Tahvi’s Story - The Training of a Guide Dog
The remarkable Tahvi was born February 21, 1992. This article chronicles his early years up to 1996. The story was published with permission in the BASH newsletter from April through October, 1996. I have added an afterward, to summarize some of the highpoints that followed these early years. Tahvi died on January 21, 2004.
Why a Siberian?
Typically, traditional guide dog schools use shepherds, retrievers, and border 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 eight years. I retired her with hip dysplasia, cataracts, skin problems, low thyroid, digestive ailments, and occasional other maladies from time to time!
I enjoyed the help that 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. She was a best bred shepherd, as she was a product of the school’s own breeding program.
I conducted my own research on possible dogs for a guide dog. I was attracted by the husky. These dogs enjoy robust health, an enthusiastic nature, and the kind of intelligence essential to being a great guide dog. Some had been guide dogs, though not many. I decided to make the attempt.
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. It seemed 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 an 80 pound dog in compact cars, airplanes, or at theaters.
I also liked the odor-free nature of huskies. A wet shepherd is unpleasant to have on a bus, in the office, or even in the home. A less doggie smelling dog seemed an asset.
A shepherd can be moody at the best of times, and positively unpleasant if one decides to take offense at being corrected, or is having an off day because it is hot outside. I wanted a dog with a positive outlook — a real optimist, who would do something for my occasional depressions other than reinforce them! It seemed there could be only one dog to meet all those requirements.
I trained my first husky, Kodiak, and I was very fortunate in many respects. Kodiak, as he matured, became a dignified professional dog who fulfilled my every expectation of what a truly great guide dog should be. After that, I was sold on huskies!
When I lived in Hawaii, I did not use a guide dog. This is due to the fact that quarantine regulations are so severe as to make travel with a guide dog almost impossible. The quarantine period at that time, was 4 months, and there was no exemption for guide dogs.
Huskies make great guide dogs because they love working, take work seriously, enjoy having new experiences, always have a positive attitude, enjoy people and children, and never take things personally. We should all have such great companions and working partners!
When we moved to California in 1992, I again chose to train my own husky. There seemed little choice for me after my experiences with Kodiak, and my general good feelings about the breed. I contacted Lee Reed, of Aurora Siberians, and after viewing with him, I acquired Tahvi — or Tahvi me.
Training Can Be Difficult
I started Tahvi’s training in September of 1992. I began by taking Tahvi on walks around my neighbor hood on leash. I used my cane, and just had Tahvi come along. At every street corner, I would make him sit, praise him, and have him wait until it was safe to cross. We did this each day, gradually getting Tahvi used to being out near traffic, and aware of curbs. After a couple of weeks, we introduced him to his harness, which he, like Kodiak, instantly loved — very unlike shepherds, who will eat their harness, or chew it off.
The next days were spent in continuing the original exercise with encouragement for Tahvi to guide. He had learned the limited route, so he would tentatively set out along it. With encouragement, he learned to walk along and stop at corners. It took time to teach him to actually stop reliably, and to not sniff along the way, but he did learn quite quickly.
After only 3 weeks, I put all my work to the test, and took Tahvi out to dinner with us to a very nice restaurant. He settled down behind my chair near a window, and behaved very well. That set a pattern for going out that persisted for all his working years.
I had practiced having Tahvi at my feet at the home dinner table, and I never feed my dogs from the table, so I was quite sure of his manners in advance. It is also important to plan for future events.
One school of thought might think that taking a young dog out so early in training was foolishness. Actually, it isn’t. The dogs are inexperienced, and a husky will react predictably in this situation. They are reserved, because they are uncertain. It is overwhelming, and demanding, so they typically respond by being a lot less enthusiastic and boisterous. I reinforced that, and it became the pattern.
As Tahvi progressed in learning to guide, I began “rewarding” him by expanding the route on which we trained. Huskies love change. They often quickly grow bored with the same routine which gives them an unjustified reputation as stubborn. Huskies thrive on stimulation and interaction. They will create what they don’t have, through games and varying the instructions they are given.
As I expanded the route, there were plenty of opportunities to make demands on even an energetic husky. A guide dog cannot simply obey commands. A good guide dog has to intelligently disobey commands, and use a lot of initiative in solving unstructured problems. I make more demands on my dogs than traditional training, because there is a lot I don’t know about what might be happening that a sighted trainer would know. My dogs have to think early, and think accurately.
It is not desirable to over-stress the obedience of a guide dog. The last thing a guide dog should be is perfectly obedient. They are generally selected to be “intelligently disobedient”, and show high initiative. That is a bit of a paradox to obedient behavior.
I began Tahvi’s training with very little obedience. Virtually all teaching was with positive reinforcement only. As months went by, I demanded a higher standard of excellence reinforced with verbal praise, and verbal discipline for the most part. Occasionally — and rarely for the training of Tahvi — I used a leash correction. I reserved this for severe offenses, since verbal guidance is all that he normally required. Tahvi is a “soft” dog, and a leash correction was much too harsh for him in most instances. He takes my verbal displeasure seriously, and tries to please me.
I was surprised to find that when I began his obedience training that he had no objection. When Tahvi was young, he would get up in the morning, and begin his day like a cannon ball. He was awake, full of energy, and ready for his walk. It was hard to get him to eat breakfast first. As a matter of fact he would get so excited, that I had to slow him down, or the excitement led to further spirals of uncontrolled enthusiasm. So, I began obedience training before taking him on a walk. Much to my surprise, he took to it with typical husky enthusiasm. He bugled when he performed successfully, and when he failed to sit calmly and rest as he should, he would jump around excitedly demanding just “one more chance!” I had a hard time being serious enough to keep him concentrating on his exercises.
Tahvi learned all the commands, and could perform each perfectly — when he could restrain himself enough to comply. He learned that when he did complete them successfully, we went for his walk. So at the end of the session I was often rewarded with a trumpeting husky’s declaration of success.
Initiative is very important in guide dogs, and counter to obedience. Guide dog instructors like to talk about the criteria for guide dogs being initiative, emotional stability, and intelligent disobedience. Guide dogs are not very well trained for obedience because it is counter to the first and third qualities most sought for in selecting guide dogs.
Initiative is required for the dog to problem solve. Too many situations contain variables and circumstances of which I can know nothing. My dog has to make the decision to do something, or we are stuck. That can be dangerous. The dog has to take the initiative and solve the problem appropriately.
As an example (that is all too typical) I can site the case of crossing a street that has multiple lanes, and having an inconsiderate driver pull into the crosswalk blocking it. If we stand still, the light may change leaving us in the middle of a street with cars going everywhere around us. Playing Russian roulette with automobiles is not my idea of entertainment. I want to have my dog figure a way out — now.
The solution is not one I can dictate. Walking in front of the car may be unsafe if it takes us into the traffic lane, especially with cars coming up from behind us. Walking behind the car may be unsafe as well in that it may put us between two cars , with the possibility that the driver in front may decide to back up for some unknown reason, and not realize we are behind him.
The dog had better think quickly — and well ahead of the problem. The key is to not have the situation develop if it can be helped. That means that Tahvi has to have figured out the problem before leaving the safety of the curb or island from which we start. It is possible, and has happened, that the situation developed after that was no longer a reality. Tahvi solves this by being conservatively assertive. He walks in front of the first car — right up to the offending driver’s side and stares the driver down. Several times they have backed up to let us pass with apologies.
On the occasions when this has not occurred Tahvi is quite sure that the car we are now standing in front of is not going to move. He has placed himself in a position to be visible to the next driver behind the offending motorist, and when the inconsiderate driver has removed himself/herself — the next car usually stops to allow us safe passage to the curb. This happened several times at Park and Soquel. Tahvi was good — very good, in fact the best at this of any of the guide dogs I have ever had.
Intelligent disobedience is knowing when to tell the master “no”. If I ordered Tahvi forward, and he realized that some driver was ready to make a right turn on red regardless of us having the right of way, he had best stand still. He would. He had a strong sense of self preservation.
How does one encourage initiative? It can be suppressed, and I find encouraged with appropriate education. I did it through a careful program requiring months of work. When Tahvi guided me we encountered many situations which are trivial as well as those which are major. I began by having him make choices in trivial situations. Which way around an obstacle do we go? Often there are two or three solutions, and I let him choose. In any situation there may be more than one answer, and the important fact was that of Tahvi recognizing alternate possibilities. If he made a choice differing from my own, I would let him make it if it truly makes no difference in terms of the outcome.
This may extend to which approach we make when we come to an obstacle, which way we walk around the block, or whether we use a short cut or not. I often would stop, and say nothing. Tahvi would seem to think about it, and offer a tentative indication of what he expected us to do. I then directed him to continue. After a while he made choices more assertively. later, he became quite definite, though he learned to revise his thinking immediately, if I directed him to do so.
When we approached low hanging tree branches on a sidewalk, Tahvi had to decide if we should go into the street to go around them, or if I could safely navigate by stooping beneath them. Sometimes I would duck beneath them, but complained verbally if I thought we could have gone around more easily. He learned to take me around in the street unless he decided that he did not have the visibility to do so. Then I had to duck beneath branches — bow to his greater knowledge, so to speak.
Tahvi could soon make confident decisions about going around cars at a construction site, moving into a traffic lane when the sidewalk was blocked, and staying where he was until the situation changed and produced a better set of circumstances. It is one of the few times Tahvi displayed patience during those early years.
There were a couple of situations where Tahvi gave others a look communicating his assessment of their behavior — at least in their perceptions. We came down the sidewalk one day to find that construction was blocking the next twenty feet of sidewalk. Worker’s were doing some concrete work, and had hoses, wheel barrows, shovels, frames, and other debris every where. The workers immediately called out for us to stop, and one began directing the others to move various objects out of the way, Tahvi stopped for a moment or two, then proceeded, with some interesting expression on his face for the one giving orders. The man said to me, “I guess I should just let him do his job.”
Tahvi of course, navigated the obstacles quickly and safely. He made it look easy. I wish I could have seen Tahvi’s look. Anita often has said that Tahvi always communicated so clearly.
Another day Tahvi was cruising along the sidewalk at a good 3.5 mph, and there were containers with bottles for the usual Wednesday collection. A man called out to us about the containers, and his voice trailed off as he watched Tahvi. Tahvi didn’t even slow down, he veered left out one driveway, and in the next with total grace and control. He had it all figured for thirty feet in advance, and knew what he was going to do. He uses every curb cut, and every driveway he can to make his job easier, as well as my walking.
When a guide dog uses curbs, it must stop and await my direction to go forward. Tahvi learned to optimize his moving time by planning the most accessible route. Huskies like efficiency — Kodiak learned the use of these conveniences as well.
Huskies Will Be Huskies
High initiative means that a husky sense of humor is likely to get ample expression as well. I got a sample of this from Tahvi when training him to take me along the beach.
Tahvi had a mischievous sense of humor. I often would take him for walks on the beach. I was careful to always use the same ramp from the access road down to the beach when I first took him. That is very important. When I went down to the beach alone with Tahvi, I could not determine for myself, how to get from the beach back up to the road. By teaching Tahvi the way I could rely on him to take me back the way I came.
New Brighton Beach is nice because it is possible to walk along the beach for more than a mile to the next State park — Sea Cliff. Tahvi had to know when we were getting back though, and find the way back up to the road. He did so reliably every time. One part of the beach looked like another to me, so I needed Tahvi to find our way out of the park.
Tahvi was not above walking me into the waves when we took such a walk. He loves the ocean. He would chase waves, dig for them, and always consider it a treat to be taken to the beach. When I did not wish to get wet, I had to walk further up the beach from the waves to avoid tempting Tahvi. When the tide was high on one occasion, I was actually walking along the berm which is about two to three feet above the level of the beach. We walked along the beach to the creek as usual, and were on our way back when Tahvi engaged in his fun.
We were most of the way back to New Brighton walking parallel to the high waves along the top of the berm. Tahvi suddenly jumped forward and up — taking me with him — right off into space! The berm had ended and Tahvi, instead of signalling me by stopping as he should have, jumped out into space taking me along. He knew it was only a couple of feet to the soft sand of the beach — but I didn’t!
I landed safely enough, on my feet as a matter of fact, but I did experience an adrenaline shock. I don’t know what other people would say, but I know Tahvi was laughing at me! Especially, as he was cavorting about, doing his “lamb dance”.
Every Day Life With Tahvi
I was often asked about how I trained Tahvi in everyday matters. What techniques did I use for more usual husky problems?
One day Anita and I were working at the house on our computers intently. Tahvi was in his backyard being bored. He had been in and out several times, and was growing tired of our failure to entertain him. He finally went outside and stayed out. We kept working — paying little attention to how quiet he had grown. Anita finally took a break and looked out in the yard. She gasped in dismay. Tahvi had dug six holes in a row. Any one of these holes was large enough to hold him in it! He had nearly made a trench across the yard, and of course, scattered dirt everywhere. It was a mess.
Anita went out and began cleaning up. She swept the lanai, and covered the holes with what dirt was still available. Our usual procedure to discourage digging was to bury his stool from the yard in his holes. This is very effective as a deterrent to further excavation in the same area. This time however, his massive excavations precluded this simple solution. I suggested we get out the black pepper to put in the holes. Anita did so, and presently came inside.
In a little while she looked outside to see what Tahvi was doing. He was walking around the area of the holes looking like he might dig them out again. But, suddenly he began using his nose to push dirt from around the yard into the holes. It was the first time we had ever seen a dog use his nose as a bulldozer! He soon ran out of dirt, since it was so scattered. He began looking around for more, and seeing some on the bottom board of the fence used his nose to push it off, and over the holes as well. We nearly fell off of our chairs laughing.
Tahvi really does not like pepper! It was the first time I ever saw a husky un-dig a hole!
For a while I had a challenge with Tahvi eating his bed. I suppose it is his version of a Bed and Breakfast — a bed for breakfast. He kept eating his cedar mattress. I bought burlap sacks to contain its remains, and he would eat those as well. I put Bitter Apple on the bedding, and in a couple of days it would wear off, and he would commence his mastications once again.
I finally found the solution. I bought another burlap sack, and used some lemon scented Dawn dish detergent on it. I rubbed it in over the entire surface and let it dry without rinsing it. I put that over his cedar mattress, and he did not chew it after that. The first couple of days he was not thrilled about sleeping on it, but then he slept on it every night.
The Traveling Tahvi
Huskies love adventure, and Tahvi was no exception. We took a trip to Atlanta when Tahvi was seven months into training. That was a real test of how well Tahvi was doing.
Tahvi was a traveling dog. He flew like a pro both ways. On the flight from San Jose to Phoenix, he was only the slightest bit nervous, but settled down quickly. In phoenix, we had expected to have a break before the next flight, but did not. That meant that Tahvi had to go much longer with no stop for him. He managed very well, though the total time for him exceeded nine hours with no trees.
When flying with a guide dog, the airlines are supposed to provide seating with sufficient room to accommodate the dog. This means that we request the bulkhead seats. The floor space is sufficient here to permit the dog to lie at one’s feet. It is nice if there is an empty seat as well, so that there is additional unoccupied floorspace, but this is not required by the law. On the flight going to Atlanta we had the good fortune to have the extra seat on both flights. On the way home this was not true on the last flight. Tahvi managed though. The dog never needs a seat, but floor area is growing to be more of a premium as planes get smaller and passengers more crowded.
The flight to Atlanta from Phoenix was supposed to have been on a larger aircraft, but there were so few passengers that they put us all on a 737. This meant that Tahvi did not have as much room, but then he did not know the difference. This is a *very* good reason to have a husky! I value him being only 45 pounds, and highly compact.
When we landed in Atlanta and went to baggage claim, Tahvi saw the doors outside and insisted we take him out first. We did, and he did not even wait to get to the first tree — he chose a lamp post instead!
The Atlanta airport is so large, that the concourses are connected to the terminal areas by an underground system a mile long. In this underground transit corridor, There is a choice of walking, a people mover, or a train. We chose the train. This is an automatic computer controlled train. One has to move fast or a computer voice chastises one for being in the way of the doors. Tahvi managed as though he had always done it.
I learned something about huskies in Atlanta that I have suspected for many years. This may be a new bit of information not well-known among husky owners.
When I had my previous husky guide dog, Kodiak, I found out that he had an interesting phobia. In Atlanta there are very large shopping malls. There are in fact, quite a large number of them around the city. They were built at different times, and have differing styles. Several have upper floors designed as balconies overlooking open lower courtyards. Some of these are built solidly, and some are built with a more resilient architecture such that they vibrate when you walk on the upper floor. I had found out years ago that Kodiak would never walk near the edge of the balcony of one of these malls. Others he would, so it never seemed to relate to heights. I suspected that it was a vibration that he sensed that he equated to “bad ice”. I could never prove that this was more than an aberration of one dog — until now.
Tahvi acted in precisely the same manner. He refused to go near the edge of the balcony, or upper floor in a mall where Kodiak had behaved in the same manner. In other malls he had no problem. I am completely convinced now that these huskies sense the “swaying” or bouncing of the upper level with people walking on it. The result is that they interpret this as dangerous and retreat to safer footing. Tahvi and Kodiak acted in precisely the same way. They put all four feet in front of them, and refuse to go further. Each walked close to the store fronts venturing only a minimum distance from the solid footing near the building. If I attempted to force them to further distances from the store fronts each rebelled in the same manner. Neither would even permit me to lead them by leash to the edge of the upper level. Each would lie down and hug the floor — refusing to move.
In two other malls built differently, tahvi had no such reaction. In one of them that was around at the time, Kodiak lived, he too, never reacted either. It isn’t the height.
What is curious about this is that neither dog had had any experience with ice. The behavior is apparently passed on genetically. Possibly Tanya told Tahvi when he was a puppy — but I doubt it.
I know that many people have wondered how huskies know bad ice without taking a sled out upon it. Apparently the answer is that they are sensitive to vibrations — perhaps through their feet. These vibrations may be sensed in a similar manner to seismic vibrations, and tell the husky a similar story.
Tahvi Goes Shopping
Another funny happening was that in one mall we went into a store looking for a present for Anita’s daughter who was graduating from California State at Northridge the next month. We were with my sister, Diane, and her husband, Al. On the way out the door, Al politely stated, “I think your dog has picked up something.”
Tahvi had nabbed a stuffed black cat with velcro feet on the way by a display. He was carrying it in his mouth out the door!
The store staff were very good about it. They laughed, and asked Anita, “Since the dog picked it out, Isn’t he going to buy it for him?”
I didn’t. My sister accuses me of being a modern blind Fagan from oliver.
Later, that following Christmas, my sister and her husband sent Tahvi a present: the cat he had chosen. We kept it for him for years, and he always cared for it. We put up where he could not demolish it, and brought it down for visits at intervals.
Going Out and Up
Tahvi was very well behaved at restaurants we went to, and quite the center of much attention anywhere we went. He had learned to ride escalators, but I did not practice as much as I might have, as there were so few where we were living. When we were in Atlanta, he got more practice. He was unsure, but quickly got back into the routine. The trick is to keep him moving when going onto, or coming off, an escalator.
Thirty years ago guide dog schools did not teach dogs to do escalators. We were told to use elevators or stairs. About twenty years ago most schools began teaching dogs to do escalators. I taught Tahvi. Tahvi caught on right away. He had a sense that the safest place for his feet was in the middle of a step, and knew when coming off to avoid the vanishing steps.
Tahvi was also very popular with my parents and sister. My parents admired his intelligence, and my sister liked the way he could talk. I found it easier to teach Tahvi to talk in only some places and not in others. Basically when working he is not to talk. When off duty at home, he can talk politely. That means that he may make unusual — not very loud sounds. It has worked. He is doing very well by this agreement. If he talks in public I generally know that he needs something like water, or to go outside. Like many huskies, he can talk quite well in other circumstances! It probably would have been impossible, and cruel to forbid talking, so I taught him to moderate his talking into acceptable communications. He pleased me greatly with his success at mastering this concept.
On the trip back, we flew to Phoenix first on a 757 (which meant more room for Tahvi), and changed planes. We had to go from one concourse to another, and this required using two People Movers. These slidewalks are similar to escalators, but a little different in use. Tahvi took to them quite well. He made the general association, and surprised me by knowing what to do when he came to the end — he sped up so he did not go over on his nose! Tahvi handled these movers as though he had been told how in advance.
Again, there was no opportunity to have Tahvi go outside during transfer. That meant that he traveled some eight hours with no stops. He did it. He was quite thirsty upon reaching San Jose, and when we stopped to get something to eat, I got him a big bowl of water. He emptied it.
Tahvi matured greatly with the experiences. He underwent that permanent change which occurs in guide dogs. This change is the realization within the dog that the master really does not see, and the dog’s acceptance of what that means as a personal responsibility. It as though such an experience enables the dog to take all the independent concepts, and generalize them into one body of knowing. It is the wisdom of the guide dog, and they start acting with greater authority in every day work.
This did not mean that Tahvi never made a mistake again. It did mean that he would think in any new situation. He would make a visible effort to accommodate my inability to see in his guiding behavior. He would also on occasion take advantage of my not seeing for his own purposes! After all, he is a husky which might also be pronounced as “opportunist”.
Tahvi became well educated. He learned to make good decisions, and took his work seriously. His behavior when I depended on him to guide in harness became radically different from his behavior out of harness. While in harness, he was the professional guide dog, and while out of harness, he could play the clown dog very well.
It is All in the Gait
I should mention the importance of good gait in a guide dog. I had had three guide dogs including Tahvi, at the time of his early training. The gait of the dog is enormously important. I happen to like huskies with a gliding gait. When I hold the harness handle the movements of the dog tell me not just the direction in which the dog is travelling, but also the nature of the terrain over which the dog is navigating. A dog with an irregular, clumsy gait would be giving me signals that are similar to those I might expect from a dog who is trying to tell me that the footing is broken, or uneven. When I had my Shepherd, Nell, this problem occurred as she aged.
As Nell got older she developed hip dysplasia. The result is that her gait became uneven when climbing slight inclines, curbs, steps, or sometimes just uneven because it was a cold morning. On cold mornings in fact, I gave her Bufferin so that she could guide at all. The result was that it became difficult to tell the nature of the terrain versus her uneven gait.
Ideally, the best guide dog has a gait which makes it seem that the harness is floating in air. That way any change in the orientation or movement of the harness handle is clearly a signal from the dog. These signals can communicate a great deal of information if they are not contaminated by extraneous movements.
I rely on the signals that Tahvi sends to tell me about his judgments concerning the path ahead, his behavior (is he paying attention?), and how he feels. If Tahvi doesn’t feel well, or has trouble with a foot (perhaps because he hurt a paw), his gait shows it first.
Guide dogs vary in their typical work habits and behaviors. Tahvi usually had a positive pull on the harness. He liked to “pull” slightly, even when he had settled down after the first mile or so. This was particularly true if we were working new territory or fun places like the beach, as opposed to the “old route”.
Tahvi had an even gait in his younger years. He actually walked so quietly when he chose that I could not tell where he had gone to in the house. I put a “harmony ball” around his neck attached to his collar. This makes pleasant chimes in a very quiet manner when he moved. The result was that Tahvi learned to move so quietly that he did not even jingle it. I changed to multiple tags, and those jingled well enough most of the time for me to know what he was doing.
Tahvi was challenged by the spring growth each year. So many of the trees grew so much each year, that their limbs would hang down at face and head level for me. Tahvi had the task of keeping me from walking into these. It is one of the hardest things to teach a guide dog. Tahvi did quite well with this. He learned to think carefully before approaching such a situation, and warned me by slowing, or stopping. If he stopped, I knew to reach up and move the branch aside, or to command Tahvi to find a way around it. If I directed him to go “forward” he would take action to avoid the obstacle which sometimes meant that I had to go into the street. If I directed him to go “straight” he would proceed, slowly, trying to leave clearance for my head to just brush by the leaves. If this was not possible he would wait until I either cleared the path or gave another command.
Guide dogs are allowed to have branches or leaves brush me, but not hit me in the face or body. This is sometimes a judgment call, and takes time to learn. The standard may vary with the master. I am pretty tough, partly since I wear glasses, and I don’t want them scratched or knocked off of my face. I have enough vision to see obstacles to my right, but none at all on my left. Branches from the left are especially dangerous. Tahvi was more likely to make a mistake on a new route than a known route. This is typical of guide dogs.
The ultimate challenge comes with any guide dog, when another dog is near as we approach overhanging branches. That has to be the toughest challenge for a husky pup. The dog has to actually put me first and forget (at least post pone) interest in the other dog. That is discipline! Tahvi was far above average in this regard, and got better as he matured.
A Day at the Wharf
On one occasion, we went to Monterey, and walked around Fisherman’s Wharf. Tahvi loved it. He kept trying to chase all the sea birds of course, and I am fairly tolerant of that behavior, I control it, but I prefer he maintain some interest in his environment. I am a firm believer that attempting to eliminate interest in the environment, produces a depressed dog. Tahvi was a dog long before he learned to be a guide dog, and I owed it to him to respect that.
Tahvi met a monkey at the Wharf. A man with an organ and a monkey was there collecting money from all the passers by. We stopped and I took Tahvi quite close. Tahvi was fascinated, and interestingly enough, so was the monkey. The monkey kept trying to come closer to Tahvi, and this annoyed his master, since he was more interested in having his animal collect money for him. Tahvi stood politely, wagging his tail, and staring at the monkey. He did not say a thing, only watched.
I moved him away after a few minutes so as not to provoke the man further. Tahvi left with his usual good humor, and no reluctance. Tahvi always believed that if we are going to a different place it can only be that something else is there for him — that might be even better! He never showed any displeasure at my changing direction or plans.
On the observation deck overlooking the harbor, Tahvi stood on his hind legs to see over the rail just as any person might. From his level he could see nothing, since there was a boarded up portion of the fence from about four inches to 40 inches. Tahvi simply stood up, and poked his head over the boarded up portion just under the top rail. People started watching him more than the harbor! They are always surprised by his almost child like behavior.
Interestingly enough, as Tahvi got older, he did not do this. He even was reluctant to go out on this part of the wharf, as he seemed to think it was too dangerous. I found the change interesting.
These incidents and more, illustrate how a husky can mature in to a wonderful guide dog, and how they can learn to enjoy the job even with its restrictions because it does offer the kind of variety on which they thrive.
The San Diego Zoo Trip
In February of 1996, we enjoyed a long weekend in San Diego. It was one of great weather, good food, and fun times. We took Tahvi to the zoo there, and saw the zoo from an entirely different perspective. Tahvi is extremely interactive, and we expected to see him react to the animals. We did not expect to see the animals interact with him. One usually thinks of the animals as existing in their own caged world, largely choosing to be unaware of those people outside of their cages. This is simply not so. They were incredibly aware of Tahvi in most instances, and reacted to his presence in often very obvious ways. Our adventure began with our late flight out from San Jose. By the time we got to our hotel in San Diego, it was 10:30 p.m. I fed Tahvi, and we walked him afterwards. This made it 11:30 or so when we returned to the hotel, and we were hungry. There was nothing open, so we ordered a sandwich to be delivered. We got it at almost 1:00 a.m. That meant that we got to bed pretty late!
I got up at 6:30 that morning, so we didn’t get a lot of sleep. We ate, and got ready to go to the zoo. We made the zoo at around 10:00 a.m.
Upon admission, we found that we had to talk with security about taking a guide dog through the zoo. After some preliminary work, we were permitted to take Tahvi through the zoo, but with an escort, to be sure that the animals didn’t get frightened, and that Tahvi didn’t misbehave. The assigned escort was an extremely nice young man named Norman, and the actual tour was more like having a guided tour than a security escort.
Norman was to observe Tahvi and the animals, and make determinations as to when we might go into some areas, and when we had to avoid them. Some areas were off limits, such as the aviary, where frightened birds might damage themselves on their cages upon seeing a predator. Norman was quite impressed with our husky guide dog, and very perceptive of his behavior.
We were unable to move into the primate area because the monkeys reacted so strongly to Tahvi when he was still 25 yards away. They set up such a chorus upon seeing him, that it was advisable to not enter their area. We did get to move into the big cat area — at least a part of it. The cats, normally appearing to be oblivious of the crowds, often stood, moved to the fore parts of their cages, then followed along the inside of the cage until we passed by. This was an accomplishment, since normally guide dogs are not permitted in the area at all. The exception came about because the keeper for that area gave us permission to enter, and Tahvi behaved well. Tahvi walked on the opposite side of the sidewalk from the cages, and sometimes crowded against me. He never made a single noise, appearing to be aware that these were certainly not house cats! We avoided the snow leopard, since it was known to react to dogs, and we did pass its cage from a lower road. The snow leopards, two of them, could see us from 100 feet away, and one of them watched us take each step until we passed from view. The other was asleep, so we did not upset it. Anita said that it was the only time in her life where she felt the stare of a wild animal who didn’t want us near. Norman was pleased with the encounters. The visitors to the zoo at that time got a better view of the animals, since the cats normally sleep, and are hard to see clearly. They woke, and followed us, one even standing on its hind legs to watch us leave the area. The other visitors were quite entertained by the sight of such big cats watching a little husky who was probably more than a little concerned about becoming dinner for one!
The supervisor for the cat area was impressed and pleased. The results were so favorable, that other guide dogs might be permitted in this area in future. Tahvi apparently, was one of the first.
The escort stated he would be able to give the handlers some excellent information as a result of our visit. Animals that he expected to react reacted mildly, or in a very acceptable way — as with the big cats, and others, like the deer, reacted strongly, even barking at Tahvi until we moved from their area completely.
The deer were quite funny! There were six of them in one very large enclosure. Tahvi was looking in at them, and the females lined up in a row, and began moving towards him, staring intently. Norman decided it was time to move on at that point. As we did so, the male stood, and joined with the females. They moved after us, and began a sharp barking. The barks are single, explosively loud sounds that hit like the impact of a drumbeat. They are designed to frighten, and could easily do so. They kept this up until we were quite a long distance away. One interesting development was that when we first took Tahvi to a caged area, he would, with encouragement, put his forepaws on the top of the low wall around the area, and look inside. He often could not spot the animal, which might be hiding, and only partially visible. If the animal didn’t move, Tahvi became bored, and jumped down. After a couple of hours, he would spend minutes looking, and learned to keep looking, and using his senses until he did find the animal inside of the cage. We, as humans, can converse and say, “Look at…” Tahvi has no such advantage. To him, each cage was just another wall with vegetation behind it unless the animal was clearly moving, or choosing to make itself known. He would even get distracted by bird life common to the area, and miss the animals. After a time, this changed dramatically, and Tahvi even got some animals to interact with him. One particular tree kangaroo put on a peek-a-boo game with Tahvi, with both participating. The game lasted almost 5 minutes. Another animal, a blue larakeet, did a dance for tahvi, and played in the cage just in front of him for minutes with Tahvi intently watching. This parrot wasn’t in the least afraid of him, and he never threatened it, only watched it take a dust bath, dance around, and chirp at him.
One of the other surprises was his reaction to the brown bears. The great grizzly female he saw from above, was a huge specimen, and she was quite active, walking along a stream in her pen while we viewed her from a catwalk above, and well out of reach! Tahvi looked, jumped down, jumped up, and looked again. He then turned his head to Anita, and with very wide eyes, seemed to be asking her if she saw this too! He then looked back, and standing on his hind feet feet, with front paws on the wall, kept looking. He would jump down, jump up and look again, jump down, and appear to think about it before deciding he had better look again. He was caught between being apprehensive at not seeing this huge animal on the other side of the low wall, though 20 feet below him, and seeing it — a horrific sight! He seemed relieved to leave the bears.
Tahvi didn’t like the wild hogs at all! Any version of wild pig got a refusal to look at for more than a moment it took to identify it. Then tahvi would insist it was time to move along to another exhibit. One might say he was bored, but I suspect it was a reaction that is almost genetic in nature.
The macaques, a species of monkey from India, are in a special enclosure away from the other monkeys. They are being bred to a population which will allow them to be split into two groups, one to go to St. Katharine Island off the coast of Georgia to be bred to high enough levels for return to the wild in India in years to come. They are kept isolated from human contact as far as possible, even being fed whole fruits, so they do not get used to humans cutting their foods like other primates. They are an endangered species, and one of many such projects at the zoo.
As we went by, the macaques saw Tahvi, and began to move towards us. Norman moved us along, and the macaques followed. They were not upset, but very curious, and Tahvi was just as curious about them! He kept looking at them over the low wall, and they kept coming after us. Finally they reached the end of there cage, and continued watching us as long as they could see us, gathered at one end of their cage.
We saw a rare tree fox, and it is such a timid animal that Norman said that this was only the second time he had seen it in two years of being at the zoo. It usually hides from humans. It was in plain view, and watching Tahvi intently. Tahvi watched it as well, and they kept this up for a minute or so, before Norman moved us along. He didn’t want the timid animal to be frightened, but it was also amazing that it came into the open to watch Tahvi, when it normally would not.
Tahvi was surprisingly interested in the various goats from around the world. He inspected everyone, and most eyed him with equal interest. Few animals remained oblivious to our passage.
Our visit lasted almost 5 hours, and covered 8 miles of walking through animal areas. Tahvi was quite exhausted at the end of the day — a first! I suspect it was emotional and exhaustion through concentration more than physical. After another day of intense activity, he got almost punch drunk from stimulation and hard work. While always a clown dog, he became a slap-stick comedian. Upon returning home, he slept 12 hours, and took a couple of days to recover fully. I was surprised that his dreams did not disturbed him more!
Tahvi retired in November, 2003. He guided for 11 years, and more than 18,000 miles. The statistics are far less impressive than his life experiences. In 1998, we acquired Akamai, an alpha female Siberian pup. Tahvi helped me to train her as a guide dog. We had practiced earlier by training 3 other Siberians as guide dogs — one only for practice, one that chose to later become a therapy dog, and one special dog, Kami, who became a service dog.
Later, in 1999-2000, Tahvi helped train Machiko and Suki as guide dogs. Suki now lives and works as a guide dog in Florida, and Machiko is one of my current guide dogs, along with Akamai, Bronwyn, and Pakelika. It was Machiko who trained Bronwyn, and most recently, Pakelika.
Apparently, guiding runs in Tahvi’s family. Machiko is his half sister, Suki his niece, and Bronwyn his grandniece. But, it was Tahvi who taught me how a Siberian can teach another Siberian. Together we learned and explored the concepts of having a guide dog teach other Siberians to be guide dogs. I had always trained my dogs myself, which I now know is the hard way. Tahvi and Machiko are far more proficient teachers of Siberians than I am.
In 1996, we began fostering Siberians for the Bay Area Siberian Husky Rescue. During the next 2 years, we fostered some 34 dogs. We then started the Central Coast Northern Dog Rescue, CCNDR, in 1998. Since then, we have fostered and placed more than 250 dogs — nearly 1 per week, up to the retirement of Tahvi in the fall of 2003. That pattern continues to this day — we have now fostered and trained over 350 dogs as of May, 2005.
Tahvi is the one who helped get us started, showed me how he could help to train and civilize dogs that are often as difficult as foster children can be, and helped me teach an entire team to handle the work as the workload grew.
There were other recreational times, too. Trips to Yosemite were highlights, as well as trips to Oregon, Sacramento, and San Francisco. Tahvi loved “Phantom of the Opera”, and My Fair Lady.
Tahvi largely retained his excellent health. He developed sciatica, but additives to his food helped with that, and the occasional use of boots on his feet when he wore the pads down.
In October of 2003, Tahvi started losing his hearing. I made the decision then to retire him completely. I had already had Machiko train Bronwyn earlier that year, and Bronwyn was up to handling all the work formerly done by Tahvi, and then some. Tahvi had already been on semiretirement, working only a few days a week. There was no reason to keep him working when it was becoming difficult, stressful, and possibly dangerous to do so.
Tahvi enjoyed a retirement plan that few human Americans have these days. He took daily walks with anita and Pulu, as a companion dog, with no expectations that he do anything but enjoy himself, which he knew well how to do. Tahvi retired gracefully, and appeared to thoroughly enjoy his days of naps in the sunshine, good meals, and spending his days being a house dog.
It is Tahvi’s half sister Machiko, who is most like him, and it is she, who taught Bronwyn to carry on the banner so proudly raised by Tahvi years ago. Tahvi enjoyed his seniority in the pack up to his last day, and had it guaranteed by alpha Akamai, who would not accept anything less than deference to Tahvi, who raised and trained her from a pup.
Siberians may not have a written language, but I suspect they know something about this Tahvi, who has done more for members of his breed than dogs usually do. If every human being could follow his example, in respect to other humans all of our lives would be improved.