Working with controls and a puppy-in-training have more in common than you think.

Trapper, a 45-pound, 5-month-old yellow Lab puppy, went with me to the Radiant Panel Association convention in Sacramento this spring. As you would expect, there are many things to be learned traveling with a puppy. It turned out that those things weren’t at all what I expected. But not surprisingly, several apply to controls:
  • Things are not always what they seem to be.
  • People often read one thing and see something else entirely.
  • You can’t do your job very well if someone’s stepping on your tail.
  • Sometimes you just need a nap.
Here’s the scoop on the pup. Trapper is a puppy-in-training for the organization Guide Dogs for the Blind. My friend Patrick and I are raising Trapper. For the next year or so our job as volunteers is to expose Trapper to every situation we can find, so that when he’s a guide dog, nothing will surprise him.

That means we can take him everywhere people go -- restaurants, bars, movie theaters, the passenger compartment of airplanes, and even RPA conventions.

Ready For Anything

Just like with controls, there are certain things I expected to happen when I took Trapper on this trip. I was ready for it; I had my “tools.” That means I had plenty of plastic bags for poop pickup. I had a variety of chew toys for keeping him entertained on the plane and in restaurants. I had three different kinds of collars and three different types of leashes in case Trapper decided to exhibit challenging behavior.

I had my paperwork ready, too. There was a certificate of Trapper’s immunizations if anyone asked. I had documents that proved that Trapper really is a guide dog, and a phone number to call to prove it.

And I had the final credential: the bright green with bold white print “puppy coat” that Trapper always wears in public. It says, “Guide Dogs for the Blind -- Puppy-in-Training.” This coat is magical, like a police badge. Folks who might normally resist just smile and let us in.

Nevertheless, I expected trouble at the airport and I was ready for it.

Just like a controls job, there were plenty of incidents. And just like a controls job, the incidents weren’t at all what I expected -- not even close.

I was most nervous about security screening. I went though the screening machine first. Trapper and then Pat were behind me. I’d carefully removed every piece of jewelry and every coin from my body, and I got through without setting off the metal detector. But for some reason, I’d assumed the screeners would understand that the metal on the dog collar is just metal on a dog collar, and would be cool about it.

Well of course they weren’t cool about it. But here was a bigger surprise -- instead of inspecting the pup, they went after me. They put me in that “feet 2 ft. apart, arms horizontal out to your sides, don’t you dare move” position, and they found every rivet in my jeans with that wand. Meanwhile, the 45-pound pup was bounding like a yo-yo from the leash in my helplessly extended hand.

When they finally finished with me, one inspector demanded, “Is he OK?”

“Yes, the dog’s fine,” I replied, thinking that it was I, not the pup, who had endured the ordeal.

“No, is HE OK?” the inspector emphasized.

“He who?” I asked.

“The blind guy,” he responded.

“What blind guy?” I asked.

“The one with the dog,” he said, and pointed back at my friend Pat, who was still on the outside of the metal detector machine.

It was one of those moments that seem to take an eternity for the brain to process. It felt like when you burn your last transformer and it’s 10 p.m. on a Sunday night. What you see and what you know just don’t match up for a bit.

Finally I understood. “He’s not blind,” I squeaked. “We’re just training the dog.”

Back to my expectations.I was ready for objections from the rental car agent or the hotel clerk, and was prepared to make a pitch, complete with paperwork to prove it, why this particular puppy really is allowed in places that pets can’t go.

But there was no resistance, only huge smiles, questions like, “How old is he?” and even folks saying, “It’s so wonderful that you’re willing to do this!” Little do they know that it’s the rebel in me, not an altruist, that’s behind this work (yes, I can bring this dog in here).

But as always, surprises come in surprising places and ways, not in expected ones. If you think you’ll need a screwdriver, you’ll need a hammer. If you bring the whole toolbox, you’ll need a mop.

Puppy Surprise

I was working a booth as an exhibitor at the RPA show. Everyone needed a badge to enter the show, and since Pat was my guest, RPA gave him an exhibitor badge. Pat and Trapper came by the booth for a visit. Right after they left, two guys who’d been standing nearby came up to me and asked, “Who’s the blind guy with the exhibitor badge?”

When I recovered from that surprise, I couldn’t help but think how this incident was so much like reading (or not) the technical material. It’s so common to read one thing and see something else entirely. I’ve done it often enough myself. The installation sheet says 24V, but I see 120. Oops. The puppy coat says “Puppy-in- Training,” but folks see “Blind Guy with a Dog.”

We’re not done yet. On the weekend after the show, Pat, Trapper and I ventured into San Francisco. I wanted to ride the cable cars and see the cable car museum. At the museum, you can see the huge wheels pulling the cables that pull the cable cars through the streets. And there’s historical information on the walls to read while you watch the wheels go around.

I was reading a display. To my amazement, a woman, rather rudely I thought, wedged in between me and the display.

I kept reading by stretching around her. Then she suddenly turned around, looked into my face, and asked, “Do you want me to read this to you?”

At first I thought she was being sarcastic, and that she was expressing irritation about my trying to read around her. Then another one of those slow realizations soaked in -- she thought I was blind. She was sincerely offering to help. She’d stepped between me and the display because she assumed I couldn’t read it anyway.

What an excellent lesson in “things aren’t what they seem to be!” She wasn’t rude. I wasn’t blind. And a puppy-in-training wasn’t attached to a blind person.

Trapper dealt with everything like he’d seen it all before. If nothing else, I was sure that getting on and off the cable cars would be a problem. But he hopped on and off the huge cable car step like it was the easy entry into the house.

By the third time we had it down for sure, and I relaxed about the whole thing. But instead of jumping on like he had before, he balked, yelped and refused to move. I shoved him and he yelped again. There was a problem I was causing but didn’t know about. I was stepping on his tail! He couldn’t have jumped up if his life depended on it. Again there seemed to be a real- world similarity here -- you can’t get your job done if someone’s stepping on your tail.

As in real life, there was too much to do in San Francisco. We walked and walked, and climbed hills going up and hills going down. There was so much left that we hadn’t seen.

Standing on a street corner trying to decide, shall we try to find Chinatown? Or shall we try to climb the crookedest street? I looked down at Trapper. Once again he was out for a nap.

You know, the pup’s right about this, I thought. Sometimes it’s time to stop. No matter how much opportunity is before you, or how much you should get done while you can, sometimes you just need a nap.