Hi, I’m Greta! I’m so excited to meet you all! Can we be friends, please? Right now? ARe we friends yet? I love you all!
Ah, I should calm down and introduce myself. I’m Greta, and I’m a Seeing Eye dog! My partner is Anneliese, and together we go on lots of adventures! Or, we used to, but things have been Different lately. Can I tell you about that? Cool! I’m excited!…and I’m calming down now. Ok, here’s our story.
Oh wait — before I get too far, some of you who remember Rhianna, who’s a human like Anneliese, had a partner like me named Cricket. , Cricket retired, but Rhianna told Anneliese that she has a new guide dog now! See? Isn’t he cute? His name is Saint! I hope we get to play together someday! Wouldn’t that be amazing?
Ok, back to the story I was about to start. I apologize for being so hyper and discombobulated. I used to be very focused and organized. But some things happened and now it’s really hard for me to concentrate. I’ve been working hard to get better, though, and I’m going to try really hard to relate all the events to you in order today.
Anneliese is my best friend ever. She’s my pack leader, and we work together to go all kinds of places. She picks where to go, and it’s always interesting, with lots of challenges and surprises. It’s my job to get around those challenges safely. Sometimes the obstacles don’t move, like walls and boxes and chairs and things. But sometimes they do move, other animals and humans and big metal things that go really fast and don’t watch where they’re going. But we could navigate around them all because we trusted each other and knew our jobs perfectly.
But then we started going to this really strange place. It was HUGE, and there were hundreds of young humans there, and they were always upset about something, jumping around on each other, shoving each other. Sometimes they were playing, sometimes they weren’t. They never bothered me and Anneliese, but they were a terrible pack. They didn’t trust each other at all, or work together or anything. I couldn’t tell who was in charge or where they were supposed to be going.
And then we’d go into a tiny little room and I’d crawl under a chair and curl up in a tiny ball because other people would come in and out, and they’d be upset when they came in and then calm when they left. Most of the time, anyway. It was so tight in there, and tense, and my poor partner was in pain so we didn’t go anywhere else except the huge place with the tiny room.
Anneliese here. In case Greta’s descriptions are a little abstract, she’s referring to the re-purposed supply closet in the high school where I, under the guidance of a licensed counselor, did my internship. While most guide dogs like Greta are trained to find cozy, safe spaces under chairs and tables whenever possible, this one was both tiny and had an awkward bar in Greta’s way that meant she had a hard time getting comfortable. And, at the time I had started to really notice the impact of a pinched nerve in my lower back. Walking the hills in our neighborhood was very painful, so I caught myself avoiding it more often than not.
I felt like I was going to explode. I wanted to run, or walk a really, really long time. I could feel my muscles twitching and burning with excitement, but had nowhere to go. And all the chaos around us just got worse and worse. And then one day I tried to calm it all down. I shouted at the humans, but they ignored me. Except Anneliese. She never ignores me.
Notice the emphasis Greta places on going places and knowing where she and others are supposed to go. Dogs are foragers whose instincts predispose them to want to go places in search of food. They are most fulfilled when they have somewhere to go, and then are rewarded with food afterward. Aimlessness and stagnation produce confusion and frustration in a dog. (read any one of Cesar Milan’s books for more details. My favorite is Be the Pack Leader).
After that, Anneliese seemed on edge. It was like she thought that someone was out to get us. I had to watch her back, so I kept an ear out, too. And it wasn’t just at the huge place with the tiny room. She started getting tense no matter where we went. So I watched her back, keeping an ear out for trouble. And I suddenly started realizing how much trouble could be around us all the time. I’d never thought about that before.
Dogs do know how comfortable you are with yourself. How happy you are, how fearful you are, and what is missing inside of you.Be the Pack Leader: Use Cesar’s Way to Transform Your Dog, and Your Life by Cesar Milan
Humans would stare at me, locking eyes with me and walking straight toward me. AT least, they turned out to be humans. But before they got close enough all I could determine was a big blurry shape with eyes staring right into mine, and they’d just keep coming and coming…so I told them to identify themselves, explain what they were doing. Then Anneliese would get really upset and I have no idea why…
Read This for a good explanation of why the human tendency to make eye contact with each other, and animals, from about 30-40 feet distant caused Greta so much distress.
I was trying to help, but she just kept getting more and more upset. SHe held me back, making it hard for me to get close enough to see and talk with people, tell them what I wanted them to do. SHe told me I was doing something wrong, but I couldn’t figure it out. We were both so frustrated!
Read This for a fantastic explanation of the relationship between uncertainty and anxiety. Though this article primarily focuses on human physiology, the same guiding principles apply to dogs and other animals, too.
It was like we couldn’t trust each other anymore. I didn’t understand what she wanted, and she wouldn’t let me make decisions about how to deal with all the potential problems coming our way. But it wasn’t like she was doing anything about them, or even telling me what was or wasn’t a problem. I had to try and figure it out myself, and I always seemed to get it wrong…I was kind of worried she’d give up on me,
It becomes very obvious, by reading a dog, how stable or unstable his human companion is. Our dogs are our mirrors.Be the Pack Leader: Use Cesar’s Way to Transform Your Dog, and Your Life by Cesar Milan
Great book, right? It’s on the list of books I recommend to counseling clients, actually. I like to ask my clients about their pets, especially dogs, not just to continue building the therapeutic relationship between us, not just because I love dogs — because I REALLY love dogs — but it can also help me assess how a client’s emotional state manifests outside their head. Plus, people with pets can often use their love for their pets to inspire positive change in their lives. Your mental health and that of your dog are inextricably linked, and you can help each other.
It turns out there was nothing to worry about. We stopped going to the huge place with the tiny room, and started going on really long walks. It felt so good to just walk! It was like I could relax for the first time in months! And she started showing me with this cool clicker thing when I was doing a good job. She still wasn’t great about telling me what was wrong, but at least we were communicating again. We went on two walks a day, and I got lots of treats because I started figuring things out again.
Anneliese started getting confident again. She didn’t seem to be in as much pain. I think the walking helped, but she told me it had a lot to do with her sitting on this weird mat on the floor and twisting up in strange shapes. I don’t see how that could help, but humans are just weird, aren’t they? Anyway, she hurt less, so we walked more, and she started trusting me again. But I kept wondering when I’d make my next mistake. I still didn’t know what caused the problem in the first place; how could I rely on Anneliese to explain things now?
Then we met this really cool person that I love so much! I just love it when she comes and visits us because we go on long walks and Anneliese is so calm around her, so focused on me and where we’re going. Our new friend is like a translator and a therapist all rolled up into one!
She showed Anneliese how to tell me what the problem was, and what I should do about it. Apparently, it’s Anneliese’s job to handle problems, things that might be scary or unusual. I deal with obstacles, she deals with problems. That’s how it’s supposed to work. I’m so used to thinking she won’t do her part that it’s taking me a long time to let go and trust her again, but I know we can do anything together.
I started realizing that when I got upset I could still look to Anneliese for help. It started to feel like it had in the old days, but somehow better. She was so calm, like she knew what she was doing all the time. Sometimes we’d both get startled, but then she’d calm down so quickly and laugh it off and just keep moving. And I’d realize it was no big deal after all.
I thought things were finally going to be ok, but then I hurt my shoulder really badly. Anneliese took me to a few different doctors until she finally found one who could make it better. We visit that doctor a lot, and she kind of pulls and pushes on things, and it’s kind of uncomfortable at first, but then it feels like all my limbs and back all kind of just…work again.
I’d been meaning to find a canine chiropractor for years, ever since I got Prada. But it took Greta getting injured for me to finally invest the time and effort to locate one. Working dogs put a lot of wear and tear on their bodies, and regular tune-ups, especially at Greta’s age, are a great investment.
But then I got sick, a lot. I felt queasy all the time, and kind of tired, and my skin was breaking out really badly. Anneliese changed my food a lot, and some foods were better and others really weren’t. But she started figuring out what to do, and I feel almost like myself again! Now that I’m feeling better I’m sure it won’t be long before we start going on walks again. I miss walks…they’re the best things in the whole world! I don’t really care where we go, so long as we’re walking, so long as we’re walking together.
I hope you all enjoyed your little peak through Greta’s eyes. Learning about how her brain and body works, what our story was like from her perspective, really helped me begin to transition out of my own fears and into empathy for her and inspiration for our partnership.
I attended a webinar put on by the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine this past fall where several experts described in parallel the anxiety circuitry and empathy circuitry of the human brain, and how intentionally choosing to see others’ perspectives can bypass said anxiety circuitry. The details of how this works are well outside the scope of my blog, but suffice it to say that consciously choosing empathy can actually alleviate symptoms of anxiety, and I can now say I know this both from learning and from experience. Compassion literally changes your brain.
Next week I’ll share with you what happened when The Seeing Eye told me I should retire Greta because of her behavioral problems. Your favorite blindfluencer hates cliffhangers, but will shamelessly inflict this one on you anyway!