Guide Dog Files Part 3

Welcome to week three 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, we pick up the story as I arrive in San Francisco…

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

Fauna

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.

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