Standard disclaimer.

Training with a new guide dog is hard work. Some days go really well. Some days go terribly. There will be times I think this is the best dog in the world and there will be days that I’m near the point of sending him back to the training staff in Cork. This is no reflection on guide dogs, Irish guide dogs for the Blind of Ireland, anyone else who uses a guide dog or even the long-term viability of this new partnership. I write this account of my training with the Chief, my latest guide dog mainly as a personal account that I can look back on but also for friends and family who enjoy getting a bit of insight into this process. I have also heard over the years that perspective guide dog users enjoy these personal and honest accounts. But please remember that what works for me, may not work for you. In the unlikely event I mention something here that verges on tactics or techniques for working a guide dog please be aware that these work or may not work for my situation. Every guide dog and handler partnership is different. So, your situation may be entirely different.

We’ve all been locked down for months now. When you say four months, it seems like a short amount of time. But when you think of it in terms of weeks, 17 weeks seems a hell of a lot longer. I started it so well! For over two months, I worked to a schedule where outdoor activities were integral to each day. But then students finished exams and project work really started to ramp up. So I stupidly got out of that habit of getting out for really long walks each day. I’ll admit it. I’ve gained weight, I’ve lost fitness and I’ve generally become a lot less physically active. So the long walks since around this time last week have really been a shock to the system. The muscles on the outsides of my lower legs beside my shin bones are sore when I walk, my hips are tired and I’m finding that after a few hours, I’m actually feeling tired. Up to the beginning of lockdown, I would have taken all of this in my stride! But I’m loving this. Monday we did 8km. Tuesday we jumped up to 13km. Wednesday we did 8 again and today we walked almost 12km. Tomorrow is probably going to be back up to 13km as the routes are quite a bit longer. It’s not that the training is that long. Training walks are usually a total of 6 or 7km but the walks afterword push it up quite a bit. Having a guide dog during lock down is the motivation I’m going to need to take proper breaks during the day and finish on time in the evening. I know this as this isn’t my first time working for long periods from home. I know that with Nama, I maintained that motivation to maintain a high level of physical activity because I knew I had that dependence that required it as well.

The chief is doing remarkably well. There are a few things I love about his work.

  • Curb approaches are so solid! He sees them as a destination where he will get a high value reward so he loves finding crossings, ramps etc.
  • The chief is brilliant at finding things. Bins, traffic light poles and shops that he has been to before. It’s like he can’t wait to show you that he’s found something.
  • Obstacle avoidance is just amazing. He shows such willingness to slow down and navigate around things. We’ve encountered some quite complex situations and he has done exceptionally well. That’s not to say everything was perfect. He brushed me off a bush yesterday and he brushed me off a bin today. But when he was corrected, he showed increased awareness to similar objects and maintained a good distance afterword.
  • Even when he encounters situations where I can let him be a little social, he’s quite quick to jump back into work mode when we resume walking.
  • He slows down just a little when one of the children are holding my hand while working.

Of course, there are a few things we need to work on.

  • There’s some sensitivity when getting the harness on first. Also, for the first minute of working, he’s a little uncomfortable but once he has a bit of a shake, he’s happy to proceed with his normal happy attitude.
  • Every day this week, he has spent on a walk. This is really not good. It’s very possible that this will work it’s self out but in the back of my mind, I have a very firm opinion about the ultimate outcome if this isn’t solved. I’m very satisfied though that with some more work and the continued establishment of a good routine that he can get past this. I’m also very fortunate that going back to work isn’t something I need to be considerate of for a long time so with all of these factors in mind, I’m not overly concerned. But I’ve had issues with dogs spending in the past and I would be lying to you if I said that I wasn’t afraid.

We’ve done so many monstrous routes in Drogheda. We’ve walked from the area of Tesco right up to the outskirts of Drogheda on the north side. This includes well known places such as the cottage hospital, over all of the bridges, down by the quays, over West street, Laurence’s street, shop street, Peter’s Street, Duke street, Stockwell street, the north road, Thomas street, the Chord road, the Donor road, Marlies lane, Duleek street, Priests lane, Mary’s street, John Paul court, Sundays gate, Ashfield and Balls grove.

Unfortunately this is going to result in a significantly shorter series of blog posts relating to training a new guide dog. Training from home is so much more relaxed, easy going and comfortable. For someone who is quite experienced with working with guide dogs, training in an area that I know very well has made the process much more approachable compared to when training in Cork. There’s an easy way to explain this. I have a really bad habit when training with a new guide dog. My right side feels really exposed and I’m not quite sure yet if I’m going to feel where the curbs are. So I hang back just a small bit so that I can be sure that I give myself an extra second. You might think this is perfectly reasonable. However, for a guide dog this is a terrible thing to do. In all situations, you must fake it until you make it. Even if you think you are about to walk off a cliff, you must trust the dog to do the job correctly but more important than that, you must show the dog that you trust it to do the job correctly. No, I’m sorry. There’s something even more important than that. You must never let the dog know that what it is doing is of critical importance so even though you might be terrified that there’s something near you that you’re about to smack your face off, you must approach it as if guiding you around this frightening and potentially dangerous object is the most fun thing in the world for the dog to do at that time. Of course, you can do this with body language and your voice. Also, every experience the dog has to this point has lead the dog to think that this kind of thing is a very positive experience so actually, once you can “Fake it until you Make it” and remain positive in your body language and voice, the cumulation of positive experience up to this point will actually do quite a lot of the work for you in making the dog think that this is such a great and fun thing to figure out. Especially with Nama, I learned that when work is fun, work is easy and enjoyable for both the dog and the handler. Nama was honestly a joy to be around. Because work for him was fun. Because work for him was fun, he did things during work that I also found a bit of fun too. For example, pulling my coat sleeves when we had been waiting on a bus for a little too long. Listening to the sniggers of people around me while Nama would pull the toggles of my rain jackets if my hand wasn’t in easy reach. Or going for coffee and someone I was with commenting that he was having a good role around under the table wagging his tail. I walked him onto a building site with impossible things to guide around and he still came out of it a happy dog. I’m not saying I have all the answers. I have only scratched the surface. One thing I’m loving about this training currently is the instructor is really interested in the technicalities of working with a guide dog and is quite happy to share some of this knowledge with me from time to time. I love learning about the technical side of working with a guide dog. The more I can understand how their minds work, how the training helps them to figure stuff out and how they become motivated to do something, the more I can help the dog by supporting him in the right way.

That’s all for tonight. I’m looking forward to tomorrow. I’m hoping my legs let me walk at a good speed, that the rain isn’t too heavy and that I don’t catch Covid-19 from being on the bus to Dublin!

If you have a comment, go on. Leave it here. Don’t leave it on twitter or Facebook. It’s much nicer to look back years from now and read what you are thinking.