I’ve written stories about all of my Seeing Eye dogs except Kismet, my current guide. I’ve wondered about this because Kismet is the most colorful of the lot. Two things have happened recently that have impelled me to sit down and start writing.
I have two friends who are going to train with new dogs. One will be training with her second dog and the other with his third. The three of us have been exchanging books, movies, and stories about guide dogs. Although I am not contemplating training with a new dog any time soon, it’s been years since I sat down and read about the dog guide movement in general and the history of The Seeing Eye in particular.
The other thing that has nudged me to start writing was something that happened on a recent business trip. All three of my colleagues are also blind and work guide dogs. One night, at the bar, we were talking about our dogs, current and past. It was during this chat that I realized something for the first time. With my Quoddy dog, I had the intense emotional connection that sometimes exists between a dog and a person. It’s an intensity born of deep affection, deep appreciation, and an almost fierce feeling of protection. That said, I must admit that Quoddy was sometimes difficult to work. She seemed to make no decisions on her own but waited for guidance from me. I had to be super attentive and sometimes a cheerleader when working Quoddy. With my Beverly dog, I had a fabulous working dog although I never had that really intense emotional connection that I had with Quoddy. Kismet has it all. She’s a brilliant guide. She’s the most lovable dog I’ve ever known. She’s impish, cute, hilarious, and sometimes maddening. But she’s always brilliant. And so, at last, I sit down to pay tribute to my little shepherd dog.
In May of 2006, the school contacted me to ask if I would be interested in writing the annual fundraising appeal letter that goes to all graduates. I’ve just reread that letter and find it the perfect beginning to my tribute to Kismet. I reproduce it in full.
Dear Fellow Graduate:
Hi, this is Sue Martin with Kismet from the Seeing Eye class of March 2005. As graduates of The Seeing Eye, I know we all feel we’re part of an extended family. That’s why I’m writing to ask you to participate in The Seeing Eye’s annual fundraising campaign.
Last March I returned to the Seeing Eye for the fourth time in a 20-year relationship with the school and with the people who make the school what it is. From the moment I entered the front door, I felt that I had come home … not my real and permanent home but a sort of home away from home. All of the instructors were there to meet the arriving students, and although I had never been trained by any of them, I had absolute faith that the instruction I would receive would mirror all my previous experiences at The Seeing Eye.
To describe the following three weeks in only a few words could not possibly capture the extraordinary emotion of the experience. Staff members greeted me as old friends. Judy said I had hardly changed at all since I was last there. Doug gave me a big hug and asked how we were adjusting to life in our new home. Laughing, Drew returned my new dog, Kismet, to me when she escaped as I did my laundry.
But as much as I appreciate these moments of familial exchange, it is the real business of training and instruction that is the essence and heart of the school. I marveled that my new instructor, although he had never met me, was keenly aware of my needs and desires as well as my limitations. What a joy to receive my little shepherd girl. I had no sooner greeted her, than she turned away and, in typical shepherd fashion, attempted to leap back into the arms of the man who had trained her. He told me later that he knew the match was going to work when I wrapped my arms around the squirming little dog and brought her back to sit in my lap and she licked my chin.
As we began our training in Morristown, I immediately realized that traffic training was going to receive much more emphasis than ever before. For the first time, I began to truly appreciate the delicate balance between caution and confidence that must be taught to our dogs as they guide us along city streets, country roads, and hiking trails.
The culmination of the training was a series of three trips into Manhattan. The subways, vehicular traffic, and pedestrian mayhem were unlike anything I had ever experienced. But my little Kismet took it all in stride, giving me confidence beyond any I have ever known with a guide dog. Kismet embodies everything I could have ever hoped for in a dog.
What an extraordinary 20 years to have been involved with the school! I’ve witnessed the change from addressing everyone by his or her surname. I’ve seen the lunch dress code relaxed. I’ve watched while some commands were dropped and others added. I’ve seen the school adopt more and more rigorous traffic training in response to the changing environment in which we all live and work. All of these changes have one aim: to provide dog guides that enhance our independence and to do so in an atmosphere of respect and dignity.
There are many organizations that are worthy of our financial support. When I receive requests for money from such organizations, I find that I hesitate and really consider that organization’s mission before writing a check. There is no such hesitation when it comes to The Seeing Eye. We have all benefited directly from the work of The Seeing Eye. I feel privileged to assist the school in continuing its remarkable work and to insure that the school is there for us and for future generations. I hope that you feel the same.
Sue Martin and Seeing Eye dog Kismet
Upon rereading that letter I wrote five and a half years ago I realize how far Kismet and I have come together. Even a year after leaving the school there was still a feeling of newness about our partnership. Now, after five and a half years together, I’m writing from a very diffferent place. I changed jobs three years ago. I might as well say that the change in jobs changed everything. I now do a great deal of travel. Many of the trips are to exhibit or present at conferences and to represent The department of Veterans Affairs. The confidence I’ve gained through this travel is extraordinary. My mother spent eight difficult months on hospice which culminated in her death in May of 2010 and, with her death has come a new phase of my life. It’s life without a surviving parent. And through it all, constant, funny, and loving, has been Kismet.
When I think back to training with my other shepherds, I seem to recall that they were much more focused on their work. Quoddy had a light gentle pull and conducted herself with the utmost dignity. Beverly was a little fireball in harness. If she knew she was right she pulled like a freighttrain. I’ve never worked a more goal oriented dog. What comes to mind when I think about training with Kismet is how goofy she was. When I showed her around my room, she took one look at the bathtub and lept in. The first time I did laundry I had a great scare. I could have sworn I put Kismet on the conveniently located bed chain in the laundry alcove. After putting my clothes in the washing machine and starting it up I turned back to Kismet but she wasn’t there. Thinking I must not have snapped the bed chain on Kismet’s collar properly I checked the bed chain. Oddly, it wasn’t lying on the floor as I expected but, rather, led upward from the anchor on the floor. And there was Kismet. She had crawled up onto one of the shelves opposite the washers and dryers, turned around, and was sitting there with her paws hanging over the edge of the shelf. Kismet has an enormous repertoire of vocalizations. Many were the times that she kept us in stitches with her wooky sounds or the hysterical sound she made when she had a toy in her mouth and was parading around with it as though showing off. Sometimes, several of us on the same hallway would gather informally on the floor of the hall to let our dogs play and interact with each other. Kismet’s typical behavior in this situation was to sit on my lap and mutter at the other dogs earning herself the nickname of Kisbitch.
And so, gentle reader, you must be wondering about the work of the impish dog I have described. How on earth could such a goofy dog be a responsible guide. The very first time I picked up the harness, Kismet and I became a team. No, we didn’t just become a team, we became a dream team.
In writing about my other guide dogs, I’ve described what it’s like to work a dog. Quoddy, with her gentle pull and incomparable dignity taught me to perceive and react to the slightest change in the harness. Beverly, with her strong pull and eagerness to work taught me the joys of working a brilliant, goal oriented dog. Kismet is a very big soul wrapped up in a pip squeak shepherd body. Weighing fifty pounds, she is my smallest dog yet. She has the perfect balance between assertiveness and caution, contentment to work old familiar routes and willingness to explore new ones. She has saved me from bodily injury at least three times by performing text book perfect traffic checks. She observes the world through her big brown eyes and carries herself with agility, confidence, and joy. When we work together, whether in town or out in the woods, I follow the little dog with complete trust and a smile on my face.
Over the two or three years before Kismet and I came into that March 2005 class some of the trainers had begun working with clicker training. One instructor, Lukas, had introduced me to clicker training to help solve some problems I was having with Beverly. I requested that Lukas help Kismet and me get started with the clicker. We commenced our lessons during the last week of training. What a disappointment. My brilliant dog seemed to go brain dead. She still didn’t really seem to get it by the time I left the school. But then, a couple of days after returning home, she got it. And what a great tool to have in my toolbox.
Clicker training isn’t expensive or difficult. It mainly requires patience and an understanding of the concepts of operant conditioning. I’ve taught Kismet some very useful and some very useless behaviors using the clicker.
The useful behaviors include showing me elevator call buttons and outside trash cans. Another useful command is the, konk out, command. When I use this command, Kismet keels over flat on her side with a deep groan. I didn’t mean to teach her the groan. It was purely her embellishment. I use this command when I’m in a situation where Kismet wants to get going but I need her to wait patiently. One little command I’ve taught her that I thought would fall into the useless category has actually turned out to be very useful. It’s the, Shake hands, command. One thing I’ve noticed with shepherds is that, if someone makes eye contact and then approaches wanting to interact, if I warn them off then my dog seems to think that person is someone who is not to be trusted. So I’ve actually begun encouraging people to interact with Kismet. The potential problem with this is that Kismet might start looking for people to pet her. To avoid this, I have her sit and shake hands with someone before allowing them to pet her. This seems to keep a clear line of demarkation between when it’s okay to interact with people and when it’s not okay. Besides that, people seem to get such a kick out of it.
There has been much written about the bond between dog guide and handler. While that bond is there and strong between kismet and me, she has also formed huge attachments to others in my life. I think it was love at first sight between Kismet and Jim, Right there in the airport when I brought Kismet home. And then there was my mother with whom Kismet shared not only a deep affection, but as well, a birthday. When I approached my mother’s house, whether in our car, a cab, or on foot, Kismet would get excited. She loved my mother and the feeling was clearly mutual. My mother had a high antique bed which was brought to this country from England by my great grandparents. It’s a gorgeous mahogony four poster bed with a canopy. Upon this bed my mother had a delicate crocheted coverlet which had been done by her grandmother. The only problem was that Kismet loved the bed and the coverlet did not like Kismet one bit. My mother hadn’t the heart to prevent Kismet from leaping up on the bed so, every time we were going to come over, she would remove the coverlet so that Kismet could jump up on the bed with no worries.
Jim and I moved to Alabama in 2002, after fifteen years in Maine. I had grown up here so, for me, it was a homecoming. After that much time away, it allowed my mother and me to develop a new relationship that was much more of a friendship than a mother daughter relationship. I began to spend the night at my mother’s house a couple of times a month. We called it our, girl’s night out, and had many happy times together. When it came time to go to bed, Kismet was most often to be found ensconced on the mahogony four poster. My mother didn’t have the heart to kick her off the bed. However, Kismet was not exactly the best bedmate. In the course of the night, she’d snuggle up to my mother to the point that my mother was left with very little bed to herself. After a couple of times of sharing the bed with Kismet and not getting very much sleep, my mother came up with a very sensible solution. I had just turned off the light in the guest room where I slept. Here came my mother with her pillows in hand. She walked in the door and said, “Let’s swap beds.” Laughing, I agreed, grabbed my own pillows and spent the night with Kismet whom I could push over to her own side of the bed much more ably than could my mother.
Kismet’s name, incidentally, is Arabic and means, fate, or destiny. I hope that this story pays umbridge to the amazing little dog, to The Seeing Eye, and to all Seeing Eye graduates and their dogs.