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!

Dress for Success

This week’s post is going to be a bit technical, but to make up for it I’ve got lots of cute puppy pics.

This year Greta suffered a minor shoulder injury. I’m not precisely certain when it happened, but I suspect it was the result of racing across uneven ground at a dog park. Kids play hard, right? Fortunately, the dog trainer I’d hired to help me with Greta’s behavioral problems also has an interest in canine kinesiology and physical rehabilitation. She taught us some exercises to help strengthen at-risk muscle groups, but also took a lifestyle approach to treatment. She wanted to look at Greta’s harness.

The Seeing Eye issues a beautiful, understated leather harness with reflective strips and the school name stamped into it. It looks professional on any dog, and it’s easy to care for. But this harness, sans the reflective strips, is pretty much identical to the one that Morris Frank, first blind American to use a service dog, designed back in the 1920’s. it’s based on a cart-horse harness.

Greta is in the old harness and standing at Anneliese’s left side. Anneliese is wearing jeans and sneakers and the two of them are standing on a large pebbled concrete pad. The image is looking down from Anneliese’s point of “view” onto Greta’s back. The strap of the old harness rests behind Greta’s shoulder blades.

Horses and dogs may look similar, but their kinesiology is very different. A horse’s foreleg bends like a human knee-joint, with the shoulder only sliding a little and the hoof pointing backward. The joint bends forward.

A woman in a red riding jacket, grey riding pants, and black riding boots sands in front of a speckled and grey horse with a thick winter coat. They are standing in about 2 inches of snow near a forest. The woman is using her left hand to hold the reins near the horses mouth and is using her right hand to encourage the horse to raise its right forward leg in a fancy show pose. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

A dog’s foreleg more closely resembles a human arm, with the shoulder rotating back farther, the paw extending forward, and the joint angling backward.

Anneliese is on he knees in front of her service dog Greta, who is sitting and facing Anneliese. Anneliese is using her left hand to hold training treats which Greta is focusing on. While Greta looks at the treat hand, Anneliese is using her right hand to gently lift Greta’s paw into the air, causing the dog’s front left should to flex and rotate in a therapeutic stretch. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

What the trainer noticed, however, was that the slenderness of the back-strap put pressure directly onto Greta’s spine, and the angle of the back-straps connection to the chest strap didn’t allow for much range of motion for Greta’s shoulder.

So that 90-degree angle between the back and chest strap on TSE’s harness restricts a dog’s natural shoulder motion. The trainer asked me if there were other styles of harness we could use. That thought, however, had never once crossed my mind even after more than 10 years working a service dog!

We did some googling, and it turns out that other people had begun to ask this question in recent years, too. Are there better ways to design harnesses that still transmit information from the dog’s neck and shoulders to a blind person’s hand but better support a dog’s natural range of motion? The answer, fortunately, is yes.

Here you can see that the back-strap attaches higher on Greta’s side, and at an angle that allows her shoulder to move more freely in its natural direction. That back-strap is also half again as wide as the one on the old harness, and has a cushioned underside to help better distribute the weight of the harness across her spine.

The little brown patches you see there are strips of moleskin I applied to areas where the nylon rubbed on Greta’s stomach. Those areas are a little more tender than normal because of her recently healed infection. By the time the moleskin falls off, that area will be healed and she won’t need it anymore. Just another DIY trick for supporting your service dog’s workplace comfort.

This harness looks pretty good in theory, doesn’t it? Support’s the dog’s natural range of motion, each piece is custom-fitted for the individual dog, still nice and professional-looking, with maybe a slightly sportier flare….but do these two changes really make a difference in a dog’s working comfort?

Yes, they do. After several chiropractic visits and a new treadmill routine (yes, dogs can go on treadmills) we tried out the new harness on a walk around the neighborhood. Greta held her head a little higher, picked up her paws a little more, and generally felt more relaxed and confident in her stride.

I could feel the change in her head posture and gait through the harness, and the trainer confirmed my observations as she walked alongside us. Taking the pressure off her spine and freeing up that shoulder made the unnatural business of wearing a harness that much more natural-feeling and comfortable. Just like people, dogs perform better when they’re physically and emotionally comfortable, so it was definitely worth what I paid for this custom piece of equipment.

So it works for the dog, but how about for the handler?

Dog guide harnesses are designed with a very specific function in mind. Information about a dog’s speed, direction, and attitude can be inferred from head and shoulder angle, and that information needs to be relayed through touch to the blind handler. This is done by attaching a stiff handle to flexible joints on the harness. When Greta stops, turns, or leans, her motion is translated through the joint, into the handle, and then into my hand.

The old and new working harness’ are side by side on pebblestone concrete. The old harness is in the top of the image and the new one is in the bottom of the image. You can see that while they both have the same idea of design, it is executed very differently. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

The new harness incorporates this concept, but at a different angle. The connection point between handle and shoulder strap is higher, up on Greta’s side. I was a little concerned I wouldn’t receive as much information if her shoulder didn’t move the handle joint in the same way it had previously.

We look down from Anneliese’s point of “view” at Greta in her new harness. Greta looks over to her right with her ears forward toward whatever has her attention. You can see how the new harness sits more on Greta’s back than her sides and transmits information up the handle to Anneliese. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

I’ve been using the new harness almost daily for the past two months now, so I’ve had time to get used to the new arrangement, and I can confidently say that while the motion does feel a little different, it is the same amount of information. Think of it like hearing the same sentence spoken in two different accents but the same language. Different, yet equivalent, still comprehensible.

The differences are subtle enough I’m not sure I could put them into words. But there are a couple of other adjustments I’ve had to make that are easier to articulate. For one thing, the buckle on the old harness was on Greta’s left side, whereas the buckle on the new harness is on the right. 10 years of muscle memory is hard to overwrite!

The softer nylon material is, of course, not as stiff as the hardened leather. This means that getting the new harness over Greta’s head is more challenging. With the old harness I’d slip the leash over my left wrist to keep it out of the way, then use my left hand to gather the girth straps, fold them up over the back-strap so they wouldn’t hit Greta in the face, and just slip the opening between the back and chest strap over her head. Once the harness settled onto her back I could release the girth straps, thread them through eh martingale, and buckle them.

Anneliese demonstrates her previous description of the one-handed hold on the old harness as it would be if she were putting it on Greta to work. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

But nylon doesn’t hold its shape the way leather does. When I tried this with the new harness the opening for Greta’s head collapsed in on itself, and Greta backed away. Very reasonably, she had no desire to squish her face and ears through such a narrow gap. A little trial and error and lots of dog treats to ensure a positive experience produced a working solution.

Now I slip the leash over my right wrist to keep it out of the way and give me a tangible tether so I can sense Greta’s body orientation without touching her. I gather up the long girth strap and fold it over the back-strap like before, but I use both hands to grasp that back-strap and force the sides of the chest strap open, widening the loop. Essentially, I use my hands to create the stiffness that the leather harness naturally possessed.

Anneliese demonstrates the two-handed hold she uses with the new harness to place it on Greta to begin work. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

It’s taking some time for Greta and me to get used to this new arrangement, but we’re both eager for it to work. It’ll be muscle-memory in a few more weeks, I expect.

I also didn’t know how to account for how the changed height of the handle joint when sending in measurements for this new harness. The two handles are exactly the same length, but the new one joins the harness higher up on Greta’s side, which has the effect of adding about two inches to the distance between me and Greta’s shoulder. At first this concerned me; I thought neither of us would be happy with this increased distance between us. But we’ve adapted very quickly and don’t even notice it anymore.

Overall, TSEs harness design is a good, solid choice. It looks good, it does the job well, it’s easy to care for. But I like the new ergonomic harness better. Its updated structure better supports us as a working team without losing any of the benefits from the original model. I will definitely be ordering harnesses like this new one for all future dogs.

Official Product Rating:

If you’re working a dog guide and reading this post I strongly recommend you consider updating your harness, too. Our working dogs put a lot of physical wear and tear on their bodies, and deserve the same ergonomic supports that we do in our own working environments. You can custom-order this harness from On the Go here.

In the meantime, if you’ve seen other handle-oriented dog guide harness designs, please share them in the comments below. I’d love to know what other options are out there to support our beloved canine partners. Until next time, I remain your favorite friendly blindfluencer challenging you to appreciate life on the dark side!

All original photographs are courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen

Flashback Friday: Grooming

Original Post Date: 2May 26, 2009

The first night is always the hardest.

Wrenched from their warm, cozy kennels where they slept curled up in a pile of fluffy friends, thrust into a strange room with only one other being nearby who sleeps separately from them, it’s no wonder that most new Seeing Eye dogs cry throughout their first night with their new human partners.

Prada rather graciously kept her unhappiness to herself until the early morning so I didn’t fall much farther behind on my sleep-debt. She still tries to take my arm with her whenever she gets her former trainer in her sights, but I know that’s a temporary distraction. Knowing that circumstances will favor her bonding to me once we’re back home helps me handle my own feelings of anxiety.

I tried to remember my first night with Greta, but ironically I’m sleep-deprived at the moment The memory won’t come. If I had to place bets, though, I’d guess neither of us slept well the first two or three nights together.

While The Seeing Eye teaches a basic routine for dog care, every dog is different and trainers encourage us to observe and experiment within certain limits to find out what works best for us. For instance, most dogs want to eat, then go outside and park. Prada insists on parking first.

This isn’t the only thing she prioritizes over food. You’d think shepherds would eat like horses, since they’re such big dogs. Prada stands to my waist, and I’m a rather tall woman. But apparently they are notoriously picky eaters. Prada, for example, finds food uninteresting unless I move the kibble around enough so she can see the bottom of the bowl.

I remember how worried I was by her disinterest in kibble. It had never occurred to me that a dog would be indifferent to food. My sheltie growing up was a grazer, so I knew not all of them hoovered up their meals but I was convinced for the first week that Prada’s refusal to eat was an omen that our bond was doomed to fail. I was incapable of calming her enough to eat, therefore I’d fail at convincing her to bond with me.

This was a persistent theme throughout her life, however. I used to joke that if the stars weren’t aligned properly,, she wouldn’t eat. Unfortunately, I had a boyfriend in college who once proposed the theory that Prada took her cue for me. He was convinced I didn’t eat enough, that I needed someone to remind me to eat, and that Prada took her cues from me. It didn’t occur to me until years later just how toxic that theory was.

The only drawback I foresee in our training is the heat. Even my room on the second floor is too warm for my new “Walking Carpet.” Naturally, Prada’s solution is to share her fur coat with me.

Ironically, at this point I didn’t know what “Prada” was. I spent a while confusing it with a Russian Newspaper, Pravda, until someone finally enlightened me. But I didn’t see the movie until after I graduated college, and I still haven’t read the book. It’s on my ever-growing list, though…

Posted Later that Day

We received a hands-on grooming lesson today. Beyond the very practical reasons for grooming such as managing dog hair and keeping your dog looking neat and professional, grooming serves a wide variety of essential functions in a dog-human relationship, and one or two particularly important for service dog teams. But since Prada is a long-haired, or coated, shepherd, those practical reasons would be more than enough to motivate me to add it into our future routine together.

When brushing a dog you end up running your hands over the entirety of the dog’s body. From head to neck to back to sides, legs, tail, chest, you’ll be able to feel for lumps, bumps, scrapes, skin irritations like hot-spots, or other evidence of injury or illness. It’s a completely tactile wellness check. It’s also a great time to bond with your dog. Dogs both speak and receive love through physical touch. Brushing just might be a great way for both of you to wind down, concentrate on each other, and let the rest of the world take care of itself for ffteen minutes.

This should mean that Prada loves grooming, right?

Wrong. Our first grooming session was a bit of a wrestling match. It’s likely due to my inexperience combined with her anxiety, so I think we’ll get used to each other. But for now it’s going to be a challenge. I can feel my motivation draining away already…

Regular grooming is also important for your dog’s health. Just like brushing your own hair and exfoliating your own skin, brushing helps to regulate the dog’s oil production and overall skin and coat health.  And, finally, it gives your dog a sleek appearance, helping to promote the image of a professional, capable team navigating all areas of the public. You don’t want to take a dog that looks like Hank the Farm Dog into your board meeting, do you?

What about bathing?

Like everything else, TSE has recommendations on that, too. Too-frequent bathing can dry out the skin and coat. TSE suggests baths every 2-3 months, 4 if possible. It turns out that a lot of that “dog smell” people complain about comes from an imbalance of skin and coat chemistry, so keeping it regulated is more important than frequent baths. It seems a general assumption around here is that we’ll take our dogs to professional groomers. But I’m a country girl; I grew up bathing my own dogs outside with a water hose and inside in the bath tub. I don’t see a reason to change that now.

The previous version of this post included a step-by-step explanation of how to brush a dog. I’ll leave you to find more professional grooming instruction from better sources. What I’d like to emphasize again is the personalization – dog-ization? – of a grooming routine. No two people have the same skin and hair chemistry, and so it is with dogs. Some respond better to moisturizing shampoos, others need limited ingredients. Some need more or less frequent baths than the recommendation above. All I’m willing to put my foot down on is the need for daily – or as near daily as you can get – brushing. It’ll help you stay in touch – pun intended – with your dog’s grooming needs.

Prada never did learn to love grooming, and it was frustrating for both of us. Knowing what I do now, I think I could have made the experience more enjoyable for both of us. It’s a lesson I’ll definitely keep in mind for future dogs. Fortunately, Miss Greta loves a good, thorough brushing. She comes running when I pull out the brush, and returns the favor with extreme vigor. Grooming in dog packs is a group activity; I receive a loving bath in return for my efforts.

Flashback Friday: Daredevil Wears Prada

Original Post Date: May 25, 2019

Remember that gorgeous long-haired German shepherd who escorted me on that life-changing practice walk described in this post? That lovely lady is currently curled up next to my desk. It seems that practice walk served as the perfect assessment for the instructor to determine that Prada and I were meant to be together. Apparently this is the first time TSE has made a match in this way.

Against a black background, Prada sprawls across Annelie’s lap.e
Prada sprawls on Anneliese’s lap as they sit before a black background.

I remember very few specific details of meeting Prada. I recall walking into the dim student lounge, being seated, and my trainer asking me “Do you remember the dog you met at SESY?” The next thing I knew an armful of dog had thrust itself into my lap, snuffling and kissing and wriggling with excitement. Her hair coated me instantly, and her enthusiasm mirrored my own.

She’s petite for a shepherd. The Seeing Eye breeds their own dogs from a wide genetic pool without the intention of creating bigger, heftier shepherds like the ones you see escorting police around. While Prada is tall, she’s slender, and her longer coat comes from a unique double-recessive mutation. Grooming is going to be fun…

Poor Prada is very upset right now. IT’s very typical for the dogs to experience anxiety for the first couple days after matching with a student. They’re living in bedrooms instead of kennels with furry playmates, their routines are different, a new person is responsible for their food and water. Life is just disorienting and confusing right now.

But Prada faces the additional challenge of seeing her trainer every single day. In another coincidence, Prada’s trainer is leading our class. Prada will be confused and saddened by her trainer pointedly ignoring her, forcing her to bond with me as her source of comfort. It’s painful to watch, and I’ve had two work hard to keep Prada from dragging me across hallways to get to her trainer. But the trainer assigned to my four-man student group assures me this will wear off in a week or so.

I’ve been given a handy little tool to help mitigate Prada’s anxiety. It’s called a gentle leader. Often mistaken for a muzzle, it’s actually closer to a horse’s bridle. A nylon strap wraps around Prada’s nose, and a second one fits around the back of her head behind her ears. She can eat and drink, bark, and even bite if she needs to wearing this. However, the backstrap presses down on pressure points that release endorphins to help calm her, and there’s a ring beneath the nose strap to which I can clip a leash. This gives me more direct control over her. She’s less likely to lunge across a hall to accost her trainer when I have control of her nose.

In retrospect I regret not doing my own research on canine anxiety. While I was absorbing a ton of new information every second of the day, I now know a great many more effective techniques for calming an anxious dog. I look forward to sharing them with you in future posts. Doggy mental health matters.

Here’s a quick introduction to the rest of the equipment we were issued yesterday.

Every dog owner should have a leash. It’s as essential as kibble. TSE’s proprietary leather leash is by far the most versatile and practical I’ve ever used. It has two snap-hooks and two metal rings along its length so I can reconfigure it for different occasions. By using different snap hooks to attach to the rings and the dog’s collar I can have a long, medium, or short leash all in one.

Photo Caption: Greta, a petite chestnut-toned German shepherd, wears The Seeing Eye’s standard harness. It is leather, similar in design to an old-fashioned cart-horse harness, with a breast band, martingale, girth strap, back strap, and stiff angled handle for Anneliese to use.

I used a photo of Greta because I couldn’t find a good one of Prada that really shows the design of the harness. Prada was a great model, but I am no photographer. Thanks to Galadriel Coffeen for taking this shot.

We also received a brush, comb, sleeping mat, and crate. Those should be fairly self-explanatory. Still no word on how to use the mysterious tie-downs yet, but I’m sure they’ll be explained in due time.

I remember that day as a blur of excitement, compassion, and fear. I worried I would prove an insufficient replacement for Prada’s trainer, that she’d never truly bond with me. I worried I wasn’t affectionate enough, that my more detached personality didn’t match everyone else’s template of what a dog-lover looked like. I now know that’s actually a strength, but at the time it kept me up at night a time or two.

But that latent fear of inadequacy and rejection wasn’t enough to dampen the unmeasured joy and excitement I experienced. I had butterflies in my stomach, I even shed a few tears. Prada was my first puppy love, my princess. I learned so much from her, and I can’t wait to share our journey with you.

The Zen Pack Leader

Greta’s trot is even, but the nails on her left forepaw are longer than the rest of her nails. I can hear them clicking on the pavement.

Her gait is really even. I can’t feel any limp at all. Her shoulder is so much stronger than it was a year ago.What if she trips on those longer nails/ What if she puts her shoulder out again? Our next chiropractic appointment isn’t until October!

Ah, I’m distracted. Back to Greta.

I can feel her looking to the left because the motion of her neck translates into her shoulder, into the back strap of the harness, and up the handle into my hand. She’s looking straight again. I’ll reward her.

Her saliva is thin, she’s not stressed. I’ll wipe my hand off on her head so she gets a pet and I get a fuzzy towel.

She’s slowing down but I don’t sense an obstacle ahead. Ah, she’s pushing me gently away from the curb. There must be an obstacle I can’t sense. Maybe a low pile of brush. This house always has brush in front of it. Oh, I should call the city and find out what their yard debris removal schedule for my neighborhood is. I’ll do that after I get back. No, I need to feed Greta, then start laundry, then do dishes and make a smoothie, then call the city…

I’m distracted again. I’ll just let all that go and focus on Greta.

She’s slowing down again. We’re near the street corner. I need to decide which route to take. She feels perky today. We can use a longer walk. I’ll go left, and maybe we’ll get to practice walking by that house with the dogs that run up to the fence and bark. I need to have a treat ready to praise her. What if she doesn’t handle it well? It’ll be chaotic and loud and I’ll have to try to redirect her focus and if I can’t get her to redirect I might have to force her away. That means we haven’t made as much progress as I’d thought, and the trainer’s coming next week. Is it really worth it? Are we making progress/ Am I wasting time and money?

I’m distracted again. I’ll focus on Greta.

She’s slower on this street. I can feel the uneven-ness of the slope of the street into the gutter. She’s picking her paws up higher. I’m not sure how I can sense that but I’m aware of it. She’s picking her paws up over grass growing through cracks in the pavement. She’s nudging me right to circle around a car parked along the side of the street so I’ll turn with her. She makes very smooth, tight turns.

This is what successfully applying mindful awareness looks like when walking a dog.

“But your mind is all over the place!” you protest. “That doesn’t look like mindfulness to me…”

The lecturer hosting The Great Courses; Practicing Mindfulness uses training a puppy as a metaphor to explain mindfulness. It’s an example I really relate to! When training a puppy to sit, you place the puppy in the “sit’ posture, then reward it. When it inevitably gets up you don’t yell at the puppy, you don’t get mad, you just put the puppy back into “sit” and reward it again.

No matter how old you are, your brain is still a puppy. It responds far better to encouragement and boundaries than self-criticism. Training it to return to a particular thought or mental posture takes just as much time, and patience, as teaching basic obedience skills to a dog.

The point isn’t to keep my mind on Greta 100% of the time. In fact, I’m fairly certain that would be very dangerous. Our attention is meant to wander, just a little. The point is that I return to her every time I get distracted. I notice my thoughts, and then go back to thinking about Greta without judging myself for distraction or scolding myself for imperfection.

I’ve begun practicing this meditation technique to help me control my concerns about Greta’s Post High-School Stress Disorder, and to help me be patient with the slow, yet thorough route we’re on to total pack wellness.

Rehabilitating Greta isn’t just about re-affirming her skills and training her to ignore distractions. It involves teaching her to redirect her distracted puppy-brain to me, and training me to redirect my distracted puppy-brain to her. With an inward, ongoing, nonjudgmental focus on our function as a pack Greta and I will be able to cruise through the most chaotic, triggering environments imaginable.

A note of caution regarding mindful awareness.

As I mentioned above, our minds are designed to wander a little. It’s part of situational awareness, a necessary survival skill. My brain flits to the sound of a big truck turning onto the street behind me. The street has no sidewalk, so Greta and I step into a nearby driveway to let the big metal beast rumble past at a safe distance. My brain picks up on locational cues and reminds me that a dog has been loose in the yard of a house on the next street and I need to remember to take a different route home.

If I’d simply noticed the sounds and smells and other cues that alerted me to changes in my environment, discarded them, and refocused on Greta we might’ve wound up in trouble. Safety trumps mindfulness, every time.

But brains aren’t infallible. They can pick up on cues and determine that those cues are, in fact serious threats when they’re really not. My brain is absolutely 100% convinced that an enormous lilac bush leaning slightly over the curb and swarming with honeybees is the most dangerous thing in the universe. It once prompted me to drag Greta across the street to circle it at a distance no closer than 30 feet! I think 5 would’ve been sufficient for the bees and me to co-exist without bothering each other, but my brain says otherwise.

Mindful awareness, however, would allow me to make a more accurate distinction between “big truck behind me” and “disinterested honeybees” threat levels. I expect I’ll do better next time we encounter that ominous lilac bush.

Mindful awareness can be applied to almost every activity imaginable, from cooking to coding, sight-seeing to sex, and so much more. It’s a gateway into that coveted “flow state” that breeds creativity and accomplishment and satisfaction so easily. Greta and I haven’t flowed together in over 2 years, and I miss that feeling of contented oneness as we travel expertly through our chaotic environment together. I got a glimpse of it, though, on a recent walk, and I can paw-sitively say our hard work is paying off.