Quiet Moments

Anyone even vaguely familiar with Uschi, especially when she’s not working in harness, can attest to her crazy, playful nature. Honestly, living with her boundless energy is both amusing and exhausting. If anything she keeps me entertained, but I am very glad that she is capable of composing herself in harness and focusing on her task of aiding me in safely traveling independently.

Probably when you think of the term “guide dog” you imagine a blind person walking along being led by a harnessed dog. That’s certainly makes sense since that’s essentially what the dog is trained to do. Personally I think that simple act of walking as a guide dog team is both amazing and beautiful. Through leather and steel there’s a connection between handler and dog that even after all these years I still find truly profound and something without equal. But this isn’t a post about any of that. No, it’s a post about a more common part of working a guide dog, but one that’s often not stressed.

Full body shot of Uschi in harness lying on a white backgroundI’ve mentioned many times before that generally the largest part of a guide dog’s working life isn’t spent actively guiding their blind partner, but are more accurately “down times.” Guide dogs spend a lot of time being stationary. They lie under tables and chairs, tuck themselves under counters or even just sit beside their partner while they do any number of things from eat at a restaurant to standing in queue. Basically, they’re being completely unnatural to pretty much every dog that the public may have ever had contact with.

I hear a lot of comments from random strangers that their dogs would never be so well behaved and that they wish they could bring their dogs with them everywhere. But the reaction I love the most is when the person hasn’t even noticed the dog’s presence until I’ve gotten up to move or something. Considering how often the public’s reaction to my guide dogs is more than a little frustrating, it’s simply a welcome treat.

In a lot of ways, though, it’s just as much an example of what it is to be a guide dog as the aforementioned mental image. Certainly there are calm dogs and those who are well trained who, for instance, could lie under a table in a crowded restaurant for hours at a time without any issue. However, in my experience, that’s not the typical dog and it’s most definitely not the normal behavior for Uschi who has spent the vast majority of the time I’ve taken to write this post alternately chasing a tennis ball around the house and barking at all the trick-or-treaters. Goodness knows I could never sit around that quiet for such long periods of times when I was four. Honestly, I probably still can’t some three decades later.

That said, I find that many people don’t quite understand that a stationary working dog is in fact working. It’s not hard to understand given how we view the concept of work. I can’t imagine many employers would condone having a workday that accomplished nothing and merely consisted of sitting quietly. Of course, the converse is equally true and an employee who is disobedient and not fulfilling their duties wouldn’t be tolerated. Which is precisely why a guide dog “just sitting there” is actually working just as much as if she were leading her handler across a busy intersection.

They may seem less glamorous in relation to the more dynamic and active parts of guide dog work, but these moments of calm, quiet are ones that I truly admire and adore because even during these there’s a trust present. Uschi knows that eventually more actual work is coming — the opportunity to go somewhere or the chance for a car ride — and I have faith that she’ll be a good, obedient companion. Like so much of our partnership, it’s so simple and yet it conveys so much.

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

International Assistance Dog Week

Today through the 11th is International Assistance Dog Week (IADW), which is sponsored through Assistance Dogs International (ADI). In recognition of “all the devoted, hardworking assistance dogs helping individuals mitigate their disability related limitations” I present to you a collage of my guide dogs:

Collage of various photos of my three guide dogs

An Open Letter to the “Public”

My dearest So-and-so:

I’ll be blunt. This just isn’t working out. And I think we need to start seeing other people. Privately.

Sure, we had some good times. After all it wouldn’t be much of a relationship if we hadn’t had at least a few laughs. I remember that time back in college after that night partying. It was hilarious! In fact, I’m pretty sure we promised not to bring it up ever again. And the point is we just don’t click, you know?

Portrait of me and Uschi on a brown background; Uschi is sitting in front of me with my arms around herWhat it comes down to is, I think, we’re too different. Where I want to be invisible and virtually ignored, you take notice of every little detail and more often than not have to point it out. I mean, seriously, I can’t walk down the street without a comment about my guide dog! All you ever can say is how awesome she is and how she makes you think of your old dog or that you just can’t believe they let a dog wherever it is we happen to be. I get it already, okay? I don’t suppose you’ve considered this, but the truth is there isn’t a person on the face of this Earth who could be more aware of the fact that my partner is amazing. Not a one.

Which perhaps is why you have unrealistic expectations of my guide dog. She’s the pinnacle of perfection in your eyes. Yeah, she has a better work ethic than the both of us combined, but then again she gets to sleep for large chunks of her work day. Forgetting for the moment those times that you mistook her for a wolf, you seem to have trouble grasping the simple fact that she is a dog. When she does things that any normal dog does, it almost seems to offend you. If I didn’t know better I would swear you just didn’t like dogs. Except that seems unlikely given how every conversation we have inevitably ends up being about her in some way. I know I said I wanted to be invisible, but I am quite literally ignored in comparison to the attention you lavish on my companion.

Where things between us truly break down is that you seem to think of my guide dog as community property. You want to talk to her, pet her, feed her . . . basically if it’s a form of distraction, you totally want to do it all the time. What’s more is that it’s my fault when she does get distracted by you. You look at it as if she’s somehow tainted by my ineptness or inherently deficient because of this one moment of weakness. And by the nature of having to correct her for this misdeed, I’m a mean person! Exactly which one of us is the blind one here?

Headshot of Uschi lying on a white backgroundIt’s not just this lack of understanding, though. Basically, I feel smothered by you. I guess it’s flattering that you think I’m just that awesome, but I don’t even think I’m that interesting, Not to mention you’re everywhere I go and are constantly aware of every single thing I do. If I think about it too much it actually creeps me out. I mean, if I wanted Big Brother following me around I’d be vying for a spot on some reality TV show, don’t you think?

Now I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming you for all the failings of our relationship. I’ve basically ignored your very existence and gone about my life as if you weren’t a part of it. In fact, it seems the more I work towards not engaging you the harder you try to get my attention. If the neediness wasn’t enough to drive a wedge between us, you top it off with rudeness and outright hostility! Hardly seems fair when I’m a bit short with you.

So, here’s my proposal: We cut our losses here and go our separate ways. To break it down further, my plan is to continue doing things as I please, going about my life just as I always have and I sincerely hope you do the same. We’re bound to meet face-to-face, though, and so we also agree to be civil, even cordial. You will restrain yourself from being overly friendly with my guide dog and I’ll happily answer any questions you have about her provided I have the time. Oh, and you don’t stalk me. Sound fair?

I await your reply.

Fondly yours,

This post was written as part of the eighth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. This edition’s theme is “Marchin’ to Your Own Drum” and further information can be found here on the founder’s blog.

Cottleston Pie

Initially, I set out to write this incredibly serious post about public image and the burden it can present as a guide dog team and I had what you might call writer’s block. I knew where the issue stemmed from and all the points I wanted to highlight and yet I couldn’t get much written beyond the title and a paragraph that I wrote and erased more times than I care to admit. Eventually I decided distance would be beneficial and I promptly began procrastinating on the post for something like a month. This worked out beautifully because when I returned to the post I immediately knew what the issue was: I’m partnered with Uschi now and this is not the issue I think of most readily with her. So, this is not a post about public image, which I may well write one of these days but at present there are 100 other draft posts that are vying for that same opportunity. This is a post about Winnie-the-Pooh.

Portrait of Uschi and me on a white background; Uschi standing on her head in front of meOkay, no it’s not. Though, the title is a reference to A.A. Milne’s character. (Albeit I generally think of The Muppet Show as Rowlf is quite famous for singing it.) Rather this is about how Uschi is not anything remotely close to serious and is far more often times the living embodiment of a “fluffy brain.” If Uschi had a theme song, it would be “Cottleston Pie.” (Mine, if you’re curious, is probably the “Cupcake Song.”) Now let me assure you, she does have quite a lot of brain and I’m almost entirely certain she is not full of stuffing. Nevertheless she has moments where I sincerely debate these things as fact. For visual proof, please note the photographs in this post. They are some of my most favorite shots of her because of how adequately they showcase my goofy partner.

In controlled situations I truly do not mind the fact that my guide dog is less a working assistance dog and more closely resembles the Nutty Professor. And by “controlled” I mean any time I am not working with her in public, entertaining house guests, or trying to get anything that could be loosely categorized as productive done. I’m highly amused by her. I was quite adamant when I retired my previous guide dog that I wanted the school to provide me with her duplicate sans health issues. I’m just as positive that they thought I said this with tongue firmly in cheek and what I actually meant was “I want a dog who can keep pace with me, but is small in stature so as not to overpower me and has personality to spare.” So, that’s what I got.

I’ve seen a fair few handlers that have mellow dogs and most of them seem quite happy with this. Call me a snob if you will, but I don’t get the appeal of mellow dogs. I don’t really know why, but for want of words to fill out this post I’ll postulate that it stems from my childhood. We always had at least one pet dog while I was growing up. Unfortunately, most of those were senior citizens and excepting when they were either actively working at creating awesome amounts of poop or physically generating said poop they were little more than furry space heaters. Don’t get me wrong, I loved them to bits, but they were not Frisbee catchers or ball chasers or known for trying to stand on their heads. And if any of them were, I was too young at the time to commit this to memory.

Uschi is also a space heater, but that’s the only similarity with my childhood pets. Even in this she separates herself from the pack because her heat output is such that I’m convinced only the fires of Hades can outperform her. At 70 pounds, she’s a tiny thing as shepherds go and like all things that are packaged in a small way she is inherently good. To Uschi, or so my theory goes, “good” means “excessive amounts of energy” which when witnessed is quite impossible to differentiate from what most functioning brains would define as “crazy.” Sometimes this is exhibited by trotting around the house in a very convincing imitation of a dressage horse. Other times she’ll eschew such formality and instead use the length of my house as a racetrack. My personal favorite is when she is so bursting with excitement that she is only capable of processing that she’s very thirsty and so she flits about the house dribbling the entire contents of her water bowl.

Literally and without a drop of hyperbole, she has the most pronounced difference in demeanor when in and out of harness of any guide dog. Not just my girls, but of any guide I have ever known in my entire life. It’s been a year now and I still find myself shocked and amazed that this wild child of a dog actually has the ability to focus and be calm and, you know, work as a guide dog. Oh, and it’s worth stressing this fact: she’s an excellent guide.

Except for when she’s not.

Uschi on a brown background rolling around on her backThree guesses when that is — and the first two don’t count. Right. That whole “crazy” thing. You see sometimes she just can’t help herself and that goofy personality just slips out. Thankfully, a good number of these times have been situations where I’m mostly embarrassed in front of a friend or family member, like when instead of just getting into my friend’s car she literally hurled herself across me and into his lap! More concerning is when her “fluffy brain” turns the most random things into nothing short of intense distraction. Yesterday for instance she spent no less than five minutes completely entranced by one of the garbage cans in my driveway. She actually lunged at it — and very nearly sent me into cardiac arrest because I had no clue what she was reacting to at first. Granted that’s a random example even for her, but sometimes I swear she’s having an incredibly vivid hallucination while she’s supposed to be, well, guiding me. So far this hasn’t caused me anything but temporary confusion at why we’ve stopped for no reason other than for my partner to sit down and observe some elusive thing only she can see. I almost would prefer her wild and intermittent animal distraction. Actually, no. This is at least mildly entertaining and that day in the park was so very not. I used to say that Dolly had a “fifteen minute or two block rule” that was basically her version of needing a cup of coffee in the morning; she needed those minutes or that length of a walk to actually wake up enough to realize she was not asleep and really working. Uschi, on the other hand, is like a three-year-old in her own imaginary play land and sometimes she forgets that the play land is in her mind and it takes over completely. Last year I used that same description save for that she was a two-year-old . . . I’m not sure how long I can justify her childlike (mis)behavior based on age alone. Especially since I don’t think her actual age has anything whatsoever to do with the inner-workings of her stuffing-filled brain. If I had to give a reason, I would say that while her brain may not actually be full of stuff and fluff, it has a specific capacity to hold information that is only rivaled by its ability to be completely overwhelmed by, for lack of a better word, fun. Essentially, she gets carried away with herself and no amount of discipline and obedience is able to fully overcome it.

Let me assuage your fears: her bouts of absentmindedness during work are infrequent. Though, I’m torn between mind-numbing paranoia that one day she’ll fully commit to her Mr. Hyde side and havoc beyond imagining will ensue. However, she is not only almost always spot on when in harness, but she’s shown an amazing ability to stay on her job when other crazy things have happened, like a cat spazzing out on her in a bookstore. So, while the potential exists that she’s going to royally embarrass me in front of more than a few close friends, I’m not wary of her ability to keep me safe even if she is possibly certifiable. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, she proves on a daily basis to be tons more entertaining than my television was all of last year.

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

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival #5: Achievement

Hello and welcome to the fifth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival! This edition is all about achievement.

Assistance Dog Blog CarnivalThere are several definitions for achievement, but I think my favorite is “a great or heroic deed.” To me that really defines an assistance dog. Great or small as the accomplishment or task might be, every single day of their lives these amazing dogs showcase their superior ability. Seeing as a definition alone can hardly encompass how profoundly these dogs influence our lives, I’ll let the posts speak for themselves.

Achieving Independence
One of the greatest advantages that an assistance dog partnership brings to a handler is independence. So it’s not surprising that this would be one of the most common topics that participants wrote about. By My Side‘s Katrin blogs about “The Achievement of Independence” through the different roles she has played with her two guide/service dogs. She states: “With the sense of confidence in myself and my own skills, entering into a partnership with Tom has been [successful] and rich in ways that my partnership with James had never been.”

Torie of The Average Blog by an Average Blogger writes about her journey to “Achieving independence” through her partnership with her guide dog. She sums everything up by writing about how her life has changed and notes that while some might not view it as much, she feels strongly that it wouldn’t have been possible without her assistance dog.

At My Life as a Blind Person, Michelle also writes about gaining greater independence through obtaining and being partnered with her guide dog in her post “Achievements.” She stresses how this achievement is complex in that it has layers built into it that are themselves achievements.

And Karyn from Through a Guide’s Eyes discusses the “independence [she has] gained by the massive achievement of training [her] dogs with all the naysayers out there” in her post “The Border Collie Boys” highlighting the specifics of training her service dogs and the lessons imparted from it.

The Journey
Sometimes it’s the journey itself that is the achievement as Carin, of Vomit Comet, states: “Some people don’t understand what all goes into working with a guide dog. They don’t get the concept that the team’s learning doesn’t stop when they leave training. But truly, the life of a team is a great big string of achievements.” Her post “Figuring Each Other Out is an Achievement” further details the nuances of a guide dog partnership that require time and effort to explore and fully understand.

In “A Puppy Raiser’s Achievement” at Plays with Puppies, Patti details the steps in preparing a puppy for his potential career as a guide dog. Or, more accurately, how she goes about her goal “to raise a puppy that is ready to take on the next step” by achieving the established standards outlined by Leader Dogs for the Blind.

Cait also writes about her goals, noting the progress she and her potential service-dog-in-training, Jack, are making and the sense of accomplishment that brings with it in her post “Deep Thinking” over at Dogstar Academy.

At Ruled by Paws, Brooke outlines the path that led to her having the confidence to raise and train her own service dog in “Achieving the Confidence.” She emphasizes: “I’m hoping Cessna will never stop challenging me to become a better person, and that she will help me teach Rogue how to walk in her shoes.”

Here at Gentle Wit I chronicled the “Trials and Triumphs” of my second guide dog’s health issues. The road itself was none too easy, but “obviously it wasn’t all for naught and we made it through . . . Not that I want to repeat it, but I don’t regret the struggle.”

Achieving Team Balance” by Kimberly of Dog Days of Kimberfus, is also about health struggles. Specifically, she writes about the health issues in her second guide dog, Jack, and how that impacted her initial working relationship with her third guide dog, Abby. It’s an experience that I can personally relate to quite well (see the comments section on her post) and a truly inspiring piece that she happily concludes with: “Abby’s health issues played a part in our team taking longer to gel than I’d like, but hard work and determination on both our parts helped us keep the partnership and our bond intact. By our first team anniversary, we were a smooth tandem, gliding along, two bodies working as one.”

A Story of Hope is a website devoted to the memory of a Hope, a service dog who passed away from cancer in 2010. Her partner, Hopesclan, is currently fundraising to obtain her successor. In her post “When All Seems Lost” she blogs about the state of limbo she has been in and the grief she has dealt with since losing Hope: “I know Hope made me a better person and gave me a chance at a much better life. With her I knew achievement. Where I go from here is a great unknown, but at least I now know the potential my life holds.”

Celebrating Success
Ending on a high note we have some posts that emphasize the accomplishments in an assistance dog partnership! In fact, a notable milestone happened at Dog’s Eye View. In “Achieving Team SuccessLaura marks the one-year anniversary with her second guide dog, Jack, and notes the work that the two have put into maintaining their partnership. Specifically, she writes about how these accomplishments, both big and small, have led her back to “[her] regular life again.”

“I think how much better our partnership has improved is the real achievement here,” remarks Ashley who celebrates the half-year anniversary of her partnership with service dog, Cole, in her lovely post entitled “Six Months and Stronger Than Ever over at The CRPS Girl.

Meanwhile, at Gilbert and Me, Allison reminisces about her initial meeting with her guide dog Gilbert, their graduation day and the beginnings of their partnership together in “Our Journey Begins.”

Milestones aren’t always big events, though as Sharon, of After Gadget, states in her post “Our Recent Public Access Achievements.” She explains: “The achievements that Barnum and I celebrate are not the successes of a graduation or a title. Rather, they are small steps that are leading us — oh, so slowly, it often seems — along the path to a working partnership.”

Likewise, Martha at Believe in Who You Are writes about the accomplishment of her “First Major Trip” with her guide dog. She highlights their incredibly long bus ride to a fairly large convention and their initial work as a team on the streets of St. Louis.

Of course, what would a celebration be without a party? Last, but certainly not least is “Puppy Party,” at Allie’s Antics, where puppy raiser Wendy tells us all about the birthday party that was thrown for the first Guide Dogs of Texas litter of puppies. She’s included a slideshow of photos from the party and they are applicably adorable.

In Conclusion
I would like to thank everyone who helped make this edition of the ADBC a success by contributing posts and taking the time to read the submissions! I’m also extremely grateful for all the assistance I received in promoting the Carnival; it wouldn’t be nearly the success if there wasn’t a way to garner interest in the event itself. I sincerely hope that you all enjoy this edition a fraction as much as I have in organizing it. It was a great honor and a lot of fun!

If you haven’t yet, please take the time to show your appreciation to our many contributors by leaving a comment on their piece. We all might blog first and foremost for ourselves, but it can sometimes feel a bit lonely in the vastness of the Internet. Also, please share this link with others!