Dancing with Dogs

by Cris Anderson

In the late 1980’s while an Instructor at Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc. in San Rafael, California, I was introduced to a blind Italian gentleman whom I will never forget. He was a student in my class, prepared to receive his first guide dog. He went by the friendly nickname of ‘Chato’. Italian was Chato’s primary language and even though he could carry on conversations quite well in English, he did have some problems with certain concepts that came up during training.
Some of the guide dog training included technical fine points that Chato was unable to understand. Also, being newly blinded in the previous year he was nervous and scared, consequently he was stiff and awkward while traveling with his guide dog. His progress was slow, and after just the first week of a month long training class he began to fall behind.

I needed to do something to help him understand the concept of following his dogs’ body movements in a more relaxed way. Everyday presented a new opportunity to help Chato work smoothly with his dog, to feel the pull of the harness, the subtle cues that say “follow me, I’ll take you safely home”. Yet, my inability to speak Italian and his limited understanding of English slowed our progress.

During the quiet evenings in the campus dormitory Chato and I talked frequently about himself and his loving wife. How they met in Italy, their travels, and their mutual love of dancing. I could imagine him, sleek and elegant, joined in a waltz with his beautiful, graceful wife. Dancing. Dancing!

Could I teach this wise Italian gentleman to dance with his dog? It was worth a try!

The very next evening I asked Chato to meet me in the dormitory dining room after dinner and to bring only his empty guide dog harness. He expressed his confusion, understandably – I had never asked him to do anything like this before during our short training time together. I asked him to trust me, he agreed.

We sat together in the now vacant room and I reminded him of our talks about his love of dancing. Just the mention of it brought a sweet smile to his face. I asked him if he would dance with me, he beamed. “I would love to dance with you Cris”, he said in his thick Italian accent, “but we have no music”.

“That’s alright”, I boldly countered, “I’ll hum”.

So, to an impromptu rendition of Starlight Waltz we danced around and around the enormous dining hall. Chato’s delight was obvious and his dancing skills finely tuned. He was light on his feet and highly sensitive to our synchronized moves. After a short break I reminded Chato that he had agreed to trust me, then I asked the impossible. “Chato”, I said, “I want to dance with you again, but now I want you to let me lead”. He was awe struck, stately Italian gentlemen never have the lady lead! I had to plead – “trust me Chato, trust me”.

Another chorus of Starlight Waltz and we were off. It took only a few moments for him to learn to follow me. We went left and right, forward and back, he being responsive to my every move with the grace and lightness of the skilled dancer he was.

“Now”, I told Chato as we slowed to a stop, “I want you to do one more thing for me”. As I took up the empty harness and placed it by his left leg where his guide dog usually stands, I asked him to hold the harness handle in his hand and imagine himself waltzing with his dog. “But, Chato”, I said, “You must let him lead!”

Around the room we went again, this tall elegant gentleman stepping ever so lightly to the moves of the empty harness as I first lead him one way and then another, forward then back.

It was at this point that our unusual evening lesson became clear to Chato. With a glow that took over his entire being, he said, “I now understand that you want me to follow my guide dog as if we were dancing”! “Yes Chato”, I beamed sharing in his delight, “but you must let him lead”!

Well, from that day forward Chato followed his dog with the elegant, light steps of a talented dancer. Chato’s pride and delight at this newly understood concept was thrilling to see. He and his guide dog progressed quickly through the remainder of training and no less than once a day he thanked me for teaching him to dance with his dog.