About ten years ago, I remember being really REALLY mad about something. After that length of time, I honestly can’t remember what I was so angry about, but I do distinctly remember Annie running away and hiding in her “secret place” for several hours. Annie – the cat who spent weeks following me around the apartment, who yowled every time I left her alone, who was so terrified I would never ever come back – picked that moment to tuck herself away in a never-to-be-found hiding place. I had been angry before, and over the years I would be angry again, but Annie never again shied away from it.
Science has not been able to draw a definite conclusion about whether animals sense human emotions in and of themselves or react to our facial expressions, body chemistry, or other indicators that give them clues into our moods, fears, or medical status. But from what I have observed – both from my pet cats and my service dog Jenny – there is some inexplicable way I communicate with them, and they with me. For the sake of clarity – and because I’ve been asked more about Jenny’s role in this – \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\I will address a guide dog’s intuitiveness in the next few paragraphs.
Jenny LOVES babies. They are her downfall. We get on a bus and there’s a stroller on board, she HAS to calmly, sweetly, take me to the baby carriage and show me the baby. Normally, when she is excited about something, she goes insane, wagging her tail, maybe pulling, maybe whining, but with babies she is calm and collected. I’ve had people who are terrified of dogs thank me for having such a calm dog around their baby. This calmness was further exhibited last weekend when we visited with two other couples, one of whom brought their toddler daughter. Jenny was game to play with her, and the cutest half hour of doggie-baby playtime ensued. I don’t know why she is this way with babies and small children – perhaps she is trying to tell me something? – but even if she is excited when she notices them, when they are near her, she has this zen calm that defies explanation.
I am by no means the only guide dog handler who has experienced inexplicable calm from her guide. Jackie told me of an instance where she had major surgery, and was away from her guide dog (matched for only five months) for several days. She was very concerned her guide would jump on her or be otherwise too rambunctious for her that could complicate the healing process by breaking her stitches. When Jackie got home from the hospital, instead of the welcoming committee, Tulip ran toward her, stopped and sat, and waited for Jackie to call her forward. During the course of Jackie’s recovery, Tulip gradually became more playful, but Jackie thinks that Tulip just knew that she wasn’t in a position to jump and run and play.
I don’t have anything nearly so dramatic with Jenny, but there are many ways in which Jenny communicates with me, especially when we’re working. Sure, there are the obvious things (how she moves in the harness, I verbally praise or correct her), but it’s so much more than that. It’s like having a dance partner who intuits the next six steps before you have time to get your shoes on. When we have bad weather, or I am sick, it’s like Jenny knows that I need her to be extra focused. We once had a whole bunch of freezing rain in the afternoon, and my walk from work to the bus stop took half an hour (normally five minutes) because the sidewalks were veritable ice rinks; Jenny worried about me the first three times I fell, then took an initiative, dragged me across the street to a safer sidewalk. I had to get us back on our original path, but I loved her initiative, no matter her motivation.
But it’s so much more than that. Even when she is out of harness, we are always communicating, whether it’s a scratch behind the ears, her resting on my feet, or the incredibly hilarious “mrrrrrrrrrrph” sounds Jenny makes when she is bored out of her mind and wants the whole world to know it.
But recently, a troubling trend began to manifest itself in Jenny – she began to bark in harness. This has occasionally happened before, but in the beginning of March it began happening more frequently, nearly daily. I knew we were in big trouble one day when I was at work, and Jenny and I were walking toward the back door to go outside. Jenny turned around and let out a low bark at the two people who were behind us walking to the same back door. After that, I called BC Guide Dogs, not even being sure what I should worry about. The prevailing theory was that she was suspicious of people, but that didn’t sound quite right to me, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. I was advised to make a “barking” log, marking down where we were, when it happened, what was going on, etc. Within 48 hours, I had part of my answer: anything she barked at was on her left, and Jenny started frantically scratching and pawing at her face. Her vet diagnosed her with seasonal allergies, and with a combination of allergy medication, personal observation, and Rescue Remedy, we’ve been able to almost eliminate the problem. On the occasions these days (much more rare) when she does bark on approach, it’s to someone she knows on a day where her ears are sore (I can now tell based on how she holds them) and she wants to tell THEM that she’s hurt. The irony of all this is that if my own ears weren’t so sore on those days, I doubt I would’ve made the connections I have. I wish she’d picked another way to show me all this – you know, something less dramatic and startling – but I am glad she tells me these things.
As I write this, I wonder if the mystical connection between me and Jenny – or any animal and its “person” – is far less mysterious than I have made it out to be. But whether it’s magic, observation, or pure dumb luck, I wouldn’t have it any other way.