My Second Airplane Ride by Igor GuideDog

“I am very conscious of the advantages that my fickle health gives me over our robust squares.”
– Nietzsche from The Gay Science

Mommy booked us a red eye night flight which seemed, while still at the airport, like a good idea since i felt sleepy and well fed – – perhaps too well fed as it it turned out. Sitting in the waiting area, with , mommy scratching me in my favorite place, i was relaxed and confident that this time i would not be scared. This time i new what to expect. The first time came as quite a surprise when the airplane got so loud and lifted off the ground. Actually, i was startled. Not scared. In any case, this time i was prepared .

Still at the gate, there was a bit of a delay, so we settled in and mommy relaxed back in her seat. but when the get ready to board announcement came over the PA, she sat up in her seat and i sat up too. Immediately the woman next to us asked if she could ask about me but quickly realized that perhaps this was something that happened a lot when mommy pulled out my Guide Dog FAQ and she apologized and said this must happen all the time, which disarmed Mommy because usually people do not realize that this must happen all the time and so she made nice and talked with the stranger woman. it was sort of like when, in California, we took the BART from Mommy’s Mommy’s house to visit ARtemis and her nice Romanian boyfriend in San FRancisco and this weird guy who claimed to be a pick up artist coach broke down mommy’s usual guard by saying as he was reading my FAQ “wow. i like women who play hard to get and he’s doing all the work for you.” Mommy let him ride with us on our trip but then she ditched him when Artemis arrived – phew.

the airplane man told us that we could board the plane first so we said goodbye to the stranger lady and ran down the flight bridge because that is fun. I understand that my predecessor Millennium also liked to do this and that this is one of the very few things we have in common. He is retired and now lives in California with chickens and two little girls who love him very much and dress him up in pink tutus which he enjoys. let’s just say he is a different kind of dog than I. Mommy tells me that he always loved wearing his pearls and heavy petting from macho men. Personally, I don’t like to accessorize and definitely prefer the ladies. That’s all i’ll say about that. i’m not the kind of dog to judge anyone for their sexual orientation – with or without balls.

AS we were settling into our row (we had three seats all to ourselves since mommy is very wise and bought an extra ticket for me and the plane was very empty so the flight man secured the third for us), the stranger lady from the waiting area sat down in front of us and Mommy and Lisa – that’s her name) continue chatting happily. sigh.
Lisa asked Mommy what she did and Mommy told her about how she had taught at NYU for ten years but that now she was taking a year off to pursue her dreams (she said that with a funny voice). I knew i was done for when she handed Lisa a postcard for her wonderful show The Star of Happiness: Helen Keller on VAudeville?! Lisa asked a lot of good and interesting questions, which made mommy curious to know what she did for a living. Lisa said that she was “just a mommy now” but that she used to be a lawyer but that her husband has a really interesting job and she helps him. He is a forensics psychiatrist who works on scary serial murder cases and who’s boss was one of the main consultants on a show called Law and Order, which is one of the very few television shows mommy knows anything about and was impressed. I don’t get the television thing and am happy that we do not have one in our house because she already has quite enough things to distract her from playing Kong with me…

anyway, they talked so much that i began to worry that it would keep up for the entire ride which would be a very long time to have no attention and so i whined a little but only a little.

I was relieved when the airplane started and they stopped – at least as much relieved as a dog can feel when being lifted up in the air so fast… so strange.

even though we had the whole row, i still wanted to see what was going on beyond and tried to peek out into the aisle but she wouldn’t let me…

the trip was ok and i slept a little bit but on the way down i started to feel not so good. i really really needed to get off the plane.

when we were on the ground again and the lights went on,Mommy ask Lisa if she was going to the baggage claim so that we could run down with her but she had a connecting flight. Mommy asked around to the people in the seats nearby if we could join someone’s train. The couple behind us gladly volunteered, though they would soon, i think, regret their kindness…

we were all walking very fast as we usually do and mommy just thought that i had to pee which is what she told the wife when she asked why i was walking so fast. but it wasn’t that and i couldn’t tell her and i couldn’t wait and …

Shit!

mommy took it very well – what could we do after all? she kept super calm and pulled out a bag to pick up the mess but the wife took the bag out of her hands and started cleaning up. what could mommy do? snatch the bag back?
mommy and i were very embarrassed and she tried to explain to the husband that this was a nervous poop since i had gone twice that day, which was true but i also think that perhaps mommy gave me too many treats of roasted Turkey which i love but which was maybe a bit heavy for a plane trip?

amazingly, another stranger man walked up as the wife was cleaning and the husband was talking and dribbled out all the usual questions, like how old was I, how long was my training, etc and Mommy was so embarrassed and rattled that she did not even give this new stranger man my Guide Dog FAQ but tried to answer his questions while not provoking any more. He would not stop until finally the wife – her name is Lynn – returned from the ladies room and we were able to move again. We continued quickly to the baggage claim area where i was able finally to go outside and take what is perhaps the most giant pee that ever a dog did piss – ah.

the husband Steve was very nice and helped us find our bag and then all the way to the cab stand though mommy told him it was ok and that he and his wife had gone beyond the call of duty, got more than they bargained for, etc, all the cliches that she could muster at 7 am under extreme duress and shame. then just as we were about to ket into the cab the taxi stand man handed Steve the ticket and said “hold on to that for her”. Mommy almost lost her temper at last. She said, “I can take my own ticket. i’m an adult,” though she felt very small with me too. she told Steve that sometimes getting help was a double edged sword – another cliche but true in its way. then, perhaps out of insightful kindness or maybe genuine interest, Steve threw Mommy a bone: he asked her about her show. he said he had heard her talking to the woman on the plane, and no matter what were his motives or intentions she took it and gnawed happily.

She gave him a Star of Happiness postcard and asked him to email her so that she could send him and his wife a proper thank you. And, having learned sometime before the diarrhea that he and his wife were from canada, she quickly told him about her hopes to tour the show and that the theater group (Horse Trade) she is involved with is a member of the canadian fringe and he said that they go to the Ottawa fringe fest every year and she said that they should definitely email her and that she doesn’t spam and well, then we were off in the cab home. Finally.

mommy tells me that the wife Lynn sent an email and here is what it says:

“Hi Michelle,
Steve and I helped you walk Igor from our Jetblue plane to the exit of JFK
yesterday. Later, Steve told me about your conversation. I thought you might
like to know that Igor seemed to want to go under a horizontal 3 foot high
railing rather than lead you around it. Maybe he normally does that well but
was just too impatient to get outside. Anyway, it was a pleasure to meet
you.
Lynn”

Mommy and I were at first a little disappointed by this email. Though we believe its intentions were not mean-spirited, our thank you reply to Lynn and her husband Steve was perhaps less heartfelt than it might have been if it weren’t for the critique. of my work. Admittedly i did have a little fuck up with the metal barrier, but i was tired, and honestly i try so hard to be good.. mommy assures me that i am a wonderful guide dog but that she is a really shitty blind person,

The truth is that we are a partnership and that we are always learning together. we take care of each other and try to move through the world as best we can – not as a thing in itself but as a part of a larger whole – to make a dynamic life for ourselves – fulfilling and meaningful and all the rest. And, as with most important things in life, it is always a work in progress.

Sometimes it is exhausting to be representing all the time. Mommy had felt good in that one moment when Steve perhaps out of genuine interest or perhaps as a final act of kindness offered his interest in her show – it was a moment which almost redeemed the rest but the above email from his wife put us back in our place of being a blind couple without any purpose or interest beyond –

– mommy?
– yes darling?
– you seem to be typing a lot more than I’m saying… i can’t wait till i can do this by myself. .
– me too, dear. me too.

Guide Dog FAQ by Igor GuideDog

 Can I pet you?

No, I’m working. Duh.

 

What is your name?

You talkin to me?!

 

Can I pet you now?

1 Strangers’ hands on me make me uncomfortable.

2 stop staring: unless you want to fight

3 and please, this constant chattering in silly voice is totally embarrassing for all.

 

Oh, please can I pet you?!

If, by chance, my mommy thinks you are worthy, she will introduce us and then you may give me a little pat if you must, and then run along or stay, whatever.

 

Do you bite?

Why do you think I have these big, ugly, nasty, teeth?!

 

Do you ever get to play?

Pretty much every waking moment when at home.

 

What do you like to play?

Chase After Kong Like a Mad Dog and Bring it to Mommy Throw it Again Game.

 

Do you like being a guide dog?

Yes! And According to wonderful trainer Sue at the Seeing Eye, I took to it right away and was super talented and enthusiastic from the start!

 

How long was your training?

Four months of formal guide dog training but before that I lived with a nice family who raised me from a 2 month old pup to be sociable and obedient.  When I began my formal guide dog training at The Seeing Eye I already knew the cues for sit, heel, down, etc.

 

How old are you?

I’ll be three in November.

 

How can you tell when it’s safe to cross the street??

This is complicated. You ready?

Ok.  so I don’t determine when to walk; I do not read (whatever that is), and I’m not so good at colors.  Rather, Mommy listens for parallel traffic and then gives the cue for forward.  Generally speaking – like 99percent of the time she is right.  (I love my mommy).  But sometimes she asks me to go and I refuse because there is a car turning in front of us or something, and then I get to do this thing called intelligent disobedience and pull or push her out of the way or simply refuse to budge.  This is exciting because when it happens, mommy gets very teary eyed and gives me lots of praise.

 

How do you know where to go?

Sadly, I can’t read mommy’s mind but, generally speaking if there is a place that we’ve been before, I will give mommy a little pause and a look to ask if we are going in again and she says yea or nay, but if it is a place I’ve never been then I have to wait for mommy to show me.

 

Now can I pet you?

Grrr!

First full day at doggy boot camp

 

Breakfast with blind people. Very loud.

Next, a “Juno” walk, wherein a simulated guide dog experience unfolds with trainer named Sue at harness front end (pretending to be dog named Juno), and me at harness backend (pretending not to be demoralized).  All the while, through the streets of Morristown, the head trainer watches to assess my skills with Juno, and to make sure that Sue’s pick for me is the right one.  This pick is supposed to remain a mystery till tomorrow afternoon, though Sue has hinted, not so subtly, that I am getting my heart’s desire – a large German Shepherd male – by saying things like “here is the elevator.  You and your dog won’t fit in there!” 

But Sue is a wiseass and there are no guarantees.

 

 

Lunch with blind people. Again, very loud, but it dawns on me that it is our little foursome – Sue’s group – who are particularly loud.  Let me just say that we have a lot of personality here.

After lunch we meet some dogs – one of which is mine.  It was all very hush hush – no names exchanged but love at first um, sight!  At least for me.  in fact only two of us out of Sue’s training group met their future pup today.  The official meeting and installation into our little dorm worlds happens tomorrow. 

They are very good at generating excitement and anticipation here at The Seeing Eye: Sue told us the first letter of our dogs’ names – mine starts with an “I” and my first guess was Ivan, but now I think it’s Isaac… I’ll know tomorrow. The only guy in Sue’s cohort is also getting paired with a German Shepherd with initial “I”, and, knowing that they name every puppy in the same litter with the same initial letter, we correctly guessed that our dogs are brothers.  Unfortunately his brother is a spazz while mine is perfect!

 

It was pretty cool being the eye of the hurricane: this dog named I—and I, sat calm and content whilst the soaring heart rates, heavy breathing, wrestling, scrambling, huffing and harrumphing swirled round and round us.

In those first few moments I wasn’t sure if he really was my dog, though I prayed that he was as he sat quietly by my side.  Then we heeled the dogs into the lunch room and as I sat Sue whispered in my ear, “so do you like him?  And I said, “it’s love at first sight – you can see that right?”  she gave me a kiss on the cheek and ran off to deal with the blood (for real!), sweat and (not so happy like mine) tears of the others…

 

In my room now with a glass of wine that I stole away with after fifteen minutes of a “wine & cheese party” – I’ve socialized with blind people enough for the day – I look forward to tomorrow almost in a swoon.

I Go Bearing Gifts

 

Leaving for doggy boot camp tomorrow.  Nervous and excited. Looking over my gifts.  I hope he/she likes them/me! Ah, arranged marriages…

 

Last time I went to The Seeing Eye (which was the first time I trained with a guide dog), I did not bring gifts.  This time I am bringing:

#1 Nylabone (oh how Millennium loved to gnaw on those!)

#2 plush toy with many squeaker features

#3 Frisbee

#4 material for sewing doggy blankey

#5 box of peanut butter cookies – hope they’re tasty, they are for training purposes (see below)

#6 3 clickers, several books worth of training tips and theory, a sincere desire to work hard, and some big plans

 

I’ve been reading a lot about training in these weeks leading up to doggy boot camp, something I wish I’d done last time.  In particular I’ve been learning about positive reinforcement training, or clicker training.  Its roots are based in the experiments of the often (and I think wrongly) vilified B.F. Skinner.  The most fun and amazing books that I’ve read so far are by Karen Pryor, who started using positive reinforcement training with the marine mammals at Sea Life Park in the 60’s.  It breaks my heart to think that there was another way of dealing with Millennium.  How many times did I correct him using the traditional methods of negative reinforcement, namely a “leash correction,” which is a quick hard tug on the choke chain.  This is what they taught me and I did not know any better, though admittedly it felt wrong.  They drilled it in that you must be the alpha dog and that of course dogs are quite rough with each other and that they have a much higher tolerance for pain, and how else to control a relatively large strong animal who cannot understand English, etc.  But of course you can’t put a choke chain around the neck of a dolphin or killer whale to get them to jump through hoops and so Pryor and others had to develop another way.  The things you can do using the clicker seem limited only by imagination and the physical abilities of the particular animal. 

Clicker trainers assert that they are opening a means of communication with their animals by establishing a fixed connection between the sound of the clicker (or whistle or whatever), the correct behavior and the reward to follow.  Once the animal understands that it is this or that precise behavior that is being rewarded and that other “wrong” guesses are not punished, the animals themselves become creative partners, or so the clicker gospel goes.  As of right now, I’m a naïve and hopeful believer.