Archive for December, 2009

Inside the Mind of Assistance Animals

Posted on December 30, 2009. Filed under: 4. Guest Bloggers | Tags: , , , , |

We’re all pet lovers. No argument there. We love being around them, watching them do their animal thing, laughing at their antics and enjoying the love and happiness they provide. Sometimes, involuntarily or not, we try to see life through their eyes. “What do they think about?”

Of course not being a dog, and only a typical, run-of-the-mill carbon-based bipedal omnivore with opposable thumbs, I can’t answer that, but I can hazard a guess or two. I’ve been around dogs all my life, both as pets and working dogs. I really enjoy romping and wrestling with big dogs and playing with little ones, but in the last decade or so, my usual exposure to dogs is in their role as Assistance to individuals with Disabilities. In the last blog I wrote about some of the questions and myths, what are they, what do they do, where can they go and so forth. Here, I would like to write about my opinion of what is in the mind of an Assistance animal. I’m not a veterinarian, or pet psychologist, just an animal lover and owner. Being dependent on my dog for more than love and companionship helps me to be aware more of a dog’s personality and feelings. To many readers this won’t be news, but Petopia asked me to write some thoughts and observations for the Bark Blog, so here we go.

I’ve known hundreds of them of a score of breeds and trained skills. Service, Alert, Psychiatric, Guide, Hearing, Balance, Signal, Therapy and many nore, so I can at least consider myself not an expert but seasoned. For the most part, I spend my days and nights with a Guide Dog, Musket. As Petopia readers and San Diegans may know, Musket is a mature male, Yellow Labrador retriever. Labs are among the most common breeds for Guide dogs due to their temperament, intelligence, loyalty, eagerness and long working life, but they’re dogs first and none of my disabled brethren forget that fact. We don’t minimize or ignore the canine needs and identity of our furry companions.

We all live in an electronic, digital, remotely-controlled, mechanical, automatic world, increasingly insulated from the natural environment. When our ancestors tilled the soil and worked from sunrise to sundown, hunted and tended their lands, dogs were far more important to them than as pets. They guarded the henhouse, alerted at intruders, tracked lost livestock, pulled in the fishing nets and much more. Nowadays, as a culture, we see dogs and most animals as pets, members of the family, little living plush toys for love and amusement. I’m not making generalizations, only laying the groundwork for this article, and I’m the first to admit I love lying for hours rubbing a dog’s belly or feeling comfort from the furry face and wagging tail of pure unconditional love.

So in this modern environment, working dogs, that is, beyond the hunting and herding types, are a novelty. They amaze and attract people. Assistance dogs have a sort of mystique, a ‘celebrity’ status if you will. Whenever we’re out and about, in stores, restaurants, on the sidewalk, bus, plane, people notice Musket and others of his kind. It’s very common to hear ‘Oh, look at that, isn’t that wonderful?’ Or ‘It’s amazing what those dogs can do.’ When I hear that, I’m pleased. It’s the dog who deserves the praise, not the owner. The dog is the most visible and noticeable part of the team, and I truly believe they like it. I’ve met many working dogs, and their enthusiasm is not merely a byproduct of their training. They know how important their work is. I’ll provide a few examples, bearing in mind these are from my own experiences with Musket and dogs I’ve known for years, I think they illustrate my point well enough.

As a Guide dog Musket wears the leather harness, which consists of the stiff handle, belly and chest straps. It’s impossible for him to get into it by himself, but if he could, I’m sure I’d find him waiting by the door suited up and ready to go every day. Before I leave the house for work, I take the harness off the newel post at the bottom of the stairs and call for him, and in an instant he’s there, putting his head into the harness and waiting, tail beating the wall. It’s obvious he wants to go out, and he’s not at all reluctant to work.

He understands his role as my guide. How do I know that? Because when he’s off harness and just hanging around the house, he’s a different dog. He sleeps, eats, plays and does all the normal doggy things. When I use my cane to go and get the mail, my wife says Musket watches me like a hawk. He’s alert, knowing I’m going out without him. In a few instances when I bump or trip over something, he jerks his head back as if to say ‘Hey, I could have told you that was there if I’d been with you!’

The role of the Guide dog and that of other Assistance animals is to provide their owner with what the disability has denied them. Eyes, ears, mobility, balance, mental and emotional support and so on. I’ve known dogs who love working, even to the point of having to be reined in because they’re going too fast. Musket is like that sometimes. He moves at a  rapid pace, steering me around obstacles and dangers, and stopping at the curb. When I give the ‘forward’ command he’s off again, tail wagging.

They are lifesavers, protectors. Many pet owners can testify to situations where their dogs, or even cats, have reacted in a protective way, facing a threat or dangers to their owners. In the case of Assistance animals, being trained to be more alert to specific dangers and the reaction is more predictable. Musket has saved my life at least twice and kept me from busting my butt many times. He pushed me back while crossing the street as a car attempted to run a red light, and once he refused to step off a curb where a construction pit yawned invitingly for me to fall into. I didn’t know it was there and kept commanding him to move forward. He wouldn’t budge. When it finally dawned on me what I’d been trying to do, I gave him a lot of praise and love and treats. He knew better than I.

Of course he and all the others love the attention they get. Seeing a dog in the grocery store is unique enough to be noticed, and Musket likes to meet people. He knows he’s probably the only dog in the store so he hears many comments. He shows his happiness at this by being even more alert to his job. Is he showing off? Sure. Why not? We all like being praised for our work and dogs are no different. Guide dogs and all others are raised and trained on a system of positive reinforcement. Praise and corrections reap great benefits to train working dogs. When they do well at a task, they are praised often with petting and stroking. If they do something improper, they are told ‘No’ in a firm voice and in some cases, physically but not harshly redirected to resume the task properly. When they do so, they are again praised. Never are they punished or told ‘bad dog.’

So the result is they love working because it results in praise, love, respect and positive attention.

I believe dogs and most of our domestic animal friends have thoughts, feelings, memories and hopes. They may not think in words as we do, but in images, feelings, needs, good and bad memories, sounds, smells and tastes – but that’s more than enough. Musket learns the routes we take, remembers everybody he meets and can even tell time. No, he’s not a ‘Watchdog,’ just very smart. If I put three treats in my pocket and only give him two over the course of the day, he KNOWS there’s another one in there.

So, even though they may not perceive the world the way we do, they do think. We can often tell when our pet is thinking about something, that curious way they cock their heads, their ears perk up, or when they sigh in a very human manner at being told they have to have a bath.

So what do they think on the job? That they’re special, needed and important. They love being praised and doing their job well. In Musket’s case it’s gone to his head, but that’s OK, he’s earned it. It’s a symbiotic relationship, a healthy co-dependence. The dog depends on the owner for food, care, health, shelter and love, the owner depends on the dog for safety, guidance, mobility and independence. The relationship takes months to form, to become a true bond, but when it happens, both human and animal have forged something wonderful and beautiful.

Mark Carlson

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Christmas Toys…what christmas toys! They are already destroyed!

Posted on December 29, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: |

If your dog is anything like, mine, you hand them a tennis ball, and before you can turn around, the fuzz is being torn off and it is already in 15 pieces.  I wish I could say that is an exaggeration, but it’s not.  We can’t give our lab Moose anything that is stuffed, rubber, plastic, cloth, round, square, black, red….are you getting my drift.  He destroys every toy we give him in no time flat.  It is so frustrating.  I used to love buying cheap toys from  They have the best stuffed toys, so cute and so reasonably priced.  Now, what are my go to items?  The only think I can keep in my house more than 5 minutes are kongs and Tuffy Toys.  Kongs most people are familiar with, they are the hard rubber with the hole int he bottom for stuffing treats in.  I have an extra large one and it has remained in my house for a few years now.  Even better, Moose will actually chew on it, usually on a nightly basis.  My other new favorite items are Tuffy Toys.  They are made of multiple layers of fabric and stitching.  Every year they come out with new designs.  They now have ocean creatures, desert creatures, football shaped, rings, dinosaurs and even junior sizes.  They expand their inventory regularly.  Each toy is also rated on toughness, 10 being the most indestructible.  I have to say, while I still have a couple tuffy toys in a few pieces they have lasted for a year now.  I just added to our collection this Christmas.  You can find them at The unfortunate thing about Tuffy toys is that they are not cheap.  However, they are cheaper than having to replace a toy on a daily basis.  Like I said, I still have some around the house from last Christmas.  That makes Tuffy toys one of my top toy products.

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How fat is too fat?

Posted on December 22, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: |

With the holidays upon us, everyone is concerned about the few extra pounds we will be putting on.  With the snacks, candy, turkey and ham dinners, we will most likely be feasting this holiday season.  While we continue to eat and eat, we tend to give our pets more treats too.  After all, it is just as important for them to enjoy their holiday treats too.  A couple things to remember about feeding your pets around the holidays:

1.)  Stay away from table scraps, if your pet is not used to them, they can get very sick.  The grease from foods can also make them very ill.

2.)  Continue to feed them their own food at least 2 times a day.  If you spread their meals out, they are less hungry throughout the day.

3.)  Treats are good, but give them in moderation.  Stay away from indigestible materials like pigs hooves, and ears.  Only give raw hides when your pet is being supervised.

4.) Consult your pets body condition score.  If they fall in the “Too Heavy” range, go lighter on the treats.  Consider getting your pet on an exercise plan for their new years resolution.  Just like us humans.  Check out the Purina Body Condition Score.

Too Thin

1 Ribs, lumbar vertebrae, pelvic bones and all bony prominences evident from a distance. No discernible body fat. Obvious loss of muscle mass.

2 Ribs, lumbar vertebrae and pelvic bones easily visible. No palpable fat. Some evidence of other bony prominence. Minimal loss of muscle mass.

3 Ribs easily palpated and may be visible with no palpable fat. Tops of lumbar vertebrae visible. Pelvic bones becoming prominent. Obvious waist.


4 Ribs easily palpable, with minimal fat covering. Waist easily noted, viewed from above. Abdominal tuck evident.

5 Ribs palpable without excess fat covering. Waist observed behind ribs when viewed from above. Abdomen tucked up when viewed.

Too Heavy

6 Ribs palpable with slight excess fat covering. Waist is discernible viewed from above but is not prominent. Abdominal tuck apparent.

7 Ribs palpable with difficulty; heavy fat cover. Noticeable fat deposits over lumbar area and base of tail. Waist absent or barely visible. Abdominal tuck may be present.

8 Ribs not palpable under very heavy fat cover, or palpable only with significant pressure. Heavy fat deposits over lumbar area and base of tail. Waist absent. No abdominal tuck. Obvious abdominal distension may be present.

9 Massive fat deposits over thorax, spine and base of tail. Waist and abdominal tuck absent. Fat deposits on neck and limbs. Obvious abdominal distention.

For more questions about your pets and the holidays, email me at
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The Etiquette of Meeting Assistance Animals

Posted on December 18, 2009. Filed under: 4. Guest Bloggers | Tags: , , , , |

It’s a given that most people like animals, and animals attract people. It happens everywhere, but throw in the factor of a dog in an environment where dogs are not usually seen, such as a supermarket, restaurant or in an airport or museum. Let’s add one more variable. The dog is working, and it’s doing a job for its owner, an individual with a disability. That owner is dependent on the animal for their mobility, independence, mental or physical health and safety.

I’m not telling the Petopia readers anything they don’t already know but even lifelong dog and cat owners and other animal lovers sometimes have difficulty knowing how to approach a working animal in a public environment.

The most common encounter is harmless and passes immediately. A passerby simply says “Hi puppy,” and moves on, but a few are more eager and want to stop to pet them. Let’s assume that the person just loves animals and wants to say hello. That’s natural. And they respect the individual with the disability who owns the dog. At what point is an approach considered proper? Or safe? Welcome or unwelcome?

So, to clear the air and give both parties the satisfaction they seek and need, I’ll provide a few of the DOs and DON’Ts of meeting Assistance Animals on the job.


  1. Make sure the situation is a safe one.
  2. Always ask first.
  3. Move slowly.
  4. Allow the dog to be comfortable with you.
  5. Ask the owner about the animal’s training and so on.
  6. Show respect for their disability.


  1. Walk right on and pet the dog/animal.
  2. Sneak up or fail to acknowledge the owner.
  3. Attempt to hold the harness or leash.
  4. Ask the owner for proof of their disability.

Those are the basics. Common sense, most of them. For instance, stopping a blind person in the middle of crossing the street to pet their dog is a major DON’T. So is interfering with the dog’s job or ignoring the owner. But as obvious as those things may be to most of us, believe it or not, most if not all Assistance Animal owners have encountered them more than once.

They are among us. The overenthusiastic, the pushy, the uninformed, the inconsiderate, the oblivious. And if I or the other hundreds of thousands of Assistance Animal owners had a dime for every one we’ve had to deal with, we’d be able to buy our own country.

It all boils down to common sense, which we all know is less than common these days. I’m not saying that everyone who commits the DON’Ts is bad or uncaring. They may just be uninformed. That’s not their fault. It’s the job of the schools, media and the dog owner to educate everyone about the animal’s job and role in their lives. And do it with diplomacy. It’s not always easy, especially when someone cuts in between the owner and the dog and attempts to pet them without acknowledging the owner. If the owner takes the time to explain why what they are doing is wrong and they recognize it, good. But if they continue to ignore or show disrespect for the owner’s presence, then it’s time to be firm and remove the animal. They have lost the honor of meeting them, animal lover or not. Respect goes both ways.

In what circumstances is it okay to approach? In public, if the animal is actually working, under control by the owner, it’s best to wait for a period of inactivity. Stopped at a curb, waiting in line, sitting down. Then approach them and comment. “You have a lovely dog.”

That often breaks the ice. Assistance Animal owners are proud of them and are eager to talk about them. Then, if it seems prudent, ask them if you can pet the dog. “May I meet your dog?”

Let’s add a caveat here. Not all Assistance Animal owners want their animal to be touched. Some prefer not to let them have any contact with others. It may be because they have had a bad experience, have an anxiety disorder or fear the dog being distracted and unable to perform its job. In those instances, the owner may say “I’m sorry but I really don’t want anybody touching him.”

Don’t sweat it. It’s not personal. But those are the exception rather than the rule. I myself am always happy to let people meet and pet my Guide dog Musket, if they ask first and he’s not actually guiding me. If I’m not holding the harness handle, it’s okay to approach. When someone asks to meet him I almost always say “Sure you can meet him. Thanks for asking. His name is Musket.”

Given that everyone is different, some owners may agree or not. I know of one woman wheelchair user with a toy poodle she trained to pick up dropped objects and bring them to her. She’s proud of her dog and is very happy to show her off, but prefers no one actually pet her. And that’s her right.

Another Guide dog owner has a dog, which is easily distracted, sometimes at inappropriate moments, so he is very firm about keeping his dog under control. He only allows people to pet him when he is completely off the harness.

Distractions are a big no-no in working with a Guide dog. And it’s not hard to guess why. The dog is the owner’s eyes. If the dog is assisting their owner across a busy street and someone calls out “Hey, puppy! C’mere, boy!” you can imagine what might happen.  Again, I’m not saying people who do such things are bad, just clueless. And need to be educated. Once in a while in a supermarket I’ll hear a child’s voice saying “Mommy you’re not supposed to pet him. He’s working! You have to ask first!” I feel like cheering when I hear that. That kid gets it.

Okay I’m going to stop preaching now. I’ve always been a keen observer of human nature, blind or not. We are all members of the plethora of mixed nuts in the great trail mix of life. Life with a disability demands a certain amount of flexibility and understanding and above all a sense of humor.
Most people, even the clueless ones are basically nice and don’t mind being shown the true path. To reverse paraphrase what W.C. Fields said, ‘Anyone who loves little kids and dogs can’t be all bad.’

Mark Carlson

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Christmas With Furry Kids

Posted on December 13, 2009. Filed under: 1. Daily Life | Tags: , , |

Yes, it’s true. This holiday season my husband and I loaded up the “furry kids,” Indy and Lola and took them to see Santa. Are we crazy? No, we’re just enjoying the holidays like any family, expect our “kids” are furry and four legged. Actually, the Santa we went to see was especially for pets, at PETCO. So having just decorated the tree, and feeling festive, we decided it would be fun and maybe worthy of our Christmas card photo this year. (My husband would like to add a disclaimer that sometimes he thinks my pet loving tendencies are a little extreme.)

Let’s just say, Indy and Lola were not impressed with Santa, who appeared to be no more than 17-years old. We bought the furry kids some fun holiday hats and encouraged them to sit on Santa’s lap. They were not too sure about the kid in the funny red suit. So we do what furry parents do, we jumped into the photo too. Okay, so it may not be Christmas card worthy, but it will definitely be one of our holiday mementos.
Back at home, Indy and Lola each have a stocking hanging right next to ours.
Christmas Eve I’ll fill it with various goodies. On Christmas morning, the furry kids seem to know something is different, as we hang out on the couch, open gifts and shower them with biscuits and squeaky toys. Hopefully, they will get what they wished for from Santa.    -Nina Jimenez

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Dogs at christmas

Posted on December 8, 2009. Filed under: 3. Trainer On Call | Tags: |

This is very cute, I need to train my dogs to do this.

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Cats for Fun

Posted on December 8, 2009. Filed under: 3. Trainer On Call | Tags: , |

Why do cats hate water? Well, I don’t know that it is true to say cats hate water.  Unlike dogs, most of which have swimming in their instincts, cats just aren’t in contact with it as often.  If you give a dog a bath that has never seen water, they are probably going to be pretty nervous as well.  The key to getting your cat to accept water is to create a positive reinforcement history behind it.  Start with small steps and give them lots of love and treats for accepting it.  Then gradually increase the exposure to water.

Keep in mind some cats, like tigers (although they are not house cats) love water.

Can you toilet train your cat? Absolutely, it has been done by many people.  Cats have a bad reputation of not being trainable.  The truth is, you can definitely train our cat, you just have to know what they like for reinforcement.  Small approximations are again the key to toilet training your cat.  Start with a round litter box, gradually move it closer to toilet, then high, then on the lid, then under the lid, then gradually remove the litter, and take away the pan.  Of course this is easier to type than do, but if you stay consistent and go slowly it can be done.

For more ideas on how to train you cat, email me at

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