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  • 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.

  • Day 5 – Training with Mr Banks, my new guide dog

    Easy does it.

    Today was unexpected. I thought it was going to drag on but it seems to have gone just as quickly as every day before it since Tuesday. Coming from a person who is normally so practical when it comes to guide dogs I am very surprised to be writing that when I’m around Mr Banks I find that I’m never wanting for something to do. I’m constantly playing with him, walking around the centre, doing obedience, practising recall, grooming, or just having a chat with him. I find that his personality makes him very accessible from the perspective of someone who ordinarily finds it difficult to read the body language of a dog. He knows what he wants and he’s not shy about showing me. For example, when he’s finished relieving himself, he will make this very clear by sitting right in front of me. If I’m too preoccupied or too stupid to notice he wines, just for a split second to grab my attention.

    We were meant to walk around Cork city again this morning but from reading the report of the last time I trained with a guide dog, a route stood out that might be a nice challenge. It’s up a road called Patricks hill. It has a lot of steps in random places and quite a lot of distractions for Mr Banks to work through. I had thought this was going to be difficult for him and it would be a good exercise to learn from. What I didn’t foresee was the only thing I’d learn from it was that Mr Banks is seriously exceptional. He governed the pace showing more caution than I ever thought possible from him. It’s not like he wasn’t confident, far from it actually. The confidence oozed from him. Caution is where if he thinks I might hit something he’ll slow the pace to show me that it’s possible and in situations where it’s inevitable that I’ll hit something then he stops at the object first. Of course, he has stopped at obstacles consistently during the training. I am finding it hard to explain for some reason. Today was different. He was really taking care through the tricky parts of the route. It was like he understood that the path was difficult for me and he was giving me extra time to get my footing in places. The instructor agreed that even though our walks have been consistently good and the progression is moving in the right direction all the time, today was our best walk by a long shot. I’m really glad he agreed because I was amazed at this new found concern that Mr Banks was showing for my safety. Sorry, I’m explaining this all wrong. Of course he is always concerned for my safety as defined by his training and today was no different. His training kicked in and he knew that the environment was complicated and challenging. What was different was the intensity of his concentration and his very focused attention to detail. I’m really sorry you weren’t there to observe this first hand because I am really not doing it enough justice.

    After the walk we returned to the centre for a quick coffee before bringing Mr Banks on a free run. This is where guide dogs have the freedom to revert to acting like a normal dog. They blow off steam, ignore almost all commands and have some fun. As you might expect, with the work load we have been throwing at him over the past five days this was a welcome break. Think about it! He has a new handler, he’s been working for about three hours a day between obedience and walking, he’s living in a centre that up to now has been a place that he only saw during training sessions with the early training unit and later, the advanced instructor. So much has happened in this poor dog’s life in the past week, it’s incredible that he hasn’t completely fallen to mush! I admire him a lot actually. I don’t want to jinx it but he amazes me in the way that he seems to be taking everything in his stride. I secretly hope that maybe my handling of the situation has something to do with it but I suspect it’s all up to Mr Banks and the excellent preparation work done by his instructor. I suppose it’s not such a secret any more really.

    After the free run we returned to the training centre. I braced myself for an afternoon of boredom but it never materialized. I towelled off the dog to dry his coat after his free run, played with him for a long time then did some easy obedience work to firm up on a few things. I took an hour to listen to some more of the hunger games book then I decided to pay a visit to the sand run. This is beside the kennels used for young dogs in training. It gives them regular opportunities to get out and play in a safe environment. I knew that with having less work to do this afternoon he would have some energy to burn off. I was right. He had great fun exploring on his own for a while ten when he presented me with a very disfigured and chewed up Cong I played with him for a good ten minutes. This was an interesting game. I’d throw it for him; he’d run off, get it, drop it again, run back over to me and wait for me to tell him to go get the toy again. When he went to retrieve the toy he’d sprint over to me but stop about five feet away. He’d throw down the toy but when I went to pick it up he’d bark loudly. I know to ignore his barks now. He is only playing and being vocal so it didn’t bother me. Still, it kept me very amused. I’d love to know what was going through his head. Because we’re not working at all tomorrow I’m going to try to escape the training centre for a few hours. This will give me some time to recharge, play some music, relax and enjoy some normality for a short while. However, I’m very aware that it will result in much less activity for Mr Banks compared to the past few days. This will possibly be good for him actually however to try to compensate a little, I intend to use the sand run again in the afternoon. I’ll also allow a lot more play sessions in the morning. Mr Banks has a lot of energy so it’s probably in my best interest to ensure he’s satisfied before I leave him alone for a few hours. Who knows what he’d get his teeth on while I’m not here! So far, although he likes to pick up everything he can get access to, he hasn’t actually chewed anything yet but I’m quite sure that unfortunately, it’s likely only a matter of time. Mostly he’s just happy to walk around with things in his mouth. I’ve left a bone and a Cong out for him and to my relief; he tends to go for one of these objects before looking for something of mine. To be safe, I intend to leave an item of clothing in the room in easy reach. I have a pair of jeans that I don’t intend to wear much anymore so it won’t be the end of the world if he rips them. I really don’t think he will though.

    That’s all I have to write tonight. I have tried to keep this one short. If their all five page posts you’ll get sick of reading my ramblings. Thanks to everyone who has sent text messages, Emails and comments. I appreciate every single one of them. Although, I am terrible for not responding to text messages at the moment. I must fix this failure very soon.

  • Day 4 – Training with Mr Banks, my new guide dog

    Paws for thought.

    Paws for thought is an excellent blog run by a lovely lady who is going out with an absolute nut job who is also a very good friend of mine Nicky Kealy. But pausing for thought was the last thing on the mind of Mr Banks today as we navigated through the busiest environment that we are likely to encounter during our training. Pausing for thought seems to be the last thing this dog would ever consider doing. No matter what the obstruction Mr Banks quickly makes up his mind and just goes for it. Sometimes he’s wrong but more than not he’s absolutely spot on. Even though he has got it wrong a few times he corrects himself very quickly and continues on without a second thought. I love this confidence in him. It’s just so nice to put the direction we take completely in his hand. ….. em…. I mean paws. Speaking of things that I love about this dog, he reminds me of my first dog Freddie quite a lot. When he’s just chilling out, if I get up to walk across the room for some reason his tail starts pounding off the floor. I might not be going anywhere nears him but he’s just happy if I say hello. The main objective of the training is to build up the bond between guide dog and handler. I certainly think it’s starting off well. It’s strange but I actually enjoy being around him. Every dog of course has a limitation. For Mr Banks this limitation is distractions. If I don’t stay on top of these when we’re out he can get a bit carried away but once I keep them in check he’s absolutely fine. The important thing is actually that he accepts the encouragement and the positive reinforcement and recovers from any corrective action within seconds. Now that I’m becoming more aware of his limitation and his many strengths I’m very relieved. Now I know what I have to work with I can relax a lot more. Now, of course, I will acknowledge that we’re only four days in now and although I think I might have assessed his character well I have no doubt that something else will come up either temporarily while he continues to test my limits or permanently as a result of my handling style. So, I can’t be complacent.

    The first walk today was a mammoth task. We started in the train station, boarded a train, walked through a very busy carriage while people were still taking their seats, back onto the platform again and out of the station. This was an important training exercise. It let me assess how Mr Banks handles trains. He found the door with a minimum of direction and he handled the horrible platform in Cork station with ease. Working through the station presented him with hundreds of potential distractions but he remained focused on the target without needing additional prompting above the standard reassurance that he was doing a good job. I know that I might be over doing it with the reassurance while he’s working but my reasoning is that if he can remain focused on me he’s less likely to get distracted. Like always, this level of verbal prompting can decrease gradually over the next six to twelve months.

    After the train station we walked up to Patricks street. His work around this area was absolutely brilliant. I thought I knew the route quite well but I nearly made a minor mistake before the instructor prompted me to turn instead of crossing. I usually cross before the bridge leading onto Patricks street because there’s an ATM on the right side of the road that is nice and easy to find. I do that so regularly I almost went that direction without thinking about it. In fairness, that just shows how much I was at ease with walking around with Mr Banks. Actually speaking of blunders and my own stupidity, at one stage while crossing at a point that had no audible signal, the instructor told me that we had a green man. I don’t know why but I always forget what colours signify when pedestrians can go and when traffic can go. In my defence, when do I need to know this? I felt like a right idiot though. I won’t forget that again in a hurry. Green means pedestrians can go! Green! Green! Green! Green! Green! I know. I know. I’m stupid.

    When we got to Patricks street we took the first door into one of the shopping centres on that street. In here we walked through Debenhams and took the exit back onto Patricks Street again. We walked through that shop during the matching visit but todays walk was like working with an entirely different dog. He dictated the pace during the entire time. He slowed right down and took a lot of care with every turn. When I gave the instruction to find the way he listened immediately and took the initiative without hesitation when he felt it was necessary. I obviously had absolutely no idea where we were going but at certain points he knew so it was nice to feel him working through familiar territory. After we walked all the way down Patricks street we walked through more busy streets that I can’t remember the name of before stopping in a quick coffee. I really appreciate the regular stops for coffee that we are taking. It is allowing Mr Banks to become really comfortable with my style of handling in social environments. This is very important to me because I really enjoy meeting with people regularly after work. It’s nice to be confident that Mr Banks will behave perfectly in this kind of environment and it will be nothing new for him. After the coffee we walked over to the bus station. The name of Oliver Plunk it street has come to mind. I can’t remember if that was before the coffee or after it. He worked very well through it regardless. There was one point where he jumped out of his skin. We passed a fast food outlet and as we approached the door someone came out with a trolley laden with old uncooked met. I have to admit the smell was quite overwhelming but for some reason, with the smell, the sight of the trolley coming toward him and the speed at which we were moving startled him badly and he jumped back quite quickly and forcefully. I have to admit, this temporarily alarmed both me and the instructor because neither of us knew right away what had caused this sudden change in behaviour. Once the man had passed us though Mr Banks continued on his way. What I found really important was the recovery. I have experienced situations like this that would have caused a dog to become nervous and highly sensitive. It was a huge relief that within seconds Mr Banks had completely recovered his composure and behaved as if nothing had happened. At the bus station the first door he found was actually locked. This wasn’t his fault of course. Again, what impressed me about this was that when I stepped back and asked him to find the door again he did a proper left turn around me and found the next door down. Again, I have experienced situations where needing to find another door would have seriously temporarily knocked another dogs confidence. I’m not necessarily comparing guide dogs; I am however acknowledging how very fortunate I am with Mr Banks.

    After the bus station we walked down by the river with the water on our left past Jurys hotel. We crossed the bridge in front of the main door and took a left. The last time I was around that area was November 2011 so I was relieved to find that they had fixed the path since then. I was prepared for the worst when I crossed the road. The last time I walked around there I nearly fell when I misjudged a step while using the cane. Today with Mr Banks the area was simple to navigate around. We took the first right and walked to the end of the road. We weren’t aligned with the crossing that I was familiar with so because I was aware of the environment I chose to do another formal left turn where the dog does a 270 degree turn in front of you. This aligned us with the road on our left where I could cross, turn right, walk down a few steps and take the more straight forward crossing to the path leading to the train station. Unfortunately while going to the train station I misjudged where I needed to turn right but it was Freddie who use to make that judgement call so I’ll just chalk that one down to experience. For Mr Banks. There are no land marks that I can pick up to indicate when to cross. The rest of the walk was very straight forward.

    The next walk today was through a route in Ballincollig, a town near the training centre for Irish guide dogs. We had done this route before but I wanted to give it another go because I wasn’t particularly happy with the way Mr Banks handled parts and I knew that I could have given him better commands during parts as well. Fortunately with some more experience since the last time we did this walk the route was almost absolutely perfect today. Now, there was one part that I wasn’t happy with but this was related to a lot of distractions in the environment. It was something I was prepared for so I think I handled it as well as it could have been handled. Again, I made another stupid mistake on this route. I thought we should cross when I should have turned left but I’ve done so many routes in the past four days that I just remembered it incorrectly. Let me quickly clarify though that I absolutely love the format of this class. It couldn’t be more suitable. I just need to concentrate a little more. We took a few back streets then an alley way back to the main street. On the main street we walked through a shopping centre back into the car park for Dunnes. There is nothing to say about this really, He performed excellently. There are parts where he tried to anticipate where we were going based on routes that we had done earlier in the week but I was able to pick this up very quickly and redirect him from the point he was focused on. It’s quite interesting actually. Once the redirection is successful and he is aware that he must look for a new target he is very quick to assess the situation to determine the most likely object to find.

    We finished quite early today and I think we were both quite tired after focusing on the mornings work. For the first time in quite a while I sat and listened to eight chapters of a book. I’m listening to book one of the hunger games at the moment. Emma read them a few weeks ago and seemed to be completely engrossed so I thought I should see what all the fuss was about. So far, I’m not disappointed. The rest of the day has been taken up by frequent play sessions. Some more obedience and a lot of general activity with Mr Banks. I haven’t really written about the obedience work that I’ve been regularly doing. I keep each session to about ten to fifteen minutes. I do one in the morning and one at night at minimum. However, I’ve found that he is taking them in his stride now. Before, distractions in the environment were the major factor that was keeping him from paying attention but because he is now settled into the environment of the training centre he is less interested in the environment and more interested in me. Although that is great, it’s not what I want at the moment. So, I’ve started doing the obedience work in different rooms. For example, I have been doing them in the down stairs lounge. It’s not used at this time of day but there are a lot of new smells and things to look around so it was a good place to use. Now, I’m also using the upstairs lounge. Again, it’s great because it’s a new place that he hasn’t been too much so all the smells are interesting. It takes that little bit more for him to remember that he needs to focus on the commands I’m giving him. Again though he has handled this change well. I wanted to give him a bigger challenge so when everyone had left the dining area this evening I did some more work with him. It’s important that it’s a big game of course. He’s more likely to listen if the obedience sessions are less work and more playful so I am very sure to keep them lively and interesting. For example, I start off with a lot of sit, down, stay, wait and come commands. This gets him focused and prepares him for what’s to come. Then I unclip the lead and walk away. A little further each time. He must sit by my side on my command. This reinforces recall. After doing this successfully a few times I let him wander off. He inevitably finds something to sniff. Then when I think he’s distracted I call him back. Of course, at this early stage I can’t expect him to acknowledge this very reliably so I also make some noise to draw attention to myself. This is where things are really starting to improve and it’s where I need to work most. At the end of the day, Mr Banks is a dog and he will do doggy things like get carried away while sniffing something. That’s absolutely fine once he remembers that I’m the boss and when I call him I mean business. It’s not easy but we’re slowly but surely increasing our success rate with this approach. I’m sure it wouldn’t be something that the instructors advise but it’s a good game for Mr Banks and it’s teaching him that the faster he comes back, the longer we play and the more praise he gets. It’s actually getting to the stage that when I let him off the lead he doesn’t want to go sniffing. He wants to stay by my side instead because of the praise he gets. I tried this yesterday morning as an experiment but I didn’t expect the exercise to be retained so well. In fact, I didn’t expect him to retain this at all. However, now, when he’s off the lead he’s very observant of what I’m doing. I’m very impressed at this. One other exercise that I started right from day one might seem very simple but it’s effective. When we get to the dining area I go make myself a coffee. This involves first finding a seat, putting Mr Banks under it and remaining there for a few seconds. Then I get up, tell the dog to stay and go make the coffee. When I get back I expect him to remain lying down until I put the coffee on the table and take my seat again. This takes some work on my part. I don’t want to over stimulate the dog when I return but I need to consistently give him the command to remain waiting. It’s important that he doesn’t jump up when I’m near because he could inadvertently knock the cup out of my hand or cause it to spill. Only when I am seated again does he get the praise that he loves so much. Again, of course it goes without saying that this praise is only provided when he remains under my chair. At the first sign that he wants to get up the praise stops.

    To finish this post let me tell you of something that’s a bit strange. I usually write this when I’m taking it easy between ten and eleven at night. I usually go to a different room in the centre to do this because it’s nice to get out. At half ten Mr Banks becomes restless. He stands there right beside my laptop and if I don’t acknowledge him he wines. It’s not intrusive; it’s just his way of letting me know that he’d like some attention when I have a moment. For some reason though, late at night this is quite persistent. Even when I tell him to lie down he only does so for a second before getting up again. Stupidly last night I thought that he may be needed to relieve himself so I stopped what I was doing. Tonight he thought he’d get his own way again so he started at exactly the same time. Dogs are funny animals. They pick up things that we never consider. It’s possible that a motor starts or stops somewhere or a radiator is turned off. It can be any kind of queue but he associates this with the sign that it’s now time to move. It’s possible that without knowing it, for the first two nights I was finished at the same time that this queue was sensed by him so now he has picked it up as a sign. It’s something he’ll get out of very quickly when he notices that I don’t pander to his insistence. For the moment, it’s very entertaining. Mr Banks has a voice and he’s not afraid to use it. He has different wines, moans and groans depending on what he’s trying to communicate. He’s barked at me once and this was because I was ignoring his moan because I thought he needed some more time to make sure he didn’t need to relieve himself. It was his way of giving out to me a little. Of course, I couldn’t let him away with that. At this early stage he could take the idea that he can get away with things by barking or moaning too much so although I think it’s very funny, I’ve unfortunately had to either ignore it or tell him to stop. I don’t think it will become a problem though. Hopefully he can remain like this. I actually find it very useful. There’s hardly any need to read body language with Mr Banks. He’s more than happy to make his mood known with the right grunt!

    These blog posts are very long! I’m very sorry. It must be really hard to read so much. I start them every night by thinking, we’ve done nothing today but then they just keep going on and on and on.

  • Day 2 – Training with Mr Banks, my new guide dog

    Towel stealing peeping tom.

    I’m here for a very important reason. To train with a dog that will essentially become my eyes while navigating around very busy, complex and ever changing environments. The gravity of this process cannot be underestimated. However, Mr Banks is making it hard to take him very seriously. For a guide dog, he has one hell of a sense of humour. Take this morning as an example. In a sleepy haze I threw my hands and legs in every direction to find my phone to shut up that infernal noise caused by the alarm telling me to wake up. Occasionally, I find a wet object but in my sleepy stupidity, my brain doesn’t register that this wet thing might be the nose of Mr Banks. Soon enough, my hand, covered in slime finds the phone and with vicious pounding on the screen, I kill the source of the infernal racket. Only for it to be replaced by something much worse. Within seconds I fully awaken with the sudden realization that there’s a dog doing relays around my bed. Yep. He must have something in his mouth again because he’s only ever that happy when he knows that I’m going to have to chase him. Let’s face it, I don’t know Mr Banks all that well yet so as far as I knew he could have left a lovely mess on the floor for me to tread in so gingerly, I place my feet on the floor to begin the epic chase. Fortunately, as I already know of course when I’m fully awake, Mr Banks is a very clean dog so such a mess would be beneath him so my feet were safe. To my surprise, instead of preparing for the chase, he leaped over to me and began giving me the most enthusiastic good morning sniff I have ever received! Yes, my tows were really that interesting according to Mr Banks and there was absolutely nothing in his mouth. He was just thrilled to be up and about. I tried to close the bathroom door before jumping into the shower but he cried at me so I decided I’d give him the benefit of the doubt by opening the door a little. He was fine with that. He paid no further attention to me and lay in his usual spot right in the middle of the floor. However, as soon as I turned off the shower he was over to say hello again. Let me break away from the point a little by explaining the shower to you. The previous occupant of this room actually thought it was a play pen when he encountered it first and what to me at the time seemed like the ramblings of a mad man actually still seem like the ramblings of a mad man but ok, they make a little more sense now that I’ve actually been here to see them for myself. When I put my hands on the shower first I found this little gate just below waste height. It has handles at the top on the outer corner and an oval catch at the middle of each side. It really does feel like a dodgy play pen! This in no way detracts from the very real and dangerous fact that the previous occupant is absolutely nuts however. Please be very sure of this. If you encounter this person be warned. He is possibly carlovian and dangerous. Sorry, I got wildly off the point there for a minute. Right! As I was saying, because the shower door is quite low, as soon as I turned off the shower he sprang up and in to the bathroom within seconds. By the time I had the shower curtain open, he already had his chin resting on the top of the door. When I told him to go away, he took a few steps back, got distracted by a very small pool of water that had leaked out from a tiny crack in the door and began drinking it. When he had finished that he obviously forgot that I had sent him away and decided to do a bit of a complicated turn to put his chin on the other shower door. He wasn’t in my way and he wasn’t doing any harm so I left him alone. After all, if Mr Banks is happy, I’m happy. If being close to me all the time for the first week helps him to develop a firm bond then you know, that’s absolutely fine with me. It’s a bit strange, maybe even a little uncomfortable, but not important if at the end I get a dog that listens to my commands and can be relied on in almost all situations. Anyway, time passed. As it generally does. I was drying myself, as I generally do after being in a shower however Mr Banks had other ideas. The towel was suddenly the most entertaining thing in his world and nothing gave him more pleasure than to try to pull it off me. Now, this wasn’t completely apparent straight away. Firstly, I actually thought that I had caught it in something so I felt down to find out what I had done wrong only to find that there were teeth tightly gripping the other end! He gave out a very satisfied groan and gave it a bit of a tug. It wasn’t a problem though, a simple command without any authority at all told him to leave me alone and he did so without any reservation. I thought that was the end of it so I tried to coax him out of the bathroom. I decided enough was enough. If he couldn’t let me get on with it he’d just have to put up with being in the bedroom on his own for a while. I tried to walk toward the bathroom door but Mr Banks just couldn’t contain himself. He was at my knees with every step trying to pull the towel off me! Ok, reading that back it sounds very strange but you’ll just have to trust me on this, it was absolutely hilarious! There was no boldness in what he was doing, he just decided that he had enough sleep, I hadn’t given him enough attention for a good six or seven hours so it was now time to play. After laughing at him for a bit I kicked him out and finally had time to get dressed. However, his attention to every move I make has been just as consistent all day. If I move he is alert. If I’m not doing anything for a while he comes over and sits beside me. He’s not intrusive, that wouldn’t be appropriate. He is just happy to be spoken to occasionally and if his bed is a bit too far away he comes over to put his head on my shoe.

    Our first walk today was difficult for me. I trust Mr Banks but not completely. This isn’t his fault; it’s all up to me. I’ve been using a cane for the past year and I know when I’m coming near to a curb because I know the texture of the paths that I walk around. I walk slower when using the cane so I have more time to become aware of changes as well but with Mr Banks everything is so easy, fast and fluid I have really nervous that I’m going to step off a curb. Have you ever stepped off a high step without knowing it’s there while in mid stride? It’s actually quite painful! I didn’t think this would be something I’d be hesitant about. When training the last time I was more careful about objects on my right but they don’t bother me at all with Mr Banks. He glides by everything with such confidence that I hardly know we’re passing obstacles until the instructor prompts me to praise him for handling something well. It’s just something that I thought was worth mentioning here for readers because it’s important to understand that the time that a handler spends training with a guide dog is as much for the handler as the guide dog. If not even more so. Mr Banks gives me the impression that he’s perfectly happy with everything. The description “Like water off a ducks back” comes to mind because it seems like nothing fazes him. It’s like walking with a guide dog that is fully confident about his job and it’s me who is the one that hasn’t a clue. I’m delighted to report that my nervousness was completely unfounded. I was afraid that he wouldn’t stop in time coming up to curbs but he did it perfectly.

    One thing to note on the first walk today was the level of distraction he showed. I’m reasonably confident that his tendency to get easily distracted will diminish as training progresses but at the moment it’s something that I have to be very mindful of. At this early stage, he’s still getting use to me and to a certain extent he’s seeing how much he can get away with. It might be interesting for some to read that I actually don’t mind this too much. Once I’m aware of it I can manage it and once I can manage it, it shouldn’t be a problem. Regardless, I don’t think it is going to continue at this high level once things settle down and he gets to know me better. On a side note, he fell asleep on my foot about ten minutes ago but I got up a second ago to find out where a noise was coming from. Now that I’m sitting down again and I’ve disturbed him from his foot shaped pillow he’s looking up at me yawning. It’s funny actually. His head is pushing against my leg and his mouth is facing up. I’m surprised he can yawn so easily in such a contorted position.

    The second walk today got changed half way through because I wanted to try something a little different and as it turned out a little more challenging as well. I remember that when I was here a few years ago few side streets on one of the routes were particularly complicated from the perspective of working with a guide dog. This route was far from perfect but the thrilling thing about it was I knew it reasonably well so I could anticipate the more complicated parts and give instructions. Now, that doesn’t mean that I accurately gave the instructions or that it went well but it went better than I thought it would and it was a brilliant route to learn with. There’s just so much happening on that fifteen minute walk. It’s not the longest route but it’s one of the most interesting we’ve done so far from my perspective. We’re going to do that again a few times more to arm me with a few methods of giving instructions to Mr Banks that will help me better communicate what I need him to do more clearly so I’m really glad we did it today.

    The last walk was a little longer. Here, Mr Banks really started to show his true colours. Kerb approaches were almost absolutely perfect, avoidance of moving obstacles, i.e., other people was absolutely spot on as always and although he made a mistake by just slightly misjudging the space needed to safely walk past an obstacle he made up for this by remembering to be cautious the next time he was presented with that scenario. Distraction levels were a little lower as well and although he got into a huff because I told him to do something a second time because he brushed me off a bin he snapped out of it quite quickly. He’s seriously like a teenager at times. If he does something wrong, he knows that he shouldn’t have done it because I can feel his head turned right in toward me. I think he’d just like me to leave it at that so when I turn around and make him approach the problem again he really does huff. This shows its self in the speed he walks at and the way he stops before crossings. If he is in a huff he stops a good foot or two away from where he knows he should stop. Again, it’s quite funny and it’s something that will become less of an attribute of his style as time goes on and he settles in to my style of doing things.

    Eating today wasn’t a problem again. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue with Mr Banks at all. Spending seems to be really consistent as well. You wouldn’t believe how relieved I am to write that!

    I’m still trying to work out his body language. When I introduced him to some live music last night while I played a tune or two on the low F whistle he was incredibly curious. Sniffing and licking my fingers, examining the whistle and walking around me sniffing everything. He doesn’t seem to be bothered by the noise but I hope I’m reading this right. His body language certainly doesn’t seem to indicate that he’s bothered. When I play music in fact his tail wags so much that his whole body sways. Tonight, I decided I’d try him out with the pipes for a few minutes. I only played for a very short time to let him get use to the sound slowly. Firstly, he was like a child hovering around a bag of shopping to make sure there are no sweets in there that they are allowed to have. His nose was practically on my fingers as I opened the zip. He insisted in having his nose so close to the case that when I opened it up it rubbed off his ears. It didn’t bother him of course; he just moved his head and continued sniffing! I just thought it was funny. With very close supervision he sniffed every single part of the inside of the case. My hands followed his nose because I know what he’s like. What gets sniffed can get licked. And what gets licked can be put into his mouth. As I told him tonight, it the pipes ever go into his mouth I’m selling him on EBay for a Euro. Don’t worry; I’ll give the proceeds back to Irish guide dogs. Seriously, I was very careful. I wanted him to know that he was allowed look but there was to be strictly no touching of any kind by teeth. Fortunately he was happy to confine his examination to his nose. When I started playing he sniffed furiously but when I put my hand on his back the tail was still flying away so I assume he’s quite happy with the sound. When I put the drones on the licked the whole where the base drone noise comes out. That area vibrates a little and I think that shocked him just a little. Dogs tend to explore using their tongues so this kind of thing is perfectly natural. Anyway, I decided that after a few minutes of exploration that he was happy enough so I was a little more firm. I told him to lie down and relax. When he was content lying beside me I played a few tunes. He jumped up to have another sniff but he quickly became board and he went to bed. This is really what I had expected. Over the next while I’ll play the pipes every day to get him use to the sound of them. It’s important that he doesn’t see this as a negative experience so I’m really glad that tonight’s introduction went well.

    A few other things happened today but I’m not sure if I should go into any more detail. Mainly because this post is huge already! In summary, I’m enjoying his personality. I think he’s going to settle in well and I think we’re both going to have a lot of fun along the way. Work is a challenge but mainly because I have a high standard that I will demand from Mr Banks. I know he can do it though. I’m just hoping that by incorporating a lot of play into our routine I’m encouraging him in the right way. Yes. I mean business and as I have always said, any guide dog that I have is a mobility aid first and a companion second however I acknowledge that he is a dog with needs. It isn’t just enough to fulfil these needs either. It’s important to want to keep him happy. Hopefully you understand the point I’m trying to make. It’s amazing, I’m never tired but for the second day in a row, I’m definitely ready for some sleep. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Mr Banks playing, working, walking around or simply giving him attention and it’s actually quite tiring. In a good way though.

    Hey, have you ever noticed that when a dog rests his head on your foot it gets really hot after a while? 🙂

    Oh, I also noticed that two of you have used the donate button for Irish Guide dogs on the right of every page. Thanks for that.

  • Day 1 – Training with Mr Banks, my new guide dog

    Roam wasn’t built in a day.

    I’ve been noticing a major increase in traffic to this site over the past two days. It’s making me a little apprehensive so will you all just go away please? Ha! I know a lot of you are looking forward to these posts so I’ll try to make them worth your while. In all seriousness though, I have to say a very sincere thank you to all my regular readers of this website. Your support in comments, email and messages on both Facebook and Twitter has been very appreciated. You are the reason why I am writing an account like this again.

    They say Roam wasn’t built in a day but are they really sure? With the day I’ve just had, I’m not entirely sure that it isn’t possible to build an entire city in a day because the dog that is lying beside me at the moment is so nice and chilled out I couldn’t see it getting any better! How could we build on what already seems to be perfection. Isn’t that brilliant? No. Not that it seems to be perfection, the fact that I’m this comfortable around a dog after only meeting him properly twelve hours ago. Imagine what we’ll be like in twelve months? I’ve had to remind myself that it’s only our first day together. That’s because he has completely exceeded my expectations. In and out of Harness. I’m seriously impressed with him. The fantastic thing really is that this is only the first of many many days where we can get to know each other better.

    I was dreading the introduction this morning. I was afraid he wouldn’t get on with me, he’d be too attached to the instructor, he’d be too giddy, too mouthy or even just too lazy! I really didn’t know what to expect. I admit, I’m not a dog person. I need to consciously be aware of my interaction with dogs. I like dogs, don’t get me wrong, I also love having a guide dog. But, compared to “dog people”, it doesn’t come as naturally to me. So, I was just a bit nervous about the whole thing. Mr Banks as he will be referred to on this blog and all other online social mediums was as cool as anything. He walked into the room, had a sniff of the ground, the chair, the bed, the wall, the air, the toilet, the shower and everything else he could possibly reach then he decided that I was far more interesting than all that stuff so he decided to do circles around me. He seems to love getting his ears, chest, back and just above his tail rubbed. Oh. He doesn’t pass up a good chin rub either. Once you keep doing that, he does a figure of eight constantly to make sure you give all the important parts the right amount of attention. He’s quite helpful really. So, after the initial excitement he had another quick exploratory sniff of the room. I’m not sure where he found it but he started teasing me with something in his mouth. He’d walk up to me, and touch me with his head but he wouldn’t actually show me what was in his mouth. After some playing, I found out it was a door stop. He thought that was a brilliant game but when I finally extracted it, I took out a more suitable toy. I had taken a new ragger with me for him because this is the toy I’m most comfortable with. It is a rope with a not on each end. Working from left to right, it’s frayed on the end, then there’s a not, then it’s a twisted rope, a knot again and the other end is frayed as well. It’s great though. The dog holds onto the twisted rope in the middle and the human holds onto the two frayed parts. This gives plenty of grips for both dog and human. The one who pulls it out of the grip of the other wins. It’s that simple really. However, it can be a battle at times before someone finally gives up. I have to admit, I under estimated Mr Banks the first few times. I didn’t think he’d be that strong, sneaky or resourceful. He plays, relaxes then whips it out of my hand. Or, he plays for a while, lies down then roles over and uses his paws to try to push my hand away. I’m wise to him now. I know his tricks so his days of winning are over! Some dogs can’t be left alone with a ragger and I think Mr Banks might be one of them. They tend to chew the rope if their board. It’s a real pity because the ragger is such a nice toy for them to play with. I’m very glad I took one with me. Having the confidence to play with Mr Banks right from the start has made the day go much faster I think. I think he might be aware on some level that it doesn’t have to be all work and no play as well.

    Ok. The play is great fun with Mr Banks but let me tell you about the really brilliant part. We did three walks today! Yeah! Three! I can’t believe my luck. They were three nice long walks as well. They weren’t technically perfect then again, there’s no way anyone could expect them to be perfect, but they were relaxed, enjoyable, effortless and completely void of any stress. I think I can say the same for Mr Banks as well. His body language felt great through the harness. We walked through some very quiet residential areas and a small town. There were a few points I was a little concerned about during the matching visit but it seems like these have been almost completely taken care of. It is actually like walking a completely different dog to the one I met a month ago. I even said this to his instructor. I think it’s important to reiterate that by the time perspective guide dogs start class with a handler, a lot of work has been done by puppy walkers, the early training unit and the advanced instructors to get them to this level. So, for this reason, I would encourage you to use the donate button that I’ve placed on the right of this site. Sorry to talk about fund raising but seriously folks, this charity deserves it. Without them I’d be looking at more time using a cane. You can’t begin to understand how much having a guide dog improves my quality of life. Anyway, getting back to the work, as I said, it wasn’t perfect. He made a few mistakes and so did I. For example, I need to remember to step back when doing the continental heal, I need to be more aware of when he’s becoming distracted, I need to improve my body position when he’s approaching a curb and I’m sure there are a lot of other things I need to be aware of as well. The great thing is, this is only the first day and things will improve gradually with time. Now, to be clear, there are going to be days that go badly. There are days when I’m going to want to give the whole thing up. There are going to be days where he doesn’t work well at all. But, that’s all part of it. What I’m talking about is the overall training process. Oh, although I’ve mentioned this before in other blog posts, I should also reiterate that what works for one guide dog partnership will not necessarily work for another. I will try to reframe from talking about specific solutions that I will use while training with Mr Banks however, if one slips out that you think might be useful to you, please consult with your guide dog mobility instructor before taking any action and also give me a good slap on the wrists for being so stupid as well.

    Mr Banks is certainly a cheeky fecker. 50% of the time when I tell him to do something he doesn’t do it. 25% of the time it’s simply because he doesn’t want to and the other 25% is probably because he’s still getting use to me but I’m quite quickly learning that he has his own mind. If he’s intently sniffing the door handle and you tell him to leave it alone he will possibly completely ignore you because, let’s face it, the door handle is much more interesting than a human. I don’t actually mind a bit of give and take. I know that given time his obedience will improve but I’m not pushing it just yet. I want him to relax first. Of course, it’s important to be consistent so maybe I’m making a mistake but without going into details, in the unlikely event the outcome a year ago was my fault, I don’t want to make the same mistake twice. If there’s any chance that I could have caused sensitivity in the past, I want to be quite certain that I don’t do it again. If that means working a little harder to attain the required level of obedience while keeping Mr Banks completely chilled out then I’m absolutely fine with that. For the next five weeks, Mr Banks is my one and only priority in this world. Absolutely nothing else matters. I’m really trying not to make any comparisons between other experiences and the new relationship that I’m building with Mr Banks so please feel free to virtually hit me with a big stick if you find that I’m doing that too much.

    So, let me finish this very long blog post up with a few things that I really like about Mr Banks at the moment:

    • He’s very interested in everything that goes on around him.
    • When I get up to do something he takes an interest in me instantly. So much so, if I do something that he thinks might result in a quick rub, he comes over to stick his nose in. I like this interaction. Mainly because I know where I stand with him. If he wants me he comes over. If he doesn’t want me, he lies in the middle of the floor.
    • He’s very vocal and creative while playing. I really like that he can completely relax. That’s very important.
    • My god when he is let out to pee he does it within seconds! He’s incredible!
    • The person holding the food bole is god. This is nice. He really seems to love his food.
    • While working, if he’s walking around people or avoiding an obstacle his pace is really comfortable. He slows when he needs me to get that little bit closer to him but if my normal distance is fine he just fly’s right on through. I learned that today when I stupidly didn’t pay enough attention and I rubbed off a bush. That’s damn good for a first day when the worst I’ve done is rub off a bush though!
    • He already knows where the toys are kept and when I walk past that door he is very interested in every single action. I expect he’ll learn that I enjoy winding him up just a little before too long.

    Some things I’m not so sure of yet.

    • The dog bed is evil and must be eaten at all costs. Either that or, the bed is the most delicious thing in the world and must therefore be eaten at all costs. Either way, his bed gets eaten quite a lot. I’ve given him a Cong to chew now so maybe he’ll get his teeth into that instead.
    • If something is on the floor, it is logically his to do with what he pleases. Usually this means he’ll carry it around to show it to the world but I suspect if I wasn’t there to extract it, it would get eaten. This is a minor concern. Not because I can’t manage it but more because it means that he’s going to have less freedom if it continues. That’s a pity.

    So, there you have it. My first day with Mr Banks. It’s almost over and you know what? I’m kind of glad! I didn’t expect it but I’m actually tired!

    Bring on tomorrow. I can’t wait to see what happens.

  • Blond, affectionate, energetic and spirited. Just as I like them.

    OH I know what I want. What I want was introduced to me today.

    Mr. Banks is the guide dog in training that i met as part of the official matching visit. This is where a guide dog applicant meets a perspective dog. Or, possibly even several perspective dogs.

    Mr. Banks is a cross between a golden retriever and a golden labrador. At first he seems less sensitive than other dogs I’ve trained with but I must point out that I only had a short time to get to know him today. The real fun will start when I attend the national centre for Irish guide dogs for the Blind of Ireland in Cork in October.

    Todays matching visit was very interesting. I met with two dogs. Dog 1 is Mr. Banks and Dog 2 is ….. lets just call it dog 2. The first walk with Mr. Banks was not comfortable. I wasn’t happy with it at all. I found that he pulled a lot, he was very distracted and he seemed stressed during the entire walk. The walk with dog 2 was much more comfortable. I instantly read the dogs body language easily. I could step out properly, changes in speed and direction were felt equally well from both my perspective and the dogs perspective and I really liked that it was focused on my commands. However, I was warned about the dogs high sensitivity and based on my past experience I decided that a dog with such high sensitivity wasn’t suitable for my needs at the moment. I would like to say something very clearly at this point. Dog 2 was simply amazing. If I wasn’t so aware of the demands my life style places on a guide dog I would have snapped this dog up in an instant. It is very important to be aware that different dogs are suitable for different handlers. The fact that I didn’t think dog 2 was suitable has absolutely no baring on it’s suitability for someone else. In fact, I almost envy the person who is lucky enough to train with this dog. They are going to have one fantastic guide. Mr. Banks is equally good though. Let me continue to explain.

    During the walk with dog 2, I had some time to reflect over a lot of the skills that I haven’t been using for the past year. Body location, handle tension, verbal commands and hand signals are all vitally important when using a guide dog. Although I still remember a lot of the techniques used when working a guide dog, a few of the more subtle requirements didn’t return to memory as easily. For this reason, I asked for the opportunity to walk with Mr. Banks again. The next walk was much more enjoyable. He was still a little distracted and the speed of his starts from a straight stand kept taking me by surprise but I was much more prepared. We walked to a local coffee shop through some busy areas and narrow paths. I began to find some of his little movements entertaining. He almost dives off ramps for example. Because I was more aware of the methods I could use to keep him focused he was a lot easier to work. I came to the conclusion that I will probably need to work a little harder on my working relationship with Mr. Banks but I can tell that it’s possible that he will work very well for me. I could be wrong here, but it seems that if I want a dog that can put up with my life style, I need a dog that will be a little less sensitive. This might mean that his work needs a bit more attention but overall the package should be more suitable.

    I am being very cautious during this process. I am going to blog during the training process but to be straight with you, it’s more for my benefit. I find the previous posts on this topic to be a very interesting source of information. They remind me what I’m getting in to and they remind me of the challenges I’m facing as well. I am aware that certain opinions would suggest that publicly tracking the training process could give an unbalanced view of the struggles of training with a guide dog. It is a difficult time for both dog and handler and if this is not openly acknowledged it is very possible that the tone of the text could be lean toward the negative unintentionally. I am very conscious of this. I fully respect this opinion as I understand that if a perspective guide dog handler was to read such negative experiences it could potentially put them off applying for a dog in the future. I will be as fair and as balanced as possible while documenting my progress however, of course, my account will be truthful therefore with all the good posts I am sure to write, there will be a fair amount of negative posts. Training with a dog is hard but rewarding. Some days things will go well and some days they will be terrible. The important thing I would ask you the reader to keep in mind is that when a partnership between a guide dog and a handler works, it is unbeatable. As time goes on, the good days become more frequent than the bad.

    Bring on October! I can hardly wait!

  • RIP Freddie.

    I can’t explain how utterly upsetting it is to write this. Today, while I rubbed Freddie’s ear, we put him to sleep. I don’t think it’s really hit me yet. I wanted to write sooner rather than later because it’s very important to me that I say thank you. Thank you to everyone who commented on this post. Thank you to Freddie’s puppy walker. Thanks to Irish guide dogs for giving me a guide dog that is simply one of a kind. Thank you most of all to the family who took him during his retirement. I know it only lasted two years but wow he had an amazing two years. I seriously can’t express enough how grateful I am for the way they treated Freddie. It was actually my father who really confirmed it last week when he got to see Freddie for the first time in his new home. He said that the best decision I could have made was sending him to that particular family. It is simply amazing how much they cared for him. I could never have asked for anything more. The more I visited Freddie the more I noticed their attachment grow.

    For me, and I know for everyone with a guide dog, one of the hardest things is that day when you hand over the dog. It’s not like turning off a light switch. You have taken care of the dog and equally, the dog has taken care of you. That bond isn’t one that’s easily broken. That was actually very evident tonight. Even though Freddie could hardly move, he still found the energy to look up at me for assurance when the vet was shaving his paw. When Mark told me, in a funny way I knew that I was meant to be there. Not being there for the end would have been simply wrong.

    That’s really the only reason I wanted to write. I just wanted to thank everyone. I am finding it a great comfort to recognise that Freddie has been incredibly lucky. Just think about it. He had a brilliant puppy walker, Ok, he had to put up with me but still, he travelled a lot and experienced a lot more than any other dog I have encountered. Then to top it all off, he lived with a fantastic family in a lovely area. I couldn’t ask for any more. When it was his turn to move on, he did it just like he did everything else in life. With speed. Within a very short space of time he rapidly declined. I think that’s much better than a prolonged illness. It meant that up to two weeks ago, he still had his normal character.

    The post I wrote on the day of Freddie’s retirement to say thanks is here.

  • It should be easier.

    Isn’t it mildly entertaining and weird? If you look back at one of the first posts in the new guidedog topic on this blog, you’ll notice that I included a picture taken from the Irish Guide dogs for the Blind facebook page when I was waiting for training with Ike to begin in January 2011. I included the picture because I received a lot of messages from people who really wanted to see what he looked like. Today, Irish guide dogs posted a picture of Ike and again, I’ve had to copy it down so that people who got to know Ike for the nine short months can see how he’s getting on. Like it or not, and believe me I usually don’t like it, people other than the handler of guide dogs become very attached to our dogs. So, when Ike was returned back at the start of October last year a lot of people were actually quite unhappy with me. I was accused of being too harsh, of giving up, of not sticking with it and of not giving it enough time. I understand though so wasn’t bothered in the slightest by this. I suppose, what these people didn’t see was the days where I couldn’t go somewhere because I knew he would need to relieve himself in an unacceptable point along the way. Or the mornings when on the way to work Ike would be so stressed trying not to relieve himself that he wouldn’t be focused on where he was bringing me. People could even tell me that he didn’t want to go, he had no choice. I felt so sorry for him! Yet, I couldn’t go on with that kind of problem. It simply didn’t suit my life style and this completely defeated the purpose of having a guide dog in the first place.

    I find it a little ironic that a year later; I’m posting another picture up here for you to see showing Ike waiting to be assigned to someone else. I really really hope it works out for him. He’s an amazing worker. I can’t say how much I miss walking with him. You just wouldn’t believe how comfortable it is navigating around Dublin city with him specifically. Freddie, my first guide dog was brilliant in so many ways and in more ways than not, his personality suited me more than Ike’s but wow; Ike had an amazing way of walking that felt completely natural. It shouldn’t bother me still but I really hate that it came to this. Firstly if I’m to be completely honest, I hate it because I start every day with the cane dreading every moment when out with that stick but secondly because I miss Ike’s work. I know this might seem heartless to those of you without a guide dog or who knows maybe those of you with a guide dog might think so too but I know that I will be able to draw a line under my trials and tribulations with Ike when I train with another dog. Until then, I’m going to remain a bit bitter about it.

    Sorry. I shouldn’t but I can’t help it.

    Using the cane, I’m getting a little bit freer in environments that I’m used to. Nassau Street is no longer as much of a challenge. I have to say though, walk fast and walk purposefully seems to be the best option. Sorry for people who might occasionally get in my way but it seems to be the best way of getting people to take notice. I wish pedestrians would learn! I can’t see you! You can see me! MOVE! While walking up Dawson Street now, I find that I can follow the gutter going up the centre of the path but if I just take my time people seem to stand right in my way! I called into a coffee shop last Wednesday on South Fredrick Street. They had a big sign outside their sheltered area and it was in the perfect spot for me. It always marked the centre of the path. They moved it though and my cane kept getting stuck under the plastic partition that surrounds their outside chairs. I think they might have moved it because they apologised a few times after I walked into it in the morning. The problem is though, although it looks like I’m walking into it, I’m deliberately finding it with the cane. It’s my landmark on south Fredrick Street that marks when I need to out dent away from the shop fronts so as I miss the plant pots. I’ve learned with experience. Especially when it’s raining, I don’t want to be anywhere near those stupid plants. They hit me right in the face! Then, when I pass the display, I hit the metal railings. After they finish, I take exactly ten steps and turn directly left. It’s important to take ten because if I take less than 10 I won’t align straight to my next landmark and I could end up going straight down the centre of another road. Yeah, I’ve done that. Humiliating. Anyway, it’s ten paces across south Fredrick Street. I’ll meet a skinny metal pole. I turn directly right and take fifteen and a half steps from there. That will get me to the steps of the office and the centre handrail will be directly on my right or if I’m off a little bit then the left handrail will be right beside me. I have this stepped out because if I follow the wall I can occasionally hit someone sleeping rough and I don’t like to bother them. I also find that there are a few bikes parked at the railings so I can’t follow them too closely so staying in the centre of these paths is my only efficient route. This is the level of detail I have taken on board to help me navigate independently and efficiently using the cane. Don’t get me wrong either, this level of detail wasn’t found overnight. I made some stupid mistakes and I battered my ribs off bike handle bars first. As they say, necessity is the mother of all invention. Just wish they’d stop moving my landmarks. You know where I cross after ten paces? There used to be a part of that path missing. They fixed that during the time I worked with Ike though. It took me ages to find that crossing point again. Why do they have to go around fixing stuff! A you can hopefully see, although I’m still very miffed about what happened with Ike, I’m struggling on and thanks to some great friends it’s probably a little easier this time around in some ways.

  • A year on. How life changes.

    I can’t believe a whole year has passed. On the 11th of January 2011 I arrived in Cork and met Ike, the dog that would drive me crazy, do amazing work and would subsequently be returned to Irish guide dogs on October of the same year. I remember the positivity, the hope, the nervousness the dread, the anxiety and the relief of that day as if it was yesterday. I sat in that bedroom in the centre of Irish guide dogs in Cork on that Tuesday evening writing that post with a dog at my feet. I was overwhelmed with so many feelings and writing the blog posts really helped sort everything out.

    Here I am a year later without a dog. I explained in December that because of the irresolvable issues I encountered with Ike It became untenable to continue working himtherefore Irish guide dogs and I mutually decided that he should no longer work with me. I am therefore back on the waiting list for a new dog. This waiting list might be very long. Not because there are people ahead of me in any kind of queue, Irish guide dogs don’t work on that kind of system. Dogs are matched to handlers based on their ability to suit the life style of the individual and the work the dog will be required to do. Because I spend so much time working and travelling the dog that suits me will have a number of attributes specific to my requirements. I and others have made the point that realistically I don’t do anything that tens of thousands of people around Ireland don’t do on a daily basis. I commute to work and socialize. That’s my work from a guide dog perspective in a nutshell so finding a dog shouldn’t be that difficult. That doesn’t seem to be the case either. People have also said that they believe that Irish guide dogs are de -prioritising me because with a cane I’m still quite mobile and independent. I don’t really think that’s the case though. I genuinely believe the instructors are doing their best but that they have found it difficult to find a dog that will do the amount of work that I demand up to the standard I expect. I have spoken with a number of instructors very regularly and I am completely certain that they are genuinely disappointed that Ike didn’t work out and I know they will do anything they can to ensure a new match is found as soon as possible.

    In saying that, I told them in April 2008 that Freddie’s vet believed strongly that Freddie should be retired sooner rather than later due to the arthritis in his hips. I am not happy that a successor dog was not found until the matching visit in October 2010 five months after retiring Freddie and over two and a half years after Freddie’s vet advised that his work should come to an end as soon as possible. Again though, I don’t believe this was as a result of a fault of any particular individual or even the fault of Irish guide dogs. I believe that what I was told was the truth. They assessed Freddie regularly for that time and their opinion was that Freddie was ok to continue to work. Later, he was ok to continue working but the routes he worked were reduced substantially. I agreed with their assessments because I wanted to continue working Freddie for as long as possible. However, I expected that they would ensure a successor dog would be found well before October 2010. I very rarely say anything negatively about Irish guide dogs because I think they’re an amazing organization and every single member of staff and every single instructor does a fantastic job. However, I believe they were wrong in their judgement to allow Freddie to work until June 2010. I find it hard to disagree with people who have the opinion that Irish guide dogs did not put me back on the waiting list when they claimed to have. I even wrote to an instructor on the 4th of March 2009 with that point almost a year after the vet strenuously voiced his concerns.

    I write this explanation here not to cast any negative light over Irish guide dogs but instead to explain why I’m utterly void of any confidence or hope that a new dog will be found for me in 2012. I of course want to hope that I’m wrong but my experience to date has seriously dampened my confidence.

    So, not to over state things, alone I stand. Just me and my white stick. I have probably written on this blog before how much I hate using the cane. Yes, I can get around and yes I’m one of the lucky ones because my mobility is actually reasonably good but I hate every second while using the cane. I hate stumbling along from land mark to land mark dreading the unknown. Dreading the street furniture. Dreading the rubbish on the paths. Dreading the cars parked too near to the wall. Dreading the people standing quietly in my way. Dreading the wind pushing me off course. Dredding the noise disorienting me. Dreading getting off the bus because he keeps stopping in different points along road. I’m tired of walking into things and giving up independence and self reliance. I’m tired of worrying.

    I can’t say enough how much family and friends have helped. Emma has been absolutely amazing! Again, because I’m reasonably mobile and because I have fantastic people around me, I’m one of the exceptionally lucky ones. I could have it a lot worse and this post shouldn’t be considered one long moan. Although, I will grant you, it’s certainly sounding like one. Sorry about that.

    I wanted to write this post just to say that I’m glad 2011 is over. Ike was not the dog for me. He drove me crazy in so many ways most serious of which was his constant problem of relieving himself while working. I am quite happy that he will likely be reallocated to another handler with an easier work load or who can facilitate these problems. I miss having a guide dog. I miss the confidence, the freedom and the flexibility. I didn’t get much flexibility from Ike but still, what little I did get was nice to have for the short time that I worked him. I know that Irish guide dogs and I made the right decision but living with it is incredibly difficult.

    Yes, I’m glad 2011 is over. Good riddens. I doubt 2012 will be any better as I doubt a successor dog will be found within the next twelve months but hey, anything is possible.

    For the moment, I’ll continue doing what I’m doing and hope that time passes quickly. Let’s hope I don’t go too crazy and don’t walk into anything too serious in the mean time. Dublin isn’t helping though. On Monday I nearly broke my nose off a shop awning on Nassau Street. An irresponsible shop owner usually has a few seats under this area and the Cain meets these therefore stopping me before I can walk any further. On Monday morning, these seats hadn’t been put out yet and because I didn’t know that the seats were in the way of any obstacle at head height I had no reason to walk with any more caution than normal. Before I knew it my nose came into contact with a metal bar that was supporting the frame that the awning is stretched over. A guide dog would almost always spot this kind of obstacle at head height and move to avoid it. Just one example of why I hate using the cane.

  • Slán Ike. I’m back to the cane again.

    I’ve put off writing about this for over two months now but I’d appreciate your input.

    I hate to say it, but with mutual agreement with Irish guide dogs for the Blind in cork, Ike is no longer my guide dog. Readers of my blog, my followers on Twitter and people who know me will be aware that I have had almost constant problems with Ike due to unclean walks. In other words, he regularly relieved himself while working.

    The problem with this was that I could not bring him with me all the time as I could not take the chance that he would spend in an area where I could not pick up after him or he would need to relieve himself and his concentration would not be on his work.

    The entire story is very long and complicated. I won’t go into the whole thing here at the moment because I want to write about my life as a cane user and not the issues that lead up to Ike being returned however, what I will say is, I’m very unhappy with what happened and I think I have been treated quite unfairly.

    Anyway, what I wanted to write about today was a problem that I am having now that I am back using the cane.

    I am quite confident when walking around both with the cane and with a guide dog. Of course, I can be much more relaxed with a guide dog and I can move much more freely. With a guide dog navigating around Dublin city is much easier compared to using a cane. I walk into stuff. My left shoulder seems to be constantly sore because of things sticking out from buildings at shoulder height but generally, I don’t mind walking into things. The worst that will happen and I trip and land on the ground… Worse things have happened. Seriously though, I usually don’t let much stop me thanks mostly to the attitude adopted by my parents when I was very young. I was never given the chance to take the easy way out. I was always pushed out the door on Saturday morning to fend for myself. Not in a bad way. Don’t pick me up wrong. They just encouraged independence and didn’t except anything less. Actually, it’s kind of funny. I remember being really young and sitting on the side of a chair. I was doing something that was probably uniquely recognisable as being characteristic of someone who is blind. I remember my father asking me what I was doing. I answered and he seemed genuinely amused and curious. He quizzed me on it and actually made me think about it so much that I never did it again. It was this complete unwillingness to surrender to stereo typical attitudes relating to visual impairments that gave me the attitude I have today. I think I’m incredibly lucky to have had that kind of upbringing.

    Ok. So, to my problem. Getting around isn’t too difficult when I know where I’m going while using the cane. I get where I need to be usually. I have had problems finding places that I’m not very familiar with but I’ve tried to stay as positive as possible and have asked strangers for directions when needed. The problem arises when I don’t’ know the area that I have to go to. I lose all confidence and I become confused and a bit stressed. I also find that I am terrible in crowds or in busy social situations such as pubs. With a guide dog, I just point in the general direction and the dog will walk me there. He’ll need to make corrections to avoid people or obstructions but in general he’ll walk that direction. With a cane, it’s so easy to get disorientated.

    What all of this boils down to is this: I really don’t like using the cane. I find it slow, cumbersome, obtrusive, inefficient, imprecise and conspicuous. I feel like I’m waving a sign around saying, please help! More than the cane though, I hate with a passion asking sighted people to guide me somewhere. It doesn’t matter how well I know them. People are going to completely disagree with this but it’s my personal view for me only. This does not extend to anyone else. I can’t stress this enough, for me; I feel that using a sighted person by grabbing their elbow is a sign of weakness, disability and dependence. I know there are a few people hopping off their chair right now but that’s my honest view of using a sighted guide. I feel like I’m letting myself down and I’m not trying hard enough when I take the lazy option of not using the cane. I think it looks terrible as well. How can I expect to be viewed as an equal in my office for example if on a work night out I ask a colleague to guide me somewhere? Again, I know. You disagree. You’re entitled to that and in fact, you’re probably right. It’s stupid. I know it’s stupid but I can’t shake it. I don’t mind not seeing what’s around me. I just hate the way people pity it. I work damn hard at making sure I contribute equally at work. I think asking for that kind of help would be taking a step back. It’s not just in work though. I really don’t like going to any social setting and having strangers approach me to ask if I need help going somewhere. Is it too much to ask that they introduce themselves to me like they would anyone else? If I introduce myself, it is not because I require their assistance, it is possibly because they sounded interesting and I might want to speak to them.

    I really admire people who use a cane. I’m only back to it for just under three months now but I honestly dread every day with it. I really don’t know how they do it.

    Take last Sunday for example. I wanted to go to the launch of the TwitterXMasSingle in Dublin. Getting there was no problem but I knew once I got into the crowded room I was going to have problems. I didn’t know anyone there and I knew that simply walking around and joining in with a conversation was going to be made impossible by people asking if I required help to get somewhere. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate people’s assistance. I just don’t like having to ask for it. I also don’t like that it’s the first thing people think of when they see me with the cane. Anyway, the short version of the story is, after all the speeches, I lasted about five minutes before I gave up. I tried walking around the room but I seriously couldn’t stay orientated and I wasn’t able to confidently join in with a conversation. This is the route of the problem I suppose; I used the dog like a crutch in a way. A guide dog is great for starting a conversation. It kicks the communication off on a positive note that doesn’t revolve around the fact I can’t see. From there, I generally always get speaking to someone else and it progresses from there. Again, as I said earlier, if I’m walking somewhere, I do it much more easily because I give the dog the direction and he avoids everything in between until I’m ready to stop. I’m probably not explaining this very well. I just hope you understand what I mean. I know this is just me being stupid and if I’d just except help in the first place and I wasn’t so hung up on the negative aspect of doing that things would be a lot easier. Trust me, it’s easier said than done.

    Tonight, I’m in a similar situation. I’m meant to be going out with people from work. I don’t know the area, I don’t know the pub and for professional reasons I refuse to ask anyone for help. As I said earlier. I refuse to give any of them a reason to see me as anything other than an equal. I know that there are at least five out of the twenty of us that I can completely trust but there are three out of the twenty that I constantly have to be aware of. Problems keep going through my head. How do I get there. Can I just follow along? When I get there where is the bar. Where are the toilets. Is it a big place? What if it’s noisy. I won’t be able to hear any of the people around me and I’ll completely lose track of what’s going on! What if I can’t remember the way back to the bus or train station? I’m already talking myself out of it ! I enjoy these occasions. Their always a nice way of getting to know people outside of work but I find them so hard when using the cane. When using the dog, he happily follows one of the people that I’m with so the fact that I have no idea where I’m going isn’t obvious at all.

    This isn’t a new thing with me. I remember going out for a meal with a previous employer about five years ago. We were going to a very strange restaurant but it was basically a big buffet. Buffets aren’t’ good when you can’t see at all! There’s just no way you can use it independently. We had people from a perspective client there that night so showing any kind of dependence at all was not an option for me. I was incredibly worried about it! So. To make sure I could stay in control for the entire night, I contacted the owners of the restaurant before hand and explained my situation. They were fantastic! They told me that the menu changes from night to night and they asked me what kind of food I’d be most likely to eat. They discreetly kept an eye on me for the whole night and while the other people got up from the table to get food they quietly made arrangements with me. No one noticed at all! At the end, one of the managers asked how I managed. She never thought of asking me before hand if I’d have any problems. I was delighted at that. It would really annoy me if a manager considered the fact that I can’t see. I was relieved to be able to explain that I had made arrangements before we arrived and she was actually impressed at my approach. That same manager actually asked me straight out once why Emma was going out with me. She didn’t mean it in a bad way, she was genuinely curious why someone who didn’t have a visual impairment would go out with someone who had one. She just had a very direct way about her. When I explained she just laughed quietly and continued on her way. That was a very weird bunch of people I worked with back then.

    Hopefully you know where I’m coming from. I’m just waiting for all the comments saying that I’m crazy. Maybe one though might tell me how I get out of this whole I’m in. It’s getting to the stage where I just don’t want to go anywhere. I don’t want to be like that. I enjoy being out. I enjoy going to places where I know no one. I enjoy doing different things and going to new places. I just don’t have the confidence at the moment and that’s really pissing me off.

    As I keep saying to people, I still can’t believe I’m back in this situation again. I only had Ike for nine months. They were nine difficult months and to be straight with you, although I would have liked to keep working him until a successor guide dog was found, I’m kind of relieved he’s gone. He was making it difficult to go anywhere. Probably even more so than I’m finding with the cane.