Good Friday public holiday here. Lucy and I went for an hour long walk this morning. I am taking the long weekend off from my own brain, to engage in more relaxing activity of the senses. We walked to the nearby Whittle Park. Then meandered through the university on our way home. The university grounds are almost empty, save for the very hardworking few. We took our time, and I didn’t hurry Lucy along, I let her sniff at everything that interested her. Well, except for anything that I deemed unsafe or unsavoury – like discarded food scraps, dead animals and anything that resembled doggy poop. (She is thankfully not very interested in the latter category.)
I also observed the various facilities in my university for wheelchair and mobility access, while mulling over the thought that despite the high standards in my university, it is a fact of life that if one is differently abled, the path is always more winding and circuitous than for the general population. All the way, I pay maximum attention to Lucy. When we are out on our walks, she is the object of my scrutiny, and I try to be as alert to her body language as I can be. When I want to take a photograph of something that interests me, I first check to see if Lucy is relaxed and I make sure she is in a safe position, with her leash firmly in my grasp at all times. I am also ready to ditch my camera at the first sign of unease, even if I had to drop it. She is more important. I am far from where I want to be at reading her, but I am determined to make the effort to keep improving.
In a Greyhound group on Facebook, a vet who has extensive experience working with Greyhounds in Australia, was advising on some behavioural quirks. I have learned a great deal from this vet. She volunteers a huge amount of time and effort to improve the welfare of Greyhounds and to educate Greyhound owners and the public alike. As a simple, basic explanation, she suggested three stages of fear we should look out for, using the analogy of the traffic light. In the green mode, the dog is calm and happy, which is the optimum state of mind for learning and training, and the dog is thinking well. In the yellow-light mode, the dog starts to ‘fiddle’ (fidget, twitch, behave oddly but very subtly). This is when the dog feels uncomfortable, unsure and alert to changes in the situation, and unsure of what will happen next. The dog is still thinking, but undecided. When the light turns red, the dog by this stage is sensing ‘danger’ and wants to escape – this is the fight or flight state. The dog is no longer thinking by now.
I am still learning how to ‘read’ Lucy’s subtle communication nuances. It is not easy for us desensitised humans to learn animal language, because theirs is non-verbal, non-semantic and largely sensorial. Even for someone with hypersenses, it is difficult, perhaps just because we are humans, and humans have evolved into insensitive beings, compared to the rest of the animal kingdom.
It is very important, however, that we learn read their signals and communicate with our dogs. I see many articles in the media and Facebook posts about how wonderful service dogs are, and all the great things they do for people with myriad difficulties and needs. I applaud the growing awareness that these have triggered among the community. In practice, however, the emphasis needs to be more balanced than the media makes it out to be. Service dogs do perform key functions for their humans, however, in order to receive the best benefits, the humans need to also learn how to decipher the subtle expressions of their companions. It is not meant to be one-sided, as in any cogent relationship, the way we connect with our service animals, and even with our pets, is the key to our own wellbeing.
The other day, I was standing at the back of a crowd, gathered to witness an outdoor demonstration of an art installation. Lucy was by my side, and we stood as far back as possible. Then the sound started up. It was like a reconditioned motorcycle engine. A few seconds later, Lucy began to tug insistently at the leash, she then pulled very hard towards the door of the gallery a few feet away. I obeyed her prompting, because she had on a few other occasions led me away from potentially sensory overloaded situations. We went inside and closed the door. A few seconds afterwards, the sound crescendoed and culminated in a terrible explosion, which would have sent me spiraling into severe sensory meltdown. Even behind the closed glass doors, the impact was palpable, my body felt as if I had been violently pummeled and my heart went shooting out through my ears. I dread to think of what would have happened if I did not heed Lucy’s sensory fear. Meltdown for me most definitely, but what about her? She may have slipped her collar and run away, a consequence I dread the most, especially after Panda’s horrible accident. Panda lost her leg as a result, a tragedy that so easily could have been prevented if her owner Miss L had just been more vigilant and paid attention to the dog instead of indulging in empty social chitchat and whatnot at the cafe. In fact, I myself had a near accident with Panda the second day I fostered her. I took her out for a walk and she freaked out at the traffic lights. Fortunately for us both at the time, I was watching her very closely and quickly acted to pre-empt her fight-flight mode. I hugged her in a vice-like hold, calmed her down and quickly took her away from the fear trigger. And I kept an extremely heedful eye on her ever since. Sadly, all my hard work and hers fell apart in the careless hands of her new owner Miss L. Yes, I have said this often, and I will say it again. I think I will never stop regretting allowing Miss L to adopt Panda.
Watch out for the ‘fiddles.’ Your dog, your cat, and yes, your children. Especially autistic children. You are not only helping them, or they helping you, but you are enriching your own life and your relationship with them, if you are willing to make that extra effort to be mindful. Always. You don’t know what is going to happen around the bend. I am training my subconscious to appreciate my own hypersenses, and that of Lucy’s too.
Ours must be a symbiotic existence, and as much as she is watching me and learning my every nuance, I too must make effort to do the same for her. That is synergy. And love.