Intelligent Disobedience

A formal shot of Quan in harness

Quan at Seeing Eye

Veterans Affairs uses a social media platform called Pulse. The other day I received a notification from Pulse about a book entitled Intelligent Disobedience. The concept of intelligent disobedience is not new to me as all of my Seeing Eye dogs have been trained to intelligently disobey me in certain circumstances. Interested, I downloaded and began reading the book.

Right there in the preface was the story of a class the author was teaching during which he described intelligent disobedience. A student spoke up and announced she had the perfect example of intelligent disobedience lying beneath the table. She was raising a puppy for one of the guide dog schools and the dog was lying quietly at her feet. She described how, when her time was done with the dog, it would receive training in how to guide someone who is blind. Part of that training includes learning to intelligently disobey the handler if warranted.

What is intelligent disobedience?

Standing at a busy intersection in Morristown when I was training with Quan, my instructor tapped me on the shoulder to indicate I should command Quan forward. “Forward,” I said firmly, giving the proper hand signal.

Nothing happened. I repeated the command and hand signal but still Quan didn’t budge. Right at that moment a quiet car whizzed by. I couldn’t hear the car until it was slap in front of me but Quan had seen it. He knew that, if he obeyed my command, we would have been in danger.

Making Judgements

All five of my dogs have intelligently disobeyed me at one time or another. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad judge of traffic or a careless traveler. The decision of when to cross a street is made, not by the guide dog, but by the handler. When standing at an intersection I listen to the flow of traffic until I understand it. Then, when parallel traffic surges, I give the command to cross the street.

I’m almost always correct in my judgements of traffic but I have made mistakes. Aggressive drivers and quiet cars certainly complicate life. Fortunately, Seeing Eye dogs are not taught absolute obedience to handler commands. They’re taught to exercise their own judgement and disobey commands if necessary.

The Matter Of Trust

When I trained with my first dog in 1985 I remember worrying about almost everything. What if I didn’t handle the dog properly? What if I corrected the dog but the dog was right and I was wrong? What if I read the dog’s movements in the harness incorrectly and didn’t follow properly?

Over the intervening thirty-two years I’ve done all of those things. But dogs are the most forgiving creatures! Their training is so exquisite that none of my mistakes has caused irreparable harm. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the instruction I’ve received from the school when I trained with each dog in turn.

The combination of the dog’s training and the instruction I received has given me years of independent and confident travel. And at the heart of the teamwork is trust.

They’re good dogs.


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