Tuesdays With Maui

Maui and I pose outside a shop with a sign in the window that says Service Dogs ONLY.
Maui is no ordinary Golden Retriever. She has VIP access to any public location, including restaurants and movie theaters. When she's caught sleeping in class, nobody minds.
Maui and I riding in a taxi.
As my Assistance Dog, Maui's job is to accompany me wherever I go. If I drop an object, she picks it up. If I need a door opened, she handles it. Because of her, I am able to lead a more independent life.
Maui in her geisha Halloween costume.
There are many rules Maui has to follow, and these rules can seem unfair to humans. But to Maui, the job is a game. She is rewarded for "tricks" and is allowed to be with her human all day long!
Maui sticking her head between the vertical blinds to see out our living room sliding glass door.
If there are no health or behavioral problems after the first year, the future service dog is moved to Paws with a Cause headquarters where it is matched with a client on the waiting list.
Maui getting her leash crossed with Lulu's while on a walk.
Maui is gentle and responds well to vocal commands, but she also has a lot of energy. This makes her a perfect match for me because I have limited upper body strength and I lead a very active life.
Maui with her front paws resting on the keys of a painted street piano in Denver.
Taking an adorable Golden Retriever everywhere with me has led to many interesting experiences. By sharing them with you, I hope to spread awareness of Service Dogs and issues affecting people with disabilities.

That Dog In The Window

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Shh!" I pestered Nick as he tiptoed and I tipwheeled past the room where Maui was eagerly chowing down her dinner. We had to be in the car before she finished eating and came looking for me. We were on our way to meet my best friend, Chelsi, for dinner before heading off to my dad's house for a visit. My dad's dog, Mo, is a little…er, too friendly. He hasn't been neutered, so I don't take Maui with me because she gets a little too much love. Frankly, Mo doesn't care that she's working.

I know that she's in good hands with my mom and my stepdad, but it's easier on both of us if I just sneak out while she's distracted. But this time I was a little slow. Just as I aligned myself next to the car so that Nick could help me transfer, I saw a familiar face in the window that looks onto the driveway.

"Oh no!" I wailed.

Maui stared. Her ears were perked up, listening intently. She was confused.

"I'm so sorry!" I whispered. "It will only be a few hours! Nick, my heart is breaking!" We finished getting into the car and drove away.

We had an evening of good food, good company, and lots of laughter, but it's always weird being without Maui. I am so used to making sure she's out of the way when I move, glancing at her every few minutes to see how she's doing, petting her when she comes to me seeking affection… when we are not together, something is missing.

Chelsi and I pulled back into the driveway around 11 PM (Nick decided to go home early, so it was just the two of us). In accordance with our long tradition of never letting anything outside of an emergency interrupt our chatting, we stayed in the car for the next three hours, deep in conversation about life and all its complexities. It usually comes as a surprise to people that we stay in the car after we arrive at our destination just to talk, but it doesn't faze us anymore because it happens so often.

Finally, around 2 AM, an emergency hit: Chelsi had to go to the bathroom so bad she was about to burst. While she was helping me transfer out of the car and back into my wheelchair, over her shoulder I saw Maui's face in the window again. It was open to let in a nice, cool fall breeze. I realized she had probably spent the past three hours listening to our voices from inside the car, wondering when we would finally come in the house.

"Oh no! I am the worst mom ever!" I was wailing for the second time that evening. I didn't think she would have noticed we were back, but I should have known better. We hurried to the garage entrance.

When we got to the door, she was waiting. Before we could even open it all the way we were greeted by her eager nose. She was barely able to contain herself. Her tail was wagging so hard that her whole body was swaying back and forth. Her Golden Grumbles—the low growling sounds she makes when she's excited because she knows she's not supposed to bark—filled the hallway as she reluctantly backed up to let us through. Unable to bear her own excitement, two low barks escaped.

"I know, I missed you, too!" I told her as I reached out to her. Her grumbles changed to high-pitched whimpers and squeaks of excitement, the dog equivalent to human tears of joy. She leapt into my lap and let her head fall against my chest, trying to get closer, but it wasn't enough. She turned and put her paws on my shoulders and began licking my face incessantly. Then, realizing all of a sudden that she had made a huge etiquette faux pas, she turned around and ran into the kitchen, slipping and sliding on the hardwood floors. She skidded to a stop when she reached her green squeaky ball, snatched it up, and was back on my lap within a few seconds. For you!

For me? You shouldn't have!

The next morning, my mom told me that Maui came into their room around midnight, excited and grumbling. "I didn't know what was going on. It turns out it was because you clowns were in the driveway!"

But of course, every time I have to leave her with a babysitter (which isn't often), we have a glorious reunion when I return. It is a testament to the bond we have formed.

And then I remember that she wasn't always mine. First, she had a loving, devoted foster family with whom she built her first relationship. Then, she had a loving, patient trainer at Paws with a Cause headquarters to whom she became quite attached as well. Whenever I think back to my first weeks with Maui, I reflect on what a major transition it was for me. Being responsible for a dog for the first time in my life took some getting used to. But during our reunions, I am reminded that it wasn't an easy time for her, either, for every time she switched owners she must have missed them terribly. I am overcome with respect for her resilience, and honored that she has deemed me worthy of so much excitement when she simply hasn't seen me in five hours.

I love this dog so much.

Thomas, Don't Stare! You're a Grownup Now!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

When we are young, we are constantly told not to stare. "Mommy, that lady has funny hair!" Shh, little Tommy, that's not nice! "Daddy, look! Look at that guy!" Hey, don't point, that's rude.

Fast forward a couple decades. The children are now adults, and little Tommy is enjoying a nice meal at Olive Garden with other adults who have long since been taught good manners. Enter the girl with a cute dog.

*Gasp!* "Honey! Look at that dog! Look!" Look at that dog? Is it attached to someone? Don't tell me there is a Golden Retriever roaming freely through Olive Garden right now! "Oh my gosh, there's a dog!" Yes, have you seen one before? "She is so beautiful!"… Okay, that one is probably actually about me.

Right?

I understand that service dog etiquette is foreign to many people. Before I got Maui I may have pet a service dog without asking. Keeping this in mind, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt even when I am very frustrated. But this is not a matter of service dog etiquette, so I feel more entitled to a rant. This is a commonsense issue. I can hear the comments. I can see the pointing fingers. And I am not an exhibit.

Just because people are pointing and staring for positive, complimentary reasons instead of negative ones doesn't mean the awkwardness completely disappears for the targeted person. No one points and says, "Did you see that woman's husband?! Smokin' hot!" Or "Look! Look at her shirt! I want that shirt!" Our sense of common courtesy kicks in and prevents us from saying things that make people feel like they're on display. It should not be any different for me and Maui.

Tuesdays with Maui is Getting the Word Out!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tuesdays with Maui has been live for 12 weeks today. So far the experience has been a totally rewarding one. I have received some amazing feedback from readers, including the Paws with a Cause family. And today, a professor of mine who is also my academic advisor told me that information from my blog empowered her to do some extra (after all, she is a professor) public education of her own.

While discussing my career options, a subject which is weighing heavily on my mind as I prepare to graduate this spring, she mentioned that she had read Tuesdays with Maui and that she thought it was great. Then she told me a story.

The other day while she was outside the public library she saw someone with a working dog. Even though its owner had no evident physical disability, she could tell it was working because it had a jacket on. Then she overheard two women making some judgmental comments.

"They were saying things like, 'Why would she need a dog, she's not disabled,'" she recalled. "So I told them, 'You know, that dog is probably in training.' And then they were kind of like, 'Oh, okay, that makes sense.'"

I was so flattered when she told me that she felt compelled to say something because of what she had read on Tuesdays with Maui. My goal, of course, is to educate and entertain my readers. But an extension of this goal is making my readers feel comfortable enough about service dogs so that they can inform other people about them. My professor may have prevented those women—who were either feeling indignant on behalf of the disabled community or perhaps were simply confused—from creating an awkward situation for the person accompanied by the dog.

Especially if that person wasn't training the dog. Considering our proximity to the headquarters of one of the largest national organizations which trains service dogs, it is very likely that the woman my professor saw was training her dog. But there are other possibilities. She may have had a seizure disorder. She may have been hearing-impaired (usually, hearing dogs are smaller breeds, but not always). She may have had a social anxiety disorder. She may have had something else.

These are all examples of invisible disabilities, or disabilities which aren't immediately obvious to other people. For those among us living with these disabilities, there exists a special set of social obstacles. Using a wheelchair, I am never asked to provide a reason for any special accommodations I need. But people with invisible disabilities who have service dogs are asked to justify themselves often. Imagine bringing a dog with you everywhere, and having people ask you suspiciously, "Why do you need a service dog?" You begin to feel like people are accusing you of failing to meet a certain standard of being "disabled enough" to have the extra assistance a service dog provides. Or worse: they are accusing you of pretending to have a disability in order to bring your dog into public.

This problem of being made to justify themselves exists for people with invisible disabilities who do not have service dogs as well. A friend of mine who has had multiple corrective surgeries on her feet and can't walk very far without feeling fatigued was just telling me that she gets dirty looks every time she parks in a handicapped parking spot. I know this is probably true, because well-meaning able-bodied friends of mine have asked me, "Doesn't it bother you when you see someone who parked in a handicapped spot just hop out of their car? What do they need it for?" Or "Okay, why did that person need to take the elevator? They looked perfectly capable of taking the stairs to me!"

I think these attitudes are not only due to a lack of education about service dogs and invisible disabilities. They also stem from our tendency to assume the worst about people and our sense of entitlement to information about them. Why is it that we automatically assume someone is abusing the system, is lazy, or is so inconsiderate? Why is it that if a reason isn't apparent to us, we don't think to ourselves that there must be a legitimate explanation; instead, we assume that that person is doing something wrong?

When we're talking about our legal system, most of us would agree to the principle of innocence until proven guilty. But when it comes to giving people we come across in our daily lives the benefit of the doubt, most of us don't think twice. It's something I'm guilty of as well.

We will never know why the woman my professor saw outside the library had a service dog with her. But for our purposes, and for the purposes of the women who were making not so nice comments, it doesn't matter. She doesn't owe us an explanation. Thankfully, what my professor said educated them, probably causing them to think before they said something rude. I'm flattered to think Tuesdays with Maui may have had something to do with it.

Napkin on Your Lap, Elbows off the Table, and Don't Pet the Service Dog

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Labor Day weekend is over, signifying a de facto beginning to classes. Yes, we officially started last week, but everyone knows that the first couple days are devoted to syllabi-reading, ice-breaking, and concept-introducing, because with the long weekend ahead of us it doesn't make sense to get overly involved just yet. But now we are back on campus with the holiday behind us. Let the reading begin.

For Maui and I, this week brings something else exciting: our first Luncheons with Leaders event. This year, I will start as a leadership fellow at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University. Nearly 50 students, both new and returning, interested in community leadership will have lunch once a month with a local leader in the community, in order to observe, listen to, and learn from these esteemed individuals. Fellows are also asked to attend as many leadership seminars and guest lecturer events hosted by the Center as possible.

At these events, a certain level of etiquette will be expected, and this can lead to awkward and very humorous stories for me and Maui. There's always a good chance I will have to tell someone who is very impressive to stop petting my dog. In the past, I have handled the situations with a mixed amount of success.

For instance, there was the time when some friends and I were checking in at a fancy dinner hosted by Amnesty International in Chicago. I was in the middle of asking a question about registration for the conference which was officially beginning the next morning when I noticed someone petting Maui out of the corner of my eye. I was feeling a little flustered because I was busy with something else, so I said (rather shortly), "Please don't pet the dog," and I continued asking my question about registration. At some point during the confusion I had realized that the man was Larry Cox, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, a tireless advocate of human rights, and a truly inspirational figure. We always hope we will get a chance to talk to him at these conferences.

After he walked away, the girls I was with said, "Ashley! That was Larry Cox!"

"I know," I said. "But what was I supposed to do? Those are the rules." I shrugged it off, but secretly worried that I had embarrassed him or hurt his feelings. Fortunately, I got the opportunity to approach him later. I apologized that I had not had time to explain myself, and we chatted about service dogs and other things for a while. I am convinced he has forgiven me for my shortness. Larry Cox knows that just because he's Larry Cox doesn't mean he gets to pet Maui.

Then there was the time that we met Greg Mortenson, author of one of my favorite books, Three Cups of Tea. He spoke on campus earlier this year, and for those of you who have read his book you will remember that he does not like large crowds and still gets incredibly nervous when he speaks publicly. Thousands of people attended his talk that night, and his anxiety was obvious (but, of course, only served to make him more endearing to those whom he inspires).

Following his presentation, people lined up to have their books signed, and he insisted that people with disabilities, young children, and the elderly were first. In my case, this is silly. It's easier for me to sit in line in my wheelchair than it is for someone to stand, but I was shuffled to the very front and was the first person to have her book signed. Everyone was watching and photographers were snapping pictures left and right—I was not excited about this, because I had been caught in the rain and my hair looked terrible.

So when this shy man reached his hand out across the table to pet Maui and practically whispered, "What's his name?" I did not stop him. It just would have been too awkward, and I was especially conscious of the hundreds of people behind me who would be waiting for hours before their book would be signed. I decided it would simply be quicker and more comfortable (and more photogenic) to just let it go.

But the funniest was when Rashid Khalidi came to GVSU. Known as one of the foremost contemporary historians on the Middle East, he has written several books on the subject and has been a frequent target of right-wing political pundits for his views on United States foreign policy in the region. In preparation for his visit, I took a one credit class in which we read and discussed selected excerpts of his work. Before he gave his main presentation, he visited our class.

There were only about 10 students, and we met in a small conference room around a long table. It was not your traditional classroom setting. On the day Dr. Khalidi came, I arrived before he did and put Maui under the table in her usual spot. When our guest speaker entered, he had no way of knowing there was a golden retriever under the table.

Dr. Khalidi spoke to us for a few minutes before asking what questions we had. Though I can't remember how I phrased my question, I know it had to do with President Obama's new approach to Israel and Palestine, and what his thoughts were on the war in Afghanistan. He gave a deep sigh and told me those were very good questions, and it might take him a while to answer.

Not 30 seconds into his response passed before I heard a low grumble followed by a staccato, high-pitched squeak. Oh no. Maui was dreaming, and I knew her sleep growling and squeaking would only get louder. I could tug on her leash to wake her, but I would have to break eye contact with Dr. Khalidi, and I didn't want to appear rude.

The grumbling grew louder, followed by a series of short whimpers. A few of my classmates tried to hide smiles, while others simply looked confused. Dr. Khalidi, however, didn't seem to notice and continued talking. Knowing it was only going to get worse, I did what I had to do.

"I'm sorry, I don't mean to interrupt you, but I have a service dog under the table and she's dreaming and making noises and it's really distracting me," I told him. Everyone laughed, and his eyes widened in surprise.

"There is a dog in here?" he asked. He looked under the table, and I gave a quick pull to Maui's leash. Her eyes opened and the noises ceased. She licked her lips and yawned.

"Yes," I said, "and she was dreaming, and she makes these growling and squeaking noises. It was driving me crazy!"

"That's amazing. I had absolutely no idea she was there this whole time."

"That's good," I said. "That means she's doing her job. But please continue—I'm sorry I interrupted."

And so I have to remember that Maui has no concept of etiquette. But she does serve as a reminder that whether the great things we accomplish are known to many people or only a few, this says nothing about immunity to her cute face or her level of intelligence. This year should be interesting.