It’s only been one week since Mike met Whitney and me at O’Hare, and in that short time my new 58-pound bouncing bundle of Golden Retriever/Labrador energy has successfully guided me to:
- the bank (three times!)
- the UPS store
- Hackney’s (three times!)
- my hair salon on Wabash
- Walgreen’s (once inside, she led me right to the pharmacy window, how’d she know?)
- Sandmeyer’s (Mike and I love Ulrich and Ellen, the owners of this wonderful neighborhood independent bookstore)
- Dearborn Park for a leisurely walk
- a succulent Solstice dinner party at our neighbors Jim & Janet’s groovy loft apartment (she turns into their doorway every time we pass it now, smart girl!), and
- the pool where I swim laps.
None of our walks have gone without a mistake or two (or five, or nine), and we are still working on our choreography, but we’ve been getting where we need to go, and returning home safely. “Good girl, Whitney!”
Whitney has never been to Chicago before, of course, so I am the one who tells her what direction to go to get our errands done. We travel one block, she stops at the curb. “Good girl, Whitney!” I say, then give her a direction. “Whitney, left!” She turns left, I tell her how smart she is, and we proceed to the next curb. “Atta girl, Whitney! Good girl!” I say, then give a direction. “Whitney, right!” Whitney turns right, and we’re off again.
Whitney loves getting outside and going to work. She is so enthusiastic, though, that sometimes when I command “Forward!” she forgets to stop when we get to the next curb! That’s when I step into my role as teacher. I give her a correction, either verbally or with the leash, then show her where she made her mistake.
Next, I bring her back to the curb, tell her to sit, tap the curb with my foot and praise her. “Good girl, Whitney! Here’s where you stop. Good girl!” We take a few steps backwards then, maybe two dog lengths, and we re-work the approach to the curb. Whitney almost always, always gets it right the second time. And when she does? I praise the bejeezus out of her. “Good girl, Whitney! Attagirl!” I rub her up. Her tail wags. “Good girl, Whitney. Good girl!” Whitney eats it up, and she rarely misses that curb again.
Praise is really what it’s all about for Seeing Eye dogs, and to that end, one thing The Seeing Eye urges graduates to do during our first two weeks at home is keep our new dogs attached to us. Literally. 24/7. So picture me now, working at my computer. Whitney is chewing her Nylabone, her leash looped around my ankle. Any time I stand up to head to the kitchen to warm up my coffee, Whitney looks up, stops chewing, and drops her beloved bone. “Whitney, heel.” Whitney walks at my side to the microwave. “Good dog, Whit.” When we get to the microwave, I give her another command. “Whitney, sit!” Whitney sits. “Good girl, Whitney!” I want her to stay there while the coffee warms up. “Whitney, rest.” She does. “Atta girl, Whitney. Good girl!
Having a dog on leash 24 hours a day is strangely exhausting, and it sure is tedious. Understanding the method behind the 24/7 attachment madness makes it easier to execute: having them at the end of the leash all the time gives us plenty of chances to tell them how great they are. If Whitney sits when I tell her to, I praise her. When she heals, lies down, rests on command, she is praised. On the other hand, if Whit misbehaves (sniffs inside a garbage can, nibbles at crumbs on the kitchen floor) I can feel her movement through the leash and catch her in the act. We can’t see our Seeing Eye dogs, but if they are only a leash away while they’re being naughty, we can correct them.
All of this transfers to our work outside, too. I praise, and often pet, Whitney anytime she stops at a curb, or at the top of the stairs to the subway. If she messes up, I correct her and give her a chance to do it right. And if she succeeds the second time, guess what? She gets praised!
And so, as much as we Seeing Eye graduates would like to think it’s clear sailing after our three weeks training in Morristown, the work continues, and in some ways really starts, once we get home. I’m looking at the months ahead of us as a ten-year investment in Whitney, and in our work as a team. So while having Whitney on leash all the time has been tedious (for both of us!) it’s well worth the investment. The first week at home has really flown by, and before you know it, it’ll be December 29, and then watch out, world, Whit and I will be unleashed (at home, at least)! Right now, though, it’s time to warm my coffee. “Whitney, heal. Good girl!”