Monday, March 28, 2011

March 26 Graduation

March 26 marked my sixth graduation at Guide Dogs for the Blind. It was the first time that rain had driven a graduation ceremony indoors for me, but otherwise, little has changed.

Everyone was hyper in the morning. We had our usual class meeting after breakfast and a round of “Simon Says” to lend some entertainment to the obedience sequence with the dogs. “Simon Says have your dog sit” meant, of course, to command your dog to sit. Just plain “Have your dog sit” meant that you should do nothing. Flo was perfect, and I managed to pay attention until almost the end. I was booted out at last, not for failing to heed or not heed a command, but because I had made a long leash when no one had told me to do that.  It was fun and enabled dogs and humans alike to get focused.

An early lunch, then get dressed for the graduation and await the meeting of puppy raisers.  Flo was “co-raised” by two families. The Thompsons-mom Catherine, dad Chad, and daughters Brooke, age 13, and Madeline, age 10, and the Corsons, mom Joy and college-age daughters Kayla and Shiloh. Everyone except Chad, plus an exchange student from Austria, Hannah, came to see Flo graduate. It was wonderful seeing them all, hearing tales of Flo’s puppyhood, and seeing firsthand how much all of these people have loved my wonderful spunky new dog.

Leo, the apprentice instructor with our class who taught Flo all her guide work, has a degree in fashion design. Flo and another dog in our class, Cancun, were Leo’s first completed works of canine art. So she made them special collars! Flo’s is gorgeous – red bandana-ish fabric with a lovely and prominent flower. A professional bit of style for a wiggling princess!

At graduation, as our names our called, we come forward and are presented our dogs by the raisers. (Only Joy and Brooke came forward in the ceremony.) The graduate says a few words, followed by the puppy raiser. Despite my resolve to the contrary, the emotion of others got to me. I had written a brief speech, held on braille note cards in my hand, but neglected it, and was completely choked up at one point. Embarrassing but there it was. Morgan Watkins, my friend and current CEO, was disappointed that I hadn’t said I’d “go with the Flo.” The writer in me wanted new phrasing, I guess. At any rate, I was particularly impressed by Brooke who, at 13, was one of the most articulate and poised speakers among the lot of us!
Never have I felt so loved after one of these ceremonies! First, all seven of my puppy-raising family came back to my room with me afterward. Susi Cherry was there and, of course, Morgan, and the surprise I’d known for only two days, my friends Michael and Kate.

After the raisers enjoyed final hugs with Flo and me and promises to stay in touch were exchanged, Michael and Kate took me out for FLo’s first restaurant visit and, for the humans in the bunch, a glass of wine! Just being with them was a perfect close to an emotional occasion. They are both so brilliant and present and warm. Love radiates from each of them – for one another and everyone lucky enough to be within the magic of their environment. I love being within the boundaries of that magic. Kate had made me a necklace – a beautiful white magnolia on green glass, smooth and clear and lovely.

As planned, I later went do dinner with those of my class still at the school – another restaurant outing for Flo – and it served as a calm and pleasant close to the GDB experience.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Today's Column and T Touch

I have been a newspaper columnist for 25 years.  For many of those years, I had to crank one out evey week and it ran in several papers.  For the last five years, blessed relief, it has been running every other Sunday in only the Columbus Dispatch.

So, a column was due for this Sunday and, of course, I couldn't get onto any track other than what I'm immersed in at the moment: guide dog trining!  To read today's column on this favorite subject, go here:

This morning, I attended a session on T Touch.  I've heard of it but knew next to nothing.  It is a truly amazing skill set of massage touches to use on animals for comfort and healing.  It was so cool to see half a dozen excited dogs blissfully conked out on the floor in a matter of seconds after we learned the first touches.  I can't wait to get home and try them out on Tuscan as well, not to mention my two cats, Ophelia and Thomas.

My daughter, Melinda, has a cat with significant developmental disabilities and health issues, and T Touch will probably help him enormously, too. 

It continues to pour, pour, pour, along with more thunder to spice things up a bit!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Clicker Training

Whenever I have been lucky enough to come to the bay area – for guide dog training or anything else – the weather has almost always been perfect.  I’ve heard references to it being otherwise, but guess I didn’t fully believe it.  Now I do!  It has rained steadily for two days now with predictions of the same for our entire remaining week.  Last night, there was thunder, lightning, and hail!  Someone mentioned this morning that there was even a tornado sighting in some nearby small town. 

We work in it anyway.  I hate walking in the rain, but Flo doesn’t seem to consider it to be a problem.  Today, we had another independent route (where we’re given a set of directions to follow and a destination) and she once again did beautifully.  Well, OK, we did wander into a parking lot and had a little trouble figuring it out, but I think the error was more mine than hers. 

She is such a riot when she plays!  She makes funny little growly sounds when playing tug, and today I think I am at least on the road to teaching her to bring a toy back to me when I throw it for her.  One of the biggest thrills yesterday was her amazing success with clicker training.  For the uninitiated, here’s how it works:

When you want a dog to perform a certain behavior in exactly a certain way, you “click” (with a small handheld button-click gizmo) at the instant she is correct.  Instantly following the click is a treat.  For the dog, this is sort of like snapping a picture of that perfect moment for her to hold in memory, so that eventually, she associates that “clicked” image with a guaranteed treat. 

We begin by clicking and treating simply for her touching our hand.  Then, the click is for touching a chair.  Now, for someone with no vision, this is an amazing bit of help to get from a dog.  I can’t see, after all, where the empty chairs are, and have had more than my fair share of near misses (i.e., almost sitting on someone’s lap!)

So, first she got the concept of the hand with lightning speed.  Then, she got the idea of showing me the chair.  We tried another chair, and she was so excited to show it to me that she was almost dancing.  I forgot to mention that, to a dog, this is all one delightful game.  They love it – and Flo seems to love it more than most.  After the chair success, Heather suggested I leave the room, go down the hall, and return to the common room to ask Flo to find the chair again.  Flo is so smart!  I swear she understood our conversation!  When we came back down the hall, she was pulling so hard and with so much glee that it was palpable.  She zipped right up to that chair and happily accepted her click-and-treat reward!  Later, she kept sniffing my pocket where the click device was resting as if to say, “Hey, let’s play that game again!”

Later, we began using the clicker technique to show her handrails on stairs.  I think she’s just about got it.  Again, because I have had some mobility issues these past few years, having a dog who can point out handrails on stairs for me will be a wonderful gift. 

Flo still goes absolutely crazy when she sees Leo, her primary trainer, but it’s more fun than anything else.  The first day I worked with her, she would literally spin in circles when she saw Leo.  Now, she gets mighty wiggly, but is fairly easily reminded that she now works for me.  It’s nice that she wants to show me who else she loves -- like introducing your friends to your other friends! 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Two Glorious Days

The title says it all.  In many ways, it feels as though my training just began two days ago, so fabulous have these two days been with Flo.  I had some conflicted feelings about returning for a new dog and the struggles with Autumn raised additional questions in my heart.  Now that I have worked these two days with Flo, I am so reminded of the real thrill of working a guide dog who loves her work, is eager to please, and so very good at what she does!  It has been exhilarating and exhausting, too. 

Today, we went to San Francisco.  Silly as it may seem, the first thrill wasn’t even an official part of training.  Those of us waiting our turn to work with an instructor were sitting in a coffee shop, enjoying some great coffee and good chat.  Jim, the retired bank vice president, did the best job anyone ever has of explaining to me how it works to buy and sell stocks.  Then, I asked Helen, the nurse who was with us, where the bathroom was located.  She gave me clear directions – straight back, past the counter, around an obstacle to the right, and all the way to the back and find the door on the right.  Flo executed the commands like the pro that she is and we found our destination in no time.  Then, when the real workout occurred, we were both excited and ready.

She worked down Chestnut Street like the amazing dog that she is – past dogs and strollers and loads of people.  Past restaurants and little shops and a million interesting smells.  She stopped crisply at each curb, and worked directly to the opposite crosswalk when I issued the command.  She did turn in once at a door as if to ask, “Are we going here?’  It was – what else? – a pet store! 

In the afternoon, we had our first independent route.  This is a route where we are each given a set of instructions – one block this way, then four blocks that way, etc. – and expected to arrive at our destination without human intervention.  The instructors are watching, of course, but we have no idea where they are.  I asked Jessica, my instructor, if I, too, would be doing this exercise since I’d only known Flo for two days.  She said simply, “You’re ready.” And were we ever!  We did it flawlessly – and it was so much fun! 

My love and respect for this school and the people who train these dogs is even greater than it has always been.  To give me one dog, realize that it isn’t working, and know that another will is just amazing.  Flo was meant to be my dog and now that the tumultuous emotion of the first week is behind me, the road to getting her seems worth it. 

She still gets very excited and distracted when she sees Leo, the instructor who trained her, but is quick to respond when I remind her that she’s hanging out with me now.

I was able to take Flo to the giant play yard (they call it the grassy paddock) for some serious play time, and it was fun to see her in pure dog mode.  She ran after toys, played a serious game of tug with me, and one time, when I called her, jumped on me with a little too much exuberance!  She’s got so much personality, and “talks” when she plays!  Heather, her other trainer, took some video of Flo playing when I asked her (Heather not Flo) which I hope to figure out how to upload for its entertainment value. 

There’s much more to tell, but the days are long and full.  Flo is already sleeping and it looks like a good idea to me!


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Autumn Leaves -- or Going with the Flo

If you've never experienced it, to read that today has been emotionally and physically exhausting might sound silly.  But it has indeed been just that. 

As planned, my instructor, Jessica, picked Autumn and me up in one of the GDB training vans for another bike path walk.  The idea was to see if, without any reason for stopping, Autumn could break the habit of slamming on the brakes.  Last night, I had a long conversation with my friend, Jan, in Cincinnati who has been using dogs as guides for as long as I have and has had a few similar experiences with changing dogs midstream, etc.  She was the voice of reason for me -- not to mention consolation -- in reminding me that a guide dog who frequently randomly stos without reason would be ridiculous and dangerous.  I am frequently in unfamiliar areas and would thus be frequently unable to interpret such random halting.  "You already have a pet dog," she reminded me -- i.e., Tuscan, my young and wonderful retired guide.  "You need a dog that can work for you."

I approached the morning, then, with resolve to be honest about Autumn's work.  It wasn't good, but I was still conflicted.  It may seem incomprehensible, but in six days' time, I had wrapped my heart around this adorable little dog.  The random stops were still a major presence in her routine. 

Back at the van, Jessica unloaded and harnessed yet another sweet black lab -- this one named Flo.  OK.  The name is not exactly enchanting, but as the day wore on -- and she became increasingly familiar -- I kept hearing myself say, "I plan to go with the Flo."

The first walk with her was amazing.  She pulled the way a guide dog should -- steadily, confidently, and CONTINUOUSLY forward!  But a walk down a bike path didn't tell me how she would handle turns or street crossings. 

Later, downtown San Rafael, we had that experience, and the decision was clear:  This little dog wants to work for me. 

The instructors have all been wonderful.  I said a teary private goodbye to little Autumn later -- she jumped up on me with glee after our two hour separation, and then tried to jump on the bed -- but somehow, I knew things were moving in the right direction. 

I love a dog with initiative.  That's guide dog-speak for a dog who remembers where she's been and "asks" you if you want to go there again, or who guesses from context that you might want to turn at point x or y or z.  The decision, of course, is made by the human but it's a bit thrilling to feel a dog pulling left or right at your favorite coffee shop or ice cream store.  Try as I did to encourage this sort of behavior in our short time together, Autumn showed zero initiative.  In less than one full day, on the other hand, Flo eagerly turned into our room here in the dorm after just one visit here, turned her head at the room where we head to go outside for relieving, and clearly knew we wanted to go to the dining room at dinner before I'd issued the command.  In fact, although my intention in the dining room was to avoid stressing her by dropping the harness in order to find our table on my own, she made a beeline for the same chair I sat in at lunch.  Pretty cool -- and a terrific boost to the spirit.

She weighs 47 pounds and is 20 inches tall.  She's smaller than Autumn but tougher.  She gets extremely excited whenever she sees Heather and Leo, the two instructors in our group who trained her -- so excited that she spins in circles and would like to be out of control -- but I'm tough, too, and up to th task of managing her!

As difficult as this day has been, I'm relieved the chage happened.  The whole process makes me believe even more solidly in the work that is done at Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Bumps in the Road

Thursday and Friday Morning and afternoon we were downtown again, working the dogs.  The walking itself was wonderful, so clearly and painfully do I remember how difficult it was for me to walk half the distance three years ago.  Hip replacement changed all that, so that I can walk and walk and walk without pain or fatigue. 

Autumn continued to dazzle me with her perfect street crossings – and, unfortunately, continued to bewilder me with her random abrupt halts.  A guide dog is trained to continue in a single direction, safely guiding herself and her person around obstacles in that path and stopping only at curbs (awaiting the next instruction, i.e., to cross) or at obstacles large enough to require a decision from the human boss (such as stairs or a car parked across the sidewalk).  Stopping abruptly in the middle of a block is an indication that there is a problem – a hole to fall into, stairs to fall down, a large obstacle blocking the path, etc.  Since I have zero vision, these abrupt stops tell me there must be danger.  Repeatedly, my instructor told me there was nothing.  Autumn had no reason to stop.  It is both frustrating and exhausting.  In the real world, I’ll be alone – the whole point of getting the dog – so I won’t have the benefit of the informing instructor.  In other words, who wants to be constantly flailing about to see what the obstacle is or, worse, after being fooled so many times by false halts, insist on forging ahead only to fall into an unprotected construction site?  

She is such a lovable dog.  Over the weekend, we played; we cuddled; we spent a fair amount of our much-needed down time just being together and bonding.

But this morning, the guidework had more random halts in it than ever.  Jessica has tried everything – working in different locations and directions than the routine, to make the route more interesting for a smart dog.  She had me try a different harness handle (offset, rather than perfectly straight angles, which sometimes makes a dog feel less vulnerable to klutzy human feet).  Sometimes dogs are distracted by instructors, so Jessica dropped behind me.  Still, Autumn halted and halted and halted.  We might walk 50 feet or a third of a block and then, for no reason, she stopped.  It’s been a tough day.  The uplifting news is that it seems the instructors have been watching me closely.  They say I’m doing everything right.  They concur that Autumn seems to like me – is waggy and happy and such.  Why she isn’t working is a mystery to all.

They are encouraging me to try another dog they have in mind.  Another option was to work her on a bike path – straightaway with no possible reason for stopping.  We tried it.  It was better, but still those disconcerting abrupt halts. 

Tomorrow we try bike path again and the other dog. 

It’s been a rough evening – needing to keep to myself (and Autumn) sorting it all out.  I’ve spent six days now attaching my heart to this adorable dog.  But if she doesn’t want to guide, I need to let go and, in the vernacular of the business, “move forward”.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dog Day

Wednesday morning we each received our dogs.  Some people were giddy with anticipation, but for me, cautious reserve was probably a more apt description.  I had resolved to get beyond my longing for another golden or golden cross (shorthand for golden retriever/Labrador cross) and have an open heart and mind to the dog these experts had chosen for me. 

When Autumn arrived in my room, my first thought was, “She’s so little!”  And little she is – little and pixie-like and quite adorable.  She’s a shiny black Labrador, only 51 pounds, 21 inches tall.  She immediately wanted to get on the bed, but almost seemed to wink at me when I pulled her back down – as though she were checking to see whether or not I knew the rules, too.  Since I did and there would be no jumping on the bed, well, it was worth a try.

Her obedience was perfect.  We do a sequence of sits and downs, have the dog stay and wait for you to return to it, and have the dog stay again and call it to you.  It’s brief and precise, and a great way of cuing the dog that you, too, are lovable but know the drill.

Wednesday afternoon was the real moment of truth:  we loaded into the Guide Dog bus and headed for the downtown lounge ( facility used for working out of, with comfortable places for students to hang out while waiting a turn with an instructor).  From there, Autumn and I had our first real walk. 

Much of it was fabulous.  She crosses streets perfectly, and loves the food rewards.  She kept stopping, though, especially in the last block, stopping abruptly with no reason and needing encouragement to continue. 

For our first day together, I’d say we’re both happy with our progress.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Day 1

This morning, the instructors introduced themselves to us – 3 licensed instructors, one still in training, and the supervisor Pete O’Riley.  Pete was here when I trained with my first dog, Lita, in 1982, so he has seen a lot of changes in the way our wonderful dogs are trained.  In the 1980s, for instance, the fervent rule was that one never ever gave food as a reward for good behavior, fearing it might lead to bad habits of picking up undesirable food.  Today, food rewards are an integral part of training, backed by the logic that food, delivered directly from the hand of the handler, encourages a dog to continue performing the skill that has elicited that yummy gift. 

We have an apprentice instructor under blindfold in our midst, and one of the instructors is pretty much assigned to her fulltime.

We practiced the commands of “sit” and “down” and “heel” – gently correcting the pretend dog when it “sniffed” or wandered away.  The highlight of the morning for me was the opportunity to heel two real dogs up and down the hall.  Their warmth and wiggliness and eagerness to please (not to mention that they obeyed me perfectly, thus giving me a momentary sense that I might be a dog whisperer) was delicious. 

The afternoon highlight was a walk around downtown San Rafael – not with a dog, but with an instructor, in my case Pete O’Riley, holding the harness and directing me to execute commands for turning left and right, crossing a street, etc. 

My disappointment over not getting a golden or golden cross is still lurking, but I’m determined to ignore it and fall in love with my new partner. 

Tomorrow is what everyone calls Dog Day – when each of us will at least meet our new furry companions.

Monday, March 7, 2011

On My Way

The flight here was almost 5 hours.  As is my custom, I asked the person beside me – an extraordinarily friendly young woman from Japan – if I could follow her to baggage claim.  I reread my email from GDB Admissions, though, about halfway between Cincinnati and San Francisco, and realized that it said someone would be meeting me.  Now that’s service!  Still, I began heading out of the gate area with Yuki when, sure enough, a pleasant man introduced himself as my transportation from the school.

I was the first of four flights he was meeting, so it was well over two hours later when we loaded the GDB bus with students and luggage and headed for the school. 

There are six of us at present, two who have received dogs in the past and are returning, and four who are tasting the adventure for the first time.  Five women and one man (a ratio that has been the case in my last few classes here, so that one woman asked, “Do more women lose their sight than men?”)  Personally, I think it’s mere coincidence.  Three more women, all returning students, will join us next Sunday. 

The settling in process was filled with various minutia – a tour of the dorm, a meeting to introduce ourselves to one another, individual meetings with the nurse.  Because I wear hearing aids and the day room (the large room where we gather as a group to receive information) is acoustically difficult, I plopped myself in the middle of the floor during introductions, the better to hear my fellow classmates tell about themselves. 

Only six people, but we span the continent – from California to Nova Scotia, and a few mid westerners sprinkled in for flavor. 

My primary goal by 9:00 p.m. was to get a good night’s sleep.  I did.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Returning To GDB

Exactly three years have passed since my last tour as student on the San Rafael campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind.  Fifteen months of those three years were about grieving the loss of a beautiful golden retriever/Labrador cross named Tuscan.  He was my sixth guide dog and as close to perfect as a guide dog can be.  His manners were adorable – quiet and unobtrusive when instructed to lie still, never inappropriate barking or sniffing in public.   His guide work was brilliant.  I’d had him less than two weeks when traveling for the first time to a strange city, and he remembered exactly which room was ours in our hotel before I did.  Out of harness, he was the most entertaining dog I’ve ever known – singing, I call it – making loud melodic growls and howls while shaking a bone or running to catch that crazy Gonut.

He was the first dog I’d taken on a cruise, and dazzled everyone from the stewards to the captain and my fellow passengers with his sweet face, pretty manners, and devotion to guiding me safely about the ship.  But the day before the cruise, he began to limp and by the time the cruise had ended, the limp was significantly worse.

Six weeks, multiple treatments a variety of tests and consultations with my own vet in Cincinnati, orthopedic and neurology vet specialists in Columbus, and GDB’s own Dr. Jeff Williams and the verdict was cast: Tuscan’s limp was not going anywhere.  The diagnosis was a probable tumor on the nerve sheath of his brachial plexus and there was no treatment.  A 3-1/2 year-old guide dog had to retire. 

Ironically, I’d had mobility issues myself in 2009, and my own miraculous hip replacement came just a week after Tuscan’s diagnosis.  I wanted to walk, run, move fast and free to celebrate my newfound mobility health, and for me, that kind of independence comes only with a guide dog.  I walked with others, got refresher training with my long white cane, and felt my heart break a little more each time I closed the door with Tuscan (sometimes spoiling that mannerly record with pitiful whines) on the other side.

Twice, I was scheduled to return for a new dog.  Sure, the cancellations had something to do with my busy lifestyle of traveling, moving houses, and spending time 1000 miles away with my daughter during the birth of my first grandchild.  But underlying the minutia of real-life busyness was grief.  I had wrapped my heart around this amazing canine.  Our bond had been cemented within the first few days of training together – not a common occurrence in the land of guide dog training – and I was having significant difficulty letting go.  I wanted a guide dog.  I wanted this guide dog.  And it wasn’t going to happen.

Some blind people who learn to travel with guide dogs are lost without them.  Honestly, that was not my situation.  As the months rolled on and I traveled more and more frequently in my work and play around the country, I contemplated the positive side of not having a guide dog.  At conferences and meetings, there was more free time.  No need to take a cane out four or five times a day, feed twice a day, or go back to the room for bits of quiet time to de-stress.  With a cane, fretting over whether a taxi or colleague’s car will comfortably accommodate all passengers plus a guide dog is not part of the equation.  When I did become disoriented in new environments, there was never the misconception by a stranger that my cane ought to figure out the situation.

But I miss the speed, the ease, the grace of flying down a street with a gifted companion at my side.  And I miss the companionship, the sense of never really walking alone.

Meanwhile, Tuscan is a happy, healthy dog with a significant disability.  He, with his buoyant spirit, could serve as a role model for humans – running, with that atrophied right front paw hanging in the air – after a bone, a cong, or someone he loves.  He has two human loved ones now, as my daughter has gradually assumed more of his care when I travel and formed a significant bond of her own.

The partnership formed between blind person and guide dog is more or less understood by the general population.  What no one sees is the pain of letting go and the joy – and I know there will be joy – of building a new partnership.  Accepting Tuscan’s disability has been more difficult for me somehow than the death of my previous guides who were with me for a much longer time and whose ends were clear and irrevocable.  It has taken time, but I’m ready at last and eager to meet my new wagging soul mate and begin the adventure all over again.