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.