When Sky was a little puppy and first came here from the small farm in North Carolina where she was born, she learned much of what she had to from my service dog, Flash.  As most dogs do, she learned the meaning of the words I was saying by checking to see what Flash did when I spoke to him.  But she also learned good manners, street smarts and the beginnings of the work that would one day be hers by keeping an eye on Flash and copying what he did.  She watched him follow me around the house.  She saw the way he watched me, to see if his help was needed.  She saw and tried to imitate the quiet, graceful way he worked, always standing by, always ready to jump in.

But at some point, some very sad point, Flash was no longer with us.  It was up to me then, it seemed, to let her know when she was on the right track, to let her know when she was being helpful, when I was grateful.  But being a service dog is complex work.  Even with a mentor, even with clear but quiet reinforcement for a job well done – or even well started – at some point the dog, like many workers of other species, must rely upon herself.  At some point, she must become confident enough and sure enough of her role as a working dog, that she will make her own decisions, sometimes surprising her partner by fixing something her partner did not yet know was broken.

 

Both photos from “Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep?”

 

I am only human.  I cannot, without instruments and from across the room, detect low blood sugar, high blood pressure, abnormal heart activity, a pending seizure or a storm of pain that’s on the way.  Nor am I able to figure out how a service dog knows exactly what to do to help when help is what’s needed.  But I do know this, that humans and dogs have been caring for each other since long before history was recorded and that however our lives, environments and needs change, they will change with us.  They will be at our sides,  self reliant and caring, wanting to be our partners in every way.

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