Nearly two years ago, my guide dog Jenny was introduced to me by a BC and Alberta Guide Dogs trainer. I should have had a clue that she might be a character when the first thing she did when entering my home was to eat the cat puke we failed to notice under the coffee table. After four weeks of training, by turns exciting and frustrating, we were ready to take on the big bad world as a guide dog team.
But something happened along the way. Maybe it’s me, a bit of a perfectionist by nature, but almost immediately after the trainer left, my wonderful quirky dog turned into a little hellion! The first three months in particular, I expected Jenny to consistently act the way she had in training. At a particularly low point, three months post-training, we had a LOT of changes at home, at work, and with schedules. I am almost ashamed to say that neither Jenny nor I handled it well, resulting in a particularly problematic goalball tournament in Oregon. I was SO close to sending her back; she was pulling, running me into people, scavenging, not listening… it was AWFUL! What made things SO much worse was that almost all my friends had seasoned guide dogs, and I was told by many of them that their dog never got dog-distracted, scavengy, stressed, making big mistakes like these. I outlined a bit about the turning point during that weekend in Oregon on a guest post on my friend Meagan’s blog; I still have a long way to go, but it helped to know that while the behaviors weren’t OK, they weren’t that unusual.
It was almost instantaneous! Right after that conversation, I stopped fighting Jenny. I stopped thinking emotionally about her behavior and started thinking logically. That particular low point, my husband and I were both under immense stress; we had water leaking into our house, dehumidifiers running 24/7 with a white noise that could’ve been used as a torture technique, I had changed both my place of employment and my working ours… no wonder Jenny was on edge! Once I “got it” and stopped trying to fight her in harness, we stopped having so many problems. Sure, we had bad days and still will, but once I stopped trying to be Alpha, she stopped acting like a dog so much, and started acting like a guide dog.
But I never seem to learn. Even now, I come home and give my husband a “report” on our day. Sure, we’ve had awesome days and days that go down the toilet, but almost all days lay somewhere in between. I distinctly remember a terrific guiding day Jenny had about six months ago. I had to go to a sporting goods store in a mall we seldom frequent to pick up something, and Jenny and I had only been there once before. Jenny flawlessly guided me to the store, and when I found out we were on the wrong floor, she guided me to the far side of the store to the escalator we needed. It was a glorious thing! She did terrific guide work the rest of the night… but when we got out of the building to go catch a bus, she had what I like to call “30 seconds of STUPID!” For those thirty seconds, her nose was going double-time, looking for food, interesting people, and smelling the “pee-mail” at the base of the light post; but when we got to the corner, the figurative light bulb flashed above her head, and she sat at the curb and guided perfectly for the rest of the night. I can laugh about it now, but at the time, I remember thinking “What goes through your head, silly dog?” In our early days, I would bring up the thirty seconds of stupid, then the awesome guide work, but I realize that’s all backwards. Even people can have great days, then in a moment of frustration let out something careless or hurtful. What makes me think my dog and I are any different?
I can choose to regret those early power-struggle days, and in some ways I do. But I learned so much from making those mistakes that I don’t know I can call it regret. perhaps I can call it an education: it’s only as good as what you do moving forward, building on those lessons learned and learning new ones along the way.