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Siberians as Guide Dogs

By: Gary Wynn Kelly

Published in the International Siberian Husky Club newsletter, June, 2000.

Traditional guide dog schools use shepherds, retrievers, and collies as guide dogs. When I obtained my first guide dog, I went to one of the highly respected schools, and got a shepherd guide dog named Nell. She was quite attractive and weighed in at 60 lbs. Nell worked as well as any shepherd, and served me for 8 years. I retired her with hip dysplasia, cataracts, skin problems, low thyroid, digestive ailments, and occasional other maladies from time to time!

While 8 years may seem a reasonable working life for a dog, it is not for a guide dog. When the dog comes from a traditional school, it is already 18-24 months of age, and requires another 6-12 months of on the job training to become good at the work it will do. The dog continues getting better each year, and those 8 years pass too quickly. With the retirement of the dog]goes all the experience and knowledge that dog had for the job. Many never continue working past age 7 or 8.

I enjoyed the help that my first dog, Nell, gave for much of her life, but not the problems that came with her breed. The physical problems were obviously pronounced, and created their own psychological reactions to working well. After having concluded such an experience I was reluctant to again volunteer for a shepherd. Having met other persons using retrievers, I could not get excited about one of them either.

I conducted my own research on possible dogs for a guide dog. I was attracted by the Siberian. These dogs enjoy robust health, an enthusiastic nature, and have the kind of intelligence essential to being a great guide dog. Some had been guide dogs, though not many. After reading stories of how the Siberian sled dog could guide a team through a blizzard, if necessary, or other conditions where humans could not use their vision, it seemed to me that a Siberian might have an edge on becoming a guide dog. I decided to make the attempt.

In 1980, I acquired my first Siberian. Not surprisingly, or originally, I named him Kodiak. I had assistance for his first 2 weeks of training, but I trained him after that. He surpassed all of my expectations as to what a guide dog might be.

I found I liked the size of a husky. Traditionally, larger dogs were used on the misapprehension that a large dog was needed to move a large man out of the way of a vehicle or other danger, if necessary. I found that a husky could manage this quite readily, and retain the benefits of a small dog. There is simply no place in modern society for a 70 pound dog in compact cars, airplanes, restaurants, or in theaters. All of my Siberians have been 50 pounds or less. The current ones are less.

Beauty is largely in the eye of the beholder. I have heard many people comment on various guide dogs as being beautiful, and perhaps they are. I can say that it certainly helps to have a beautiful dog as a guide dog, as a quality dog with good manners can instantly put a smile on the face of persons who might not otherwise know how to smile when encountering those who are blind.

Are Siberians beautiful? That is a matter of individual values of beauty, but they were evolved and shaped by people for many generations to have the “beauty” they have–in order to captivate and please those whose homes they share. To these wolves, it is just a convenient suit to wear to gain entry to your pantry, your warm home, and perhaps some insurance for the next generation.

We are most comfortable believing the Siberian to have human-like emotional qualities, and conveniently choose to forget that the Chukchi, and many highly influential breeders since worked hard to give the Siberian a personality that is fully as captivating as its beauty.

So why have a Siberian? Mostly because they represent to us something we value. To most, it is their strong emotional nature, the pack structure, the ease of understanding we find we have of their society and how it makes a certain kind of sense to us. We identify with Siberians more than other dogs because while they are unique, they do have some characteristics in differing proportions from other dogs. Many dogs are intelligent. Many dogs are independent, but few have the unique combination along with a strong pack structure, an ability to do team work, and a fairly unique personality type.

Yes, the personality type gets many of us every time. The one quality that Siberians have that is not common to very many dogs at all. That optimistic, ebullient personality that knows joy in every day–no matter how long, how hard, or even how many there have been, that personality seems to keep telling us that every day that dawns is a better day for any Siberian, and this one especially. It is that single quality that gives the Siberian that often astounding ability to do the impossible–and still love life even when it has been a rough one.

The Siberian helps to remind us not to take life, or them, too seriously. The Siberian tells us not to take ourselves too seriously, because life is short, and there is never enough time for Joy.

I have had other breeds of dogs–some I loved at the time, but none were Siberian, and I cannot imagine living with a dog that is other than a northern dog these days, or in the future. I hope I never live again where it is cold. Winters can be brutal killers that sap the spirit, and not just the strength of a man. So, when I met my first Siberian, and learned to see that they have evolved this incredible spirit that can survive that sort of experience, and still see joy in every day…I was won over.

That shepherd I had for my first guide dog, was a dog who always came when called, fetched frisbees by the hour, loved to swim, learned what I would teach her, and was rarely strong minded or displayed much will of her own. No thanks. No more!

That shepherd was a bitch! She was moody. Cranky on cold days, and stubborn and unwilling to work on hot days. She would drag her butt along at half a mile an hour while I missed my bus in 90+degree heat, because she would not get it in gear to move fast enough to get us to the bus stop on time. She loved attention and seemed devoted to me,unless someone else had food to share, or a history of sharing food with her. Shtahvelled terrible when wet, so that I endured verbal abuse whenever getting a bus with her when it rained, and it rains 48 inches a year in Atlanta each year!

No, it was a relief to get a Siberian! Not only did the health issues make a difference, as I retired my shepherd after 8 working years with enough aliments for half a dozen dogs. A Siberian with a great attitude about every day, even when I had a rotten one, who loved to work, regardless of how hot or cold, who cared as little about others as he seemed to about me sometimes, though he had his moments when he could impress others with his adoration of me, and who, on his worst days could out perform any guide dog in service like it was no effort–well, it was worth his bolting from open doors, refusing to come when he was called unless he felt like it, and all those other maddening things that Siberians will do.

I shudder at the idea of ever having to have a shepherd or lab again! They may be fine dogs for some people, but not this old dog. Give me a Siberian, with all their faults. The virtues of a strong work ethic, optimistic nature, quiet habits, clean smell, ability to impress most people I meet, robust health over all, and their indomitable sense of humor, makes them the dog for me.

I now have 3 Siberians as guide dogs. Tahvi, who is now 8 years of age, Akamai, who is 2.5 years, and Machiko, who is also 2.5 years of age. I run the Central Coast Northern Dog rescue, and my guide dogs help in training other northern dogs while we foster them. I walk each foster for 2-4 miles a day, so one guide dog cannot do all the work for 7 days a week, consistently.

I rotate dogs, and I have Tahvi help with training younger dogs to be guide dogs as necessary, preserving the excellent training and abilities he has in the dogs that follow him. Tahvi has trained a number of guide dogs now. We recently have been training Suki, who will be going to Florida in September to become a guide dog.

Yes, guide dog is the correct term for a canine that guides a person experiencing blindness. Many people call them “Seeing Eye” dogs. This is incorrect, as “Seeing Eye” is a trademark name. The difference is the same as between photocopy and Xerox. My dogs are guide dogs.

I love to watch my Siberians interact. I enjoy and admire the social structure. I love to watch the joy they bring to their play and their work. I never met another breed that could do that in the same way. It is the best therapy I have ever found for what could be an all to depressing life at times. I have found over the years that I feel I experience less stress with even 6 to 10 Siberians around than I do with none.

I tell most people that Siberians are not for everyone. They do mesh with my personality well, and improve the quality of my life immensely, so I am willing to tolerate and accept that they are not obedient, docile, well domesticated examples of over breeding. I happen to like the fact that a Siberian is not protective.

When I had a shepherd as a guide dog, I had to keep in mind every day, and work on socializing her, so she would not bite someone because she had become over protective of me. At the same time, I had to be careful not to-over-socialize her so she would become distracted when working by all those friendly people. Siberians understand fuzzy logic, so I can socialize them to balance their working life and social life to my advantage.

Siberians are high maintenance dogs. I tell everyone that. They can also do what no other dog can easily do when properly handled and managed. Yes, they take more handling and management, and if all you want is mediocre performance, then any old breed might just gth,o, but when there is a need for performance and intelligence beyond the ordinary for a task, there is little competition for the Siberian. As one of my friends says–Gary likes ‘extreme’ guide dogs.

Are there mutts out there that can do as well as a Siberian? Certainly. The problem is, there are plenty of mutts out there, and most will not do what you may want at all, and you have to try them out one at a time to get just the right one–that can take a long time, and be rough on all the mutts.

Siberians have some definite qualities that keep repeating themselves over and over again. Like any good breed, they can reliably be shown to have the right qualities spread through the population. I have trained a number of guide dogs now that are Siberian. The average flunk out rate for retrievers from guide dog schools is between 80 and 90%. My statistics are the other direction–80% of my dogs have made it as guide dogs, and performed well above the best that conventional dogs can do. Tahvi, Machiko, and Suki are all relatives from Lee Reed’s Aurora Siberians. Breeding cannot be ignored when selecting a candidate to be educated as a guide dog.

Choosing a dog is like the dating game–choosing your own partner. None of them are “perfect”, whatever that might mean. It is mostly a matter of picking out what you most enjoy living with, and can tolerate in terms of daily interaction. Guide dogs must be of high initiative, and low obedience, because that is what the job demands. I often describe a Siberian guide dog candidate as being one that can not just say “No”, but one that can say “Hell no”. That is the quality I want when I direct the dog to do something suicidal, because I was unable to have the information for an appropriate directive. That being said, it is maddening at times to pick up the harness and leash to go somewhere, and have my guide dog do the Siberian 500 in the house before choosing to get harnessed.

I like my dogs to be more seen than heard–quietly present, and ready to help. That means that I pay a price in having a certain amount of independence and independent action that I have to tolerate, and be gracious about if I want to continue enjoying a satisfactory quality of life. This is really no different than having any other partner. Siberians are great for teaching us all mutual respect.

There are probably no perfect marriages, and no perfect dogs, but as I grow older, I suspect that the fault lies in us, and not those around us. One gets the most out of both by being the best partner one can be each day and every day.

Copyright© May 2000