This Canine Has Charm Plus a Mind of His Own
My entire wardrobe consists of clothing of a strange black, beige and white fuzzy tweed. More people greet him and remember his name than mine. A strategically placed wet nose informs me that His Royal Lowness wants to be fed, walked or paid attention to.
My year is now divided into the following seasons: Shedding #1, Flea Time, Shedding #2, and: “Hurry up and go already — it’s #!!%$*! cold out here!” My agenda notes such important occasions as Duncan’s birthday, vaccination time and heartworm season. Christmas entails a trip to the pet store where Duncan picks out his own gifts, to be gnawed or squeaked until I attempt to hang myself with tinsel.
Does this mixed-breed guide dog with eyebrows really run my life? Well, let’s just say he is egocentric, is success-oriented, and has me wrapped around his little dew claw. So what if my best friend happens to be 50 pounds of self-assured, gusto-grabbing attitude, concealed in deceptively cute canine packaging?
Duncan is my second guide dog since I lost my vision in 1985. My first was an exceptional chocolate Labrador retriever named Sheena. She died of congestive heart failure in 1993 after having been my constant companion in work and play for almost nine years. I haven’t managed to stop missing her yet.
After Sheena’s death, I waited four months before I felt ready to return to Leader Dogs for the Blind in Michigan for a “replacement.” I knew that my new dog wouldn’t (and couldn’t) be another Sheena — she left some pretty big paw prints to fill. When Duncan’s leash was placed in my hand he was, of course, oblivious to my emotional baggage. He was just happy to be out on parole from behind bars at the “big house” (the kennel). Little did he know that it was a work-release program!
Duncan quite preferred life on the outside, and so he immediately set out to win me over. It didn’t take long. It soon became clear that Duncan was not going to be my dog — I was going to be his human.
As he was only my second guide dog, I didn’t know what to expect during the transition period. Learning to work with a new dog meant getting to know and trust him.
Intellectually I knew that each animal is an individual with its own personality, strengths and weaknesses, but it was difficult not to compare Duncan to his beloved predecessor. Sheena and I had been a team for so long and were so familiar with every nuance of one another’s behaviour that we worked together like a well-oiled machine. Adjusting to Duncan was a little like switching from driving automatic to using a stick shift, and it took a few months before the ride became smooth.
I quickly realized that this was one very smart pooch, ready to challenge me for the coveted Alpha dog position in our inter-species pack. I had to bone up on my disciplinary techniques in order to earn his respect.
Unlike all the other guide dogs I have ever known or heard about, Duncan is never eager to work. He’d rather be an unemployed mutt, sponging off the owner-pet system and free to pursue normal dog stuff like sniffing trees, chasing cats and scarfing garbage. But Duncan knows the difference between being on versus off duty. Duncan is free to play, socialize and express his inner puppy when he’s not working.
Out of uniform, Duncan is a very social creature, compelled by instinct and hormones to urinate on anything and everything any other dog has previously christened. Every pole, parking meter, hydrant and patch of grass is a website on the doggie Internet — and Duncan sends a lot of P-mail.
Duncan is rarely ambivalent about anything. His “likes” include children (especially their sticky-sweet hands and faces), terrorizing small animals, and the occasional amorous encounter with a sofa cushion. He hates baths, having his tail brushed, and getting his paws wet. If there is a way for both of us to avoid a puddle, Duncan will gladly guide me around it. If, however, one of us must get our feet wet, it ain’t going to be him! (In his defense, I am the one wearing shoes.)
At five years old, Duncan is better travelled than many humans. Economy or first class, five minutes or seven hours, Duncan takes it all in stride. He’s been a guest in dozens of hotels, motels and even a cockpit (Captain Richards was a dog lover). Under my desk in an office, or at my feet in a restaurant, Duncan can be as inconspicuous as a folded white cane.
When asked why I use a guide dog instead of a cane, I reply that it is a question of personal preference. Sure, I can cite some technical reasons: canes can only detect obstacles that are low to the ground, travelling with a dog is faster once the route is familiar, etc. But the emotional reasons — the love and companionship — are the real scale-tippers in my decision.
Yes, Duncan has to be walked, fed and brushed, and occasionally throws up on the rug at 3:00 a.m., but this seems a small price to pay for what he gives me in return. So am I really spending too much time with my dog? No, 24 hours a day seems just about perfect to us.
(Tina Mintz is a freelance writer, training consultant on disability issues, and stand-up comic. She lives in Montreal, Quebec.)