What You All Want to Ask

Koala, a black labrador, wears a life jacket. She sits on a chair with the ocean behind herThe night before their cruise, many of the 29 guide dogs teams stayed at the same hotel. These dogs got a head start on greeting old schoolmates, as their humans met or caught up. Many of the teams had been at the Continuing Education Seminar couple of years earlier, or had been in training together, or had met at other events.

Portable dog toilet area on ship deckThe next day, the teams, along with several hundred other passengers, boarded a huge ship. Naturally, they all wanted to know the same thing you’re now wondering: Where do the dogs go to … you know?

In the case of this group: Deck 10, near the front of the ship, just off the main elevator lobby. For some dogs, that was a very long trek from where they were bunking.

The crew set up about 10 potty stalls. Some were plastic containers topped with astro-turf. Others were large metal litter boxes with, yes, dog litter. Not to be confused with cat litter, dog litter consists of hard, absorbent pellets. The astro-turfed boxes seemed to collect the pee. In either case, the dogs’ humans were expected to pick up solid waste.

Ship staff did an admirable job of keeping the place clean-ish.

“Ish” because of many issues.

Foremost, it’s windy on a moving ship. It’s hard to balance. The astro-turf rugs shifted in the wind. Some dogs flat-out refused to try the doggy port-o-potties. Others tried, but got rattled when the astro-turf rugs slipped and slid as they crouched. Many of the refusers visited the nearby deck floor instead.

Also, the human partners, coping with their own balance issues on the moving ship, along with their dogs’ skittishness and their inability to actually see where their dogs had eliminated, sometimes failed to thoroughly clean up.

Koala took it all in stride. She’d visit several stations, and, having caught up on the news, would take care of business without a fuss.

sign reads "service / working dogs are not pets and should not be petted or talked to at any time."Carnival, the cruise line, deserves special mention for the ways the dog teams were accommodated. Outside each dining area, and in other prominent places, staff had posted large signs telling people not to pet or talk to the working dogs on board. Many passengers who talked to guide dog partners mentioned the signs or said they knew they weren’t supposed to talk to the dogs (though most proceeded to do so anyhow …).

The staff ran a private safety briefing for the guide dog teams, and the leader had clearly undergone training on working with blind people. His descriptions of how to find a life jacket, what the front and back would feel like, and how to find and secure the clasps and belt were clear and full of rich description. Each guide dog had her (or his) own life jacket!

Carnival even hired interpreters for members of the group who are have both visual and hearing impairments. Through the magic of something called protactile communication, the interpreters provided a more complete experience for these passengers. Protactile communication uses touch to convey information beyond an interpreter relaying what another person is saying; it includes description of what is going on in the environment and allows for deeper two-way communication.

 

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
RIGHT!  LEFT!  STOP!  I LOVE YOU!

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.

A Dog Can Help You With That …

Whatever you need help with, chances are, a dog can help out. Need help finding your way around? Easy-peasy. Need a guide who also lets you know about important sounds? Dog’s got that handled too.

Funny thing is, not too many humans believe that dogs can do all that (and more). Fortunately for some people, Guiding Eyes is an organization that takes chances on people — and dogs.

As someone who’s sure that we haven’t come close to tapping dogs’ full potential, I see this as a sign that Guiding Eyes (or GEB) really “gets” dogs in a way that few people, even dog professionals, do.  This understanding leads the organization and its trainers to willingly take on challenges that few people would even think possible: Tasks that require a belief in dogs’ ability to be adaptable and to become creative problem solvers, for example. GEB dogs do things that it’s really not possible to teach them without a shared understanding and buy-in to shared goals, so the trainers have to know that dogs are capable of higher-level thinking, problem solving, and working toward goals.

What do I mean? GEB places dogs with a tremendous variety of clients, including individuals who have both visual impairments and another disability, such as a mobility or hearing impairment. The clients whose dogs alert to sounds as well as guiding range from people who are legally blind and hard of hearing to individuals who are both blind and deaf. I could be wrong about this, but I believe that GEB is the only U.S. guide dog school that is willing to provide these clients with a guide dog. In any case, it was the first organization to do so.

As registration opened for the Guiding Eyes continuing education weekend, a number of these grads registered. Planning committee member, grad, and GEB consumer outreach and graduate support manager Becky Barnes Davidson waved a magic wand and somehow found funding to bring a cadre of interpreters to the weekend, ensuring that all of the grads could participate fully in the events.

Deborah and Gypsy walk togetherI had the opportunity to chat with one of these grads, Deborah Groeber. She got her first Guiding Eyes dog in 1987. GEB didn’t yet have its “Special Needs” training program, which got off the ground in 1990, but, Deborah said, it was the only guide dog school willing to try training a guide for her.

Having guide dogs has, of course, made a tremendous difference for Deborah, especially in her frequent travels. She describes traveling with her dogs (current guide Gypsy is her fifth) as “phenomenally different” from traveling with a cane.

“I think Gypsy is a great match for me because she loves going from the suburbs into the city every day, loves taking trains, buses, escalators, stairs, revolving doors and working obstacles and construction sites. She is bright, confident and self-motivated, but she also loves praise and food rewards,” Deborah said.

Deborah is about to participate in another unique Guiding Eyes program. Gypsy is nearing retirement, and Deborah’s next guide will be a member of GEB’s new program, Running Guides.

Running Guides perform the usual guide dog work as well as guiding their partners while running. The first Running Guide team graduated in 2015. And Deborah’s dog will, as Gypsy has, learn to alert her to sounds, such as smoke alarms, phones, and doorbells. Deborah knows how to teach her additional alerts as needed. Sometimes Gypsy figures it out on her own, too.

Once, not long ago, Gypsy alerted her to a carbon monoxide alarm when Deborah’s husband was traveling for work. Gypsy is not allowed in the basement, Deborah explained, but she kept alerting to the basement door, because she heard the unexpected sound of the alarm. She’d not been trained to respond to that sound, but somehow understood that it was an urgent problem. Deborah got both the CO and smoke alarms, Gypsy told her which one was making noise, and she was able to respond and resolve the problem.

That story underscores the connection and communication that develop between members of a guide team. Many of us plain old pet-dog owners, who have the good fortune to be able to see our dogs’ body language and hear their vocalizations, are nonetheless unable to figure out what they are telling us. And I bet most of our dogs would react to an alarm and try really hard to get us to do something about it. That we’d all die of carbon monoxide poisoning anyhow would not be the dogs’ fault…

As someone who has tremendous faith in dogs’ abilities to figure things out, communicate, get what they need, figure out what their humans need, and so much more, I am not amazed that a single dog can perform both guide and hearing work, with a side gig as a personal fitness trainer. I am impressed that enough people at Guiding Eyes believed in dogs back in 1987 to give combined guiding and hearing dogs a try, and that the organization is continually coming up with new ways to stretch and grow the partnerships between their amazing dogs and clients.

Amazing

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I spent a recent weekend at an event that brought together guide dog teams, puppy raisers, and trainers, all from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a New York-based organization. It was a “continuing education” weekend, offering training and coaching for teams, education on dog related topics ranging from breeding for success to technology that eases travel for guide dog teams, and opportunities for people who work with guide dogs to meet the people who raised and trained them. Nothing like it had ever happened before at any guide dog school.

The weekend was three years in the making. The idea was initially met with skepticism from the training staff, though it was immediately embraced by the grad teams and puppy raisers. As teams arrived at the hotel, those of us who had planned the event and were checking them in began to have doubts. 80 guide dog teams in one hotel? What were we thinking? Arriving dogs, on recognizing kennel buddies, puppy pals, trainers, or, best of all, their puppy raisers — their first families — momentarily forgot their manners and bounced, danced, and wagged with joy. Grads, meeting familiar friends and encountering new ones, were equally emotional. The dogs, at least, quickly remembered their excellent breeding and top-notch training and focused on getting their partners to their rooms. Which was no small challenge in the most confusing hotel I’ve ever seen.

Over the weekend, humans and dogs continued to amaze. An army of volunteers, primarily puppy raisers, escorted blind attendees to tables in the dining room and helped them navigate the extensive buffet meals. In sessions, anywhere from a dozen to eighty calm dogs relaxed under tables and at handlers’ feet, oblivious to distractions. They worked through bustling hallways and deftly steered around other teams, running children, concrete pillars, and tempting indoor gardens of lush vegetation.

The weekend was important for so many reasons. Puppy raisers, including some who have been raising and socializing puppies for more than twenty years, got to see living, breathing examples of how their hard work and devotion improves lives. Graduates got to meet the wonderful people who raise the puppies who become their partners. All of us met new friends (or finally met in person people we’d been communicating with for years!). Everyone got a better understanding of what it takes to turn a tiny puppy into a working guide.

This special event provided enough information and stories for several blog posts, which I’ll write and post over the next weeks. Most of all, it was an outstanding example of how capable, creative, and flexible dogs — and their human partners — truly are.

Early Retirement

Alberta_closeupThe one constant in life with dogs is change — and that can be tough sometimes.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: Alberta is retiring. Alberta and Deni are a match made in heaven if ever there was one. They adore each other, and Alberta is a cuddly, affectionate Mommy’s girl. For all her goofiness and antics, though, Alberta is an outstanding guide dog, a creative problem-solver, and the life of any party (or classroom … or faculty meeting …). In harness, she’s a consummate professional; off-duty, she’s an eternal puppy. Her love of fun will serve her well in her early retirement.

Alberta has a rare type of tumor in her eye. She will have surgery to remove the tumor (and the eye) this week, and she will retire from work as a guide dog. She will move to Montana later this summer to live with her cousin Mack and Mack’s parents.

Bayboro_Blonde-smAnd, knowing Alberta, she’ll figure out a “retirement job” soon enough. Maybe she’ll build on her experience as the model and spokesdog for 3 Daughters Brewing’s Bayboro Blonde Ale. Or further her media superstar career, launched by an article in the Tampa Bay Times, frequent blog appearances, and a USA Today story.

I’m sure she’ll continue to delight and amaze everyone she meets. I’ve learned a lot from her about doggy humor, intelligence, and empathy. She taught me how dogs can pass the marshmallow test, which turns out to be pretty similar to the way young children do it (they distract themselves). She taught Deni, the Dog Training Club of St. Petersburg, and dozens (hundreds?) of dogs and handlers that Rally and other dog sports are a great way for guide dogs and their humans to let off some steam. She’s helped Deni navigate torrential downpours, bizarre obstacles, and hostile vehicle and foot traffic, especially in crowded airports; in fact, she’s so good at it that Deni has no idea how many (thousands of) people Alberta has gently but effectively nosed out of their path over their too-short three years together.

While she’s leaving her job, she’s not leaving this blog; I hope to continue to follow her adventures from afar (and sometimes in person). And I’ll continue to tell Alberta stories whenever they’re relevant to revealing the amazing cognitive abilities of our canine friends.

Deni has a tough few weeks or months ahead: getting used to life without Alberta, waiting for a new guide, then adjusting to the new dog. Despite her delicate, petite physical appearance, Alberta leaves some pretty big paws to fill.