Life with a Retired Seeing-Eye Dog: First Impressions

We’re nearing the two-week mark with Tajji, the retired seeing-eye dog we’ve adopted. That’s an observational milestone; next week we’ll report to our trainer and decide with her on a course of action for teaching Tajji how to be just a dog. Along the way I’ve found myself constructing “just-so” stories about the difference I see between Tajji, bred specifically for seeing-eye service,  and Oka, bred as a sport dog. (His sire was the world champion in Schutzhund, the sport that tests the dog’s adherence to the breed standard.)

A sable German Shepherd Dog lying alertly in front of yellow-blossomed acacias

Tajji relaxes on a walk while the acacias celebrate Spring

I call them just-so stories because I have not yet spoken to the Fidelco Foundation, her breeder and trainer, about their seeing-eye service “take” on that standard. So these are just my observations based on experience with four other GSDs of varying quality and adherence to the breed standard, and the  little I know about what seeing-eye work demands of a dog.

Physically, there’s no visible difference in the phenotype. Tajji is a classic sable (or grau) German Shepherd Dog bitch from what Fidelco calls “Bavarian” working stock, weighing in at about 65 pounds and standing about 22 inches at the withers. Other than being twenty pounds lighter than Oka, she could be his sister. Most noticeable is the strong convex curve of her back, the invariable sign of a working GSD lineage, where permission to breed requires a 20-kilometer run: almost half a marathon!

Most seeing-eye dog kennels have given up on GSDs, citing temperamental and genetic (e.g., hip dysplasia) problems. My suspicion is that the real problem was reliance on dogs from American show stock, where the breed standard established by Max von Stephanitz in 1899 is honored more in the breach and focuses to an unhealthy extent on the unique angulation of the GSD hindquarters, to the detriment of its stamina and longevity, not to mention its psychology. Fidelco started with German working lines, so they didn’t build their kennel on sand.

It’s in temperament and the expression of various GSD psychological traits that I see some very interesting contrasts that suggest just how different a Schutzhund and a seeing-eye GSD need to be.

The foundation is the same. The official GSD standard says this about temperament: “The German Shepherd Dog must be well-balanced (with strong nerves) in terms of character, self-assured, absolutely natural and (except for a stimulated situation) good-natured as well as attentive and willing to please. He must possess instinctive behaviour, resilience and self-assurance in order to be suitable as a companion, guard, protection, service and herding dog.” On their web site, Fidelco boiis their requirements down to “intelligence, temperament, stamina and stability.”

By either standard, Tajji appears to fit the bill, especially the “good natured” and “willing to please” parts. She is far “softer” than Oka, meaning she needs only slight correction most of the time; simply tone of voice is usually enough. One notable difference in her definition of “attentive” is that it didn’t include looking into her handler’s eyes, as it does for a sport dog. No surprise there, but she’s rapidly learning that behavior, which is critical to bringing a dog down from a stimulated situation or “display” as modern trainers call it.

I say appears, for, as Deborah noted in her post last week, Tajji doesn’t know how to behave as “just a dog,” and so, for instance, she will get herself into a “stimulated situation” all on her own: for instance, when encountering another dog while she herself is on a leash. At that point her essential independence asserts itself, for she has been trained to make split-second decisions on her own; for instance, instantly dragging her blind person backwards out of the path of a car.

In a word, Tajji is “hypervigilant” compared to Oka, a dramatic difference that expresses itself in several behavioral patterns. One of these is the first thing I noticed: the resting position of her ears. A dog’s ears are almost infallible indicators of its mood, and an important means of communication, especially in dogs with upright ears, the ancestral default. With Oka, as with most dogs of stable temperament, the auricles faced softly forwards when he was relaxed. Not so with Tajji: her ears are  turned orthogonal to the long axis of her head and slightly arched inwards. This is the “omnidirectional microphone” setting for dogs, an alert 3-D awareness of sounds that enables them to react very quickly to any stimulus. Only when Tajji  is asleep do her ears relax into the “normal” position.

Another dramatic difference from Oka is Tajji’s vision, which makes this hypervigilance even more problematic. About 30% of GSDs are nearsighted, so they react mostly to movement and what birders call giss at any significant distance. That can be surprisingly discriminating, but not, I think, sufficient for a seeing-eye dog. Tajji’s vision appears to be quite sharp, as she alerts on dogs and people more than 100 yards away. Oka didn’t even notice them at that range.

Fortunately, she is considerably less prey-driven. She enjoys chasing (but not returning, yet) a ball, and a short game of tug, but they do not induce the almost trance-like ecstasy these activities induced in Oka. She notes and then ignores squirrels, which Oka would chase enthusiastically, and is mostly indifferent to the laser pointer, which Oka preferred above all things. For Tajji, food is paramount, which makes her far more easily trained; a Schutzhund dog like Oka works mostly in prey drive, in which the dog is more distractible. (Prey drive also makes accommodation with cats more difficult. Here Tajji is making splendid progress; Deborah will report next week on Tajji’s incredibly swift socialization with the cats, which is mostly about learning to move slowly.)

Finally, in her reaction to people Tajji is vividly different from Oka, who was the very definition of aloof: fundamentally well-intentioned but not particularly interested in interacting with new people once they’ve been categorized. Oka was quite aloof, in line with the standard. Tajji doubtless was even more aloof in harness, but on a leash or loose she is an over-excited jumper and kisser. This difference is redoubled in her relationship to her two new “monkeys,” from whom she is much less independent than Oka was, and less willing to be separated from us when we’re in the house. Two monkeys: bliss; one monkey, OK; no monkeys, unacceptable, the door must open. We haven’t noticed any separation anxiety when we are both gone; she seems willing to just hang out much as Oka did..

What is emerging for me, then, is a portrait of a dog who is very aware of her surroundings, familiar with a wide range of situations, and prepared to assess and act on a situation very quickly on her own. She is extremely trainable as well as intelligent (those are two different things), and used to working on an extremely intimate basis with her handler. She is very much a dog whom one must approach as a moral agent, a being who can make choices. In short, a different expression of the essential nature of the German Shepherd Dog, a different balance of innate behaviors designed to facilitate one of the hardest jobs a dog can undertake. What a joy and privilege it is to be given an intimate new perspective on my favorite breed!


About Dave Trowbridge

Dave Trowbridge has been writing high-tech marketing copy for almost thirty years. This has made him an expert in what he calls “pulling stuff out of the cave of the flying monkeys,” so science fiction comes naturally. He abandoned corporate life in 2007 — actually, it abandoned him — but not before attaining the rank of Dark Lord of Documentation, a title which still appears on his business card and serves to identify clients he’d rather not work with (the ones who don’t laugh). He much prefers the godlike powers of a science fiction author (hah!) to troglodyte status in dark corporate mills, and the universe is slowly coming around to his point of view. Dave is currently laboring over the second edition of the space-opera series Exordium with his co-author Sherwood Smith, and looking forward to writing more stories in that universe. He lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his writer wife and fellow BVC member, Deborah J. Ross, and a tri-lingual German Shepherd Dog responsible for three cats. When not writing, Dave may be found wrangling vegetables—both domesticated and feral — in the garden.


Life with a Retired Seeing-Eye Dog: First Impressions — 6 Comments

  1. You can SEE the alertness in her face and position. I hope she can learn that there are times she can be “off-duty.” It sounds like the joy and challenge of Tajji will be in the right proportions. Very happy for you and Deborah–and Tajji!

  2. I worry about service dogs. They provide such an invaluable relationship to their people, but at the cost to much of their doggy nature. It’s lovely to see this retiree getting to have the rest of her life in doggy bliss.

    • So true! That will be another post. Perhaps the most visible cost, although one that weighs more heavily on the humans involved than the dog, is the guaranteed loss of her family at least three times before she dies: taken from her mother, as are all dogs, taken from her foster family, and finally, taken from her owner. Tajji does not know, and never will, that she will never see her blind person again. He does, and the leave-taking was quite poignant.

  3. Pingback: Where’s the On-Off Switch on This Dog? | Book View Cafe Blog