Confession of a Guide Dog Whisperer

At Guiding Eyes 1996

Photo of Stephen Kuusisto with his first guide dog Corky, on the grounds of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, 1995

What else can be said about a dog’s words? They hear them like flights of birds. They hear them as life revealed. A dog doesn’t care about rhetoric. Nor does a dog think of words as habits of affection or disapprobation. For a dog every word is fresh—even those words already contained in their lexicon. When was the last time I thought of a word as new? I had to ask myself. I couldn’t answer. I remembered the poet Ezra Pound saying “poetry is news that stays new”—maybe Ezra was thinking as a dog. The body of a dog corresponds with the sprit of a dog. Words are little trampolines of the emotive. 


Fresh words and fresh remembrances—Corky saw the sea lions and remembered the sincere pleasure of her rabbits. Corky was freed of nostalgia. A dog is her recognition—her reception and her language were a different language than any I might have supposed. My dog was smarter than I had imagined and I had believed she was plenty smart. Her language was always open to the instant. For humans language doesn’t wear well, we are mechanical in our pronouncements. But this is not so for dogs. 


When you bond with a guide dog you begin to understand the vigor of mind meeting the body. Against such amazement people would inevitably ask me all kinds of questions—questions like cold hydropathy—“will your dog protect you if you’re attacked?” or “exactly how many commands does she know?” And I would endeavor to answer with cheer, or at least without a grudge: “She’s not trained to protect me, so go ahead and steal my wallet if you must,” or “I don’t know, she’s secretive about her attainments.” I usually tried to have fun with strangers. Though once I told a man I went blind from masturbation. “How did you go blind?” is my least favorite question. But a freshness, a genuine open-minded innocence that dogs possess is their anodyne to us—to all of us, whether you’re disabled or not, but especially when you’re blind. Corky wagged her tail in the midst of unfamiliar cities. Her courage was her joy. 


This lead me to ask if my own courage was my joy. Courage is a tricky concept, mostly reserved for stories of military heroism of civil rights or the fire department. Courage is also hard for people with disabilities because there’s an overcoming narrative, a kind of Victorian sentimentality about disability. The mainstream culture loves it. “She overcame her disability through the force of will.” “He has Multiple Sclerosis but look at his spirit! He’s so courageous!” You shouldn’t have to be temperamentally or politically courageous to demonstrate your value. No one should. And the courage “thing” is hard to embrace. People would say: “You go places with your dog, alone, wow that’s courageous!” Was it? I didn’t think so. I thought the true answer was more nuanced. I was discovering that a dog’s joy, her sincere pleasure and competence make a man better than he is. At least this man. I was better with Corky. My joy lay in her stamina and loyalty. It struck me that ancient people would understand this better than contemporary Americans for whom the cult of individuality is dominant. I wasn’t a self-made man so much as a stalwart believer in my dog’s stride. 


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