Flashback Friday: First Solo Trip

Original Post Dates: 5/30/2021

Prada and I walked past Shannon, her former trainer, without hesitation for the first time today! I can’t tell you what a sense of accomplishment this gave me. I finally feel like I’ve proven myself worth of Prada’s loyalty. I’m sure Shannon would have congratulated me, but she was too busy not engaging with Prada. I felt the love, though.

 Prada ate like a lab this morning–I’m so excited! I think we’re finally settling into a routine. 0530 a.m. I get a wet puppy nose in my face saying “good morning, play?” We play for about five minutes while we wait for a kibble delivery, then we eat (all of it today!) dry food, then get a drink, and head downstairs to park.

Prada and I and another team completed our solo routes today. We traveled a prescribed route through Morristown, trailed at a distance by an instructor who would, of course, intervene in the case of serious safety hazards or emergencies. But we, the human members of our teams, were responsible for giving directions and collaborating with our dogs to solve problems like construction zones, cars ignoring traffic signals, and other dog-walkers.

This exercise is supposed to be an evaluation, not a test. Trainers look for our strengths, and areas we need to improve on, so they know how to prioritize the remainder of our time at The Seeing Eye. The feedback Prada and I received ran more or less along the lines of “great problem-solving skills” and “I wouldn’t change a thing, just keep practicing.”

As a more experienced handler, and knowing that my trainer was relatively inexperienced, and of course with an imperfect memory of that experience I can’t help but wonder how things might have gone differently if we’d been given more nuanced feedback. Prada was a great companion and solid worker, but I often felt that I wasn’t able to instill the same focus and precision in her that I’ve experienced with Greta.

Our feedback also included the question of “how did it feel?” My answer? “like a dream. I can’t imagine going back to using a cane.” Using a cane is clumsy and awkward, and you only get direct information, what’s right in front of you. A dog can show you doorways and familiar people (like if you’re meeting someone at a restaurant). With a. cane, your progress is impeded by obstacles you have to encounter, identify, then navigate around. With a dog your travel time becomes smoother and faster as the dog simply works around obstacles you never need be aware of.

As a reward for a great run today Brian, our trainer, handed out Kong toys. These are hollow rubber snowman-shaped toys that bounce irregularly, creating an exhilarating and unpredictable chase. Some people put peanut butter or treats inside for the dogs to work on getting out, which can be a great mental exercise, too. Shepherds are known for enjoying puzzles.

I realize this is a very short post but my parents are visiting from out of town and I didn’t previously have time to prepare and schedule a longer post for today. Consider the extra few minutes you would’ve spent reading a gift. Go do something kind for yourself like meditate, take a short walk, or love on the nearest puppy.

Flashback Friday: The Scoop

Original Post Dates: May 28-29

I’ve combined a couple of posts that were rather short and scattered into one (hopefully) more coherent narrative. Today I’m going to cover more bonding with Prada, preparing for the Solo Run, and “the astronaut’s question.”

Prada continues to change her eating habits, but at least I’ve figured out her play-style. What do those things have to do with each other/ Well, she’s stills tressed, but she’s giving me the time of day. She’s trying to form a relationship, even though the world is unsatisfactory at the moment.

Prada likes to wrestle. My hands have tiny little marks over them because, as gentle as she is, she still has teeth. She’s never broken the skin, and she is absolutely adorable when she pounces at me or tries to hold my hand down with one of her paws. It’s a good way to spend a few minutes while we wait for kibble to arrive.

We’re having fewer Shannon-attacks, though she still gets excited whenever the head trainer is around. I feel like I’ve utterly failed to convince her that I’m a good person, then she asks for belly scratches and I begin to hope again. Every trainer I’ve talked toa assures me this is very typical and I’m not doing anything wrong and that everything’ll be much easier once we’re away from the distracting influence. I just need to focus on the fact that, as intensely as Prada bonded with Shannon, someday it’ll be me she can’t seem to live without.

We’re preparing for our Solo Run, which isn’t a run at all. It’s an evaluation that allows trainers to determine our strengths and weaknesses. Each dog and handler team picks up different concepts more quickly than others, so the training curricula have to be personalized, and the Solo Run is one of the tools by which that’s accomplished.

Prada and I, and another working team, will travel a route through downtown Morrison without the guidance of a trainer. There will be one within sight of us at all times to help with emergencies because safety always comes first. But we’ll receive no hints, or. Even directions. We’ll be responsible for memorizing the routes and directing, correcting, and encouraging the dogs just like we’ll have to once we graduate.

Today was like a practice-test. We worked our route with a trainer alongside, but the trainer provided no assistance – except running interference between the other working team and an overly-enthusiastic rottweiler cross on a leash. Handling encounters with other dogs is something service dogs need to be able to do, but it’s covered later in the training because it’s a real challenge for them.

Seeing Eye dogs come into handler-training knowing everything they’re supposed to know, but just like we students aren’t given full responsibilities while we get used to our dogs, their loads are lightened (i.e. not needing to handle dog distractions independently) at first because of the shocking amount of changes going on in their lives.

We completed this practice run with flying colors. Prada has routinely showed me a pizza shop along the way, which I take to be a good sign. She made one significant traffic error on our way home, though. As we turned a corner and prepared to cross the street Prada dove into the crosswalk without stopping at the curb like she’s supposed to.

Guide dogs are supposed to stop at street corners to indicate the proximity to a street. The handler then signals a turn, continue down the street, or determines when it’s safe to begin crossing and gives the “forward” command. If it truly is safe, the dog proceeds to lead across the street. If not, the dog refuses to obey (intelligent disobedience, remember this post).

Prada didn’t wait for that “forward” command. We were on the way home, it was the end of the day, and she decided we were going whether I told her or not. I corrected her, we worked back a few feet and approached the curb again, and she stopped this time, and got lots of praise.

Traffic errors are some of the most serious a dog can make. It warrants a full two-handed leash correction, along with a harsh verbal “pfui” to enforce how serious the mistake was. But when dogs make mistakes they’re almost always given the opportunity to re-work the situation and do better. It’s more important to re-enforce a successful maneuver than to emphasize the failure.

Confident dogs behave more consistently, live longer, and are happier in general. That’s why TSE, and any dog trainer worth their salt, focuses on positive reinforcement, with correction being an unfortunate and secondary necessity. Incidentally, this is true of people, too. Encouragement actually helps the human brain to store lessons in long-term memory

All right, “the astronaut’s question.”

“how do you go to the bathroom in space?”

Whenever they show a Q&A of an astronaut on tv someone always asks that question. Well, it’s also the most frequent question I’ve gotten about training with a Seeing Eye dog. Yes, I’ve covered this in a previous post, but it keeps coming up so here are some more details.

“What do blind people do when their service dogs have to go?”

First, a little history lesson.

The Seeing Eye used to be based out of a hotel in Nashville. There was a park across the street where students would go to relieve their dogs. This gave rise to the term “park time.” Spell it backwards and you get…you’ll figure it out.

So, from now on you’ll be hearing me refer to “park time,” if I haven’t been already. Now, how does park time work?

Seeing Eye dogs are kept on a pretty strict feeding and watering schedule. This allows us to predict, even to some degree control, when food and water comes back out. This makes it easier to ensure I’ll be near a convenient location when it’s park time. So when it’s time, I proceed to the designated location, remove the harness, and rearrange the leash so Prada’s got the most room.

Prada circles me, an action I facilitate by some simple footwork. Motion tends to encourage parking, so it speeds up the process. But it also ensures that I have a straight line (the leash) leading me directly to the pile I’ll need to clean up. When Prada stops, I lean forward and touch her back to see what shape she’s making. If it’s a slope (because she’s female) she’s going #1, no pile. If she’s hunched up, with a rounded back, it’s #2. Time to get out a bag.

I invert the bag over my hand like a glove, and point my foot along her body to give myself another landmark for when she inevitably finishes and moves again. Then, using my own body to orient me, I use the bag to pick up. Now, if I’m in a familiar place or have had time to scout in advance, I simply locate the nearest trashcan and dispose of the bag.

If I haven’t had time to scout, there are some basic logical assumptions I can use to locate a trash can. They tend to be near, but not right at, doors leading into buildings (a holdover from the old smoking days). If I’m at a park, I can guess there’ll be one near, but not next to, a bench (for picnic disposal). Worst case scenarios someone notices me looking super blind and lost and holding a tied-off bag of dog poop and points me in the right direction.

It’s a reasonable question, I suppose, given that it’s a significant part of the logistics of having dogs in public places like office buildings, civic locations, libraries, restaurants, et cetera. But, I mean, do people not have anything more interesting on their minds toa ask about service dogs? Of all the questions you COULD ask, that’s the one that comes out of your mouth?

Ah, well. I guess I became a counselor because I just really don’t understand people sometimes. Seriously, ask me something more interesting.

Guest Post: From First Pet to Last Snuggle

I’ve had the privilege of meeting and collaborating with some great bloggers recently, and today I have another guest post to share with you. This brilliant writer is a woman much like myself; she’s blind, works with a service dog, and has stories to tell. I’ve found a lot of my own experiences echoed in her words, which you should definitely check out here.

And if you just really miss my words, you can see what I posted on her blog here. It’s all part of my sneaky plan to lure you into reading more of Rhianna’s articles.

Today Rhianna has a sad story to tell, yet another one that will someday be my story, too. She’s had to retire her service dog. But when she went online in search of others who’d had this experience who could support her through this painful process, she found silence. People with disabilities are often isolated by sheer numbers; there just aren’t that many of us per capita in any given location. And when you narrow down the field to “blind with service dogs,” the available support pool shrinks to scattered raindrops.

But Rhianna’s a blogger, and responded in kind. Since she couldn’t find the support, she chose to create it for others. Here is her story.

P.S. Grab tissues.

Mid morning light was streaming in through the open living room windows and my 70-pound golden lab cross was curled up on my lap. Tears rolled down my cheeks and landed on his silky head. He didn’t seem to mind though.

He knew I needed him. We needed each other. We knew the moment had come.

John Green said: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep—slowly, then all at once.” This is how I fell in love with Cricket. I’d been falling for him for the six months before I met him, waiting for him to finish training and be matched with me—the dream team. And when he sauntered into my room, licked my hand and lay down at my feet, my heart was truly his.

In reflecting on our two-year relationship from first pet to last snuggle, I’ve realized that it’s the same way with grief. If you’ll allow me a moment, I’d like to share with you the story of Cricket’s retirement.

Rhianna McGreggor walks with her golden lab cross guide dog, Cricket, on a snowy path.

It was midsummer 2020, and Cricket and I were out for our usual half-hour walk around the neighbourhood. We were five minutes from home, just headed down the hill when, in the middle of the sidewalk, Cricket stopped.

And wouldn’t move.

“Cricket, forward,” I said, giving the leash an encouraging snap.

But he just stood there like a dog statue. “Cricket, forward,” I urged again. No response.

I ran through my mental checklist, trying to figure out what might be wrong. Is he distracted? What is he looking at? Does he need to relieve himself? Is he in pain? I checked the harness, inspected his paws, and found everything as it should be.

“Cricket, forward,” I said again. But there was still no response. Not wanting to frustrate either of us further, I turned around, picked up the harness handle and without a command, Cricket guided me flawlessly (and speedily) back home.

This was not normal, so I reached out to my trainer for help. His suggestions did helped… sometimes. It was hit and miss for the next nine months, and all the while, the question I was trying to keep down kept pushing itself to the forefront of my mind.

Did Cricket want to retire?

No, he couldn’t, I thought. He’s only three. Guide dogs are supposed to work for six to eight years, not two.

In the spring of 2021, the whispers of Cricket’s retirement were growing louder and louder. Cricket wouldn’t work two days in a row, preferring to take a luxurious nap rather than run errands with me. He avoided me when I brought down the harness from the hook by the door. On our walks, he would stop at the intersections and refuse to cross the street. He stalled at the top of staircases and deliberately took me off sidewalks into driveways and onto lawns. It was very unsafe.

And very obvious. Cricket was telling me every way he knew how:

“Mom, I don’t want to be a guide dog anymore.”

The final straw came on April 23. I got up that morning and said to God: “If Cricket wants to retire, I need you to make it clear to me today. I can’t keep doing this.”

Cricket guided me all 15 minutes to the coffee shop with only a couple hiccups. I was feeling optimistic. I drank my iced latte, picked up the harness handle, but rather than a quick 15 minute trip home, we stopped and started every 30 seconds. We made it home 45 minutes later, and I knew God had given me my answer.

Remember that moment in my living room? When we got home, I held Cricket tight and told him, “You don’t have to work anymore if you don’t want to, baby. I want you to be happy, and if retiring is what’ll make you happy, that’s okay.”

This is how it happened with me and Cricket. But every service dog handler’s story is different. In retirement, some handlers choose to have their dogs remain with them at home. Some choose to rehome them to close friends or family, and still others send their dogs back to their training school and have the staff find them loving homes. I knew that in making Cricket’s retirement official, the next question was where he would live.

He couldn’t live with me. I didn’t have the physical space or the financial means to care for him, particularly as I would be applying for a successor guide. After much deliberation and prayer, it was decided that Cricket would return to his puppy raiser, back in his native Michigan.

It’s been almost two months now since I said goodbye to my baby boy. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful and close relationship with his puppy raiser (now mom), and receive frequent updates. Cricket is living the life out in the country, with his doggy sister, Willow and fields to run in.

But me? I’m still waking up every morning, thinking that he’ll be in the bed next to mine. I still do the hand gestures for “forward,” “right” and “left” as I walk with friends. And when my partner guided me to the curb and stopped, I said “good boy” instead of “thank you.” Thankfully, he and I both laughed.

But the grief is still very raw. It will be for a long time.

The grief of retiring a service dog begins on that very first day. You’re overwhelmed with joy and hope and love for this dog that has already changed your life, but you know deep down that eventually, it will end. And when it does, I need you to know a few things.

I know you’re hurting right now. Your heart is broken and you don’t know how or when it will be put back together. After all, the only thing that could heal it has just been taken from you.

I know you’re angry. Why does it have to end this way? Why does it have to end at all? It’s not fair—to love someone so much and have to let go.

I know you wonder if you did enough to make it work. Countless pieces of advice have come your way, from trainers, fellow handlers and complete strangers, and yet, the only thing you want to hear is that yes, you did enough, and you are good enough.

I know you miss him. You think you hear him snoring in his bed but when you reach down to check, the bed is empty. You add dog food to the grocery list, realize you don’t have to buy it, but you do anyway. You cry yourself to sleep because the blankets still smell like her, and you laugh through your tears, remembering how she took up the whole bed.

I know you wonder if you could ever love another dog the way you loved him.

I know you’re not okay right now.

Neither am I.

And we won’t be for a long time. And that’s okay, too.

Writing this post broke my heart all over again. I cried my way through draft after draft, trying to find a way to express the depth of my grief and the grief for the handlers going through it that would do justice to the bond we share with our dogs. Whether I’ve accomplished that, I’ll leave up to you.

But let me leave you with one final thought: During my therapy sessions during and after Cricket’s retirement, I so often tried to minimize my pain, saying that every handler goes through it, that we all know it’s coming someday, and it’s already been two months since he moved.

But my therapist is helping me to reframe that. Rather than set a timeline for healing my broken heart and invalidating my emotions, just feel it. It’s okay to hurt. It’s good to grieve. It’s okay to not be okay. The loss is as real as any other despite what we may think or be told. And there’s no one-size-fits-all for grief. It’s a journey.

So feel every emotion, hug his favourite toy, curl up in his bed, and remember every day what he did for you. He still loves you, just as you will always love him.

Dear Cricket, thank you for everything. You are forever in my heart.

Love, Mom

Weird Wednesday!

Original Post Date: May 28, 2021

You may have noticed I’m breaking with my pattern. Due to some scheduling changes you get a Flashback post today. And this Friday I’ve got something really special to share with you all! So I hope you enjoy this Weird Wednesday, and make sure you check in on us in a couple of days…

The Down-town Training Center

The January 2009 class at The Seeing Eye was the first to use the shiny new Downtown Training Center (DTC). As I described in a previous post, the House where we live and train is outside Morristown so groups of students and dogs often get driven into town for city work. But that takes up a lot of time, energy, and gas so TSE constructed a gorgeous new in-town training facility in 2008. It won several awards for eco-friendly construction and such-like, I’m told.

Now when students load up into the vans for the drive into down we disembark in an underground parking garage, which also houses a kennel and a trainers’ lounge. Upstairs we trek to the student lounge, which has a kitchenette, seating area with comfortable chairs and couches, restrooms, and vending machines. There students and dogs can relax in a climate-controlled, quiet place with access to water and treats while they take turns going out in pairs with trainers.

Prada and I worked on a new route today. We dealt with lighted intersections, dog distractions, and street-level orientation (me making sure we don’t get lost). She excelled, and even showed me a couple of shop doors in case I wanted to go into them. Dogs do this by nosing the door handle, a motion which I can feel through the handle of the harness. 

The dogs are used to one training route per day. The twice-a-day routine we’re putting them through now is exhausting yet satisfying to them. Prada sleeps all night, even with the crate door open, and takes naps whenever she can get them. Like right now, she’s curled up in her crate snoring. Normally, I’d join her in the napping (not in the crate), but my attempt to sleep today was thwarted by a PA announcement.

“Will the following dogs please bring their handlers down to the vet’s office, please? Sam, Nytra, Prada, and Gabby.”

Prada needed a vaccine update. Shepherds, it turns out, are total wusses at the vet. Little drama queens who cry and fuss at any given opportunity. When Prada got stuck she sprang into my arms crying louder than I’ve ever head a dog cry. Neither of the three labs that preceded us made a single peep!

The vet gave us a cookie, and that made life a little better.

Prada never got over her veterinary dislike. But now I wonder if it really is breed-related. While greta is a total baby at the vet, she has become more and more confident and comfortable at this new holistic vet that we’ve been seeing for the past year. This last visit she got a vaccine update and, with her mouth full of cookies, she didn’t even seem to notice when the vet stuck her.

I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions lately about whether or not there are better ways of implementing veterinary care, both from a medicinal and a behavioral approach. TSE dogs love vets when they leave the school, even though they all fuss at treatment. But it didn’t take long for either of my dogs to decide they didn’t like the offices I took them to in Huntsville.

I’ll share more reflections on this in future posts. I’ve got a lot running around in my head right now. But even though this is a short post, it’s been a busy week and I’d rather leave you wanting more than ramble. Remember to check in on Friday, though, for a surprise post!

Flashback Friday: Feeding and Fear

In the original blog readers may remember noticing that the spelling of Prada’s name fluctuated somewhat in the first few posts. That’s because I’d never heard the word “Prada” before I met the dog. My grandmother suggested it might be “Pravda,” a Russian word meaning “truth” and also a prominent Russian newspaper. But it turns out the name originates a little closer to home.

It comes from the book, movie, band, and design label all with that same name in it. Prada was named after the purse. But I’d never heard of the brand until someone in class pointed that out to me. It took me until after college to finally see the movie, and the book’s still on my Wishlist.

Original Post Date: May 27, 2021

We did it! We ate half our kibble today! Well, half of one meal, anyway. Apparently I’m taking credit for this like it’s an accomplishment, even though it probably has nothing to do with me whether or not she eats. And, it also seems that puppy parenthood has severely impaired my pronoun skills and sense of self-differentiation.

Our trainer tells us that Prada is picky, even for a shepherd. As I’ve said before, shepherds are known for skipping meals, and it’s best to just lean on the old maternal axiom “If you’re not eating, then you’re not hungry.” Makes her hunger strikes seem less personal. Other tricks I’ve tried are uncovering part of the bottom father bowl, and only presenting half a meal at a time. This can also help me monitor just precisely how much she is, and isn’t eating.

The original annotation of this post included a discussion about how Prada lost almost 5 pounds within the first few months after I brought her home. I was concerned, I took her to a vet who suggested an incredibly expensive high-calorie joint supplement food. That wasn’t sustainable, and when I switched vets for other reasons the new vet informed me that it took 2 techs to restrain Prada to give her a vaccine shot, her coat was gorgeous, teach were healthy, and her eyes were clear. She wasn’t under-nourished in any way.

Apparently all of the following count as legitimate reasons for Prada, or any shepherd, not to eat:

  • “I haven’t worked enough so I don’t want the calories.”
  • I’m bored with this food.
  • “there’s something exciting going on nearby that I need to monitor.”
  • “The stars aren’t aligned properly.”
  • “I’m stressed about something.”
  • “it’s a Tuesday.”

I’d like to add to this “I’m vaguely allergic to this and it makes me feel a little wonky inside.” Purebred dogs in particular are more prone to allergies or sensitivities to the grain-based and legume-based fillers used in most commercial dog foods. It’s worth the one-time fee to get your dog allergy-tested to see if their food is adding to gastro-intestinal discomfort, inflammation, and emotional stress within their bodies.

Training Update

At this stage of our training we’re not yet responsible for every aspect of our dogs’ care. With the amount that we the handlers have to internalize and put into practice on the technical side of working service dog, the staff here want us to concentrate on bonding and practice, not the finer details of feeding and parking.

Each couple of days we get another piece of our jobs handed off to us. For example, right now the trainers bring kibble to our rooms, and pick up the piles left at park time. We do the feeding and the circling part of parking, but very soon we’ll be doing it all.  I expect another grooming lecture in a few days, as well. Frankly, I’m glad for this piece-meal approach. It is a bit overwhelming, and I constantly worry I’ll never be able to keep all the balls in the air.

Daily care includes feeding, parking, grooming, exercise, and play. On top of everything else I do on a daily basis, that’s a lot of time and energy. And then I need to keep track of our training performance, distractions, remember how to properly direct and re-direct Prada, how to respond when she intelligently disobeys, and help her manage the bizarre fears dogs encounter in a very human world.

Honestly, it feels like if I forget one thing at any given time I’ll compromise her training irreparably. I’m sure it’s not that serious, but it feels that way sometimes.

Let’s talk about doggy fears

There is very little about our urbanized life that makes sense to dogs. The ground might feel like rock but it smells like oil and old food. They’re not allowed to scavenge out of those enormous bins. Crazy loud metal beasts roll on by and screech without letting off any warning pheromones at all…it’s a hot mess, and there’s a lot a dog can legitimately label a potential threat.

Things Dogs Might Fear:

  • A plastic bag rattling along the street
  • Floating objects like balloons
  • An empty trashcan rolling behind them
  • People in uniforms – the lack of color contrast can make it hard for dog eyes to identify them as “human” if they’re not talking

This, I think, is where I began seeing potential threats on every street corner. It took a while to manifest, but I began to become hyper-aware of all the ways in which my dog may be scared or become anxious about something. It was something I’d never considered before, and it felt like pulling a veil away from my eyes to reveal an alien world full of unknown terrors.

I’d also like to add something I just learned yesterday. Since dogs’ vision is very different than ours, they can often have difficulty discerning human shapes at a distance of about 30-40 feet. The nose says ‘human,” the eyes say “being moving toward me.” But the eyes also say “being moving toward me is STARING at me.” 30-40 feet is when humans naturally make eye contact with one another as they prepare to pass each other on the street or in stores.

But dogs view eye contact very differently. And if they’ve got any sensory confusion going on, or any pre-existing underlying anxiety, they may feel the need to announce their doggy-ness in some way in order to provoke an identifying response from the oncoming human. Shepherds, apparently, are particularly prone to this because of their engineered protective instincts.

So what do we do about doggy fears?

Dogs’ pack mentality means they often look to humans for cues on how to respond to potential threats. Therefore, the best response to your dog spooking is to remain calm and confident, treat the scary plastic bag fluttering in the wind as totally normal – because it is normal, to you. Encourage the dog past the scary object without offering too much reassurance.

Too much reassurance can actually confirm the dog’s belief that there’s something wrong. “Mom’s comforting me, therefore it must be scary!” In this way, dogs are an awful lot like babies and toddlers. If a toddler falls on his butt he’ll look to the nearest adult to see whether or not it’s worth crying over. If a parent scoops him up giggling over his adorable face, the baby will most likely giggle back.

But if Mom swoops down on him with coos and concern the baby will realize something terrible has happened and cry accordingly. Or, in the case of a dog, become more timid, shy away from things, or yell – bark – at the scary thing. The takeaway here? Take everything in stride. You spook at a spider, then laugh it off and move on. Let your dog do the same by modeling how it’s ok to get occasionally startled.

No life exists without occasional startlement. To try and avoid all fear-causing events or objects is an exercise in futility. The Seeing Eye does a lot through their training program and their puppy-raising program to expose the dogs early on to as many unusual phenomena as possible so they become normalized in the dog’s early puppy-hood experience.

But of course no program can expose dogs to everything in the 18 months to 2 years’ worth of training. Learning how to recognize signs of stress in your dog can help guide you into making decisions about how many new experiences you want to throw at your dog at any given moment. Some non-visual signs of stress you can use are:

Huffing. When your dog blows out a huffing breath it can be an indication of stress. It might be time to take a break, stop and do some obedience exercises to help them re-focus, give them a little rub-down, help them physically transfer their stress to you so they can focus on their work.

Thick, stringy saliva: You’re more likely to notice this one if you use clicker-training because you’ll be feeding a lot of treats along the way. If your hand comes away a little damp, no big deal. You got a little tongue action, wipe it off and move on. But if your hand comes away from treat-dispensing kind of slimy, with a layer of saliva over your fingertips, your dog is stressed about something. See above, or see if there’s a way to remove yourself and the dog from that situation to calm down before trying again with more treats.

These non-visual stress indicators aren’t ones I learned from TSE. Back then, really before this past year, I only knew how to recognize stress from growling, barking, or whining. At this point the dog is past feeling stress and onto acting on stress. The previously described indicators, however, allow me to notice when stress begins so I can intervene earlier.

Flashback Friday: First Day of School

Original Post Date: 26 May, 2009

The sleep deprivation is definitely showing in my original blog content. What I present to you below is not the massive block of un-spellchecked text that rambles through more details about grooming, our first training walk, and obedience training. It is, instead, the same content but completely rewritten for comprehensibility.

One of the most unique rooms I’ve encountered at TSE so far is a dedicated grooming room. It’s a rectangular room with a bench running along three out of four walls. This bench is tiered, so at its lowest point near one door it’s barely two feet above the ground, but rises at intervals as it circles the room to a higher 3.5 foot tier at the other end.

Dogs and handlers combine their individual height and mobility stats together to need different heights for easy, ergonomic grooming. Both Prada and I are tall creatures; she stands on the highest tier where it’s most comfortable for me to reach every part of her body.

I remember daydreaming about building or buying a bench like this and finding space for it in a mudroom in my dreamhouse. If grooming is something you do regularly – and it should be – then it should be comfortable, not something that causes you pain or the dog stress. It’s worth investing in a good grooming setup.

I don’t have a grooming bench; I groom Greta standing on the floor. But I bought myself a seiza bench usually used for meditation to make myself more comfortable during grooming sessions. She gets excited whenever I pull it out from under my desk. It’s a bonding experience we both really enjoy.

More exciting than a customized grooming room, however, is the fact that we took our first training walk downtown today! The school is a little ways outside of Morristown so we load up into big whit vans with some of the seats removed to make room for multiple service dogs and drive downtown to work on the wide variety of urban obstacles available there.

I’ve been told that most dogs don’t do very well on their first outing with new handlers. There’s just too much different going on for the dog to fully concentrate, but it usually doesn’t take them more than that first lesson to settle into the familiar tasks of curb stops, traffic checks, and avoidances.

Prada, it turns out, is an over-achiever like me. Not only did she focus brilliantly, she also studiously ignored “common yard trash” (a couple of little yappy dogs in yards), and performed an advanced-level avoidance maneuver around an oncoming student with their new dog, too! Her gait is so smooth and even, which I’m told is common among German shepherds. They don’t trot, they prance.

I remember feeling like my steps would send me flying forward if I didn’t restrain myself. It was like my excitement turned the sidewalk into a moon-bounce surface. I felt like I had to concentrate in order to actually remember the cues and pay attention to Prada instead of just being so overwhelmed with how liberated I felt working with her.

Seeing Eye dogs receive a year’s worth of basic obedience training in addition to their 6-8 months of specialized training. These common commands like “sit,” “come,” “heel,” “rest,” “go to your place,” and “hup-up” are not only important for good canine manners but can also keep them safe, and make them easier to find when needed.

In addition to two training walks a day we also receive at least one, if not two, daily obedience lessons. I’m learning these commands for the first time – well, some of them, since I’ve had a dog as a pet before – and Prada benefits from the reinforcement in the midst of all the new and exciting changes taking place around her.

These lessons usually take place in the residential wings of the school, and it seems Prada isn’t very keen on turning around for the “heel” and “come” commands in the narrow space between me and the wall.  I don’t blame her, but I did see progress from the beginning of the lesson to the end of it, so I’m not worried.

TSE uses praise-based rewards for training and reinforcing their dogs instead of treat-based reward systems. There are reasons to be mindful of treat-based reward systems, as they can cause weight gain if you don’t moderate the dispensation of kibble accordingly, but in my personal experience treats are more motivating than praise, and combining the two reward methods is the best way to supercharge your training.

The reason I prefer treat-based reward systems now is because I’ve learned a bit more about the way in which dogs learn. Their brains have very specific survival-oriented priorities, and the acquisition of food is one of the highest priorities. It’s tightly linked to their learning capacity, which is normal for scavengers. Their survival depends on their ability to extrapolate concepts like “food comes from this source, but not that one.”

So, when you work with a dog’s natural instincts to achieve the result you want it takes a lot less effort to reinforce good behavior. You do need to monitor caloric intake and exercise, of course, and using treats for training costs more than “atta girl!” and a belly rub. And, of course, some dogs just aren’t as food-motivated as others. Your reward system should work with both your lifestyle, your means, and your dog’s preferences.

We’re expecting a thunderstorm tonight. I hear that’s not uncommon for New Jersey this time of year. While I love thunderstorms in general – they always make me want to write stories – I’m really hoping this one holds off until after our second training run downtown.

Our schedule here is pretty intense. Our days begin at 0530 with park and feed, then feeding the people, then a training lesson and obedience lesson. There’s some quiet time after or before lunch, depending on if you did obedience or training first in the morning. The afternoon includes more training and obedience, and dinner is followed by a lecture, so the learning day doesn’t really end until 8:30pm at last park.

The dogs are fed twice a day, given water at four intervals a day, and parked four times a day. Most dogs this size and exercising this much will need to park #2 twice a day and #1 four times a day. Water is given at controlled times and amounts so it’s easy to control when they need to park. This makes it easier for dogs to function in human workplaces, commutes, and social settings without random bathroom emergencies.

I look forward to sharing with you what I’ve learned about canine nutrition and digestion in future posts. But I will say that I still adhere to TSE’s principles of “if you know when the food and water go in, you know when it comes out.” It makes planning my day, travel time, and work breaks a lot easier, and it helps regulate digestion. If only it were that easy with us humans!

Lessons I Learned From A Chicken

Lesson #1.  I am married to a remarkable man.

Now for the story…

Greta is pretty good about not trying to scavenge “people food.” She respects tables and countertops, doesn’t beg, and even asks permission to enter the kitchen most of the time. But one day, toward the end of her lengthy recovery from her food allergies and infection, I heard the distinctive sounds of crunching and clattering that alerted me to a counter violation.

Greta had snagged the carcass of a rotisserie chicken off the counter and begun pulling it apart, dragging the bones into a dark corner of the front hall. Of course she got a scolding and my husband and I set about cleaning up the mess.

Then my husband asked a very interesting question, a question I think a lot of puppy parents, and people parents, ought to ask.

“I wonder what kind of nutrients she’s deficient in that made her go after the chicken?”

Lesson #2. Good behavior doesn’t suddenly turn into misbehavior without reason.

As a therapist I’ve come to recognize that most aberrant behavior comes from people trying to meet needs in maladaptive ways. It’s rare that someone does something wrong, harmful, or unhealthy simply for the sake of doing it that way. That doesn’t make us any less responsible for our choices, or their consequences, but it does make it easier to change our behavior. If we can understand the unmet need, then we can develop healthier, more effective methods of meeting it.

Dogs don’t have a sense of right or wrong. They understand what is good or bad for them, what is good or bad for the pack, and that’s about it. That doesn’t mean your dog is starving whenever she scrounges out of your trash can; it means she’s a natural scavenger who hasn’t been convinced that the trash can isn’t a good source of food.

So, when Greta committed the rare sin of counter-surfing and targeted the chicken, my husband’s question was an inspired response. Much more helpful to the entire pack than getting frustrated or angry. Greta’s behavior had to be discouraged, of course, but then he asked the question. “What did she need/“

It wasn’t hard to figure out. Her infection had caused skin lesions. Healing skin might need extra collagen, and bones are a good source of collagen. So I started dispensing small amounts of my home-made bone broth every couple of days to aid in her recovery process.

To preserve the line between “your food” and “my food,” I put the broth directly into one of Greta’s bowls and make her ask permission to drink it.  She licks the bowl so clean when I give her broth that I don’t usually have to wash it afterwards. It’s a nice compliment to my cooking.

So, when you find yourself doing something you know won’t help, like snapping back at someone in conversation, reaching for the chocolate chip cookies when you’re in a bad mood, skipping a gym workout or sending that angry email, give yourself a little grace. Then ask the question, “what do I really need?” Do you need to feel safe? Are you burned out and need a day off?  You’re not as lazy, impulsive, or short-fused as you think you are, and once you start asking yourself this question your creative brain gets involved, generating other options for meeting that need. There’s a lot of wisdom buried in our behavior, just waiting to be unlocked.

This mindset can help cultivate compassion for others, too. When I find Greta has misbehaved I can get angry, I can worry about the problem persisting and getting worse. Or I can ask “what does she need/” She can’t tell me, of course, but a little creative thinking can solve that problem, like with the bone broth. This applies to my husband, my friends, family, and clients. Compassion is much more comfortable than frustration.

So, my friends, what do you need? What kind of content would you find most interesting, entertaining, and useful? Share your ideas and creative problem solving techniques below.

Flashback Friday: Packs, Prius, and Practice

Original Post Date:: 24 May, 2009

This month’s class consists of 24 students, which have been split into six 4-person teams and an instructor or apprentice/instructor team.  In my team I am one of two rookies, and the other two are both retrains.  This kind of split is done deliberately so that the retrains can share their experiences with the rookies, adding to the curriculum.  

Today the teams were doubled up, 8 people, for the hands-on learning exercises.  While one group of 8 practiced harnessing a stuffed dog reminiscent of Rowdy from Scrubs, the others played with a string of six two-year-old dogs in training, familiarizing themselves with the dogs’ energy, coats, and physiology.

I went on another Juno walk, practicing the commands I’ll deliver to my future dog while the trainer continued taking notes on my pace and pull. By this time the dog is already picked out, but it never hurts to be sure of the match. And, I need all the practice I can get.

These are the basic commands, accompanied by hand gestures, that every Seeing Eye dog comes “pre-programmed” with.

  • Forward: go forward
  • Left: turn left
  • Right: turn left
  • Basic obedience: sit, come, rest
  • Go to your place: see below
  • Leave it: a reminder to pay attention to the task at hand
  • “Pfui:” a correction (see below)

Pfui is a German word that roughly translates to “not good.” It’s a word the dog isn’t likely to hear in daily conversation, nowhere near as common as “no,’ or the homophone ‘know.” Pfui is meant to jerk a dog’s attention back to their job, or to the handler. It is not punishment. It should be delivered in a firm, even stern tone, but never in anger.

While not the greatest part of the day, the obligatory fire drill was certainly the most exciting!  TSE uses an alarm that sounds something like a battle klaxon from Star Wars or Halo, and blind students and employees can locate fire exits by listening for the constant hissing sound emitted by devices planted above the doors.

Once outside we all assembled on the front sidewalk for a demonstration of the hybrid “quiet car” that TSE purchased for safety training purposes.  While I could see the silver Prius approaching us with my limited vision, our Totals (totally blind students) only discovered the car’s presence by the softly crunching gravel underneath the tires as the car arrived directly in front of them—only detectable at a distance of roughly 5 feet! 

This is disturbing to the blind and visually impaired community as a whole, but should concern the children of aging parents who may experience age-related vision deterioration as well. I personally was amazed at how quiet these machines are, and am very thankful for all the effort TSE does in training our dogs to handle these dangerous vehicles.

Today’s lecture focused on two topics: Pack mentality and Intelligent Disobedience.

Pack Mentality

Let’s talk about boundaries and belonging.

Dogs thrive in environments that harmonize with their genetic predispositions. That is, they like things that feel natural to them, such as the feeling of belonging to, and having a special place in, a pack. My job as the handler is to create and maintain this environment, for the sake of both functionality of our pack, and everyone’s mental health – including that of the dog.

Like any group, packs need a leader in the sense that they need someone who represents to the outside and directs the inside. But dogs don’t think of pack structure as a top-down, or bottom-up hierarchy. For them, the pack’s all about function, not power. So to be told “this is your place, not that” is very comforting to a dog. Knowing what is and isn’t allowed means knowing how to gain and retain acceptance, which in turn means safety, companionship, and kibble.

The ideal Seeing Eye dog pack looks something like this:

  • Handler: pack leader, defines the dog’s job, and when to carry out that job.
  • All Other Humans: back-up pack leaders should the primary be unavailable.
  • Dog: guide, XO of pack leader, safely executing given commands.

As with humans, geography can play an important role in setting healthy boundaries. Giving a dog a special place such as a crate or pillow or blanket where the dog will never be scolded or sent away from gives them a guaranteed place of utter belonging. ‘This is my place, no matter what craziness is going on off the edge of this pillow.” Crates or pillows or other iterations of “place” ought never to be used as punishments, acts of separation from the pack. Rather, they represent the dog’s special niche within the pack. The command “go to your place” essentially means “take your station.” It’s a guaranteed means of gaining approval, and not getting stepped on.

Intelligent Disobedience

This is where all the dramatic stories of heroic service dog rescues come from. I spoke with many retrains, who told countless stories of their dogs refusing to obey commands that would, unwittingly, have placed handler and dog in danger.

Intelligent Disobedience: refusing a command that puts people in danger.

For example, a dog will refuse to obey the “forward” command if a car is about to cut you off in a crosswalk, or won’t turn left if there’s a brick wall or uncovered manhole in the way.  Teaching the dog self-preservation isn’t necessary, they have some basic instincts.  But a dog cannot be taught the concept of “death” or “not living”. 

American communication theorist Kenneth Burke referred to humans as “inventors of the negative,” in that we have the ability to comprehend what something is not, or nonexistence, whereas animals do not. Dogs understand they are living, they recognize death in others, but can’t relate it to themselves. They fear danger, not death. So, artificial dangers such as cars must be introduced as “pain causers”.

An instructor will walk up to a car, hit the car with their hand or pretend to trip into the car, and act as if the car has hurt them.  This is repeated regularly with more and more dramatic acting until the dog understands that moving vehicles are dangerous.  However, the balance here must be walked carefully because you don’t want to give the dog an unrealistic fear of stationery cars or car rides.

Since writing this post I’ve learned that the dog guide school in Nagoya, Japan, has a brilliant additional step to training dogs to respect moving cars. A trained instructor will drive a car slowly in front of another instructor working a dog. If the dog gets too close to the moving vehicle, the driver will gently bop the dog on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper covered in white tape. This creates a more immediate association between moving cars and unpleasant consequences.