This afternoon on one of the far too many Email discussion lists I’m on, someone posted to remind people getting new dogs that, no, your dog really doesn’t like you yet, and this takes time. He also mentioned where to stick your dog in the car while traveling, but I don’t really want to talk about that. i mention it only for reference purposes, as I bring it up in the below Email that I posted to the list.
While I won’t comment on dog placement in vehicles, after all, we all do the best we can–I mean, leaving the house is a dangerous proposition, as is staying home–I do want to echo what Mike says about our dogs liking us, or not, when we meet them.
I learned what is, I believe, one of the most valuable things I’ve ever heard from my first guide dog class, at another school, lo these 17 years ago. During the lecture preceding our getting new dogs, when we were being told what to expect and everyone found out what everyone was getting, yeah they do it differently there, our instructor, Dan, said the following. This was so profound to me, and so valuable, I think I have it memorized verbatim:
If someone were to ask your dog, he would say that he has no interest in meeting you, much less in becoming your lifelong partner and companion.
Dan went on to say that, because of this fact, it is incumbent upon us, and entirely our responsibility, to make friends.
This is so at odds with the popular literature, all those feel-good books and stories where the dog is looking forward to his life’s work, where he just lives and waits for you, that special person, to enter his life. To learn, in such blunt terms, that this is not, in fact, the case, was a real revelation, even though, looking at it from the dog’s point of view, it made sense pretty quickly.
This, much more than the mechanics of guide work, is what is most important about class, I think. Learning proper commands, foot placement and hand signals, and all the rest, is really pretty easy. The tricky bit is adapting those lessons to a very unique other being, and gaining that other being’s trust and confidence, as both of you get to know each other and learn to, at first, work together, and eventually, love each other. Both hearts are willing in their own fashion, I think, but not in the way that all the fairy tales would have it.
The amazing thing is that this stuff works at all.
Have fun out there, guys.
This bit of wisdom has stood me in good stead through all three dogs. The romanticized thing that we always see, in the kids’ books about guide dogs, even from guide ddog users who write about the guide dog match (sometimes from the dog’s supposed point of view), even in guide dog school literature, is a nice, feel good thing. Sure, we all want to think that our dogs are just waiting their whole lives to meet us. The story we tell each other is they know they have this special purpose, that they know that they’re destined for some greater, selfless life. This is so at odds with reality though, no matter how good it makes us feel to tell each other the story. I’m not sure it serves any useful purpose though; certainly it doesn’t give the prospective guide dog user a real picture of what’s involved. Maybe it makes donors feel good, although I think that how things really work is pretty darned amazing even without the fairy tale. The real story, though not as rosy and full of destiny and misplaced anthropomorphism, really is as interesting, as exciting, and ultimately, as heartwarming, as the fairy tale.
These dogs are specially bred for a particular purpose, it’s true. All the guide dog schools have had breeding programs for decades, where they keep track of health problems, temperament, suitability to the work, soundness of mind and body, all sorts of things. I’m sure that they’ve got charts and graphs and family trees and dogs rated on this or that characteristic. In fact, Jack Humphrey, one of the guys that was instrumental in the Seeing Eye’s earliest days, compiled such a list and published a book with a study on the desirability of certain traits in working dogs. I understand that much of Jack’s initial training and selection work is still the backbone of the Seeing Eye’s work today, some 75 or so years after he finished putting it all together. I’m sure the other schools have similar records and procedures, and I know there’s a certain amount of knowledge shared between programs.
True as this is, however, the dogs don’t know any of it. THink of the transitions they go through in just a couple of short years. At eight weeks or so old, they’re taken away from their mother and go to live with a family. This family raises them and loves them, and new puppy loves the family. This is his world. He forms an attachment to these people, and he learns lots of useful things, like how to sit, lie down, ignore tempting things, stay off furniture, how to behave in public, react calmly to noise and unusual situations. Then, he’s taken way from his family and “goes to college”, except that he doesn’t know that’s what he’s doing. He just knows he’s getting taken from his family. And he eventually gets to know the trainer(s) and kennel staff. And he learns new things. Interesting new things. Interesting new things that he becomes happy to do for these new people. He has no idea that he’s going to meet some blind person and have this greater purpose, he just does these things because it pleases his new pack leader to do them. That he can learn to walk in a straight line, stop for things that aren’t at all natural for him to stop at, learn his left from his right (which, by the way, lots of humans don’t know), avoid traffic and guide a human around obstacles and not go under things that he can but a human can’t, all of that is pretty amazing, don’t you think so?
He may have to get used to new people a couple times before he meets his new partner. He has no idea that he’s going to do these things for this new person, he’s perfectly content doing them for the old person. But eventually, his loyalties do change, and two very different beings learn to work together and act as one. Like I said, it’s amazing that this stuff works at all. Even without the fairy tales.
One might suppose I’m a killjoy. After all, what’s the harm in a bit of poetic license? Far from it, I think these are amazing, amazing animals, and I think it’s important that we celebrate them for what they are, not to mention all of the wonderful and selfless people that mold them into the confident, poised, competent, and just plain amazing guides that they are. As I say, the story is amazing enough without adding in things that just aren’t so.
Of course, the debate rages: do they know that we’re blind, or are they just playing a game, the same game they learned to play with their instructors? I happen to believe they know. Dogs are very perceptive. Some are extremely perceptive and empathic. They all know, though. There are even scientific studies that prove that dogs think they can get away with things if they believe the humans can’t see them. Regardless, I think that once they start working with us, as opposed to the sighted trainers, they do know that we’re blind. Whether they connect this fact with their job, I don’t know. I do know that sometimes a dog that works great for a trainer decides it really doesn’t want to do it “for real”, so maybe they do make the connection.
Regardless, it’s truly amazing stuff. And I, for one, am glad that Leno does what he does, no matter why he does it.