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.