Last Night Alone

koala-in-showerA guest post by Deni Elliott

Tonight is my last night alone. After four months of crawling into bed without Guiding Eyes Alberta snorting and snoring a few feet away, tonight is my last night alone. Tomorrow I meet Guiding Eyes Koala. As hard as I’ve squinted at photos and video and as tightly as I have clutched each new piece of information, I find it odd how little I can imagine about our future together.

Koala’s passed all the tests and has exceeded expectations. I’ve heard that she leaps into her harness and back-channels routes after only one trip. She eagerly solves problems and pivots on a dime, ready for new adventure. A personality match for sure. But I remind myself that I need to go slow and not expect too much of this 2-year-old.

At the cusp of this unknown relationship curving to be real, my tummy flutters with butterflies of anxiety and anticipation. I can imagine the home trainer better than the dog he is bringing me.

Jim Gardner, GEB director of home training, will fly from New York to Tampa with Koala curled at his feet. I imagine Jim cheerfully answering the questions I am annoyed to be asked. “Are you training that dog?” someone will ask. “Yes,” he’ll smile, “This is a new, young guide dog. I am taking her to meet her blind partner.” When asked, I put on the same “please the public” smile, but say in a way that invites no further intrusion: “Every day is a training day, but I am blind, and she is my guide dog.”

I imagine Jim calmly replying, when asked the dog’s name, “We don’t tell people that because we don’t want them distracted.” Knowing that despite 16 years of guide dog use that I am still paralyzed by strangers asking my dog’s names, other trainers have had me practice giving a fake name. I don’t lie well. Saying, “I won’t tell you,” feels rude. “Leave us alone,” is definitely rude. Saying, “If I tell you the dog’s name, you will immediately say it and distract her and that is exactly what I don’t want you to do,” is too long and complicated. So, I quickly say, “This is the dog’s name, BUT DON’T SAY IT.” As those words come out of my mouth, I concurrently offer a treat so that the dog doesn’t pay attention to what the other person might say. We then hurry away.

I imagine Jim chaperoning Koala and me on our first neighborhood walk. “What can we do for our first outing?” I will ask. “Two miles? One mile? 250 steps?” I have three routes mapped out just in case.  For the months I’ve caned my way through twice-daily walks, I’ve imagined being guided by new dog instead. I whisper “Right-right,” and “To the curb please,” and “Good dog, good job.” I’ve counted the number of streets I cross on these daily laps so that I can help Koala learn streets where she needs to stop and driveways where she doesn’t. I imagine the neighbors that I pass daily expressing surprise and sending best wishes when they see me with Koala in harness instead of gripping a cane.

I cry when I imagine Jim and Koala arriving from the airport tomorrow night. I have joked about lighting candles and pouring wine for the new girl’s arrival. In truth, I have stocked the house with beds, toys, crate, food and treats. I ache with the knowledge that none of these will fill her heart tomorrow night. All I can do is make promises that she won’t understand.

She’ll wonder where her most recent caregivers, Graham and David, have gone. She’ll look for her special canine friend, Wrangler. Some visual or scent will call to mind her puppy raiser mom, Eileen, although it has been six months since they’ve seen one another. From Alberta, I know that well-raised guide dogs never forget previous family members and greet them with great joy. I suspect Koala would prefer we all live together in one pack. I can’t make that happen, but I will promise to keep her connected with the dogs and humans who matter to her most.

koala-and-deniI will promise to keep her safe. I hope that she never needs to know that I will instinctively fold her under my body for protection if anything threatens her just as I did when Alberta and I were attacked by a stray dog.

I will promise to trust her today and for all of the tomorrows we have together. When I am utterly confused, I will follow her lead, knowing that she’ll have better ideas that I about what to do next.

I can’t imagine Koala at my side because I don’t know yet the person she will turn out to be. But I can promise to show her day after day that I will love her for being her own best self and for who we can become together. Maybe that’s enough for the first day.

Postscript: Koala and Deni are off to a great start!

A Conscious Struggle

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Our dogs have jobs that they are expected to do, similar to assigning household chores to a child. Jana brings in the morning paper. Jana and Cali each bring me a shoe when we’re getting ready for a walk. And each dog is expected to bring me her food bowl when she’s done eating.

Jana learned this task very quickly. She does it eagerly, always happy to receive her dessert in exchange (a small cookie). Alberta is also an eager participant, usually the first to finish her meal and deliver her bowl. If I am not paying attention, she’ll push it into my leg, hard, in a not-at-all-subtle demand for her pay. Past dogs have learned the task too, though Wylie made it quite clear that he saw this task as beneath him — girls’ work — and he would immediately depart for more masculine pursuits upon finishing his meals. Jana was happy to pick up the slack (and the extra cookie).

Then there’s Cali. For months, she’d pretend to try, lifting the bowl by one edge before dropping it with a loud clang. Putting on her saddest golden retriever face, she look at me as if to say, “I tried, Mom, but I just can’t lift it. It’s a very large bowl, and I am a very small puppy.” As the very small puppy became 56 lbs. of solid muscle, this excuse held less and less water, but the sad eyes … well, let’s just say that she does a very good “sad golden” face.

Along came Deni. Not only did we switch Cali to a smaller bowl this summer, but Deni took over much of the feeding supervision. Deni wasn’t moved by the sad face. Weeks of cajoling and praise and cookies paid off. Cali started bringing her bowl, but reluctantly and only with much encouragement. Once we knew that Cali understood what was expected and that she was fully capable of doing it, the coddling was phased out.

Now, as Deni explains, Cali broods over the looming task or “stands there and glowers at her bowl.” She knows she’s supposed to pick it up; she simply does not want to. It’s similar to her reluctant acquiescence to brushing her teeth. But, more and more, Cali talks herself into bringing the bowl with no prompting from either of us. Deni reports that if Cali sees that extra-special treats are being offered for dessert, she is able to convince herself to pick up the bowl much more quickly, and she does so with far more energy and enthusiasm.

The battle of the bowl shows Cali’s increasing maturity and offers a window on her personality and intelligence. We all sometimes choose to do things that we do not want to do. Sometimes we do them for rewards (a paycheck, working extra hours to earn a vacation …) or to avoid worse consequences (dental checkups) or because we don’t want to disappoint someone we care about. Whatever the reason, we all face large and small decisions every day. Cali is no different.

Beyond WordsIn his wonderful book Beyond Words, which I have mentioned before, Dr. Carl Safina talks about sentience, cognition, and thought as the “overlapping processes of conscious minds.” He defines sentience as “the ability to feel sensations”; cognition as “the capacity to perceive and acquire knowledge and understanding”; and thought as “the process of considering something that has been perceived” (page 21).

We see all of these at work in Cali’s struggle. She understands what she needs to do and how to do it; she feels stress, anxiety or discomfort of some kind when she thinks about this expectation, and she considers how to resolve it. Sometimes the feeling of anticipation or desire for a treat wins; sometimes, probably, the desire not to disappoint Deni or me tips the balance; sometimes she needs some prodding. But she is very definitely making a choice. Whether she decides to go for the cookie or she’s concerned about our reaction or she walks away and lets Alberta or Jana pick up her bowl, she is in control; she weighs the options and makes her choice. She is not instinctively or automatically responding to a stimulus in a conditioned way, as some behaviorists would argue. Every day, every meal, Cali shows what it means to be a thinking dog.

 

Is Your Dog Smarter Than A …

Is your dog as smart as a human 2-year-old? A 5-year-old? A (gasp) teenager? Does it depend on what breed your dog is?
We can’t help it, we humans. We want to put everything into neat little human-constructed boxes. That is, I think, what is going on when people try to define dogs’ (or other non-humans’) intelligence in human terms. That and the common, if arrogant, human assumption that we are the smartest creatures, so everyone else — dolphins, dogs, starfish — can and should be evaluated, based in how they compare with us in human-like ways.
But really, how many human 2-year-olds would you trust to guide you across a busy street? Or turn loose in the wreckage of a natural disaster or terror site, with the expectation that the little tyke would let you know where the survivors are trapped? We use dogs to find lost 2-year-olds, don’t we? And protect them (and other humans) from diabetic coma or severe peanut allergies, warn of their impending seizures, coax those who have autism or have suffered trauma to connect — and so, so much more.
The basis for comparison is obviously flawed. Dogs are much like human toddlers in many ways, it’s true — their unbounded love of play; their sweet willingness to befriend just about anyone. Yet they are so much better at some things than any child could ever be — better at some things, such as anything based on scent, than any human of any age could ever be.
So, how should we measure, evaluate, understand canine intelligence?
We can start by acknowledging that intelligence is a complicated concept — there are many types of intelligence. Among people for example, there is social intelligence or emotional intelligence, there is numerical or problem-solving or analytical intelligence. Business acumen, logic, performing well under extreme stress — all of these might be considered different skill areas or types of intelligence. Intelligence is what helps you (or your dog) navigate life, with all the challenges and detours it throws in your path. We are all stronger in some areas, weak or ridiculously incompetent in others. The same is true of dogs.
We can also think about the skills that dogs have that have no parallel in human ability or intelligence — and the myriad ways we can help dogs develop and use those skills in partnerships that make life better for humans and dogs.
Some dogs excel at reading people’s body language. According to several prominent dog cognition researchers, among them superstars Brian Hare and Adam Miklosi, dogs — even very young puppies — excel at reading humans’ pointing gestures and where their humans gaze. This is a type of social intelligence. I am sure that many, many dogs excel at this. However, not all dogs do. I know. I live with one who fails miserably at reading gestures.
Other dogs (including the one who cannot follow a pointing finger to save her life), can intuit a person’s mood and provide exactly what is needed: comfort, humor, affection, appeasement, a favorite toy.
Still other dogs are great problem-solvers. They analyze each new situation and map out a solution.
Some dogs are born to … fill in the blank: Provide mobility assistance, search out bombs or drugs, find lost or hurt people, detect tumors, comfort lonely elderly people, make children laugh.
I don’t think it matters whether your dog is smarter than a toddler. I don’t think it is a fair or relevant comparison. What does matter is assessing each dog’s strengths and weaknesses, his or her specific areas of intelligence. Then, we can figure out how to stimulate and challenge each dog in the ways that will allow him or her to succeed, thrive, and enjoy life to the fullest.

Give That Dog a Job!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!