Today is International Guide Dog Day! I’ve been working on this post for awhile (read: since October), but what better day to finish it and share?
This is my buddy Murray, on his third birthday last July. I took this picture of him, a smiley-looking Black Lab in his brown leather Guide Dogs for the Blind harness sitting at a bus stop, before Murray and I were basically best friends—I’ll get to that in a minute.
Since before I started coaching goalball last October, I’ve spent a lot of time with my friends Stephen and Gerry, and their Guide Dog partners. I know better than anybody that dogs are cute and furry, and I’ve learned that they even more attractive to people when they’re working dogs and are as smart as they are adorable. As such, I’ve become that person who tells people “Please don’t pet his dog, he is working,” or informing the well meaning people who talk to Murray saying “I won’t pet him I know he’s working,” that talking to him or waving to him can be just as distracting as being touched. The guys don’t mind me doing this: they’ve both been at this for close to a decade—Gerry—or two—Steve, and I get it: it gets tiring. One thing I find never gets old, though, is hearing parents explain to their kids that Murray is a special puppy with important work to do, and that the kids are not allowed to pet him.
Me with Steve and Murray a few weeks ago
Every person with a service dog will be different with whether or not they allow interaction with their pup while they are working—but if you really can’t resist your desire to pet the dog, ask first, and ask every time. Respect it if they say no: the dog, just like the handler, can have an off day too, where being touched may be more distracting than usual. The answer might always be no, or, it might vary—a crowded bus stop may be a no, as to not invite a parade of people, whereas if the dog is laying calmly under a restaurant table, it could be a yes (…that is, if anybody even notices the dog is there!).
And, just because someone with a guide dog is visually impaired does not mean they can’t tell when you’re petting their dog—after working with a dog for any length of time, handlers are super in tune with their dog’s movements and behaviours—they will usually be able to tell!
Murray, who is from Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, CA, stops to say hello to a Canadian Guide Dog in the mall. (The Canadian yellow lab is a plastic donation collection receptacle!)
Working dogs in harnesses are smart and well behaved. They have important work to do. I get it: yup, for some reason, being in uniform makes the cute-factor for these pups go up about 1000% (don’t get me started on the rain jackets). It sounds ridiculous, but imagine if you went to work and all day dealt with: “Oh, a human! Here human, hi human!” all day long. You’d get distracted, too (and God, I hope nobody tries to pet you at work…). Praise and treats are how these puppies are rewarded for their hard work—working dogs are fed specific amounts at specific times of the day, and while some handlers will allow you to give a Milk Bone to their dog if they’re behaving well in a coffee shop, often the answer will be no. Just like petting or otherwise interacting with the dog: ask first. If you’d really like to give the pup a treat, you can always ask if the handler would like it to give the dog later—the dog will be just as happy with your gift when they’re not working!
The handler always sets the rules for working dogs. This enables them the authority they need to keep their service pup working hard and focused on their job—to keep both halves of the partnership safe.
Here comes the confession, regarding my friendship with Murray.
I am a rule-breaker.
I am that person who talks to Murray and pets him when he is in harness—when he is working. The game changer is this:
I have permission. Each person with a service dog sets the rules differently about interaction with their dog—based on what is best for them and with how the dog can handle this. The way Murray responds to me is different than he responds to other people, because he has consistently been allowed to behave this way around me—he’s a smart puppy, after all. My points here are that:
a) Steve has chosen not to correct Murray for being a little silly around me or for his response to me, and
b) We are fully aware I am a potential distraction to Murray.
Murray is serious about his work—even when he’s heeling (walking on-leash on Steve’s left side, kind of like pseudo-working?) as I do the work as a sighted guide, Murray rarely does so much as look at me, and focuses on his work even though I am calling the shots. He’s still in harness, after all! We know Murray may be distracted by me—he is a dog, after all—so it is deliberate that I guide Steve 99% of the time when I am in Murray’s sight, to minimize most risks (I say most. I mean, I do on rare occasion bump Steve into an obstacle because I haven’t moved my arm back quick enough, or sometimes Steve does not listen when I say “two steps down” and miraculously does not get injured after flying down two steps… I do try to pause before descending now! Also the dog is smarter at being able to tell if branches are Steve’s height than I am.)
When I meet up with Steve and Murray (usually signalled by Murray starting to wiggle happily, wag his tail more forcefully, or pick up speed!), I will approach, say hi to Steve, give the wiggly, happy puppy a pat and a hello, usually let Murray give my hand a lick, and then I’ll move to Steve’s right (as the dogs are trained to heel on the left). Murray then ignores me when we’re walking, aside from when we have to do a u-turn and he’s forced to say hello (I presume he’s thinking “Human, I know where I am going, figure it out!” and shaking his puppy head.)
Fair trade, I think. I occasionally use Murray as a pillow (below), for all the times he does the same to me (above).
It’s been about 7 months now since Murray decided he and I should be besties. The running joke now is that I’m trying to steal Steve’s dog. Back in October, Murray got sneaky for the first time—he did a little Downward Dog-esque stretch, and moved toward the middle of the table that Steve and I were sitting across from each other at—nothing unusual, the dog likes his yoga. A few minutes later, though, he did it again… this time turning his whole body around to sit beside me, facing Steve.
Laughing, I told Steve that his dog had ditched him to come sit with me. He reached down to of course not find his dog at his side, but rather a good foot away, beside me. I laughed when he tried to hand me the leash, and didn’t take it.
Steve’s picture of Murray sneaking away to sit beside me, top, and below, my selfie with sneaky Murray.
Just look at that face… He knows he’s up to something 😉
It became a pattern: Starbucks after goalball (picture below)—or any coffee shop, sitting on the gym floor before goalball (out of harness). As he learned Steve wasn’t going to correct him, he became less stealthy and would just stand up and turn himself around—Steve would just laugh and shake his head.
It’s not like I let Murray get away with anything, either—nor had I even fed him a single treat when he started sneaking over to me. I love him to bits, and especially since we’ve bent the rules here, I’m just as strict on catching him doing things he shouldn’t and verbally correcting him with a “Murray, no”, or giving him a little tug on his collar if he goes after floor food, or licks his paws/boots/fur too much, or tries to sniff random people’s shoes (he has a bit of a foot/shoe fetish, that dog).
Shoe fetish, however, does not mean Murray enjoys his boots. He tries to lose them often—probably so all the “Oh, look, that dog has boots!” people stop discussing his boots.
I’m lucky that I get to have guide dog friends (their owners are pretty okay too, I guess ;)). So, as much as I love Murray-face and as much as it’s obvious he loves me, he knows when he’s working and that I’m not going to let him get away with much besides choosing a different place under the table (or, licking my hand depending on the circumstances… there are just some places that it’s easier to let him slobber all over my hand versus trying to prevent him from sniffing/licking at every gross thing on the ground… Steve agrees!).
Montreal in January. Nah, I don’t spoil this dog at all. Except I did make him move to the bottom/other side of the bed because, hey, that’s where I sleep.
Someone looks comfy… Complete with a towel blanket and everything.
And, while Steve has yet to go on a trip without Murray and me since Murray and I have become buddies, he knows he’s got another puppy-sitter. Although, on our last few hotel stays, Murray has been my roommate—the first time, it was just easier with me rooming by myself and Steve being with two other guys, the second was just for fun, and the third was this past weekend in Quebec City—Gerry had his new guide dog, Brody, too, and though well-behaved, the two dogs get kind of silly…
Murray crashed out on my hotel bed this past weekend. It took him a bit to decide hie did not, in fact, want the pillow.
By the way, Murray knows me as Small Fry, not Kerri (useful trick: Steve can ask Murray “Where’s Small Fry?” and he’ll come find me)… and he was perfectly happy to overtake Small Fry’s bed this weekend. (That’s what I get for, after learning Steve did not mind puppy going on the bed, opting to share my bed with a 75-pound Black Lab…)
This, in Toronto, is when he actually chose a good spot and not the middle of the bed. Beggin bacon bribery may have occurred this past weekend when he decided he wanted the whole bed…
I mean, other than that, I don’t mind—he’s a pretty good excuse to spend 5 more minutes laying in bed in the morning, as when I give him any indication I’m awake and moving, Murray seems perfectly content to engage in a brief yoga pose with his front paws to my right and back paws to my left, and then end by resting on top of me…
Murray sometimes decides that Small Fry is comfier than the bed. This often leads to me texting Steve to inform him that sorry, puppy will not let me get out of bed.
All in a day’s work, right? If only he actually motivated me to do yoga with him…
You think you’re going somewhere? You’re silly, Small Fry. My paw will keep you here.
That’s my story about my buddy Guide Dog Murray. (Your friends with service dogs, and service dog friends may vary.)
Want to read more about Murray? You can follow him on Twitter, @GuideDogMurray. And, as a thanks for reading all the way to the bottom… Here’s Burger Face (for a period of time around Halloween, Murray responded to “Burger Face”. Silly.)