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.

Dogs and Islam: Maui Goes to Dearborn

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On Saturday, we went on a field trip to Dearborn for my class on Muslim and Arab-Americans. Dearborn has the most concentrated population of people of Arab descent outside the Middle East due to a long history of immigration to the area. In the heart of the city, I did not see a single business that did not have both English and Arabic signage, which was pretty exciting.

After a busy day of sightseeing, we had about an hour to explore the main street before dinner. My friend Petra, a Muslima (Muslim woman), wanted to shop for a dress for graduation, so Chelsi and I tagged along with her and Noha, another student.

We found a small store featuring hijabs (headscarves) and fashionably modest dresses. When we entered, there were two women standing in front of the checkout counter. Upon seeing Maui, one of them backed away quickly and ran behind the desk.

Mentally preparing myself, I continued moving into the shop.

"Excuse me," she said. "Can you please leave the dog?"

"This is actually a service dog," I explained. "By law, she is allowed to accompany me wherever I go."

"It's not the law, it's that she's very afraid," said the woman still standing in front of the counter.

"Okay, I totally understand," I replied. "I will keep her away from you, but I promise, she is very, very friendly."

The woman looked unconvinced, and I was nervous. Under her breath, Petra whispered, "Just keep going."

So, I kept going. I looked around at the dresses, cringing as Maui rubbed up against the garments as we navigated the narrow aisles. Suddenly, I became aware of a rapid exchange in Arabic that was taking place at the front of the store. I caught words such as sha'ar (hair) and Islaami (Islamic) coming from the two women. After responding a few times, Petra turned away from them and rolled her eyes slightly.

A few minutes later, we left, and I asked Petra what had been said. She told me that the woman had claimed that having a dog in the store was un-Islamic because of her fur and her breath.

"I tried telling her that it's only a problem if she licks something, but she just kept saying, 'No, no, it's un-Islamic, Habibati (my dear)!'" We laughed at her impression of the woman's condescension.

In Islam, sharia law is derived from two sources: the Qur'an and the Sunnah. The Sunnah refers to the example set by the Prophet Mohammed, based on historical accounts and, to a certain extent, Hadith, or quotes from the Prophet.

The Qur'an says very little about dogs, and what it does say is actually quite positive. There is the story about the "Seven Sleepers," seven persecuted refugees who hid in a cave from those who chased them. A dog guarded the entryway of the cave for 309 years while they slept, and for this it was granted a place in Heaven. In another story, a prostitute finds a thirsty dog and fills her shoe with water so that it may have a drink. God absolves her of all her prior sins for this good deed.

However, according to several hadith, keeping dogs as pets is prohibited unless they are to guard the home, herd sheep, or serve another function. And even so, dogs are typically not kept inside the home. Furthermore, a dog's saliva is considered unclean, and many Muslims believe that if a dog licks them they must again perform the ablution, or the ritual washing that is conducted before prayer.

Of course, at the time that the Qur'an was delivered to Mohammed (during the early 600s), cities were overrun by stray dogs, many of which had rabies and other harmful diseases. Keeping people away from dogs was likely for health reasons. And as Petra explained to me, religious law combined with cultural values has made dogs unpopular and even scary in the Middle East. When I talk to this community about service dogs, she told me, I am not just teaching them how dogs can help, I'm also asking them to confront their fears.

But progress is being made. Recently, a mosque in the United Kingdom became the first to allow a guide dog into the building. The dog stays in a special area just outside the prayer space, where people leave their shoes before entering. The decision was supported with a fatwa, or a religious ruling, by the Sharia Council in 2003. It stated that guide dogs are not forbidden and should be granted entry.

Here is a short clip featuring the young Muslim, Mohammed, and his guide dog:

So, our friend at the shop in Dearborn was mistaken. Although Maui's breath does have a slightly unpleasant, fishy smell, it is not un-Islamic. But it took a lot for this woman to face her fears and, against her better judgment, allow Maui into her store. The whole incident has got me thinking that perhaps I should start giving presentations at Islamic community centers to raise awareness of service dogs and perhaps help dispel some of the cultural myths about dogs. In fact, in this adorable clip, we see that some dogs even respond to the azan (call to prayer)!:

And on that note, here are some photos from our awesome field trip:

Maui lying down on the floor of the bus.
We had an awesome (accessible!) charter bus, which had plenty of room for Maui.
Chelsi and I get our picture taken in front of the mosque.
We visited the Islamic Center of America, which included the mosque. Maui stayed on the bus.
Me in my hijab.
Women cover their hair before entering the mosque. I have always found hijabs quite beautiful.
Shoes are left on the floor and on shelves.
Out of respect, visitors leave their shoes outside the prayer area.
Calligraphy work on the walls.
Throughout the mosque Qur'anic verses are written, sometimes in beautiful, intricate calligraphy.
Two men talking in front of the ornate calligraphy and architecture of the mosque.

Top Dogs

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Taped over the button to the only elevator in the building was a sign which read:


Cursing under my breath, I looked at the clock. Six guest speakers from Paws with a Cause would be arriving in the next five minutes for Grand Valley State University's third annual service dog event, Top Dogs: Service Dogs in the Community. We bring in several members of the Paws family, including trainers, foster raisers, breeding dogs, and hearing and assistance dogs to demonstrate tasks. This is a good opportunity for students and community members to learn about the dogs, how they are trained, and the proper etiquette for interacting with the dogs and their clients.

I had told our guests to meet me 30 minutes ahead of time in the room where the event was to be held—upstairs.

I dashed to the 2020 Information Desk, which was fortunately right around the corner since we were already in the student union, and explained the situation to the student worker. I think he could sense an all-out meltdown on the horizon, because he immediately hopped on the phone to try to figure out an alternative location for us.

Meanwhile, fellow members of Grand Valley Disability Advocates, the student organization which was sponsoring the event, were intercepting trainers with dogs upstairs and explaining the situation. And the director of Disability Support Services on campus, who was scheduled to speak for us as well, also arrived.

As we all sat fuming over the situation—scheduled maintenance should have been brought to the attention of Disability Support Services, and certainly our organization should have been contacted!—my new friend at the Information Desk had good news. There is an empty room available in a neighboring building, he told us.

"But, every one will be coming here first," I said, thinking we would probably lose attendance as a result of this mixup. "That's not really—"

"it's awful, I know," he said sympathetically.

"Could we just do it in the piano room?" I asked, gesturing to a room across the hall. Generally, this particular room is more crowded, a kind of loud study area that used to include a piano which people would simply drop in and play. We didn't have a microphone set up, but it was better than expecting people to find us in another building.

He shrugged. "I don't see why not."

So I entered the room, where a dozen or so students were happily chatting, eating, and studying, and made the announcement that our event would begin now. I invited them to stay and join us, but most left. Their loss.

And so we began. We had more background noise than we were expecting, but other than that we had a very successful event. Attendees were able to follow the progression of a service dog, beginning with breeding stock, followed by a foster puppy, then a hearing dog, then Maui and I represented the client experience. Connie also spoke about working with clients in the home after they initially receive their new dogs.

My favorite part is always watching the hearing dog, who is able to alert her owner when her cell phone goes off and when she hears a suspicious noise. While someone pretended to be a burglar around the corner, she went wild, jumping up and down and pawing at her trainers legs to get her attention. For Deaf clients, these dogs can alert them to household noises and even an intruder.

I also enjoyed hearing from the two youngest members of the crowd. My internship supervisor brought her two children, ages seven and nine. Her son raised his hand and shared with us that the two of them go to school with a young girl who has a service dog named Buttons. And after the presentation, my supervisor's daughter asked me to sign the most recent Paws newsletter which features me, Dianna, and Maui on the cover!

I have to say, this was a big moment for me. I've never signed an autograph before!

So, despite a rocky start, it all worked out. Hopefully Top Dogs will continue to be a yearly event on campus after I graduate. It is always so much fun to see the demonstrations and to hear from people at the organization how they are able to accomplish their great work.

Here are some photos from the event:

Maui helping me.
Maui helps me remove my jacket by tugging on the sleeve.
Maui rests her head on my lap as I sign autographs for two young people.
I sign my very first autograph for my two biggest fans!
The group gathered together.