Fourteen years ago, there was a lot going on in the world. Europeans had finally agreed on a single currency (the euro), despite the world’s disapproval, India conducted three atomic tests; meanwhile, Serbs battled ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and, on April 10th, a Good Friday Accord is reached in Northern Ireland.
In the United States, the movie Titanic, pulled in more than $580 million, making it the
highest-grossing film of all time, an estimated 76 million of us watched the last Seinfeld episode and Frank Sinatra died at the age of 82 from a heart attack. And, in NYC, a seeing eye dog named Hickory and his human partner, Lloyd Burlingame, were rudely tossed out of the Village Diner by an ignorant restaurant manager.
Rude Ignorant Restaurant Manager: “Get that damned dog out of here!”
Hickory: ” … What was this moron thinking? Would we be received this way at every eatery? I had become used to the friendliest greetings from everyone and had entered the diner wagging my magnificent tail in anticipation. It drooped at this rejection.”
Yes, you got that right. Hickory, a genial, Labrador Retriever, describes his very first adventure with his human partner in the Prologue of Two Seeing Eye Dogs Take Manhattan, by Lloyd Burlingame. His canine voice will carry readers through this story until his retirement from Guide Dog service.
As Hickory takes up life as a pet, Kemp, another lab guide dog picks up the story. Mr Burlingame, it seems, is just along for the ride. But, he is a critical player on this ride because without him, there would be no story. At least, not a story like this one.
And, to be honest, this wasn’t a book that I was excited to read. At first. How I came to review this book is a story all in itself; a story worth telling to put this post in its proper context. (It’s also an affirmation for bloggers everywhere to keep writing those posts because you never know who will find you.)
Several of my posts caught the attention of a woman named Maryglenn McCombs. Understandably, the post that prompted her to email me was a book review that I wrote. Would I, she wondered (in her email) be interested in reviewing a book that “…celebrates the love of dogs” and their working relationship with a prominent Broadway designer, a man named Lloyd Burlingame.
By the way, she added, the story is told by a couple of Labrador retriever guide dogs: Hickory and Kemp.
As I waited for the book to arrive, I worried about that one fact. I went so far as to carry on a spirited dialogue with myself about what I had gotten myself into. What if this was a syrupy, cutesy, gag me with a doggie treat, fake-reading storyline that I hated? Well, I would just have to wait and see. Just to be clear, McCombs had been quite adamant that I write an honest review.
I promised to do just that.
Two Seeing Eye Dogs Take Manhattan, by Lloyd Burlingame, opens in New York City. A man and his guide dog stand in a diner waiting to be seated after explaining to the
nameless restaurant manager that’s it’s okay for them to come into the diner to eat.
“He’s a Seeing Eye dog – not a pet – and he’s allowed to enter any place.”
“Get that damned dog out of here!” commanded the tall young man …
Reading this, I startled to attention. Any reservations I had about this being a syrupy, cutesy story disappeared. I was angry. Who was this ignorant employee? How could he be so rude and unfeeling? So stupidly unaware of the Americans With Disabilities Act? His inflammatory comments didn’t stop until he’d succeeded in forcing the man, the man’s friend and Hickory to leave. But, not before Hickory gets in a few choice words of his own.
Hickory: I had taken quite a dislike to him and seriously considered a good, old-fashioned, sharp nip to his ankle – or at the very least a threatening growl. But I remembered my training: Barking, biting, and growling are all off-limits for us working dogs. Oh, how I wanted to pee on his shoe …
It’s in this scene that a small piece of genius works it subtle magic. Rather than get into an expository description about the expectations of a guide dog when it’s working, we get to see an example of how one guide dog handles himself as he stands calmly next to his human partner while a total stranger throws a verbal hissy fit.
If you want to see a dramatic illustration of just how professionally Hickory behaved, try raising your voice in anger with your own dog. Well, maybe not with your own dog because what I just proposed goes against everything I believe about how people should behave around dogs. Let me explain this another way.
Most dogs will react with their bodies and their voices when they are standing next to an angry person, a person so angry that they are yelling loudly and flailing their arms in the air, as I have no doubt that this restaurant employee was doing. And, this is a critical difference between dogs that are pets and dogs that are professionally trained not to react when thrust into contact with angry people.
“Barking, biting, and growling are all off-limits for us working dogs. Oh, how I wanted to pee on his shoe …
We get a glimpse into Hickory’s voice as it will guide our reading experience throughout most of the book: restraint, diplomacy, a desire to please and a
dog sense of humor. Over time, his human partner (Hickory will call him “the old Prof”) comes to delight in the quintessential Cary Grant temperament of his first canine partner.
As the prologue ends, the story makes an abrupt about turn into the past. It’s 1998, Hickory is about to begin his training at the The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey, and his soon-to-be-human-partner, Lloyd Burlingame, is searching for a dog-friendly apartment in New York City. Hickory guides us into his back story with the same careful attention to detail that he will soon bring to his job as Seeing Eye dog.
Over the next eight years, the partnership between Hickory and Lloyd will deepen, becoming an unshakeable bond forged in trust and the belief that each of them will take care of and protect the other. We watch that happen as we gain valuable insights into the demanding role that a guide dog assumes.
Did you know that only ten percent of the dogs that make it through guide dog training can handle working in big cities like NYC?
As that eight years comes to an end, so too will the working relationship between Hickory and Lloyd. And the rest of the story (for me) becomes the most powerful part of the book.
Powerful because Hickory and Lloyd are at the end of an intense, loving partnership.
Lloyd in an email to Hickory: Without you, I have been bereft – half of me has suddenly disappeared. (pg. 112)
Together, they find a happy ending for Hickory – the perfect “retirement family” and now, there must be a new beginning with another canine partner for Lloyd.
This is where the story focuses on what it takes to have that deep commitment between a working dog and its human partner. Ultimately, the success of this kind of relationship is about the human-canine bond “… that allows the (dog-handler) team function.” (pg 149)
Burlingame comes to this realization over time, finally understanding that the relationship works only if the “dog has both respect and affection for his human partner.” It’s about “heart;” about love being at the center of the relationship. (pg. 149) It’s a love that has as its cornerstone, a concept called “intelligent disobedience” – that if a guide dog senses danger, that dog will disobey a command given by its human partner. This is miraculous in its complexity and execution.
And beautifully demonstrated during the training that Lloyd and Kemp, his second canine partner go through before they are officially paired together.
Don’t even think that Hickory fades into the background as Kemp takes center stage. Hickory will keep in close contact with both Lloyd and Kemp. To find out how that happens, I guess you’ll just have to read the book!