Tajji, our elderly German Shepherd Dog, came to live with us a little over a year ago when she retired from seeing eye guide dog work. She learned new behaviors in the process of “being just a dog.” Her behavior also showed us some of the many things dogs who help the blind must learn. Some of these are responses to commands. Tajji knows “Go Right,” “Go Left,” “Easy (slow down),” and “Back,” for instance. She was also able to enter a mall (a chaotic place for a dog) with her blind person and, never having been in this place before, guide him to an elevator, escalator, or rest room.
We also noticed other behaviors from her training. She would remain lying down in the same place after we had stepped over her, touching her. Not moving would allow a blind person to remember where she is (and not trip over her, at least, not twice.) She uses a gentle nose touch as a greeting (as do most dogs; it’s polite) but also to let us know when she has come to sit beside us. She asks for attention by touching an arm, sometimes neatly inserting her nose underneath a hand. In fact, she initiates physical contact so much we suspect she was not only trained to do so, but bred for the predisposition.
All of this got my writer’s imagination started thinking about different ways dogs can be partners with humans. Years ago, I loved watching movies about Zato-ichi, a blind swordsman in Japan. He had preternatural hearing, and his ears would twitch when he heard an enemy approach, undoubtedly a theatrical device to point out to the audience what was happening internally. Since I was preparing to write a story for Sword & Sorceress 30, the idea came to me of a blind swordswoman – and putting Tajji in the story. How would they interact? What could the dog tell my character and how?
I used many of Tajji’s behaviors – nose touch, for instance, but also rate of breathing and level of muscular tension, particularly along the spine. I imagined that the dog would often make contact with the swordswoman’s leg, and she would be able to tell which way he (sorry, Tajji, I changed the sex of the dog) was facing and if he shifted orientation. She could hear the click of his nails over stone and tell not only where he was but how fast he was moving and in which direction. Finally, and most importantly, he would give her the freedom to go places not ordinarily accessible to a blind person.
Here’s a snippet from “Four Paws To Light My Way,” in which Jian deals with the skepticism of her sighted comrade:
After a time, Masou approached, halting before her. “You want dinner?”
Jian did, given the smells arising from the direction of the cooking fire. “First I want to show you something,” she said, and whistled for Dog. She heard the pad of paws over beaten earth and felt the fleeting touch of a wet nose on the back of her hand, then the pressure of a furred shoulder against her knee.
“Um,” said Masou.
Jian adjusted her sheathed sword in her sash. “Stand very still. Don’t even breathe. Now move — any direction, any number of steps. When I say Now, attack.”
He was good, she gave him that. But her ears caught the faint rustle of his pants and she felt the direction Dog’s head turned. The air told her when Masou began to move, and where. She dropped, braced herself on her hands, and swept out one foot. Hooked his ankle, jerked hard. Spun around, keeping contact with her foot, then knee and thigh as she slipped her sword from its sheath and laid the curved, razor-sharp blade on his throat. He froze. She waited a moment, then got her feet under her and stood.
“Uff! You haven’t lost your touch.” He scrambled up in a barely-audible cascade of dirt grains. “How’d you do that? Being blind and all — I mean —”
“The word does not insult me.” Jian smiled wryly as she resheathed her sword. She held out her hand and Dog came, nosing underneath her fingers so that she touched the shorter fur between his eyes, then one of the velvet ears.
“Blanket,” she said, and Dog took her there.