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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 dog’s foreleg more closely resembles a human arm, with the shoulder rotating back farther, the paw extending forward, and the joint angling backward.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 excitement in the building is tangible. It’s time to meet our dogs! As I write this instructors are loading the dogs up 4 at a time in vans to drive them the short distance from the training kennels to the House, the student training building and dormitory. An instructor will bring one dog up to the student lounge while another brings the student for a supervised first meeting. Then we’ll return to our rooms with our new companions for some bonding and play-time.
The dogs have just been bathed, so they’ll be excited, hyper, and blowing their coats. The change in routine plus being separated from their kennel mates and trainers will heighten their overall arousal levels, so I anticipate my new furry friend being very needy. I just hope I’m up to the task of calming her down and convincing her that we can form the core of a new, powerful pack.
After we’ve spent some time together and all the dogs have been distributed, our four-man (and dog) teams will take trips around the Leisure Path, a 1/3 mil paved trail running through the school grounds. It’s a chance to get some of the dogs’ wiggles out and for us students to practice basic handling techniques in a very safe, controlled environment. Then it’s time for parking, kibble, student dinner, and another lecture.
I anticipate the rest of the week becoming exponentially busier. I don’t know if I’ll have time to keep up this rapid post schedule, but I’ll do my best to continue sharing this amazing journey with you and answer all your questions.
What is parking, you ask? Well, in a previous comment on the old blog someone else asked the same thing so I’m going to assume you want to know.
2-4 times a day dogs at The Seeing Eye have “park time.” Spell that phrase backwards; you’ll figure it out.
Now, of course, you want to ask the service dog version of the astronauts’ favorite question: how do blind people clean up after their service dogs/ I’m going to answer because if you’re blind and reading this and DON’T do this, you really should. And if you’re just curious, or doing writing research for a blind character, you should know about the amount of thought and problem-solving that goes into the most minute detail of ensuring that service dogs are well-behaved, clean, good citizens.
Seeing Eye dogs are trained to park when they’re on leash but not on harness. The handler takes the dog to a grassy space or otherwise designated park area, removes the harness while keeping the leash on, and uses gentle pulls and a little bit of footwork to signal the dog to begin circling them at the end of the leash. It’s a little like lunging a horse, but at a slower speed.
The dog circles the owner until the urge comes and they answer nature’s call. To determine if it’s a #1 or #2, reach out and touch the dog’s back. A straight, sloping back indicates #1. No clean-up necessary. A rounded, hunched back means the dog is leaving a pile. Using the leash and the dog’s back as landmarks, extend one leg and rest your foot on the ground pointing roughly in the direction of the base of the dog’s tail. Keep your foot there; it’s an arrow pointing right at the pile.
When the dog has finished, invert a bag over your hand to use as a glove, follow your foot, and find the pile. Pick up, revert and close the bag, and deposit in a trashcan. Locating a trashcan at a new house, apartment, hotel, regularly visited park, outside a mall, workplace, or anywhere else you frequent regularly ought to be the 2nd half of the task “locate bathroom for future reference.” If you’re somewhere new, ask someone. Anyone who sees you holding a doggy poop bag will know what you need and be happy to help. They appreciate you taking the effort to clean up.
I got lucky with both of my dogs. They figured out really quickly that after parking I want a trashcan, and they use the universal “garbage” smell to locate one for me in unfamiliar places. Dogs are quick learners, and they LOVE routine. Some schools train dogs to do this, and you can always put in the effort to reward your dog for picking up on this routine yourself if you like.
I thought about including the next post, an introduction to my first service dog. This post is short, and includes more information about park time than anything really interesting. But I also wanted to share with you just a little bit of the overwhelming excitement I experienced on that bright May morning. I couldn’t imagine how my life would change, but I knew getting a service dog would touch every aspect of it.
With so many people in one building all hoping and awaiting the same incredible adventure, it should be no surprise I typed with shaky hands and a fluttering heart. I can still feel echoes of that anticipated joy even now, and it fuels my resolve to continue rehabilitating Greta so we can cruise the world with the same optimistic curiosity and energy we used to.
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.
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.
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.