The Power of Unwavering Belief

The Power of Unwavering Belief

If you have ever trained a puppy, you know that they go through a couple of troubling seasons called “fear imprint stages.” When the fear stage comes on, things that never bothered the dog as of yesterday suddenly are a source of terror. As a dog owner and handler, you simply have to get them through it.

But imagine being me, and at the other end of the leash is the puppy who will become your guide dog – if she makes it. There is much more at stake than a typical pet being afraid of something you can control. As a renter, I was allowed to have a service dog in training, under the law, however if she “dropped out” by failing to do her job well, I could not keep her.

We had spent every waking and sleeping moment together since I took the wriggling 9-week-old pup from her mother’s side. She simply HAD to excel. Period. No other option. And in particular, she needed to be able to go on public transportation with me as I went through my day of working and running errands.

We had our challenges right from the start, because from our first car ride together, she got carsick. I kept believing she would grow out of it. When we first boarded a city bus together, she made a 3-foot drool puddle on the floor, which was thankfully already wet from snowy boots. “I believe in you,” I told her. She could outgrow that too, once we had taken a few rides.

One spring day, I was at a bus stop with baby Thunder. She had finally gotten over getting carsick every time we were in a car and drooling on every bus. Having conquered these tendencies, I felt we had accomplished a lot. She had become a champion rider who boarded any vehicle with wagging tail.

Except on that fateful day, it all fell apart.

Thinking that today was just like any other day, Thunder and I went to the bus stop. The bus rolled up, and my champion puppy – my future guide dog – turned into a simpering coward. She cowered underneath the bus bench, trembling violently. I literally had to drag her out by her guide-dog-in-training vest and force her to go up the steps.

One of the other passengers made a snide comment about what a great guide dog she was going to be if I had to guide her onto a bus. “She’s in training,” I said. “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 she was in a fear stage, and it was up to ME to get her through it properly. Emotions of the handler transmit through the leash to the dog. If you’re anxious, the dog will feel it. If you’re upset, the dog will know. If you don’t believe in the dog, she will not believe in herself.

What would your natural thoughts be at a moment such as this? Remember, I had raised 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 would help me get around obstacles, find doorways, and stay out of danger as we traveled together. If she failed, I could not keep her. Perhaps you would be running “brain TV” scenarios about the dog failing and you having to give her up after months of bonding and training. Maybe 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 could not entertain even a moment of doubt in her, and I could not hide behind a venire of pretended faith either. She had to feel my confidence through the leash. She had to believe with every fiber of her being that all was well.

What did I do? I spent time each day visioning the two of competently and confidently traveling on buses, planes, cars, trains, moving sidewalks, and even escalators. I affirmed to Thunder that she is a confident and competent guide who keeps me safe.

It took her a couple of weeks to get past her newfound fear of buses. I kept my faith strong and told her everyday how much I believe in her. Thunder did indeed get past her fear. She learned how to guide me safely past obstacles, how to find bus stops, doors and mailboxes, and how to keep me safe when we traveled.

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