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.

Reflections on the Transition, but Really Actually Just Prim –Our Newest Adventure, Part 3

This is a continuation of a series on our transition after our move to Ireland. Read part one here, or part 2 here.

 

Wednesday September 12, 2018

 

Sometimes I look about me here and I can’t believe where I am, or what I’m doing. It is so surreal, but so fantastic. It’s definitely been an adjustment, and there have been hard moments, but the wonderful moments far outweigh the hard ones, and I am thankful for that. 

Prim has been pretty darn amazing, all things considered, throughout this whole transition. There have been times when we have both been stressed and our communication has broken down somewhat, but seriously, she has been so solid for the most part, and it has made the whole experience so much more enjoyable. She wants to work, and wants to be where I am. She isn’t particularly interested in meeting all the new random people, which is kind of helpful honestly, because they all want to meet her, and I’m glad she’s not particularly distracted by them. She’s eager as ever, especially when I meet her where she is and give her the trust and the confidence to succeed.

Today I took her for a long line leasure walk aalong the gravel path outside of my dorm building. She very much enjoyed sniffing along the path and prancing in the grass as we went. At first when we got outside, she was so thrilled to be free she took off at full speed, with no heed to the end of the line… so of course I went flying. Two joints of my cane came apart, and I tumbled into the grass, hardly managing to cling onto the leash handle. Prim immediately realized what had happened and rushed over to me, snorting and nudging me in concern. Dazed, I struggled to sit up. She sat in front of me and stared at me with worried eyes, placing an appologetic paw in my hand for comfort. She refused to move until she knew that I was okay, and let her know. Literally the sweetest moment ever.

I think she realizth that she was the cause of my fall. She is so attentive and empathetic in that way. Any time I fall Prim is immediately right on top of me making sure I’m all right. I’ll never forget that first time I slipped in my heels in the rain on the way to the Nashville symphony, not too long after Prim and I had gotten home. My shoe just went out from under me and I landed in the wet. She twisted around to bounce in my lap, lick my face, paw at me, and generally ensure that I was responsive. It was definitely a strengthening moment for our bond. I love this little girl so, so much, and I am so glad to have her as I settle in a new country.

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), Day 3 Part 2|Our First Afternoon

This is part 2 of my entry about Dog Day, that is, the day I got to meet my new guide dog.  You can find the first post here.

We went out for a brief walk on the residential street near campus after lunch.  Padawan threw herself into the harness and guided with incredible confidence and ease.  This particular street does not have sidewalks, and while my trainer said I did not have to worry about shore lining the left side of the road, Padawan knew exactly what she was doing and did it naturally anyway.  On our return to the building, she slowed and stopped to show me a parked car on the side of the road.  When I gave the “forward” command, she went smoothly around it and returned to the shoreline on the left.  Beautiful work!

Back in our room, she conked out for about 10 minutes so I got some good petting time in, but her energy was quickly replenished and she was soon up whining at the door again.  I kept petting, talking, and singing as I had earlier, until we made it to feed, water, and park time and afternoon lecture.  Lecture was surprisingly uneventful.  There was some barking from another dog, and Padawan did try to belly crawl and fraternize with her neighbors a few times, but she is a pro at the “close” command.  “Close” means the dog must swing their rear end around and tuck themselves between your feet under a chair.  I have never seen a dog perform that command with such drama and enthusiasm.  She is fabulous.

Dinner was another struggle to stay settled, but there was definite progress from lunch.  I will say eating ribs on the first day with your new guide dog is a bit challenging, but Padawan enjoyed licking my fingers afterword, even after I had used a napkin to clean up.  Looks like she likes barbecue.  She’s a Nashville girl for sure…

I hung out with a few of my classmates after dinner in the lobby, but Padawan was very upset by the in and out presence of her trainers and eventually threw herself on the ground in a very loud temper tantrum, so we called it a night early.  Poor babe.  As time goes on and our bond begins to solidify, things will get better.

We didn’t snuggle that morning, but later that evening, it finally happened!  After some more pacing and carrying on, she plopped herself close beside me and nuzzled into my leg.  I didn’t move for a long, long time.  It was a precious hour for the both of us, I think.

Thursday we will have our first two official routes in White Plains.  After a day of working with this dog, I can easily say I adore her.  Her spunk and pizazz are irresistible, and her brilliance and motivation are impossible to miss.  I am already imagining life in down town Nashville with her at my side.  We will take Nashville by storm, no doubt about it.  Still, we have a long road of training and bonding ahead.  We should get a better idea of what that process might be like tomorrow on our walks in town.  Until then…

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!