When it was time for the 9-year-old guide dog of my dear friend’s brothers to retire, naturally his family contacted me about care as they sought to transition him from a full-time working “professional” to emeritus companion. The Seeing Eye guide that many of my friends and followers have known as “Fuzzball” is really the retired guide dog we call Quest. Quest, now a Dingo’s regular, had been “employed” dutifully by Christopher since 2009 when Chris’ visual acuity decreased significantly from a congenital eye condition known as Aniridia (for more information on Aniridia see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aniridia).
Soon after Quest’s inception into Chris’ family he became known lovingly amongst those who knew him well as “Curious Quest”, a name acquired as we compared his dutifulness and energy to that of Chris’ wife’s stoic and remarkably well behaved Seeing Eye™ dog, Gordon – yes, both Chris and his wife are blind (and so is love). Not to sound pejorative, Quest’s penchant for jumping up on people, stealing food from the table, raiding the trash, and mounting other dogs did not make him a bad service dog per se, he still managed to prevent Christopher from walking into things or darting across traffic; however, we all doubt many people other than the strapping 6’2” Chris would have had the gusto and strength to manage such a large dog – Quest is over 80lbs – let alone one with the energy and “enthusiasm” that Quest possesses.
At daycare, I’m surprised daily at the amount of energy Quest has, especially given that in the canine world, he would certainly qualify for the “senior citizen discount”. Quest is not arthritic, as evidenced by the way he jumps on and off articles of furniture chasing dogs and toys. He’s also quite limber, and extremely motivated by food – I’ve seen him leap over a dividing wall at the daycare in order to be present for a human doling out treats. Our 4 foot high walls are no match for Quest. Especially when food is at stake.
Now that Quest is firmly ensconced in life at the daycare, it got me interested in which traits would mark a dog as more or less suitable for service work. Interestingly, there has been a great deal of research on “whorls” – those spots where hairs converge and then wheel one way or the other (also known as cowlicks). Temple Grandin, the world renowned autistic professor of animal science, and consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior, has purported that hair swirls on a steer’s forehead helped predict whether he was calm or fearful. “Australian veterinary researcher Lisa Tomkins took this research a step further. She assessed 115 future guide dogs, looking at their whorls and their paw preferences. Then she followed their progress. Puppies who preferred to use their right paws over their left were twice as likely to pass guide-dog school. Puppies with counter-clockwise chest-fur whorls were more than twice as likely to succeed than those with clockwise chest whorls. Tomkins and her fellow researchers noted that it appeared to be linked with the whole left-brain/right-brain crossover” (What the Dog Knows, Cat Warren). The jury is still out on whether or not Quest is “right-pawed” or “left-pawed”; however, it’s clear his chest whorls fall in a clock-wise pattern, which according to Tomkins, would denote Quest as a less than ideal candidate for service work.
Quest’s abilities as a service dog can likely be attributed to a bit of “nature” and a bit of “nurture”, and although he was not the perfect guide dog, his sweet nature and playful demeanor make him a perfect pet. These days Quest has a new lease on life and isn’t that what we all hope for in our “golden years”? As my own dad struggles to find meaning and purposes in his old age, I point him to Quest whose retirement is not just a stop-gap to death but a new adventure in life. One chapter ends and another begins. Wag more. Bark less. Dingo’s Dogsitting.
To donate to The Seeing Eye, an organization that does great work to train dogs for service with the vision impaired, please follow this link: http://www.seeingeye.org/you-can-help/