Two seeing eye dogs take over Manhattan

Burlingame _ two seeing eyeAUTHOR: Lloyd Burlingame


SUMMARY: ‘Auto’-biography of two guide dogs in Manhattan.

AUDIENCE: Owners: no technical or academic interest.

01 Owner


I really wanted to like this book: I hate leaving poorer reviews. I hate it all the more when the author is elderly, and blind. So, see this as my expressway to Unpopularville, but I will not place human empathy before intellectual honesty: I hated nearly every page.

The book got glowing reviews from the non-specialist press, so what’s my bone with it? I read it to pick up the real-life facts about the life of a seeing eye dog. Instead, I got the anthropomorphic speculations of their owner.

Dogs narrating…

The whole ‘my dogs narrated the book’ thing already got me on the wrong foot. And the dogs reminding the reader about the author’s emeritus professorship chipped away at whatever credibility the dogs’ voices still clung to.

The author’s attempts at recounting life in his dogs’ eyes just propagated long-debunked old wives’ tales about dog cognition (the alpha myth…) I get that he’s not a technical writer, but, to a technical reader, the book made for painful reading.

The narration thing reached a head in the last third of the book, which was devoted to e-mail exchanges between… the two dogs. And I respectfully question how necessary the 3-person, multi-page account of “the banana incident’ was. How about this instead? “This guy tried to give my dog a banana and I stepped back in horror.”

Confession time: I am a science nerd. I don’t have a cultural or artistic or dramatic bone in my body. So this book – and its creative bend – were lost on me. I am a “Give-me-the-facts-and-give-’em-quick.” kind of gal. If you’re more lyrically minded, perhaps the book will rock your world?

Behind the scenes of the seeing eye dogs

The book did share the odd factoid about seeing eye dogs. And the pictures that preceded every chapter nicely brought his routine to life. Here are some snippets:

  1. Handlers are prone to deltoid tendinitis from the position in which they hold the dog’s harness, and they can need corrective posture training to overcome this.
  2. The dog-human matching process requires months of training without a guarantee that it’ll work out. The perseverance, courage and faith you need to go through with the process left me awe-struck. Especially the author’s, who started the process dog-phobic!
  3. Dog handlers get grief counselling when the time comes to retiring their dog, attesting to the genuine bond that link the pairs, and to the thoroughness of the training institutions concerned – but see discussion on welfare below.
  4. “Intelligent disobedience,” a concept I’d encountered in the context of hearing dogs = the dog disobeys the handler should the command put either dog or handler in danger. A fascinating dog training concept.

My heart just about broke when I read this one: the author had gathered the courage to cross this tricky road for the first time, marking the end of months of self-imposed post-diagnosis home-bound isolation. Street workers told him to go and he only made it a hair’s breadth from being ran over. He then heard the workers’ mocking laughter behind him…

That and the fact that restaurant owners still occasionally refuse access, that he gets heckled by passersby, … I had naively imagined that the world was, well, a better place.

Service dogs: what about the dogs’ welfare?

The book reignited my concerns about service animal welfare. In typical human fashion, a dog’s welfare is only ‘paramount’ as long as it poses no inconvenience to their human. And when it comes to service dogs, I would even argue that this anthropo-centrism is more justified. But let’s not fool ourselves. Seeing eye, bomb detection and search-and-rescue dogs are not willing partners in this deal.

“Two seeing eye dogs…” would have you believe that the dogs somehow take pride in their work, that they somehow derive gratification at the thought of being “one of the select few who could make it in the big apple…” This is an ethical slippery slope leading straight to underestimating the sacrifices on the service dog’s part – e.g. no romp in the park with other dogs.

Don’t get me wrong. The life of a seeing eye dog is richer than most pets’: they don’t spend 99% of their lives home alone and bored out of their minds. But the matter-of-factly accounts of leash jerk in a book copyrighted in 2012, featuring a state-of-the-art training centre, and written by a dog lover, saddened me. This level of cognitive dissonance made me realize how close we are to the dark days of Konrad Most-type training methods.

The other side of the working dog’s paradox is the extent to which they are cared for: from puppy socialization home to mid-life housing standards to retirement. Handlers are instructed to let the dog out from the crack of dawn, and several times a day thereafter, come rain or shine. That, and the author’s forgiving attitude to his dogs’ charming imperfections (napkin stealing) reassured me that the dogs experienced pleasure beyond the gratification of their noble ‘calling.’


Someone going through the transition of being diagnosed as legally blind will find enormous solace in this book. Someone hoping for a realistic account of how (seeing eye) dogs perceive the world, or on state-of-the-art service training techniques… Well… Not so much.

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Author: Burlingame Lloyd
Genre: autobiography
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