Concerto for Guide Dog, Handler, and World
by EMILY K. MICHAEL
In darkness, the audience rises, applauding the last performance of the evening. Before I can bang my hands together with wild abandon, I slide my guide dog’s leash back over my arm, into the crook of my elbow. My companion rises from his prone position and assumes a dignified sit, scanning from left to right. He recognizes the applause as a signal for our imminent departure.
The house lights come up, and I pull on my heavy coat. In the presence of my wiggly Labrador, this maneuver requires some concentration: hold York’s leash with left hand and slide right arm into sleeve, loop leash over right arm and slide left arm into sleeve, loop leash back over left arm and fasten inside buttons, fasten outside buttons, pick up crossbody bag and slide strap over left shoulder, don’t tangle with leash. When I’m fully equipped to handle the chilly night air, I stand beside York and we wait for the crowd to thin out.
“Beautiful dog,” a man remarks as he pauses by my seat. One foot rests on the next step up, and he leans around a large column to stare down at my pup. York’s shiny black fur contrasts with his leather guide harness. “Does he like the music?”
My hand moves to York’s silky ear, a gesture of habitual comfort. “Actually, he prefers Romantic composers. But he said he would come hear Mozart with me.”
The man laughs. “He’s a beautiful dog.”
I smile. I know my boy is beautiful, not because people stop me on a regular basis to say so, but because I spend every waking moment with him. York is lean and focused, with sweet brown eyes. I am certainly biased in my thinking that he’s the most handsome guide dog on the planet. But I wonder what passersby really mean when they call him beautiful, or when they ask whether he likes the music—as they do at every concert I’ve attended.
Interested patrons inquire if York enjoys the music at the symphony, at chorus rehearsals, at jazz concerts. And each time I say “yes,” they chuckle. Perhaps he’s a novelty—this cultured dog of mine. Or maybe their questions place a sincere curiosity in joking terms. Do they feel ridiculous asking whether a nonverbal creature likes human music? Perhaps their friends would mock them if they overheard such a question.
York and I have been a working team for almost eighteen months. Before I trained with York, I traveled with a white cane. If the cane was folded away, tucked under a seat, my disability seemed to vanish with it. Occasionally people stopped to ask me questions or talk about their blind relatives, but I could blend into the crowd. No one hovered by my seat at the back of the theater.
“It will be different when you get a dog,” warned my friend Charles, who was already working with his second guide dog. “Get ready. Everyone will want to talk with you.”
Just weeks after York and I graduated from training, Charles’s predictions came true. At first, I found the constant questions difficult to handle. Some strangers forgot their manners—digging for medical details or distracting York with high-pitched puppy talk. But as the volume of interactions increased, I began to notice patterns of thinking about the more-than-human world.
First come the dog-lovers, the people who go gooey at the sight of anything that remotely resembles a puppy. This group can be the most difficult to deal with; their professed love of animals leads them to violate personal boundaries and service dog etiquette. These are the people who try to pet York—overtly and covertly—even when I’ve asked them not to. They intone a refrain: “I can’t help myself, I just love dogs!”
Opposite the dog-lovers are those with a deep fear of dogs. I’m more likely to meet someone from this group in my classroom than out in public. At a grocery store or restaurant, they can place the needed distance between themselves and my guide dog. But when the professor walks into their three-hour writing class with a dog, they’re trapped. I try to be sensitive to these people. I remind them that York is here to work with me, not to antagonize them.
The third, and probably the largest, group are the people with dog stories. Their beloved pets, their friends’ beloved pets, their neighbors’ dogs . . . they want to tell me everything. Theirs is a strange kind of enthusiasm because it doesn’t boil over into the intrusive gestures of the single-minded dog-lover. This group respects my working relationship with York. But I feel that underneath their respect is a quiet desperation.
I hear this longing in the voices of my students. Now that I teach with York, I find a lot more people crowded around my desk. They want to know York’s entire history—“Where did you get him? How long have you worked with him? Did you have to go to training?” When they realize that I don’t mind answering all these questions, the curiosities mellow out, and something much more powerful rises to the surface, signaled by the student who says in a low voice, “I miss my dog.”
She misses her dog. She had to move to campus, parents live a few hours away, and pets aren’t allowed in the freshman dorms. So she had to leave him behind—he’s a golden retriever or a boxer or a poodle.
He misses his dog. He had to move away to school. She’s old, he says. A sweetheart. He trained her himself. He wonders if she misses him and can’t wait to go home for winter break: “Then I’ll get to see her!”
I explain that students can’t pet York while he’s working—the attention will distract him from his job—but in my office, he’s free to play. I get many more office visits now. I like to believe students are concerned for their grades, but if their first question is “Is York here?” I have to adjust my beliefs.
In most environments, York and I are a novelty. Nine times out of ten, I’m the only blind person in the room, and York is the only service dog in the department. On each campus where I teach, I have counted three or four other working pups, and most belong to students. So we turn heads as we walk. And I overhear people’s comments on our inter-species relationship:
“That’s my friend’s professor. That dog leads her all over campus.”
“She just told him to find the door. Man, my dog would never do that.”
As a working team, York and I can exert several kinds of influence. There’s the obvious mind-changing we accomplish when we answer people’s questions—explaining the logic of service dog protocol or the benefits of traveling with a guide dog. The flurry of questions reveals someone’s curiosity about animal behavior, but it also signals a person’s first taste of disability. As I slide out of a restaurant booth and York stands up, we hear the chorus, “Look, a puppy!” A customer at the next table says, “Oh, a guide dog! How do you like working with him? My son is blind.” Whenever I connect with someone experiencing disability—either personally or remotely—I feel privileged. I am proud to work with York, to show others what we can do together.
Occasionally we meet other service dogs and their handlers, or someone approaches to tell me she has volunteered at the local guide dog school. Once, at a chorus convention, a woman sprinted across the hotel restaurant to say she was a volunteer puppy raiser and ask where my dog was trained. Though she had volunteered with the puppies at the school, she had rarely seen a fully trained guide dog team in action. She couldn’t wait to tell her children how she watched us navigate the crowded café and join our friends at a table way in the back.
Moving together, York and I participate in a larger world, a world that encompasses the disability community. I value the message we send as a competent team; images of competent disabled people don’t often grace the media. But I also value a subtler message, one that rarely elicits comments. Beneath the initial surprise of seeing a cute dog in an office building, behind the novelty of a pup who enjoys the symphony, is a message of inter-species cooperation. There’s a reason we call them “working” dogs.
But York isn’t working for me; he’s not my employee. He’s my best friend, my partner, my companion. Our relationship has changed us both, and we depend on each other. The working bond begins in trust. A dog won’t guide a handler he doesn’t trust. So when people say, “What a cute dog!” or “You are so lucky—he’s adorable,” I fight the impulse to shout. I want them to know it’s so much more than cute dogs. York doesn’t work with me because he’s cute, because his tail wags and his eyes are big and brown. He works with me because he’s smart and dedicated—and we have learned to work together. He’s not a preordered, prepackaged machine that obeys every command.
Any person who gets to spend all their days working with animals is privileged. We come to an intimate understanding of our more-than-human friends, a knowledge that is sold short by the term “pets.” Even pet guardians know that their companions exceed the limits of written language.
When I step out into the world with York beside me, I feel unstoppable. It’s a joy to work with him—to watch him show off and solve problems. But I’m also excited by the image we present. I believe our relationship can show in microcosm a balance of human and more-than-human collaboration: a culture turning to the wild world with trust and respect. When people sigh and say, “I wish I could bring my dog to work,” they communicate a longing for something beyond our sterile, exclusively human spaces. Just as spaces without ramps and braille can effectively shut out disabled people, spaces designed for humans can silence the hope of animal interactions. If York and I stop to listen to birdsong on our way to class, we must step out of the way: the crowded walkway wasn’t designed for these moments of wonder.
Perhaps, when York and I enter a space, we are changing the potential of that space. Each time we rearrange the seating or create a path for ourselves, we are making a permanent alteration in the place’s consciousness. At our regular haunts, people anticipate us—and arrange the environment before we’ve arrived. The chairs may be moved back as soon as we leave, but I suspect that the memory lingers.
I believe this arrangement can occur on a larger scale, that we can start to make room for nonhuman animals in our daily lives. Though our novel position often gives me a voice that I wouldn’t otherwise have, I look forward to a time when I won’t be the only guide dog handler in the room—when conversations will be punctuated by the snuffling and scratching of animal companions.