I have shared my life with dogs all my life. I love dogs of all sizes and breeds and have owned a number purebred dogs as well as some lovable rescue mutts. I know that each and every dog is different, there are bred traits as well as individual personalities, and temperaments, not to mention the influence socialisation and training has on a how a dog behaves.
Even knowing this I am still surprised how different it is working with Wiley than it was my first Guide Dog Khan. For some reason I expected that although the dogs themselves would be different their work would be very similar. The guiding skills of each dog are very good and I always feel safe but their working styles are unique to each of them.
Khan was a large male Golden Retriever. I got him when he was a little under two years old. From the day I met him he seemed wise beyond his years. He loved working and wanted to be on duty 24/7. It was hard to take him on a recreational walk as he always wanted to walk in the guiding position and work as if he was in harness.
He was an incredibly focused dog, nothing could distract him from his work. His destination work was remarkable, he would only need to go to a place once and he could find it again. This was very useful if we ever lost the car in the car park as Khan could lead me straight back to it.
Khan loved working in different environments and was very skilled at generalizing his knowledge into new situations. He had great initiative and enjoyed challenging situations. He worked just as well in the middle of Sydney as he did on our 25 acre property in the middle of nowhere.
All these strengths made Khan an easy dog to work with, he made me look good as a handler as he was always on task.
However Khan was also quite stubborn,had a strong will and often thought he knew best. He never looked to me for direction rather just made up his own mind and followed through. Most of the time this was fantastic and made life easy but there were occasions when it could be problematic.
Khan was also a sensitive dog, he couldn’t stand being corrected. I never had to do anything more than slightly raise the tone of my voice if he was doing something he shouldn’t.
He was also not very good at settling, he couldn’t rest as he was always watching me to see what I was doing. He was a very needy dog, always wanting my attention, it made living with him a little challenging at times.
After Khan had passed away I applied for a successor dog. I knew I’d be getting a lab this time around so was expecting different breed and personality traits as well as a dog with shorter hair that would be a little easier to groom.
On the first walk with Wiley I noticed the harness felt a little different in my fingers. Wiley has a great jaunty walk so the harness jiggles a little more than with Khan’s smoother walk. But what surprised me more was that Wiley kept looking to me for reassurance and support.
Wiley isn’t as confident as Khan was, he needs to be encouraged and given directions. I use more frequent commands with Wiley than I did with Khan. I also praise and reward more frequently to reassure him he is doing a great job. Having said that I have noticed that his confidence is building the longer we work together. I think this is due to the ever increasing trust we have in each other and the strengthening of our bond.
It generally takes a couple of times for a destination to stick with Wiley and his ability to generalise isn’t quite as good as Khan used to be. Although I suspect this will also improve with more experience.
Wiley can occasionally be distracted by what is going on around him. Sometimes I need to tell him to focus to make sure his mind is 100% on task.
Wiley settles much quicker than Khan used to, he will happily snooze on the bus, during a talk or whenever I have stopped for a period of time. He is a great traveller – as soon as the vehicle starts moving he goes to sleep.
He has a lot more trust in me than Khan did, he expects me to know what I want and where I want to go and will happily follow any commands I give him to get us there. He has initiative when needed, for example if I give him the ‘find the way command’ or if it isn’t safe to cross a road, but generally will stop and get direction from me rather than make up his own mind.
Wiley is also a very easy dog to live with. At home he happily plays with me and by himself. He sleeps soundly and doesn’t stress if we are parted for some reason. He is not as needy or attention seeking as Khan used to be.
What really surprised me though was the fact that Wiley loves his off duty recreational time. If he is on his non working collar and lead he happily stops, sniffs, wanders and does normal doggy things. He loves playing with his doogy friends and going to the off leash park. He isn‘t half as serious as Khan used to be, in fact when he isn’t working he can be downright goofy, a trait that I love.
Getting to know Wiley and helping him become the best Guid Dog possible gives me endless joy. I love figuring out how to motivate and reward, support and encourage him. To see him blossoming into his role as Guide Dog makes me aware of just what a special and fantastic dog he is.
Looking back I shake my head at my naivety of thinking both dogs would have similar working styles. They are different breeds, with different genetics, temperaments and environmental factors influencing their development. They were raised in different homes and have had unique experiences. Of course they are going to be different in the way they perform their work.
I feel so very lucky to have been given two wonderful Guide Dogs who keep me safe and tirelessly and willingly guide me wherever I need to go. I love them both with every fibre of my being.