Guide Dog Files – part four

Fauna the guide dog sits with her harness on in a field of brown grass. The Rocky Mountains can be seen behind her under a cloudy grey sky.

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.

Learning the process

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.

Going shopping

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.

Going up

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 marled 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. 

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