So, for something a little bit different for this blog, you get two bloggers for the price of one! We happened to be thinking about the same sort of thing
at the same time, and agreed to collaborate! Since we are posting this entry simultaneously on each of our blogs, I figure an introduction is an order:
Blindbeader (real name relatively unknown): working her first guide dog, Jenny. Somewhat of a perfectionist, loves the challenges of life but would sometimes
like the world to slow down a bit. Eats too much chocolate, drinks far too much coffee, and yet somehow manages to stay employed, athletic, and reasonably
Jenny hates boats, and yet she and I are awaiting one in NYC
Francesca (Twitter handle @poetprodigy7): Working with her second guide dog, Zeus, AKA espresso on four legs. Writer, teacher, self-deprecatingly funny,
sometimes refers to herself as the blind Bridget Jones. Addicted to coffee, chocolate, Colin Firth, and the Big Bang theory (not necessarily in that order).
This is SO the life! Zeus is sleeping by the pool with a wine glass right beside him
Guide Dogs – Living in the Real World
Several weeks ago, on a cold, gray, misty Monday, I dutifully donned my raincoat and ventured into the downpour to take my guide dog for his evening constitutional.
Under normal circumstances, he would, Labrador that he is, have raised no objections to getting wet; this day, however, he was recovering from a mysterious
episode of stomach upset, and I might have foregone the walk until the rain subsided, but for the fact that I was endeavoring to avoid an unmitigated disaster
of the nature that would require a professional carpet cleaner.
Given that both of us were wet, tired, and anxious, it should come as no surprise that Zeus’s distraction resulted in us becoming slightly (or completely)
disoriented. How was it that the dog who keeps me from falling down stairs and has been known to plant his paws between me and oncoming vehicles couldn’t
even locate our front door? Too wet to ponder the incongruity of it all, when we finally found our way back home, I promptly sat down on the couch and
cried for about fifteen minutes.
Anyone who has ever been the two-legged part of a guide dog team knows this story all-too well, and yet as many of us will attest, even on the worst days—when
your dog has barked in harness, or nicked a bite of your co-worker’s peanut butter sandwich—we’d far rather walk on the wild side of life with our crazy
companions than take that journey alone. Between two dogs, I have a combined total of nearly eleven years of experience as a guide dog handler, and I use
the term experience euphemistically here to mean: “I’m still alive, and not in a full body cast, so I must be doing something right.” When I experience
moments of self-doubt, I sometimes force myself to step back and think about just how much my dogs have taught me about friendship, bravery, and blind
faith. At the risk of sounding like the amazing guide dog whisperer, then, being a guide dog handler has taught me several lessons about life.
18 months ago, when I started training with my first guide dog, Jenny, I felt incredibly overwhelmed by the entire process. I had practical questions
that had been asked and answered, but I wanted to know more about that emotional – almost mystical – bond between guide dog and handler. The problem was, I didn’t even know what questions to ask, much less the answers I needed to hear.
Lately, I have come across many people who have just started training or just come home with new guides, as well as those that are in the application process
or waiting for class dates. Here are many pointers that I wish someone had told me before I first opened my door – and my heart – to the most stubborn dog in the world.
A bad day is just that: one day out of the hopefully innumerable ones I will live. When I have a bad day at work, I drown my sorrows in tears and vodka.
When Zeus has a bad day at work, he wags his tail, licks my hand, and shrugs it off. Whether this is because he believes in a better tomorrow or because
Labradors have notoriously short-term memories, his approach seems far more emotionally balanced.
Your dog will test you, period! It varies in scope, intensity, duration, and activity, but almost all new dogs WILL push the boundaries. This does NOT
mean that there is anything inherently wrong with handler or dog.
I’ve been there, though, at a time when all of my guide dog handler friends told me that their dog NEVER did activity X or didn’t have bad habit Y. Thankfully,
we worked through it with a lot of hard work, some frustration, and huge parties on street corners when Jenny took me to the lightpole without grabbing
the garbage at the bottom of it.
If the dog is being unsafe, however, or there hasn’t been improvement (And I mean, even a LITTLE), guide dog schools generally have followup services either on request or on a regular basis; use them! Or ask questions of other guide dog handlers, who have been in the trenches and can offer a variety of suggestions. I just have to remember that many first-time long-time handlers can have selective amnesia. If I ever get that way, knock me upside the head!
Sometimes, work can wait. Even when my dog isn’t in harness, rarely is he off-duty. Even when we’re taking a leisurely stroll to nowhere in particular,
he is always multitasking, concentrating half on the business of fertilizing the neighborhood grass and half on the business of ensuring that I don’t sprain
my ankle falling over a tree root. Whenever he tosses his favorite toy into my lap or wedges his nose between my hand and the laptop keyboard, he reminds
me to check the proverbial warning light on my brain’s battery and occasionally power down and recharge.
I so second this one! If a guide dog has time to be a DOG, to bond with his/her handler, it does make him or her a better guide in the long run. It took
me about six months to realize when Jenny was exhibiting more frequent distracted behaviors, then it was time for a good long run, or a seriously wicked
game of tug. That done, she would be able to focus on her work, and everyone was happier.
Learn to let it go. One day, my dog stopped me from falling off a drop in the sidewalk because I was far too intent on a conversation with my friend to notice the change in elevation. The moment we got home, he immediately rewarded himself by, for reasons which remain clear only to him, stealing a pair of my
underwear from the laundry basket. While I naturally corrected him for this, I didn’t dwell on the mishap with my usual scab-picking intensity, because
I was still grateful for the fact that I wasn’t doing the bunny hop on a broken leg. Case in point: things could always be worse. Appreciate it when they’re not.
Be prepared for your dog to occasionally make you look really really REALLY dumb. I was in a familiar area while training with Jenny one day, and I told
her to move forward. She stopped, I corrected her, and told her to move forward. She eventually did… and led me straight into a gravel pit. Oops! The first thing they drill into your head at guide dog school is “Trust your Dog!” and this has served me well more often than not. Sometimes I get to know why my dog did what she did; other times I just shake my head and just wonder why she chose to quite determinedly run me through that parking lot, but the dog has two working eyeballs, and I certainly do not! Then again, there are times Jenny IS doing something she shouldn’t, making me look silly; in two minutes the dog will forget about it, and you should too!
It takes more strength to hold a grudge than to let go of one. Have you ever tried to stay angry at a Labrador? It works about as well as defying the laws
of gravity. No matter how frustrated I sometimes find myself with my dog, he always manages to win me over with his puppy dog penitence, and this reminder
to forgive and forget has served me well in the relationships I cultivate with others. Perhaps Woodrow Wilson said it best: “if a dog will not come to
you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience.”
Pick your battles! There are some things guide dogs should NOT do:
scavenge, chase after other dogs, get up and wander around on their own. That being said, all dogs have quirks; some can be trained out of them, others
are just interesting little fringe benefits. Jenny does not like guiding me through puddles (or getting her feet wet at all); however, she will do it
if she has to. I can decide that, well, she is the dog and I am the human, so by God, she will guide me through that puddle! Or I can just be thankful
that my shoes stay dry and I don’t have to worry so much about the ice hiding underneath all that water. Guess what I picked (Hint: my shoes tend to stay dry…)
You can, contrary to popular belief, perform essential functions without the benefit of caffeine. At least once a week, I am heard to declare that the
fact that I feed and walk my dog every morning before I’ve had my first cup of coffee testifies to my undying appreciation for the sacrifices he makes
daily to keep me safe. (Including making sure that I don’t mortally wound myself when I attempt to move without first fueling myself with caffeine). There’s
a reason I refer to my overly frisky, furry eyeballs as espresso on four legs. One shot of him propels me pretty efficiently through the first fifteen
minutes of my day.
(On a totally different note) Guide dog school has good suggestions, maybe even great ones, but much of what you learn is done after formal training is over.
This is OK, and, in fact, necessary. You will laugh when your dog shows you – in that cute way he has – that your safety is in his paws, and by the way
you should trust him because he has two fully functioning eyeballs *you do not) and is walking you calmly around that open car door… you will cry with
frustration on a day when it all just goes to hell and there’s no rhyme or reason why. You will sing for joy on the first day you just “click.” And you
have good days and bad days, sometimes feeling like you have the most intelligent creature on the planet and other times wondering why this little demon
from hell is taking up space in your apartment.
I don’t mean to sound like having a guide dog is this painful drudgery; trust me, it isn’t! But I have seen so many guide dog handlers get discouraged
that things aren’t going well and it isn’t working like it shows on TV or did in class. I LOVE having a guide dog. I love putting in the work to shape
her behavior that will make her a better guide and us a better team. When a concept we’ve been working on for months clicks in her head, I almost don’t
have to praise her because her head is up and her tail is wagging happily; I praise her to the skies anyway. The day during training when she pulled me
out of the path of a bus, I had no idea how many other close calls we would dodge over the next 18 months. If I get to stay safe, trusting my life to
her two working eyeballs and four stinky paws, I’d gladly take the occasional cracker away from her…