I remember the first time I went to the airport with my guide dog Corky. She was on the job, guiding me through throngs of harried passengers, head up, tail wagging, relishing her job. I knew shed be focused, after all, in training wed worked together in Midtown Manhattan and shed been alert and focused. Shed be just the same in the United terminal at JFK. Suddenly a man approached us. By his accent he seemed German. Excuse me, he said, but Ive been so much missing my dog.
If you go everywhere with a guide dog, as I do, you soon find youre more than just a blind traveler: often youre an impromptu provider of animal comfort to strangers. After twenty plus years of working with my guide dogs around the world Ive come to understand how deprived of animal contact millions of people really are.
Human beings are meant to have animals in their lives, and while pet ownership in the US is at an all-time high, Im often approached by strangerson sidewalks, in airportswho say roughly the same thing: I wish I could have a dog but my landlord wont allow it. Or: I have to travel for my livelihood and I cant have an animal. Or: Can I pet your dog?
Now, as a public service I will tell you that a guide dog mustnt be petted or distracted when its working and it is always working while wearing its recognizable harness. But when that harness comes off? The dog knows its love time. And I shouldnt admit this: but I sometimes take off my guide dogs harness just to let these folks pet her.
Its a funny thing, two complete strangers standing beside an airport Starbucks, while unexpected gentleness and affection tumbles out.
Whats a dog for? Its estimated that dogs entered the human circle as far back as 30,000 years ago. Did they come for our garbage? Maybe they came because we had fire? Sometimes I like to joke that they liked our singing. Ill make a stab and say they came to us because, frankly, they liked us more than we liked ourselves.
As for science, we know dogs, like humans, possess mirror neuronstheir brains understand gestures and even seek to imitate them just as we do. When we yawn our friends yawn. A babys first word is often the word shes heard most. Many dogs know immediately how were feeling and interact with us accordingly.
My first guide dog was a big yellow Labrador girl named Corky. I received her at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, one of the nations premier guide dog training schools. When I went there I thought Id be handed a smart dog who knew some commands and that would be it. I had no idea I was about to be changed by hertransformed really, so that the old me would be eclipsed entirely.
I discovered with Corky and her trainers that I knew nothing about admiration. High school and college hadnt taught me a thing about appreciation and regards. Linda, one of Corkys trainers explained to our class of new guide dog users that guide dogs need praise.
Our new dogs require praiselots of praise, said Linda. Its all in the voice. Nowadays a guide dog loves it when you say, Good dog with a tone of true joy. Try it! And we all said, Good dog, just as Linda had shown us.
In that moment, Corky raised her face to look at me, her big yellow snout pointing straight up. And every dog in the room looked up at their respective human. Something palpable went around our circlethe star of praise that only dogs can see was released by our voices. Good dog! We said it again and again. Our overdramatized tones were like stylized laughter in an opera. All tails were wagging.
We say, Good dog because Guiding Eyes dogs really want to work, said Linda. They have been through many months of training. These dogs enjoy their jobs. But just like you, they require praise. From this moment on you will be saying Good dog as much as a hundred times a day.
Who affirms good things even a dozen times a day? Who makes talking goodness a habit of her or his minutes? I sat with my Corkys head on my shoe and thought about the talking bluesas a poet Id studied vocal sorrowbut never had I considered a running, day long practice of spoken good. Good dog would become my hourly practice and over time (though I didnt yet know it), dog-praise would change many of my habits of thought.
So there I am with my guide dog in an airport. A man or woman approaches and he or she says I used to have a dog but I cant have one these days. Sometimes theyll say I had to put my dog down just last month. The pain is palpable.
In my view praise also means admitting others into our own circle. It doesnt cost a thing to affirm others. My dog is always mirroring. She wants to praise me right back. And where strangers are concerned thats easy. So the harness comes off and there in the staid and arid terminal a handsome, genuine, far reaching, simple moment of shared love occurs.
And then we all go our separate ways.
Excerpted with permission from Have Dog Will Travel: A Poet's Journey by Stephen Kuusisto. Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.