Doggy Environmentalists

Working Dogs for Conservation logo features a dog standing in the grass

“Our conservation detection dogs are agile, portable, and endlessly trainable. They are an efficient, highly sensitive, and non-invasive way to gather high-quality data.”

The above quotation is from the website of Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C), a Montana-based organization whose dog teams literally travel the globe helping to save endangered species, find and route out invasive species, and intercept contraband cargo that includes products from endangered animals.

The coolest … okay, one of many, many cool aspects of their work is that the dogs they train are the “bad” dogs who wind up in shelters because no one can handle them. No regular family or ordinary adopter, that is. The high-energy, obsessive dogs who will do anything, anything at all, for the chance to play one more game of tug or get that silly human to throw the ball. Even better, the organization reaches out to shelters and teaches staff how to recognize these high-drive dogs and connect them with organizations, like Working Dogs for Conservation — or police, military, search and rescue, or other organizations that train and work detection dogs.

WD4C offers living proof that dogs can master more than one job. The dogs — endlessly trainable, remember — are taught to detect multiple, maybe dozens, of scents. That makes them versatile partners and enables teams to work in all kinds of places. The dogs learn to detect scents underwater as well as on land. In the water, they can detect pollutants like metals or pharmaceuticals, and they can distinguish between species of fish and aquatic plants, to identify invaders. At a talk I recently attended, the research director, Megan Parker, said that the dogs could distinguish between rainbow trout and brown trout, a feat that many Montanans would find impossible. They’re currently teaching dogs to detect brucellosis, a highly bacterial infection that affects, among others, cattle, bison, and elk in Montana.

In the service dog world, I’ve heard people claim that a single dog couldn’t be trained to, say, guide a person with impaired vision and retrieve dropped items; that person would need two service dogs. I’ve heard pet owners (and, sadly, pet trainers) claim that dogs can’t learn different rules for different situations or understand tasks that are too similar. This is absurd, of course.

So maybe the best thing about WD4C is that it believes in dogs: It believes in dogs’ ability to constantly learn — the demo dog at the talk is a 12-year-old Malinois who has been working for 11+ years. He’s still learning new tasks. It believes in the hard-to-handle dogs that others write off — and saves many of them from certain death in shelters. It even believes in humans’ ability to learn about dogs, sharing training methods and research with organizations and individuals who are eager to understand how incredibly capable dogs are — and to teach them to use their noses in countless ways.

 

Who’s a [Good, Bad, Anxious, Happy, Aggressive, Calm] Dog?

I recently attended a two-day workshop with TTouch practitioner Lori Stevens. Of the many tips and techniques that stuck with me, this stands out: We tend to label dogs’ behavior rather than describe it.

What is an anxious dog? What is an aggressive dog? A well-behaved dog? Turns out that each dog owner — and dog professional — means something different when she uses those terms.

WrapI sometimes describe Jana as “anxious” because, many evenings, she seems unsettled, distracted, and uncomfortable. She whines or paces, but I can usually settle her down in a few minutes. The technique I learned from Lori, using a body wrap, seems to help a little. Jana also shows what I call anxiety on walks if a vehicle (mostly loud, big trucks, though she seems to harbor a deep-seated hatred of minivans, too) approaches from behind us and startles us. I attribute some of this “anxiety” to the possibility that she’s not hearing things as well as she used to and she gets surprised more often — perhaps she’s also losing some vision. Whatever the cause, things seem to come out of nowhere and startle her more often. Fine, so, she’s a bit anxious and I deal with it.

But I have friends whose “anxious” dogs have done hundreds of dollars in damage to their possessions, their floors and walls, their furniture … other “anxious” dogs bark nonstop or are unable to sleep through the night (pacing, whining or barking, and ensuring that no one in the household gets any sleep. Ever.). Compared with that, Jana is calm and placid, well-adjusted even.

Then there’s the “aggressive” dog. I’ve seen dogs who have been labeled as aggressive who are the sweetest, friendliest dogs … but who really dislike cats and want to chase them (or worse). Or who have maybe bitten a person, once, under what turns out (if I get the whole story) to be extreme provocation. Or who are simply terrified, stressed by being put in a situation that they cannot handle. Not all of these dogs are aggressive; they are scared and overwhelmed.

Scared and overwhelmed can be fixed; prey drive can be managed. But some dyed-in-the-wool, born-with-it aggression is not fixable and can be very hard to manage. It is important to know the difference.
Being able to describe our dogs’ behavior accurately and in detail is important for so many reasons. We can do a better job of figuring out how to manage or change that behavior if we know what it is and why it’s happening. As dog professionals, or as dog owners who want to call in a professional, a clear, detailed description of behavior is an essential starting point — does this dog need training? Medication? Treatment for some underlying, painful condition that is causing her to snap at people? Sometimes the cause is simple, even if it’s not immediately obvious.

A couple of summers ago, one evening, Jana snapped at Cali for playing roughly near her. Jana is usually amazingly patient with Cali. I reprimanded Jana for her “aggressive” act. Fortunately, within a few days, Jana was scheduled to have her annual physical. At her vet exam, the doctor found that Jana had a very painful cracked molar. A long surgery and several hundred dollars later, Jana was no longer in pain. She has never snapped at Cali again.

So, trash the catch-all labels. Instead, look at the behavior. When does it happen? Is there a trigger? Did it just start? Has behavior changed recently? Has the dog’s environment changed? Is the dog getting enough exercise, a balanced diet, regular medical checkups? If you can’t figure out the cause, call in help: doggy friends, the vet, a trainer. Post a question on the Thinking Dog Blog!

It’s usually possible to figure out what’s going on — and lots of expert help is available!

Good Mom, Bad Mom?

got cookies_sae hokoyamaA reader writes: My spouse, the “good” parent, gives our dog lots of treats. Now the dog has become a tyrant, especially when I’m trying to make dinner. Other than saying NO when she has maxed out her quota and then having to deal with nagging, or else yelling at this sensitive dog and becoming even more of the “bad” parent, what might you suggest?

This is a tough one, as is any instance where spouses’ parenting styles clash.

A couple of hints in your question suggest an area where I think you can make changes, though. One is your characterization of yourself as the “bad” mom, simply because you are a tiny bit more strict. And what, exactly, is her “quota”? Together, these tell me that you and your spouse, like many dog parents, equate giving treats with giving (or, perhaps, getting) love. And a nice mom (or dad) gives lots of treats while a mean mom stints on the cookies. That’s simply not true, regardless of what the dog says or how sadly she looks at you.

One place to start might be to not give any treats without a reason. That’s not as mean or as hard as it sounds. And even if you can’t get your spouse on board, you can convince the dog that making sad puppy eyes at you will not get her anywhere (and neither will “nagging,” whatever form it takes).

Come up with your own criteria. I ask that my dogs do something, bring me something, or submit to something they dislike in order to earn treats. This translates to cookies for bringing me the paper or my shoes or for picking up their bowls after eating; treats for coming in, sitting nicely, and stopping their insane barking when the neighbors walk by with their dog; and high-value treats for allowing me to do their nails and other hated grooming chores.

Some people set the bar lower, giving the dog a treat each time she comes in from going out to pee, for example. While I see no reason to do that, it does, at least, set a criterion. You do X, you get a cookie. That sets up a different expectation than: I am (or I am cute); therefore I deserve a cookie.

If all that seems too complicated, any time she bugs you for a treat, ask her to do something she already knows: sit and shake hands; roll over; high five. She will still be exchanging something for the treat, not just walking by and expecting rewards simply for existing.

Of course, she is not going to accept this new regimen without protest. You’ll need to hold firm for a few days or a week or so, ignoring her nagging, and she will ultimately resign herself to having to earn or pay for her rewards, just like the rest of us. She might still get freebies from your spouse — you probably can’t change that. But I seriously doubt that your dog measures her love for each of you by the number of free treats you hand out. A lot more goes into building a relationship than that!

What Do Dogs Want?

I am teaching a class where students attempt to analyze dog-human relationships from the dog’s perspective. I asked them to think about what dogs would want the world to look like — what dogs dream of, what the future would look like if dogs’ perspectives were given equal weight to humans’. We also looked at what several writers and editors have published as their versions of dogs’ dreams, hopes, and aspirations.
Looking at the work was informative. Much of the published work that claims to represent a canine viewpoint is undeniably anthropomorphic. Products, too — though designed for dogs, they are things that no dog would ever want. Shampoo with an overpowering, sweet fruity scent, for example.
Or Dog TV, a channel created for your dog to watch while he’s at home all day. It’s carried by several cable companies. Several of the examples we looked at described dogs’ desire to have thumbs so that they could control the remote or their desire to lie around dreaming all day. Dog TV was created for people who see dogs as furry little couch potatoes.
Another common theme is taking charge. One image from 21st Century Dog, a collection of dog-centered prophesies, appears below.
21st century dog
In a similar vein, several students channeled dogs who lived in a leash-free world where humans addressed their every whim or in homes where the dogs ate at the table while the humans curled up underneath. But, benefitting from an in-depth understanding of dog behavior, relative expertise on dogs’ health, well-being and psychology, and lives immersed in all things dog, several students’ views of dogs’ desires seem to get closer to what dos might, actually want.
In a book that illustrates dogs’ dreams, dogs dream of large, ornate houses, trips to Paris, and huge collections of shoes. Not likely, unless those shoes were for chewing.
Yet all is not lost to the hapless dreaming dog. Several students’ dogs dreamed of more doggy things — endless balls, growing on plants in their yard; freely available and dog-appropriate food (they are also studying canine nutrition); being free to dig, roll in the mud, and drink from a bottomless water bowl; enjoying a private stream where they could catch fresh fish.
Others envisioned a world where, rather than one species ruling another, the partnership was more even. Humans would understand their language and they’d get as much attention and company as they wanted. Dogs would not have to wear clothes; could go out to pee whenever they chose; would not be forced to interact with dogs whom they disliked; and bed-sharing would be negotiated.
One student nailed it by focusing on scent … another imagined dogs having the right to work in fulfilling jobs.
While we’ll never know for sure whether dogs dream of taking over or simply of a more equitable partnership with us, we can be sure that most dogs — like most people — want to use their intelligence and be challenged physically and mentally. Then, tired and muddy, we can all stretch out on the couch and fight over the remote.

Rethinking Obedience

IMG_1725“The walls and grids that restrain your animals restrain also your own knowledge.”
— Vicki Hearne
What I call “old-school” dog trainers — those who operate from the assumption that the human has “to be the alpha” in his or her relationship with a dog — don’t, in my opinion, credit dogs with much in the way of cognitive ability.
Some, like the 1920-era European trainer Konrad Most, bluntly state an approach to education that many of us would recoil from today: “In the absence of compulsion, neither human education nor canine training is possible.” Others, like William Koehler (circa 1960s), give rational-sounding advice: “Lay down a set of rules, and see that your dog lives by them.” But the means used to accomplish that goal are harsh and authoritarian.
What these trainers share is an emphasis on punishment over motivation or reward and an expectation that a dog should offer instant, precise obedience to any command given by a human. The expected response is almost robotic in its uniformity and immediacy.
Trainers with these expectations do not believe that dogs can — or should — think or be part of a decision-making process. No, the dog should know who’s boss and, according to Most, “do what we find convenient or useful and refrain from doing what is inconvenient or harmful to us.”
While both Most and Koehler were both enormously influential in the development of dog training, much about their approach is antithetical to the goal of raising a thinking dog.
Demanding instant, precise obedience to all commands in all situations does not allow for the dog to think or process the command in any way. When you expect instant, unquestioning obedience from your dog, you are essentially prohibiting him from thinking. In human relationships, we talk about such expectations this way: “When I say jump; you may ask only, ‘how high?’ ”
To raise a thinking dog, that is, to use a cognitive approach to your dog’s education, you must have expectations that not only allow for but encourage the dog to think and solve problems. The cognitive dog needs to learn, understand, and, ultimately, buy into a shared goal. Expecting unquestioning obedience at every request, mapping out not only the end result but every step the dog must perform to get there does not — cannot — allow dogs to think conceptually about what you are trying to accomplish, learn to solve problems, or offer a different (maybe better!) solution.
Granted, there are situations where an instant response is necessary — if your dog is unthinkingly following a bouncing tennis ball into a street, for example. But developing your dog’s cognitive abilities does not prevent you from also teaching your dog a strong recall and an “emergency recall” cue that, when taught and practiced with the highest-value treats possible, will ensure an automatic response in a true emergency.
There are many ways to lead or manage (or parent). Those of us who want to share our lives with thinking dogs should be wary of dog professionals who talk a lot about alpha roles and hierarchical relationships. Instead, we should look for ways to develop our dogs’ considerable cognitive abilities. Start by figuring out what motivates your dog. Read future blogs for tips on how to do that and more.

Teaching or Training?

A young Kong addict
A very young Jana figures out how to get food out of a Kong

Puppies, like babies, are born with the potential to learn and problem solve and think. They are innately curious and begin investigating their world even before they open their eyes.
Our job is to develop these skills in our puppies and dogs by providing opportunities for them to learn and develop their conceptual thinking abilities. We can expose them to lots of novel items and situations and provide encouragement and motivation. We can also be on the lookout — especially with puppies — for opportunities to turn potential problem behaviors into desirable, adorable, and even helpful skills!
Dogs who are taught, especially by handlers who use methods that encourage problem-solving, become better problem-solvers. A study called “Does training make you smarter?” compared dogs who had received training with dogs who had not. Dogs who had received training solved a problem — opening a box that had a pad that could be pressed by the dog’s paw — spent more time trying to open the box (and were less likely to seek help from their owners) than dogs who had no formal education. The study’s authors speculate that trained dogs have “learned to learn” in a way that unschooled dogs have not.
But, and this is a big but — not all education is equal. There are many approaches to teaching or training, and the methods you choose will affect more than just how fast your dog learns — it can affect the bond between you and your dog, and it can shape or reflect your attitudes toward dogs. And it’s not just the method. The words matter, too.
I make a distinction between training dogs and teaching them because I think the word choice reflects a difference in attitude and goals.
Training dogs is what I call educational approaches that are narrowly focused on eliciting specific reactions to cues or commands. The trainer has a clear end result in mind for each command. The trainer says, “sit;” the dog sits. Practice emphasizes precision of the dog’s response, speed of the response, and the dog’s ability to respond quickly and precisely even when distractions are present.
When I refer to teaching, on the other hand, I am referring to a process that develops the dog’s thinking and problem-solving abilities. The teacher’s goal is to give his or her students the tools and the confidence to figure out what to do in a variety of situations. Sometimes, a teacher might seek a precise response, like the sit; other times, the teacher makes a request that requires the dog to figure out what to do. “Find a pen” gives the dog a goal but no precise instructions for reaching that goal.
Teaching brings the dog to a level of independent thought and problem solving that enables him to respond to a command or cue that is as vaguely defined as “find a pen;” training does not.
Any approach to training or teaching is based on an underlying mindset or set of assumptions: assumptions about what dogs are capable of learning; assumptions about how dogs learn and how much of what we say and do they actually understand; and assumptions about what the dog-person relationship should be.
Trainers who do not believe that dogs are capable or reasoning or problem-solving are unlikely to put any effort into developing these skills in the dogs they train. Trainers or handlers who believe the dog’s “job” is to be obedient and submissive are unlikely to tolerate a free-thinking dog. Some trainers talk about “getting dominance” or “being the alpha” as ways to ensure that dogs remain obedient and submissive.
Methods of dog “training” or education can be placed on a continuum that ranges from those that do not encourage the dog to think at all to those that practically make the dog do all of the thinking. The Thinking Dog blog will teach you to recognize various approaches and their goals — and encourage and equip you to explore methods that help your dog become the best thinking dog he or she can be.

How Dogs Love Us

howdogsloveus_260Gregory Berns got the crazy idea of training his dog to lie still in an MRI machine, in the hope it would provide some insight into dogs’ thinking. What he found brings scientific proof to something every dog person knows — that dogs read us, anticipate our behavior, and act on that knowledge. Dogs, in short, have theory of mind. Berns rightly argues that this scientific evidence must change the way we think of and treat dogs.

What’s especially wonderful about this story is that, at least at the beginning, Berns is not an especially savvy dog person. He loves his dogs, treats them extremely well, but hasn’t spent a lot of time trying to communicate effectively with them or train them. By the end of the book — or maybe by a few months into the research — he’s become convinced that dogs communicate and function on a very high level and that “the key to improving dog-human relationships is through social cognition, not behaviorism.” Quite a journey … in fact, it’s the same journey that I hope to push my students along in Bergin U classes on dog training, canine-human communication and understanding the dog’s perspective. (Any current Bergin U students reading this might as well order their copies now … this book is destined to become required reading in all my classes.)

The book is filled with fairly complex scientific concepts, but it is written beautifully and clearly. It is very easy to understand and, like a good adventure novel, pulls readers along with foreshadowing and suspense. I especially love the long discussion of the ethical issues Berns and his team faced in setting up the research and the insistence of all the human researchers that the dogs would always be free to opt out, at any time. I also love the dog-centric approach the research takes (read the book to find out what I mean!). This book — this whole research study —is a testament to the amazing possibilities that exist when humans acknowledge their dogs’ abilities, treat them as partners (rather than as property or as slaves), and engage with them in a respectful, positive manner.

Because I am nut for precise language, I do have to quibble with the title. Berns does not actually show HOW dogs love us. He does show, I believe, that they DO love their human family members. While he can’t really show us what dogs are thinking, though, he has shown a way to understand their likes and dislikes — and perhaps opened the door to a better ability to read in dogs other emotions that humans and dogs share.

Food Before Thought

IMG_1725

As Deni and Albee prepared to head off to a Rally Obedience class the other night, we discussed when to feed the dogs their dinner. Many trainers over the years have advised their human students not to feed dogs before training class. The dogs work better when they are hungry, is the claim. Deni and I pondered this, wondering whether it was good advice, anthropomorphism gone amok, or just plain silliness.

If it is an attempt to look at dogs through human eyes (the anthropomorphism gone amok theory), I guess it can be argued that really wanting something might make a being focus harder on what he or she has to do to get it. Therefore, if the dog really, really wants food, wouldn’t the dog focus harder on figuring out how to get it? Might sound plausible … except for a few problems. One is that the tiny tidbits of food a dog gets as rewards in training hardly take the place of a meal. And, this theory demands that you ignore stacks and stacks of research about learning or concentration and hunger.

Kids do not learn well when they are hungry. A really hungry child, and, probably, a really hungry dog, simply does not focus well. Research showing this has led public schools in low-income areas to offer not only free lunches, but breakfast as well, in attempts to boost concentration and improve kids’ learning.

Adults’ performance also suffers if we don’t eat a healthful breakfast. We know this, yet somehow think that our dogs will focus and learn if they are hungry? Doubtful.

Some trainers make a comparison with human athletes and point out that athletes are unlikely to eat a large meal just before a workout. Sure, but if training class is at 7 p.m., that is not a valid argument against feeding the dog at 5. Anyhow, a Rally class, an obedience class, even an agility class has a lot more in common with a grade-school classroom or a desk job than a triathalon. The dogs are not asked to perform athletic feats for hours, or even minutes on end. They are asked to pay attention to their handlers, to ignore distractions, to figure out what is needed, whether it is touching the contact at the end of the dog walk, sitting and staying for three minutes, or walking on a loose leash. The demands are primarily mental.

But there’s another, more important element. When trainers talk about training, it’s hard to avoid mention of the four quadrants of operant conditioning / behaviorism. The positive reinforcement quadrant is the one we are most familiar with — rewarding behavior we like. Ostensibly, the advice to train hungry dogs ties in with this: The dogs will get food rewards for their performance, and better performance will lead to more rewards. It’s all good, right?

Let’s look at it more honestly. Depriving a being of something it needs in order to get it to do what you want is called … torture. Withholding meals, then providing minute rewards for compliance falls into the “negative reinforcement” quadrant — removing a negative when the dog performs the requested behavior is supposed to increase the likelihood of the dog performing the behavior. Late dinner is about as negative as it gets for some dogs!

I know that comparing delaying a meal with common negative reinforcement techniques like ear pinch is an exaggeration. But comparing dog training class to an athletic workout isn’t? The dog will (eventually) get a meal, so feeding after training is not really abusive. But it is unfair. And it exploits the complete control we humans have over every aspect of our dogs’ lives.

The advice to delay meals might have been conceived by trainers who worked with dogs that are less food-obsessed than golden and Labrador retrievers. I still think it is wrong. A meal and tiny little training rewards are not the same thing. If your dog is unwilling to work for the training rewards you are offering, it is not because you have fed him; it is because the rewards you are offering are not, in that dog’s mind, motivators.

The cardinal rule of any kind of motivational training is that the trainee — the dog — determines what a motivator is and therefore what the reward should be.

If your training treats only motivate your dog when he is ravenous, skipping dinner is not the answer. Try using better treats. Try using a tennis ball, a tug toy — anything that your dog loves — as a reward. I might be willing to work for several hours to earn a paycheck that will arrive next week, but Cali, Jana, and Albee will always choose the freeze-dried liver over the cash — and they want it now, please. In fact, they will choose liver over and over again, at every opportunity, regardless of whether they’ve had dinner.

Bidding Farewell to Wylie

Cool

Wylie is heading off to learn his new career this week. Deni’s difficult decision to let him go and to seek a professionally trained guide dog, whom we hope will be a better fit for both her personality and her needs, is described in Loving and Letting Go, an earlier post on the Thinking Dog Blog. But Wylie was part of my pack, family, life too — and saying good-bye brings up some tough issues.

I think of dogs as family members. Taking a dog into your life, I believe, is a lifetime commitment — you take it upon yourself to care for the dog for the rest of his life (or the rest of yours). Yet I believe that letting Wylie move on to a new life is the best choice for him as well as for the rest of his pack/family. I’ve been struggling to reconcile these conflicting views.

Wylie wasn’t a pet; he was a guide dog. But he wasn’t a good fit for the job Deni had assigned to him. We’re both confident that his new job, working with a veteran, will be a better match for Wylie’s personality and needs. He’ll revel in the intense companionship and enjoy his new responsibilities. He might be matched with a young, athletic guy who can give him the exercise he craves, too.

None of that makes it easy to say good-bye. What makes it hard, I think, is that for all that I try to study human-dog communication and improve my ability to communicate with dogs, I am still human — with that human tendency to be overly reliant on words. For all his intelligence and perceptiveness, Wylie is a dog who doesn’t use language the way we do. That gap is sometimes tough to bridge.

So we can’t prepare Wylie for what is happening, can’t help him understand that we love him and want him to be happy, can’t call him on the phone to find out how his training is going. He’ll be confused and sad when Deni leaves him with Jennifer, his new trainer. There’s no way to explain to him that, after some training, he’ll get to go live with a guy who will be his best friend and constant companion. While he senses that something is up, Deni says, he doesn’t understand what.

I also know that dogs are more “now” focused than most people are, which means that Wylie will quickly adapt to his new routines. He makes new friends easily. I am sure that he’ll be the star of the training class before long. Even knowing all of that, and feeling sure that it’s the best choice for him, it still feels strange and sad to say good-bye.

 

Loving and Letting Go

A Guest Blog by Deni Elliott

wylie ballSometimes things just don’t work out. He is intensely athletic; I’m a stroll-on-the-beach kind of gal. He always wants to be in charge; I think that responsibility should be shared. He likes hanging out with the guys, and he unabashedly flirts with the girls; I crave a less-social life and want him to have eyes only for me. But when we are alone, I need some private time; he dogs my every move.

After four years of trying to make our partnership work and then carefully planning for our separation, I’m ready to announce this to the world: I love Wylie more than I can say. He’s smarter than I am, good-hearted, and generally well-intentioned. But Wylie and I are breaking up.

My guide dog’s career change feels a lot like ending a human relationship. As with intimacy between humans, the partnership of human and guide dog is a dance of inter-dependency and cooperation. Compatibility is required.

Wylie counts on me to give him everything that he needs to be a well-adjusted German shepherd, and he is not shy about communicating his demands to me.

I put my life in his paws every time that I slide the harness over his shoulders and say, “Forward.” I trust Wylie to choose the path as he guides me under low-hanging branches, steers me around obstacles, and takes us across streets, avoiding the traffic that I can hear but cannot see.

We communicate moods and expectations up and down the harness as we let each other know what is next in our progression from Point A to Point B. If we’re out of sync with one another, we both get frustrated. And while our ability to read one another has astounded others observing us, the frustration has become more than either of us can handle.

8 wks Wylie (2)Wylie is the second guide dog that I have raised from young puppyhood, enlisting the expertise of professionals to accomplish training that I couldn’t do on my own. I’ve owned and trained dogs since I was a child. My visual loss was progressive, but slow. I thought that I was better able than a guide dog school to prepare a dog to meet my special needs.

As a puppy, Wylie showed strong potential to become a guide. My successful partnership with my first guide dog, a golden retriever named Oriel, made me unrealistically confident. Oriel was, in the words of many who knew her, “the perfect dog.” When she retired, I assumed that I could make the guide relationship with young Wylie work just as well. I struggled through the first year and thought that he would mature and grow into his job. I was wrong. Wylie’s basic personality did not change; nor did mine. When I finally realized that I couldn’t make things better, I knew that I owed Wylie the chance for a better life.

On January 23, Wylie will start training to be a service dog for a veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For the first time in more than 12 years, I will depend solely on my white cane to pick my way through my travels. Wylie and I will both be in transition and will grieve the loss of one another.

But not for long.

Wylie (2)Wylie will have new challenges from the start. He will live first with Jennifer Rogers, director of PAALS, a service-dog training school that is affiliated with Fort Jackson, the U.S. Army base in Columbia, South Carolina. Wylie and other dogs-in-training will spend one evening each week on the base with active-duty service members and veterans who are coping with combat-related anxiety. Under Jennifer’s supervision, the dogs will learn to help people with PTSD; the soldiers and veterans will teach the dogs how to assist others like themselves. Dogs and humans will learn to support one another.

When the time and match is right, Wylie will become an “intensive companion” dog for a veteran who is not yet ready for the challenge of working with a service dog out in the community. Dog and veteran will be encircled by a team of mental health and service dog professionals who will support their journey together.

I will be supported in a new journey as well. On March 4, I will join a training class at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York. After intensive training there, I expect to return home with a 2-year-old mellow yellow Labrador retriever at my side. I’ll have a guide dog bred and trained by experts who create and maintain ethical working dog relationships. After many hours of application to, evaluation by, and conversation with Guiding Eyes personnel, I trust that they know better than I how to find me the best guide dog match.

Wylie’s new life will be very different from guiding me around obstacles that I cannot see. Crucially, it will be a life that is more in tune with his nature. The behaviors that he will be trained to do on cue include leaning against his partner, resting his head on his partner’s knee, lying on his partner’s feet, and providing a friendly-but-safe barrier between his partner and others. With me, Wylie got to connect like this only after his harness came off and he was done guiding for the day. Providing a partner such physical support 24/7 is Wylie’s dream job.

Wylie has always wanted more physical connection than I could handle. When I was done working for the day, I wanted some time free of my canine umbilical cord; Wylie wanted the intense physical contact that he lacked when he was walking two steps ahead of me, in harness.

The behaviors that have been problematic for me will be just what Wylie’s new partner needs. Wylie will bond with a veteran who needs a canine companion to guide him out of a darker place than I have ever experienced. It is likely that Wylie’s new partner — a veteran with deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan or both — will be no more than 30 years old. Wylie will finally have a young partner who is able to provide the daily intensive exercise that he craves.

Wylie will no longer endure long hours lying under a desk while I work in the office or teach my classes. He will no longer sigh and resign himself to STILL being on duty when I sternly command him to turn left to guide me to the Dean’s office when he wants to turn right to walk home and be done for the day. And, most importantly, Wylie will no longer have to pant and tremble as he struggles to guide me through airports and onto airplanes, a task that he finds increasingly stressful.

CoolSome people will criticize me for not letting Wylie retire and spend the rest of his days lounging at home. But, all dogs need stimulation; a young, intelligent dog like Wylie, who is accustomed to life out in the world, needs it more than most. Long days spent alone and doing nothing would be unbearable for him. Others will say that it is cruel for me to give him away, suggesting that I don’t love my dog as they love theirs. But I know that Wylie would not be happy watching me leave home with another dog doing “his” job, even if it is a job that he sometimes hates. I love Wylie enough to recognize that he’ll be happier moving on.

I will get over losing the goofy frat-boy who has been part of my life for 6 years. I will have learned yet one more lesson in loving and letting go. I’ll get past the guilty feeling that I failed this dog. From this perspective, it seems to me that I’ve been helping Wylie get ready to be the helper dog that he was really meant to be. I appreciate his true nature enough to let him go forward and be that dog.