out there and lying quietly, allowing me to don his uniform. Maybe he thinks that once he's in the hallway, he's working and therefore obeys.

Hard to tell. But the ploy works.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Obedience 101

When Debby, Trooper and I arrived at Unleashed in Evanston last night for Beginning Obedience class, Puppy Kindergarten was still going on. The noise was, um, deafening. Not so much yips and yaps from the pups but the screams from their unhinged owners.

When that was over and the Obedience students arrived, din turned to bedlam. A dozen new dogs barked and growled, leaped and twisted, lunged and plunged, all but dislocating their owners’ shoulders. 

“This is not going to work,” Debby and I told each other in dismay. Even Trooper jerked at his leash and added his voice to the noise. He is a sociable dog and just wanted to join in.

Within five minutes Meghan, the head trainer, had everybody settled down. Two huge and utterly out-of-control dogs had been banished to the penalty box behind the arena until they chose to behave. The rest wriggled and whined at their owners’ feet.

Speaking of which, Trooper, having already had several months of hearing-dog training at Dogs for the Deaf, clearly displayed the best deportment. Before the other dogs had quieted, he sat calmly and gave me his full attention as I did Meghan.

Before long Debby and I realized that this University of Michigan graduate knew her stuff. Soon she had everyone working with their dogs doing “puppy push-ups,” getting the subjects to stand and lie in unison with the treats dangled in front of their noses.

“Say ‘yes!’ in a happy voice every time your dog does a job right,” she said. “Then give a treat.”

That made sense and went along with Trooper’s previous training.

“But don’t give too many treats,” she said. “Only when your dog struggles in a task. The dog has to know it’s a reward for a job well done.”

Guiltily I realized that in the last month I’d overdone the treats, giving them to Trooper willy-nilly as bribes rather than as enticements. I had been treating him lavishly, the way a lobbyist does a congressman.

We learned the “look” command, getting the dogs’ attention by having them meet their owners’ gaze, then the “touch” command, enticing them to sniff treats trapped between two fingers, followed by “sit” and, if they performed as we hid the treats behind our backs, a “yes!” and the final giving of the treat.

“Make your dog work for the treat,” Meghan said.

Soon we’ll be working on what Trooper really needs, heeling properly during our walks and doing his sit-stays for more than thirty seconds. He does behave well in public but chooses to stand rather than lie for several minutes, and stays down only when bored.

Then it was time for Advanced Obedience class. As the Beginners filed out, snuffling and yapping and wiggling and giving each other big goodbyes, the Advanced students stood behind the gate in aloof dignity, like judges watching miscreants led from the dock.

That gave me courage.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Omnium servitium canibus in tres partes divisa est

According to the federal government, Trooper is a Service Dog.

According to Dogs for the Deaf, he is an Assistance Dog.

Is there a difference?

No, says the federal government. Both kinds of dogs are trained to perform a task, a service, to help a person with a disability. The feds lump all such dogs together as Service Dogs, and declare that their clients have right of entry with them to public places such as restaurants and supermarkets.

Yes, says Assistance Dogs International. As an accreditation organization, it divides all of assistance dogdom into three parts, as Caesar did Gaul: “Guide Dogs for the blind and visually impaired, Hearing Dogs for the deaf and hard of hearing, and Service Dogs for people with disabilities other than those related to vision or hearing.”

Service Dogs for America, an accredited member of Assistance Dogs International, is devoted to that third part, and further divides that into four additional segments: 1. “mobility assistance dogs,” “emergency medical response dogs,” “PTSD dogs,” and “facility dogs.” 

This nomenclature can be confusing. For a while, early in the waiting period for Trooper, I fretted over whether an assistance dog was considered a service dog by the federal government. Then I realized when any dog is trained to do a job for a disabled client, it therefore meets the ADA's definition of a service dog.

So: Trooper is a particular kind of trained assistance dog called a hearing dog, even if the Feds call him a service dog.

I call him a service dog, too, when we're out in public. Ordinary folks think of service dogs rather than assistance dogs, a term few outside the industry have heard. They neither know of or care about such semantic differences.

Clear? I hope so. For now, anyway.

By the way, the title of this blogpost is just my best guess with the help of a Web translator from English to Latin.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Vanity tag?

Yesterday Trooper received further documentary legitimization of his status as a service dog: a special tag from the City of Evanston emblazoned “Service Dog #21”.

Wow. Isn’t that just like one of those State of Illinois vanity auto license plates with a one- or two-digit number proclaiming its owner to be a VIP?

Not really. There are probably scores, maybe even hundreds, of service dogs in this Chicago suburb of some 75,000 residents. Most of their clients are probably unaware that Evanston issues such special tags—and waives the $10 fee for the regular dog license, whose tag also came in the mail.

Two weeks ago I went to City Hall to obtain the ordinary license, and before I stepped to the city clerk’s window thought maybe the clerk would waive the modest fee if Trooper was a service dog. Wouldn’t hurt to ask. Sure enough, there’s machinery for that, even though the clerk told me it’d take two weeks to send out for the special tag, made by a third party.

On the reverse side is Trooper's name and our phone number.

A small thing, literally, but helpful ammunition if Trooper’s public presence is ever challenged by stuffed-shirt jacks-in-office.

Number 21. This is one Very Important Dog.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Waving the orange flag

“When you and Trooper are in public,” the Dogs for the Deaf rep said, “he must wear his orange ‘Dogs for the Deaf’ vest and his orange hearing dog collar and leash.” 

In Oregon it’s the law, he added. (Dogs for the Deaf’s headquarters is in Central Point, Ore.)

Hmm. The U.S. Justice Department’s service animals guideline for the Americans with Disabilities Act says this:

“Q. Do service animals have to wear a vest or patch or special harness identifying them as service animals?

“A. No. The ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness.”

Trooper and I live in Illinois, where, according to the Illinois Attorney General’s guidelines, state law echoes federal: “Some service animals wear special collars, harnesses or capes. Some are licensed or certified by training entities and have identification papers. Special identification and certification, however, are not required by the ADA.”

In any case, as a general matter, any lawyer will tell you, federal law trumps conflicting state law. 

That means Trooper and I don’t have to advertise my disability in any way. Having a disability is privileged medical information and therefore none of the public’s business.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wave the orange flag.

In my case it makes great good sense to identify Trooper publicly as a service dog. When I was a young man around town, being marked as a deaf person brought many difficulties. Deafness could, for instance, mean social isolation from those fearful of deaf speech or too lazy or self-absorbed to try to speak to a lipreader. The nice thing (the only nice thing) about deafness was that it wasn’t visible and didn’t make me stand out in a crowd.

But I’m now 75, and things have changed. I’m neither as personable as I once thought I was nor as quick on my feet as I used to be. An orange leash and vest says “Caution!” to rushing passersby and drivers. Busy people are more patient. Fewer skeptical questions are asked in restaurants and supermarkets.

And a working service dog, especially one as cute as little Trooper is, attracts interest from otherwise incurious people. (In fact, he’s a chick magnet.)

And so, every time we go out, except for our brief whiz walks around the corner, we choose to sport our orange uniform. We don’t have to, but we do. It works.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

'Hup!' 'What? What?'

Trooper "hupping," Henry "What? What?"-ing.
With the New Year comes a change in Trooper’s training: Fewer treats during the execution of every task successfully performed. This is a big step forward, even if it may sound trivial.

Training a hearing dog to lead its client to the source of a sound—a knock at the door, the ringing of a phone, the calling of the client’s name—involves several steps. 

In the beginning, we did it this way:

1. For a door knock, an assistant (in this case Debby) stands outside the door. I drop a treat in front of the door while Trooper watches, then lead him to the TV room and tell him to sit. After 15 seconds Debby knocks on the door. Trooper rushes to the door, scoops up the treat, and at my encouraging “Trooper, come! Hup! Hup!” rushes back to me and jumps up on me. “What? What?” I say, and Trooper rushes back to the door, the source of the sound. I follow, at the end giving him a second treat and fulsome praise.

2. For Debby’s calling of my name from the kitchen, we do much the same thing: I drop a treat on the floor in front of her, then the dog and I repair to the TV room. At her “Henry!” Troop rushes to scarf up the treat and runs back to me as I say “Hup! Hup!” At my “What? What?” he runs back to the kitchen and, after I arrive, collects a second treat and praise.

3. The phone is a little different. There are four landline phones in the condo and they all ring at the same time. We want Trooper to lead me to the captioned phone in my office. I leave a treat on the floor by my desk and repair to the TV room. With my iPhone I dial the house landline, and when it rings, Trooper alerts. I say “Hup! Hup!,” Trooper jumps on me, then I say "What? What?" and he leads me to my office, collecting the treat left on the floor. With the praise I give him a second treat to reinforce his accomplishment.

He’s been doing that almost without error for more than a week.

Now we’re experimenting by eliminating one of the treats and encouraging Trooper to “hup” on me immediately, rather than first going to the kitchen, door, or phone. The treat we’re eliminating is the one dropped on the floor at the source of the sound.

This morning we tried it with the phone. On the first go, I did leave the treat in front of my desk, but on the second, third, fourth and fifth attempts I did not. In the TV room Trooper “hupped" on me (with encouragement), then at my "What? What?" led me to my office—success!

In the afternoon came the door knock without a treat as bait. Troop ran to the door, then as I said "Troop! Come! Hup!" came and "hupped," leading me back to the door at my "What? What?" Three up, three down, inning over.

What we eventually want him to do is jump on me automatically whenever the sounds occur and lead me to the sources without the necessity of treats and “hup!” commands. It may take a year, trainer Laura told us, before that happens. Be patient, she said.

He’s on his way.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Going for a pee on a cold morning

Taking Trooper out for a walk at 6 a.m. in 20-degree weather is an exercise in adopting the role of a 75-year-old Charlie Brown on a really cold New Year's Day.

First I have to don my big puffy down parka and get it zipped up and the hood up and over my woolen Stormy Kromer cap. That gives me the dimensions of about five feet six in all directions, much to Lucy's Debby's amusement.

Then I have to make sure both keys and treats are in my pockets, plus an adequate supply of poo bags.

Next is dressing Trooper in his new padded canvas L.L. Bean doggie jacket. (For this brief whiz walk around the corner we skip the official Dogs for the Deaf assistance-dog vest he normally wears in public.)

Then comes his official Dogs for the Deaf orange leash (emblazoned "Hearing Dog") and martingale training collar.

But we're not yet ready. We have to apply Musher's Secret wax to his paw pads to protect him from salt on the sidewalk. (Our condo building's medical commercial tenant is very liberal with the ice melter so that its ailing patients don't arrive and depart ass over teakettle.)

In winter battledress I am too spherical to both hold Trooper on my lap and apply the wax myself, so Debby takes care of that job. Bless her.

Then it's down the elevator four flights to the garage and the west back door parking area, where the medical tenant hasn't salted. A few steps and we're at the grassy parkway, of course covered by snow and frozen slush.

Of course dogs don't just lift a leg right away, even if they have been holding it all night. They must select the absolute best spot. That takes time and careful deliberation while I gingerly avoid patches of ice underfoot.

The task finally accomplished, Trooper and I go home.

It takes almost as much time to get everything off as it did to put it on.

But nobody took the football away when I tried to kick it.