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.
Don’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
Truth 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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Props if you can spot the one I’m making in the photo on the top right. ↩
- 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. ↩