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Skiing with Dogs
Enjoying the snow with our pets can be fun, but dangerous.






















As an avid snowboarder, there's nothing that I would love more than to share my favorite winter hobby with my dogs. I'm captivated by ski patrol canines that help rescue people trapped in avalanches and dogs that run alongside people cruising down in the backcountry. But the sharp edges on skis and snowboards that let us carve into icy slopes also make it potentially dangerous for our four legged companions.

Avid backcountry skiers Don and Polly Triplat regularly take their dogs Scarlet and Brodie with them in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Normally they're careful to separate the dogs from the ski party as each person tears down the mountain, but accidents can happen in a split second.

Earlier this month the couple was skiing with friends, when Scarlet darted in front of a friend just as he was starting his descent. Scarlet managed to get caught in his ski causing a tumble that left the skier unharmed but left the poor pup with a deep gash in her front leg. The wound was so serious that it sliced through her skin, muscle, and artery to the bone, resulting in an injury that could result in fatal blood loss.

Fortunately the Triplats are trained in wilderness first aid and were able to calmly assess the situation and make a plan of action. Don quickly clamped Scarlet's artery to the bone and created a tourniquet with gauze and duct tape to stop the bleeding. Then Don carried Scarlet on his shoulders as he descended the mountain, while friends helped. One skied ahead to break trail, creating an easier path, and another raced ahead to reposition their car to the nearest place they could reach the road.

Since the accident, the Triplats have stopped taking their dogs on backcountry downhill trips and have opted for including them on tamer cross country skiing excursions. They were fortunate to have the training necessary for a successful outcome, but the couple wants to warn other skiers to be aware that taking a dog skiing is a big responsibility.

This story makes me think of the rescue of Missy in Colorado. It shows how important it is to be prepared for an emergency when taking your dog into the backcountry, whether it's skiing, hiking, or boating. Always bring first aid supplies (and know how to use them!) and have a plan for how to carry your dog to safety (when hiking, I always bring a backpack large enough to carry my dog if necessary).

Do you ski or snowboard with your pups?

Helicopter Pet Parents
Researchers look at how our personality affects pet care.

There's a lot of joking today about “helicopter parents” who are too overbearing with their kids. It may not be the best way to raise children, but what about pets? Two researchers at UC Berkeley and California State University are collaborating on a study that will look at personality and attachment style, how we relate to others, and whether it can predict better pet care.

In the first part of their research, Mikel Delgado and Gretchen Reevy surveyed more than 1,000 pet lovers across the country. They found that those who expressed the greatest affection for their pets were also rated among the most conscientious and neurotic. While these may be bad characteristics for human parents, it may work better for pets, who will never be independent. Cat lovers tended to score high on anxious attachment, meaning they tend to need more reassurance from their pets. Both dog and cat lovers scored low on avoidant attachment, suggesting that they enjoy close relationships with their pets.

This was the first study to combine principles of human attachment theory to pet people's personality types. Next Mikel and Gretchen plan to do further the research by investigating whether greater affection and anxious attachment is associated with better care and understanding of their pet's needs.

If you're interested in learning more about your attachment style (based on human relationships), take this long or short online test. 

Missing Dog is Reunited
Rescued after 5 months during snowstorm

There is a great “silver lining” story from New York today about a lost dog reunion made possible, in a way, by the giant blizzard that never was. As we all know by now, the winter storm of the decade had little effect in that region (moving further up along the coast instead), but in preparing for it, a dog loving fire department lieutenant was able to trap the lost dog, a young Whippet named Burt, who had been lost for 5 months. Lieutenant David Kelly, 50, works 24-hour shifts out at the Fire Academy on Randalls Island, and had been leaving food out for the skinny, shy dog for more than three weeks. He had also been urging other fire department workers to leave food for the lost pup. Kelly has two rescue dogs at home so he is no stranger to the power of dog love, so he had decided that what with the huge storm coming, that it was time to step up his effort to catch the dog. You just gotta love it that he also thought to check for missing dogs of Burt’s type (Whippet or Greyhound) in the NYC area and found that the owner, Lauren Piccolo, had dedicated a Facebook page to her lost pup. On Monday night Kelly brought a crate from home, baited it with dog food, attached a lanyard to it, and waited. Shortly after 2 a.m. on Tuesday, Burt approached, grabbed for the food and Kelly was able to quickly close the crate door. Burt and Piccolo were soon reunited, and their story has become an instant sensation! Hats off to Lieutenant David Kelly—the hero of the hour—and welcome home Burt.

Dogs Are The Best On A Snowy Day

I don’t know about you, but this is the time of year when the short days and dreary weather begin get a little old, so this video couldn’t have hit my e-mail inbox at a better time—it is the perfect wintertime attitude adjustment. Leave it to the dogs to remind us that life is always fun, even with a bite in the air and snow on the ground!

Dog Rides Bus to the Park
Seattle pup is a public transportation regular.

My dogs are always ready to go, running in circles while I put on my shoes, grab my jacket, and throw poop bags into my backpack. I imagine they wonder why it takes so long to leave the house. But not all dogs are so patient. One pup in Seattle became tired of waiting and took matters into her own paws.

Jeff Young and his Black Labrador mix, Eclipse, live next to the bus stop that takes them to the local dog park. Sometimes Jeff isn't finished smoking his cigarette when the bus arrives, so Eclipse started boarding the bus by herself and exiting a few stops later. Jeff then gets on the next one and meets her at the dog park.

The two year old pup soon became a regular on the bus, with riders looking out for her each day. Eclipse remained a local legend until Seattle radio host Miles Montgomery launched her into web infamy. He was riding the bus when suddenly Eclipse jumped into the seat next to him, then got off at her stop. Miles was so surprised that he took a selfie and posted it on Twitter. Soon the picture went viral and Eclipse's bus rides were famous.

In pet friendly Seattle, dogs are allowed to ride buses on leash, at the discretion of the driver. But no one seems to mind the well behaved Eclipse. I'm a little concerned that she's wandering off on her own, but perhaps Jeff should ditch the cigarettes and accompany Eclipse to the park on the first bus!

A Dog Rolling Over During Play Is a Combat Tactic, Not Submission

I’ve got the ‘dog play’ bug, arguably one of the better winter bugs to have. I recently covered which toys dogs prefer (the answer: new ones, although old ones can be reinvigorated), as well as the unfortunate finding that when a dog’s not “playing right,” it could be you, not them. But toys and people are only part of play. I haven’t said anything yet about the huge topic of dog-dog play!

Fear not! Enter a new study on dog-dog play published just this month inBehavioural Processes as part of an open access Special Canine Behavior Issue. The study focuses on a particular behavior that you’ve probably seen countless times — rolling onto the back during play. The scientists came to a somewhat counter-intuitive conclusion, and if you’re like the people I hear chatting at the dog park, you might not be spot on about what it means.

Before we get to the new study, investigating what behaviors mean during dog-dog play is not new. For example, you’ve probably heard of play signals that help clarify play from not play. Play signals help say something like, “Hey, when I just bit you in the face, I didn’t mean it like I’M BITING YOU IN THE FACE. It was just for fun. See! Here’s a play bow for additional clarity. All fun here!” Play signals — like exaggerated, bouncy movements, or presenting a “play face” — start or maintain play, and they occur around potentially ambiguous behaviors — like a bite, tackle, or mount — or anything that might be misconstrued as ‘not playing.’ Play signals reinforce, “Woohoo! We’re not fighting! We’re playing!”

But not all behaviors that appear during dog-dog play are as well studied. Here to demonstrate today’s play behavior of interest is Theodore, or Teo for short. Prior to bringing his play skills to an international audience (he has his own Facebook page,Pibbling with Theodore), Teo was one of 367 dogs rescued from the second largest, multi-state dog fighting bust back in 2013. He currently lives a very different life alongside his four-legged siblings and Trish McMillan Loehr, MSc, CDBC, CPDT-KA, of Loehr Animal Behavior in Weaverville, North Carolina. Teo enjoys playing, making art with household items, and recycling.

Without further ado, Theodore in a video of slow-motion play with his “sister,” Lili (and Lili is making the slow-mo dinosaur noises).

 
 

 

Theodore shows many excellent play behaviors, but it’s ‘rolling onto the back’ that’s the focus of a new study by Kerri Norman and colleagues at the University of Lethbridge and University of South Africa. Their question is something you may have wondered yourself: when a dog rolls onto his or her back during play, what does it mean? Is it an indication of submission akin to a person tapping out or screaming “Uncle,” or is it instead “a combat maneuver adopted as part of an ongoing play sequence”?

Rolling onto one’s back is classically seen as a submissive gesture that “curtails active aggression.” Passive submission describes an individual voluntarily or “spontaneously [rolling] onto its back.” In a classic 1967 paper in American Zoologist, Rudolf Schenkel describes passive submission as “[expressing] some kind of timidity and helplessness.” Like coming out with your hands up or waving a white flag, passive submission is thought to prevent aggression.

Some have suggested that the rollover is still about ‘preventing aggression’ even when performed during dog-dog play. Owners observing playing dogs from the sidelines often take this a step further — the dog spending more time on its back is labeled ‘submissive’ or ‘subordinate’ while the dog on the top is ‘dominant.’ These labels often fit with a person’s worldview about dogs and asymmetries in relationships.

What if rolling over means something different when it’s during play? Norman and colleagues set out to investigate the meaning and function of rollovers during play. They wanted to know whether “rolling over onto the back and adopting a supine position” is an “act of submission” and serves to hinder subsequent aggression, or is instead, “executed tactically, for combat purposes” to solicit play, avoid a play bite (defensive maneuver), or deliver a play bite (offensive maneuver).

The researchers collected data on dog-dog play in two different contexts: staged play sessions where a medium-sized female dog was paired with 33 new play partners of various breeds and sizes, and 20 YouTube videos where two dogs played together — with half the videos including similarly sized dogs and the other half including dogs of different relative sizes.

Why the roll? 
First, not all dogs rolled over during play. This was particularly notable in the staged play sessions, where only 9 partners rolled over during play. In the YouTube videos, 27 of the 40 dogs rolled over, and rolling over occurred in both similarly-sized and differently-sized pairs. If your dog isn’t a roller during play, you’re in good company.

For dogs who did roll over, what did it mean? The researchers examined all instances of rolling over to see whether they were associated with submission — decreasing play, remaining passive, or being performed by the “smaller or weaker” partner — or were instead associated with the interactive, combative nature of play, where roll overs preceded “launching an attack (offensive), evading a nape bite (defensive), rolling in front of a potential partner (solicitation) or rolling over in a non-social context (other).”

The findings are stark: the smaller of the two play partners was not more likely to rollover than the larger dog. Additionally, “most rollovers were defensive and none of the 248 rollovers was submissive.” Here is a figure for you visualizers out there:

But once on their backs, maybe this is where submission kicks in? For example, a dog could go on his back to avoid a neck bite and then lay motionless, suggestive of passive submission. But that’s not what the dogs did. The researchers report, “no dog rolled over in response to an approach or aggressive action by the partner and did not remain passive in its back.” Instead, like you saw in the video of Theodore, the Playing Wonderdog, once on their backs, dogs in the supine position both blocked and launched bites at their partner.

What does this mean?
Wondering about why dogs do what they do seems to be an international pastime. But assuming that a dog rolling onto his back during play is akin to saying, you “came on too strong” or, ”OK, you won this round!” seems like a mistranslation. In some contexts, rolling onto the back is certainly associated with fear, or defusing or preventing aggression, but this new study reminds that ‘rolling over,’ like many behaviors, does not have a single, universal meaning. Instead, rolling over during play is often just playful. I think Theodore would agree.

1.13.2015, 9:00 PM Updates

I am happy that so many people are discussing this study! Here are a few more important points about rolling over and dog play:

1) When two dogs are playing, rollovers most often facilitate play. For example, a dog on its back often engages in playful sparring with another dog, delivering or avoiding neck bites, or engaging in open-mouth lunges. The researchers in the above study found that the majority of in-play rollovers were part of play fighting (meaning the ‘fighting’ was itself playful, not real fighting). The important takeaway is that rolling over during play is about play, it is NOT about ‘aggression’ as this Daily Mail headline incorrectly states.

2) Another way to think about rolling over in play is as a self-handicapping behavior because it helps dogs of different sizes or sociabilities play together. Self-handicapping is instrumental to play, and it implies that a dog is tempering his or her behavior in some way. For example, during play, dogs do not deliver bites at full force, and a larger dog might roll over to allow a smaller dog to jump on or mouth him. In Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, Alexandra Horowitz describes the behavior: “Some of the largest dogs regularly flop themselves on the ground, revealing their bellies for their smaller playmates to maul for a while—what I called a self-takedown.” The researchers in the above study note that “some of the present data indicate that the bigger dog is more likely to [rollover].” Self-takedowns can be a type of self-handicapping behavior that promote play.

This post is reprinted with permission and originally appeared on Scientific American.

What’s Wrong with the "Wrong" Dog

One of the most shared recent articles in the New York Times was one about a “wrong dog” and how the op-ed blogger felt she was wronged by agreeing to adopt a young dog from a rescue group. I was going to write about this but then our good friend, and former Bark science editor, Mark Derr, wrote a great post for Psychology Today that brought up all the points, and then some, that I had wanted to make. He kindly allowed us to cross post his article:

The New York Times ran a opinion piece on Saturday, December 13, by Erica-Lynn Huberty on the trauma caused when a well-meaning young couple bring a sweet young rescue dog into their home who turns into a cat-killing maniac. The essay, “The Wrong Dog,” serves as a sobering reminder that not all found dogs fit as seamlessly into their new homes as Arthur, the Ecuadoran stray who joined a team of Swedish adventure racers and traveled several hundred arduous kilometers with them last month. The team captain then sought and won permission to take him home to Sweden, and their story went viral. 

Arthur’s story raised several questions in my mind: How frequently can dogs be said to choose their human companions, what criteria do they use, and what is their success rate? I have several friends who literally rescued dogs off the street, in one case the Brooklyn Bridge, and took them home to discover they had a friend for life.

Is it merely random chance that a dog and man or woman should meet and become instant friends?  I think that both are choosing—the human to save a fellow creature in distress; the dog to find a loyal companion. Any dog dumped in the road would want that but be suspicious, too, I should think.

People I know with multiple dogs often have dogs dumped near them by neighbors who assume they will take the dog in. They do and if it doesn’t fit into their existing “pack,” they will find the dog a home.  The private placements I know of have worked well—on occasion spectacularly. But dogs who go that route are the lucky exception among the abandoned millions.

The apparent ease with which human and dog share affection and respect casts light on why wolves and humans teamed up initially. Though the reasons remain mysterious, they clearly, I have long suspected, have to do with the ability of individuals from both species to form lasting bonds of friendship with someone other than their own kind and to do so voluntarily, as adults, as well as children and puppies.

Whatever mutations governing sociability occurred to make dogs, at least one must have involved fixing them as dominate in the dog genome—or so it appears.

But there are times human and dog don’t match up well, and unless something is done, the results can be tragic. Many of the failures in that relationship seem to arise from a lack of forethought on the part of the human, a fundamental failure to think through and find ways to meet the animal’s need for exercise, social contacts with people and dogs, consistent treatment and mental stimulation.

The central problem with Huberty’s essay lies in her argument that nothing short of ditching the dog when she first started acting oddly would have prevented the catastrophe that occurred. They would have done that had they known that some dogs are unfit for adoption, and no amount of training, discipline, or coddling will change that.

“We let ourselves believe that beneath our rescued puppy’s strange, erratic behavior was a good, loving pet,” Huberty writes. The truth was the opposite.

The back story is common enough. Having become smitten with a five-month old Lab mix, Huberty and her husband, decide to have her share their home with their three cats, a female dog, and two children.

From her arrival, the new dog, Nina, showed a defensive/possessive aggression that led Huberty to seek more information from the group who rescued her.

Huberty says that she and her husband followed the advice of Cesar Millan, “the Dog Whisperer” to create a “loving but disciplined environment.”  Nina responded by attacking a cat and biting Huberty when she intervened.

In response, Huberty called the woman who gave them Nina. She agreed  to pay for a trainer, who proved to be the anti-Millan. She advocated a rewards-based approach rather than “discipline.” The essay takes an odd turn here as Huberty calls the rewards-based method ‘coddling” while appearing to indicate that it was working up to a point.

Nina would go along being a normal, playful puppy. But at times, out of nowhere it seemed, she would snap at me or Alex and, once, at our son,” Huberty says, “She would suddenly cower and growl. It was like a switch flipped, yet we couldn’t figure out what had done it.”

Nor do they try to find out. Dogs do not usually change their behavior that rapidly and dramatically without reason. That could very well be an underlying pathology that a thorough examination by a veterinarian might reveal. Indeed, Huberty gives no indication that she ever took the dog to a veterinarian—the first stop a new dog or cat companion should make. 

If no physical reason for the behavior can be found, the next stop is to  consult a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. There are not many in the country but your veterinarian should help arrange a consultation.   

Huberty blames the dog, the woman who gave her the dog, the trainer—everyone but herself and her husband—and Nina herself for her failure to fit seamlessly into Huberty’s home. From this experience, she draws the conclusion that some dogs are just unsuitable for living with humans. That might be the case but there is no proof of it here.

Maybe we should seek ways to allow more dogs to choose their human companions.  I have a notion they would do a better job of it.  “And when they don’t fit in they may be saying ‘wrong family,’” said my fellow Psychology Today blogger Marc Bekoff after reading “The Wrong Dog.”  “Living with a dog is a two-way street and assigning unilateral blame gets us nowhere and once again leaves the dog out in the cold. This sort of ‘musical dogs’ is bad for the dog, as much research and common sense tell us.”

 Nina might pay with her life for human miscalculations and failure to seek professional help.              

 

 

 

 

 

Inspired to Make Change
Smiling Dog Jack helps local shelters

We love getting your smiling dog submissions and your stories. We've heard some great stories from past Smiling Dogs like Jedi who has a passion for surf to Cayman who has amazing pen pals.

Lexie Harpold submitted her photo to our Smiling Dog contest and we were smitten with Jack as Batman. We selected the photo for use as a Weekly Smiler and just recently learned about Lexie’s trips to the Arizona Humane Society where Jack was adopted.

Lexie described the shelter saying, “There are many animals that do not have blankets or beds”. She visited the shelter recently noticing that many of the dogs were depressed, scared and anxious, so she decided to start a donation drive.

I love the idea and want to encourage everyone to get out there and do something. November is Adopt A Senior Pet Month, not everyone can adopt, but everyone can contribute.

Whether you help Lexie with her goal, donate to your local shelter/rescue, or volunteer to foster or walk, anything helps.

You can donate or get information about Jack & Lexie’s fundraiser My Favorite Breed is Rescued here.

Time Magazine and Designer Dogs

My last blog post included a bit of ranting about puppy mills and the importance of purchasing puppies responsibly. While it’s unusual for me to rant two weeks in a row I simply can’t resist given what I just viewed in the September 8-15 edition ofTime magazine.

The Time cover states, “The Answers Issue: Everything You Never Knew You Needed to Know.” When I initially glanced at the centerfold’s jazzy appearing infographic titled, “Where Do Designer Dogs Come From?” I winced and my heart raced a bit. Uh oh, would this feature enhance public interest in the “designer hybrids”? Or maybe, just maybe (my hope knows no bounds), the piece would point a disapproving finger at breeders who have jumped on the designer dog bandwagon hoping to cash in on this misguided fad.

My hopes were quickly dashed. The Time piece was seemingly all about enticing the puppy-purchasing public to shell out $2,000 plus for intentionally bred mutts. There’s abundant appeal in the 45 whimsical designer names presented in the article, such as Sharmation (Shar Pei/Dalmatian mix), Schnoodle (Schnauzer/Poodle mix), and Pugalier (Pug/Cavalier King Charles Spaniel mix). A list of popular celebrities and their chosen designer dogs was included. Additionally, the infographic suggested that designer dogs sustain better health than their purebred parents. Good luck finding a veterinarian who agrees with this sentiment.

IF I WERE IN CHARGE
How I wish I’d been sitting around the editorial table at Time magazine when the designer dog feature was conceived. I would have encouraged running the piece, but with a whole different bent. Readers would have learned that mixed breed dogs (aka, designer dogs) do make wonderful pets, and that they are readily available for adoption from animal shelters, humane societies, and rescue organizations. Getting a puppy from these sources not only saves a life, the adopter will spend a fraction of the amount required to purchase a designer dog from from a private breeder or puppy mill proprietor.

While the exact “design” of a pup adopted from a shelter or rescue organization may not be known, the not knowing always makes for some great conversation. For those with a need to know, simple and relatively inexpensive DNA testing will shed some light on a mutt’s pedigree.

My Time piece on designer dogs would talk about the mindset of reputable/responsible breeders. They do not produce mixed breed dogs. Rather, they focus their time and energy perpetuating the best traits and eliminating the undesirable ones of the breed they love so dearly. Such breeders believe that “designer hybrids” detract from, rather than enhance the breed they fancy.

Time magazine readers would learn that Wally Conron, the original “inventor” of the designer dog, regrets the day he created his first Labradoodle back in the 1980’s. He did so with hopes of accommodating the needs of a married couple. The Lab portion of the mix was intended to assist the wife who had vision problems, while the Poodle portion would deter the husband’s allergies. Mr. Camron has since stated,

I’ve done a lot of damage. I’ve created a lot of problems. Instead of breeding out the problems, they’re breeding them in. For every perfect one, you’re going to find a lot of crazy ones. You can’t walk down the street without seeing a Poodle cross of some sort. I just heard about someone who wanted to cross a Poodle with a Rottweiler. How could anyone do that? Not in my wildest dream did I imagine all of this would happen.

In my article I would share photos of my own designer dogs (how cool would that be in Time magazine!), Nellie  might just be a Cairnrussell (Cairn Terrier/Jack Russell Terrier mix), and Quinn could be a Borderpap (Border Collie/Papillon mix). Ask me next week and I will have changed my mind about who their parents may have been!

Lastly, I would encourage Time readers to recognize the difference between purchasing an inanimate designer item such as a purse versus a living, breathing creature. The less expensive, fully functional non-designer handbag that wasn’t purchased was not in dire need of a home. Not the case for the less expensive, adorable, shelter or rescue puppy that was not adopted.

How do you feel about purposefully bred designer dogs?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

The Difference Between Guide Dog Breeds

In honor of national guide dog month, I'm reprinting excerpts of an interview I did several years ago with seven experienced blind people who've used guide dogs most of their lives.  Here they compare problem solving strategies between 36 dogs representing six breeds.  Compared to my usual posts, it's a lengthy conversation, but if you've lived with a Lab, Golden, German Shepherd, Aussie, Border Collie, Flat Coat,  Poodle or hybrid of these breeds, you'll be fascinated by the comments.

 “Because we can’t see, we don’t know the particulars of what we’re commanding our dogs to do. The dog has to stand up to us, to get it through to us that something is there that we don’t know about, then find a way to get us out of a dangerous situation. A dog that isn’t comfortable holding his ground isn’t suited to the job.”

Some blind handlers argue that there are marked differences in each breed’s approach to guide work, while others think that the traits that make good guides neutralize the larger behaviors that characterize each breed. 

One blind handler who has worked with a German Shepherd for 10 years, a Lab for seven, two different Golden Retrievers for 15 years, and now has two years’ experience under his belt working with a Golden-Lab cross says that there are some physical characteristics that are different among breeds, such as the gait and how the dog feels through the harness. “Even so, the dog’s unique personality, combined with the person’s — how they work together and what they expect of each other — that’s where the differences are.” 

“It’s a 50-50 relationship,” says a handler who’s worked with one Lab, two mixed-breed Labs and two Goldens, and now is partnered with a Lab-Poodle cross. “Neither one of us is in total control at any given time. Both of our lives depend on what the other one does. Neither of us may be able to make a safe street crossing alone, but together we do it gracefully."

“How my dogs dealt with obstacles isn’t, in my opinion, a function of breed-specific differences,” says a seasoned 25-year guide dog user who has partnered with an Airedale, a Border Collie mix, an Australian Shepherd and, briefly, a Siberian Husky. “My Airedale, as I recall him, was quick to generalize about the concept "obstacle” but wasn’t particularly good at scoping out his environment and making decisions in advance.” The Aussie and the Border Collie mix seemed to generalize quickly.

“The Border Collie mix had very high head carriage and was by far the very best dog I've worked when it came to overhead hazards,” he said. “The Aussie has been harder to teach naturally occurring overheads like tree limbs, but whether that's a breed thing or a result of their tendency to work with their heads a little low, I'm not sure.”

Another woman who has worked with two Shepherd guides and one Lab-Golden cross said, “In my opinion, you might say that the retrievers’ style provides more information about the specifics ofthe environment, but the Shepherds’ style makes for more efficient travel. My Shepherds, in comparison to my retriever, both typically looked farther ahead as they guided. They corrected for upcoming obstacles from a distance and our travel path was typically a smooth line. Sudden turns or stops happened only in response to an obstacle that unexpectedly crossed our intended path. My retriever cross clearly does not take the same approach. In general, this dog will stop and show me the obstacle, and he will almost always seek prompting from me on which way to go next.”

Another typical difference between dogs, explains a blind handler is their approach to routes.“Personally I find that my retrievers enjoyed familiar routes. In comparison, my Shepherd gets bored with routine, so you have to get creative with routes and mix things up,” she says.

She adds that retrievers are looking to please the handler, as if asking, “Did I do what you wanted, am I making you happy?” whereas her shepherds have been motivated by doing the job and solving the problems. “With Shepherds, it’s not so much about what pleases me as it is about pleasing themselves,” she says.

A guide dog handler who has worked with three Labs, a Lab mix, a Golden Retriever and a German Shepherd explained, “If I were to generalize,” she says, “I’d say my Labs often worked up to an obstacle before deciding what to do about it, while my shepherd would decide in advance what to do, perhaps starting the turn more gradually as we approached the barrier. My Golden would stop to show me before trying to work it out.”

Eight guide dogs and 34 years later, a handler  contemplated her experiences with four Labs, two Goldens, one Shepherd, and one Flat-coat Retriever. “My Flat-coat solved problems by coming to a full stop. Sometimes he would just stand there and I could feel his head moving. People said that he looked like he was weighing all the possibilities. Then he would make his decision. And in nine years of partnership he never made a mistake.”

One woman got her first German Shepherd in 1996 after working with three Labs. She says she had to learn the body language that was unique to the Shepherd. “At first I thought when my Shepherd would insist on going a certain way and I wanted to go another that she was being stubborn or willful. I soon discovered that if I acknowledged her for what she was showing me, and then asked her to go the direction I wanted to go, she was totally fine with that. My second Shepherd is the same way.”

Regardless of genealogy, each dog takes a unique approach to problem solving. “I noticed that the Aussie I’m working with now had a very strong preference for traveling on one or another side of a street when we walked home from work,” explained his handler. “Eventually, I figured out the preference stemmed from whether it was or had recently been raining. One side of the street was commercial, the other had lots of trees with branches that hung low when wet.”

“My Goldens were much more attuned to my reactions to things. If I did hit a branch, I needed only to flinch and they both acted as if they had been corrected. I would describe my Labrador as being solid, but she had the attitude that things would move for her or she would move them. She was careful, generally, but also had no compunction about moving me through some tight gaps. It wasn’t always pretty, but she would get you where you needed to go safely and with enthusiasm.”

Person and dog work as a team, each contributing to a relationship built on trust that begins during class, then deepens and broadens over time. Says a guide dog user with 35 years of experience, “I think developing trust is incumbent on the person. That’s who sets the tone of the partnership so that the dog learns to be, in essence, not just a guide, but responsible for the person’s safety.”

A blind woman who has traveled with guides since 1968 said, “My assumption is that my dog is acting to keep us safe until he proves to be distracted or is putting his agenda ahead of mine. Sure, if that sudden plunge proves to be because my Lab dove for a French fry, the appropriate correction needs to be made. Extra work to minimize that behavior may be called for, but ‘follow your dog’ has to be the first response if we are going to learn to trust and read each other. My safety depends on my ability to read their reactions and go with it and figure out the ‘whys’ later.”

“Working a guide dog is like dancing,” she explains. “And being responsive to my partner’s moves is how it works best for me. I've had had two very large Labs both with a lot of initiative. They seldom asked for my input, made quick swift movements and expected I would be able to keep up and go with them. They were more likely to try to interpose their bodies between me and muscle me out of the way or into safety. My Golden, and my small Lab were likely to be cautious and refuse to leave the curb until they determined that a car they watched was not going to move toward us.”

One man described all his dogs as having been keen observers.“They’ve all had similar complex personalities,” he says. “They enjoyed their work and have been more than willing to guide and do things such as squeeze into small spaces and stay for hours, only because I have asked them to.”

A thirty year guide dog veteran summed it up. "I've owned plenty of dogs as pets, but my relationship with the half dozen guide dogs I've worked with was different: All of my guide dogs seemed to own me rather than the other way around.”