Dora Learns Her Way To Giant Eagle

At Giant Eagle

At Giant Eagle with Dora

There’s a Giant Eagle grocery store 1 mile from my house. It’s mostly a straight shot, once you get out of my neighborhood, except for the very end of the route. This is where it gets a bit tricky for a dog, and it’s the place where my previous dog never got it. For that reason, I’ve been very careful to introduce this route well after Dora and I had established our relationship. I also prepared myself better this time for success with the training session.

First, I asked my friend Eve to help me with this project. Before we left the house, I engaged Dora in a short clicker session, while Eve observed in amusement. It is pretty funny to watch a dog get so excited about dinging a bell with her nose and then getting a treat, which in this case was just a piece of kibble. But a kibble out of hand is even more exciting than out of a bowl.

Next we drove to a spot about 2/3 of the way, since Dora already knows that part, and we left the car there. The first part of the new route is to cross the interstate on a bridge. It’s terrifying to me, but a wall prevents Dora from seeing the traffic below us, so she marched on fearlessly. We then have to cross 2 side streets, not a problem, but they need to be observed with a full stop and a wait until I give her the command to cross. Now here comes the first really tricky part. When we turn toward the parking lot, we have to cross 2 islands. In order to execute this route to the door of the store, the dog needs to not wander into the parking lot but to stay on course and take me to each island. I have absolutely no vision, so it is essential for the dog to do this right. On our training session yesterday, I came prepared with treats for each success. Before I asked Dora to guide me to each island, I took Eve’s arm, and I heeled Dora and treated her when we got to each island. Then it was her turn to do the guiding. It took a few tries, because she remembered that once upon a time, we had parked in that section of the parking lot, so she probably was looking for the car. Just a guess, but dogs do remember even one occurrence of an event. After mastering the 2 islands, we strode ahead to the door. Again, I took Eve’s arm, and she led us to the customer service desk, which involved making a wide left turn around a display and then another left turn to the counter. Then, I pulled out the clicker gear, and we practiced targeting that counter. Soon, a little group of onlookers had gathered to watch this process with fascination. No problem. Dora was focused on those kibble treats, and she was determined to please me. Finally, it was time to start from the door and find our way to the counter on our own, with Eve trailing behind my right shoulder. I have to congratulate Eve for not interfering with Dora’s learning process. On this final trip, I suspected that she had gotten distracted and was way off base, but I hung in there with her, and Eve never said a word. In a couple of seconds, Dora zoomed around to the left and came to a screeching halt at the counter. As if it had been planned, there was a cart in the way so she had to take a detour, but she got us there.

The last part of this training trip was to navigate back across the parking lot, crossing both of those islands. Because the first one is a little offset from the sidewalk in front of the store, it’s a little trickier. We have to cross at an angle. Here’s where my shoulders have to be exactly in the right position, before I give her the forward command. After we’ve done this a few times, she’ll do it on her own, but for right now, everything has to be just so, for success. After a few more practice runs, I’ll be able to say, “Let’s go shopping,” and I’ll have to hold on for dear life.


What About Pippen?

“What about me? Asked Pippen, who stood in the middle of the living room, wagging her tail at the strangers who had come in the middle of the night. “What are you doing with my mommy? Why are you taking her away? What am I supposed to do here by myself?”

The paramedics were gentle as they probed my stomach. They smiled at Pippen and told her everything was going to be okay. I was off to the hospital for what turned out to be an emergency appendectomy, but Pippen needed to stay behind. Yes, she would have been allowed to come with me, except for the time when I was getting a cat scan and when I was in the OR, but it really would have been awkward. Unless you have a family member or a friend to take care of the dog’s needs for the duration of the hospital visit, it makes much more sense to leave her behind, providing there would be someone to take care of her at home. That night when I was whisked off to the hospital, I was hoping I would be admitted, so I immediately started thinking of how I was going to handle making sure Pippen was fed and let outside, at least for that day. It’s hard to make these kinds of plans, when an appendectomy wasn’t on my agenda. She trusts me though, and while I’m sure she was sad, she also knew that eventually someone would come to rescue her. And he did.

At 7:00 that morning, after I had been admitted and it was determined that I needed surgery, I called my son, and my worries were over. Since Steve has a key to my house, he came home on his lunch hour and took care of Pippen before coming to the hospital to check on me. Then that night, before coming to see me, he took her to his house, where she spent the night comfortably by his side. Who knows what goes through a dog’s mind? We can only guess that she was confused and concerned. She has had to spend the night without me before, so she might have assumed this was one of those times when she wasn’t invited to go, like when I go on a cross country ski trip.

There are dog guide users who would never consider leaving their dog behind, no matter what, if for no other reason than that by law, they are permitted wherever the public is allowed. They also might not have anyone they can ask to take care of the dog. I am so grateful that I did, because over and over that day, I kept wondering what on earth I would do if Pippen had had to come with me. She would have been in the way, in the tight quarters of the examining rooms. She wouldn’t be able to lead me anywhere, i.e. do her job, because I was wheeled around on a bed, and besides, I was in a great deal of pain. Who would have taken her outside? What would they have done with her while I was in surgery?

When I had my thyroid removed two years ago, my daughter was with me. (This surgery had been planned). I brought Pippen with me to the hospital, but Kara took care of her all day while I was in the operating room and recovery. Then she took her home at the end of the day, after Pippen could see that I was okay. Kara said that Pippen was actually a help to other families as they waited for their loved ones to come out of surgery. Pippen has never met a stranger and is always eager to wag her tail and smile at you. Families wer cheered when they saw her sweet little face and happy demeanor.

She was one happy dog when we were reunited after this 32-hour ordeal at the hospital, but she was also a little disappointed. I think she thought it was kind of fun having a sleep-over at Steve’s, and now it was back to work as usual. But dogs thrive on routine, so we’re both glad to be back in the groove.

Can I Pet Your Dog?

Whenever my guide dog, Pippen, and I encounter someone in a public place, we are greeted with one of two reactions—“Oh my gosh, a dog!” or “Can I pet your dog?” Today, I hope to answer some of your questions about guide dogs.

The generic term is dog guide, but it’s okay to say guide dog. However, not all dog guides are Seeing Eye ® dogs. There are many dog guide schools in the united States and many others around the world. Only those, like Pippen, who are trained at The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey can be called Seeing Eye dogs. There is a dog guide school in Columbus, and the dogs who are trained there are Pilot Dogs. There are also other service dogs trained in the Columbus area, but for today, I’ll just be talking about what dog guides do for people who are blind, and what you should do when you encounter one.

Let me first tell you what Pippen is not. She is not a guard dog. She is not trained to protect me from an attack, but keep in mind that she is very loyal to me, and if she senses danger, her canine instincts might take over. She is, however, trained to protect me from danger as I walk down the street, go to meetings, shop, or travel. By that, I mean that she guides me around obstacles, hesitates at uneven sidewalks, stops at curbs, and at the top or bottom of a stairway. She wears a specially designed harness with a stiff handle that I grasp in my left hand. She walks just slightly ahead of me, so I can tell by her body language what to expect.

When a person approaches Pippen and calls to her or pets her, her attention is drawn away from me, and that could be the very moment when she really should be paying attention to where we are going and what could be in the way. Her attention must be on me at all times, even when it doesn’t look like she is doing much but lying still under the table. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has interrupted my meal at a restaurant wanting to pet or talk to my dog, who seems to be doing nothing but looking adorable. Yes, she is adorable, but if she thinks someone is going to pet or feed her, she is up and out from under the table. Speaking of feeding a dog guide, it is a hard and fast rule to never do so without the permission of the handler. This is a very strong distraction from the dog’s attention, and it might lead to illness or untimely need to empty. That’s dog guide users’ speak for go potty or whatever you may say.

One of the most commonly asked questions is “How does she know when to cross the street?” The answer is that she doesn’t. Remember, she is a dog, and although she is smart and obedient, she can’t make a judgement such as how fast a car is coming toward us, and she doesn’t read traffic signals. I’m the one who makes the decision whether or not it’s safe to cross the street, by listening.

Pippen and I have put in hundreds of miles on the sidewalks of Gahanna, and again, I’d like to have a dollar for every time someone’s dog has run out of its yard to greet Pippen. All but a few have been friendly, and one even attacked her, but in either case, she has been distracted from her job. Did you know that it is a misdemeanor to allow your dog to distract a dog guide when she is working? Unless your dog is completely under your control, it is actually breaking the law when it interferes with a dog guide’s work.

When we get home, the first thing we do is take off my shoes and take off her harness. When she is out of harness, she is just like any other pet. She has a fenced in yard and about a dozen plush toys. She loves to cuddle, and she loves a tummy rub. She does not get table scraps, but she enjoys her dog food and lives for milk bones. Her favorite words are “Want a cookie?” That even beats “Want to go for a walk?”

If you would like a free presentation for your home-schooled children, Scout Group, or service club, contact me.