Recently, a friend did me the honor of asking me to write a section for a manuscript she is preparing for publication on ‘working dogs.’ It proved to be an incredible experience. As a five-time Seeing Eye dog handler, I’d like to share some of the insights that have been revealed to me through this process, (Note. this is a much-shortened version of the stories I relate in the manuscript. As such it is vastly incomplete.)
A Seeing Eye instructor once said, “If the match isn’t good, nothing can make it tight,” I have been matched with five extremely different Seeing Eye dogs. Each of them brought their own unique gifts and challenges; as I brought my own life issues and experiences to the relationship.
The matching and bonding processes for humans and Seeing Eye dogs, bare little resemblance to the ‘Disney magic,’ the public associates with working dogs. In fact, both the person and the dog expend a great deal of energy and effort to make the match work.
Creating a match between a human and a Seeing Eye dog is comparable to an arranged marriage, where both partners have little or no knowledge of each other before marrying, but will be spending a major portion of their lives together. It’s also like a closed adoption In that the handler, like adoptive parents, knows little or nothing about the parentage of the adopted canine.
My first guide, Amber, a Chocolate Labrador Retriever, was strong, bold, confident, and smart, she was what the instructors call “a high-energy dog.” She had an extremely fast walking pace and I learned how to walk faster than I could have ever imagined. She pulled with the power of a Mack Truck, which forced me to strengthen my upper body. She was stubborn and willful, and I was compelled to learn how to do a great deal of physical handling; including giving extremely strong leash corrections. She had “tons of initiative.”
Pull, pace, high energy, and initiative are all words the instructors at The Seeing Eye use to describe a dog. Pull is used to describe the dog’s amount of pull against the harness and the clarity of its signals to the handler through the harness handle. Pace describes the speed with which the dog moves in harness. Initiative describes the ease with which a dog can size up a situation and make decisions.
Amber, with her take-charge personality, was supremely confident in her abilities to do her work, she was my “curb-to-curb dog. Nothing got in the way of her performing her duties–including pedestrians… Amber and I were together for nine and a half years. She retired just before her tenth birthday, and was adopted by a family in South Minneapolis.
Kallah, my second guide was a beautiful black and tan German shepherd. She had finesse. She seemed effortless in her work, as if she was born to it. She almost didn’t have to be shown what to do; she demonstrated an innate sense about guiding. Her pull was moderate and steady. Her pace was much slower then Amber’s. Her gait was smooth. It felt as if she was loping along.
A Seeing Eye dog must be able to do guide work, and behave appropriately in work settings, and social situations. Unfortunately, Kallah, though she could do the guide work, exhibited extreme vocalizing and thus was unable to be socially appropriate.
After a year of trying to curb her vocalizing, I returned her to the school. They attempted to retrain her, but were unsuccessful. The Seeing Eye has a long list of people who want to adopt dogs that are removed from the program. A family who lives on a farm in New York adopted Kallah. She is much happier as a pet.
Bandit, a black Lab, my third Seeing Eye dog, was a charmer. He could rap you around his paw with one look. He had a twinkle in his beautiful brown eyes and a touch of mischief in his soul. His work was wonderful. He could work through a crowd like no other dog. He saw it as a challenge. As Bandit and I found our rhythm, I experienced sheer joy. Darting and weaving through a crowd with him was like a dance. He had a faster pace then Kallah. He pranced along. His pull was light to moderate. He had initiative but was responsive to commands and responsible in his work, He was very social, an extreme extravert. He loved his work.
Bandit was my guide and companion for four years. A month after his sixth birthday, he was diagnosed with Chronic Active Hepatitis, a progressive disease, and I made the painful decision to put him to sleep.
Moving on to my next canine partnership was difficult. While I grieved for Bandit, I am a confirmed Seeing Eye dog handler and, for as long as I am able there will be a harness handle in my hand.
Haiku, a tiny black Lab bounced into my life. She was dog number four. She was 46 pounds of energy and mischief. She was smart and feisty. I admired her spirit.
Thanks to many years of experience, I determined while still at the school that her pull was too strong for me, and I would have to do more physical handling with her than I was able. After consulting with my instructors, half way through class, we made the decision together to switch dogs. Because of the investment in the partnership made by both human and canine, this decision is never taken lightly.
Next, I welcomed Fiesta, my fifth dog and fourth black Lab. She has a slow pace, a light pull, and a sweet temperament. Fiesta reveals more and more little bits of her surprising self as we go on together. This means I still don’t know exactly who I have to work with. This partnership is a work in progress.
The concrete things that dog guide handlers can look for in a match are: pace, gait, pull, initiative, temperament, sensitivity, willfulness, intelligence, adaptability, desire to please, self-confidence, and guide work skills. It is our challenge as handlers to be as clear as possible about the qualities we desire in a good match and communicate them accurately and clearly to our instructor. Even certainty and clarity do not ensure success.
We humans need to bring qualities and skills to each new match too. First we must come to the relationship with a willingness to learn new handling skills and strategies. Each dog requires slightly different skills. The skills or techniques which worked with our first dog may not work with our fourth dog. Comparison is a useful human device. It gives us a measuring stick with which to mark our progress as handlers. If it is over used, it can block our ability to be open and learn. In addition, the field of dog training is fluid and ever changing. For instance, the tuff physical handling required more than a decade ago is being replaced with more subtle techniques that challenge dogs cognitive decision making abilities. To keep up with this challenge, and to insure their students with the best possible guides, The Seeing Eye has its own breeding programs. They attempt to breed into their dogs traits that will make them more suitable for guide work.
Next comes the commitment to the relationship. This is crucial. If the dog guide handler doesn’t commit to spend the time, energy, and effort required to build and strengthen the bond, and work through the challenges, the match will likely fail.
Finally, the emotional investment made by the handler is critical. It’s what drives the handler to give his/her all to create a successful match. It is also the biggest risk a handler takes in entering into the human canine bond.
Each handler brings his or her own personal life issues and experiences to a relationship with a working dog. Our task is to be as self aware as we are able and to use that information to learn, grow and fulfill our potential while assisting our canine partners to do the same.