A Profound Lesson I Learned With My First Guide Dog

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.

—–Email begins—–

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.

Commenting On Comments;

Just a couple hours ago, I saw this article posted to an Email list I’m on. I’m happy to see that local police departments aren’t always turning a blind eye, so to speak, toward these issues of blatant discrimination. Of course, I also understand that the outcome of this story isn’t always what happens, and there are still far too many instances where the police will tell a victim of such discrimination that it’s “a civil matter”, or “they can’t really do anything”, or, worse, “Really, you should just leave.”

Whenever I read these stories, I also read the comments. They are often more enlightening (and, in some cases, saddening) than the actual story. That’s certainly the case with a couple of the comments posted after this story. Unfortunately, I was unable to figure out how to post comments myself, so I guess I’ll post them here, where nearly nobody will see them.

Nicole: you say that this guy that works at the restaurant in question should have been alerted that he violated someone’s rights, but hauling him off to jail was wrong. So, are you saying that his breaking of our country’s laws is unimportant? Or is it that you believe the laws that protect people with disabilities are somehow less relevant than other laws, and their enforcement isn’t as important? Please enlighten me. Maybe there are more important things for the police to deal with? Or maybe you really don’t believe any laws were really broken, and we people with disabilities are only allowed to travel and enjoy an evening out of our homes at the pleasure of, and with the blessing of, others?

Personally, I’m happy to see that someone’s putting some teeth into the laws. Unfortunately, fines and jail time are the only thing some people understand.

As for “dog hair flying around”, thank you, first of all, for your apology. As a guide dog owner myself, our dogs are often cleaner and better groomed than some of the so-called humans that are allowed in public. Moreover, the most you’ll ever see of my dog is as he walks by, and after that, perhaps, his head or tail, as he stays quietly tucked under my chair or table, well out of your space.

I stress here that with rights come responsibilities, such as the responsibility of keeping my dog clean, unobtrusive, and out of the way. Fortunately for all, these responsibilities are also built into the laws that protect us, which is to say, our right to be accompanied by a service dog is not absolute. A person with a disability may be asked to remove his service animal if that animal is disruptive, poorly behaved, and so forth. This is as it should be.

I’ve said that the comments are sometimes sadder, and certainly more enlightening, than the story being commented upon. In such comments, we will sometimes see what a person really thinks or believes. It saddens me that some who would read this story and other stories like it would believe, and even express, that they find that our rights to freedom of movement are less valuable than are their rights. Perhaps, I suppose, it would be better if we just stayed at home, out of the way, and let the rest of the world carry on. It saddens me that even in our “enlightened” age, some would hold such views. Just remember, there isn’t so much difference between you and me. I don’t mean this as a threat, or even a wish, merely a statement of fact. There isn’t a lot of difference between you and me.

This puts me in mind of another story, this one in the UK. This fellow and his girlfriend, who is a guide dog owner, went one afternoon to have lunch at an Indian restaurant. The prson who was waiting on them proceeded to deny him service. An argument ensued, and another diner then told the guy (who was doing the arguing for his girlfriend) to go home, to leave so they could enjoy their lunch, and to get a proper job. This, more than the actual refusal, shocked, angered, and saddened me. Do some out there really hold us with so much contempt? Are there really those who seem to believe that we are no more than an inconvenience to them, an annoying bit of their lives that should just go somewhere else so that they don’t have to deal with us? Are there really those out there who believe that our humanity is less than theirs, and that somehow, things would just be better if we’d go home, go away, and leave them in peace?

For those of you who feel this way, I have only this to say. Too bad. I’m not going home to spare you the discomfort of having to look at me. I’m not going away. I won’t intrude upon your life, but neither will I apologize for my existence in your ordered little world. I live, I love, I have a family and friends and, yes, a proper job. My world is larger than myself, and it extends beyond the four walls of my home. So get used to it, I’m here to stay, and so are the rest of my disabled brothers and sisters. Look upon us well; there is little difference between you and me.

And, to those who come to our country to seek a better life, I welcome you. Ours is a land of opportunity. There is room for everyone who comes here legally. There is plenty of opportunity for those who wish to seize it. Come, and welcome. But know, understand, and obey our laws. We are a country of laws, and they apply to you as well. If you own a business, drive a taxicab, or work in some sort of job that causes you to come into contact with people, it is your responsibility to know the laws, including the ones that cover people with disabilities. Ignorance does not make you immune, and after 80 plus years, there’s no longer any excuse for you not to know better. This applies equally to my American-born kinsmen.

Anyway, I’m sure I could go on, and probably will some other time. I always welcome your thoughts, so keep those cards and letters coming.

Budcast #5: Introducing New Dog

In Budcast #5, we meet my new Seeing Eye dog, Leno. I’m just starting in-home training, and this is my third guide, though my first with home placement. Alena adds some variety to the proceedings, of course. Work begins in ernest in the morning. While I won’t be able to do podcasts of the actual training, I hope I can post my thoughts and impressions of training, either as podcasts or just text entries. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Budcast #3: Random Musings And A Walk To Harbor Freight

In BudCast #3, take a walk with me to Harbor Freight to exchange an air pump. On the way (and on the way home), we meet neighbors and friends, stop in at Radio Shack, and of course, exchange the air pump. Today, we discuss lots of things in brief:

Also, it’s out! The new album from Those Who Dig, “Little Bitty Barley House”, recorded live this past fall, is out. Go andget your Mitochondria fix now, and tell ’em I sent you. OK?

Review: On The Go Sport Guide Dog Harness


Back in February, I ordered an On The Go harness from Julie Johnson. As these are individually made and she had some backlog, it took some time to arrive, but arrive it did, and I’ve had my new harness for about three weeks now. That should be plenty of time to give it a fair evaluation, I thought.

First, if you didn’t already know, Julie has sold livingblind.com and, separately, her harness making business. These harnesses, now from Pawpower Creations, can be purchased from (interestingly enough) Pawpower Creations. Email pawpower@cox.net for latest info and pricing.

Find information on these at the LivingBlind.com guide dog harness page.

So what’s the deal with these harnesses, anyway?

First, to avoid confusion, I will henceforth refer to the harness company by its new name. Meaning no slight to Julie and her excellent work, naturally.

Pawpower Creations harnesses are a great alternative for the owner trainer or anyone who, for whatever reason, wants another harness than the one the school provides. Some people just want a generic harness with no school names on it. Others want features that their school harnesses do not provide. Others may want a harness that’s easy to clean and care for. In all these cases, the Pawpower Creations harnesses fill the bill nicely. Being made of nylon instead of leather, they are easy to clean (machine washable, I’m told), and lightweight. Take them to the beach and get them all wet and icky and it isn’t really a problem. Moreover, the harness is made to fit your dog with measurements you provide as instructed on the harness Web page. Also, and my main reason for buying, the handle is easily removable. No more wrenches! You see, I’ve been wanting an easy to remove handle for ages. It’s especially been a problem with Chet. I have two harnesses from my school, and both of them, from getting in and out of cars and getting stuck or bumped or whatever under the dash of too many cars, have the leather coming unstitched and raggedy lookin’. This is a problem, since the handle sticks out roughly another inch off Chet’s rear end. So I really wanted something I could pop off easily without removing the whole harness.

They are inexpensive, costing around $100 for one with all the extras (extra padding and reflective tape).


I chose the sport harness. I understand this is a more european design. Unlike the traditional American harness, the handle does not pass through loops on the back, instead moving freely. This can be a disadvantage if you’re not careful. The handle can literally swing over your dog’s nose! Not in the course of regular work you understand, but it really does have complete freedom of movement. You could, potentially, more easily overstep your dog, but by then you would notice your handle at a very odd angle. Anyway, the handle attaches pretty well right at the dog’s shoulders. Where the harness you’re used to has a strap that goes around your dog’s middle with another one going from there all the way around his chest and perhaps a martingale coming off that down between his front legs, this sport harness has the girth strap around the dog as you would expect, but then has two straps coming off the back strap, over the dog’s shoulders, meeting then in the middle of the dog’s chest with the martingale between his front legs, in the shape of a print letter Y. The handle attaches to these two straps by means of plastic backpck fasteners, the sort of thing that snaps together and that you squeeze to release. A similar fastener buckles the harness closed. If you want a more traditional American style harness, Pawpower Creations makes those as well, with or without a martingale. Actually, they can custom make something if you need. Rox’e (and Julie before her) will work with you to design the harness you need.

Going For A Walk

Putting the harness on goes about as you might expect, with one small bit of challenge. Since there are no loops to hold the handle down, you’d better keep ahold of it along with the back strap as you put the harness on, or you could turn it inside out! This isn’t a huge deal, since it just flips right way round again very easily, but it is something to be aware of. You put it on as one would expect, by putting your dog’s head through the open part of the Y, then threading the girth strap through the martingale and snapping shut on the right side of the dog. You’ll note that the shoulder straps fit nicely over your dog’s shoulders. Some adjustment of the martingale and girth straps may be necessary. Both are threaded through a buckle, and feel a bit stiff. That’s OK, though; once they’re adjusted, they’ll pretty much stay put. Remember that these buckles make the straps infinitely adjustable; there are no holes, so you really can make the adjustments very fine if you need to and they should stay put. The handle lays flat along your dog’s back. At least, right at first. You may find at times, depending on how your dog moves sometime or how it’s put down, that it lolls off to the side, a consequence of the total freedom of movement in the handle. I may sound like I don’t like this, but really I do. having that much freedom of movement also means your dog can really make a very tight turn without any real discomfort either to you or to him.

Now here’s what I really like about this harness. Chet is mostly very bored with my neighborhood. This means that, as he walks, he has almost no pull. With my school harness, the handle would feel just slack and as though we were crawling instead of walking. With this harness, you can really feel your dog’s shoulders moving as he walks, and even with a light pull, you feel a very steady pressure in the handle, and it’s very easy to detect even the smallest change in speed, whether it’s more pull or a slackening of speed. I felt that I was getting a quicker response and could more easily tell when a distraction was coming; feedback felt more immediate. The handle always felt “engaged”, even with the lightest of pull, instead of feeling slack. This was an unexpected and welcome surprise.

Is having a removable handle really that handy? I’d have to say that it is. There’s nothing like having a handle stick into your shins! Nuff said. Just pop the handle off and put it somewhere handy, then pop it back on when you get out of the car. No more re-threading martingales, and you only need to stick something over your dog’s head once.


These harnesses are very well made. I don’t feel like they’ll come unstitched any time soon. Seams are double stitched and sturdy. I got extra padding, which was very nicely stitchd in foam, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere soon. the handle is similarly stitched. It’s obvious that real care and time were taken to make sure these harnesses were put together right the first time. Also, high quality buckles and fasteners were used throughout. I don’t think we’ll be in danger of losing a handle clip or something like that, and I don’t think the adjustments of girth strap or martingale length will slip when you don’t want them to.

I give this harness a definite 11 out of 10. You really can’t go wrong with this one if you have a need for a new harness for your guide dog, or even just want one. I don’t think you’ll find one better.