Martha Hoffman writes about her experiences evaluating potential Service Dogs in some strange backwaters of rural California.
I drive by the sewage treatment plant. I know where most of them are in all the Bay Area counties and beyond. I don’t visit them, they’re just along my driving routes. I park and take my testing kit into a building beyond the sewage plant, right by the railroad tracks. It’s noisy in there, all chain link and locked gates. Jail prisoners are walking around, mostly busy, but some of them are sitting in tattered chairs in a disused-looking office room, staring at me. They look somewhere between welcoming and suspicious. They appreciate why I am here, but my plastic ID tag ranks me with the officials in the real office up front. The prisoners wear gray uniforms with big letters stenciled on them. They are free, no shackles or anything, although tattoos bind around a lot of their limbs. They carry the keys that will open the locked gates for me.
I walk around, make a choice, and stop by a gate. The dog inside is bouncing as if the floor were too hot to touch. Airborne, she manages to lick my hand through the bars. It looks like she’s got great potential, happy and with a super energy level, but I need to do a few tests while she’s inside the cage. Dogs show their worst behavior in confined spaces, and her behavior there will be a good predictor. She likes me, but that might be because I’m my usual “dog person” self; all my body language is automatically giving the cues dogs express sociability with, and I am avoiding threat cues. What if I were a kid? I give a little squeal, jump and flap my hands excitedly. The dog gets more excited, matching my energy level, not scared at all. I change into a man: a friendly ignoramus who clumsily gives all the wrong signals to the dog. “Hey pup! C’mere!” I growl. “GOOD GIRL!” a little bit too loud, and clap my hands to call her closer. She shrinks down for a split second, squeezes up submissively to be petted, then decides I’m fun and starts leaping again. I go back to my usual self and give her a treat, gobbled down immediately, although there’s a trough of kibble in there.
What a matted mess. Some kind of poodle-terrier mix under the clumpy fur. Neglected, but someone must have loved her once; she’s so trusting. Around her neck is a stiff green plastic loop like a bundle tie, with a yellow livestock ear tag hanging from it. The tag is huge, and reads “183”. The pit bulls in the other kennels wear their tags lightly, but hers clanks against her legs every time she jumps up.
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Outside, I see more inmates across the road at the prison, doing yard work. The ones that get to work at the animal shelter are the trusties. There’s no houses out here, nobody to complain about barking or sewage or dog smells. I walk the dog around, then do more tests. She’s got talent. She’ll make a great Hearing Dog. She orients reflexively to all the sounds I try her on, and runs to investigate them, even the smoke alarm. It’s loud, but she’s so interested that she tries to poke her nose at it. She’s interactive, a real “people dog”, loves the food treats she’ll get as rewards, and she’s happy even at an animal shelter, so I know she’ll enjoy accompanying her new partner everywhere. I fill out papers, put her in a dog crate in the car, and go back into the shelter.
A volunteer is throwing a ball for a dog in an outside run. She tells me she’s a radical animal rights activist, going to law school to end animal ownership and abuse. “Do you believe that all dogs should be made to become extinct, spayed and neutered until there’s no more left?” I ask, curious because I’ve heard this is a main goal of AR organizations. “Oh yes.”she replies. “That’s the only way to stop this abuse.” I tell her that dogs evolved with humans as a symbiotically bonded partner, not a slave, but of course she doesn’t believe me. I could have told her my more radical theory that dogs are a specialized parasite like a cuckoo, evolved to trigger our nurturing responses to perpetuate their survival. After all, most can’t survive in nature, they’ve become childlike, and the more care they need, the more fiercely we protect them. Some of us, anyway.
I wander through the kennels, but the other hundred and fifty dogs are too young or too old, too fearful and unsocialized, or too aggressive…or nice enough, but just not interested in me or my testing sounds. Lots of them would be wonderful pets, but are too calm and nonreactive to go into overdrive every time a sound happens, especially for a smoke alarm in the middle of the night. Most are mixes with varying amounts of Pit, Rott, Lab, Chow and Shepherd heritage. There’s a few Shar Peis with out-of-control skin problems. A wimpy spaniel mix that’s a little too fearful to be a Hearing Dog, but I can take him back to be adopted out through our shelter as a pet. I’m cautious about being in the back, where nobody would hear you scream. Another trainer had seen a prisoner jerking off in the corner of an empty dog kennel. I’d thought of carrying a taser, but I could think of drawbacks to that plan.
In one kennel and old deaf and blind Chihuahua is sleeping. Next to him lies a bowl with a mound of canned food equal in size to the dog. Someone had wanted to make sure he got a good meal. I see some dogs I could make calls on to the breed rescue groups, like a Border Collie who’s a little afraid of noises. Lots of friendly puppies, and some adopters choosing between them.
I move briskly, concentrating on the excitement of finding another dog. If I see an old sick Yorkie like mine who died a few years ago, I’ll cry, but otherwise I’ll manage to stay focused. I say “Hi” to an inmate who I recognize. They’re not allowed to initiate conversations, only to reply, so this is his only chance.
“That’s a nice one” he says, pointing to a young Shepherd mix. I can see she won’t pass: she’s overwhelmed by the confusion of the shelter. I take her out anyway, partly because I feel sorry for her, partly in case that inmate might help me find another dog sometime. When I bring her back, I tell the prisoner, “She’s sweet, gentle, won’t bite, be a nice family pet- just needs some socializing.” He nods and locks up. We both know that probably isn’t going to happen.
Be sure to join Martha and others from the Service Dog community on the Martha Hoffman Hearing Dogs Open Forum Facebook group. It’s an open community where dog trainers, both professional and owner/trainers, exchange ideas and tips about training their dogs.
Martha Hoffman is the Training Director for the Hearing Dog Program. She has trained several hundred Hearing Dogs and tested over 20,000 shelter dogs over the course of 25 years. She is the founder and lead trainer at Martha Hoffman Hearing Dog Academy (MHHD) and the author of the highly respected text on Hearing Dog training, Lend Me an Ear.