Two Things Service Dogs Can Do that Assistive Technology Cannot (with a side note on brain injury)

I’m having that feeling again. That feeling of being in a partnership. Of having a service dog I can rely on. It’s been three years since I last had that feeling, and boy, am I happy it’s back.

Not that Barnum and I don’t still have plenty to work on. We do. But here’s some of what he’s done today, and I’ve only been up five hours (and he was out on a walk for one of those hours):

  • Helped me undress for my bath by removing two socks, two long-sleeved shirts, and — with coaching — a pair of sweatpants
  • Shut my bedroom and bathroom doors to keep the heat in (repeatedly because I and other people sometimes forget to shut them, see below for memory issues in humans)
  • Shut and opened both doors when I needed them opened
  • Went to get my PCA while I was in the bathroom (opening two doors to get to her)
  • Retrieved my walkie-talkie, a plastic lid, and a pen when I dropped them
  • Retrieved my slippers for me (a few times)

And other stuff which I’ll describe below.

The reason I’m writing this post is that several times today I was able to rely on him for things that I hadn’t planned on needing him for, and it reminded me of all the times people have suggested I use this or that piece of equipment — instead of a service dog (SD) — for a particular problem. And why those solutions sometimes fail me. That’s why I’ve categorized this post under “Waspish Wednesday,” even though it’s not Wednesday, and it’s mostly a celebratory post. It’s also because now that I am enjoying the partnership I have waited (and worked) so long for, I am remembering (with some bitterness) all the unhelpful suggestions of people who have told me that I didn’t need a SD for what I need a SD for.

Not that I don’t use or believe in assistive tech (AT). I do. I use a lot of AT, and I am a big believer in people having access to as much AT as they want to improve their quality of life. And I also believe that there are some situations for which AT is much better than a service dog.* And, they are not mutually exclusive. They are complementary — in my case.**

So, here are two things that service dogs can do that assistive technology (with very few exceptions) cannot:

  1. Think
  2. Move on their own

For example, one of the main things I use Barnum for is communication. I have written about this quite a bit, especially in recent posts. When Gadget died, I got a “doorbell” that became my main way of getting my PCAs, but it had a lot of drawbacks that made me miss Gadget all the more. A lot of people over the last three years have suggested a lot of equipment ideas to rely on instead of Barnum. They are a bell (already have it), walkie-talkies (already have them), and an intercom (have it but can’t use it). Even though I use the doorbell and walkie-talkies every day, I still need Barnum. Here’s why:

  1. My assistants and I are human.
  2. I have neurological damage that impairs my memory.
  3. I have MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity).

Let’s start with #3. The reason I can’t use the intercom is the same reason that for quite a while I couldn’t use the walkie-talkies or the doorbell — they are plastic, and they offgas plastic fumes when they are new. The doorbell took the least amount of time to offgas. I don’t remember now — I think it was just a few weeks, primarily because the only part I have to be near is tiny and the bigger, smellier part is away from me, in the kitchen. The walkie-talkies took a year to offgas. The intercom we have had for over two years and it still reeks to high heaven. I doubt I will ever be able to use it.

Problems #2 and #3 are just variations on a theme. I’m human and my assistants are humans, therefore we sometimes forget things. They have sometimes gone home with the walkie-talkie. They sometimes forget to bring it with them outside. They sometimes go to the bathroom or to get the mail and don’t take them with them. One of my assistants refuses to carry it because of the electromagnetic radiation it emits.

Plus (#3) I have a disability which specifically fucks up my memory, therefore I forget a crapload of things all the time. Every day, many times a day, I forget things, often the same things, repeatedly. All these ideas you might have for dealing with this? Writing things down? Carrying things with me? Velcroing them to me? Timers? Alarms? I’ve tried them all. I already use them all. And it’s still not enough. So don’t fucking suggest them. Please. (That was the waspish part. Could you tell?)

Anynoodle, what I have done in the years since Gadget’s death and Barnum becoming a reliable SD is use the doorbell, and more recently, the walkie-talkies. They certainly are much better than not having them, but there are issues. One is that sometimes I can’t speak, so when that happens, the walkie talkies are about as useful as the doorbell in that they can convey only one piece of information: “I am trying to get your attention.” This can be very limiting, whereas having Barnum bring a note is much better, as I explained in this post.

Another issue is the brain damage/memory thing. I lose these pieces of equipment. A lot. I used to lose the doorbell and the walkie talkies constantly. Frustratingly constantly. Because the problem was that when I taped the doorbell to my overbed table, I didn’t lose it, but I could only use it when I was in bed and not to call for help from the bathroom. Then I got the walkie-talkies, mostly for their portability, and I’d forget to take them with me to the bathroom. (Oh, and someone suggested — after I explained about my memory — that I keep another set of walkie talkies in the bathroom at all times, which tells me that this person doesn’t use walkie talkies because they have batteries that must be charged every night, like a powerchair. If I left them in there all the time, the batteries would be dead when I need them. It also assumes I’d be able to find and reach them in the bathroom which is used by other people. Or perhaps she thinks I should buy three or four sets of walkie talkies?)

Then, I got the brilliant idea of Velcro! I velcroed the doorbell and walkie-talkie to my overbed table where they are within reach and cannot escape. I also put Velcro on my powerchair so I could bring them with me. This has worked very well for the doorbell in that I just leave it velcroed to my overbed table all the time, so I never lose it. But for the walkie-talkie, sometimes I leave it stuck to my overbed table, and I can find it. Sometimes I lose it in my bed. Sometimes I attach it to my chair and then use it when I need it, but more often, I attach it to my chair and then can’t get to it because I’m in the tub or on the toilet and my chair is out of reach, or I have gotten back in bed and left the walkie-talkie attached to my chair, and I can’t reach it, etc. (The bathroom that has the tub is not wheelchair accessible.) Or I bring it to the bathroom with me and put it next to the tub/toilet and then forget to take it with me when I leave and then it’s in the bathroom and I’m not, and I can’t get to it. See how helpful that piece of AT is?


But NOW, I have a working SD. So, today when I wasn’t sure if I needed help getting dressed or not after my bath, but I really wanted my PCA to go make me lunch because our time is limited, I could send her off to the kitchen with the agreement that if I needed her, Barnum would come get her (because I had left the walkie-talkie on my powerchair and also forgotten I had it with me, whereas Barnum’s a lot harder to miss!). And when I stood up and realized yes I had used too many spoons and I needed to get to my chair FAST before I fell over, I could have Barnum open the door ahead of me and skeedaddle out of the bathroom so I could make it to my chair, as opposed to having to sit back down on the toilet, wait for my PCA to come back, help me up, and get to my chair, which would used more PCA time and even more of my spoons. And when I dropped the walkie-talkie (that I’d forgotten I’d brought and therefore didn’t think to use and therefore left it behind), Barnum picked it up and brought it to me. And when I forgot to put on my slippers and they were in the bathroom and I was already in my chair, I could send Barnum back into the bathroom to get them.

You cannot call your bell or walkie-talkie or slippers when you leave them somewhere. Well, you can, but they won’t come. They also won’t retrieve things. They also won’t open doors to get to the thing or person you want.

I love my powerchair. I would be in trouble without it. But sometimes if I am feeling well enough, I prefer to walk to the bathroom, for example. (I try to always use as much energy as I can without overdoing; it’s a very difficult balance.) Sometimes it is fine and good to walk to the bathroom. Sometimes it’s impossible and I don’t try. And sometimes my powerchair is charging or I think I’m doing better than I am, and I discover that I have used too many spoons (especially now that I’m on Clindamycin which means I’m spending a lot longer on the toilet than I’m used to!) to get back to my powerchair, my doorbell, my walkie-talkie, my bed, and I might need my service dog to help me get up and walk back, or to open the door, or to get a human assistant to bring me my chair.

Choices. Having a service dog offers me choices. Because I can choose what needs doing in the moment based on what and how I’m doing and what I need, and I can ask him to do that particular thing, and he can do it nearby or at a distance. He can get and bring the thing or person I need. Because he can think, and he can move all on his own, without a joystick. Though he does bring me a lot of joy.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD

*I believe that wheelchairs and other mobility aids are generally preferable to service dogs for ongoing mobility needs such as balance, walking, etc., because frequent use of dogs as mobility aids can be physical damaging and dangerous to the dog. If you are a full-time wheelchair user, I think it is better to use a powerchair than to have a SD pull a manual chair. If you need walking assistance frequently, a cane, walker, or chair is probably a better bet. However, sometimes you need both. For example, when I have had my powerchair break down, I have used a manual chair with a SD helping to pull it as an emergency backup measure.

**I realize that some people use human assistants or canine assistants or AT instead of one or the other or both of these, and I fully support everyone having the options to make these decisions because no two situations are the same. Everybody’s situation is unique. For example, I know a lot of guide dog partners who do not use a cane because their guide dog is a far superior navigational aid, and I also know people who use both when training a dog or when an issue arises and people who prefer a sighted aid (person) or a cane. And all of us who partner with assistance dogs have times when we cannot use our dogs — when they are sick or have died or have retired — and we have to make do with AT or people in the meantime. I know people with physical disabilities who use SDs so they don’t have to rely on PCAs or certain types of AT, and I support that, too. In my case, I rely on all three, and I am fine with that, too.

11 Responses to “Two Things Service Dogs Can Do that Assistive Technology Cannot (with a side note on brain injury)”

  1. 1 Karyn October 8, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    Sharon I am so happy for you with the progress- that feeling of partnership is real awesome isn’t it smile
    You make me want to get back to re-working and further training in the home environment – your post just shows me how much more Thane could be capable of now that he’s got the treatment he needed
    Thanks for sharing about how AT works or fils in so many situations Boy do I get that with my deafness and Thane’s limited hearing dog skill level Yes, thats on the agenda to train more sounds for sure

  2. 2 Sharon Wachsler October 8, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    Hey Karyn! Thank you! Yes, it feels good when you finally get there. He’s going to turn three at the end of the year. I never would have thought it would take this long, but I’m really happy we are finally here. Well, we still have more to do, but at least now we have crested that hill where the help back is starting to outweigh the effort in. I hope Thane’s sound alert training goes well!

  3. 3 KatGamer October 9, 2012 at 2:31 am

    “You cannot call your bell or walkie-talkie or slippers when you leave them somewhere. Well, you can, but they won’t come.”

    Haha, I love it! My dad kept asking me how I like my new iPhone. I told him it has one major flaw: It can’t get up and go get me a drink of water. My migraines have been particularly nasty and long-lasting this week.

  4. 4 fridawrites October 9, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Yes about the problem-solving. I had an extra pull with me in the car today, so when we had trouble with the van door again today, I looped it around the door handle Gabe and I were able to pull together to get it open. (These are braids of 4-inch strips of fleece, unsewn and knotted at two ends.) Saves my spine! And tears. I love it when G finds a better way to do something than I’d thought of.

    Technology for me is only as good as my reach, and it will get dropped or out of place. Even a reacher gets dropped! And so does a cane.

    Plus he’s good companionship. Being disabled can be very lonely at times. And he’s intellectually stimulating to me–helping me think in new ways to problem solve. I often had very dark and intently felt suicidal thoughts before I had him; now that’s rare and transient/fleeting when it does happen. I can’t cuddle up with a reacher or automatic door opener.

    While I can do things without my service dog, it’s very difficult. And my family gets very tired/overworked. Saving them some minor tasks saves a lot of energy/reduces distraction to them when they’re working on other things.

  5. 5 Sharon Wachsler October 9, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Yes! This comment says so much, it deserves to be a post — about AT getting dropped or lost, about creative problem solving, about reducing work of carers, about the emotional benefits. Thank you for this.

  6. 6 fridawrites October 9, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    And thanks for sharing your smart writing/ideas.

  7. 7 brilliantmindbrokenbody October 9, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    I agree with most of what you wrote there. I learned pretty early on as a PWD that you use what works, whether or not other people ‘approve’.

    I use Hudson every day for mobility. He helps me balance, gives me light support, and his forward momentum makes walking easier for me. With the right harness and thoughtfulness about how much weight you put on the dog, I think you can avoid harming them. The harness is the bigger part of the puzzle, I think. Hudson’s distributes his weight over his whole shoulder and down his back on the muscles beside the spine, with no weight on the spine and no pressure-points because it’s custom-fitted. Absent a harness like his, I do agree that you’re risking an injury to the dog.

    What I’ve seen has suggested that pulling the weight of a human in a wheelchair fulltime is bad news for dogs. At my school, we were told that using them very rarely to help with things like getting stuck on a door lintel or a crack in the sidewalk was okay, but more than that was very undesirable, and regularly using the dogs to pull wheelchairs was verboten.

    BTW, I wanted to thank you for the email re: Bailey. There’s been a lot to think about with her and how we go forward. I talked Chris into cancelling the remaining sessions with the trainer, because I didn’t like that the trainer wasn’t responsive to Bailey’s body language and I don’t want her going back to somewhere that stressful for her. I also ordered both of the books that you suggested, and read the two blog posts, and read several posts in a blog that another friend recommended. I think the upshot of it so far is that A) we’re going too fast with Bailey, and even my revised plans were probably too fast, and B) we just don’t know enough and need to learn more, especially about reading dog body language.


  8. 8 Sharon Wachsler October 10, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Hi Kali.

    This is a long and complex topic. Thank you for bringing more to the table. I wished, after I posted it, that I’d gone into more detail because I think what I wrote makes a more broad, sweeping generalization than I’d like and does not allow room for nuance. I think there are many variables that go into this equation, including — as you mentioned — equipment, but also including the size and weight and mobility needs of the person, the size and structure of the dog, the frequency and type of work, and many other issues. (For example, as a 5’6″ person who weighs over 200 pounds, I would not do certain things with Barnum that someone who was 4’10” and weighed 90 pounds might more safely/reasonably do.)

    I actually think this needs to be a post of its own (or more than one) because it’s so complex and requires understanding the needs of the person and the dog, and the other options available or unavailable to the person, and what is a temporary or stopgap measure as opposed to what is a lifestyle. I think that’s all I want to say now except this: I have really changed my thinking a lot on this topic, largely due to the arguments I’ve heard from Barbara Handelman. I think most clicker trainers know Karen Pryor’s famous pronouncement that a dog can be trained to do anything it’s physically capable of doing. I would add to that Barbara’s assertion that just because we CAN train a dog to perform a behavior doesn’t mean that we SHOULD.

    As to Bailey, I’m really glad to hear that you’ve found my and other’s resources helpful and that you’re rethinking your approach. I was pretty confident you would once you’d had time to gather your wits and breathe. It’s a huge whirlwind of a situation, bringing in a new dog, particularly a rescue with “issues.” I’m glad you’re not going back to that trainer, too, as I had my doubts from what you told me. You and Bailey and the fiance are on a path that I’m confident will bring a lot of learning to you all, and probably much more than you wanted! IME, the dogs who teach us the most are the “difficult” dogs!

  9. 9 brilliantmindbrokenbody October 12, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    We found a different trainer that I like much better. It’s going to cost us something like 2 1/2 times as much, but if we aren’t willing to invest that much into Bailey’s comfort and ability to live with others, we shouldn’t have her. (Of course, I say that coming from a position where we are able to afford it; if you WANT the help but can’t afford it, that’s a whole different story, and you can sometimes find very good trainers who are willing to work with you a little and point you to written or video resources.)

    This trainer sounds much more on the ball, and has said things like ‘I don’t need to see her at her worst to start helping her with her fears’ and talked about a big part of training being to teach her new acceptable responses that are incompatible with her old responses (as in, two things she literally can’t do at once), and that a lot of training her would be games, all of which sounded like much more sound training theories. He’s also a member of the APDT, which is the group Hudson’s trainer advised us to look at. He wanted to make sure I understood that he did not use any aversive training, including things like rattle-cans that some trainers use.

    As far as Hudson supporting me goes, I’m 5’2 and currently weigh around 180, and I just…try to be thoughtful about how much weight he supports. The service dog school said something along the lines of providing the same stability as a cane or better, but not supporting the same amount of weight. That’s why, when we first started out, I was still using one forearm crutch. I quickly discovered that A) I actually got enough support from Hudson, and B) I couldn’t manage keeping his feet, my feet, his leash, and my crutch from being tangled. They do observe and tell you things like “It looks like that’s more weight than your dog can support long-term”. I do a daily check on his joints, and when he’s injured something, I switch back to using a cane for a while until he’s doing better. (Fortunately, have only had to do that twice – he banged one of his back legs pretty badly trying to hop into my parents’ SUV, and managed to re-aggravate it 6 months later)

    I do put more weight on him when he helps me off the floor, but that’s a brief moment with my hands carefully placed, and it’s infrequent. As you said, it’s a question of frequently. If I needed to get off the floor more often, I’d probably have him accustomed to bringing me canes and crutches and whatnot.

  10. 10 kendra October 13, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    Dear Sharon, I appreciate your bringing up this topic, which is very relevant for me right now. Since my live-in caretaker moved out, I’ve been looking at how to get more help from devices or AT–or again considering whether a service dog might be best.

    Can you share what brand of doorbell you use for call button? The door chime that I’ve been using has a few drawbacks: it does not work when I’m on the back deck–too far. It’s not reliable, sometimes it just does not work, have not figured out why. I cannot hear it when my bedroom door is closed, so I’m not sure if it’s working….

  11. 11 Sharon Wachsler October 14, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    Hi Kendra. I think Betsy bought the doorbell at a Home Depot or something. I didn’t know what brand it was, but I’ve looked at the back now and it’s made by doorbell HeathCo LLC in Bowling Green, Kentucky. It’s model SL-6166-RX-A. It has worked perfectly for us. You can choose the loudness of the chime and the type of chime (whether it just goes Ding! or Ding-Dong! (which is what we chose) or some very long, complicated song/chime (which nobody wanted). I also have the problem of when my door isn’t shut and my fans or filters on, I can’t hear it go off, so my PCAs bellow, “OK!” when they hear it so I know. But we also don’t have it on the loudest setting because they didn’t want that.

    It almost always works. The only times it fails to chime are 1. When the batteries are running low (which has only happened once in the 3 years I’ve used it) or 2. every once in a while if I don’t press it hard enough.

    However, when I googled it to try to find info for you, I found many posts about fixing it, so I guess for sme people it doesn’t work as awesomely as it has for me.

    Here is the PDF of the manual for it, in case this is useful:

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