When we began looking into ways to rehabilitate Tajji, at least one source noted a tendency for a dog to backslide for “three to seven days” in the relatively complex training required. Two weeks ago we noted something like this in a rebound in Tajji’s reactivity to other dogs, culminating a couple of days ago in her “going off” at an empty yard where she frequently sees a reactive GSD, then nowhere in evidence. About a week ago she added barking at pedestrians at some distance. Despite the warning, her regression was a bit disheartening after the more rapid progress of the previous five weeks.
Enlightenment followed last Tuesday, in conversation with one of Tajji’s former owners. Deborah and I had misunderstood the order of events, believing, as stated in previous posts, that Tajji’s disorderly behavior was the result of not knowing how to behave outside a service harness. Instead, it turns out that the barking and lunging had developed while she was working. Of course, her blind person had little or no warning, and it got so bad that people were crossing the street to avoid her. Her owners worked with more than one professional trainer, but nothing helped, and so she was retired.
In short, she had a nervous breakdown.
Putting this discovery together with what we’ve been learning about reactive dogs and our observations of Tajji’s nature, we’ve come up with a hypothesis that goes something like this:
German Shepherd Dogs are the epitome of what Grisha Stewart calls “information dogs,” dogs that really need to know everything that’s going on. Tajji is a specialized sub-breed of GSD in which this highly developed awareness has been further honed and coupled with excellent vision. The result is a kind of hyper-vigilance, which is what’s needed for the demanding task of maneuvering a blind person through a first-world environment.
At the same time, her training, although entirely positive, was, in the words of Tajji’s sighted co-owner, “the most unnatural thing you can imagine for a dog.” This training takes a highly-social pack animal with a rich real-time postural and positional “language” combined with one of the best noses on the planet, and either re-channels or suppresses all of the behaviors natural to such an animal to the end of enabling independence for the blind. (On a side note, this makes it all the more impressive that almost two-thirds of Fidelco-bred dogs graduate as seeing eye dogs—testimony to both good breeding and good training.)
Now add the fact that dogs are natural mind-readers with an inherited understanding of human body language, yet working with the blind means the dog’s main human can only “hear” a fraction of what the dog says. So the relationship is fundamentally one in which the human is “speaking” clearly, even loudly, but not hearing at all well, and often misunderstanding even what it hears. I think most of us have been in similar situations for at least short periods of time, and know how frustrating and exhausting it can be.
Now imagine what it’s like doing that most of your waking hours—and far more of them than you’re used to—for almost eight years. That’s the life of a seeing eye dog. Tajji would have had to retire soon anyway just because of her age and the physical demands of the job, so neither she, Fidelco, or her owners have failed in any real sense.
There’s of course no way to know why she broke down when she did, but we think there may have been some contributing factors here specific to Tajji’s situation. Her signals are very subtle, so subtle that even with our experience we were missing some of them. You might say that she whispers much of the time. Yet she has no hesitation in telling you what she wants, to the point of what might be called stubbornness. We’ve no doubt she was signaling her increasing distress at whatever was happening with her for some time, but even had her sighted co-owner been more of a dog-speaker, those signals could easily have been overlooked for some time.
Part of that distress could have been due to a broken carnassial tooth (the big shearing ones): a slab fracture that left a fingernail-sized chip of enamel pivoting in the gum. This happened in 2011, and there’s a great deal of tartar built up and some evident sensitivity. For instance, when she plays tug, she will try a “catch bite” (opening the mouth while lunging to get a better grip on something) and then let go immediately. I can only imagine what working for a shouting deaf person while dealing with a toothache would be like. That will be taken care of next week.
In the meantime, Tajji surprised me today with a flawless walk around the block, encountering a jogger, two pedestrians, two cars being parked with people emerging, a truck driver making a delivery, and the dreaded empty GSD yard with only the slightest arousal at any given point, quick relaxation and orientation on me, and the self-chosen execution of several different calming behaviors (eg, sniffing). Part of this may be the natural up-and-down of training, and part of it may be how we’re adjusting our approach. Deborah will talk about that next week.