Guide Dog Haiku

Deni Elliott learns to work with Guiding Eyes Alberta, who is now retired.

Several Guiding Eyes dogs’ human partners recently posted haiku and other poetry to a graduates’ email list. The poems show their appreciation and love for their guides. A member of the list asked (and received) permission to share some of the poems, which appear below. Feel free to add, in the comments section, your own service- guide- or pet-dog haikus, odes, ballads … or tributes in any literary form.

Naughty puppy face
Harness on, working face on!
What to do without?

Night comes, harness off
Naughty puppy face once more
We dream together.


The trees and sky breathe
My golden girl goes forward
Our hearts together


My vision as wide
As a dog can see, hear, smell
Guiding Eyes radar


Walking by my side
You safely show me the way
Teamwork every day


Our talks as we walk
Open volumes clearly spoken
Unheard by strangers


They don’t know our language
We speak silently yet so loudly

A movement, a language, a laugh
in voices so clear to us
So invisible, so silent to strangers
Roxanne, I hear you

You speak more loudly
“You do, too, when you smile at me.”
I smile back
A wag of  tail
A snort and shake of collar
A lean against your leg
A huff, a snort.
I smile back

Strangers never know
We laugh out loud at them
Out loud but silently
Our talks when we travel
Volumes never heard so clearly spoken
So secret, so open


The partnership and communication between guides and their humans is unusual, but service-dog partners and working-dog partners often experience  a comparable connection. True communication develops best in relationships where both partners’ roles are recognized and each acknowledges the necessity and the significance of the other’s contribution. This idea goes to the heart of the Thinking Dog Blog and my reasons for writing it, which is why I wanted to share these heartfelt tributes to guide dogs, both working and retired.


Every Dog Needs a Hobby …

Cali is often bored. I work from home, so I spend several hours a day at the computer. Cali finds this tedious, and often suggests alternative activities. She’ll bring her ball in and suggest a game, for example. But she has also taken up a couple of pastimes on her own.

When we were still living in Petaluma, Cali (and Jana) loved spending their days out in our little yard while I worked. I put up a bird feeder, and we soon had a large flock of regular diners. They’d scatter instantly if I came out, which I found a bit hurtful. I was the one who bought and served their meals, after all. They’d settle back in to the feeder if I sat outside quietly, though, so I forgave them. They never minded the girls, though. Cali could come and go as she pleased. She spent many hours with her bird friends.

Here in Missoula, I put the bird feeder up near our patio. Cali has to watch from inside, but she lies on the carpet by the sliding patio doors and watches the birds. There’s a chubby squirrel who often pays a visit, and Cali gets very agitated. She’ll run to the office; I’m not sure if she’s trying to look out the window here or just tell me what’s going on, but she runs back and forth, panting. So I get up and chase the squirrel away. This happens three or four times and then the squirrel gives up for a few days. He always comes back, though. I suspect that he has several bird feeders, perhaps all equipped with tormentable dogs. In any case, he’s quite well fed.

The birds do not fly away when Cali is there, or when she comes and goes. But, like the Petaluma birds, as soon as I walk into the living room, they disappear. When I go out to refill the feeder, there’s not a bird in sight. They’re close by, though. They reappear within seconds after I go back inside.

When the birds leave, Cali moves to the bedroom. From the bed, she can watch the comings and goings of everyone in our building. She’s always sure to let me know when UPS or FedEX is about to knock on the door, but, unless another dog spends too much time standing outside our window, she’s content to watch quietly.

Cali’s other hobby is watching dog and wolf shows on TV. She’s sometimes interested in other nature-themed documentaries, but, really, it’s wolves and dogs. The other day, I was fiddling with a new digital antenna and managed to tune in PBS, crystal-clear. A show on arctic wolves was on. They were eating (I was not, thankfully). Cali ran in from the bedroom and sat right up in front of the TV, mesmerized. My mom always told me not to sit that close, but I didn’t think that a few minutes of watching would harm Cali’s eyes. As soon as the wolves were replaced with people, Cali lost interest.

Then, a few days later, I got a text message with a video of Dora (Cali’s sister) playing with her friends. As soon as Cali heard Dora’s bark on the video, she came running into my office. I held the phone where she could see it, and she was again, fascinated. I don’t know that she recognized Dora (maybe!), but she was certainly interested in watching the dogs play.

Cali’s great aunt, Oriel, used to love watching TV. Jana was not much of a TV girl. I’m really curious about what the TV watchers are thinking. And, who knows? Maybe Cali will improve my viewing habits. She’s shown no interest in Grey’s Anatomy, for example. Maybe I need to watch more PBS documentaries, just to spend more quality time with my dog.

Remembering Our Friends

Beau, a boxerA lot of my friends have senior dogs. Unfortunately, that means that a lot more of my friends had senior dogs. Over and over, I face the loss of a friend, a dog I have known for years. A family dog like Beau, who loved my visits because he got extra walks and tons of attention (not that he was exactly starved for love and affection otherwise). A longtime friend’s dog like Molly, who was a frequent guest in my home, or little Casey. (They were both poodles, though, so it might not be fair to lump them in with dogs; I am convinced that poodles are a link between canines and humans, tending more toward the human than any other dog breed.)Molly, a black standard poodle

Each time a beloved dog passes away, I search for the perfect card. I’m always disappointed that the best dog-product stores have all the top treats, toys, clothing, and accessories for dogs, endless adorable birthday and thanks-for-taking-care-of-me cards … and pathetically few sympathy cards. And many of the few they do have are, well, awful. In addition to the card, Deni and I have a custom that we’re getting better and better at honoring. We choose a charity that we are sure that both the late dog and her or his human would support and make a memorial donation. I have to admit that I have missed doing this on many occasions, but I do feel that it is a meaningful way to mark the life of a beloved friend. Unfortunately, beyond offering these gestures, we haven’t come up with a way to make the loss any easier.

A number of books have been written about the loss of a dog. A particularly good one is Anna Quindlen’s Good Dog. Stay. I haven’t re-read it in a while, though I should; I have recommended it over and over, though.

What do you do to help a friend through the loss of a dog? What have you found helpful? Let me know, and a future Thinking Dog blog post will feature reader suggestions.



Lulu Gets a Golden Handshake

three photos of Lulu, a young black Labrador who chose not to become an explosives detection dog.
Photos from the CIA Pupdate: A Pup Leaves the Class.

Have you ever started a job and realized, during new hire training, that you’d made a terrible mistake? Who hasn’t decided that a job just isn’t the way they want to spend the majority of their waking hours.

Well, Lulu, a year-and-a-half-old Labrador, gave up on what many dogs might consider a highly desirable career; she quit her gig as an explosives detection dog during training. Lulu was recruited from a service dog school at a young age, apparently having decided that a life of service was also not her calling. (Often, service dog puppies with exceptionally high energy or drive are released to a career like explosives detection or search and rescue, if their energy level is not suitable for work as mobility assistance dogs.)

Lulu, according to tweets from the CIA K9 training program and articles in the New York Times and Washington Post, gave up the opportunity to work 60-hour weeks with handlers from the Fairfax County (Virginia) police department. Her new life entails playing with her former handler’s children and protecting the family home from squirrels and rabbits.

Not all dogs are cut out to be working dogs. Service dog and guide dog schools that breed are doing well if more than half the carefully bred and socialized puppies actually end up working as service dogs. Some are released for health reasons, but a large number choose, as Lulu did, to just be dogs. I’ve trained lots of Lab puppies: If food and play weren’t enough of a reward to get Lulu to love the training, she really wasn’t cut out for the work. It’s to the CIA program’s credit that they let Lulu go.

“For our K9 trainers, it’s imperative that the dogs enjoy the job they’re doing,” states the “Pupdate” announcing Lulu’s retirement.

That’s a far cry (and very welcome evolution) from the “bad old days” of training, where lackluster performance was punished. Mistakes were also punished. Insufficiently speedy correct responses might also have been punished. Dogs were compelled to do the job. I am happy that more and more organizations, from service and guide dog schools to military and police dog trainers, are learning that punishment is the wrong approach.

Think about it. If compelled, the dog might do the work, but probably not put her heart into it. If your child is lost in the woods, or your city is hosting a large public event, or your city’s buses are plagued by the threat of terrorist bombings, do you want a dog who’s just doing what he has to to avoid punishment to be the search or sniffer dog on duty? Or do you want an eager dog who loves the work, buys into the goal, and puts heart and soul into the search?

It’s also cool to note that the trainer who wrote the Pupdate talked about working through a slump, figuring out what’s bothering the dog, and motivating the pups with toys and food. That sounds like they treat the dogs as individuals with preferences and feelings, not like robots who are just expected to do as they’re told. This is how it should be; dogs are individuals and should be given opportunities to make choices and express preferences.

It also raises an important point that dog trainers and owners do well to remember: The trainee, in this case, Lulu, determines what is motivating. And what is not. Most Labs love food and will do anything for a food reward. Many dogs are delighted to earn a play reward. A dog who doesn’t want to work for these rewards either needs a creative trainer to find what motivates that dog — or she needs a different goal.

Lulu made her preference clear, and I’m pleased that she got her wish. I’m betting that the handler’s children are equally delighted with her choice.


Koala Cleans Up

Photo by Deni Elliott

Koala is learning a skill that all dogs need: She’s learning to pick up her toys before she goes to bed.

Wow, you might be thinking, that’s amazing.

It’s really pretty simple, once you get over the ridiculous human notions that dogs “can’t” do … whatever. Frankly, I believe that the only limitation on what dogs can learn is the imagination of the humans teaching them.

So, back to Koala. Koala is the smartest dog I know. She is also an excellent people-trainer. She’s got Deni really, really well trained. For instance, even though Koala celebrated her third birthday a few weeks ago (mazal tov Koala!), she has Deni convinced that she will not be able to work, and may well keel over and die, if she does not get puppy lunch every single day. Most Labs and goldens give up their puppy lunch at around 6 months of age. It was the single most terrible experience in Jana’s long and otherwise happy life.

The next thing that Koala trained Deni to do was provide a bedtime snack, just before the nightly cuddle. This actually was fortuitous, because it made teaching Koala to clean up very easy. While possibly not as smart as Koala, Deni is no slouch. She put one and one together and got a perfect back-chaining opportunity: Deni simply had to remember to ask that Koala clean up before she would get her bedtime snack.

OK, there is another step of course. Koala had to know to get her toys and to drop them in the toy basket. Koala is a very well-educated guide dog, but for some reason, a working retrieve was not part of her university curriculum. No matter. Deni easily taught her to bring toys to her. Koala did already know to drop items on cue, so getting her to drop them into a basket was also pretty easy.

With these essential pieces in place, and the very strong motivation of her snack, it took Koala only a few days to get into the routine. The biggest obstacle, to be honest, was Deni remembering to ask Koala to clean up before providing the snack. It’s nearly always the humans who hold dogs, back, not any lack of ability on the dog’s part.

A bonus: Koala, like most smart dogs, excels at finding shortcuts. She seems to have figured out the concept and, in the interest of making snack delivery speedier, she leaves fewer toys lying around. The other day, she had only two to pick up. Chores done, on to snacks and cuddles. Seems like an all-around win!


“Alpha” Stands for Abuse

Golden retriever rolls happily in the grass
This is the only kind of rolling I want my dogs to experience.

A few weeks ago, I saw someone essentially “alpha roll” her dog.

This week, I saw Patricia McConnell’s review of a book by the same folks who initially “popularized” the alpha roll, the Monks of New Skete. I don’t know what the Monks suggest in their new book, but I am confident that it is bad for dogs.

It’s well past time for this abuse to stop. We know enough about dogs to put to rest the notion that they “need” a strong leader who keeps them in check using force.

The alpha roll, for those fortunate enough never to have encountered it, is an abusive technique presented by incompetent, ignorant individuals who call themselves dog trainers. It’s based on the thoroughly debunked idea that dogs’ “packs” need to be ruled by an “alpha” who demonstrates “leadership” by beating up on other members of the pack. And that if you, the human, do not repeatedly enforce your “leadership,” the dog (any dog) will try to take over.

All of the elements of this belief are pure hogwash. But those beliefs have led to many cruel practices, including the alpha roll as discipline. Basically, if your dog does something you don’t like, you are supposed to punish him and reinforce your “leadership” by grabbing him and throwing him onto his back (rolling him if he’s too big for you to flip easily) and holding him down as you yell at him, shake him by the scruff, do both, or perform whatever other “disciplinary” tactics the abusive “trainer” has taught you.

So, the alpha roll I saw went like this: I was walking down a busy street. A woman was walking her smallish terrierish dog. Another person walking a larger Labish dog went by. I am not sure whether the dogs only sniffed at each other or whether one or both vocalized. Whatever the small terrier did was unacceptable to the woman who grabbed him, flipped him over, shook him, and yelled, “No! Bad! No!” several times.


What did she think she was teaching him?

Who knows what she thought she was teaching him. What she was teaching him was that she, his human protector, was crazy and unpredictable. That walking down the street with her, simply being a dog, was dangerous. That she might attack him out of the blue for no reason.

I was silently rooting for the dog to bite her in the face. A major downside of the alpha roll is that the person doing it is often ideally positioned for a really nasty (and richly deserved) face bite. That so few dogs snap and deliver the “discipline” that the people deserve is an enormous testament to dogs’ self-restraint and their long-suffering and forgiving natures — not to the effectiveness of the “discipline.”

The alpha myth is based on incorrect assumptions about wolves. See Alexandra Horowitz’s explanation in this link for more information, but in short, people who observed the behavior of captive wolves extrapolated from the behavior between males all kinds of nonsense about dogs. For openers, captive wolf behavior is nothing like wild wolf behavior, so the observation that, in captive groups made up of unrelated wolves thrown together by humans, males jockeyed for control — including fighting with other males — says nothing about wolf pack dynamics. Natural wolf packs are families. The so-called alpha pair are the parents or grandparents of the other pack members. True alpha wolves rarely use physical discipline, but the alpha pair does lead the pack and teach their offspring how to behave.

And even if natural wolf packs did behave as alpha theorists described— so what? That little terrier mix getting abused on the sidewalk has less in common with a wolf than you and I have with the average chimpanzee. Do we discipline children and rule workplace hierarchies based on the way chimps treat their troupe-mates? I certainly hope not! Thanks to thousands of years of partnership leading to domestication of dogs, and also thanks to generations of human-influenced genetic changes, dog behavior is very, very different from wolf behavior. And dog-dog behavior is, and should be, different from dog-human behavior.

Dog behavior is relationship-based; dogs are very social. That is about the only element of the dog pack mythology that is true. Humans are also social. Social animals have rules, whether formal or informal, that govern their interactions. Some involve status differences and even hierarchies. But leadership is about navigating and negotiating these relationships and differences and influencing the behavior of those with lower status or who are dependent on the leader in some way. There are lots of ways to lead. Sure, force is an option. But as anyone who’s survived an autocratic parent or boss knows, it is not terribly effective, it destroys relationships, and it is far from the only way to “lead.” In fact, I do not consider force or autocracy to be leadership.

McConnell’s blog offers alternative visions of leadership. I agree with her; our leadership of our dogs should be about building a relationship, letting the dog know he can count on us and trust us. It’s also about letting dogs think for themselves and making it safe for them to make mistakes sometimes. That is the polar opposite of what “being the alpha” accomplishes.

Please don’t buy into the alpha myths; instead, buy any (or all) books by McConnell and other positive, progressive trainers who treat dogs as the thinking, caring, sensitive beings they are.


It’s Genetic

Cali relaxes on her dog bed.

People love to speculate on when, how, and why dogs and people became friends. A study published on July 19 shows that it might just be genetic.

Here’s the story. A condition in humans, Williams-Beuren Syndrome, is the result of a missing section of genetic material, a section of DNA that contains about 27 genes, according to an article in Inside Science. The syndrome affects about 1 in 10,000 people, the article says; these individuals are “hypersocial,” with bubbly, extroverted personalities, as well as some other traits.

It seems that someone else’s bubbly, extroverted personality (I’m looking at you, Cali) might be related to a similar genetic hiccup.

In the course of studies of domestication and how it has caused doggy genetics to differ from wolf genetics, Bridgett vonHoldt, the lead author of the study, tested the friendliness of dogs and 10 hand-raised, tamed wolves. They measured how much time the dogs and wolves chose to spend in close proximity to humans and whether they worked at a challenge or sought human assistance. Predictably, the dogs both spent more time with the people and sought their help in solving the puzzle. Dogs do enjoy having staff.

However, the results had some variation, and in looking for reasons that some wolves were more sociable than others, the researchers found a clue: The genetic area that showed differences in the more- and less-social wolves corresponded to the genetic area that is missing in people with Williams-Beuren Syndrome. Friendly dogs and wolves had similar genetic variants; unfriendly wolves had genetic variants similar to each other and different from the dogs and the friendly wolves.

The researchers looked deeper. They examined the corresponding genes in dogs from 13 breeds. Breeds known to be friendly had profiles similar to the friendly members of the initial research group, while breeds known to be more standoffish had profiles that looked more like the unfriendly wolves. The study says that this genetic region is “known to be under positive selection in the domestic dog genome” — over generations of breeding, people have selected for the “friendly” genetic variation; these mutations are rare in wolves and even rarer in coyotes, which tend to be far less social than dogs and wolves. The same genes had been linked to friendliness in mice in earlier research.

Of course, a small segment of genetic material is not the only thing that influences social behavior. And theories about the domestication of wolves abound. But evidence is accumulating for a theory that basically says that that wolves chose to hang out with early humans. The friendlier, or less timid, wolves started scavenging near human camps and trash heaps. Over time, young pups and friendly adults inched closer to actual contact, until a great partnership was formed.

I have always been skeptical of the various human-centered narratives that had humans capturing and holding captive and bending to their will fierce wolves, all thousands of years before humans had metalworking abilities and tools that would make it possible to hold onto a wolf who didn’t want to stick around. I doubt that those unfriendly wolves, even the hand-reared ones, would stay put if tied to a tree with a leather strap. There had to be something else going on.

That the roots of friendship could center on food makes sense (again, looking at you, Cali). But even that explanation is not enough. While dogs and wolves are opportunistic — which means they will eagerly take advantage of opportunities to help themselves to a snack — early  humans were unlikely to have huge quantities of extra food available to just hand out to large-toothed scavengers skulking on the periphery of camp. On the other hand, if the scavengers were friendly and potentially useful …

An explanation that includes a choice on the part of the wolves, or at least some wolves makes more sense than the whole deal being human-instigated and controlled. And, as more people study the human-canine connection, more bits of information point to dogs playing an active role in establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with people, like this suggestion that some wolves were genetically inclined to be friendly and seek human company.

An additional reason that this study could be important is that researchers have long sought genetic explanations for complex behavior; this could be an important first step.

None of that really makes a genetic mutation a truly satisfying explanation for that waggy tail, wriggly, “let me show you my toy” greeting I get at the door … but the bottom line is, the dog-human friendship is pretty wonderful. If that’s where it started, well, I’ll take it.