The power of unwavering belief

If you’ve ever trained a puppy, you know they go through a couple of troublesome seasons called the “fear imprinting stages.” When the fear stage comes, things that never bothered the dog until yesterday are suddenly a source of terror. As a dog owner and trainer, he simply has to help them get through it.

But imagine being me, and at the other end of the leash is the pup who will become your guide dog, if he makes it. The stakes are much higher than a typical pet that is afraid of something you can control. As a tenant, I was allowed to have a service dog in training, by law, however, if she “gave up” for not doing her job well, I would not be able to keep her.

We had spent every waking and sleeping moment together since I took the squirming 9-week-old cub from his mother’s side. She just HAD to stand out. Period. No other options. And in particular, she needed to be able to ride public transportation with me while I spent the day working and running errands.

We had our challenges early on, because ever since our first car ride together, she’s gotten dizzy. She kept believing that she would get over it in time. When we first boarded a city bus together, she made a 3-foot puddle of drool on the floor, which was thankfully already wet from snow-covered boots. “I believe in you,” I told him. She could get over that, too, once we got a few wrinkles out of it.

One spring day, I was at a bus stop with baby Thunder. She had finally gotten over getting dizzy every time we were in a car and drooling on every bus. Having conquered these trends, I felt that we had achieved a lot. She had become a champion motorcyclist who would get into any vehicle wagging her tail.

Except for that fateful day, everything fell apart.

Thinking that today was just like any other day, Thunder and I went to the bus stop. The bus arrived and my champion pup, my future guide dog, turned into a wuss. He cowered under the bus bench, shaking violently. I literally had to drag her by her guide dog-in-training vest and force her up the steps.

One of the other passengers made a sarcastic comment about what a great guide dog he would be if he had to guide her to a bus. “She’s in training,” I told him. “I’m sure you don’t do everything right the first few times either.”

That was a critical moment for her and for me. I realized that she was in a stage of fear, and it was up to ME to help her get through it properly. The handler’s emotions are transmitted through the leash to the dog. If you are anxious, the dog will feel it. If you are upset, the dog will know it. If you don’t believe in the dog, he won’t believe in himself.

What would be your natural thoughts at a time like this? Remember, I had bred and trained the dog for several months at this point, and she was well on her way to becoming my guide dog. As my guide dog, she helped me navigate obstacles, find doors, and stay out of harm’s way as we traveled together. If she failed, he couldn’t hold her. Maybe he would be running “brain TV” scenarios about the dog failing and you having to give him up after months of bonding and training. Perhaps you would have doubts about your dog every time you approached a bus stop.

I needed to have unwavering faith in my dog’s ability to overcome her fear. I couldn’t harbor a moment’s doubt in her, and I couldn’t hide behind a show of feigned faith either. He had to feel my confidence through the leash. She had to believe with every fiber of her being that everything was okay.

What did I do? I spent time every day watching the two travel competently and safely on buses, planes, automobiles, trains, moving walkways, and even escalators. I affirmed to Trueno that she is a confident and competent guide who keeps me safe.

It took him a couple of weeks to get over his new fear of buses. I kept my faith strong and told her every day how much I believe in her. Thunder actually overcame her fear. She learned how to guide me safely through obstacles, how to find bus stops, doors, and mailboxes, and how to keep me safe when traveling.

Thunder became the champion guide dog she knew she was. All she had to do was believe.

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