27 March 2011

Going Against the Grain

I work with and love the Border Collie breed. When I trained my first service dog Chimette, a Border Collie Shepherd cross who looked and acted very much Border Collie, I focused initially on training him to be my ears in the world. As a result, no one thought twice or made any comment whatsoever along the lines of whether or not he was the right breed for the job. As my disabilities progressed, Chimette was trained as a guide dog, hearing dog, medical alert dog, and mobility service dog. No one over all the years we were training or partnered together made so much as a comment about his fitness for the job at hand based upon his breed- perhaps because he was first a hearing dog.

When Chimette passed away though, things were very different for me. I had a host of disabilities to adapt to and the need to prioritize where to focus my training first when Thane came into my life. Though we dabbled in hearing dog training during those first winter months together that kept us from doing a lot of training in the community, the first focus of training was to mold Thane into my guide dog.  Thane is a purebred Border Collie from strong herding lineage. In my pursuit of guide dog training and the partnership that has followed, I encountered so many mystified people. People were often surprised that I was going against his natural instincts to mold him into my future guide. It was more rare to encounter people who were not surprised by this decision of mine than to encounter those who were. Some of these folks, like his Ophthalmologist, were just downright curious while others just had to voice their opinions about how insensitive I was being to Thane by asking him to curtail his natural instincts. Not so fast! Thane's natural instincts are part of what makes him the perfect candidate for the job. 

As a deafblind individual my dogs training is dramatically different than that of a guide dog trained for a blind individual with normal hearing. I allow my guides a certain amount of leniency in focus. I do this by encouraging their awareness of important things with praise, while simply ignoring or using our leave it command for things that are unnecessary alerts. The crux is that they need to not only safely guide me around obstacles and through traffic, but they need to share with me the important things going on around us wherever we may be. I want to know, for instance, if someone is walking close behind us or if kids are playing on the sidewalk ahead so we can alter our pace, take another route, or change our direction entirely for safety reasons. I want to know when emergency vehicles are coming so that I don't get caught crossing a street when they are in route to an emergency. Though all of this training does not happen initially, praising for his alertness to important cues can be the difference between safe travels as a team and injury or  becoming the victim of a predator. Chimette saved me from a stalker who actually turned around and raped another person. Where would I have been then if all I had asked of my dog was to guide me around obstacles, but ignored my deafness in his training? I positively love my dogs alertness to his environment. Breed appropriateness for the task at hand is all in ones perspective.

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