As I sit down to write tonight’s blog post about my experiences in training for and with a new guide dog, I find that I have no idea of what to talk about. Should I discuss the process of how one is accepted in to a school? What about what dog day looks like for our class tomorrow? What transitions does a dog need to go through to get to where they are now? How can I bring all that I have in to this new partnership? I simply cannot decide.
Speaking of being indecisive, my emotions are all over the place. One moment, I am incredibly excited. The next moment, I talk myself down from the excitement and resolve to go in to this with dignity and grace. You know, the kind of calm dignity and grace that I do not have at all. Then it switches to fear of failure, fear of constantly comparing the new guide dog to my previous one, the fear of it not being a good match because of something that I may do incorrectly, and the fear of getting in my own way because I’ve been through training before and I want to be back to my sweet part of partnership with Lester. After that comes the need to reminisce about Lester to all and sundry. Then I switch back to frenzied levels of excitement which suggests that maybe I won’t be getting a lot of good, solid sleep tonight. So, much like this post, I’m all over the place!
Fortunately for me, we have a team of wonderful instructors who give good, informative lectures so that we can learn all that we need to know, or may have forgotten, or discuss new things that we didn’t imagine were possible.
My day consisted of getting up at six AM to head down to alumni Hall for what is known as Juno obedience. Juno, named after what I believe may have been the first guide dog ever, is when the instructor places a harness over their arm and pretends to be the dog. So, we practiced sits, stays, having the dog come to us, having Juno lie down, etc. This is done so that we can get used to what the instructors expect and to help us with our positioning and see how we may give corrections.
Speaking of corrections, we learned about the three different types which are used to get a dog’s attention. None of these corrections hurt the dog, however, sometimes the general public can be unforgiving about what is not understood and often make snap judgments rather than allow themselves to be educated and understand that we do what is best for our dogs and they have gone through extensive training to get to where they are now.
After breakfast, we headed to White Plains and to what is known as the Lounge. This is an area where we can relax and wait for our turn to go on walks and work with our instructors and our new dogs. There are sofas, chairs, exercise equipment, and plenty of places to simply relax until it is our turn. There is also a restaurant-style eating area complete with tables and booths so that we can learn early on how to position our dogs when we are in such settings.
When it was my turn to go on the Juno walk with an instructor, I was very excited. We do these walks so that the instructors can figure out our pace, how we move, and our corrections style as well as probably a bunch of unmentioned considerations as they finalize the matching process.
Halfway through the route, I was able to walk with a guide dog that may be a potential match for me. I was not given a name, and I will not give the breed or gender of the dog, however, I have to tell you that putting the harness in my hand after two years of using a cane was like coming home. It was a wonderful, freeing feeling that I really didn’t understand how much I’d missed until we were walking down the sidewalk and the dog guided me around obstacles.
There were some very cute little quirks that the dog displayed, but I want to hold them close until I find out if this will be my new guide dog and when I am able to publicize it.
I’d like to take a moment to talk a little about our class dynamics. There are twelve of us and they are so fun. There are a lot of laughs and jokes as well as great conversation. What a fantastic group of people. I know that we will be a good source of support for one another as we go through this journey together.
After we came back to the school, we had a meet and greet with some of the staff we hadn’t met. I’d like to take a quick moment just to talk about the staff and how helpful and awesome they are to us.
As I have stated before, guide dog training is difficult, stressful work. It is rewarding, but it is an emotional process that requires focus and dedication. To that end, the staff make certain that we don’t have to worry about anything. We are fed wonderful meals, volunteers will go shopping for us if needed, toiletries are provided, fruit and snacks and bottles of water can be easily found, and so many other needs both small and large are often accommodated. This allows us to pour all of our energy in to the relationship and bonding experiences as we work with new guide dogs.
Tonight’s lecture was on transitions. After the dogs reach about four weeks in age, they go with socializers who pet and help with nurturing them. Then at about eight weeks old, they go to live with volunteer puppy raisers who do the preliminary hard work of house training, more socialization with people and other puppies, and instill in them a foundation of obedience. Just when things are smooth sailing at about eighteen months old, the puppy raisers give the dogs back to the school where they are trained by our instructors for five to six months. During that time, the dogs stay in the kennels with kennel mates before being matched with us. This means that the dogs have gone through a great deal of transition in their lives and we are but one more change. That’s a lot to take in!
We have to keep in mind that some dogs may click with their people right away, but that bond may not be there for a few days. every dog is different and every team has different needs. I know that I am reminding myself to be patient with future 4.0 as well as with myself.
After that, a few of us who have had dogs in the past attended a lecture about making that transition from the previous dog to this one. This was such a great talk to attend. The facilitator is a guide dog handler and thus understands intimately the challenges that can come with this part of training. There was something said tonight that has really resonated with me. My memories and bond with Lester is not diminished due to having a new dog. I understood this logically, but tonight it really clicked for me.
I still am a whirlwind of emotions, but I am excited and full of anticipation about tomorrow.
I cannot disclose anything about Guide Dog 4.0 until Saturday, so my posts will likely focus on other aspects of training and guide dog life. I will, however, refer to them as 4.0 until then.
See you tomorrow!
Breakfast: oatmeal with slivered almonds and a bowl of sliced melons
Lunch: chicken salad on an oven-baked croissant
Dinner: Pasta with Italian sausage and broccoli. apple pie for dessert.