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.



Give That Dog a Job!

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Getting the paper each morning is the classic dog’s job. My friend Sally continued her newspaper subscription long after she’d lost interest in reading it — just because it gave Mav, her Lab, such pleasure to get the paper. Jana started fetching the Jerusalem Post each morning when she was just a few months old. She’s graduated to the New York Times, which is considerably weightier, especially on Sundays. Every so often, Wylie tries to nose in on her morning chore, but she’s not giving up easily.

Our dogs have also learned to pick up their bowls after they eat. Some people have expressed surprise at this, understanding why a dog might bring an empty bowl in hopes that we’ll fill it but not why a full dog would bring an empty bowl. We explain that we try to encourage our dogs to behave responsibly. The dogs give us their empty bowls rather than actually washing them, but it’s a start. Jana can be persuaded to put her toys in the toy basket as well.

Dogs like to have jobs. This is a frequent topic of discussion with my dog-training students. These students are training future service dogs, but they are also preparing to train pet dogs — and their owners. We’ve talked about the many roles and careers available to dogs these days, and the consensus among my students is that, even if the job is a dangerous one (think military and police dogs), most dogs seem happier when they have work to do.

Most pet dogs are bored most of the time. Giving underemployed dogs some small tasks to do throughout the day can relieve that boredom and challenge them a bit.

Most people’s lives are filled with tasks that dogs can learn to handle, if only given the chance. When we miss the recycle box when tossing balled-up paper from our desks, a dog (or two) is always ready to bring the trash back or put it in the box for us. Fetching slippers or shoes is a natural. Dogs who learn to fetch the leash or their owners’ walking shoes when it is time for an outing might take the initiative and bring the items when they figure that they’ve waited long enough. Our beloved Oriel decided on her own to bring the water dish to one of us for a refill when it was empty, and she often brought discarded papers from the recycle box in hopes of exchanging the trash for a cookie.

If you can’t think of tasks, challenge your dog’s mind with games or a treat toy; dogs don’t seem to differentiate between  thinking tasks that are just for fun and those that are dog jobs. Interactive dog games abound these days — these ask dogs to use their noses, paws, and sometimes teeth to open compartments, slide little doors, and nudge puzzle pieces aside to reveal hidden treats. Playing “tug” can lay the foundation for teaching dogs to open doors, cabinets, and drawers. Hiding a favorite toy or treat (or person) somewhere in the house encourages the dog to think, problem solve, and use her nose to find it. Some dogs’ desire to talk can be channeled into for alerting the humans to mail and package deliveries with just one bark. Other dogs, who like to carry things, can be taught to place plastic bottles in the recycle bin or clothes in the laundry basket.

The possibilities are endless. What are you waiting for? Give your dog a job!

What Are We Saying to Our Dogs?

How much of what we say to them do dogs understand? I find myself thinking about this a lot these days, as I teach both a canine language class and a class that looks at influential dog trainers in history (all of whom had definite ideas about what dogs do, or, mostly, do not understand).
Konrad Most, an early trainer whose teachings influenced the training of military and police dogs well into the mid-1900s, believed that dogs did not, could not comprehend words. Rather than describe the verbal cues given to dogs as “commands,” Most called them “utterances,” so as to avoid any chance of ascribing any comprehension abilities to the dog.

Frank Inn and Benji

At the other extreme was celebrity-animal trainer Frank Inn, who, in the 1970s, taught Benji using a conversational style consisting of full sentences.
Nearly everyone who has dogs talks to them. Some babble and speak in baby talk, others order their dogs around brusquely, but many of us chat to our dogs as if talking to a friend, despite their lack of verbal response. We often swear that they understand every word.

Do they?

Dogs are less focused on words than humans are, but they can certainly learn to associate certain actions with words and phrases and respond to verbal requests. They can learn the names of large numbers of items. However much they are understanding of our overall meaning, they appear to be good listeners, looking at us attentively and at least seeming interested.
Dogs are more visual than we are; they learn hand signals and understand other body language cues even more quickly than they build associations with our words. This can get us into trouble sometimes.
Konrad Most might have been the first trainer to write a description of creating unintended associations. His example was a handler who was teaching a dog a “down stay.” The handler would walk away from the dog (who was remaining, lying down, in place). On reaching the desired distance, the handler would turn to face the dog and immediately release the dog from the down stay. Well, very quickly, the cue to the dog would become — not the release word —the handler’s  turn. That is what Most meant by unintended associations. Nearly all novice trainers learn this lesson through personal experience, unconsciously repeating a movement when giving a particular verbal cue and creating a strong association in the dog’s mind.
Dogs are simply outstanding readers of human body language. They out-perform wolves and even other primates at following the direction of our gaze or interpreting a pointing finger. And dogs’ ability to read us goes beyond the signals we give them — intentionally or not — when we’re asking them to do something.
Very often, they will respond to things we don’t know that we’ve “said.” For example, if our body language tells them that we had a hard day or we’re feeling sad, lots of dogs will offer a cuddle, a lick, a favorite toy. Empathy. If our hand tenses up on the leash or some other cue tells them that we’re nervous or afraid of something — or someone — they might bark or growl at the scary person or thing. I’ve seen service dogs begin to intuit what their new human partners need or want after only a few days on the job.
Konrad Most, like many trainers of his day, didn’t credit dogs with the ability to think or learn concepts. He used training methods that today would be understood to be cruel to dogs. For all his faults, though, he understood dogs’ ability to read our body language. Now, if only we were as good at understanding what our dogs are saying to us!

How Dogs Became Dogs — And Why It Matters

I’m teaching the history of dog training at the Bergin University, and we’ve spent some time  talking about how dogs and people first hooked up. And, more important, why it matters.

There are several theories, starting with Creationist and Native American beliefs that God or a god designated Dog as Man’s companion, helper, and guardian. A Native American legend has dogs offering to take on that role while other creatures disdained it.

Other theories, collected and dissected in a recent book by Mark Derr, are less flattering to dogs. Dogs hung around the garbage heaps outside early human settlements, scavenging trash and scraps. Dogs slunk around the edges of early human camps, hoping the humans would toss them scraps and let them bask in the warmth of the fire. In these scenarios, early humans might have fed, then “adopted” the friendlier or tamer of the wolves and, eventually, convinced enough wolf/dogs to stick around that they eventually became domesticated.

Other theories focus on wolves’ history as successful hunters — more successful, it must be pointed out, than early humans. Somehow, these theorists suggest, stone-age humans made the wolves stay with them and got the wolves to help them hunt. How the humans, without benefit of tools or metal, convinced full-grown wolves to stick around and how the humans imposed their will on these strong, fierce hunters is left to our imaginations.

Derr does a nice job of identifying the factual and logical holes in these theories, looking at scientific and archaeological evidence (or lack of evidence); read his book, How the Dog Became the Dog, if you want lots of detail.

Timing and historical evidence aside, these theories share a huge problem: They completely ignore the point of view of the wolf/dog, considering only human wants and needs. Why would a successful predator hook up with humans and help them become better hunters (and therefore competitors)? The wolves didn’t need the humans’ help (or meager food scraps)! There had to be something in the deal for the dog.

And here’s where we get to the question of why it matters which theory we adopt.

If you see dogs — or any animals — as humans’ possession to do with what we will, it’s too easy to justify exploiting them, neglecting them, or even harming them or their habitat if their needs conflict with humans’ needs or wants.

If you think of dogs as the descendants of “sniveling offal-eaters” (Derr’s description), parasites that humans took pity on and helped, well, you won’t have much respect for dogs or their abilities.

If you adopt the flip side of that view — that dogs are descendants of fierce hunters that humans had to tame and control so as to bend the wolves to their will, well, you might be one of the dwindling-but-still-too-large pool of people who believe that you have to “get dominance over” your dog and show him who’s boss, lest he wrest back control and become the alpha in your little pack. Through much of history, this view has led to cruel treatment of both wild and domestic canines.

On the other hand, if you look at the early relationship from the wolf/dog’s point of view and acknowledge two things — that the wolf/dog got something out of the arrangement and that the dog’s progenitors freely chose to enter into a relationship with humans — you are more likely to look at that early wolf/dog’s modern-day descendants with respect and treat them as partners rather than as parasites or slaves.