What Can Guide Dogs Teach Mentors and Partners?

Matt M. Starcevich, Ph.D.

(For individual use only, not to be reproduced or used in any way without permission)

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As a lifelong dog owner, I have always been intrigued with dogs and their abilities, especially those working dogs that are highly trained for a specific purpose.  In observing and reading about dogs that have been trained as companions for the blind, I am struck with some lessons both mentors and their partner can learn from this special group of dog-people partnerships.

What Mentors can learn:

  1. A good guide dog, among other things, listens well, is inquisitive, trustworthy, adaptable to the needs of their partner, wants to do a good job, and their only agenda is their owner’s needs.  Good mentors are good listeners and build a trusting relationship with their partners. It is not about the mentor but where the partner wants to go, grow and develop. He needed “someone to just care about him as him.”
  1. Guide dogs receive 4-5 months training. A Mentor, like many managers receives little or no training, one day they are one. As a mentor are you committed to developing your mentoring skills? Can you facilitate the other person’s self-discovery and have you developed a range of activities to engage your partner in their journey. What reading have you done to prepare yourself to be an even more effective mentor?
  1. Guide dogs walk side by side to the destination.  As one partner stated “She really taught me to believe in myself.” Like the guide dog a good mentor builds the partners confidence in themselves to try new things, to take risks, and to not be afraid of failing. “Mentors must be patient and let a person make mistakes and learn from them and discover answers on their own.”
  1. Time is spent getting know one another-their strengths, habits, and how to communicate with each other. California law mandates a 28-day training program when a partner is paired with a guide dog. Mentors and partners need to spend the time to get to know one another, from this solid foundation develops the deeper discussions. Honest feedback is a key building block and can occur only after the two are comfortable with each other. In support of this mentors have said:

“I ‘m very honest with her and I let her know what I think; I don’t mince words.”

“A good mentor is encouraging and a cheerleader for you, however, they can be your worst critic, but in a positive and constructive way.”

  1. Each guide dog and their partner are unique; time is spent matching the guide dog with the right partner. A mentor discusses their needs and limitations and seeks a similar sharing from their partner before entering into the mentoring relationships. Do you know when not to enter into a mentoring relationship, the chemistry or situation is just not right?
  1. Guide dogs can only enable, assist, and anticipate dangers.  Mentors do not make decisions for their partners “He never said, you’ve got to do it my way, he’d offer suggestions or say, let’s think about it this way…I really admired him for that.”
  1. Guide dogs are very smart-in addition to leading a person safely around obstacles, they also are trained in “intelligence disobedience”, they are taught when not to obey an unsafe command. Mentors are chosen based on a record for achievement and success, they are not passive but have a right to state an opinion. The key is to then allow the partner to make the decision.

What Partners can learn:

  1. Guide dogs and their partners work as a team. It’s your journey all the mentor can do is facilitate the trip-trust them, work with them, be vulnerable in return for their support.
  1. Guide dogs take their cues and commands from their human partners; it’s up to the person to determine the routes they take and if it is safe to cross a street. All a mentor can do is facilitate your self-discovery and provide you some tips and clues-don’t expect them to set the course or determine the speed-that’s your job.
  1. Partners, like the blind, must put forth the effort, be subject to the risks and reach their goals through their own skill and determination.

End notes:

* Matt Starcevich is the founder of the Center for Coaching & Mentoring, Inc.  He has written The Coach: Creating Partnerships for a Competitive Edge, designed and facilitated workshops on the Coaching Process and Mentoring with thousands of leaders and employees.

  1. An excellent video on the relationship between a guide dog and their partner, Soul Mates, can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=boc6aifsnjc
  2. Interesting and thought provoking quotes about dogs:

“They [dogs] never talk about themselves but listen to you while you talk about yourself, and keep up an appearance of being interested in the conversation.” – Jerome K. Jerome

“I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.” – John Steinbeck 

“I think dogs are the most amazing creatures; they give unconditional love. For me they are the role model for being alive.” – Gilda Radner

“Dogs have given us their absolute all. We are the center of their universe. We are the focus of their love and faith and trust. They serve us in return for scraps. It is without a doubt the best deal man has ever made.” – Roger Caras