On August 5, 2014, JAN presented a Webcast during International Assistance Dog Week featuring assistance (or “service”) dog experts Dr. Margaret Glenn and Marcie Davis. For those who missed the original Webcast, this presentation is now archived and available beginning this week in the training section of JAN’s Website.
In honor of Assistance Dog Week, I had the privilege of speaking with both Glenn and Davis about their personal experiences, as well as their knowledge of effective practices that help successfully integrate assistance dogs into the workplace – Marcie from the perspective of a person partnered with an assistance dog and Margaret from the perspective of an academic researcher. This will be the first installment of a two part series on the increasingly important role of assistance dogs in the workplace and best practices that support both employee and employer.
Many of us have had the experience of being in an environment where we don’t expect to see a dog, first wondering if it’s a very well behaved pet, then realizing it’s a working dog – providing services to an individual with a disability. Recently, I was in a department store with my family when an individual who was blind entered with his assistance dog, along with a friend he was shopping with. We were in the line to make our purchase when they got in the line behind us. Because the man had a visible disability, my mother and sister understood the role of the assistance dog; still, they were not sure what to do. As a family of dog lovers, they wanted to talk to and pet the dog. I think that’s how many people feel – not sure what to do – how to behave – what is appropriate. It’s a new situation. The circumstances become more confusing when an assistance dog is partnered with an individual with an invisible disability such as epilepsy or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The service these dogs provide to these individuals is no less important, but we may not know what the function of the dog is, which may be to alert a person to an oncoming seizure or to provide emotional support to a veteran experiencing residual trauma. This is why education is key to both understanding the role of assistance animals and their expanding role in the lives of people with disabilities, particularly in the workplace.
While we’ve become more accustomed to encountering assistance dogs in public spaces, in workplace settings, the presence of an assistance dog as an accommodation is more unfamiliar and complex. Margaret writes in her recent journal article An Exploratory Study of the Elements of Successful Service Dog Partnerships in the Workplace, “…many people with significant disabilities are seeking entry into the workplace with their animals in an effort to allow themselves to benefit from the more normal rhythm of life afforded to others. That is creating a challenge for employers and employees alike as they navigate the legal and social implications of animals in the workplace and work to understand the validity of their service.” International Assistance Dog Week was established by Davis with multiple goals — to honor the role assistance dogs play in the lives of human partners with disabilities, to raise awareness and educate the public about the role these dogs perform in expanding the quality of life for the individuals they’re partnered with, and to recognize the heroic deeds these dogs perform for individuals and in their communities. For effective workplace practices, the education piece is critical.
Marcie Davis – Business Owner, Advocate, Writer, and Human Partner to Her Dog Whistle
Davis is an assistance dog expert, founder of International Assistance Dog Week, author of the book Working Like Dogs: The Assistance Dog Guidebook, creator of the Website Working Like Dogs, and host of the radio show Working Like Dogs Radio.
When I spoke to Davis, I wanted to get an idea about her 20-year relationship with the various assistance dogs she has been partnered with over the years, particularly in a workplace context. Davis says unequivocally that having her first assistance dog changed her life completely – both in terms of daily life and in her career progression. She said that once partnered, with the independence it afforded her, career opportunities began to open up in a way they hadn’t before. Her assistance dog became an integral part of how she lived her life. She emphasized it’s a unique relationship – you’re with the dog 24 hours a day – you develop a bond and trust that has to be a two way street. She also pointed out that having a dog requires work, the training needs to be ongoing, and it’s necessary to meet the needs of the dog as well as your own. It necessitates mutual love and respect – you have to learn from one another.
Even though assistance dogs are very well trained prior to their placement, like all living beings, issues can and do arise. Davis recounts an instance with her current dog Whistle, when in training, was exposed to a gas explosion in an adjacent building. As a result, he had flashbacks related to noise that emerged in certain situations – particularly airline travel. Flying was a necessary activity for Davis who speaks internationally and travels frequently. She explained that it was necessary to bring a trainer into that particular situation to work with Whistle under those specific circumstances in order to resolve his fears. Every dog and human are different, so Davis points out that each relationship with her dogs has been unique. A reciprocal relationship means that you respect these differences and build from there. As a result, your partnered dog will want to work for you leading to an incredible relationship.
What makes for a good working dog? Davis describes a good working dog as there and attuned, but not to be seen – tucked in but always there. She describes how initially in business situations her clients would be aware of the dog, because it was something new, but after a while, they would forget the dog was even there. In a way, she said he would be like any assistive device, there enabling tasks to be carried out. Whistle accompanying Davis is no longer something she thinks about as optional; he is an integral part of her work life and goes where she goes. She described in her consulting business a potential client who wanted to hire her, but objected to the dog being on site at their facility. For Davis, this was non-negotiable. When she explained more to the client the role Whistle played for her, the issue was quickly resolved. They even requested training for their managers about the role of assistance dogs. Davis described this as a “teachable moment.”
When I asked what advice she would give to individuals with assistance dogs and employers, she emphasized that communication is THE key. Each conversation will be different for everyone, but she stressed there needs to an open, honest dialogue. Education about the important role of service dogs in people’s work lives is essential. Davis’ Website was developed as a resource for individuals with assistance dogs, dog trainers, and employers to address many of these issues. The site features Blog posts highlighting effective human-dog partnerships in various workplace settings. A recent Blog post features Kathy Taylor who is hearing impaired and her dog Janet. Kathy works in the field as a system design engineer and travels to various customer sites. While traveling together by car, Janet accompanies her and is able to alert her to police and emergency sirens, tornado warnings, and other auditory cues by nudging her. Janet will let her know when the morning alarm goes off or if a fire alarm goes off at night.
As an advocate for the positive role assistance dogs can play in the lives of people with disabilities at work and at home, Davis’ love and respect for her own dog told the whole story. Whistle will be retiring soon and each transition Davis recounted sounded difficult for both dog and human. These are working dogs who need to be engaged and on task much of the time, so retirement is necessary after a period of time. But the love and relationship does not end with retirement. This devotion is part of the reciprocal partnership between dog and human.
In our next Blog, we’ll discuss Glenn’s research on successful dog partnerships in the workplace.
JAN Webcast: Best Practices – Employment and Service Dogs: Perspectives from Assistance Dog Experts
International Assistance Dog Week
Working Like Dogs: The Service Dog Guidebook
JAN’s Accommodation and Compliance Series: Service Animals in the Workplace
Glenn, M. (2013). Exploratory study of the elements of successful service dog use in the workplace. ISRN Rehabilitation, Volume 2013.