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.

My Girls’ Canine Family!

Recently, I got to chat with someone from Guiding Eyes who shared the family information for both of my guide dogs.

Oleta was born on October 23, 2009 to parents Loren and Mark.  Her siblings in birth order are:

Orchard (released)

Osa (released, but became a different sort of service dog)

Bailey (released)

Oak (retired guide dog)

Oleta (retired guide dog)

Opera (released)

Ogden (retired guide dog)

Octavian (released)

Prim was born on October 21, 2015 to parents Peter and Daphne.  Her siblings are:

Peyton (in training)

Promise (released)

Posh (released)

Peace (working guide dog)

Parker (released)

Pongo (detection dog)

Pearl (working guide dog)

Prim (working guide dog)

Pumkin (working guide dog)

It’s great to know where my sweet girls came from.  I’m hoping we can meet some of Prim’s siblings!  We already know her sister Pumpkin, who was in training when we were in class in September.  It was pretty clear they knew that they are sisters, judging by how much they wanted to play together every time they saw each other. ❤

So thankful to Guiding Eyes for breeding, raising, and training so many fantastic dogs.

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 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.

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 3 Part 1|Meeting Oleta’s Young Padawan

I have split day 3 into two posts, because there was just too much to say.  Find part two here.

Dog day!!!

Juno obedience Wednesday morning went well.  After breakfast, I had a deep philosophical conversation about life in the lobby with one of my classmates.  It was very enjoyable and passed the time quickly.  Before I knew it, it was 9:00 and I was rushing to puppy proof my room before the big reveal at 9:15. We gathered in alumni hall and listened as the list was read.  I was the first on the list.  I must disappoint you in reporting that I cannot publicize any identifying information about my new guide just yet, not until the match is a bit more certain, and not until the puppy raisers have been notified that their puppy has been matched with a person and is in class.  Our puppy raisers work so hard and give so much of themselves to these dogs, and we want to ensure that they find out about their puppy’s placement through the proper channels, and not through a third party like social media.

That said, they announced my dog’s name, breed, and sex.  For now, I will refer to her as Padawan, as in Oleta’s Young Padawan.

I spent a few minutes in the coffee room with a snack, chatting with my classmates, then went back to my room to wait.  It wasn’t too long before I heard the knock on my door.

“Coming!” I called out, then hurriedly gathered my treat pouch and leash from my bed.  My trainer came in with our instructor assistant and “somebody else”, as she announced as I opened the door.  “Somebody else” came excitedly in, sniffing out the entire area.  My instructor walked me through giving her five high value food rewards, which she very much enjoyed for the approximately 15 seconds that it took her to eat them, gave me a few last bits of information, then left us to snuggle.  We did not do much snuggling, though not for lack of trying on my part haha.  First we explored every inch of the room, then she spent the time getting up, laying down, staring at the door, and whining for the trainers.  This is perfectly normal.  She has spent the last six months training every day with them, and she doesn’t understand yet that I am going to be her person now… so she cried, and cried, and I fruitlessly attempted to distract her with petting, talking, her bone, and singing, which eventually did help her some.  As I sang, she finally laid down for more than a minute next to me.  At one particular song, she got excited and rolled over on her back, wriggling back and forth and batting me with her paws.  It was so cute, and I thought I had her well-occupied, but she was soon back at the door whining.

Eventually we were escorted up to lunch by a trainer.  Padawan was very excited and we only walked a few steps at a time before I had to ask for a sit to remind her not to pull on the leash.  Lunch was hectic, as I expected after spending two hours trying to get her to stay still long enough to pet at all hahaha.  She was up and down the entire time, but I did get to eat bites of my sandwich in between commands to “sit” and “down” and “stay”.  The other students at my table had to do so a couple of times.  It seemed their dogs were much more interested in chilling out.  Personally, I’m glad I have my ball of energy. 🙂 ❤

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 2|Juno Walks and Test Driving A Dog!

I woke up this morning bright and early at 5:30 Am without an alarm.  I think something about the knowledge that I am getting a new guide dog tomorrow is keeping me from sleeping well.  I woke originally at 2:30 Am thinking it was time to get up… only to find that I had to go back to sleep again.  What a disappointment.

I began the morning, as I will every morning while I am here, with obedience, although this time with no dog.  The trainer used her arm to simulate the motion of the dog as I gave the commands and hand signals.  We practiced sit, down, stay, and heel.  The process was quite painless, and the only comment of note by the trainer is that I need to slow down a bit in backing up from my dog when performing “stay”, so that my dog isn’t tempted to chase me instead.  Slowing down is something I have heard from my trainers a few times over the last couple of days… apparently my need for speed is putting myself and others at slight risk haha.  I am trying to listen… I think that counts for something at least.

We had breakfast then left at quarter of eight for our Juno walks and live dog walks at White Plains.  That’s right, this time, I got to test drive a real, live, actual, breathing, walking dog!!!  Unfortunately, it was not until all of my other classmates had already done so.  Yes, I was the last in the lineup.  You can imagine the torture!  My classmates sarcastically suggested that I might need a little coffee.  It was clear that coffee was the absolute last thing I needed.  One classmate added that I, “come pre-caffeinated.” It’s true.  There is a reason I do not drink caffeine.

So, when my trainer finally came into the room (five hours later!) and announced that she was ready for me, I was raring to go.  We headed out the front door of the White Plains facility and to the sidewalk.  I took one end of the harness, my trainer took the other, and we began our walk, talking as we went about how it felt to me.  After a few blocks, we paused and met up with another trainer who repeated the process with me.  I always wonder what random passers by are thinking when they see a blind person being tugged around by another person with a heavy duty leather harness and no dog.  We probably look a tad ridiculous, but I embraced it, enthusiastically praising my trainer for a job well done, and correcting her with a “No Juno, leave it.” when she went to sniff something off to the side.  My favorite part by far, though, was the live dog walk.

“Here I am.” my trainer said as she approached with the dog.  We had stopped at a section of sidewalk near the vans that held all our potential matches.

“Hi you!” I said, reaching out. “You’re so small!”

She was small!  A teeny tiny Labrador.  Oleta was a small lab as well, but this one seemed especially minuscule, and much smaller than Little O.  Granted, I only got to see her briefly, but she does seem quite petite to me… small, but mighty, as I soon discovered.

“Juno, forward.” I said.  The first thing I registered was pull.  She was actually pulling out into the harness as a guide dog should, and as my retired guide hasn’t done consistently for years.  She was also walking at a high speed.  I felt a bit like I was on a rocket ship, and it was amazing.  She was everything I had asked for and more.  She found curbs like a champ, and didn’t stop until she was right on top of them.  The clarity was incredibly refreshing.  I was both joyful and a little sad to find that after 10 minutes spent with this dog, I felt I could trust her with my safety in a way that I hadn’t been able to trust Oleta for a long, long time… and I didn’t even know her name.

Admitting that makes me feel like a traitor.  I feel guilty for the years I spent in willful ignorance of our issues as a team.  I think I knew in the latter half of 2014 that our struggles then would eventually result in retirement, but I wasn’t willing to let go just yet.  I wanted to make it work, and I think maybe I tried a little too long.  By last spring, Oleta was going to extremes to show me that she was ready for retirement, and I wish I hadn’t pushed her to that point.  Still, I needed her to stick it out due to the circumstances, and she did as well as she could.  Gosh I miss her.

We had a transitions session tonight with all of the retrains to discuss retirement and moving on to accept and bond with a new dog.  I am thrilled that tomorrow is dog day, and cannot wait to officially meet my match, but I can’t help thinking of Oleta.  She is in my memory constantly, and I do long for her, but, as noted during the transitions session, the bond between guide dog and handler never breaks.  It only changes.  I have room in my heart for this new dog, and I have to do my best to keep my mind on that purpose and goal during my time here.  That said, I almost broke down tonight, and I am sure it will happen sometime… it’s just a matter of when.  This is emotional stuff.

Tomorrow is dog day.  That means our trainers will meet tomorrow morning to finalize the matches between human and dog, and then we will gather in Alumni Hall to hear the name, gender, breed, and color of each announced in turn.  After that we will wait in our rooms to welcome our dogs individually and have some bonding time before lunch and our first harness walks outside.  I cannot wait!  Praise God from whom all blessings flow!