The Rural Difference

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.

Vivez la différence rurale!

The theme for the fourth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is “Difference.” It is being hosted by Kali at Brilliant Mind Broken Body, so please pop on over there later tonight or tomorrow, when it goes up!

I’ve decided to write about being a rural service dog partner, because the great majority of assistance dog (AD) partners are urban or suburban dwellers.

In fact, I have discovered that there is a lot of ignorance in general about rural life in the US. This seems to be even more pronounced in the disability community, because many people with disabilities choose urban living, which provides better access to public transportation, sidewalks, doctors and hospitals, and a larger pool of personal care assistants, among other reasons.

The only group of people with disabilities that I know of that is more likely to choose rural life over urban is people with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). MCS is the reason I moved to the country, but my other disabilities make it a complicated choice.

For the purposes of this post, however, I’ll try to focus on the disability community, and especially, on the service dog experience. Here are some issues that I face that urban and suburban AD partners do not.

No pavement, no sidewalks.

Rural very often means dirt roads. Dirt roads aren’t just different because they are not paved. They are often full of rocks, gravel, hills, tree roots and branches. In this area, they are windy, hilly, and otherwise more rugged and harder to navigate.

Dirt roads are also affected by weather in ways that pavement is not. Not only are my roads often impassable (to cars, let alone powerchairs) in winter, due to snow and ice, but in spring — which we call “mud season” (really) — they can be impassable due to mud. Depending on how much money a town has for road maintenance, dirt roads generally get graded between one and three times a year. In my town, they are graded once a year. This means the condition of the road deteriorates all year until it’s graded, when it is then completely impassable (for a few days only) by wheelchairs until cars have packed it down.

Therefore, in addition to the problems occasioned by my powerchairs, themselves, which I have blogged about ad nauseam, I also face uncertainty about whether or how long I can walk my dog for other reasons. And if I do get caught out in a downpour, unlike a city dweller who can nip under a storefront awning to shelter their chair and dog from the rain, that is not possible here.

Here are some captioned videos that attempt to show you the road conditions, since I have never yet managed to convey to a non-rural savvy person what my roads are like using words alone. I feel quite frustrated, actually, that I still am not really getting the true situation across with these videos because when I made them, three weeks ago, the roads were the best they’ve ever been! This gives you no sense at all of how difficult they can be in spring or fall or winter.

Also, a lot of things that I’m pointing out — I give a running commentary — turn out not to be visible because of the poor lighting, due to the shadows cast by the leaf canopy. But hopefully these short videos will give you a tiny inkling of what it’s live in a rural area, using a powerchair for mobility and transportation. If you don’t want to watch all of them, I suggest the second and third ones, although the lighting is the best in the first half of the first video. All videos are captioned.

This is the first video, which I couldn’t load on Youtube, for some reason, so it’s on dotSub.

This is the transcript for video number one.

Below is video number two:

This is the transcript for video number two.

Below is video number three:

This is the transcript for video number three.

What does it mean, as a service dog partner, to always be in the street? Dirt gets between my dogs’ pads, and causes bad mats much more quickly than if they walk on pavement. Their nails also don’t get any wear, the way they do on cement or blacktop, which means more toenail filing or trimming. When people go driving around the corners and hills at high speeds in their pick-ups (which of course is what everyone drives, and how everyone drives), it can be quite scary when trying to get out of the way in time. I have taught all my SDs to move to the side of the road and sit any time a car comes. Barnum hasn’t mastered this yet, but Jersey and Gadget both learned it quickly.

However, while the cars can be problematic, there are few of them, which presents its own challenges. City dogs become so used to cars that they quickly learn to ignore them. Where I live now, cars are infrequent enough that they are an event; consequently Barnum still visually tracks them and is distracted by them, though he’s never had the opportunity to chase one. When I moved with Gadget from my very secluded home, where a car or person could only be seen if it was arriving at my home, he never got used to seeing cars go by on the street, or our neighbors across the way. Anything within a half mile, to him, was “our property.”

Small brown wood-shingled house in fall in New England. The house is tucked on the side of a hill, and there is an incredibly long, winding, steep, homemade wooden wheelchair ramp, with no railings, leading from the driveway down to the house.

This is where Gadget lived most of his life.

Of course, it just wouldn’t be an After Gadget post if I didn’t mention toileting, right? I’ve written numerous times about how important it is to me to train Barnum to go on cue, on any surface. This is much more difficult to train when there is no synthetic surface anywhere near your home. With both Jersey and Gadget, they learned to go on grass, and they’d refuse to go elsewhere.

I planned ahead with Barnum, and he will go on gravel, wood chips, and grass, very willingly. However, it has still been difficult to teach him to go on pavement or cement. I sometimes hurried him from the house to the van first thing in the day, when I knew he really had to pee, and then took him to the library parking lot in town, which is paved, to try to get him to pee there. But he’d just hold it and/or bolt so hard for the grass or wood chips that it didn’t work. By now, he has learned to cop a squat very fast, before I can get him in the van, so it’s no longer possible.

On occasion, I have managed to get him to go in the road by not allowing him to get to the side to pee or poo. Usually this is dirt road, but on rare occasions, when we were able to take long walks, and he didn’t have to go for the first half hour, I managed to get him to go in the middle of the paved road. However, because of my powerchair problems, I have not been able to take him for walks on any consistent basis.

You are probably thinking, “Why don’t you put some pavers or pieces of cement in your yard?” I’m way ahead of you. I was ahead of Barnum, in fact. I put cement pavers, bricks, and blacktop pieces that I scrounged from Freecycle and Craig’s List in his pottying area before Barnum even arrived. The problem is that these are such small spaces, I can’t make him use them, and of course he’d rather use surfaces he’s familiar with. One day he actually pooped on the cement pavers, and I was so excited, I took a picture. See below! This also shows our toileting area.

Doorway and part of exterior wall of yellow wood-shingled house. A metal ramp meets the door, with a second ramp at a right angle down to the lawn. The ground is bare dirt at the bottom of the ramp. Behind it, next to the house, the ground is covered with gravel. There are three toileting areas, about three feet square each, one of pieces of asphalt, one of bricks, and one of four cement pavers. If you look closely, you see a dog poop on the cement pavers.

Nobody can say I'm not trying!

Training and Public Access Challenges

Yes, with both Gadget and especially Barnum, I have tried to expose them to city sights and sounds as part of their socialization. But I can’t get out much, and the day-to-day experiences build on each other, making country sights and sounds much more “normal” to them than malls, buses, sirens, and yes, even cars.

Doing public access training is more challenging: Taking my dog to a grocery store, restaurant, mall, or other places that are considered “everywhere” are not, here. Again, it’s at least a half-hour or 40 minute drive to most of these places. This means a big investment of time and energy just to do a five-minute training session.

We also have to train various skills differently, or not train some skills and train others. Many people train their dog to get their cell phone, or to use a cell in an emergency if they fall or have a wheelchair die on the street. We don’t have a cell phone tower, therefore there is no cell phone service in my town. I have a free cell phone from a government program, which I can use if I am driven at least 20 or 25 minutes — to an area that gets reception.

Internet access (or lack thereof), is also a factor. The only options are either 1. extremely expensive satellite internet, which I’ve been told is comparable to high-speed dial-up, or 2. very slow dial-up, because even with a high-speed modem, because rural phone lines are old and not maintained, so dial-up is generally 28.8K. After years of slow dial-up, we finally got satellite, without which I certainly couldn’t do this blog. However, on my list-servs for dog training, people frequently post videos or offer online training courses or groups that I can’t attend because I can’t use Vimeo, Skype, Ustream, or anything streaming. I can watch Youtube videos, usually, if I wait for them to load fully before I hit “play,” and if I limit the number or amount I watch.

Getting gear or other dog supplies must be done by internet; there is no “local” anything. Even before the internet became the worldwide shopping center, I was buying everything from catalogs. Recently I posted about trouble getting a wheelchair battery replaced. The vendor suggested I get one from a “local” source. The closest place to buy wheelchair batteries is a two-hour drive! When I do need to make returns, I’m told to go to a UPS or FedEx store; however, there are none, even in the larger “cities” 30 or 40 minutes away. I would have to drive at least one-and-a-half hours to get to one. The closest pet-supply store is about 40 minutes’ drive.  Since I don’t drive, any car trip requires someone to drive me in my van and help load and unload my powerchair.

People often suggest incorporating dog training into little daily activities, such as getting the mail. At both my former and current homes, my mailbox is three-quarters of a mile from home — on hilly dirt roads. This is a big undertaking, not a small task! In fact, my favorite walk with my dogs used to be to get the mail — we all had fun, it wore them out, and I got something accomplished! If I ever have a reliable outdoor chair again, I hope to get back to this. It definitely provides invaluable training opportunities.

Dog Work and Lifestyle

Dogs are viewed differently in the country than in the suburbs or cities. Most dogs spend a lot of time off-leash, and this is normal. It is not because we are terrible dog owners who don’t care about our dogs’ safety. It is because usually there are few cars, a lot of open space, and it is a joy to dog and human alike.

Also, fences and long-lines are not always options. When you have a lot of wide-open space — fields, forests, bodies of water, etc. — it is not only natural and pleasurable to let your dog run free, but it can be nigh-well impossible to walk them on a leash in rugged terrain. Someone once told me I should use a long-line on my dog, instead of letting him run loose, at the pond. This is completely ridiculous when there are trees and bushes and tall grass and boulders everywhere, and I’m in a wheelchair. We’d spend the entire time in a fruitless effort to untangle the leash.

I am one of two people, I think, in my town (of 900-something people) who has a fenced yard. My neighbors were very upset when I put in a chain-link fence.  It is a very non-rural thing to do. Not only do I want to stay on my neighbors’ good side because that’s more pleasant, it’s also a safety measure due to my MCS. Further, neighbors are very important in the country, because sometimes your survival depends on their help.

Letting dogs off-leash is not just a cultural value, but a practical one. Many rural dogs work — either hunting or farm work. Dogs obviously need to be off-leash to herd or protect livestock. Many rural people with disabilities are increasingly training their dogs as both farm assistants and service dogs. I hope eventually I will be well enough to get chickens and/or goats, in which case I will rely on my SD not just for personal assistance, but for herding, too.

Rural service dogs might need to be off leash for some disability-related skills, too. For example, I used to email with someone with chemical sensitivities whose SD was trained to alert her to certain chemicals. The handler had life-threatening anaphylaxis when she was exposed to these chemicals, so this was a very important job. Horses were her main transportation, so when the dog was on the job, she ranged ahead of her human partner and her horse, scenting. It worked very well until the handler ran into issues with SD ordinances saying that assistance dogs must always be on leash; she had to prove that for her, her dog could not do its life-saving work on-leash.

Likewise, one of Gadget’s skills, when I lived in my previous home, was to alert my landlord in case of emergency. My landlord and I each had our homes on his 50-acre parcel, but no house, including his, was visible from mine. His house was about a quarter-of-a-mile from mine. Snow often made the driveway impassable, and we sometimes had phone and power outages, which would leave me completely cut off. Gadget had to learn to run to my landlord’s house, bark until he came out, down, wait for a letter to be removed from his backpack, and then run back home.

Since the rescue services (police, ambulance, and firefighters) are mostly volunteers and are coordinating by region, not by town, there are also much slower response times than in the city. This means that SDs who do medical alert or other emergency assistance are even more essential when you know it will probably be at least half-an-hour before human help arrives.

Another job Gadget had, which was not an official service skill, but was very useful, was to alert me to the presence of black bears in or around the house, and to help scare them off. I was very careful to keep Gadget on leash or inside when we were doing this. Black bears usually don’t attack people, but they can cause a lot of property damage, and it’s not good to have them too comfortable around people. I had them climb onto my porch pretty frequently, and once one came through my screen into my mudroom. Gadget smelled them as soon as they were near and alerted me. A friend nearby who did not have a dog had a bear rip a hole right through the garage wall she lived above; the bear was looking for garbage in the garage.

The Advantages of Country Life

After all I’ve said above, you might think, “Why the heck do you live in the country? Why not move to the city if it’s so hard?”

Because I love the country, and because living in the city with MCS was literally killing me. Also, there are a lot of bonuses to country life. I can never imagine being in a city again.

For one thing, having a dog is normal. Almost everyone has at least one. You rarely run into “no dogs allowed” situations. Basically, having animals around, wild or domestic, is commonplace, as are their sounds and smells and bodily functions. People don’t get all squeamish about hair or pee or poop or barking. Having an animal that serves a useful purpose (aside from companionship) is more “normal,” and very few people are afraid of dogs.

Beauty is all around. I love the clean air and the wide diversity of flora and fauna. There is a swamp near my home — it’s about 100 yards from where I stopped in the first video, if I go right out of my driveway. It is home to a great blue heron every summer, and last year a pileated woodpecker raised her chicks in a tree right next to the road. There are turtles, beavers, and porcupines, frogs and fish. (Not so thrilled about the porcupines.) Here is just a glimpse of part of this wetland. It is a particular joy to walk my dog where we can both enjoy the beauty and diversity and freedom that an alive, wide-open, ever-changing landscape has to offer.

A marsh with tall green grass on the left, evergreens on both sides, water stretching as far as can be seen, with water plants and algae floating here and there, and the gray trunk of a tree in the foreground. The sky is blue and partly cloudy. It's a picture that bursts with life, although it also appears very serene; no ripples on the water.

This is the part I come to first, from my house.

I don’t normally let Barnum swim in the swamp because he gets all mucky, but on a hot day, if I can’t take him to the pond, I might make an exception. For those who want to see more, I have an album of five pictures of him swimming here during the heat wave at the After Gadget Facebook page. (You don’t have to be a FB member to view the photos because it is a public page, however they do not include descriptions.)

I hope this has given you a taste of what it’s like to be a rural service dog trainer and partner. I also hope this creates greater awareness in the assistance dog world about assumptions based on urban life. Raising, training, and handling a service dog in the country can present its challenges; by the same token, those of us who do it have a unique perspective and ability to creatively problem solve that others might learn from.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who loooooved the open country life), and Barnum, SDiT, hot dog in the country

5 Responses to “The Rural Difference”

  1. 1 Allison Nastoff August 11, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    A very interesting post which is kind of similar to my post for this carnival! I live in a suburb but it has some rural characteristics: no sidewalks and lots of yard for running free. (Gilbert cannot take advantage of it as much as I would like because it is illegal to have chain link fences and I’m not comfortable with the idea of an invisible fence.) We have paved country roads, but since they are side streets, they are the last to get plowed after a snow storm. Cars drive down our street often enough that Gilbert isn’t phased by them, but infrequently enough that drivers are sometimes complacent, flying down the street with no regard for possible pedestrians, so my parents insist that I am accompanied by a sighted person when walking Gilbert in our neighborhood. So I kind of understand where you are coming from when talking about the challenges of living in a rural area, but like you, I love the fresh air and peace of my sort of rural home. Thank you for raising awareness of this subject in the assistance dog community.

  2. 2 Sharon Wachsler August 11, 2011 at 8:23 pm


    Reading your post, my perception was that it was a suburb, or what I consider a suburb. I have had a lot of difficulties with people who think that rural means suburb. I grew up in the suburbs. We didn’t have sidewalks, but the roads were wide enough for two cars to pass each other and they were paved. It’s a completely different thing. There are banks and stores and restaurants and such.

    I had friends who grew up in Teaneck, NJ, which they considered “the suburbs,” because it was essentially a suburb of New York City. They had 2000 people in their graduating class in high school. To me, that’s a city. When they saw where I grew up, the suburbs, they said, “Oh! It’s the country!” No. There are paid police and firefighters. There is a CVS (American chain drugstore). There is a supermarket and a discount department store and a coffee shop. THis is not rural.

    In a really rural area, a town of 2000 or less (where I lived last, population of 2000, where I live now, 900-something) is very different, IME, than a town of 10,000 or 30,000, which some people would consider rural, but I don’t.

    I tell people, “Don’t use GPS or mapquest here, it will get you lost.” They don’t believe me. Some roads that show up on maps are not real roads at all, but woods trails, or roads that are only passable (except by a snowmobile or horse) in summer, and even then, must be a 4WD truck. I tell people, “Don’t try to call from the road because there’s no cell phone reception” and they don’t believe me. I tell them, “Don’t take this road, take this other one,” and they don’t listen, and get angry when the bottom of their car is scraped up.

    Several people in my town have lived without plumbing, or electricity, etc., and that, IME, never happens in the suburbs or country. I still don’t believe that people get the message of what it means to be rural. There is no bank or gas station or grocery store or theater or traffic lights, etc., in most rural towns, and often not the next town over or the next. To go anywhere or do anything is usually at least 1/2 hour drive.

    I have a lot of frustration over this issue. I feel like I say one thing and people hear another.

  3. 3 Allison Nastoff August 11, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    I apologize if I frustrated you and sounded like one of those people who doesn’t get it. There is a huge difference between a rural area like where you live versus a suburb, even a suburb with country roads. There were 350 kids in my high school class, cell phone reception is not an issue and it only takes five to ten minutes to drive to the bank, grocery store or post office. I think what I was trying to get at, but did a very poor job communicating, is that although where I live isn’t rural in the truest sense, it feels rural by comparison to the urban settings where most of my blind friends live. While they can independently run errands or take walks on sidewalks and streets where cars are accustomed to pedestrians, independence is more difficult in a suburb with no sidewalks and thus it feels rural by comparison.
    But you are right that there is a world of difference between a rural area and a suburb, and I apologize for my insensitivity to this fact in my previous comment.

  4. 4 Sharon Wachsler August 13, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    Hi Allison,

    It’s quite OK. I don’t think you need to apologize. I get frustrated over this issue, and I think I came off more harshly than I intended because your comment just triggered feelings I was already having. I hope you didn’t feel hurt by what I said.

    For example, the situation of a puppy raiser in the country versus a PWD in the country versus a GD handler in a country suburb are all very different, although each are relevant topics for the ADBC. I often read Patti’s posts and think, “I wish someone like her could raise a puppy for me!” I know that the combination of my disability’s limitations and my rural environment have not been ideal for me to raise my puppy as a future SD.

    Country living for a person without a physical disability is very different than for a PWD. And rural life with a disability is very different from city life with a disability. I often feel like no matter where I turn, people don’t get it — the urban PWDs don’t get it, and the rural ABs don’t, either. But this is not your fault!

    You said, “I think what I was trying to get at, is that although where I live isn’t rural in the truest sense, it feels rural by comparison to the urban settings where most of my blind friends live. While they can independently run errands or take walks on sidewalks and streets where cars are accustomed to pedestrians, independence is more difficult in a suburb with no sidewalks and thus it feels rural by comparison.”

    Yes, I understand what you’re saying. Everything is relative. It is very different. The whole issue of independence is just so huge! Most of the blind people I know live where there is public transportation, for example. I know someone in Maine (a very rural state) who has a farm, and it’s a challenge to be blind in Maine. He’s forever trying to get rides to things, and if he can’t, he doesn’t go. Like me, he uses the computer for most of his “getting out.”

    I remember about 20 years ago reading about the first guide dog school specifically geared to rural people. It was such a big deal, because all the schools until then were geared to urban guiding skills only. I remember one person who lived and worked on a farm and needed his guide dog to guide through muck and in the barn and around livestock, etc., which is very different than cars and traffic stops, etc.!

    The ILC that serves my region serves a lot of people in one of the two urban areas in the region, and then people in the more suburban regions, and then the rest of the region — most of it — is rural. But most of the people they serve are urban or suburban. So, their events are never accessible to me, mostly because of the MCS, but also because they’re trying to reach most of their consumers, who are not rural. We often feel like we are second-class citizens to them.

    What has been such a challenge for me, since I can’t drive, and I can’t walk, is getting around in an environment that is so non-wheelchair friendly. If you have MCS, you can’t use public transportation, even paratransport, so even living in the city doesn’t help. Having MCS and not being able to drive is a big problem. In the country, it’s an even bigger problem, because nothing is nearby. OK, I’ll stop whining now.

  1. 1 It’s carnival time! « Brilliant Mind Broken Body Trackback on August 10, 2011 at 2:49 pm
Comments are currently closed.

Receive new blog posts right in your email!

Join 572 other subscribers
Follow AfterGadget on Twitter

Want to Support this Blog?

About this Blog

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival

Read Previous After Gadget Posts

%d bloggers like this: