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!

Training with my Second Guide Dog

And so it begins. Just as there was a second journey recorded on this blog in Scotland absent of Oleta, my darling first guide dog, here commences yet another second journey in her absence, that is, my second experience at guide dog school, and a new partnership with another wonderful Guiding Eyes dog. I plan to keep a careful account of my training and related musings in the pages of this blog. My hope is that it will prove useful both for me as an opportunity to reflect on the things I am learning and feeling throughout the process, and for others who want to discover more about guide dogs and guide dog training. When I was a teenager preparing for my first guide dog at 16, I scoured every website I could possibly find related to guide dogs. Training blogs like this were one of my favorite ways to learn more about guide dogs in general, as well as specifics about the varied training philosophies and programs in existence.  If this account is as interesting to someone else as similar blogs were to me as a first time applicant to guide dog school, I would be humbled (and also impressed that your attention span is that long because seriously I am a wordy writer.  Haha. Prepare yourself!)

See you in New York!

Celebrating Five Years

With the cool evening air wafting in through the screen door, along with golden birdsong and the smoke of summer fires, I am swept into years past, happy childhood years, filled with summer evenings of s’mores and sparklers. Today has been a day of reflecting on memories. That’s because today marks 15 states, 4 countries, 5 languages, five years, and countless memories since Oleta, my beautiful guide dog, and I became a team.
Contrary to many people’s assumptions, I don’t NEED a guide dog to travel independently. I can (and do upon occasion) use a white cane to travel just as effectively. I don’t NEED a guide dog to pursue my professional goals. I know lots of blind professionals who are strictly white cane users. I chose to work with a guide dog because I loved dogs, I imagined working a guide dog to be infinitely more pleasurable than using a cane, and it was, after all, my dream to have a guide dog from the age of eight.
Those reasons still stand. Working a guide dog is, in my opinion, infinitely more pleasurable than using a cane. A guide dog allows one to walk much more fluidly and quickly without having to stop every 20 feet to unstick one’s stubborn cane from the side walk, or the grass, or some unidentifiable metal thing in the middle of the path, or, heaven forbid, someone’s legs, or to recover from getting one’s cane stuck in one of these various and sundry obstacles, not stopping fast enough, and promptly being rewarded with a sharp jab to the stomach. Yep, don’t miss those days. Having a guide dog also means that I didn’t get hit by that one insane bus driver who suddenly decided to drive on the side walk right where I was standing, it’s a heck of a lot easier to find doors, stairs, curbs, escalators (Oleta LOVES escalators), benches, etc, and sometimes even one of my best friends. Yes, these, among others, are all awesome benefits of having a guide dog, but now a days, the reason I work a guide dog is because of Oleta.
Oleta, who loves unconditionally as easily as she licks, who takes work breaks to wriggle on her back in the grass and the snow and the sand just for the pure joy of it, who actually whines when she sees children on playgrounds because she wants to play with them, who lives out the meaning of her name “Little one with wings” every time we find ourselves flying alone along some sidewalk or other.
Dear Oleta, I love how you love life, and I love living life with you. Happy five years of memories made! I look forward to many more together.