Speaking an Unknown Language

Back in the middle of August, I went to California and had a chance to visit Albert, my recently retired guide dog of eight years. At first, the reunion was an odd combination of familiarity and newness. It felt like going past your old elementary school; the brick building is in the same place and the kids at recess look sort of like you and your friends, but the playground equipment is new, the swings are in a whole different location, and you only recognize some of the games painted in yellow and white lines on the asphalt. You remember the scene, but it has changed.
All credit and blame goes to captionbot: I think it's a dog sitting on a bench.
In the first moments after I walked into the yard where he was playing, Albert almost seemed shy. He jumped up at me, but then he couldn’t quite remember what came next. He didn’t hold still for me to scratch deep into his ears, behind the ear canals. He didn’t start plowing between my legs, lifting his nose to the crotch, a classic Albert move. He didn’t run in a frantic elliptical pattern around me. He didn’t gently grab my arm between his jaws and bite down like a mother dog carrying her puppies. These are the dance steps I remember from my Albert dog, how I recognize him beyond his shape and color and fur length. It was hard to feel like he was the dog I’d come to see. Fortunately, there were a pool and two perfect fetching sticks and a chain of rubber rings for tugging, along with two other dogs, to help break the awkwardness.

Albert and I were caught in an abbreviated version of feeling one another out, just like Lotus, my new guide dog, and I have been clumsily groping our way through for the past five months. Every time I’ve started working with a new guide dog, I’ve wound up with a very tight left shoulder, pain burning up into my neck, and an awkward gait where I’m prone to trip over myself. With a new dog, I don’t know what to expect as far as pace, maneuvering around obstacles, and stopping, so I try to ready every muscle to respond with trigger reflexes, to do everything just right. After I’ve stepped on her paws a few times and repeatedly given her cues that don’t make sense and tried to correct her when she’s already doing the right thing though, I start to give up. Dogs don’t go into job interviews or formal social settings where they put an edited version of themselves forth, so I let go of that version of myself as well. Dogs mean mud and fur and smells that you won’t find in the Martha Stewart line of air fresheners. I try to embrace the lack of order, because I want to know the dog behind it. I get down on the floor to play and wrestle and sometimes get hurt and sometimes get rejected by the dog, because that’s what it takes to figure out how to communicate with a different species.

Dogs, even within the same breed, have very different preferences and behaviors and quirks. Yes, an adorable photo might show a basket full of Labrador puppies, identical except for the exact tilt in their heads, but an attentive person who spent time with them would be able to tell them apart. One puppy will be particularly aware of the human while another will approach its siblings to bite their ears, while one will play dead if someone rolls it onto its back and another will squirm away when pinned down. Differences that are endearing in puppies become crucial when learning to communicate and work with a dog. Lotus doesn’t particularly like to have her ears or head touched and petted from the front. It’s hard for me to get used to this as a human who constantly wants to reach in and pet my dog to praise her and to play and to reassure her. She will suddenly stop walking sometimes, especially if we are in an unfamiliar location. When she stops, she’s looking back to check in with me for reassurance. I have to understand the reason she stops, because if I interpret it as a sign that she’s distracted and not motivated to work, then my response is going to be very different. As much as I wish I could claim that I’m instantaneously in-tune to a dog’s behaviors and patterns, I’m not. Instead, I try and fail and try and fail and try and ask around for ideas and try again. When you see a guide dog and human working together smoothly, you can know dozens of situations messed up with crossed wires went into creating that relationship.

In the brief time we had together, I wanted Albert to know how much I’d missed him and that I was glad that he was doing well and that I cared about him and that the place where he is now is the best possible life for him. I cannot tell him all of this. I scratched his rump as we stood together in the pool. I got him to release the fetching stick without a prolonged battle. We played tug with the rubber rings, as I tried to match his growls. And when we were leaving, I snatched a good scratch of his marvelously large ears. With Albert, I had to remember how to move in the ways that we used to play together. Play was the only way I could think to approximate what I wished I could tell him. I know the concepts I wanted to communicate do not translate well into a dog’s understanding. I think in words and, to the best I can tell, he thinks in sensations; it’s hard to translate between the two. I could kneel to his head level, he could smash that enormous tongue of his into my face, and I could laugh. I hope it meant something to him.

Lotus and I are building that relationship now. To bond or check in with Lotus, it is better if I stand still and let her approach me, instead of approaching her by touching her. She will often bring me one of her toys to hold or tug on. She likes to lie down right next to me, sometimes even partly on top of me. I think she likes to be more in control of the interaction, so I have to stand back and let her approach first. It is hard to hold myself back, because I want to express my affection by touching her. However, if it doesn’t work for Lotus, then it doesn’t work. She just stood up, walked to the back door where she peered out for a moment and then turned around to drink water before returning to her blanket. I don’t understand why she took that course, but it is fascinating to wonder about what led her to do that. I stop trying to understand and just accept. As time goes by, I hope I’m able to tell you more about Lotus, not about Albert or other dogs I’ve known or what I think is an ideal dog or what I imagine a dog might be, but Lotus her wonderful self.

Credit and blame goes to captionbot: I think it's a dog swimming in a pool of water.
Swimming with the dogs

What is there new for me to say about the relationship between a human and a dog? Obviously, I dedicate a lot of thought to the communication between my dog and myself. I want to get it right. I like the precision and clarity that can come with words, but I’m left interacting in motion and gestures and touch. It is hard for me to sit back and allow Lotus to initiate some of our interactions, to define some of our communication; I give her commands when she is working, but I have to adjust them to how she operates, and she doesn’t let me play or express affection in some of the ways I’m most used to. I was raised in a world where we set goals and explain what we will do to achieve them. We either reach our goals or we do not. But my dogs are teaching me that there is also value in a world where I sit back passively and wait to see what is going to happen. You are always in-between. There is perfection and failure and then there is now in this place where I sit with a creature built from bones and fur and a nose that prods and explores and reaches, curled up at my side.


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