The pandemic has complicated life for everyone, but social distancing, mask-wearing and other practices to reduce the spread of coronavirus present particular challenges for people with disabilities who rely on service animals.
Organizations that train dogs – often Labrador and golden retrievers, among other breeds – are just beginning to see what the first classes of pandemic puppies can do after 18 months of diminished socialization and exposure to public places.
Dog-handler teams have had to adapt to virtual training, different commands and new ways to keep their skills sharp in order to avoid uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situations.
This is especially important, trainers and people with disabilities say, as more people return to their pre-pandemic routines of taking public transportation and attending in-person work and school.
The challenges vary widely based on a person’s disability, but some of the most effective tools for preventing transmission of COVID are particularly problematic for people who are blind or visually impaired and for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Guide dogs – the subset of service dogs who work with people who are blind and visually impaired – can’t read six-feet markers or social-distancing signs and can sometimes inadvertently cause their handler to get too close to another person.
This has happened to Chari Chauvin, who is blind, and her guide dog, a 3-year-old female yellow Lab named Haviland.
They were in a large store recently when Haviland allowed Chauvin to get too close to another shopper, who reacted harshly. “Can you please step back?” the woman said, according to Chauvin, who is 59 and lives in Oregon.
Chauvin apologized and moved away, without clarifying that she is blind, which is not always evident even with a guide dog in a vest.
“It kind of hurts your feelings a little bit. You have to realize it was that person’s anxiety talking and has nothing to do with me,” Chauvin said.
Another time on a train, Haviland, who couldn’t read signs instructing riders to avoid certain seats, allowed Chauvin to sit next to someone without realizing it. Again, the person reacted negatively.
“There are many ways to say something to people that come across a lot more kindly,” Chauvin said. “I wasn’t trying to sit close to that person to potentially infect them.”
Guide Dogs for the Blind, the largest guide dog school in North America, with campuses in California and Oregon, produced fliers and a PSA calling for “compassion during COVID.”
The organization has shared tips for creative social distancing, like pushing a shopping cart or holding a long cane while having the guide dog heel.
“The dog doesn’t understand social distancing,” said Cheryl Vincent, director of training on the group’s Oregon campus. “If a blind person gets too close, just mention, ‘Hey, I’m here.’ “
Mask-wearing, another widespread tactic for combating the spread of coronavirus, has eliminated a major tool for many people who are deaf or hard of hearing: reading lips.
Cara Miller, a professor of psychology at Gallaudet University in Northeast D.C., said when she enters a store with her guide dog Turf, for example, it’s much harder for her to answer questions an employee might have about her dog when everyone is masked up.
“I have far fewer visual cues these days about a lot of human spoken conversation, much of which I would get with lip reading,” she said. “A lot of those cues I’m getting from Turf now.” Turf often alerts her by looking at the person speaking and taking her to that person.
As Miller worked from home for the much of the pandemic, Turf took on additional duties, such as alerting her to deliveries. Previously, when she was in her office, he’d typically lie under the desk, said Miller, who does research on interaction between humans and animals.
Some people who are going out less to avoid public interaction in the time of coronavirus search for ways to keep their dogs’ skills sharp.
Guide Dogs for the Blind trainers developed “boredom busters” such as hide-and-seek, shaking paws and turning mealtime into a game.
Ellen Torop, program director for the Canine Companions’ Northeast region, which runs from Maine to Virginia, said the organization moved its dog trainings to Zoom when the pandemic made in-person classes impossible, and they remain popular.
Both organizations rely on people, known as “puppy raisers,”to work with the dogs for their first 16 months, before they’re transferred to handlers for formal training.
But with fewer opportunities for puppies to socialize and get comfortable in public spaces, Torop said, “Some dogs are coming in and they’re just not as confident.”
Canine Companions’ usual attrition rate for prospective service dogs is 50 percent, and it’s too early to say whether the pandemic will produce fewer dogs ready for the rigors of service.
“The jury is still out,” Torop said. “So with pandemic dogs who are starting to come in now, we have to ask ourselves,is that lack of socialization or just the dog?”
In the meantime, Torop emphasizes the importance of ongoing training, including a new command called “Say hi.” Pre-pandemic, a handler might let their dog shake hands with a new friend, but now that touching isn’t a good idea, the dog can shake its paw in greeting.
Such an interaction points to the emotional and psychological value of living with a dog amid the isolation of the pandemic.
“A presence of a dog in your life can often make that emptiness go away, regardless of whether they’re alerting you to a sound or picking up a pen,” Torop said.
That’s the case for Janette Ray, 59, of Alexandria, who lost an arm to sarcoma as a child and started working with her third service dog, Cheshire, this year after his predecessor, Paisley, slowed down and retired in the spring.
“I was so elated because I was so stressed out about not being about to have a dog,” she said. “Although I didn’t go out, [Paisley] still helped me with laundry and closing doors and getting things out. And she was my confidante. I would talk to her, she would be there.”
When Ray attended a two-week training course with Cheshire on Long Island, everyone wore masks, and she met the people who raised him as a puppy by video instead of in person to avoid potential exposure.
“What people don’t understand is he is the reason I get up in the morning and have the energy to go to work,” said Ray, who retired from the Pentagon and now works for General Dynamics. “He takes all of the burden from me every day by doing things. He watches over me, and when I’m not in the room he’s looking for me.”
Pandemic aside, experts say, that’s the value a service dog brings to a person who needs help.
Bruce Hamon, 77, a Vietnam veteran from Ashland, Va., who suffers from PTSD, said his 31/2-year-old golden retriever-yellow Lab mix named Swain has helped alleviate some of his anxiety.
Swain pokes him with his nose in the night when he senses Hamon having a night terror, and positions himself between Hamon and groups of people heading in his direction in a store, a situation that would otherwise make Hamon uncomfortable.
Before the pandemic, it wasn’t unusual for him to go to Walmart at 2 a.m. to avoid crowds. Now, even with the coronavirus, Swain makes it possible for him to safely go out with less fear.
At the height of the pandemic, taking care of Swain gave Hamon a sense of purpose.
“We’ve gotten through COVID together,” he said.