Aren’t They Marvellous?
“Look at that clever dog! It shows them where to go and helps them with the shopping.”
Perpetuating the myth in ringing tones, the woman shepherded her two small children towards us as my husband Chris and I pushed our trolley down the supermarket aisle, me holding Guide dog Kati’s lead loosely in one hand in the time-honoured fashion. (When a Guide dog is working, you hold both lead and harness; when she is out with you but not working, she wears the harness but you hold only the lead.)
Chris, (known for many years as Himself to my various radio audiences) is fully-sighted, six-foot-five and possessed of a voice that has literally stopped vicious dogs in their tracks. Without missing a beat, he declaimed, “Yes, and she tells us which brand of baked beans to buy as well”. He didn’t bother with a stage whisper.
Such encounters don’t happen every day but neither are they uncommon. There are endless fallacies and misconceptions about the uncanny abilities of all types of “Service” or “Assistance” dogs, but perhaps Guide dogs attract more than their fair share since they are the most visible and well-known.
(Guide Dogs celebrated their sixtieth anniversary in Australia on April 26th, 2017.)
What types of myths? Well, here are just a few to get you started.
Hello! My name is Elaine Harris. I write only from personal experience and am not an official voice for any Guide Dogs’ organization. These theories, practices and anecdotes are mine alone; ask 20 other Guide dog owners for their versions and you may read 20 different stories. However, after working with four successive Guide dogs and living with two rescued German Shepherds in the past 35 years, here are some guide dog myths exploded or clarified.
1. A Guide dog tells you when it is clear to cross a road: NO, she doesn’t. Actually, the reverse is true; simply by refusing to step off the kerb when instructed, a well-trained dog “tells” you when it is unsafe to cross. Picture the scene. You arrive with your dog at a crossing, large or small, with or without lights and audible signal. In Australia and New Zealand you halt at the kerb; in the UK you also instruct your dog to sit. You stand and listen to the traffic. When you think it is clear to cross you instruct the dog to move: “Forward” being the most common command.
If an unheard car or cycle approaches, your dog simply stays put. (My favourite offers of assistance in such circumstances are the kind drivers who flash their lights to signal you across; I am unable to see them and mercifully my dogs have never paid them any heed. Still, it’s the thought that counts.)
2. Part of the training when dog and owner finally meet is what is usually termed “traffic work”. This takes place in the public arena and can include an instructor driving his car “at” the dog and owner. It looks frightening to an outsider but there is neither danger nor malice involved. However, I have heard of instructors being almost manhandled from their cars and accused of anti-social behaviour and much worse by well-intentioned, misguided onlookers.
3. A Guide dog takes you where you want to go: well… not exactly. As ridiculous as it probably sounds to the uninitiated, the working “Unit” of dog and owner actually functions as a team. It is useful for you, the owner, (or owned?), to know where you are going and indeed where you want to go; how else can you provide your faithful accomplice with the requisite instructions! Unlike many people, Guide dogs are taught the difference between left and right, a fact most primary school children find highly amusing. If you want to break with routine and go a different way or to a different destination, you sometimes have to impose your will on a determined “I know best” sort of dog. It happens.
4. A guide dog is trained not to bark! Again, missing the mark somewhat. It is true that during training many an instructor will discourage dogs from barking; however, nothing short of out-and-out cruelty or (mostly illegal) surgery can entirely over-rule such a basic natural instinct. Truth to tell, I have rarely dissuaded my dogs from barking, in spite of occasional memorable moments during live radio broadcasts or pre-recorded interviews. Chris and I worked in separate cities for a number of years, re-uniting when we could. I found any barking a useful alert to me and deterrent to any would-be intruder. It is astonishing how fierce a friendly, happy, born-to-be cuddled Labradorable can sound to someone who knows no better.
Putting her bark to good use, my second Guide dog, Dori, was also the perfect doorbell.
She even barked at a persistent bell during an episode of “Inspector Morse” as well as endless doorbells ringing throughout a radio dramatization of Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever.” After she died we found it necessary to install a doorbell as we had both come to rely on her far more than we realized. All six of our dogs have heard bells or door-knockers, only two have chosen to ignore them.
5. A Guide dog is trained never to be frightened of …. well, anything really: How? Pretty impossible, wouldn’t you think? Again, this would go against natural instincts. Being merely mortal, most of us fear something. Three out of four of my dogs have been upset by various aspects of thunderstorms; at least two of them formed an intense aversion to fireworks. Not all aversions are quite obvious or predictable. My first working dog hated ferns and had a psychological allergy to backless stairs: she was a tiny wee Labrador and we suspect she feared she might disappear through the gaps. Interestingly, many a dog will ignore their fears when actually working. The aforementioned Dori was terrified of all aspects of thunderstorms, from atmospheric changes through to both flashes and crashes. However, when we had to walk home through a storm she was superb, probably far calmer than I was. My current dog, Issi, (known as Whiz) dislikes skateboards but ignores them when working.
6. As intimated, sounds on radio or television can produce fascinating reactions. These are more common than you might expect. We were unable to listen to Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” except through headphones while my first three Guide dogs were with us. There are thunderstorm sound-effects during much of the production. My first dog would bark at the sound of cows on both radio and television – as well as live and in person – and on one occasion went hunting for a squeaky mouse she heard on the recording of a radio programme. I have heard anecdotal evidence of dogs and cats reacting to sounds of foxes, horses and even certain singers on radio and TV, though not always with fear. Indeed, when I worked as a radio presenter in Canberra, one of my greatest fans was a horse called Charlie who listened diligently every afternoon.
7. A Guide dog is trained to guide you round all obstacles: Technically yes but there are limits and variations. There is nothing comparable to the thrill of being alerted to and guided around an obstacle you didn’t even know was there until your dog took evasive action. Most ground level obstacles pose few problems, perhaps with the exception of dogs reputed to have crossed roads in order to avoid cats or active sprinklers.
Overhead obstructions are a different proposition altogether. I have loved and worked with four beautiful dogs. The first was brilliant at avoiding overhanging trees or anything else above my head height. (This didn’t stop her speeding up when the ground was littered with berries from one such tree; I think she enjoyed watching me slither.) Dog number two was totally the reverse; she was hopeless with overgrowth and no amount of correction brought about lasting change. Rosi, my third dog, was somewhere in between; she avoided much of the overhead impedimenta but not quite all. Issi is back to Kati’s impressive standards! Each and every dog is blessed with different levels of ability and personality traits, even dogs of the same breed. Issi is the first dog I have ever worked with who is blessed with zero dog distraction. She ignores all other dogs when we are out and about, regardless of whether or not she is working.
8. Guide dogs never make mistakes! All I can say is “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The day you or I attain perfection or, like Caesar’s wife, find ourselves above suspicion is the day we can demand daily faultless performances from our befurred companions. Human error is not limited to people, despite the implied arrogance of the expression.
Perhaps the most important lesson I ever learned was during the training with my first dog, Kati. We were given a firm, stern yet encouraging lecture to temper the euphoria of owning and working with a new dog; I think most of us on that particular course were first-timers. “Treat your dog well and keep up the training”, they said, “and she will do all you ask of her; but whatever you do, however marvellous it feels, never, ever forget that at the end of the day she is only a dog.”
Employing insight in the light of hindsight, I would translate that today as meaning: never forget that your dog is as unique and fallible as you are. She will have good days and bad; happy moods and distracted ones, and will give as good as she gets. Treat her well, honour her as a companion rather than merely something to get you from A to B and back again, and she will repay you a hundred, a thousand times over.
Dogs are the personification of unconditional love and often give us far more than we deserve. Yes, they are marvellous, I will be the first to own it, but the better the team – the stronger the bond – the better the work.
The more you are prepared to cuddle, to love and play when not working, allowing your dog to be a dog, the more that dog will want to do for you. This is less calculating than it sounds. If you are truly bonded with your dog, you will want to love, play and cuddle anyway, and in our case also tease and laugh with Furself.
My third working dog, Rosi, was the first dog I have ever known who loved and thrived on laughter; she seemed to want to join in and usually did. Apart from all that, why would most dogs be created with such gloriously huggable shapes if they weren’t intended as an armful to be cuddled!
Affirmations are largely out of favour now but one of the best or perhaps corniest I ever read was: “Shoot for the moon. It doesn’t matter if you miss, you will still land among the stars.”
All our girls, working and otherwise, have been stars. Long may they continue to shine. They will never be forgotten!
BLOG OWNERS NOTE: Elaine continues to have a fascinating life full of interesting projects that keep her in the public eye. Her insight into relationships with her guide dogs is of general interest to anyone who has ever thought of how special this bond is and how these wonderful assistance dogs react in their day to day lives with their special human. It really is worth visiting Elaine’s website to get a glimpse of the busy life she leads bringing enjoyment to people with her research and writings into many interests of everyday life. Elaine’s website can be visited here: