A Safety-Conscious Canine

A little story I wrote for a blog I contributed to. The blog is no longer running so I decided to republish it here. Enjoy.

Prim has consistently been rather stubborn about going to church. When I asked my trainer about it, she suggested that perhaps Prim simply wasn’t religious. I laughed at that, but it wasn’t a sufficient explanation, especially when I realized that Prim was somewhat unwilling to walk the route from church, as well as to church. Today I figured out why. 

Our walk to church includes traversing several sets of steps, the top level of a parking garage, and a long, side-walkless driveway, one that is consistently populated by church-goers’ vehicles leaving and entering our parking lot. Because there is no sidewalk, we are forced to stick as close as we can to the edge of the road. Prim is trained to do this. It’s a technique called “shore-lining”, but she is still not satisfied. She often stops in the parking lot or veers to the grass when she sees an idoling car, as I think she recognizes it as a threat. Well, one day on our way out of church, Prim decided to take matters into her own paws. Despite my direction to walk straight, across the parking lot and along the driveway, Prim insisted upon turning left. Curious, I trusted her and followed.

“Let’s go home.” 

I said, hopefully, even though I didn’t actually know whether we could get back to our appartment this way. She led me along a brief strip of parkinglot, then pulled me strongly to the right to step onto a sidewalk. I couldn’t help but laugh. We stuck to the sidewalk, made a right, then walked another good distance, until Prim pulled right again and I recognized the slant of our leasing office parking lot beneath my feet, and a minute later reached out to feel the gate that would take us into our complex. 

We had never walked that route before, but somehow Prim knew we could get home that way, and knew it was safer with side walks. She won’t let us walk any other way now. I love my safety conscious canine.

The Symbiosis of the Guide Dog Team

I am often asked questions about the nature of my relationship with my guide dog.  A topic we frequently touch on is the interdependence of it.  I like to point this out to people, because no one is surprised that I depend on my guide dog.  After all, she is my eyes, in a sense… but they usually don’t think  about the fact that my dog depends on me, too.

My guide dog does have a lot of responsibility, especially for a dog.  Prim protects me.  She keeps me from walking into traffic, or stepping off the edge of a platform or stage.  She navigates me smoothly around things in our path, and shows me when there is an obstacle like a parked car or construction barrier obstructing our way entirely.  Prim provides for me.  She helps me find landmarks like doors, steps, trashcans, and chairs, and is a source of ever-present laughter and comfort besides.

But like with any other dog, I have a great deal of responsibility as Prim’s partner and handler.  I protect Prim.  I make intelligent decisions about when to cross the street, and think about Prim’s physical and emotional safety in any given environment.  There are some places I simply do not take my guide dog due to risk of injury or discomfort.  Crowded bars and loud concerts are just two examples of places where paws could be too easily trampled and ears too easily overwhelmed.  There have also been situations where I had to physically protect my guide dog when she was in danger of being attacked by another canine.  I provide for Prim.  I feed her, groom her, take her outside, take her to the vet for medical care, and of course have the enormous pleasure of being her primary playmate and cuddle buddy.

It’s a relationship of giving, not 50/50, but 100/100.  Of course, we both fail, but the beauty is that not only do we both provide and protect, but we also persevere.  There are days I am convinced I have a two-year-old child on a leash, and there are days that Prim is convinced she will starve to death because we get home late and I forgot to throw her dinner in my backpack, but I keep loving her even after she throws tantrums about not being able to eat the cat, and she keeps loving me after I feed her an hour or two later than our schedule dictates.  In that way, it is undoubtedly a symbiosis of sorts, but not a symbiosis of chance, rather one of choice.  Primie, I’m so glad I get to choose you.

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 12|Yorktown…1781

We visited Yorktown on Friday.  No no, not Yorktown like from Hamilton, Yorktown, New York.  I know.  These things can get confusing.  Friday was our day for night travel, so we did the route in the daylight early in the morning, then repeated it after the sun went down that night.  In between we had our visits with the vet.

Prim was very excited about the new route, so we worked on, you guessed it, steady.  She did the route very well, only overstepping one curb and not at all distracted by the grass and street furniture that we passed.  We encountered one loud truck that she stopped for, even though we were on the sidewalk.  She was just being a bit cautious, I think leftover from our traffic check activity on Thursday.  The night route went similarly, other than the fact that it was dark, but that didn’t change much about my perspective really.  Our trainer huffed and puffed behind us like usual, and we had a blast.

At the vet, I learned Prim’s weight, birth date, and health history.  The vet gave her a full physical, and pronounced her healthy but for a slight ear infection in one ear.  She will be on medication for that for the next several days and we will visit the vet a second time before we leave to make sure it is all cleared up… which reminds me.  I need to choose a vet for Prim in Nashville.  If anyone has any good recommendations, please let me know.  Oleta had a vet in Nashville that we loved and appreciated, but I would be interested in looking into others.  Crazy, but I do need to start thinking about getting settled in at home.  Only a week left of training now!

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 11|Pizza

To continue the theme of food in titles this week…

Thursday was our country-travel/picture day.  Country travel is the term we use to refer to traveling on roads without sidewalks.  Our dogs are trained to walk on the left side of the road, but with no specific borderline on the other side it is easy to accidentally drift into the middle of the road from time to time.  So, we use a technique called “shore-lining”, which means my dog does her best to keep the curb line directly on our left, and every once in a while (or when I hear a car coming) I check our distance from the curb or grass line by telling her “Wait. Left, to the curb.”  When we arrive at the curb, whether that be one step later or five, she gets an enthusiastic “yes” and a treat.

Prim did fabulously.  There were no distractions, and most times when I asked her to go to the curb, we were right on top of it.  She showed me a big truck in our way at one point and we went around it then returned to the shoreline.  She was pulling like crazy, so we did have to work on steady some, because my arm was hurting haha.  Again, a problem I am okay with having.

In the afternoon, Prim and I got “gussied up”, as one of my instructors put it, for our ID and class pictures.  The class picture was interesting, with 13 humans and their 13 dogs as well as six instructors attempted to get in the frame and get settled.

“Say pizza!” our photographer told us… so we all called out “pizza!” at random intervals while he snapped photo after photo.  I found the whole thing very entertaining.  After that, we trooped into the hallway to wait for our individual pictures with our dogs.  I was second to go, so it wasn’t long before Prim and I got to hop onto the table together and pose for our photo op.  Prim sat very primly and looked right at the camera.  She is super photogenic.  I think it came out well.

To close out our day of training, we had a traffic check activity followed by lecture.  For the traffic check activity, the trainers set up a narrow isle that could only fit one guide dog team at a time.  At one end was the opening entrance, and at the other a door, which served as motivation for the dogs to continue down the shoot.  The first time we went down, we simply told our dogs forward, arrived at the door, and treated our dogs.  When we returned to the entrance, we instructed our dogs to walk forward into the shoot, and one of the trainers pushed a cart directly at us.  The only safe response in that situation is for the dog to back up to a safe distance, wait for the cart to clear away, and then continue down the isle way.  Prim did so beautifully.  The third time we walked through, a trainer drove the cart in front of us horizontally.  In that case, the dog must stop, wait for the cart to pass, and then continue to the door.  Again, Prim executed it perfectly.  Given this activity and several real life situations where we have had traffic checks, I feel very safe with Prim in traffic, and in grocery stores… which is good, because drivers of both cars and carts are crazy in Nashville.  You can handle’m Prim!

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017_, Day 10|Pretzels!

Wednesday it was rainy and wet the entire day. We were scheduled to go into white plains, but no one wanted to work outdoors while it was pouring, so we stayed inside.  The trainers set up a makeshift obstacle course in the hallways, then worked on targeting and revolving doors, followed by a mall route in the afternoon.

There isn’t much to say about the obstacle course as it went flawlessly for Prim and I.  In targeting, the class split up into separate groups. Some worked on teaching their dogs to show them the elevator buttons, some worked on landmarking the hall intersection, and others (such as myself) worked on finding chairs.  Prim was, of course, brilliant with it as she has been every time we have

with targeting since the very beginning.  I am looking so forward to the day that she can take me to an empty chair in a meeting or on a train. Oleta got to that point but it took a little while and a lot of practice.  First they have to generalize what a chair means in different situations.  Chairs can look different depending on where you are.  Some are in a line against a wall, as in a waiting room or lobby area.  Some are pushed up against a table, as in a restaurant.  Some are wooden, some are soft, some have arms, some do not.  Once the dog gets an idea of what I mean by a chair, learning that I want an empty one is another layer of the process.

After finishing with our chair activity some of us learned how to go through a revolving door with our dogs. Guiding Eyes has a revolving door on campus so it was easy to practice.  I was a little nervous to do this, as there was one occasion in high school when Oleta and I were forced by a crowd unknowingly into a quickly moving revolving door, and Oleta came very near serious injury.  It was very scary, so I tend to avoid revolving doors at all costs, but if I didn’t do the training here Guiding Eyes asks that we refrain from using them in the future, so I opted to complete the training, just in case it proves unavoidable at some point.  She did fine and did not get her tail stuck in the door as I had feared.  She even helped to push the door along as we went with her nose.  Haha, thanks Primlet!

In the mall we worked on escalators, elevators, and suggested turns, but mostly the “steady” command.  As we have been discovering, we cannot safely travel at our normal pace indoors.  It was definitely a challenge for the both of us.  It doesn’t help Prim that I don’t really want to walk slower either, but I know we have to, so I have to be the responsible party and show her what is acceptable pace-wise in that situation.  We will get there, but I’m definitely anticipating having to work a lot on this when we get home.  Honestly I don’t think I could ask for a better problem to have.

At the end of our route, I slyly persuaded one of my instructors, who had finished with her students, to snag me a pretzel and a strawberry lemonade from the Auntie-Anne’s downstairs before we left.  My classmates really appreciated me, I know, because they got some pretzels out of it too.  No no, don’t thank me… really, thank our instructor, dear classmates.

Seriously though… she’s awesome.  All of our instructors are awesome.  They have great senses of humor, are crazy about dogs, love people, are willing to snag pretzels for students at the risk of possibly getting in trouble later, and generally are a joy to work with.  Just another reason to love Guiding Eyes.

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 9|Chocolate

Tuesday we worked some different routes in White Plains. The first one we worked with our normal instructor to and from Dunkin’ Donuts. Prim made a clearance error around a trashcan, but in all fairness, it was a super tough situation. There was a woman coming at us with a baby carriage walking at a good clip, and at the same time there was a trash can on our left, part of which stuck out above Prim’s level, so although she could get around herself and she thought she had me cleared, I wasn’t quite.  The funny part was the trash can was on wheels, so of course it started rolling away when I ran into it and my trainer had to grab it and get it to stay still again.  She had to repeat the process several times, as it would not stay still!  Oh the strange things that happen out on route!

Prim did really well getting through a non-linear area with a fountain and some trees, and slowing down for the door into Dunkin which wasn’t all the way open.  Rather than just trying to run us through the small opening, she stopped to show it to me so that we could squeeze through together.  At the counter, I used the “touch” command to position her in front of me and against the counter so that she was out of the way.  I got a chocolate donut, then we scampered off back to White Plains to consume the deliciousness.  As a side note, my classmates tell me I’m not allowed to have chocolate, because it has caffeine, and sugar… but I don’t think my trainer was aware of that rule so I got away with it! *Insert evil laugh here* Chocolate chocolate chocolate!

🙂

During our route in the afternoon, we worked with a different trainer who was filling in for our class supervisor that day.  She is so chatty and funny. She described Prim’s body language as we worked. Her ears were pinned a little bit back, tail in the middle and out, she said she looked very relaxed and confident, and a bit like an arrow.  We walk fast enough to be one, she said.  Haha.

Prim full on ran me into a pedestrian, so that was awkward.  We were coming up from a street crossing and, from what our trainer said, she had seen the pedestrian, thought she was going one way, but turned out she went another and we collided.  We made our way to a bus shelter and used the clicker to teach her to target it with the word “bus”.  She had it down in no time.  I seriously can’t wait to get this dog home and start learning targets around our home environment.  She is going to be fabulous.

Prim was right on with curbs this time.  She is a quick learner, and we have ended up with our feet in the street far less frequently in recent trips.  Our guest trainer said we looked great—much more like we were in the third week of class than in the beginning of the second.  That’s very exciting to hear!

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 8|A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White Plains Building

There are days I just have to step back and marvel at the incredible phenomenon that is the guide dog team.  Dogs don’t naturally walk in straight lines.  They don’t naturally refuse to chase other animals or deny themselves food lying on the ground.  Most dogs don’t want to spend their days forging a path through pedestrians on crowded sidewalks, locating curbs, and playing in traffic… and yet these dogs do.  They love their job, and most, if not all guide dogs, seem to realize at one point or another that they aren’t just doing this for the food reward.  These are the sort of dogs that Guiding Eyes breeds, raises, and trains, and I feel so blessed to be able to experience life with now two of them.

Prim had a number of things thrown at her today.  It is only our sixth day together and we had two major traffic checks, plus a skateboard check (yep, skateboard. You read that correctly), escalators, crowded, narrow sidewalks, indoor work, and major distractions in the dog food isle at CVS.  That “major distraction” took the form of my class supervisor (who is also Oleta’s trainer and my instructor from 2011) tempting Prim with all sorts of very appealing squeaky toys while we did puppy push ups (sit, down, sit, down, sit, down, sit).  It was pretty hard not to look, and she definitely did struggle to listen to a couple of my commands, but we got through it well enough.  Honestly… can you imagine trying to concentrate while people danced around you with Chic-Fil-A and gift cards for pedicures and the latest technology gizmos, or whatever tempting treat might strike your fancy, and be expected to keep working at the same high performance without ever lunging for one of those waffle fries or gift cards or iPhones?  Mm… Chic-Fil-A… I discovered today that Chic-Fil-A doesn’t exist in this area, bless their hearts.  Anyway, what was I talking about?

Prim handled it all very well.  I was impressed with the way she dealt with the traffic checks.  One was on the left side of the street with a legal right turner.  She saw it coming ahead of time and stopped about ten feet away from the car.  The second was a car turning very illegally on the wrong side of the road.  That was slightly more startling to me as it was completely unexpected, but Prim just came to an abrupt halt, let the car pass, and continued to the curb.  It didn’t seem to throw her at all.  She got a cookie and lots of praise upon reaching the sidewalk.  She did her job very well.

Prim loves escalators.  I am sure that her trainers used a great deal of positive reenforcement with them, as they can be scary for some dogs at first, but I think Prim also just likes the ride.  She did very well pulling me to the edge of the metal plate and showing me exactly where the escalator started.  She is brilliant with targets.  When she hears the name of a familiar target (like the steps in this case) and recognizes it, she is there and fast, and she doesn’t stop pulling until we are all the way on top of it.  Since I have practically no vision, this is extremely helpful for me, because she makes it very clear where whatever I am looking for is, whether it be the curb, the escalator, the door, etc.

We are still working on slowing down a tad in certain situations.  For example, when we entered the CVS in the afternoon, we were moving so quickly the automatic doors didn’t quite have a chance to open all the way, so I got clipped by the still slightly closed sliding door.  We also had to slow in the isles so as not to knock any displays or innocent bystanders to the floor.  On our way back from CVS, we had a slight sniffing distraction with some trash cans (which, in her defense, did smell very strongly!), but as my instructor observed, Prim seems very responsive to my voice and a “Prim, leave it” was all she needed to get going again.

Shortly after that we crossed a street, made a right, and then I felt Prim angle over to the left a bit toward a building.  She approached the wall of the building, then made a quick right and continued along the block.  I wasn’t sure what had happened, until my instructor came up from behind to inform me that Prim had seen herself in a glass wall.  Apparently, Prim got all puffy and upset like, “who’s that over there?!”, until she realized it was her own reflection, got embarrassed, and quick changed her direction like, that didn’t just happen.  We laughed all the way back to the White Plains building.  There are days you have to marvel at the incredible phenomenon that is the guide dog team, and then there are days you just have to laugh… and with Prim, that’s every day.  This dog cracks me up.

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017) | Meet Oleta’s Young Padawan!!!

And now the post you have all been waiting for.  This is Oleta’s Young Padawan.  She is a black lab female named Prim!Prim in my Lap

So far, her nicknames include Primrose, Primie, Prie, Piglet, Primlet, and Wild Woman upon occasion.  She may be small, but have no doubt, she *IS* mighty.  There is an incredible amount of power, personality, and intelligence packed into that little bundle of fur on my lap.  My class supervisor (and Oleta’s trainer) told me that she had “hand-picked a nice one” for me.  She wasn’t kidding.  She did pick a nice one!

She has big paws to fill as Oleta’s successor, but so far she is doing brilliantly.  I was immediately in love with her name, and I’ve totally fallen for her.  How could you not?! ❤ ❤ ❤

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 7|Rest Day

Sunday was our rest day.  That meant we got up at 6 Am, cared for our dogs, attended obedience, attended breakfast, took our dogs for a mandatory play session (I know, how terrible to be required to play), and lecture in the evening.  For Padawan and I, that meant we wandered around aimlessly looking for an activity, since we both have a bit too much energy to stay still all day.  I was blessed to be able to spend four wonderful hours with a close friend of mine who came to visit, but before and after that, we occupied ourselves talking to our classmates, walking the halls, playing various and sundry instruments, cuddling (Padawan and I were cuddling I mean), and talking on the phone.  It was a very relaxing time, and the food was particularly delicious for a rainy cold September day.  We had grilled cheese with tomato soup for lunch, followed by spaghetti, meat sauce, and garlic bread in the evening.  Comfort food.

Obedience in the morning went quite well, even with a dog wandering around the room as a distraction.  At one point, Padawan was in a stay, nose to nose with the distraction dog and she didn’t move.  Very nicely done.  Distractions during obedience will continue to increase in difficulty as we go along.  I might not write about obedience every day from here on out, but I may mention it if something particularly impressive happens.

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 6|The Afternoon Mystery Revealed

Saturday morning brought the first obedience session with some level of distraction.  Our class supervisor tried to catch Padawan’s attention by bouncing a tennis ball all around us while we concentrated on our commands.  She did look once or twice, but got refocused quickly.  Everything this dog does is quick.  She is like a jack-in-the-box when she sits up during obedience.  She takes off like a rocket when she is working.  She spins around and throws herself to the ground in seconds when I tell her “close” (which is the command to lay between my feet under a chair).  She does everything enthusiastically and virtually nothing halfway (hahaha, other than when she doesn’t want to lay down, that is, and remains for a minute or more in the downward dog position in order to trick me into thinking she’s all the way down).

We had a route in White Plains in the morning.  It started out as a relaxed Saturday morning route, with little traffic and fewer pedestrians, but we soon ran into several challenges.  The first was the construction.  A fence blocked off an entire section of the sidewalk, so Padawan had to stop and show me the fence before we could go around to the curb.  She did so, but when we arrived at the curb there was a loud engine being used in the construction zone and I could not hear a thing in order to make the decision to cross the street.  My trainer helped me so that we wouldn’t have to stand there all morning.  Padawan didn’t seem bothered by the noise.  A block or two down, Padawan approached the curb and veered a little to the right.  I was not sure we had approached it correctly until my trainer informed me that there were two pigeons standing right where she would normally have stopped at the curb.  She had treated them as an obstacle so as not to get in trouble for going after pigeons.  She is too cute!!!

Evidently, she did not have the same reservations a block or two on from that when she glimpsed a pair of dogs ahead of us.  Her pace increased to warp speed.  Needless to say that when the next curb arrived, we both ended up with our feet in the street, rather than the sidewalk, by the time we managed to stop for the curb.  We walked back several paces and approached the curb again with a steady command, and she fixed her mistake.  Later though, Padawan was in a sit waiting for a fellow classmate to go on ahead of us (we tend to catch up with people) when a pigeon landed about a foot away.  She thought it was great fun to watch him, but didn’t move a muscle to chase or lunge at him.  Good girl!  I was also very pleased with her reaction to a complicated traffic situation at one crossing.  There was a bus at a bus stop, and a mail truck was pulled up behind it waiting to make a delivery.  That placed it right to the left of us as we approached the far curb on the crosswalk.  With that on our left and turning cars on our right, it got a bit narrow and Padawan ran for it.  I did not treat her for it since she missed the curb, but honestly I was just glad she got us out of there.  My trainer and I agreed that it was a fairly appropriate response given everything going on.  I love working this dog.

In the afternoon, our mystery work was practice with the clicker/targeting as well as a supervised grooming session.  A clicker is a small plastic box with a button that makes a loud popping sound when pressed.  The dogs have learned to associate the sound with food.  It is used as a marker during training to indicate to the dog that, at the moment of the click, they were demonstrating a desired behavior and will receive a food reward.  Targeting is teaching a dog to recognize and target a certain thing according to it’s name.  For example, Padawan has already learned generic targets like curbs, doors, and steps.  If they are in the general vicinity, she can recognize a door and take me to it when I say, “too the door”.  If taught, she can also target particular doors and other objects.  Yesterday we worked on my dorm room door specifically.  I placed my fist on the door and told Padawan “touch”, which prompts her to bop my fist with her nose.  This helps her to understand that I want her to target the thing under my fist.  When she response to the touch command, I click and feed.  After a few repetitions, I added in the word “door”, and then took away the touch command all together and only said, “door”, still clicking and feeding when she bopped my fist.  After a few times doing that, I backed up from the door, picked up the harness handle, and told her, “too the door”.  We continued like that several times over,backing up further and further first in one direction and then in another, until it was pretty clear she knew exactly what I wanted from her.  I have to remember to slow her down a bit with the “steady” command, because we get going so quickly it becomes difficult for her to turn and target with so much momentum.  She LOVES targeting and I can’t wait to see her show me her awesome skills with other things as well.