The Tajji Diaries: Learning to Play

Deborah and Tajji rompingOne of the joys of providing a retirement home for our new-to-us seeing eye dog, Tajji, is watching her re-discover the behaviors of a puppy. For most of her adult life, Tajji performed a job so difficult that it’s beyond the ability of most dogs. Seeing eye guide work is highly unnatural for dogs. They must learn to be visually vigilant and to scan for obstacles well above their height; what is perhaps more demanding is that when in harness they are not allowed to explore the world of smell, a dog’s most vivid sense, or to interact with other dogs. In effect, they work blind and dumb.

Now Tajji’s work is re-engaging with the natural world of dogs. Whenever possible, we let her sniff the “bulletin board” left by other dogs (and other creatures – we live in a rural area, so she’s also smelling raccoon, skunk, squirrel, bobcat, coyote, and most likely mountain lion, as well as the various domestic cats and dogs on the block).

We’re also learning how to play together. Our last few dog, also a German Shepherd Dogs, had high prey drive. He would run after anything that moved and when that drive was engaged, would prefer to chase rather than to receive food treats. Tajji, like all dogs, notices movement, but she is less captivated by it. She will chase a ball in a field, but we get the feeling the primary joy is just the freedom to run wherever she likes. At first, she wouldn’t bring the ball back. I wonder if that wasn’t in her behavioral repertoire or if it felt too much like work, like having to do what her handler commanded. We dealt with the issue by bringing lots of balls to the field. She’d run after one and then play “keep-away;” when she’d begin to slow down, we’d throw a second ball, she’d chase and keep-away that one while we retrieved the first. We didn’t force her to obey. The goal was play, not training. You could almost hear the gears turn in her mind as she became more willing – of her own free choice – to deliver the ball back to her monkey when she wanted it thrown again. Now she mostly brings it back as opposed to never. She has also figured out how to play fetch in the house by presenting us with one of her stuffed toys while we are at the dinner table. Since we wouldn’t get up and chase her, she came closer and closer to us. When one of us could reach the toy where she dropped it, we’d throw it into the living room, where she’d bound after it with gusto. Now, more often than not, she will bring the toy to our hands. And she lets us know she’s had enough simply by not bringing the toy back.

She has other things to chase besides balls. I’ve blogged previously about how we introduced her to our two dog-savvy cats. They managed to find mutually intelligible body language, although I’m sure each considers the other species extremely stupid. Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before our male cat had figured out how to get Tajji to chase him safely. Our house is full of places for a cat to jump or go under and be out of dog reach. He runs, but not too fast, to one of these places, waits for her, then does it again. When not chasing, they often hang out with one another. Our female cat has been slower to engage in play, but we see it coming. Tajji is very respectful of their back-off signals. The way dogs and cats invite play is different enough so that they’re going to have to figure out something else. A dog’s play bow means nothing in cat language.

On the other hand, we monkeys can understand the bow and respond with something the dog can learn to interpret. For Tajji, it’s a bent-over crouch. We figured this out through learning to play keep-away with her.

We walk Tajji in a front-clip harness of soft nylon webbing. We’d hoped it was dissimilar enough from her rigid leather guide harness that she wouldn’t associate it with work (dogs don’t generalize very well). But when we’d get it out, her demeanor would change. She’d give signals of discomfort, and she’d either refuse to come or would run into another room. Dave hit on the concept of giving her a choice. If she wanted to play keep-away, that’s what we’d do. So we’d get into that crouch, waving the harness and making “I’m coming to get you!” child-play noises.

She loved it.

She’d play bow, romp in circles, and run from one room to the other, tail wagging happily. If Dave had enough time, he’d wait until she’d voluntarily stop and allow him to put the harness on her. He called this “the ritual refusal and acceptance of the harness.” I came up with another solution, which was to call Tajji to the mud room entrance, which was a different enough context from the living room and which had doors on either end, making it a sort of airlock space.

Then I discovered that she loves to play bow-and-romp even when no harness is involved. The first time I crouch-bowed to her and said “Let’s play!” she looked at me quizzically. Then a split-second later, she bowed back at me and the game was on.

With practice and time, Tajji has decided that harness play and harness-means-walkies are two different things. Recently when I was getting her ready for her morning venture on the street outside, she gave only a half-hearted response to the play invitation. Instead, she came up and thrust her muzzle into the harness.

“Come on, silly monkey,” she seemed to be saying, “let’s cut to the chase!”

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The Tajji Diaries: Learning to Play — 4 Comments

  1. And she lets us know she’s had enough simply by not bringing the toy back.

    My first thought was: what is this “enough” you speak of. Emily, compulsive ball-dog, does not believe in “enough.” But then I realized that while she doesn’t think fetch should ever stop, she does take breathers, during which she either (when it’s warm) lies down under a tree and pants heavily, surveying the world, her ball safe between her paws, or (when it’s cold) walks around with the ball in her mouth, inspecting. “I’m not tired, how could you think such a thing. I’m just…checking stuff out.” But the ball does not leave her custody except to be handed over to me for throwing, until we leave the park and her leash is on her, at which point she will drop it and trot up the hill.

    She has me so trained.

    • Heh! Our bulldog of much beloved memory was exactly the same. That tennis ball would be slimy, mud-covered, bald, but he never wanted to stop playing with us with it.

  2. She’s such a love. Still reacts to other dogs and while we could restrain her on walks, it’s better for her to be calm, so we find lots of other fun things to do.

    While Oka, our last German Shepherd Dog, would chase balls (or herd his big hard rubber horse ball) until he fell over, Tajji likes to play a while and then do something else. She’s distractable — actually hypervigilant — rather than obsessive. This might be due to a combination of breeding and training. You want a guide dog to be always scanning the environment, rather than becoming focused on only one thing.