Guide Dog Files part 5

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.  

Graduation Day

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.

Final thoughts

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.  

Website: http://www.tahquechi.com/

Charity Work: http://www.bodyscapes.photography/

Travel & Review Site: http://www.blindtravels.com/

Instagram and Twitter: @nedskee


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