[Apologies to BARk Magazine for riffing on their slogan.]
I’m not one to play the disability card. To the scoldings of many, I’ve refused for years to get a “handicapped” placard for my car though I’m eligible. My attitude towards those things is: if I can’t walk, I can’t drive. (Yes, yes, I know: one size does not fit all.) The only exception I’ve allowed myself – until now – has been my transit discount card. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and though we grouse incessantly about it we are blessed with good transit. I think everybody should have a transit discount card, at least until transit reaches funding parity with our over-subsidized automobiles. You’ll pry mine, as the saying goes, from my cold rigored fingers.
Anyway, I pulled another benefit from the disability stack last week: I got my dog, Otto, declared an assistance dog. I’m both embarrassed and relieved to have him so marked. Otto is 20 lbs and fiercely intelligent but trust me: his brain is the only fierce tissue in his body. He arrived in my life just a few months before the premiere of my liver cancer / transplant drama and If I’d known what was coming I’d never have gotten him. Now I look upon his arrival as divine intervention, likely instigated by my late mother. (Mom survived by tackling the tough ones, but was not above a bit of consoling along the way). It is understatement to say I wouldn’t have made it through these past two years without Otto.
Declaring a dog as an assistant – or service animal in government-speak – is made possible by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) first enacted in 1990. Some who don’t know anyone with a disability know the ADA only from its excesses: sensational news reports of a half-million dollars spent on a ramp to a government trailer worth $50,000 and that sort of thing. But the act does a lot of good for those who need it; for many it changed the world. Among its statutes it establishes the right to service animals. Here’s the government’s non-legalese description:
Service animals are animals that are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities – such as guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling wheelchairs, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, or performing other special tasks. Service animals are working animals, not pets.
Reading that description you can guess where my embarrassment comes from. Otto as guide? Only if he’s guiding someone to a gopher. Pulling wheelchairs? He’s strong for his size but… no. And I haven’t had any seizures lately (read: ever) so he doesn’t qualify there. No, Otto falls in the “other special tasks” category. In his case his task is emotional support. Now before you laugh – or after you stop – remember this is California and more specifically San Francisco and we do such things here. It helps that the ADA leaves it up to localities to define “service.” For me the “other special tasks” Otto performs are crucial.
Over the last two years I’ve learned a lot about myself and I’ve also learned things about Otto and dogs in general, some of them downright amazing. His sense of my relative health is unerring. One amusing example (to me anyway): being male and living alone, I don’t close the door to the bathroom. Well, periodically Otto follows me in and stands next to the toilet, nose ready, waiting for me to begin. When I pee, he does what I’ve come to call the sniff test. If he’s satisfied with how things come out he just walks away, but if he’s disturbed by what he’s smelling he hangs around, rubs my legs, even lets out a little bark. During a few really bad periods he’s stormed out the bathroom as if angry. Sound far fetched? Well, consider what researchers are doing in teaching dogs to smell cancer cells in our breath and in our urine.
Otto often knows how I’m doing better than I do. If it’s walk time and I’m on the couch and and feeling achy or down, I don’t get a pass. Walk time is walk time, get off yer butt. Invariably I feel better after, even if we only manage a few blocks. But if I’m really sick he doesn’t even ask and even resists if I try, snuggling down with me for a nap instead. And he just refuses to play tuggy with me after surgery. Tugging on a rope is his favorite game, but he won’t even to bring me the rope if he judges I’m not fit for it.
My most amazing experience with Otto-as-caregiver happened in January when I descended into medical hell. After each of three hospitalizations, Jeff brought Otto along when picking me up. The first two times – when I was getting worse though I didn’t yet know it – Otto’s initial ecstatic greeting immediately morphed into horror as he got a smell of me. Both times he backed away into a corner of the car, staring at me with an awful “what is WRONG with you???” look. The third time they busted me out – by then I was quite nervous about passing this particular “Otto test” – he sniffed, made his judgment, then showered me in kisses and settled happily on my lap. I passed. And I got better.
How does a little 20 lb half-Dachshund, half-Jack Russell-with-a-dash-of-Beagle know all this? He’s grown up watching me go through this stuff; he was only seven weeks old when he arrived and three months when Dr Cassandra called. Is he just used to my struggles? Is it only our particular history together that created this awareness and sensitivity in him? Or is it more?
I have become obsessed with dogs, reading every book and watching every documentary on the beasts I can find. Dogs continue to amaze the scientists and certainly me. I think they would amaze everyone but we don’t notice how unique they are because they’re such a regular part of our lives. No species on earth comes in as many varieties as they do. And it seems the “which animal is smarter” debate is a canard. Chimps are smarter than dogs, no question. Yet when it comes to reading and responding to humans, knowing what we’re doing often before we do – researchers call it recognizing social cues – dogs win paws down.
So how is Otto “assisting” me? Why did I cave and grab this particular disability benefit? I can say it’s because now I have the right to bring him with me on transit – important when I’m too addled to drive – or because it guarantees that he can’t be evicted should my landlord decide dogs are no longer welcome. True, both. But it’s more than that.
Laugh if you like, but the bond between a dog and someone “disabled” is downright transcendent. When I’m feeling bad Otto’s there commiserating. But when I’m better all that nasty stuff – the hospital, the pain, the hard times – never happened.
Do you understand what I’m saying? Even though Otto clearly retains some memory of my situation, when the bad stuff ends it is gone. Gone. No person – no matter how close, no matter how caring – can hope to achieve what a dog can when it comes to treating those of us living with a chronic condition or illness as undamaged goods. This is indescribably liberating, a gift if there ever was one. And right now I so much need to keep tight hold of this gift.
With Otto, when I’m feeling good all that matters is, it’s tuggy time!
Well, maybe there’s a little truth to the idea.
Want to see more Otto pics?
Here are his three calendars. No, really: Otto has his own calendars.
Otto’s calendars 2006-2009