If there's anything I appreciate about my Border Collie boys, it is that they have made me a better trainer and handler because of who they are/ were by making me aware of my own state of mind, stress level, and tension.
Throughout the service dog community forums, one topic that comes up frequently is how our emotions travel down the leash to our dogs. In my opinion, this effect can't be seen better in any other breed than the Border Collie.
Many dogs let changes in their handlers dispositions or emotions just roll right off of them- be it tension, illness, emotional variations from sad to angry; elated to calm. This however isn't the case of every dog partnered with a disabled handler. Our service dogs vary from soft to hard in both methods of training and how they handle the events of life. These events include the emotions, we as trainers and handlers, send down the lead- often times things we are totally unaware of unless our dogs tension and relaxation status in harness fluctuates from one day to the next- or even from one moment to another in extreme situations.
Both of my boys have been soft dogs. Though in most situations I can without a doubt say that Met was the softer of the two, there are circumstances where this is so *not the case*. Those circumstances revolve around what I am sending down the lead to Thane.
In our first year together, life was anything but smooth or stress free. First, I was grieving the loss of a decade long partnership with the most awesome service dog. Second, I was learning to adapt to my progressive disabilities without Met's assistance. Finally, I was trying to get to know this new kid on the block who was definitely *NOT* Met. One can only imagine the emotions that I was giving off as I tried to figuratively put one foot in front of the other while trying to teach this bouncy, energetic, nine month old country transplant that a leash and walking on it loosely was a concept he *MUST* get *YESTERDAY*. I was anything but calm and collected and it showed in him.
Those early months are a blurr quite honestly. We somehow got through those nightmarish times of training Thane to go busy on lead, LLW, direction training for guide work, and were able to move onto harness work. I continued to set our partnership back, however, through my roller coaster grief, expectations, and tensed up leash communications at best. Though I would not have wanted to be going it alone dogless, I know (thanks to hindsite) that I shared way too much negative energy down the lead in our process to become a team.
I would work with Thane one day and have a positively awesome experience. He would be pulling into harness at a perfect tension for my needs; walking and guiding smoothly as we went along. It would seem we had finally arrived. We might have this kind of experience for a day or two or if we were really lucky, a week. Then with no reason at all, or so it seemed, we would be ten paces back. It would be a struggle to walk one block at a comfortable harness tension. I was quite honestly baffled at the changes in Thane. I just could not get my head around these bizarre differences. It was like there were two versions of him and I never knew each day as we rolled out the front door which version of him I would be working with.
I was scanning two books for Bookshare at the time. Canine Adventures, Fun Things to Do with Your Dog, and Shock to the System. Both of these books had areas devoted to stress. Shock to the System especially had me questioning my own status, not just Thanes. When we would have a rough patch of training or work, I began to check in with myself. What I mean by this is that I would do a check on just how I was feeling and especially reacting- physically, emotionally, stress-wise. What I discovered more times than not, when Thane was *off-kilter* as I began calling these high strung times, it was directly linked to some aspect of my own being.
Though it has not always been easy for me to let things roll off my back, for our partnership, I strove to learn how to do just that. In this process, I have become a better trainer and handler by quite literally seeing what I was feeling. Thane has essentually been a guide through more than just my blindness. He has taught me how to be healthier by letting the things go that just are not important enough to hold onto. He has, in his simple Border Collie way, set me free from myself, allowing us to have a partnership where I see a reflection of myself revealed in red and white.