Getting my first Guide Dog
I’m a very stubborn person. After I lost my sight in a car accident, I was very resistant to accepting help from others, including relearning to traverse the world using orientation and mobility (O&M). For years I refused to use my white cane and just ended up stumbling (literally) through the world because using these skills and the cane meant I was giving up. I was told that I should consider a guide dog, but I ended up waiting for 18 years before I applied with Guide Dogs for the Blind and got my first guide Fauna. I had a lot of questions about the process and there wasn’t a lot of information available online, so I decided to document my process. I am generally not one to share my feeling about things, but receiving my first guide dog was incredibly emotional and to this day I appreciate Guide Dogs for the Blind so much, and have made it my goal in life to inform others about the amazing job Guide Dogs for the Blind does for their clients.
When I was at the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus, I kept a diary which became these blog posts here on Blind Travels shortly after I returned home with Fauna. I felt it important to have these original posts in one page so they are easy to read, rather than having to wade through all of the blog posts to find the next entry. I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions and experiences if you have or are considering applying for a guide.
Guide Dog Files
The day finally arrives – September 30, 2018
I woke up early to get to the airport on time. My wife Carrie dropped me off and I headed into the check-in line with my suitcase in tow, and white cane clearly visible. This would be my first solo trip anywhere since the accident that stole my sight. I was a bit unnerved to say the least, as I have always traveled with my wife and she always played the part of sighted guide. I was flying United Airlines, and upon entering the airport, I wandered to the largest line I could find. The person directing traveler traffic diligently ignored my requests for help finding the proper check-in location. The first time flying with United Airlines in over ten years was not starting out well, but being ever-optimistic, I trudged onward. Eventually, I found my way to the end of the line and the lady directing traffic (who had ignored me earlier noticed me, and saw I was a cane user, her demeanor changed, and she abruptly grabbed my arm and unceremoniously dragged me toward an open check-in kiosk. This was the limit of my interaction with the “traffic monitor” as I will call her as I do not know her official capacity in the organization. My impression was that she could have used a bit more tact when leading me to the kiosk. I also fully realize and understand that Sunday morning at the airport is a complete madhouse and sometimes people just don’t have time to be super courteous.
Upon reaching the check-in kiosk, a gentleman quickly appeared and asked for my identification, informing me that he would happily check me in for my flight. He then asked me for a credit card for my bag charge. Once the bag charge had completed, he said “I’m not going to make you walk through that line again, I will check your bag right here.” Upon returning, he offered me his arm for guided assistance and took me to the accessibility assistance desk where I was placed in a que for wheelchair assistance to my gate. I found this gentleman who checked me in personable and my short interaction with him was a pleasure. I believe in tipping when people help me, because it may make the next visually impaired customer’s interaction go a bit smoother. Before I head to the airport, I always separate some five-dollar bills in my pocket so I can easily tip, and know the amount I am tipping. Even though the airport was extremely crowded this Sunday, the wait time for assistance to my gate was only about fifteen minutes. The line for wheelchair assistance was large, and I was surprised that in what appeared outwardly to be a stressful and chaotic situation, the customer assistance agents were courteous and efficient in their process. I informed the gentleman running the check-in that I was able to walk, and he asked if I would mind walking with the next person needing assistance in a wheelchair. I may have terrible vision, but I am fully able (and love to) to walk. A young middle eastern woman showed up and my new wheelchair-riding friends and I headed out to TSA screening. The woman (I am incredibly remiss in that I did not get her name) took us through security screening, checking on us to ensure we would make it through the screening on the first pass. After everyone in the party made it through security, we gathered our belongings and headed toward the tram that would take us to the gates. Once we reached the concourse, the woman offered to bring me right to my gate which was located twenty feet from where we got off the elevator from the tram. I tipped the attendant and told her I would be fine – thanking her. To my shock, within a moment, another woman approached me, informing me that she was a United Airlines employee and offered any assistance. I confirmed the location of the gate, which was right ahead of me, I asked the location of the restroom and she told me – which was right across the hall – she also offered to take me to the door. I appreciated her assistance and friendly accommodating attitude. Well done United Airlines, you really redeemed yourself in my eyes after a rough start. Once aboard the plane, the flight crew was distracted and I was never offered nor could I find anyone to help me find my seat. It just so happened that another Guide Dogs for the Blind client was on the same flight as I was, I asked her which number seat she was in and just counted a few rows from there, problem solved, but not good on the part of the flight crew, especially when they know that disabled passengers are loading first. After takeoff, the snack carts came through, and the flight attendant apparently nodded at me rather than asking what I would like to drink. I could not see the nod, and she finally asked me verbally. In her defense, she wasn’t aware that I was visually impaired, but perhaps it would have been a different interaction if anyone had been present when the disabled passengers were loading. After an uneventful flight, we arrived in San Francisco, I deplaned and found an assistant had already been contacted and was on the way to lead another visually impaired traveler and I to the proper baggage claim carousel. The resulting journey to the baggage claim was generally uneventful, and the Guide Dogs for the Blind employees met us and took over for the attendant from United Airlines. Overall, I would say that United did an above average job dealing with visually impaired customers. The check-in and flight crew interactions were average, but where United’s staff shined were in the in-person interactions, through the accessibility desk. Special shout-out to the United employee who noticed me in the concourse and asked if she could help. An hour-long trip through San Francisco reinforced the fact that I don’t miss living in the Bay area, or Bay Area traffic. We arrived at the Guide Dogs for the Blind facility and after a short time for settling in, the group of eight clients were given a thorough tour of the building. After an excellent dinner of lemon chicken, rice pilaf and seasonal vegetables, we all sat and discussed generalities for rules of conduct and what to expect the following afternoon when we would meet our guide dogs for the first time.
Part Two – Meeting the Troops
In my years working in the videogames industry, I led, and was part of many teams. When a new team assembles, there are always telltale signs whether it will gel right away. Commonalities from immediate camaraderie to just having similar interests or experiences to share often lead to some of the closest teams I have worked with. Upon landing in San Francisco, and collecting our luggage, we headed to the van that would take us to the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus. Now, believe it or not I am a pretty shy guy so upon loading into the van I was greeted by a pretty typical mixture of personality types, the quiet and the boisterous. We talked relation-ally about topics that were safe for us… visual impairment, dealing with those who are not visually impaired and a new topic for me – having a guide dog. I came into this experience expecting to learn the finer points about working with a guide dog, what I got from day one was an amazing time getting to know some really great people. We all had one thing in common, we could not wait to meet out new guide dog partners. Some (like me) had been waiting for six to nine months, and others had been fit in to the rotation of classes at the last moment and were getting their next guide dog after retiring their present dog only a couple weeks earlier. All but two of us were retrains – previous guide dog owners. In the coming weeks, the two of us that had never had a guide before would turn to the mentorship of the rest of the group to learn the finer nuances of partnership with a guide dog. Arriving at the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus, some lamented the time since their last visit and how the campus had changed. Many of the retrains had seen nearly ten year since their last time at in a training class. The funny thing I noticed is there was no pecking order. In many group situations, where many of the group has been through an experience before, they will often band together and form a clique. This could not have been farther from the case, all the retrains were open and willing to share their day to day experiences working and living with a guide dog partner. I’m not a huge fan of flying and don’t generally eat anything before I take off, so the unremarkable bag lunch we were given when we loaded into the van hit bottom quickly and I was ready for some real food. We unloaded our baggage and were shown to our rooms. The accommodations were perfectly comfortable, a queen size bed, restroom with a walk-in shower, TV with premium channels and a built-in desk with great lighting. On the desk was a binder with large print and braille pages explaining everything from the daily routine with the dogs and when meals would be served to the amenities available to the clients at the facility. I settled in and unpacked my clothes and was quickly greeted to a knock at the door. One of the resident administrators arrived to give me a full tour of the room and amenities – excellent. A building tour was scheduled for that afternoon and I was left to get settled in after my trip. The facility in San Rafael has some great amenities. There are rooms where you can be social with your fellow students, or have some quiet introspective time to yourself. The staff are very conscious of your space and ensure that you don’t feel rushed, overwhelmed or uncomfortable in any way – though they do keep a very rigid schedule and frown upon you taking levity with their appointed events. Our facility tour included the cafeteria, meeting room, full gym, lounge, and of course the hot tub. I found it odd that we were not shown any of the grounds or surrounding areas – that would come later. There were eight of us, and we settled in and later headed to dinner, where the conversation focused mainly around what kind of dog the retrains had and what they hoped would be in store for them the following day. We were informed at dinner that we would be meeting our new guides the following morning at 11 am and heading right out for our first training route after getting to know them. The excitement was palpable throughout the remainder of the evening and into breakfast the next morning. It should be noted here that the food at the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus is excellent. They have a regular, low calorie and vegetarian option for each meal. Truth be told, you could choose any of the options and be happy with the meal. After breakfast, the longest few hours I have had to endure in quite some time began. We all settled into our rooms to wait for our new companions to arrive, and I took the respite to reflect on the time I had spent to get to this point, and the decisions that led me to this moment in my life. I have never been one to ask for help from anyone especially when it pertains to inabilities surrounding my lack of vision. In the seventeen years since my accident, I have only accepted a magnifier to help me read print and a white cane to help me navigate the world. I was about to receive a guide who has had hundreds of hours of training, and all the appropriate equipment – this was a tough thing for me. Anticipation
I was notified in February that I was accepted into the Guide Dog program, and since then I have countless hours wondered about every part of getting a guide dog. Would it be male, or female? I knew that Guide Dogs for the Blind only use retrievers for their guide stock, so I was curious if I would be getting a Black or yellow lab or perhaps a golden retriever. Eight months of wonder and anticipation were finally realized, I was given Fauna, a wonderfully calm female Black Lab. I’m not generally an emotional person, I don’t ever cry, though I do feel sadness etc. (truth be told, it is incredibly difficult for me to share this with all of you now.). When this incredible, happy little girl walked into the room and met me for the first time, I found myself welling up with tears and feeling more emotional than I have in ages. My trainer Danielle handed me the leash and began to tell me about Fauna’s history and training. To this day, the only thing I can clearly remember about that moment in my life is Fauna walking in and sitting in front of me and just looking at me. For those who have followed my Twitter or Instagram you will be well acquainted with what I call “the look”. Fauna sits and can spend hours just looking at you. If you watch a movie, Fauna will watch you. She is always waiting for the next thing to happen and she gives you her full attention. For the next hour, I sat on the floor with her and held her Nylabone while she diligently chewed on it. Little did I know that this would become her routine even weeks later after we got home. After initial introductions and being given some time to get to know each other, we headed out to do some obedience basic training, for me, not Fauna. It was at this point that I realized that this wonderful little girl will be with me everywhere I go keeping me safe. It still makes me smile thinking about how much I missed having a lab in my life. My 17 year old Lab Haylee passed away a year before I put in my application to Guide Dogs for the Blind, and I had forgotten how much noise they make. The occasional groan or passing gas – its all part of the things you get used to when you own a lab.
Learning the route
My instructor Danielle asked if I liked coffee and if I would like to make that a destination for my initial learning route. A local Starbucks fit the bill. This would allow me experience with not only city navigation, but also the nuances of bringing a guide dog into a store. Guide Dogs for the Blind owns a lounge in downtown San Rafael California, this serves as a base of operations and a staging area for morning and afternoon training routes. Guide Dogs for the Blind employ a massive number of volunteers in the area to add in distractions for the students learning to use their new guides. These intentional distractions combined with the ones offered by the general public offer varying degrees of difficulty and unpredictability during your training routes. This is a fantastic idea since one never can guess what you will experience when out on any given stroll. My first route, a short fifteen block jaunt was accompanied by my instructor, who closely monitored my progress, helping me learn the route and teaching me the basics of navigating the world with a guide dog. I have to say that on reflection my first route was quiet and without major distractions. My guide, Fauna handled the route perfectly and the only errors in traveling were committed by me. There is an overwhelming amount of data to process when traveling via guide dog for the first time. From keeping your follow line next to the dog, to keeping track of corrections that need to be made if the guide stops to sniff a pole or interacts with the public. Coming from only using my cane to solo travel, using a guide dog was nothing short of amazing. I found myself traveling at full walking speed for the first time since my car accident. I am generally very location aware and use time/distance estimation for navigation as well as counting steps. I found this all thrown out the door when traveling the first time with a guide. Fauna deftly led me through my first routes, with Danielle trailing close behind, and telling me where to turn as we traveled the route. As we walked, Danielle explained the fundamentals of traveling under guide dog, but nothing could prepare me for the feeling of independence, and safety when Fauna is leading the way around the world. She stops at every corner, and checks traffic, halting my progress if she feels it is not safe to leave the corner. Her training has taught her to hold her ground, continue at current pace, slow down or back up all depending on the traffic situation. She loves to go on routes and is happy to walk as far as you want her to. Before I knew it, we were pulling into Starbucks for a coffee break. This marked the three-quarters point of the route and I was overwhelmed, excited and ready for more. We had a coffee and discussed my errors – Fauna was perfect. Danielle taught me how to juggle ordering, paying for and sitting with a guide dog in a coffee shop. I was quite shocked that you have the dog sit in front of you under the table then have them lay down and unceremoniously stuff them under your chair, where they remain while you sit at the table. After coffee, it was a straight shot from the Starbucks back to the downtown lounge where we loaded into the vans and headed back to campus for a yummy dinner and some time to relax and process our first routes. I spent the evening sitting on the floor with Fauna holding her Nylabone while she happily chewed until she fell asleep in my lap. The first day with this wonderful little girl was exhausting emotionally, and I was ready for a good night’s sleep. Next week, I will talk more about learning the processes of walking with a guide dog, and how the team deals with distractions.
Part Three – Learning the ropes
Welcome to part four of my experiences learning to work with a guide dog for the first time. In early October I traveled to Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California to receive my guide dog Fauna. With the anxiety of meeting my new dog for the first time behind me, we quickly fell into a routine of training, eating and sleeping. Even now as I recount those days, it is difficult to remember specifics because so much was packed into the two-week adventure.
With a few more rounds of the route set out by my instructor under my belt, I could tell that the Guide Dogs for the Blind crew were setting up more distractions as I traveled. The route was also purposely chosen because it contained a large street grate which Fauna would avoid at all costs. This obstacle presented an excellent training opportunity for both of us. The grate gave us a chance to master the process of patterning, repeating a skill to help Fauna learn to navigate obstacles she is unsure of, or locate a specific object like a pole with a button to trigger the lights to cross the street.
Often during the classes I participated in focused instruction on dealing with different obstructions one would encounter in the world. This learning proves for dealing with these obstructions was done on a rolling Guide Dog simulator, so Fauna would not get confused during my learning process. A funny side note, throughout the whole first week on the simulator, my instructor was tentative about leading me into obstacles during training, but after informing her that the scars on my shins weren’t from being careful as I traveled around my world, she promptly smashed me into a chest-high obstruction. My thinking is, that tree branch isn’t going to slow down and let you hit it lightly when out on my own.
Loosening the reigns.
With only a couple days left in the first week of training, I found myself feeling comfortable and prepared for anything. I knew where I was turning, I knew there would be the grate from hell and I was looking forward to a pumpkin spice latte’ at the midway point in my route. The instructor informed me that she would be following close during my route and I could stop at any time and ask for assistance if the need arose. This semi-independence was a bit scary – I knew my route, I knew the process, I knew the downtown San Rafael area, but there was still the comfort that the instructor was a few steps away if I got into trouble. I really like the process and progression Guide Dogs for the Blind uses to impart confidence without recklessness. As the week went on, the distractions got tougher and tougher, Fauna did her job well and was not easily distracted except by dogs playing around her.
Each day during Guide Dog training, we did two routes, one “normal route” and in the afternoon, usually something different related to specific needs of the client. We stay on the normal route so the team get to know the area and the traffic patterns. This route gives an opportunity to hone our skills at working with our Guide in a familiar environment. One morning Fauna got off to a shaky start, because she was too busy smelling some dog urine that must have equated to a fine wine in dog palette. With some difficulty, I regained her attention and we were off to our best route of the week. This was good, because this would be our last time on the normal route, and would be heading to indoor training for the afternoon class. The Northgate Mall would be the location for our first indoor experience. I generally avoid malls at all cost, because of the difficulty navigating through droves of people not paying attention to the world around them. I hoped traversing this nightmare would be easier with a guide dog at the helm. We setup our basecamp in Peet’s coffee, a local coffee chain and headed into the main hall of the mall for some pedestrian dodging.
Anyone who is a white cane user will understand that the general public usually give you a wide berth as you travel around the mall swinging your cane. When you have that harness in your hand and the dog leading the way sometimes it feels like Moses parting the seas as people do everything they can to get out of your way. You quickly learn as you spend more time in the mall, that giving clear audible commands to your dog gets people’s attention and they tend to clear out of your way – awesome especially during holiday shopping season!
End of the first week.
As the first week at Guide Dogs for the Blind came to its end, Fauna and I spent the morning working in a neighborhood with no sidewalks. Before I got my guide, I often wondered how they dealt with areas where there were no sidewalks. The dogs “shorelined” the left side of the street as they lead you around, pausing at cars and other large obstacles that would require the handler being guided into traffic area of the street. While the function of the exercise was generally straightforward, the real challenges are what you encounter while wandering around a neighborhood like this, including the public, wandering dogs, cats and squirrels. All these distractions present their own unique problem-solving moments for a Guide Dog. To make matters worse, my training happened in mid-October, so the poor Guide Dogs had to deal with Halloween decorations such as giant blowup skeletons on the front grass of many houses in the area. Fauna took the whole thing in stride, as is her nature, even deftly walking past the squirrel who was taunting us from one of the yards.
Our mid-morning class led us to the NorthGate mall, a large mall with numerous large department stores to export and learn to be guided around. This is where the team first encounters escalators. While a convenient way to traverse from level to level, these structures present interesting challenges, and potential danger to a Guide Dog. Entering the escalator is generally straightforward, the Dog stops at the moving rail, and then you lead them to the edge where the moving stairs start. With a Ready Ready GO! The team enters the escalator and prepares for the top – the most dangerous area of the escalator, as a improper dismount can cause serious damage to a dogs footpads including ripping them off. We placed protective booties on the dogs and spent a few rounds up and down on the escalators before wandering into the mall for a quick look around. The sights, sound and public present a myriad of challenges for a Guide dog, and they tend to slow their pace inside the mall, which is completely understandable. To make matters worse, we entered and exited through the food court which also contained a completely full children’s play yard. I imagine the amount of time and training these dogs must go through to be able to confidently navigate such a gauntlet of distractions and temptations.
Getting lost was never so much fun
Saturday night marked the end of the first week at Guide Dog school and the troops were restless and looking to not only get out of the building for a bit, but also invite in some much-needed adult beverages. The two clear choices were BJ’s and Applebees – both located very close to each other in the mall. The plan was hatched a few days prior to the adventure and firmed up at dinner that night. The mall is very close to the campus, so the only problem that presented itself was how to find our way there. The Resident Administrator on duty said he knew the way and would take us over after the dogs had been watered for the last time of the night. Getting to the mall presented little trouble for the RA and his Guide Dog, the problems arose when we hit the food court and three unmanaged children ran up to his dog and started petting him without asking. This distracted the dog and let the whole group in the wrong direction, as the dog wanted nothing more than to get out of the situation with the unruly children. The parents, of course were oblivious to the havoc their children caused on this group of eight blind and nearly-blind travelers.
We got turned around and ended up exiting the mall via the wrong door, and the RA was confused as to where we were. Now, me with little vision, mostly light and dark and no detail wasn’t much help either, considering I didn’t know where the restaurant was. We re-entered the food court via the same door the Guide Dog led us out to get any from the children and asked for assistance from a person sitting at a nearby table. They were woefully unwilling to help us so we trod off on our own again. At this point, it would have been completely understandable that members of the group would be getting upset since we didn’t really know where we were, and all knew that once we made it to the restaurant we would likely not have enough to enjoy ourselves. This was not the case however, spirits were high, jokers were joking, and everyone was helping everyone achieve a common goal. Of course, the promise of alcohol was a strong motivator. This is where the giggling started and never stopped.
This plucky band of travelers made it through the mall, I am sure with people recording us for YouTube views. We ran into benches, poles, displays, couches and each other, but we never lost our sense of humor, good spirit and comradery. It was during this one hour time that (I believe) this group of students will be come friends, and this event alone will offer many “you had to be there” moments that could never truly be explained to someone who has vision. To this date, I have tried to faithfully describe this event but unless you have a vision problem, know how scary it can be to get turned around and then find your way back, and can not only laugh at yourself, but the situation at hand with a true zeal for life – this story will make little sense. This one moment may be one of those few defining moments that one can look back on their life and always bring a smile to your face. We laughed until we cried and cheered when we made it back to campus on time and with a reservation for the following night for shots.
Guide Dog Files Final Post
As I wind up this story recounting my experiences learning to work with my Guide Dog Fauna, I extend my appreciation to all who have followed this story, and hope that you will continue to follow our adventures here on BlindTravel.com. We pick up the story at the beginning of the second week of training…
A new week, and new adventures
After a well-deserved day off, we started fresh and new Monday morning. The location we would use for this adventure was the very busy Chestnut street in downtown San Francisco. The students and instructors setup “camp” in a coffee shop for the morning training route. This would be the most difficult routes to date, with the general public out and about in full force everywhere. The big city didn’t disappoint as this was indeed the most challenging travels we had encountered to date. For a Guide Dog team, the general public present a myriad of possible issues when venturing down any given street. We ran the gauntlet, encountering and deftly avoiding small barking dogs, people not paying attention to where they were walking, and inattentive parents, letting their children run right up to a working guide dog team. Because of lack of education on the subject, the general public don’t understand how important it is to not distract the guide dog when he or she is on harness and working. The guide is working to keep their teammate safe and lead them through potentially dangerous situations. A dog or unattended child running up and interacting with the guide dog can potentially distract and veer the guide off their line and into traffic. This can be incredibly dangerous for the team. I live in a suburb north of Denver, and don’t often find myself in a downtown area, so the sights, smells and distractions of the downtown environment can be a bit daunting for those who don’t often encounter them. These locations are toughest on the dogs, because they need to determine how to lead their handler on a safe and reasonable line through the city blocks often when there is little room to maneuver safely. The dogs do this while negotiating a gauntlet of distracting smells, people and other dogs. It makes sense that after the long travels through the streets of San Francisco, poor Fauna was completely drained and sleeping like a log on the way back to campus. The previous week’s work and experiences and the distractions we encountered helped to hone our teamwork and skillset needed for downtown travel. If you can travel safely through and around Fisherman’s Wharf with all those obstructions, heading down to Starbucks on a reasonably smooth path is comparatively easy as pie.
Fauna faces her arch enemy
With the chaos and unpredictable big city behind us, we traveled back to the mall for some more practice time on the escalators, and generally wandering the mall. Fauna got all but one of the escalators correct and deftly led me through the sales kiosks and displays in the beauty department. We concluded our mall training with some time working on targeting empty chairs and headed to the staging area so the other member of our class could work with our trainer. We had setup camp in front of the local movie theaters. The smell of fresh hot popcorn and excitement of children running around provided a ton of different distractions for Fauna. After my route through the mall, I decided it was time to challenge Fauna, so we headed to grab some popcorn to bring back to my room. I knew it was going to be difficult for my young guide dog. We moved into position at the end of the snack food line, and I ordered my small popcorn. There was about half a bag of popcorn on the floor that we had to wade through to get to the cashier. Before that though, we encountered about fifteen children all milling around, running up to the counters, ordering ice cream and popcorn – and of course resisting the urge (some better than others) to engage Fauna. During their training, the guide dog is trained to refuse food, whether it be from the public, or off the floor. Scavenging is not only looked down upon, but not acceptable behavior for a guide. With super-dog restraint, Fauna confidently walked through the milling and running children, all while ignoring the fresh popcorn all over the floor at her feet. With great resolve, she led me up to the cashier, with popcorn in hand to pay my bill. Little did I know that the actual procurement of the popcorn would not be the most difficult part of this training operation. We found our seats in the rendezvous area, and I began to eat the popcorn off the top of the mounded bag so that it would be easy to close for the ride back to campus. As I munched the hot buttery corn, Fauna (who was sitting under my chair between my legs) started to breath very deeply, almost panting. I felt down and realized there was a serious problem! Somewhere along the way, a piece of popcorn must have fallen out of my grasp, bounced off Fauna’s head and landed right in front of her at her feet. I reached down to grasp the popcorn piece and realized the it was floating in a pool of slobber, and she had been breathing deeply in an effort to suck the popcorn closer to her waiting mouth. She looked up at me with drool running down her chin, and unceremoniously wiped the entirety of the streaming slobber on my bare leg. A small price to pay for getting such a big win for this young guide dog.
Meeting the large animals
Guide Dogs for the Blind do everything in their power to set their students up for success after they complete their training and head off into the world. This includes the trainers tailoring the training to focus more time on locations that are appropriate for the team. On this day, my teammate was heading to a local farm to give her dog some experiences with large animals. Since I didn’t have a specific itinerary, I decided to tag along and give Fauna some new experiences as well. We pulled into the farm parking and got the dogs out of the van. Immediately both dogs were agitated from the wandering flock of chickens outside the van. We walked through the farm exploring each paddock, where the dogs met cows, potbelly pigs, miniature horses and donkeys. At first, Fauna was very hesitant to interact in any way with these large animals. It was not until I broke the ice and patted the cow in front of her that she started to feel at ease. Fauna needs reassurance that things are going to be ok – she is incredibly trusting of her handler. I think this is one of the reasons she is so personable and watches her people so closely. With the ice broken, Fauna tentatively sniffed and began to calmly interact with the cows and other large animals. With her comfort growing, I began to wonder if the puppy raisers had ever introduced her to larger animals. The day ended with a walk through a local Target store. This was an amazing trip, as I had never shopped with a guide dog. Walking through the store with Fauna on follow command (following my instructor through the store) was a freeing and wonderful feeling. It was great to be able to traverse the store easily without running into or banging things with my cane. We learned about targeting a specific area in a store, I learned how Fauna will be able to find specific things in my local store. We used patterning, back chaining and hand targeting for specific items that need to be found repeatedly.
Winding up the two-week training
The last few days of my guide dog training focused on specifics for my day-to-day life. We went to a local park and hiked, which I appreciated the experience, since I plan to spend more time in Rocky Mountain National Park. We traveled several different widths of trails, some with overhead objects to negotiate. We also visited a local residential area with a nice waking path around a lake. This was like the suburb that I live in, as it doesn’t have formal right and left turns, rather meandering paths through the park and houses in the area. This gave Fauna and I the opportunity to hone what they call moving turns.
Talking with the puppy raiders
Upon returning from a trip to the hot tub located in the Guide Dogs for the Blind facility, I received a call from the retired couple that raised Fauna from a puppy to the age of 15 months. It was at that time that she began her formal guide dog training. It was a pleasure talking with the puppy raisers, and we spent a lot of time talking about Fauna as a young girl. Fauna’s puppy raisers had 14 puppies prior to getting Fauna, and as their 15th puppy, she would be their last. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be for me to give up a puppy after raising it for 15 months. Being a puppy raiser means having a huge heart and offering a loving home to an animal which will someday help keep someone safe. It is difficult for me to put into words the gratitude I have for the people that raised Fauna to be the wonderful loving dog she is. After a short time with her I can not imagine how hard it would be to give her up. I was sad to find out that the puppy raisers would not be able to make it to graduation day.
Meeting Fauna’s Trainer
The day before graduation was an emotional one. The reality that this group of amazing students who had grown so fond of each other so quickly would have to say farewell the following day left the building with a feeling of sadness in the air. After lunch, I met with the trainer who had worked with Fauna during her guide dog training. It had been a few weeks since Fauna had seen her, so she immediately ran to her and spent then entire time we talked pawing at her and laying close. I was surprised to find out that it took a while for Fauna to warm up to her emotionally during training. I was also shocked that she was not aware that Fauna loves to hold your hand when she is hanging out with you. I of course told her I appreciated the time and effort she put into training Fauna, and that I could not believe how attentive she was. I asked if she had ever seen snow and she said she did not think so. The weather report said that we would be heading home to snow on the ground, which I figured would be interesting. The training staff at Guide Dogs for the Blind all have incredibly huge hearts. It shows that they care deeply for the dogs they are working with. The care and detail that they use when training both the client and the dog really shows in the end result.
With two weeks of work and many miles walked behind us we all prepared for graduation day. Friends and family are encouraged to attend graduation, and the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus is open to the public. Puppy raisers arrive a couple hours before the graduation ceremony, and it’s a great time to get to know each other and let the new guide graduates visit with the family that raised them. Emotions run high, there is a ton of crying and laughing. Graduation day also marks the first time that the teams are allowed to leave the campus on their own. The two-week course is intensive and detailed so other than expected anxiety of venturing out on your own, students feel comfortable in the lessons they have learned. At this point, responsibility for the guides is signed over to the handler and you are introduced to the robust alumni support system. Guide Dogs for the Blind offer a hotline of sorts with support staff that can answer questions and offer support about dog care, access issues and even veterinary care concerns. This support even extends to emotional support when a guide gets sick or it comes time for a guide to retire from duty. The chaos and emotion surrounding the graduation ceremony is something to behold. We laughed, we cried and we were all finally on our way home with our new teammates.
I waited a very long time before I decided to apply for my guide dog, and as I write this, Fauna and I have been a team for a couple months now. The thing that stands out in my mind every day as Fauna guides me safely around any given situation is why did I wait so long to do this. I appreciate everyone at Guide Dogs for the Blind for their time, companionship, mentorship and professional demeanor throughout the entire process of applying for and training with my new guide dog. I appreciate the puppy raisers for their time, love and hard work raising Fauna to be a loving, attentive teammate. I appreciate the other members of my Guide Dogs class, you are amazing people who I was privileged to share laughs, tears and potty times with. Lastly, I appreciate Danielle, my instructor who deserves some sort of purple heart, or at least a congressional medal of honor after having to put up with me for two weeks. After completing the guide dog program and working with a guide for a while now, I believe it should be the goal of all guide dog teams to educate the general public about the role of the guide dog, and the importance of not distracting them when they are doing their job. Many feel that the ownness of this education should be on schools or other institutions, but it is the guide dog team that is on the “front line” with the public, and directly interacting with them on a daily basis. Granted, sometimes a team may not be able to stop and spend time with every inquisitive member of the public, but whenever possible I personally take the time to explain how the dog works with me to keep me safe in any given situation. People find this fascinating and I pride myself on being a source of information about the Guide Dogs for the Blind program and organization for those who have not had interactions with a guide dog team before. I also firmly believe that all service animal users need to promote and advocate for their rights, and not rely on others to educate the public and government officials on the important role service animals play in society. There also needs to be clearly worded rules about the difference between a service animal that performs a task for its teammate, and someone who has a pet they want to bring with them in the guise of a service animal. Buying a service animal vest off the internet and slapping it on your little puppy with no training because you can’t bear to leave it at home doesn’t help the acceptance of genuine service animals. It is with all this in mind that I am announcing a new body of photographic work featuring my guide dog Fauna. This work will make its debut at Access Gallery at 909 Santa Fe in Denver Co. on March 1, 2019. The work’s purpose is to educate the general public about the legitimate use of service animals in the travel and hospitality industry. I would like to extend an invitation to all who wish to come and meet Fauna and I on March 1. More details will be forthcoming as schedules and times are firmed up. Thank you to all who have followed my story, I appreciate your time and the kind words you have shared with me about this story. I hope that you will continue to read about our adventures because we are only getting started.
It has been a year since I wrote these posts, and Fauna and I have grown to be a very close team. We walk three miles a day (weather permitting) and she is constantly by my side. We did finish the first round of photos for Fauna’s Adventures, and it did make it’s debut at the month of Photography in the Santa Fe Art District here in Denver. We continue to travel and spread the word about Guide Dogs for the Blind, and the importance of legitimate service animals in the travel and hospitality industry. You can read more about the project here. I have ventured out alone with friends a few times since I got Fauna, and each time I do, I realize just how much I appreciate her being there every day. She keeps me safe and loves to be the ambassador of good dogs everywhere. You can catch up with me on social media, follow me and I will follow you back. Website: http://www.tahquechi.com/ Charity Work: http://www.bodyscapes.photography/ Travel & Review Site: http://www.blindtravels.com/ Instagram and Twitter: @nedskee