Third ADBC is Up!

Today is Star Wars Day. (“May the fourth be with you!”) And I finally get to register for classes! I am thrilled about this. I am less thrilled that I had to wait this long and that I have to physically go to the campus — in the rain! — to do so. But I am hoping to get everything squared away for at least the summer session today. We shall see how that goes.

In completely other news, the third Assistance Dog Blog Carnival was put up last night and there are more than a dozen wonderful posts about “Reactions” from all aspects of the assistance dog world. Including my own post from last week about retiring my previous guide dogs. I highly recommend clicking over and reading some, if not all of the contributions to this quarterly event. And if you are so inclined please pass along the link!

Retiring Reactions

One of the hardest things a handler has to go through is retiring a guide dog. It’s one of those things that does not get easier the more times it’s done. This past weekend I visited my father, who has very generously given homes to both of my previous guides once they’ve retired. It was my first visit since retiring Yara and the initial introduction she had to my current guide dog, Uschi. I think we were all a little nervous about this, but our worries were completely unfounded because the girls got along wonderfully. This got me thinking about how the guides themselves react to their retirement.

Portrait of Yara and me on a sapphire background; Yara is lying beside me, partially in my lapFrom almost the moment they are born guide dogs have been treated in specific ways to help aid them on their potential journey to working in harness. Before being placed with families who will raise, train and socialize them, they are constantly being held by people and being exposed to new and different objects, sounds and smells. The idea is to help foster confidence and mold those necessary strengths that a guide dog requires. At home with their puppy raisers, their entire lives revolve around learning proper manners and being exposed to situations that might crop up in their working life. And, of course, throughout their training they are being shown exactly what will be expected of them as working guides. Basically, by the time a dog has become a guide, the idea of going out into the big, wide world with their handler is as normal to them as drinking water.

So, while retirement is certainly hard for a handler, it can be almost devastatingly difficult for the guide dog. Guides that are used to going everywhere and having a very active life are not always able to adapt to life as a lazy pet. Even more stressful for them is the very idea of being left alone for extended periods. My first guide dog, Dolly, seemed to fall into retirement rather naturally. She was retired solely due to her age, so I think it was a welcome treat for her to just lounge around the house, eat table scraps, and play with her toys. Since, she and I lived at my father’s for a good portion of her working career as I was in college, in essence it was like coming home for her. She didn’t even pine for me, though she did have some quirky habits that clearly developed during our years living there; for example, when going to bed, she would always walk into my old bedroom first and in fact she spent so much time randomly falling asleep in there that my father finally put a spare dog bed in the room. And while of my three guides she proved to take being left at home the worst — she’d literally get sick — she wasn’t fazed at all by the long hours home alone while Dad and Keith were at work.

Yara, on the other hand, was retired at five for a series of health reasons. Moreover, I think I can count on one hand the number of times she’d been at my father’s before being retired. And after falling so hard for Dolly, who passed away last year, I think Dad and Keith made a concerted effort to distance themselves from this dog. I really didn’t know what to expect of her new life and home. Before visiting, I had several conversations with my father over the last three months about how she was doing and everything seemed to be going smoothly. Most notably, her health was better than ever!

What’s probably more intriguing is how the dogs have reacted to my presence after their retirement. Dolly always seemed rather indifferent to me when I would visit. She’d greet me happily and she was especially obedient, but she was clearly no longer my dog. During this visit with Yara, though it was obvious she was trying to reclaim me. It was so profound that we had a running theory that Yara and Uschi had conversed and decided they were switching places because Uschi seemed quite attached to Keith! When I pulled out the harness in front of Dolly one time, she waddled up to me on her arthritic legs and dutifully stood there waiting but she clearly wasn’t enthused by the idea. However, Yara practically bowled Uschi over when I took her harness out. She got into her excited whining thing and basically justified everything I said above about the normalcy of going places. Dad said that she was a might peeved when I left with Uschi.

Portrait of me and Uschi on a brown background; Uschi is lying upside-down across my lapNot being a dog I can’t really say as to the specifics of why some dogs are able to transition into retirement so smoothly and others aren’t. But in terms of my two girls, I think age has a lot to do with it. Dolly was more than ready to be done with her life in harness, she was nearly ten when I retired her and she had slowed down considerably. She’d developed arthritis and I’m sure it was terribly painful for her and, as I said above, going to my father’s was literally like coming home for her. Not to mention he had been notorious for spoiling her throughout her lifetime. On the flip side, Yara was in her prime as my guide dog and were it not for the health issues I never would have thought to retire her so young. While she definitely enjoys her new sedentary life, she’s always been eager and excited to go anywhere and retirement certainly has not stopped that. So, it doesn’t surprise me that she’s always happy to see her leash (or my harness) being picked up and gets miffed when she’s left behind. I think some of it is also personality. I know there are a lot of days I get up and go to work more on autopilot and because I have to, you know, pay bills and eat than any real desire to go and actually do my job and I really do enjoy being in my career. I can’t say Yara ever had a day that she showcased this, even when she was literally wasting away from her EPI she was always happy and energetic about, well, everything. Dolly, however, always had a bit of a lazy start to her day. It was like she needed a cup of coffee to get herself going; I used to call it her “five block or fifteen minute rule” because whichever came first would be when she really started to work in earnest. And for a completely black dog, she had one of the most expressive faces on a canine I’ve ever seen. Very often it displayed a look of severe boredom or irritation, like she was just too good to put up with the menial task of making sure I didn’t walk into things. Really, I’m not speaking with hyperbole when I say she was vindictive; if she thought I’d wronged her in any way, I could pretty much guarantee my face would collide with something shortly thereafter. It’s one thing I definitely don’t miss about her.

Whatever the reason, though I’m glad that my girls have had the opportunity to have a “dog’s” life after their years of in harness. I think it’s a well deserved treat for them and from what I’ve seen they would no doubt fervently agree.

This post was written as part of the third Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. This edition’s theme is “Reactions” and further information can be found here on the founder’s blog.

Decisions, Decisions

I’ve often said that working with a guide dog is a lot like having a child because there are so many life-altering decisions that go into the partnership. I’ve been living through a few of them the last month or so and while I can now safely say that I’m pleased with how things turned out, it would be a lie to say I didn’t have some elephantine qualms. In fact, my neurotic insecurities were mainly why I didn’t use this as my submission for the second Assistance Dog Blog Carnival and instead wrote about puppy raisers, though, as I had just found out about the new policy Fidelco has it seemed equally fitting. Now that things are more settled I thought I would share this with you all.
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Assistance Dog Blog Carnival

At the moment I am buried. Outside is the accumulation of an entire day of the sky spewing out sleet, snow and ice — and it’s currently snowing. Strewn about my office is the status of way too much schoolwork that needs to be completed. So, today, might I direct you elsewhere for your reading pleasure?

Laura is hosting the second Assistance Dog Blog Carnival and there are over two dozen wonderful posts about “Decisions” from all aspects of the assistance dog world. Including my own post from a few days ago about puppy raisers. I highly recommend clicking over and reading some, if not all of the contributions to this ADBC, which runs quarterly, and if you are so inclined please pass along the link!

Puppy Raisers

Recently I was informed of a number of changes taking place at my guide dog school, including “no longer facilitating contact between graduates and fosters.” I’ll reserve judgment on all the changes for now, but it’s hard to ignore this new policy given I’m currently in the middle of training with my third guide dog.

Each of the guide dog programs here in the U.S. have their own specific policy regarding how contact between handlers and volunteer puppy raisers works. My personal experience with my previous guides has been that the ultimate decision has rested with me.1 And given that this blog was created initially to inform Dolly’s family of her working life with me, I’m sure you can hazard a guess as to what my decision was.

Dolly sitting on the kitchen floorIn general, volunteers are the unsung heroes of any organization. And while I have great respect for the work that the guide dog schools do, puppy raisers are sadly no exception to this. What you might find more surprising is that a large portion of guide dog handlers want nothing to do with these volunteer families. Not that there is anything specifically wrong with that, of course. As I’m not one of those handlers I’m sure I don’t know specifically why they choose to forgo contact. Though, I speculate that ignorance is at least partly the reason.

I certainly am no expert on the specifics of what goes into raising a guide dog puppy, which says a lot about how much work it is since rearing a puppy is plenty of work onto itself. Aside from the basics, though, puppy raisers have many added responsibilities. They attend mandatory puppy classes and are required to socialize the puppy to all manner of experiences out in the “real world.” Often the families are required to cover at least some of the expenses, such as food and/or medical care. All this, and so much more, given to a dog that is very pointedly not their own. A dog that no doubt has become a member of the family and ultimately must be given up to a higher purpose.

This isn’t anything you couldn’t find right on a school’s website, though, so it surprises me how little most people familiar with guide dogs don’t dwell on these facts. Even more puzzling is that no one seems to take into account what happens after the puppy goes into training or is placed with a blind person. After years of working together it is incredibly difficult to part ways with your guide dog. Recently I was faced with the possibility of having no part in finding my previous guide’s home and potentially having no knowledge of her future life. Often, this is exactly what happens to a puppy raiser’s charge.

Yara asleep in her crateAll of that certainly contributes to why I felt it was necessary to stay in contact with the puppy raisers of my previous guides. It’s a very small way to give back. But why I actually decided to do so was more out of curiosity. While the schools themselves provide a lot of technical information about their dogs, it’s through the puppy raisers that I’ve learned the most about who my dogs are. Not to mention there’s always amusing anecdotes and interesting stories to share. And, as you can see displayed in this post, some rather adorable photos!

I’d like to think that all of my friends respect the depth and complexity of the partnership I have with my guide dogs. The wonderfully generous families who have raised my guide dogs may not fully empathize, but they are certainly understanding. Both in good times and the more stressful they’ve proven to be an invaluable source of support. In turn I’ve learned how appreciative the puppy raisers are to have the opportunity to learn about their puppy’s grown up life and that sometimes the simple reassurance that the dog they raised has ended up in a good home is enough to ease their hearts and minds.

I’m not about to dictate what choice another handler should make in any situation, but I do hope this provided some insight for those who still have the option to contact their guide dog’s puppy raiser. Privacy, especially in this digital age, is important to all of us. Still it is worth noting that contact can take many different forms. I’m truly sad that this particular policy change has taken place. Obviously, I’d have wanted to have some type of association with Uschi’s fosters — even if to just let them know where she ended up. The certainty of the school not aiding in letting that happen leaves me with this strange void that I’m not entirely sure I’ll be able to fill.

This post was written as part of the second Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, This edition’s theme is “Decisions” and further information can be found here on the founder’s blog.

  1. I actually met my first guide dog’s puppy raiser at the graduation ceremony during my training class at Guiding Eyes, but contact beyond that initial meeting was left up to me.