Welcome to May. Sorry I haven’t written here in such a long time. I was looking at my feed reader this morning and while grumbling to myself that my favourite blogs such as Paws for thought and K8 the Gr8 hadn’t been updated I felt a sudden pang of guilt for neglecting my own little corner of the blogosphere for so long. The thing is, there is a lot happening at the moment, but I’m out of the habit of blogging. So, when I sit down, so many topics are ready to be written about that it becomes a task of epic proportions. This blog is less about what has been happening and more an acknowledgement of having Nama, my guide dog for over six months and the success of this new working partnership.

Looking at everything Nama has done would take far too long. So instead, let me highlight some of the main points.

At a basic level, Nama has travelled to and from work with me every day from Monday to Friday since the middle of October. This might sound like a simple task however; consider that I live about 50km away from work so on an average week he travels to Dublin five times. That is about 240 bus trips in six months. Putting another slant on this, that’s 12000KM that he has travelled excluding other trips to Carlow, Galway, and Belfast and of course Dundalk. It’s a short trip to the bus station and slightly longer to the train station in Drogheda but our route to work in Dublin from getting off the bus or train is quite dynamic. Depending on the day, the weather or our mood, we can walk for quite a while before getting to the office. Changing routes keeps things interesting and a long walk first thing in the morning clears the head. We also vary our route at lunch time. Instead of just going to Stephens green and back we try to venture to different areas on the way back to work. It might be a quick diversion down Grafton Street or it could be a longer walk down by the department of Finance, by Pierce Street, across the quays, through temple bar, over college green and back up Nassau Street. The walk during lunch time blows away the cobwebs and gives Nama a good challenge to focus on. We regularly travel to several buildings in Dublin city centre during the day as well depending on the work we are doing so he has quite a busy working day. In the evenings, we sometimes go for a leisurely walk around Drogheda. I’ve got back into amateur radio lately so I can be seen walking around Drogheda with a dog in one hand and a radio in the other. That’s his standard working life. That sounds taxing enough but it’s the boring part. It’s the part we do because we have to.

The interesting work is when we head off to Carlow, Galway, Belfast or Dundalk. When he’s thrown into situations that are quite unusual and interesting. For example, during the recent pan celt festival in Carlow, he didn’t have a huge amount of work to do but he needed to walk to and from various sessions. He then had to tuck himself away quietly until I was ready to go. Some of these sessions lasted a very long time. Of course, walking between sessions meant that he was working through areas that he wasn’t familiar with and the idea of a defined route went out the window. For such a new dog this might seem like too much but he took it in his stride. In fact, on the Sunday, we had some time to kill while waiting on a train home so we set off walking. I had the idea that we’d just walk in a block formation and we’d end up somewhere that he would recognise and I’d be able to get him to find a land mark that he recognised. This works well usually. I can tell when he’s recognising something that we’ve been to before. He pulls into it with a lot of determination. So, when he finds it, I can orientate myself and give him more decisive commands to reach our destination. This was going well until we got to an area with a big open space and I lost my straight line for a moment. Little did I know, Nama was following the path to maintain the straight line but it didn’t feel right to me. He resorted to his usual giddy location of familiar land marks so we found where we were again and set off in the right direction. Although I thought we had gone wildly off course, we followed a perfect route around a large block area. It’s this willingness to work after being so quiet for so long and to handle new situations that really sets Nama apart. Of course, he’s not a machine. He has his own needs but I’ll get to these shortly.

One of his big trips in the past six months was a quick stay in France. We were invited over there to play music. He flew over and back with me without a single problem. The toileting facilities were about a ten minute walk away from the hotel but that didn’t bother him either. Again, he sat quietly when I was busy and in fact, he came on stage with me twice because I didn’t have someone to watch him for me. He doesn’t care about sound checks. He is more than happy to sleep through them! He visited the usual tourist attractions with me such as the church of Nostradamus, the burial tomb of napoleon and of course the Eiffel tower. ON the Eiffel tower we went right up to the highest floor and although it was very windy we walked around the external balcony. Absolutely none of it phased him. I personally hate the sensation of heights but it was exhilarating to be up there. Especially with Nama by my side guiding me around. I’ve said it before; I trust a guide dog more than I trust most sighted guides. There are obviously exceptions but if a stranger offers me assistance, I’ll use the dog. The way I see it, the dog has trained his whole life to guide me. The stranger hasn’t a clue. So, it was a little comforting to have Nama up there with me. I will also say that it is hard to explain how empowering and freeing it was to have Nama with me in France. I didn’t need to depend on anyone from the group I was with in unfamiliar areas, I could go off for a walk on my own around Paris and I could be a lot more self-sufficient. Parris isn’t the easiest place to walk around independently when you can’t see however although there was a language barrier, the locals were very helpful at crossings and areas where I needed a prod in the right direction. I’d definitely go back and in the future when I’m traveling, if it’s at all possible, I’ll have no hesitation in bringing Nama with me again.

Nama isn’t perfect. He’s far from it and in fact, he’s a lot of work. He has a serious problem with food distraction, he gets bored easily and if he gets an idea into his head it takes a few minutes to get him to snap out of it. He also took a long time to firm up on the basics of guiding when we got home. For example, he was very bad in crowds. One of the instructors noticed the potential for him to be a bit careless while on training so I was given some good tips to enforce the desired behaviour. The problem was that he was walking me straight into people, not moving far enough away from people who were walking toward us or brushing off people walking in the same direction as us. Most of these problems stemmed from an observation that he developed that people would move out of our way when we approached. It took me a few months to make Nama realize that it was his job to move out of the way. Not the other pedestrians. He got better slowly and he’s now at the point that when we’re in built up areas, I can tell him to be careful in a very relaxed tone and his awareness of the people around us is brilliant. One bit of advice we got when I was encountering this problem was to slow down and give Nama more time to react. This actually made no difference. I know with experience to slow down in crowds so I had already done this. He simply didn’t seem to care that we were walking into people. It was also really hard to correct him for doing it incorrectly because when we hit people they automatically assumed that they had done something wrong. We reinforced the correct response by simulating the problem repeatedly over a few weeks and then using the responses from the simulations in every day work. Even now, I have to stay vigilant because with all of his little quirks, he can regress easily if I don’t pay attention. So, the type of work that I enjoyed with Freddie where I could switch off and let him get me from A to B isn’t possible with Nama yet. However, it should go without saying that we are only six months into our working partnership so I nor expect or anticipate this yet. I mention it because it is something I am aspiring to. I will say that it’s important not to associate one working partnership with another but if I was to break that rule for a moment, I will say that Freddie’s guiding style and his ability to avoid stationary and moving obstacles is far superior to Nama’s. However, Nama is more resilient than Freddie. So, there are always strengths and weaknesses in every guide dog.

As I said earlier, Nama isn’t a machine. He has needs to maintain and establish a good working standard however these needs are easy to meet. Nama needs lots and lots of play time. IT might be while standing at a bus stop with him trying to grab my coat sleeve, or it might be at work when he decides that while I’m not too busy he’s going to come over to play with my shoe. We play first thing in the morning, when we get home from work and several times during the evening. He needs a lot of physical contact while playing as well. Other dogs might be mouthy when their young but I think he’ll remain that way. He is only rough with me and at times I’ve had to get him to settle down but he absolutely loves playing with his mouth. They say dogs hold stress in the muscles around their mouth so I spend a lot of time when he’s winding down playing with that area. He is quite destructive on toward dog toys so unfortunately the only toy he’s allowed walk around with is the Kong. I like him to have at least one toy to be able to bring around because it means he has something else to grab on to apart from me!

I was told when I got Nama first that he was quite aloof. This means emotionally and / or physically distant. I have no idea where they got this impression from. Nama is the clingiest dog I have ever met. I thought Freddie was my shadow. Nama is just ridiculous! I can’t go anywhere. He follows me around the house, around the office and around anywhere else we go. At home, he sits outside the bathroom door until I come out. IF I’m washing the dishes, he lies right behind my feet. If I’m hoovering the stairs he even tries to come with me. One friend thinks that this could be a sign of sensitivity but I don’t think so. He’s done this right from the start. When I was in the centre he tried to follow me around after the first few days. From getting home he has continued this. I’ve tried sending him away but he goes a few metres away and lies down again. If I close the door so that he’s in another room he starts crying. I’m not complaining. Far from it. We have an incredibly strong bond and that’s vitally important in attaining a lasting and productive working partnership.

So there you have it. I’m delighted with Nama’s progress. It should go without saying that I believe he has more growing to do and he needs to improve in some areas but we’re through our first six months. Let’s see where the next six months takes us. Already, I’m delighted to say that the best acknowledgement of the incredibly high standard of work that he does is to say that he has given me the freedom, independence and mobility that I haven’t enjoyed since before retiring Freddie.