Ro mentioned an assistance dog blog carnival, and asked folks if they wanted to participate. Once I figured out what the heck a blog carnival was, I figured I’d throw a post onto the pile. Maybe we’d get some new people reading us.
The topic is firsts. So any first to do with assistance dogs. Hmmm. That got my brain spinning. I could have been a lazy bum and linked back to my post about my first meeting with Trix, but I decided to write a new post about my first real time spent with a guide dog team.
As a kid, I had heard about guide dogs and blind people. The whole thing seemed completely mystical and complicated. My dad explained to me that the dog helps you get around, but you can’t just tell the dog to take you to the bank and you get there. You have to know where you’re going. This whole thing seemed confusing. I know the way, but the dog helps me get there? What exactly does he do? Gets me around stuff. But that’s what my cane is for. What makes a dog different?
For years, I had seen guide dog teams in passing, and I was always told to feel free to ask them questions. But that’s kind of like standing in front of a display of food when you’re blind and being told to pick something, they have everything here. If you don’t even know where to begin, how do you pick? If you don’t even know what to ask, how do you formulate a good question? Plus, whenever I saw a team, we’d only have a few minutes, so I felt that if I had a question, it had better be a good one.
Then, one day, an opportunity came to spend the day with a guide dog handler. The coolest thing about this was not only did she let me ask her questions, but she sort of knew that I was too new to this whole thing to have any decent questions, so she just started talking.
She told me about the good stuff about having a guide dog, the bad stuff about it, and how many dogs she had had. This was the first time I sort of had an inkling that a dog’s career could be cut short for all kinds of reasons. She also talked about how she chose her school. It was then that I learned that not all schools are created equal, and there are things to consider, such as how much follow-up they will do, how much help they will offer with veterinary costs, how familiar each school is with the laws where you are, that sort of thing. As she talked, I really had my eyes opened as to how complicated a change it would be if I went down the road to getting a guide dog.
I also got to see a whole bunch of the daily routine. I got to watch her feed her dog, and blow the whistle which signaled the dog could eat. I saw that she fed her dog dry kibble, which made me so happy since someone had told me that you had to feed them wet food, and I can’t stand wet food. Whenever my mom would feed our pet dog wet food, I would nearly gag. It was then that she set me straight that most dogs eat dry kibble. Whew! That alone was a load off my mind!
Then, I went out with her, and watched her relieve her dog. It was here that I finally got to ask those burning questions about picking up after your dog, even silly ones like “Do you have to clean up the pee too?” I was always a shy kid, and would never ask. I mean, this would mean I would have to ask about pooping and peeing! How embarrassing! Oh, how that changes when you have a furry one. So, if the issue of relieving came up, I would just hope to hell the person would read my mind and say just the right things. Of course that never happened. But in this situation, we were right in the middle of doing the deed, and the person I was with was extremely patient, so I asked all the questions I possibly could.
But the coolest thing by far this person did for me was let me *feel* what it’s like to be guided by a guide dog. After I had picked her brain, and she had told me all sorts of things, she asked me if I’d like to take a few steps holding onto her dog’s harness. She told me that this is considered to be a big no no, but a. her dog had been with her for a long time, and b. we were only going to walk a wee little ways and she would be right there. I jumped at the chance!
She told me how to hold the harness and leash. Even that seemed super complicated. You had to get the positioning just right, and stand next to the dog in just such a way. Then she told me to say her dog’s name and say forward, while moving my right hand in a forward motion. I did.
At first, the dog didn’t move. I think she thought her handler had gone mad. Then her handler gently urged her, and…we were off! Holy crap were we ever! I felt like I was floating down the street, but at the same time, I felt completely safe. Suddenly, I never wanted to stop walking. I wanted to go around the block just to see what was there. I was so excited that it took me a minute to hear the handler say “Ok, turn around now.” What? My fun is over so fast?
But those few steps solidified for me the difference between dog and cane. When you walk with a cane, you have to walk at a pace that you feel will allow you to find and avoid obstacles. With a dog, you can walk heaps and tons faster because the dog is watching for obstacles. Plus, going around an obstacle when you have a cane can be somewhat clumsy. With a dog, you glide around obstacles, and sometimes you don’t even know they’re there!
After that day of talking, I really started to feel like I had the beginnings of an understanding of what life with a guide dog would be like, and I felt like I could ask decent questions and get the information I needed. It was because of this one woman that I started down the road towards life with a guide dog, and I will always be thankful for her patience and time. In one day, she taught me more than a million books on the subject could ever teach me.
I hope that some day, I can provide that amount of help to just one person. I’m glad to be able to answer questions on an email list where I am, but a few questions is nothing compared to a day in the life of a guide dog team. That day of practical experience will give someone considering life as a guide dog handler what they need to make the decision that’s right for them.