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 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!

Seven Things I Have Missed About Having a Guide Dog

I have been a guide dog user for six years now, and it’s become a way of life.  My guide dog is a mobility aid, and so affects the way I travel, but she also affects my schedule, personal interactions, thought processes, financial decisions, clothing choices, etc.  For the last while, a lot of those things have been absent from my life.  These are some of the things I’ve missed most since retiring my first guide.

1. That Glidey, Free Feeling of Working a Guide Dog

If you have never worked a guide dog, you may not understand what I mean here.  When you pick up the harness handle and tell your dog forward, your dog leans into the harness, you lean back, and you take off.  It’s a smooth, exhilarating sensation that I can only describe as a sort of flight.  Having worked with a guide that has not really pulled into the harness for years, I have not experienced this feeling properly in a good long while, and I cannot wait to experience it again.

2. Excessorizing My Guide Dog

Oleta’s drawer in my apartment is full of brightly colored flowers, bows, ribbons, bandanas, and collars that coordinated with my outfits.  My guide dog is, in a way, an extension of my body, and therefore, also fashion, and right now, I’m missing my canine fashion extender!

3. Interacting Regularly with a Dog

I love the nitty gritty mechanics of the guide dog team.  I am a dog person, and I love being near them.  Learning to communicate with my dog, improving obedience and work-related skills, and watching my dog put those skills into action are all things that give me joy, and that I miss having as part of my everyday life.

4. Interacting with the Public

When you take a dog everwhere with you, you get noticed.  Suddenly everyone wants to shower you with compliments, pester you with questions, and tell you long detailed stories about their childhood labrador Rex who was their best friend, could open doors, slept with them every night, saved their sister’s pet rabbit from a fire, etc etc.  Sometimes it can become overwhelming, but in general I enjoy those conversations.  I love sharing about my guide dog, the amazing work that she does, and the organization that bred, raised, and trained her.  More even than that, I love how the presence of a dog seems to normalize my interactions with others.  Instead of viewing me as “that blind girl”, they think of me as “that girl with the dog”, which honestly I prefer.

5. Going Out Early Every Morning

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually kind of like being awoken at the crack of dawn to park and feed my starving canine.  I am an early riser anyway, but there’s no staying in bed with a hungry labrador in need of a potty break bouncing all over you.  I love having that motivation to roll out of bed, no matter how groggy, and go out to greet the new day, whether that be freezing wind and rain or sunshine and birdsong.

6. Always Having a Good Excuse to Talk to Myself

Sometimes verbalizing my thoughts helps me process things, okay?  With Oleta, people assume I am talking to her… which I may very well be.  Right now, with no dog, I just appear unstable.

7. Spacing Out On The Walk Home Because My Dog Knows Exactly Where Home Is

Guide dogs are not GPSs.  I  can’t just say, “Juno, take me to Walmart.” and then find myself magically at Walmart 20 minutes later.  Still, after directing my guide dog home over and over again, day after day, my guide dog starts to understand that when I say, “Let’s go home.”, I am about to tell her forward, left, to the curb, forward, right, etc.”  Basically, she becomes a bit of a GPS.  Of course I can’t totally space out.  I still need to keep track of where I am, and make safe traffic decisions, but I can, for example, work on memorizing music for my voice lesson the next morning the whole walk and still do it completely safely (I can do that with my cane too but I usually miss more turns).

What I’m trying to say is my dog knows where dinner is.  My cane, on the other hand, doesn’t care.

Today marks one day before Dog Day, and one day before I get to reclaim these and other elements of the guide dog lifestyle, and I can’t wait!

Eight Things I Will Miss About Being A Full-Time White Cane User

I admit it. Me and the white stick have a bit of a rough history. Stories of losing them in rivers and storm drains aside, the canes of my youth were mostly abused in the fact that they were neglected.  I did not often use it as a child and teenager, and when I did it was only in preparation for getting a guide dog as soon as I turned 16. I hated the cane in those days… in fact, I can honestly say I had a healthy disdain for it until quite recently. Throughout my college years, I grew to accept my cane as a useful piece of equipment, but it was still one that I preferred never to use unless forced by circumstance.

Over the last several months though, since I essentially hung up the harness in the spring, my grudging respect for my cane has developed into an all out appreciation, even love.  Yes, I know. People who know me will be falling on the floor in shock at this, but there are things I will actually miss about being a full time white cane user.  Here are a few of them.

1. Sprinting everywhere I go

As a cane user, I get to choose exactly how fast I walk and the fashion in which I walk. I don’t need to worry about paws being stepped on or convince my guide dog that it is more fun to run everywhere. I love being able to grab my cane and take off at high speeds, all while hopping, skipping, dancing, and generally doing something relatively” productive with my sometimes excessive amounts of energy. If you are concerned that this is not safe you are probably correct and will be happy to know that I am picking up the harness handle again in one day’s time. (although when I get that urge to burn off some Shea craziness, the cane is coming out)

2. My Cane Doesn’t Get Distracted

Guide dogs are amazing creatures, but at the end of the day, they are dogs, and they sometimes get sidetracked on the job (squirrel!). My cane, on the other hand, never barks at dogs, lunges after a cat, or goes for food on the ground, and I’ve gotta say, that makes a walk in the park much more like a walk in the park, and less like a rollercoaster ride.

3. My Cane is A Cheap Date

I don’t have to feed, groom, pick-up after, buy toys for, or pay the medical expenses of my cane.  Of course, I am absolutely willing and love to do those things for my guide dog, because it is the least I can do to repay her for the work and affection she gives me, but it *has* been an inexpensive several weeks.  Thanks cane.

4. No dog hair

Man I love having a guide dog, and I love having a dog in general, but it is awfully nice not to have to constantly lint roll and swiffer every inch of my existence to keep myself and my living space looking presentable… my clothes will be covered in yellow or black hair again in a matter of days though, so I obviously don’t care all *THAT* much.

5. No Muddy Paws

My dog goes everywhere with me in all sorts of weather and all sorts of environments… that means muddy paws in wet weather, and paws full of cement dust when we walk through construction sites… neither of which I love when tracked into my apartment.  Easily solved with a damp towel at the door, but not something I have to fool with at all with my cane.

6. Not having to worry about being denied from restaurants and ubers because of my guide dog

Our society has made a great deal of progress with public access for guide and service dog users, but it is still not uncommon for me to experience discrimination because of the presence of my guide dog. That, for me, is not something that outweighs the benefits of having a guide, but it is nice to travel without that worry in the back of my mind. No one is going to stop me from entering a business or Lyft with the proclamation that “no white canes” are allowed, or that they are “deathly afraid” of white canes… at least, it hasn’t happened to me yet.

7. If My Cane Get’s Stepped On, It’s Okay

Public transit, restaurants, concerts, church services, crowded, narrow spaces often mean that paws, tail, and nose are in danger of being stepped on.  Fortunately this only happened a couple of times to Oleta, mostly her paws, but the only reason it didn’t happen more often than that was because I was always hovering over her with my feet and sometimes hands strategically placed to guard her from harm.  My cane doesn’t have nerve endings, so as long as it doesn’t get actually snapped in half, we’re good.

8. Hitting things

Honestly, it’s kind of satisfying to hit things with a 58 inch pole all day.  The tapping and occasional clanging of a cane used to bother me a great deal, but I’ve learned to embrace the aggression and the noise, and sometimes be a bit more noisy and aggressive than strictly necessary, just because:

A. it’s fun,

B. I was a music major and find different sounds interesting, and

C. It makes a particular person in my life really mad, which is hilarious. 🙂

Good news is I don’t have to kiss every one of these things goodbye forever on Wednesday.  The cane, like the dog guide, is a tool in a tool box, and if I feel the need to hang up the harness for a few hours and pick up the cane, I get to do that, and I am glad I appreciate that option now.

Guiding Eyes Training (September 2017), Day 1

So, let’s start with the basics.  I am blind, and as a blind person, I use a cane, but I, for many reasons, choose to live my life with a guide dog in addition to having the option of my white cane.

If you are curious about some of my reasons for choosing to be a guide dog user, see

this post.

A guide dog is a live animal.  They are not machines.  They go through two years of training before ever laying eyes on their blind partner, and then 2 weeks to a month of training with their human.  At Guiding Eyes, the standard training program is 21 days.  During this period of time, the student learns verbal commands, hand signals, and training techniques in order to work effectively with their trained dog.  The dog and human both have to become familiar with one another’s body language, and learn how to work with one another in a variety of different environments, including indoor and outdoor, urban, suburban, and rural areas, as well as public transit.  This is what I will be doing for the next 21 days at the Guiding Eyes campus in Yorktown Heights, New York.

So, without further introduction, (drumroll please!) I have arrived in New York!  The trip to and through the airport was a breeze.  Our flight went incredibly quickly, as we arrived 30 minutes early.  I met two Guiding Eyes staff near baggage claim and met some of my classmates as they arrived.  As we waited and later as we traveled to guiding eyes in the vans, we chatted about our guide dog experiences, blindness, canes, and our home lives.  It’s funny how an experience like this draws a group of people together so quickly.  My classmates are already teasing me for being hyper, giggly, and speedy.  I even had someone tell me they could hear my southern accent, which surprises me since I did not think Tennessee had affected my accent at all.  We have representatives in our class of 13 students from at least 8 states, according to my research thus far.

When we arrived to campus, we found our rooms and met our instructors.  We have three instructors, as well as a class supervisor (who happens to be the same person that trained Oleta and myself in 2011), a special needs instructor, and two instructor assistants.  The last time I came, there were only two main instructors, a class supervisor, a special needs instructor, and one instructor assistant, so the trainer to student ratio has improved.

I first went to lunch, because I was starving, and got to see and converse with some people I remember from July 2011.  I took the 30 minutes or so after that to explore my room.  There is an empty crate, hooks on the door for a harness, and a container with dog food, two bowls, a measuring cup, and a bone.  There will be a puppy after all!  I cannot believe it!

At 3:00 Pm, we had building orientation, followed by dinner at 5:15 and evening lecture.  The building has changed a bit since I was last here, but I was happy to find the baby grand piano still in it’s corner in Alumni Hall.  That, I think, will be the way I distract myself from the waiting Tuesday evening.  Lecture covered GEB expectations for student conduct, the general daily schedule and other house keeping info, and equipment.  We received orientation to the harness, martingale collar, training collar, and leash.  I will explain equipment for y’all more in detail in another post.  We also received our very own new leashes!  They are shiny and much stiffer even than I remember.  Soon I will be clipping that leash to an actual real live dog!!!  I wonder who it will be!

A Second “Second Journey” – 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!