I recently retired from a 30-year career as a clinical psychologist during which I taught, counseled, supervised and administered counseling services. I worked at four universities ranging in size from 5,000 students to 25,000 students and located in the east, south and Midwest.
The most noteworthy part of this career may have been that during it I was accompanied by seven different Seeing Eye dogs. Their jobs were to give me the gift of confident independent travel, but each one also played a role in the conduct of my career whether I was teaching or counseling.
Here are a few incidents to help you imagine what it’s like to have a canine co-teacher or co-therapist:
During the last year of my graduate program, I had an internship at Central Louisiana State Hospital. There I began to realize the benefits of having a Seeing Eye dog with me to communicate with patients who didn’t want to talk to me. Disturbed adolescents who didn’t want to talk to adults would confide in my dog, Cindy, and I could listen in if I wanted to. People who were considered “out of it” by staff members were quite kind to her. As one paranoid patient said to a bossy staff member who was ordering her not to step on the dog, “I’m crazy but not stupid!” I finished my internship with a Ph.D. and confidence that I was going to get a terrific job and set the world on fire.
My first job involved teaching psychology classes ranging from freshman to graduate level. Early on, word got back to me that my Seeing Eye dog knew who cheated. It was reported to me that she stood in front of the malefactor during testing. The sighted proctor that I used to monitor the tests of course also performed this function and made a better witness when disciplinary action was necessary.
Instead of either publishing or perishing, I moved on to a full-time counseling position at another university. Sometimes in counseling, stereotypes are broken on both sides and we all grow. One day, I was interviewing a young Vietnamese man and as we walked into the office I said something about the dog (as I usually do). He told me that in his country, dogs are considered food at best. I assured him that my dog would lie in the corner and not bother him, which she did. By the end of the hour, it was clear that he needed to come back for another session. I began to talk about transferring him to a different counselor so that he did not have to put up with the dog. But he said that he still wanted to see me. I said that he was very kind, but since I had the dog at every session, I wondered if he’d be more comfortable with a different counselor. He again stated he wanted to see me. I agreed that I had enjoyed talking with him and would be glad to see him again, but I wondered why he was so adamant about seeing me. He told me that in his flight from his home country, he had been tortured by being stared at, and at least I did not stare at him.
Having a Seeing Eye dog in sessions adds also another perspective. Usually the dog greets each client, gives him or her some nonjudgmental warmth, and then lies in the corner. Sometimes a student and a dog form a bond and the dog will stay and comfort the client when he or she is upset.
I remember one situation where the dog gave some amazing nonverbal feedback. The client was whining about life not being fair and I was trying to figure out how to kindly point out that the whining wasn’t productive.
My guide dog got up, walked as far away from the client as possible, lay down, and groaned. The client asked, “Why did she do that?” I suggested that the client ask the dog, but the client didn’t want to hear the feedback.
One of my guide dogs was very averse to couples fighting when I first got him. I had to work with him in order to help him understand that their voices were not raised at him and that it was all right for couples to fight in my office so that they didn’t fight as much at home. The dog would chase his tail to get them to stop fighting and they’d start laughing at him. The couple would then be reminded of how their children might feel when they fight at home.
Beyond their jobs as guide dogs, each of my Seeing Eye dogs has interacted with my work in his or her own unique way. They’ve served as ice breakers, non-judgmental friends for clients and monitors of stress and honesty. “Man’s best friend” has been a wonderful companion for this woman in my 30 years as a clinical psychologist.
Excerpted from: To the Left of Inspiration: Adventures in Living with Disabilities by Katherine Schneider available from www.dogearpublishing.net or www.amazon.com or www.borders.com.
Katherine Schneider, Ph.D., ABPP, is senior psychologist emerita of counseling service at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and can be reached at email@example.com.