Do not be surprised if you see a golden retriever in your lecture hall this semester; he is not a student, but he is still an important member of the UMBC community. Some may know Chief from a picture of him and the statue of True Grit that went viral last March after UMBC’s win over Virginia — a picture that accumulated tens of thousands of likes across various social media platforms. Others may have spotted him walking around campus with his handler, Erica Haschert, a senior mechanical engineering major.
But Chief is more than just a lovable dog with a heart-melting smile; he is also Haschert’s service dog. Though legal terminology surrounding service animals can be somewhat murky, a service animal is defined as an animal who has been trained to perform tasks that can mitigate its handler’s disability. A “task” refers to anything a service animal does to assist its handler, be it alerting them to a change in their blood sugar, helping them pick up something they have dropped or reminding them to take their medication. Most service dogs can perform anywhere from 90 to 100 commands.
Haschert, who has been diagnosed with pain disorders and two mental illnesses, has been personally training Chief since he was a puppy. Now, at age two, he has made remarkable progress; he knows nearly 50 tasks, from alerting Erica to changes in her heart rate to helping her wake up to her alarm in the morning.
Service dogs also must be trained in “public access,” or the ability to not become distracted in various public settings. “You have to expose them to literally everything under the sun,” says Haschert, explaining that Chief is unaffected by “scary things that most dogs are afraid of,” including gunshots, fireworks and garbage trucks.
During a recent trip to the Maryland Renaissance Festival, Chief’s public access skills were truly put to the test as he was exposed to a larger crowd than he had ever faced before. Haschert notes that Chief lacks experience working with other dogs, but when, at Ren Fest, they “ran into three other service dog teams, he handled it perfectly. He acknowledged they were there […] and I asked for his attention back, and he gave it immediately,” according to Haschert.
Despite the positive experience she had taking Chief to Ren Fest, she sometimes struggles with the stigmas and stereotypes that some associate with owning a service dog. She has, for instance, been told that she does not look disabled enough to have a service dog with her.
Haschert has also found people in public places are also frequently inconsiderate or uninformed when it comes to interacting with service animals. The behavior she most often struggles with is people taking pictures of her and Chief without her permission. “I know he’s very cute, but when it comes down to it, when he’s in his vest, he’s legally medical equipment,” Haschert explains.
Haschert recommends asking before petting a service dog rather than simply running up to the dog and trying to play with it. She also advises people not to ask about a handler’s disability, as handlers generally do not want to share such personal information with strangers.
In the end, despite stigmas and negative interactions with the public, Chief has ultimately made a huge positive impact on Haschert’s life since she began training him over a year ago. As she and Chief continue to learn and grow as a team, she hopes members of the UMBC community will also continue to become more educated about the service animals they see around campus.