(Im)perfection

One thing that I’ve come to realize after nearly fifteen years working guide dogs is that you can’t really ever be entirely prepared for your first partner. Sure you can talk with other handlers and research extensively and any training program worth bothering with will give you a fair rundown of what to expect if you inquire. But until you actually work with a dog you can’t really know the specifics of what will be important for you. One thing that I was utterly terrified about prior to being partnered with Dolly, my first guide dog, was the specifics of how the matching worked.1 I grilled each school I applied to; I badgered my guide dog user friends; I obsessed about it to anyone that would listen; I even had dreams about it! Mostly I was trying to prepare myself for that possibility I wouldn’t have a match at all or that the dog chosen for me wouldn’t work out for one reason or another. And these are certainly valid things to consider; however, now that I’m a few dogs removed from that I come to realize there really is no such thing as a perfect match.

Yara guiding me down the path by Washington Park LakeDon’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that there is no functional team or that every partnership is doomed. In fact, I think all of my guides were exceptionally well matched with me and I’d even go so far as to edge one out as “the best.”2 Honestly, even with all the information the school has at hand it never ceases to amaze me how well the matching between handler and dog can be.

No, what I mean is something far more simple: dogs and people are both flawed. Handlers make mistakes. 3 And no matter how well trained they might be a dog is a dog.

That last bit is where there seems to be the most division amongst handlers. Personally, I want a dog. I love dogs. I grew up with dogs. And that’s about 60% of the reason I wanted to work with a dog. But for every handler that wants a partner with personality — and believe me, I have not been shortchanged in this department — there are just as many that want a laid back companion and certainly some combination in between. What I’ve seen over the years, though, is that those dog behaviors tend to be viewed as flaws and certainly when they manifest in harness as distractions that is rightly so.

I’ll let you in a little secret: whatever you’ve heard from other guide dog users about their dog never needing a correction is totally and completely a lie. I used to be almost ashamed of my skills as a handler and disappointed in my guide dog because I heard this so many times before training, during training and even after training. Yes, seasoned guide dogs and those who have a good foundation of obedience certainly aren’t prone to disobeying the rules of harness work. And certainly some dogs require a firmer hand, especially those new partnerships where the team is still settling in together. I’ve a treasure trove of memories showcasing how obedient my guides each were and just as many “can’t believe she did that” ones. Uschi’s known as the food ninja amongst my family members because she’s managed to steal things that we can’t figure out how she got to without leaving any evidence other than catching her snarfing down the stolen goodies. Yara’s notorious for her escape artistry, including managing to free herself from a Vari Kennel; she also wiggled out of her harness so many times I lost count. And, well, that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.4

Uschi guiding me up an ancietn set of stairs at Schenectady Central ParkTruth is guide dogs aren’t little furry robots. Even in harness mistakes will happen and some of it will be just as much if not more your fault as the handler than your partner’s. Mistakes in and of themselves aren’t bad. In fact, one of the scariest walks with a guide dog for me is that first time I am not diligently paying attention and yet smoothly get from Point A to Point B without a single hitch. It’s exhilarating and something to be proud of, but it’s also kind of disarming and almost eerie because that’s the moment that you really start to realize how deep a level of trust you need to and will place in this dog. Maybe you’ll have that moment very quickly. Maybe you’ll see a sharp and/or steady increase in those times. Maybe you won’t. And that’s always a challenge. It may be a clue that the partnership isn’t going to work, but sometimes it’s just a matter of time before it gets there. What’s important is to understand that the need to correct your partner or rework something is only a means of reinforcing those things you want to happen. One big thing I learned between my dogs is how they react to specific corrections. Where one might have needed a firmer hand, another treated the mistake itself as correction enough.

To paraphrase a mantra in yoga: leave the past behind you because it’s already gone, don’t fret about the future because it hasn’t gotten here yet, but be in the present because that’s the moment you’re in and what truly counts. Embracing those moments that aren’t stellar and realizing how they can strengthen your bond is one of the most fundamentally important things I’ve learned over the years I’ve worked with my guide dogs. A real partnership takes work, but this is the type of effort that truly pays off in the end.


This post was written as part of the tenth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. This edition’s theme is “Perfect 10” and further information can be found here on the founder’s blog.

  1. Southeastern Guide Dogs has a wonderfully informative post on how the matching process works for their school which I do believe is probably much the same across the board.
  2. Though, family, friends and even coworkers of mine have voiced their opinions on this and rarely seem to agree with me, but that is probably at least partially due to bias.
  3. Props if you can spot the one I’m making in the photo on the top right.
  4. I can’t really account for Dolly’s biggest faux pas in dog terms as I suspect she was just a mean little teenager in a Labrador retriever suit because whenever she felt duly wronged she’d very purposefully plow me face first into the nearest door or telephone pole.

Comments

  1. LOL, dolly sounds like Phoenix. If I wouldn’t allow him to do something or he thought I was being a jerk, he’d plough me into the nearest garbage can or door frame.

    I loved this post because it clearly states what I’ve tried to tell people about why I put up with Phoenix and Cessna’s antics. They are dogs, I am a human, we both make mistakes and we both have our quirks. If I wanted a robot, I wouldn’t have gotten a dog :)

    • I seriously wish someone told me all this stuff before I got my first dog, but it’s like some controversial subject no one talks about. It makes me crazy because I just think how stressed it made me at first until I realized it all.

      • “it’s like some controversial subject no one talks about.”

        That’s a big reason I chose this theme. I actually had thought about making the theme, “The Myth of the Perfect Assistance Dog,” but I thought that might be too narrow. But the general public does have this idea that all ADs are angels with fur, and I think a lot of AD partners are afraid to contradict this because we already have to deal with access challenges and misinformation.

        • As I said in my post, it’s often what is promoted by AD partners as well. And, in my experience, is used to justify some specific reason such-and-such handler is perhaps not fit to be partnered with an assistance dog. Maybe it’s mostly a guide dog user thing, but I find when we get together the general tone is very snotty, which is why I tend to stay on the sidelines.

          Anyway, I agree with you. I do find that the general public expect that working dogs should be perfect and they get very opinionated when they observe anything that contradicts that. Either the dog hasn’t had the proper training or the handler is incompetent, but they definitely don’t take into consideration that dogs and people can and do make mistakes and that doesn’t make the team itself inferior.

  2. I really love this post. What a wonderful way to start the carnival! (Yours is the first submission.) I resonated with so much of it.
    This made me laugh — “for every handler that wants a partner with personality — and believe me, I have not been shortchanged in this department” — partly because I’ve heard about some of your guides’ personality quirks (especially Uschi’s acrobatic antics) and partly because each of my service dogs have had more personality than the previous, with Barnum being a total goof.

  3. Thank you for including the link to our article! The match process has always astounded me – our trainers seem to mix the perfect amount of science and magic to put together the best teams.

  4. Hi, Cyndy! I’m going to enjoy reading your work, because my wife and I are puppy raisers for Guide Dogs for the Blind, on the West Coast. We just sent off our second dog for “grad school”, where she will either become a breeder or be matched and partnered for four months. We train them at home until they are about 15 months old, meet bi-weekly with other raisers and trainers, and take the dogs on monthly group outings, traveling to other locales, participating in agility rallies and sharing information and experiences with certified guides and their owners. Our mothership org has about 800 dogs in various phases of training in 9 Western states:
    http://www.guidedogs.com/site/PageServer?pagename=programs_dog_puppy

  5. This is an excellent post! I agree with you completely. I’m glad my dogs have personality; it would be dull and borring if they didn’t. Valerie did the telephone pole thing too, and Dee let out a big long sigh when I asked her to do something she didn’t want.

    • Thanks, Martha. Glad you enjoyed it.

      You know, I’m glad the shepherds haven’t been the grumpy sort. As it is they’re too smart for their own good. If they were the vindictive type, I’d probably fear for my life. (This is probably one reason I don’t have cats.)

  6. So glad to know that there are so many sneaky little food thieves out there! Monk is now on the wall of fame (or shame) at the petplan insurance company. I saw him eat one mango. When they opened him up they found 3. I knew I should sign up when I saw him running around the yard with a beehive. I once found him with an open bottle of opiates but no idea how many he had eaten…if any. My vet has direct deposit. But time takes time and the prophecy that if I waited long enough I would have the most wonderful dog I could ever know has come true. The first time I realized that the light at the end of the tunnel was not another train was at about a year and a half. I think his brain was still forming and his neurons had final joined up correctly. I need to read your comments frequently to dump my own perfectionism. It doesn’t get more perfect than a dog.
    Beth and Monk (3yo Golden, owner trained SD)

    • As far as I’m aware of, Uschi’s food ninja escapades have been confined to home and my family’s houses. But Dolly was notoriously terrible with snarfing down food when we were out and it is one of many reasons why I prefer to work with shepherds. Labs are great, but they definitely think with their stomachs and it was a constant issue for me with my first dog. Not that shepherds don’t have their own brand of breed issues, but still I don’t miss it.

      In any case, you definitely got my main point that misbehaving in and of itself does not equal a bad dog nor does it mean that same dog can’t be an excellent assistance dog. Personally, I have a hard time dealing with AD partners that harp on their dogs being dogs, but that’s a whole other post, I suppose.

      • I had to see Monk’s drive as a good balance to my depression and tendency to sit home and grow fuzz. He forces me out of my comfort zone and gets me to interact with people. He is a Golden and will always be a Golden. So I must accept my social butterfly food thief because he is an incredibly smart boy and a very fast learner. I still think that maturing has a ways to go. I have been told that Goldens take as much as 4 years to mature. That used to really depress me, but thankfully lots of people have helped me to have realistic expectations for his maturity. It is a total leap from the 7 Rottweilers that I have had as pets. They mature pretty quickly. but have less drive to please their owners. Training Monk can really be fun.
        Keep up the good work! I look forward to reading your blog in the future.

        • This is one of my biggest issues with some of the training schools. There’s a reliance on some breeds over others simply because of their adaptability and I don’t necessarily feel that any one breed is the breed for every person. Everyone has their own needs in an AD partner, but also their own individual preferences. But this is an issue across the board even when it comes to pets so sometimes I feel that I’m just blowing hot air about it.

          Anyway, it sounds like you’ve forged a good foundation with Monk and in the end that’s really all that matters. :-)

  7. Great post!

  8. Love this post. Shai is an OT service–because he is not a program dog. He has a private trainer who still works with him several times a week, but I always felt like people expected him not to perform as well as program dogs. I used to be so concerned that Shai might make a mistake in public–until I was liberated by Jennifer Arnold at a Canine Assistants training seminar last November. When the fully trained CA dog sitting next to me put his paws up on the table with no reaction from the handler–and Jennifer didn’t even blink. It was a chaotic room full of a new gang of dogs who were not used to working together. The one working CA dog was next to me. Later, she talked about CA dogs and how dogs are not robots but feeling/thinking individuals who make mistakes just like we do. I am relaxed now in public–and if Shai is having an off day, it doesn’t make to wonder who saw him. To hear someone with a guide dog talk about these wonderfully trained dogs “being dogs” is so refreshing. Thank you for sharing!

    • Whoops, sorry for the late approval and response, Patty.

      I think there’s definitely a bit of a stigma attached to non-program/owner-trained assistance dogs and it’s very much unfounded. I get that to some extent just because I work with shepherds which are less common by far than retrievers.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Cyndy of Gentle Wit wrote one of my favorite posts, thanks to its refreshing honesty and dry wit, about the myth of the perfect match — on both the handler side and the dog side — in her post, (Im)Perfection: […]

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