How Greta and I Left the Nest

“There is probably no more terrible instant of enlightenment than the one in which you discover your father is a man – with human flesh.”

Dune by Frank Herbert

This post is not about my relationship with my parents, but with my proverbial parent, The Seeing Eye Inc.

This organization, dedicated to the dignity and freedom of blind and visually impaired people, gave me more than I can say in the areas of independence, dignity, knowledge, companionship, and support. They gave me my beloved Prada, and my adored Greta. They may yet give me other wonderful partners. I will continue to be grateful, and to support them throughout the rest of my life. They have been the gold standard for training service dogs for almost a century.

But they are an organization of people, and people are imperfect. It would be illogical, and harmful to both them and myself and their other graduates, for me to cling to the idea that their methods and explanations and answers are the only right ones. Like every growing child I must accept the limitations of my parent. At the limit of their capacity is where my growth truly begins.

A loving parent with healthy boundaries will encourage their child’s individuation, the process of becoming an individual separate from the parent. And the child, safe in the knowledge that individuation does not mean a forfeiteure of relationship, must take steps away from the familiar in order to grow into something new.

This process happens within organizations, too. Whenever a student graduates from school or a trainee takes their place on the factory floor, or a new manager is promoted they must start to build on what was given them in skills and knowledge rather than stagnantly adhering to the basics.

I lived for years by the book as it was written by The Seeing Eye. Much as I like to pretend otherwise, I’m a rule follower. I like formulas that work, and TSE’s explanations for how life should operate within the pack of a guide dog and handler seemed to meet my needs.

But over time I grew to realize that TSE’s education program had some gaps. They taught the basic concepts of pack dynamics, but not how to become a pack leader from the inside out. That’s a tall order, one that a school turning out 20 graduates from diverse backgrounds every month can’t possibly achieve.

I also didn’t know how to handle problems at a systemic level. I had tools for handling incidents as they happened, but no strategies for deeper re-education and repair work. TSE offers its graduates lifetime support, even frequently flying trainers out to do at-home assessments and re-education work with the dogs. But what happens in a pandemic when the trainer can’t come to the rescue?

A trainer on the ground walking beside me might have been able to see how I’d educated myself about canine psychology and body language, that I was now capable of implementing more than just simple behavioral modification techniques like I’d received from the trainer over the phone.

A trainer on the ground would be able to go to the places where Greta got triggered most often, see her behavioral responses and body language, and know her work was salvageable.

But over the phone, hearing my Dire description of her behavior, with no comprehension of what she and I could do, what I’d learned and put into practice already, I knew the answer months before the trainer gave it to me. I dreaded it.

With the reputation of the school, all her graduates, and all dog guide users on the line and no proof that the problem was fixable, the trainer told me he thought I should retire Greta. He didn’t think she could be rehabilitated.

I took a deep breath, thanked the trainer for his advice with a steady voice, listened to his compassionate encouragements. He’d talked people through this before, he knew how hard it was. He’d be there if I needed to talk more about it. I thanked him for his time, hung up the phone, and cried.

What I’d feared had happened. What I’d dreaded rang in my ears. This experienced trainer was convinced that the problem couldn’t be solved. And Greta was only six years old! She should have had at least another four years of work. And if the problem couldn’t be solved then I had a young, energetic German shepherd as a pet that i couldn’t even take on good walks because of the behaior problem that forced her retirement? What was I going to do?

What the trainer had told mewas the most devastating and inspiring thing I’d ever heard.

So I cried. Then I got up and got to work.

The Seeing Eye’s motto is “Dignity and Independence.” They see the two as deeply connected, and part of their commitment to these values is the fact that, from the moment a dog and handler finish the program, they belong to each other, not the school. I own Greta. So ultimately, retiring her was my choice.

Knowing this, the trainer didn’t try to scare or guilt me into compliance. He didn’t threaten to withold support from the school. All he did was give his recommendation, then offer support for whichever choice I made.

I decided not to retire Greta.

I pulled her from active work, only walking her around the neighborhood and at a secluded park near my home where I could manage the number of triggers. Then I hit up google for a dog trainer. Greta’s problem was a normal doggy problem, not a problem with her guide work. So, I reasoned, a normal doggy trainer ought to be able to help.

I understood why The SEeing Eye erred on the side of caution. Beyond the limits of canine behavioral diagnosis over the phone, they bear a greater burden of reputation. I imagined I bore such a burden in the throes of anxiety, but TSE really does have to worry about the public perception of their graduates. But despite my worst fears, this was not my burden to bear. My primary responsibility was, and is, the health and wellbeing of my little pack.

So I made my choice. Greta is on mental health sabbatical until further notice while I invest in the training and stability of our pack.

Greta was just six years old then. Now she’s about eight and a half. She’s not yet old, and on her way to becoming the healthiest version of herself she’s ever been. Despite the year of health complications, I’m still convinced we can undo the damage. And, even if it takes the rest of her life I will gain valuable skills that I can use with every other guide dog in my life.

That really was the deciding factor. I believe in Greta’s potential, but I also know that I will carry either fear or competence from this partnership into every other guide-pack I form for the rest of my life. I had to see this through, or risk repeating history.

I can almost taste the satisfaction and triumph of working her through a crowded coffee shop or a peaceful public park with equal facility. I can picture it so clearly, feel the tension in the harness and the even spring of her prancing trot. I love the way she swings her head back to boop my knee with her nose, just to make sure I’m paying attention to her, or the graceful way she sidesteps puddles while leading me right through them!

I’ve received requests that Greta Contribute more posts to the Dark Side, and she’s agreed, so you can look forward to hearing from her again in the future. Next week wraps up my January series describing the state of our partnership. I’ll introduce you to the training methods we’re using to address Greta’s current instability and some of the resources I’ve found most helpful in correcting my own.Until then, I am the blindfluencer who believes mindfulness is for dogs, too!

4 thoughts on “How Greta and I Left the Nest

  1. I am so proud of you! You take in advice, consider it, and are strong enough to not only admit to weakness but also to forge your own path even as you keep the advice in mind. What I read here is not a “all or nothing” road, but a good give-and-take, a path of respect for yourself and for the wisdom of counsel. Beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Because I’m coming to this post from a place of little to no knowledge on the topic, I was wondering if you could clarify what would have happened if Greta was retired? I ask because you didn’t retire her but removed her from guide dog duty, which seems like retirement in a way. I’m guessing if she’d been properly retried then Greta would have been re-homed?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So the chief difference between what I did and waht retirement means is that I intend to put Greta back into active service when I feel she’s ready. I’m re-training her right now. Retirement for a service dog owned by the handler can mean almost anything. I can keep her as a pet, wait until she dies to get a new guide dog or just get one while I still have a retired dog. Or I can choose to re-home her if I feel that’s better for us. But, again, because I own her it’s my choice what I do with her. But again, Greta is not retired, she’s on temporary extended leave for rehabilitation, with an eye toward returning to service. Good questions, and I’ll probably do my own post on retirement in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

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