Inside the Mind of Assistance Animals

Posted on December 30, 2009. Filed under: 4. Guest Bloggers | Tags: , , , , |

We’re all pet lovers. No argument there. We love being around them, watching them do their animal thing, laughing at their antics and enjoying the love and happiness they provide. Sometimes, involuntarily or not, we try to see life through their eyes. “What do they think about?”

Of course not being a dog, and only a typical, run-of-the-mill carbon-based bipedal omnivore with opposable thumbs, I can’t answer that, but I can hazard a guess or two. I’ve been around dogs all my life, both as pets and working dogs. I really enjoy romping and wrestling with big dogs and playing with little ones, but in the last decade or so, my usual exposure to dogs is in their role as Assistance to individuals with Disabilities. In the last blog I wrote about some of the questions and myths, what are they, what do they do, where can they go and so forth. Here, I would like to write about my opinion of what is in the mind of an Assistance animal. I’m not a veterinarian, or pet psychologist, just an animal lover and owner. Being dependent on my dog for more than love and companionship helps me to be aware more of a dog’s personality and feelings. To many readers this won’t be news, but Petopia asked me to write some thoughts and observations for the Bark Blog, so here we go.

I’ve known hundreds of them of a score of breeds and trained skills. Service, Alert, Psychiatric, Guide, Hearing, Balance, Signal, Therapy and many nore, so I can at least consider myself not an expert but seasoned. For the most part, I spend my days and nights with a Guide Dog, Musket. As Petopia readers and San Diegans may know, Musket is a mature male, Yellow Labrador retriever. Labs are among the most common breeds for Guide dogs due to their temperament, intelligence, loyalty, eagerness and long working life, but they’re dogs first and none of my disabled brethren forget that fact. We don’t minimize or ignore the canine needs and identity of our furry companions.

We all live in an electronic, digital, remotely-controlled, mechanical, automatic world, increasingly insulated from the natural environment. When our ancestors tilled the soil and worked from sunrise to sundown, hunted and tended their lands, dogs were far more important to them than as pets. They guarded the henhouse, alerted at intruders, tracked lost livestock, pulled in the fishing nets and much more. Nowadays, as a culture, we see dogs and most animals as pets, members of the family, little living plush toys for love and amusement. I’m not making generalizations, only laying the groundwork for this article, and I’m the first to admit I love lying for hours rubbing a dog’s belly or feeling comfort from the furry face and wagging tail of pure unconditional love.

So in this modern environment, working dogs, that is, beyond the hunting and herding types, are a novelty. They amaze and attract people. Assistance dogs have a sort of mystique, a ‘celebrity’ status if you will. Whenever we’re out and about, in stores, restaurants, on the sidewalk, bus, plane, people notice Musket and others of his kind. It’s very common to hear ‘Oh, look at that, isn’t that wonderful?’ Or ‘It’s amazing what those dogs can do.’ When I hear that, I’m pleased. It’s the dog who deserves the praise, not the owner. The dog is the most visible and noticeable part of the team, and I truly believe they like it. I’ve met many working dogs, and their enthusiasm is not merely a byproduct of their training. They know how important their work is. I’ll provide a few examples, bearing in mind these are from my own experiences with Musket and dogs I’ve known for years, I think they illustrate my point well enough.

As a Guide dog Musket wears the leather harness, which consists of the stiff handle, belly and chest straps. It’s impossible for him to get into it by himself, but if he could, I’m sure I’d find him waiting by the door suited up and ready to go every day. Before I leave the house for work, I take the harness off the newel post at the bottom of the stairs and call for him, and in an instant he’s there, putting his head into the harness and waiting, tail beating the wall. It’s obvious he wants to go out, and he’s not at all reluctant to work.

He understands his role as my guide. How do I know that? Because when he’s off harness and just hanging around the house, he’s a different dog. He sleeps, eats, plays and does all the normal doggy things. When I use my cane to go and get the mail, my wife says Musket watches me like a hawk. He’s alert, knowing I’m going out without him. In a few instances when I bump or trip over something, he jerks his head back as if to say ‘Hey, I could have told you that was there if I’d been with you!’

The role of the Guide dog and that of other Assistance animals is to provide their owner with what the disability has denied them. Eyes, ears, mobility, balance, mental and emotional support and so on. I’ve known dogs who love working, even to the point of having to be reined in because they’re going too fast. Musket is like that sometimes. He moves at a  rapid pace, steering me around obstacles and dangers, and stopping at the curb. When I give the ‘forward’ command he’s off again, tail wagging.

They are lifesavers, protectors. Many pet owners can testify to situations where their dogs, or even cats, have reacted in a protective way, facing a threat or dangers to their owners. In the case of Assistance animals, being trained to be more alert to specific dangers and the reaction is more predictable. Musket has saved my life at least twice and kept me from busting my butt many times. He pushed me back while crossing the street as a car attempted to run a red light, and once he refused to step off a curb where a construction pit yawned invitingly for me to fall into. I didn’t know it was there and kept commanding him to move forward. He wouldn’t budge. When it finally dawned on me what I’d been trying to do, I gave him a lot of praise and love and treats. He knew better than I.

Of course he and all the others love the attention they get. Seeing a dog in the grocery store is unique enough to be noticed, and Musket likes to meet people. He knows he’s probably the only dog in the store so he hears many comments. He shows his happiness at this by being even more alert to his job. Is he showing off? Sure. Why not? We all like being praised for our work and dogs are no different. Guide dogs and all others are raised and trained on a system of positive reinforcement. Praise and corrections reap great benefits to train working dogs. When they do well at a task, they are praised often with petting and stroking. If they do something improper, they are told ‘No’ in a firm voice and in some cases, physically but not harshly redirected to resume the task properly. When they do so, they are again praised. Never are they punished or told ‘bad dog.’

So the result is they love working because it results in praise, love, respect and positive attention.

I believe dogs and most of our domestic animal friends have thoughts, feelings, memories and hopes. They may not think in words as we do, but in images, feelings, needs, good and bad memories, sounds, smells and tastes – but that’s more than enough. Musket learns the routes we take, remembers everybody he meets and can even tell time. No, he’s not a ‘Watchdog,’ just very smart. If I put three treats in my pocket and only give him two over the course of the day, he KNOWS there’s another one in there.

So, even though they may not perceive the world the way we do, they do think. We can often tell when our pet is thinking about something, that curious way they cock their heads, their ears perk up, or when they sigh in a very human manner at being told they have to have a bath.

So what do they think on the job? That they’re special, needed and important. They love being praised and doing their job well. In Musket’s case it’s gone to his head, but that’s OK, he’s earned it. It’s a symbiotic relationship, a healthy co-dependence. The dog depends on the owner for food, care, health, shelter and love, the owner depends on the dog for safety, guidance, mobility and independence. The relationship takes months to form, to become a true bond, but when it happens, both human and animal have forged something wonderful and beautiful.

Mark Carlson

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