I didn’t name him!

It’s really funny. I encounter someone, they ask the “what’s your dog called?” I answer “Nama” and a pause follows. After a moment they laugh, grunt or exclaim a few common responses such as: “Oh that’s a. nice name”, “There’s no need to be funny”, “and you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to” or “No way! Who thought that was a good idea!” Some people just can’t stop laughing! A few of the more serious people I’ve met while out and about just shrug it off by saying something like “it’s just a name”. Some people who I didn’t even know were reading this blog have met me on the street and asked how Mr Banks is getting on.

However, can I just ask people to remember that Nama is a guide dog and therefore it is very important that you do not talk to or touch him while he is in harness? I cannot stress this enough. Please do not distract him because I will have to firmly tell you to stop. There are no exceptions. It is imperative that especially at this early stage he is aware that while in harness his only priority is work. To explain this further, take for example a normal Monday afternoon. Joe stops me on the street to say hello. He touches Nama in passing. ON Tuesday we pass by Joe again but this time we have to keep going because we have somewhere to be. However, because Joe has touched Nama the previous day the dog now anticipates this contact again so eagerly tries to go over to him. During this split second that he is distracted he misses a pole that is on the outside of the path and I walk straight into it. This has put me in a very dangerous position. Fine, this time it was just a pole, but what if he missed the edge of a path, or what if it was a whole for road works. This doesn’t just apply to Nama. It is true for all guide dogs be them just out of training or with years of experience. I am not over dramatizing this. I have had this problem before and I know how much it puts the dog off his work. Guide dogs are very aware of their responsibilities in their own way. They work because they love to please their handler. When they lose attention they can become quite uneasy and sensitive. This can have a lasting effect on their quality of their work. So, please let me say again, it is not acceptable to touch a working guide dog even if he is just standing around. Not because I’m rude or being difficult but because it can have a very negative impact on my safety.

I’m sorry for not writing on Monday or Tuesday as promised but they were both very difficult days and I had a lot of work to do. I think I got more out of the after care than the den days spent in Cork. This is no reflection on the instructor or the centre. I found that because I know the area really well I was able to determine when Nama was distracted, uneasy, bold or sensitive. This gave me a better idea of what my reaction should be. I learned that nine times out of ten, Nama is actually a little distracted. Now, this distraction can be displacement, blatant curiosity or sensitivity but except in situations where he is sensitive most incidents call for a firm verbal command to “get on with it” to regain his focus again. For sensitivity a little game helps or in some situations actually stopping to give him a bit of a rub is what he needs. However, most times at the moment he’s just seeing how far he can push me so the slightest flick of the handle tells him I am actually seriously telling him to get on with it. Because of my huge work load I need a very strong, assertive and confident dog. This results in a certain amount of independence and at times cheek. Sometimes it’s just him being playful though because if he could, he’d play from morning to night.

On Monday we travelled to Dublin at around 10AM. The idea was that we would make the trip at a time that wasn’t particularly busy. Everything went quite well. The walk to the train station was uneventful and the routes around Dublin were fine as well. There was quite a lot of distraction to contend with but he did quite well for his first time in the big smoke. Unfortunately I can’t give you all the details of where we went but he visited several server rooms, went through four different complicated buildings and was introduced to my office. I think we may have hit a limit of what he could handle for a while because we had been working for about four hours straight but after a quick rest in my office where he got to blow off some steam he was able to recover again to continue for another while to make it home. Because he had done so much work that day we decided that it wouldn’t be a good idea to work him anymore that day so the rest of the night was spent relaxing and playing.

ON Tuesday we hit a major hurdle on the way to the train station in Drogheda but the less said about that the better. Let’s just hope that it is something that has or is in the process of sorting it’s self out. When we got to Dublin the distraction levels were even higher at the start. I even said to the instructor that it was like walking around with a tourist. Every so often he’d slow right down to look around. However, we had a very frank and interesting conversation and I got some great tips out of it. See, the thing is, I don’t know anything about guide dogs really when it comes right down to it. I only have a limited amount of experience. The only people who know how to judge the right response for a dog is really the instructor. The handler hasn’t a clue for at least the first six months. This is because from my experience anyway, the handler is only getting used to how the dog reacts in different situations. However, on Tuesday morning, thanks to the instructor I found that I wasn’t handling a lot of his behaviour correctly at all. I was trying to be too supportive instead of correcting his distractions. Since I’ve reversed my handling approach a bit things have been working a lot better. On Tuesday afternoon the quality of his work improved even more and it became a pleasure to walk around with him again. We got back to Drogheda early that afternoon and after a break of a few hours we decided to walk toward town. However, on the way, I thought that things were going so well it wouldn’t do any harm to add a bit on to the route to call into my parents’ house. I’m really glad that I did this because he worked brilliantly. The extra time to stretch his legs seems to have refocused him and even on the way back home that evening he was really attentive to my verbal commands.

ON Tuesday we said good bye to the instructor when we got back from Dublin. That was the official end of our after care and the overall training process. Nama is now qualified and settling in well. The instructor will still be in contact with us regularly at the start of this new partnership but this is to ensure we don’t encounter any problems and if we do it have someone at the end of a phone to help if needed.

ON Wednesday I had planned to go back to Dublin but something else took priority and it didn’t end until the middle of the afternoon so there was no time. However, although it’s a bit too early to tell, it would appear that yesterday’s rest day may have allowed Nama to get over whatever it was that was bothering him on Tuesday morning. I don’t want to get into any more than that just now.

Today we were back on the road again. To give Nama a realistic idea of the routine, we stayed in the office for the morning. I actually managed to get in a half day at work! Because Nama is such a playful dog I really didn’t think he was going to sit still but I was pleasantly surprised. He didn’t cause any bother at all! He quietly stayed in his bed and when I moved away from my desk he was beside me like the four legged shadow I’ve learned to expect. He was much happier walking around Dublin today. I think yesterday helped a lot but because the routes were more realistic and there was time for him to rest between each one he wasn’t constantly on the go so each one was fresh.

I love feeling his confidence and until now I thought he was incredibly confident and it just couldn’t get better but it’s amazing how his body language changes when he’s done a route a few times. He’s ordinarily quite assertive but when he’s done a route a few times he’s really cool. No. I don’t mean cool as in great. I mean it’s all done in his stride. It’s like he’s plodding along at the speed of a nice trot enjoying moving around obstacles and getting the praise for stopping at crossings etc. For example, while passing the mansion house on Dawson Street today he was weaving in and out to avoid a few things near restaurants. Suddenly we slowed down and his tail began wagging like crazy. It wasn’t sensitivity, it was excitement! He was just showing me that he was really happy that he was finding the crossing. He gets so giddy when he’s right. It’s very nice actually.

When we got back to Drogheda this afternoon we stopped off at one of my favourite coffee shops in Drogheda. Esquires. The coffee there isn’t as nice as the Runner bean on Nassau Street in Dublin but the staff is really nice and I love the building it’s in. It’s a converted bank on West Street. Nama is just mad for food so when I sit down somewhere the first few minutes are spent trying to distract him from eating off the floor. Even if there are only a few crumbs around him he’ll still try to lick them up. This is causing a real problem but it’s something that should slowly dissipate over the upcoming months.

That brings us nicely to now. Since he’s been home he’s done a few crazy laps of the front garden, played until my arms were about to drop off, had a snooze and tried to eat my shoes.

This is my last post about my training with Nama AKA Mr Banks my new guide dog. The next weeks and months are going to be entertaining, difficult and interesting. I really can’t wait. Already he’s doing better than I could have hoped for. I would love to walk for hours with him but I’m very cautious about over doing it. I really can’t wait until that time when we can just go for it and walk where ever we want. On a day like today where we have no responsibilities or commitments it would be fantastic.

Thanks for reading and to those of you who commented, I really appreciate it.