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.


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.


Too Hot for Dogs!

Graphic image showing how quickly a car can heat up on a hot day from
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It has been in the 90s pretty much every day since we got to Missoula, Montana, our new home. If it’s this hot here … well. Dogs everywhere are suffering.

I know I don’t have to remind readers not to leave a dog in the car for even a minute in this heat. No way, no how, it is too hot for that.

But what about walking them?

Hot pavement can burn pads and paws. Sand, dry stiff grass, seeds, etc. can poke and scratch. Hazards are everywhere.

When the temperatures are in the upper-80s and above, the sidewalk can get very hot. You might not notice it through your shoe soles, but think carefully about where you ask your dog to walk. This is a huge concern for service dogs, since they are more likely to be out an about in any weather than pets. What to do?

First, avoid blacktop. Let the dog walk on grass or dirt wherever possible. Gravel gets hot, too. Light-colored sidewalks are better than asphalt, but in this heat, they will be hot too. If it feels hot to your feet or the palm of you hand, it’s uncomfortable for the dog. Let the dog stay home if possible. Or walk early in the day, before the sidewalk gets hot.

A recent discussion on a service dog email list settled on two possible solutions for dogs who must go out on hot days: booties and paw-protecting cream.

The best booties, the consensus is, are these: Ruff-Wear Grip Trex. Guiding Eyes for the Blind recommends them, too. These are more suitable than regular dog boots because they have a breathable mesh top. Even so, booties are not an ideal solution. They can be hard to put on and take off, which is an issue for many service dog partners. In addition, and possibly more critical in this heat, is that dogs need to sweat through their paw pads to cool off. These booties let some sweat evaporate, because they have that mesh top, but I still worry that the rubber sole will interfere with the dog’s ability to cool off. If you use them for short outdoor walks and remove them as soon as you get indoors, they are probably a great solution. If your dog tolerates them … and that is the final objection: Most dogs hate booties. Some people begin conditioning very young puppies to wear socks or booties, and they might have some success. Some dogs are just OK with stuff on their feet. But most dogs? Not happening.

So option two, which is also an option for winter, might be a better choice: Musher’s Secret. I just got some. It’s easy to apply, and seemed to absorb very quickly. Cali didn’t object at all, and she really isn’t crazy about having her feet handled. One review I saw online said Musher’s Secret helps dry, cracked noses heal, too. I have noticed that Cali’s nose and feet are dry and rough; I hope this helps get them back to a healthier state. Many online reviewers love Musher’s Secret; a small minority hate it. Stay tuned for a report on the state of Cali’s nose and toes.

Other ways we’ve dealt with the heat? I got out the wading pool for Cali, Mack, and Alberta the other day … and they all ignore the cool water and wondered why I had dunked their favorite toys. Silly girls. Yesterday, Cali finally got to explore Jacob’s Island, a dog park in the middle of the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula! How great is that? A sandy-legged, smiling Cali was led reluctantly from the park after a spirited splash in the river with a young Lab mix. We’ll need to do that more often!


Lessons from the Original Thinking Dog

A happy Jana rolls in leaves on a lush lawnI had hoped to be celebrating Jana’s 14th birthday today, July 2. Instead, Cali and I have moved to Montana without her; we marked her birthday with a walk to a place she loved, Mormon Creek. We were with Koala, Storm, Ki, and Django. Quite a few dogs are missing from this group.

Rather than dwelling on the sadness of missing Jana, Ory, Weizer, Gus, Cedar … I am thinking about some of the most important things I learned from Jana during our years together.

Before I met Jana, I knew that dogs were smart and could start learning just about as soon as they opened their eyes. Even so, Jana astonished me.

A very young Jana studies her Kong toy.
Jana was a young Kong addict

I met Jana when she was only about 4 weeks old — not long after she opened her eyes. She came home at 7 weeks and started learning things immediately. First, of course, she learned about treats; that took about 2 seconds. She never met a treat toy that could keep her from her food for more than a few minutes.

As a puppy, and even an adolescent, Jana was an easy dog to live with. For instance, though she was the first puppy I housetrained, Jana learned to toilet outside almost immediately — she was a very clean dog in that way — and she quickly developed a strong preference for grass. She was never destructive as a puppy, though she was always vocal when displeased, starting with my initial (failed) attempt to crate train her.

Very quickly, Jana learned about stairs — mastering them when I left her downstairs and ran up to grab something. Not 2 minutes later, I walked down the stairs to find my tiny puppy hoisting herself up the huge staircase. Though she ultimately learned to accept boundaries and would respect even so flimsy a barrier as a partially closed door, she also wanted to be with me. As a young puppy, this manifested first with the stairs and later, with her flying leaps over the baby gate that was meant to keep her safely enclosed.

And Jana quickly learned to respond to verbal cues — so many that I can’t list them here. She picked up new skills so fast that I had to work hard to come up with new challenges. She would do anything, figure out anything, solve any problem for the chance to earn a cookie. Watching her was amazing. I could see the gears turning as she tackled problems and figured out the names of items she was asked to retrieve, what the laser pointer was indicating for her to do, how to brace herself on a door jamb to pull open a door, how to extract treats from the very small hole on her treat toy …

Jana lies on her back to squeeze treats from a toy into her mouth
Jana lies on her back to squeeze treats from a toy into her mouth

Jana’s intelligence accompanied her fierce independence. Thus, I also learned from Jana that her agenda and priorities might often be misaligned with mine, and having opposable thumbs did not mean that I always got my way. We learned to negotiate, compromise, and respect each other’s differing perspectives. For instance, I was forced to accept her definition of cuddling: Sharing space, perhaps on the same bed, more likely in the same room. Limited physical contact on her terms only. Jana was not like the typical golden; she needed few friends, but if you were a person she’d decided she liked, you had a friend for life. Her chosen people got very warm greetings, and Jana actually chose to spend time with them, even seeking them out. The best compliment was being invited to play a game of tug.

The truth is, Jana and I shared a lot, and I could fill books with what I learned from her. I know that she had a great life, and I am grateful that she had a dignified, relatively quick and pain-free death, but I still miss my princess every day. Happy birthday, Jana.

Jana had a knack for finding large heart-shaped rocks; here is one from her collection
Jana had a knack for finding large heart-shaped rocks; here is one from her collection



In Her Own Time

Koala, a black Labrador, relaxes on a hammock-style dog bed

I wrote last week’s post on Koala and her reluctance to move to a big-girl bed a few weeks before it was published. Since then, she went on a long visit (with Deni of course) to Deni’s mom’s house. There, she did not have a crate. And, she decided, upon returning home, that she was ready for her grown-up bed. She wouldn’t even look at the crate. Crates are for babies, she said. Why would I want one?

The crate is gone.

I think it is more about choice than about where Koala sleeps. She wants to — and should be able to — make choices about things that affect her quality of life (to a reasonable extent, of course … Cali does not get to do the grocery shopping, for example, and neither does Koala).

I’ve had an interesting email conversation over the last couple of weeks with a reader who has taken her dogs’ communication and ability to make choices to an unusual level. She uses an approach similar to what I have seen a few other people do, which is to present two options and have the dog choose a hand. Left for yes, right for no, or left for “go for a walk” and right for “play ball.” Things like that.

I have not taught this to very many dogs, but Jana and Cali picked up the idea pretty quickly. Cali’s favorite daily choice is between two tennis balls (yes, she’s a bit obsessed). Our morning routine goes like this: Walk to the park. She skips and dances ahead and has to be reminded not to pull. As we get close to the gate she literally wriggles with joy and excitement. She gets to the gate first and stands at attention, touching the gate with her nose. I open the gate and reach down to unhook her leash. She bounds into the park, turns and sits, looking eager and expectant. I pull the Chuckit and two tennis balls out of the bag. I offer her both balls. She sniffs each one deeply, sometimes wavering, then makes a choice. She watches carefully to make sure I don’t pull a fast one, swapping the balls. I put the rejected ball away, slip the chosen ball into the Chuckit, and throw.

Occasionally we have a variation: She somehow gets hold of a ball at home and carries it to the park. I throw that one.

She always carries her ball home from the park.

The point is that, along with getting to play her favorite game, (which is not what you think) she gets some control over that game. The game, by the way, is not fetch or catch. It’s: Run after the ball, grab it, then keep it away from everyone else, human, canine, avian, or whatever, in the vicinity. Occasionally let a human get it and throw it again. Repeat for as long as you can get the humans to cooperate.

Anyhow, in addition to that, Cali gets to choose. She takes her choice very seriously. There are other choices in her day. She occasionally gets to choose between two treats or two games; she might get to choose whether to go for a walk or have a play session; she often gets to choose which direction we go on a walk. But really, she doesn’t have that many choices in her life. The few areas where she gets to exercise some control are important to her. I think that’s true for Koala as well. And for every other intelligent creature, canine or otherwise.



Mind Your Manners

Wylie, a polite dog?Wylie hates peanut butter. It literally makes him gag. That’s why this story, from several years ago, is still one of my favorites: It tells me something really cool about dogs.

When Wylie was about to retire as a guide dog, his best friend t work brought him cookies. Very special gourmet dog cookies. One problem: They were peanut-butter cookies. Deni graciously thanked her colleague and said gently that she wasn’t sure Wylie would like them; he was fussy. The friend said, let’s see. He offered Wylie a cookie. Wylie accepted the cookie with appropriate doggy gratitude and ate it. The friend went happily on his way, feeling good that his gift had been accepted and enjoyed.

Surprised, Deni offered Wylie another cookie. He gave her what she can only describe as a disgusted “Are you nuts? I don’t eat that garbage” look, turned, and walked away. He never ate another one of those cookies.

Was Wylie “just being polite,” telling one of those little “white” lies we all tell when we want to avoid hurting someone’s feelings? Can a dog do that?

Here’s a different way to think about it, though, really, we’ll arrive at the same conclusion: Dogs are very empathetic. They excel at reading and responding to our emotions. Many dog people have stories of dogs offering comfort when they were sad; getting excited when were excited; responding in a way that many people regard as “guilty” when we are angry. In truth, the dogs are more likely to be trying to appease a person they perceive as angry, but they are accurately reading the person’s emotion.

If Wylie got excited about the cookies, he could be said to be mirroring the friend’s emotion: The guy was presenting a gift that he had selected with Wylie in mind, and he was happy to see Wylie get the gift and enjoy it. Or the friend was sad to be saying good-bye. But Wylie didn’t get excited or offer comfort. He offered a gracious and appropriate, but not overly happy, response. (I don’t think Wylie is capable of phoniness.) And he clearly rejected the gift as soon as his buddy left the room.

My explanation is that Wylie was reading the situation clearly and accurately. He’d been around lots of people in lots of social situations, and he knew these two people really well. He behaved as he’d learned was appropriate. He wasn’t, I don’t think, consciously deciding to lie — any more than we consciously decide to lie each and every time we say something that will make someone feel good — or, to more clearly match this situation, every time we say or do something that is nice and socially expected rather than blurt out our first or most honest thought.

Jana, who really has no use for children of any species, is perfectly gracious and polite when being “enthusiastically petted” (she’d say “mauled”) by a child, but she gives me that look that says loud and clear: “Get me out of here, now, please.” And Alberta would dutifully “say hello” to people she and Deni met, but she really didn’t want to; and she expected a cookie as a reward afterward.

So, I would argue, that dogs read social situations and respond appropriately. What is “appropriate” in a given situation varies widely, and it is learned, not instinctive. Some dogs, and some humans, learn better than others. Some dogs do this well with dogs and poorly with humans, or the reverse. Wylie’s social instincts with other dogs were often less astute than his social instincts in this particular human instance.

So, while I’m not arguing that dogs adopt human social manners, I would say that they learn, over time with the same people, what those people think is acceptable. Much about dog-human relationships entails dogs trying to do what they think their human wants; it’s not surprising that this can get nuanced or that Wylie and Jana are good at it.


An Idea Whose Time Is Up

A recent Freakonomics podcast featured various politicians talking about one idea about elections that they wish would die, go away, never be mentioned again. I like that idea because I have a long list of absurd ideas about dogs and other nonhumans that I wish would go away and die a miserable, lonely death.

High up on that list is one that is getting a lot of attention these days, due to the unfortunate publication of a new book by novelist Tom Wolfe: the idea that only humans use language. Though I am one of the few people I know who disliked Bonfire of the Vanities, I had some professional respect for Wolfe as a writer until I heard his interview on NPR about his new book.

Wolfe essentially suggests that if evolution occurs, it only happens to nonhumans. That’s bad enough. But what really got my blood boiling were his comments on language. In the interview, Wolfe made the absurd claim that no evidence of anything resembling a language has ever been seen in a nonhuman. Wow. He really should have done some very basic research, like a cursory Google search, before deciding that. There’s a lot of research out there on animals and language.

Wolfe uses “speech” and “language” interchangeably, which is already a clear indication he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Many languages exist that are not based on speech, the most obvious being American (or any other) Sign Language. Thousands of nonverbal people understand and use language; some even write beautifully. Many actual scientists, even some who believe that only humans use language, have published extensive research on language and how it is separate from and does not require speech.

Wolfe also claimed that speech / language is necessary for any sort of memory or planning. Hmm, how does he explain insects, birds, mammals who store food for the winter (and remember where they put it); any critter who finds his way home once he leaves the den, ever, or who leads his pack back to the marvelous carcass or other food source he’s discovered? Even bees remember and guide others to food sources they’ve found. Memory. Memory, communication, teaching … And wouldn’t pack hunting, as wolves do, require planning? Building a nest or den requires both planning and memory. There’s a lot of research on these topics, too.But t

But really. Let’s focus on dogs for a moment. To establish that these nonhumans use language, remember, and plan, all you really need to do is spend a few days with a dog. Watch a dog come up with really clever plans for appropriating a coveted bone or toy from his sibling, or walk a dog who remembers where that lovely dead thing she rolled in last week was, or see how excited the dog gets when she recognizes the drive to the dog beach?

I could list, literally, thousands of examples from my own experience, reading, research, and students’ and friends’ stories. So could anyone who has ever paid much attention to dogs, elephants, chimps, whales, prairie dogs, birds, or any of the many other nonhumans who use language. Memory is essential to learning anything; and it is clear that millions of critters, but especially, and most near and dear to my heart, dogs, learn, remember, plan, use tools, problem-solve, and manipulate humans.

book cover of Beyond Words by Carl Safina My favorite comment on the interview came from an NPR listener who wrote that “It was the equivalent of interviewing an expert on evolutionary biology who never reads novels to get his opinions about how novelists can write better stories.” Yup. Stick to what you know: make-believe. Another good response is this column about why it matters when a famous writer dismisses evolution.

If you want to learn about language, read Chasing Doctor Doolittle or Beyond Words, both beautiful books about what language is and how various nonhumans use it. I’ve written several posts on this blog that address human communication with dogs and dogs’ ability to learn to understand human language. (I’ve never claimed that dogs have speech, and I do know the difference.) You can find those by searching this blog site.