Day 7 – Training with Mr Banks, my new guide dog

Don’t stop until you drop.

That was the theme for today. We did a huge amount of work. Through it all, Mr Banks behaved brilliantly! The more time that goes on the more I am convinced this is the right match for me. The dog just seems to take so much in his stride! It’s really very reassuring.

We started this morning by walking around Cork city. Don’t ask me to remember all of the street names; I just wouldn’t have a clue. I know that at one stage, we walked down an island with a road on our left and right, we walked around some very busy streets and some streets that had a lot of obstacles and distractions. We also had some tricky crossings to navigate around because we were in town during the busy delivery time so it was great practise but although it was hard, it was a million times easier than trying to do it with a cane. We also went around a shopping centre, up a lift, or as the Americans call it, an elevator then we walked down the stairs from the fifth floor. I hate stairs when getting use to a new dog but it’s important to do them during the training. I offered to walk up them tomorrow but the instructor has decided that it’s fine. There’s no need to put him through that. It’s himself he’s thinking about. Not the dog! Ha-ha. I think that to ensure the dog has had an all-round experience of going up and down a lot of stairs it’s only right! I’m quite happy going up stairs. I hate going down stairs that are unfamiliar to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll just get on with it but I certainly don’t enjoy the walk as much as when just traversing normal environments.

The second route was around Ballincollig, a small town in Cork near the training centre. We combined three routes that we did last week. We started in an estate, walked the opposite way around the back streets, through the shopping centre, out through the Dunnes car park exit, back on to the main street and back to the car again. I absolutely loved this walk. It probably took us about twenty five minutes but the instructor gave me the directions when still in the car so it allowed me to proceed with it as if it was an area I knew really well. For the most part, I was very confident with these areas. I’ve been walking them a lot over the past week and a huge amount of time hasn’t passed since the last time I was around this part of the country so there was nothing new to cover. The route couldn’t have gone any better. I really enjoyed his ability to take the initiative but I was able to control his anticipation reasonably easily. That’s really important. You want the dog to be able to take initiative in finding the way around obstacles but you don’t want him or her to take the initiative too much because they can become over forceful in the tension they provide on the harness. Today for example, Mr Banks knew we were going toward the shopping centre and because he really wants to please, he got very happy at the prospect of finding the door. I hadn’t told him yet but he was already veering us to it. It’s very important that he only finds this land mark when I give the instruction as some days we might pass by it for example. It also settles the dog down in the case of Mr Banks so that when I give the command to find it he does so at the same consistent speed.

In the afternoon we worked on some traffic control. This is where the dog is trained to selectively and intelligently disobey a command if it recognises imminent danger such as an obstruction blocking the way or a vehicle approaching. Contrary to popular misconception, a guide dog does not provide a signal to the handler to indicate that it is safe to cross. The responsibility to determine this is on the handler. It is very important that the handler does not step off a curb without being absolutely sure that it is safe to do so. I can’t stress highly enough that my explanation of near and far traffic training is given for informational purposes only. If you would like more information on this please contact Guide Dogs for the Blind of Ireland by E-mail or by phone at 0214878200 or if your outside Ireland, your local guide dog training school. I am by no means an expert. In fact, compared to the instructors, I know absolutely nothing. This exercise today was really useful for me actually. It highlighted a bad habit that I’ve developed over the years of working with guide dogs. I need to be more aware of this and try to fix it before I return home.

The last walk of the day was in the country. Again, don’t ask me where we were. We were very high above the constant din of the city though and it was really relaxing to be surrounded by the countryside for a few minutes. Country walks are not something that I’ve done since working with my first dog Freddie but I use to really enjoy them. There’s a lovely road near the college in Dundalk that goes on for miles that I use to walk down every Sunday morning. Freddie, my first dog was a horrible animal for constantly pulling left so for the first mile this wasn’t relaxing at all but Mr Banks is very happy to walk tight in on the right so it should be very enjoyable. I hadn’t thought of country walks until quite late in the training last week so I was really surprised that it went so well today. Mr Banks was not trained with this kind of walk in mind so I had no cause to expect that he’d work as well as he did. There were no signs of distractions, his pace was very relaxed and steady and when dogs approached him he continued walking without giving them a second glance. Of course, like an edition, I chanced going out without a coat because it hadn’t rained in days but I should have known. The one time I tried it, it lashed on me for almost the entire walk. I wouldn’t mind but I have a lot of rain gear with me so that when we get a bad day I am prepared for it. It’s just typical that I misjudged it.

While not working, we’ve spent the day playing and doing obedience. I’m continuing to try to vary his obedience sessions. He’s too quick for me. He is really distracted by a room at first but then after a few minutes he is completely focused on me. But, at this early stage I want him to be distracted because it’s at these times when his attention is everywhere but where it should be that I need to reassert control over the situation. For this reason, I’ve been bringing the dog to areas full of distractions and interesting cents. Today we did several obedience sessions outside, we did them in the dining area, upstairs in one of the lounges, in the main corridor and in a car park. Each session lasts no more than five minutes to keep things interesting. Once his attention is on me for three or four minutes I stop and he is rewarded by a nice long play session. This approach seems to be working really well. Reasserting control and breaking the distraction is becoming much easier as time goes on. I am going to discuss this with the instructor tomorrow. If it wouldn’t do any harm, I’d like to do some really straight forward obedience while in harness. For example, just sitting and standing when there’s a lot going on around him. Because Mr Banks is by nature very interested in everything, breaking his attention so that he focuses on my commands is something that in my mind is very important. I need to get this right now. In fact, now that we have covered off all the technical parts of the training, I want to spend as much time as possible building this skill up.

The amount of playing we’ve done today is great. Because he’s worked hard and he’s done such a great job I’ve felt almost duty bound to give him a lot of attention. He’s a really playful dog so I think I’ll need to set aside a little more time than I’ve had to in the past to ensure that he is given adequate opportunity to play.

Grooming Mr Banks is incredibly easy. He sheds a lot of hair but he seems to almost fall asleep on the grooming table. Once he I being brushed with a little more roughness than I’d expect that he’d like he is so relaxed it’s very funny! I was told this by someone in kennels who saw me doing it too gently. I don’t mean that I’m being rough of course. I just mean that I’m a little more forceful than I expected would be tolerable to him.

While I write this he’s in his bed, fast asleep, snoring his little head off. He sounds like an old man when he sleeps. I’m hoping he settles in well when we go home because I don’t think he’ll be sleeping up stairs. I’d like him to be comfortable a little bit further away.

Just to mention some of the crucial things, he is eating and relieving himself perfectly without exception at the moment. Touch wood, I hope this improves but I have no reason to think it wouldn’t. I’m just mentioning it because it was such a major issue in a previous life that it is something I can’t help be aware of.