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 she’d be focused, after all, in training we’d worked together in Midtown Manhattan and she’d been alert and focused. She’d 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 I’ve been so much missing my dog.”
If you go everywhere with a guide dog, as I do, you soon find you’re more than just a blind traveler: often you’re an impromptu provider of animal comfort to strangers. After twenty plus years of working with my guide dogs around the world I’ve 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, I’m often approached by strangers—on sidewalks, in airports—who say roughly the same thing: “I wish I could have a dog but my landlord won’t allow it.” Or: “I have to travel for my livelihood and I can’t have an animal.” Or: “Can I pet your dog?”
Now, as a public service I will tell you that a guide dog mustn’t be petted or distracted when it’s 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 shouldn’t admit this: but I sometimes take off my guide dog’s harness just to let these folks pet her.
It’s a funny thing, two complete strangers standing beside an airport Starbucks, while unexpected gentleness and affection tumbles out.
What’s a dog for? It’s 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. I’ll 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 neurons—their brains understand gestures and even seek to imitate them just as we do. When we yawn our friends yawn. A baby’s first word is often the word she’s heard most. Many dogs know immediately how we’re 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 nation’s premier guide dog training schools. When I went there I thought I’d 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 her—transformed 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 hadn’t taught me a thing about appreciation and regards. Linda, one of Corky’s trainers explained to our class of new guide dog users that guide dogs need praise.
“Our new dogs require praise—lots of praise,” said Linda. “It’s 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 circle—the 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 Corky’s head on my shoe and thought about the “talking blues”—as a poet I’d studied vocal sorrow—but never had I considered a running, day long practice of spoken good. “Good dog” would become my hourly practice and over time (though I didn’t 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 can’t have one these days.” Sometimes they’ll 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 doesn’t cost a thing to affirm others. My dog is always mirroring. She wants to praise me right back. And where strangers are concerned that’s 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.