What It’s Like to be a Working Dog in the Lab
Service animals help their owners in many areas of their lives, including their academic and professional careers. While that may be limited to office spaces for many professionals, scientists often bring their animals into the lab to help while they’re performing their research. Many people tend to think of guide dogs first when it comes to service animals, but other service animals can help with issues like PTSD and diabetes. Students and researchers have the right to bring their animals into the lab under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but it is often a complex decision that is informed by both the animal’s needs and the owner’s needs.
Dr. Andrew Hasley, one of the Biotechnology Program’s postdoctoral teaching instructors, has a guide dog, Shade, who helps him navigate his everyday life, as well as his time in the lab. They were both trained at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a training school in Yorktown Heights, New York. While some owners will train their own dogs, Shade was trained by the school for two years before Dr. Hasley went through his own training to be able to work with her. I sat down with both of them to hear about their experiences navigating lab life at NC State and beyond.
SKC: How long have you had Shade?
Hasley: About seven years. I started working with Shade in September of 2015, when she was two years old. But I’ve had a guide dog since 2004, when I started working with her predecessor, Fletcher.
SKC: What does Shade help you with on a day-to-day basis?
Hasley: She helps me get from point A to point B safely, and helps me avoid any obstacles on the way. Besides maneuvering around obstacles, she works in straight lines, so I have to keep a map in my head so that I know which way to direct her. She also stops for changes in terrain, so I won’t walk off of a curb.
Shade: I can also be trained to find specific spots, like a door that Andrew uses all the time to get to his office. It’s really hard to do that with buildings that have lots of glass, though, because I sometimes can’t tell what’s a door and what’s a window. And I can find things like pedestrian buttons, so that we can cross the street safely.
SKC: What is Shade’s role in the lab?
Hasley: Because she mostly helps me find places without bumping into anything or anyone on the way, she doesn’t really do much that is specific to lab work. Most labs are small enough that I can navigate them with a cane, so sometimes I’ll leave her in my office if I need to.
SKC: What is Shade’s role in the lab?
Shade: When I’m in the lab, my job is to sit in a corner and wait to see if I’m needed. I usually just help Andrew find his way to and from the lab. But I got to help him at the beginning of the semester, when the class went out to do some field work and collect samples for their research. We went out to a stream so they could take samples of the water to find the DNA.
SKC: Does she have to wear personal protective equipment (PPE)? Do you take any other precautions?
Hasley: She doesn’t right now, but she has in the past if she’s close enough to the work benches that she could be in danger if something spilled. The lab I’m teaching in right now is big enough that she is safely out of the way, so it’s not necessary.
Shade: If I ever have to wear PPE, I usually wear a lab coat and glasses, but they’re a bit uncomfortable, so I like it when I can just sit further away.
SKC: Does that change between a teaching lab and a research lab?
Hasley: It’s mostly the same, but it’s a bit easier to find places for Shade to wait. There are fewer people and the workflow is a bit more predictable in a research lab, so I don’t have to find new places for her as often. I might need to move her occasionally in a teaching lab if we use a piece of equipment that’s near her. Those tend to be longer days, too, because I would need to do more experiments, but now she’s usually only there while I’m teaching.
Shade: I usually take naps in a research lab, which is really hard sometimes! Even though I don’t do much while he’s working, it’s still hard to sit in a corner the whole time and not be petted by all of his colleagues who walk by.
Hasley: Shade is still working while she’s napping, because otherwise she’d be walking around to visit everyone.
SKC: How has Shade helped you in other areas of your career and studies?
Hasley: She mostly helps me with pretty general things, like moving safely and efficiently, but it helps that she can share that mental burden with me. I tell her where we’re going, but she gets us there without bumping into anything. Without Shade, it’s harder to navigate places like the Brickyard, because it’s so open and people pretty much walk everywhere. It would be possible to walk across campus to attend a lecture or meeting without her, but she helps me get there without taking forever to find it. When I’m just using my cane, it takes a lot of focus to find where I’m trying to go and the safest paths to take.
Shade: Helping Andrew navigate on and off campus means that he gets to focus more on his actual job! Science can be really complicated, so he gets to spend his time figuring out his research instead of figuring out how to safely and quickly get to the room he teaches in.
Hasley: And that helps give me a lot more confidence, because I know I’ll be able to get where I need to go without too much trouble. Even walking with colleagues is easier, because I can actually focus on the conversation, rather than on staying near them and finding obstacles in the way.
SKC: Have you ever had any pushback when taking Shade into a scientific or professional setting?
Hasley: Not really. I often tell people about Shade in advance, but I’ve never had a teacher or anyone else refuse to accommodate her presence. A lot of other people with service animals have run into more problems, though, especially if their animals aren’t guide dogs. Most people are familiar with guide dogs, and their jobs are really obvious. But some disabilities and dogs’ roles are harder to spot, so people will question their legitimacy.
For example, some people have service dogs (not emotional support dogs) for PTSD. They can put pressure on their humans when they sense their anxiety, or they can create space for them in a crowd if they start to feel trapped. Or sometimes, they can be trained to go off leash and investigate a building to see if it’s too crowded. It can be hard for these people to get access to lab spaces with their animals, because those in charge will start questioning how necessary they really are if they’re not helping with a visible disability.
SKC: What is the main difference between using Shade to navigate and using a cane?
Hasley: Because Shade has eyes to help navigate, she can help me be much more confident when I’m walking places. Especially in a large or unfamiliar area, it can be harder to find my way around with a cane, because I have to pay a lot more attention to make sure I’m going the right way and I’m not about to hit something. I still use a cane in some cases, but I use Shade most of the time.
Shade: I’m kind of sad when Andrew uses his cane, because I like walking around with him, but sometimes it’s nice to be able to wait in his office instead of sitting in the lab for several hours.
SKC: When is Shade off-duty? What does that mean for her and your relationship?
Hasley: She’s off-duty any time her harness is off, but that looks different in public and private settings. If we’re in public, I’ll give her a break to relax and be silly, but she’s still expected to have good leash manners. She can’t go wild or anything. When we’re home and her harness and leash are on a hook, she’s basically a normal dog with really great house manners. She doesn’t lunge for food that was dropped or anything, but she’s pretty much free to play with toys and do whatever she wants.
Shade: I really like cuddling on the couch when we’re home, or going to a dog park to play. But I also really like my job. Everyone needs a break, but I enjoy working with Andrew.
Hasley: She gets breaks throughout the day if I’m using my cane or if she’s meeting my coworkers. And it’s especially important for her to get breaks, because she can still get distracted while she’s working, like any other dog. That’s why it’s important to ask before petting a service dog, and to avoid making eye contact with them, even from across the room. You want to make sure they can stay focused while doing their jobs. Being partners means that I need to make sure she’s rested and able to work.
SKC: How would you describe your partnership with Shade?
Hasley: It’s really a mutual partnership. We both depend on each other. Shade had to go through a lot of training before she was ready to help me, but I had to go through training too. It can be really hard to trust in the brain of a four-legged animal, and it’s not for everyone. Thankfully, Shade hasn’t been in a super dangerous situation, but Fletcher probably literally saved my life once. That’s a pretty extreme example, but being able to trust him was what saved me.
Shade: Like most animals, I need Andrew to provide for me, but unlike regular pets, I also need him to tell me where to go. When a pet dog goes to a park, it’s usually fine if they go wherever they want, or as far as their leash can stretch. But when I go to a park, I need to stay with Andrew, and he’s the one who decides where we walk.
Hasley: It’s not very specific to the lab, but it’s an important part of working with Shade. She’s not the same as my cane, because I don’t have a relationship with my cane. But Shade and I have a partnership, and it’s that collaboration that makes it all work, ultimately.