Home Training

In talking with other guide dog handlers, I’ve been reminded of the many differences between “in-community” — home-based — and campus training. Personal preference is a big part of many aspects of working any type of assistance dog and training at home or at a school is no exception. Having experienced both forms of training, I have formed several opinions and as is probably obvious I find home training to be the route for me. That isn’t to say it is what works for everyone who wishes to obtain a guide dog. It’s a choice and there are a great many differences which may be incentives for some and cause a great deal of hardship for others. For my own purposes of discussion, I’ll go through my personal list of positives and negatives and compare each between the two forms of training.

Location, Location, Location

Obviously, by its very nature, home training occurs at home. This means that there is no need to travel to a campus and spend the duration of training there. For the most part, I had little interruption in my daily activities during my two weeks. I did some work; I went grocery shopping; I shoveled my front walk (a lot). On the other hand, during my time at GEB I actually felt cut off from my regular life. In fact, one of my classmates made a comment regarding this — and later that day I found out there had been a hurricane at my house the week before and I’d never known!

Being in my own community also meant far less travel to a route to work. The only time I spent more than 30 minutes en route to somewhere was when Jason and I got sort of lost and had to drive through a blizzard. However, nearly every day of training at GEB required at least a half hour trip to get places. Frankly, I felt like a sardine packed in a can when we traveled, and the transportation I experienced was apparently an improvement over previous modes used. (There have been further changes since I was there, though I don’t know exactly what.) This lack of long travel also meant a much later start to my training each day — potentially I would have been able to sleep in if I didn’t have insomniac GSDs — whereas whether I wanted to or not, I was forced awake at 6:30 sharp every day at school. And life from that moment was commanded by the regimented school’s schedule: meals at this time, lectures at that, etc. Fidelco’s training also had a schedule, but it was by comparison so much more laid back; for instance, even though I was still waking up, generally, just as early I did get to take a nap most days because we either had completed our daily routes early enough or there was a substantial break around lunchtime. With everything involved with traveling away from campus each day, I was never afforded such a luxury. Most days, when I wasn’t actively walking a route, I found myself in an exhausted and bored stupor.

Less Is More

Believe it or not, I actually am incredibly shy. Specifically in situations with many other people. I find it hard to single a person out to communicate with and I never feel comfortable trying to express things to an audience. Understandably this makes the 1:1 student/instructor ratio that home training affords much more enticing to me than the class of 16 with two instructors and a supervisor that I had at a training school. I had the misfortune of being in a class with almost no one I could relate to — I was the youngest by quite a margin and most of the students were veteran handlers. For a great many reasons, I also had a very hard time interacting with the staff. Truthfully, I felt very lonely during my month of training. So much so at first that I cried myself to sleep one night. Dolly helped ease this burden, but then when I’d found myself already bonded with her, I was forced to relinquish her to the school to mend from her feet injuries for nearly a month. (All of this is a story unto itself.) This undoubtedly contributed to my feeling that I was always competing for time and attention from the instructors. But with 15 other students, there was obviously a lot of “down time” where I waited for my turn. I knew this was the case beforehand, but I was unprepared for the extent of “sitting around” that actually took place. It made a lot of my training work seem nearly insubstantial.

My experience with Megan was so different that it’s nearly unrecognizable in comparison. I found Megan very easy to talk with and by the end of training we had truly “clicked.” With no one else around, I always had my instructor’s complete and undivided attention. Which meant I could focus completely on working with my dog and not neurotically ruminating on how I might be coming off as a nuisance. This one-on-one relationship also allowed the trainers to fully absorb themselves in me and the dogs, which gave them the ability to notice anything and give immediate feedback to me. This also meant that we had time to work together more; there was no rush to accomplish any day’s tasks. We could extend our time working a route for as long as we wished or rework on specific things without taking time from anyone else. I was able to have long conversations about all aspects of my dog from equipment to food. It was a very comfortable and enjoyable training. Of course, there is the chance that the instructor and student don’t mesh as well — a fear I certainly had and voiced to Megan, who admitted there certainly were times that such a thing happened and it was always a bit of a “strain” but I would have been well within my rights to ask for a different trainer if it were enough of an issue.

Working Like a Dog

[Note: As I have never attended an “accelerated” training program at a guide dog school, in which you are not required to attend for the full 3-4 weeks. This specific comparison ignores anything attributed to them.]

To anyone who’s never trained with a guide dog, it can be hard to explain how intensive it can be. Depending on how physically fit you are, it can be downright grueling. Especially if you have a rather exuberant dog! But more so it is very emotional draining. Home training can be even more exhausting because it is much more condensed than training at a school. The shorter length in time requires that more work is done and more information given in a quicker time frame. As an experienced handler, who is quite physically fit, I had to admit that at times I did experience a bit of information “overload” and I was utterly exhausted by lunch time. (It didn’t help that I was horribly sick during Uschi’s training.) I did find myself quite astonished at how much was accomplished so quickly at several points during my home training, but I was never overwhelmed. Whereas at a school there is much more time and all of this is far more gradual; sometimes I felt like nothing was happening at all. Though, it should be noted that in all types of training, the steps are such that the handler and dog are eased into the work.

The I in Team

Somewhat in contrast to the benefits of the ratio size, home training does require a bit more self-monitoring than training in a class. When you train at the school, you have your classmates and instructors (and sometimes other staff) to give you constant feedback, criticism and advice. For the inexperienced handler especially, this can be a goldmine of information and assistance.

Home training requires you to be your own teacher and student in a lot of ways. Depending on how experienced you and/or your instructor are, you may be at a disadvantage in terms of information you may not receive. There were a lot of nuiances of guidework that I gleamed during my month at GEB, other handlers, and my own years of working with my guides. This prior foundation was all quite beneficial while working with Megan and Jason. Fidelco instructors do not have any O&M training and, of course, have not had the experience of living amongst their students that school-based trainers get. These deficiencies didn’t seem to bring about anything that jumps out to me as lacking in my training, but I would have qualms if I were a more unsure independent traveler or the like.

It’s a Vacation, Of Sorts

When I was first researching guide dog schools, one of my handler friends said to me: “You’re going to love it! Seriously, it’s like going to Club Med — and you get a dog in the end!” Her tongue-in-cheek description basically was in references to how well cared for you are at a school; living quarters are comfortable, meals are delicious, and your roommate is this spiffy canine. Most schools will also at least partially cover your travel back and forth to the campus, though, you are always welcome to make your own plans. (I did.) Depending on your classmates, it can be an almost tranquil experience to be at a guide dog school and, as I hinted above, you basically are removed from your life — you can “get away from it all” as it were. Certainly an impossibility at home; and for some this could prove to be a major handicap depending on your lifestyle. Those with very important or busy careers (especially parents) may find it incredibly difficult to concentrate on training in such a distracting environment.

Easy Come, Easy Go

As I said, there is generally quite a lot that is included under the umbrella of going to a campus for training. Though, in my experience, I did find it rather impossible to avoid spending undue money while at the training school. I donated a rather large sum of money (especially for an unemployed college student) and then spent nearly that same amount via purchases through the equipment and gift stores. I’m not saying that one shouldn’t be faithful and grateful to their guide dog school; or that one shouldn’t feel the need to support them. But whether it was from inexperience or youth, I did feel consistently pressured to make purchases on several occasions by various staff. Since Fidelco came to my home, I never interacted with a staff or volunteer whose sole purpose seemed to be to fundraise. In fact, a good deal of additional (read: “optional”) things I’d bought at GEB were provided as standard by Fidelco.

Four + Two = One

Much of the bonding process begins — even occurs — during training. In my very humble opinion, this is one of the main reasons a first time handler should not utilize home training because this bonding process is a new concept and can then occur removed from one’s normal surroundings. In specific, when I was training with Dolly I spent a month with her away from my friends and family. Never once did I need to remind those close to me to not interfere — and frankly I doubt I would have realized the necessity or known how to adequately express this as a new handler. These are things I learned from being away and also from the shared experiences of my classmates who were training with successor guides. I feel quite strongly that this was a vital foundation in working with Yara and Uschi, even though ironically enough between the busy training regimen and horrendous weather I didn’t see much of anyone during either training at home. Though, that could very easily have not been the case. Still, this knowledge of how to isolate myself to bond with my new dog and how to tactfully get people to back off from my guide were absolutely not something I would have garnered without that school background and years of experience as a handler.

In conclusion, I am neither advocating for or against either method of training. As I have stated there are pros and cons to both. Personally, I have absolutely no desire to ever train at a campus again based solely on the 1:1 ratio. But in no way do I think home training is without any flaws, nor is it the ideal choice for everyone. When asked by those interested, I have been honest about my feelings on both forms of training. And have expressed my own qualms regarding first time training at home. Of course, I do know of a people who have gotten their first dogs from Fidelco and/or trained at home. I also know of a few people who have never been to a school to obtain their guides. To that, I will merely say that I do not feel there is really a right or wrong approach, but that an informed decision is the best course in choosing what works for you.

Trials and Triumphs

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) is a genetic condition where the pancreas does not produce the necessary enzymes required to digest food and absorb nutrients causing starvation regardless of the amount of food taken in. For further information and other resources on EPI I highly recommend visiting epi4dogs.com because my knowledge comes entirely through my experiences with Yara. Much of which has been chronicled here on my blog.

EPI is highly treatable, thankfully, but to say the entire thing was a struggle is truly an understatement. Yara has a penchant for stubbornness and from practically the moment she entered my life her choice method to showcase this was refusing to eat. Looking back it’s hard not to focus on all the mistakes that I made. Signs of her EPI were present from the moment she entered my life; her bowel movements were a tan color and always disproportionately large in comparison to how much she ate. Our instructor assured me that this was normal and so I never gave much thought to it. At her first annual checkup she got a clean bill of health, but had dropped an alarming twelve pounds! The weight loss continued steadily over the next three months, which was certainly baffling but not exactly alarming. Other than a noticeable increase in her bowel movements and an occasional bout of diarrhea or vomiting Yara seemed fine.

Portrait of me and Yara on a white background; Yara is standing beside me with my arms wrapped under her bellyThroughout this I was in constant contact with Yara’s school, Fidelco. They were very sympathetic, but hardly alarmed by the weight loss. They offered a bunch of suggestions that included adding everything from vitamin supplements and probiotics to canned dog food and raw beef to her daily meals. At her peak Yara was eating what amounted to more than nine cups of food a day! The addition of the raw beef ignited the first undeniable symptoms of EPI; Yara’s stools morphed into a bright yellow “cow plop” and she started vomiting almost daily. It was exactly the worst thing she could have had in her diet, but I’m strangely grateful that we did because it alerted everyone to how serious things were. Still, it would take nearly two months before she was formally diagnosed. She had a battery of different tests run and they all returned normal results; in fact, the GI test that determined her EPI diagnosis initially showed that she was “marginally” in the range.

By that point I was fully on board with whatever the vet told me. Yara was clearly sick! She never was as ravaged as some EPI dogs I’ve seen, but her ribs were clearly visible at the height of her weight loss. (This photo is the best example I could find.) A fact that the general public made me aware of almost constantly. In fact, there was even a formal complaint made to Fidelco! I tried not to take it as a personal offense when they sent a trainer out within a few days to check on things while for months before they were made aware of the entire situation at every interval and had been completely nonplussed.

The resounding memory of these six months is the amount of stress I was under. I felt pressure from Fidelco to take their advice against my own better judgment or that of my vet’s. This greatly influenced the length of time it took to diagnosis Yara. On the rare occasion that I didn’t side with the school it was made abundantly clear they felt that decision was the root of the problem. I had changed her food, for instance, so that might be the culprit because she was used to the other food. Admittedly, I took a substantial amount of time off because of Yara, but my superiors at work were largely unsympathetic. The level of passive aggression and outright punishment directed towards me probably only furthered my own health issues with chronic migraines. So, when I needed time off because I was sick it was a Big Problem. And I got no respite because everyone from my family and friends to outright strangers made it known how bad things were. People made a point to remark about how thin Yara was and suggest ways to offset this. (“I think you need to feed her more.”) On countless occasions I was accosted in public about my “obvious” abuse; one woman actually dragged me by the arm while literally in the middle of crossing a street to yell at me!

Portrait of me and Yara on a white background; Yara is in harness, lying on the floor beside me, resting her head on my kneeWorst of all was my own personal struggle. I scoured every possible resource for anything that might help. Perhaps she was sensitive to chemicals and so along with her various food alterations she drank only purified water. For months. I changed all of my cleaning and laundry supplies to green products, which I admit I had wanted to do anyway because of my migraines. I went so far as to replace all of her bedding, including a very expensive bed, thinking that she might have an allergy (which she does but that’s a whole other story) and began a long process of eliminating things one by one to determine the cause. But with every change that netted no resolution I kept coming back to one constant: me.

Part of me couldn’t believe that this was possible. I rejected the notion that I was the problem by reminding myself of her nearly flawless work in harness. But every time she refused a morsel of food or had an accident in the house I became just a bit more convinced that she was stressed out by her job. I felt like a rotten human being; I was selfish to want to keep working her and cruel to continue to do so if she wasn’t cut out for this life. Mostly, I felt like a failure. The partnership was faltering and I couldn’t fix it. I was increasingly convinced I was doing something wrong, but proud enough that I wouldn’t dare admit it. Friends tell me they guessed as much, but I never told anyone how bad it really was for me or how close I came to calling Fidelco to take Yara back. To this day I can’t tell you what stopped me. I could say I didn’t want to give up, but I did. I could say that I didn’t want to be parted from her, but that’s hard to believe when every room in the house is covered in dog sick.

Obviously it wasn’t all for naught and we made it through all of this. Yara’s recovery was very swift and though I did eventually retire her because of her health issues it actually had very little to do with any of this or the fact she has EPI. I’ve since remarked on how profoundly she impacted my life in her short working career even though we had more than our fair share of “downs.” Not that I want to repeat it, but I don’t regret the struggle. For all I know it only made the bond we shared even stronger. Mostly, it made me appreciate all the positives we had. Sometimes it was a way to distract myself from how miserable things were and other times that focus was the driving force behind figuring it all out. Together, we accomplished so much!

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

Frequently Asked Questions

Probably if you’re reading this you’ve checked out my about page. It’s undergone various style changes as the mood strikes me, but somehow manages to be at least partially out-of-date because I rather loathe writing introductions. Still, it’s adequate enough to get a general idea of who I am, what this site is, and a healthy dose of other random information. Currently, it’s formatted in an FAQ style, but in truth the most common questions I’m asked aren’t there because they all revolve around my guide dogs.

I covered a few of the most common questions about guide dogs, but those are hardly the most common questions I receive. They vary from basic stats about the girls to inquires about the training involved to the downright random and sometimes rude, but hopefully the answers will be informative for all and maybe a bit amusing.

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Do Not Pet

There are several rules of etiquette that are bandied about when it comes to guide dogs in public. The most common of which would probably be: do not pet! Perhaps it’s because I grew up with dogs or my own parents were exceptional at imparting this particular lesson, but this is so obvious to me as to seem like common sense. It’s unwise to run up to any unfamiliar animal! And it’s just polite to ask a domesticated pet’s owner for permission to pet them!

Setting the practical reasons aside, working dogs come with their own specific reasons not to be petted. Since it is without fail the number one most common issue I come across with the public, today I’m going to highlight reasons why you should never pet a guide dog.

Portrait of me and Yara on a white background; Yara is standing beside me with my arms wrapped under her bellyLike any working dog, a guide dog’s job is very important. I would go so far as to say that a good portion of their job is protecting their handler’s very life. A mistake made at an intersection, for instance, could end very badly for a guide dog team. When you think of a guide dog in those terms it shouldn’t be a great logical leap to understand that you want to avoid interfering with the dog’s work. Think of it like this: you’re driving down the street with a passenger who suddenly makes a bunch of whooping noises and thrusts his arms in front of your face, startling you and obstructing your view of the road. Definitely a recipe for disaster, no? Well, when you distract a guide dog, that’s basically what you’re doing. You are taking a guide dog’s focus — who is essentially acting as a blind person’s eyes — and shifting it away from her work.

“The dog was just lying on the floor quietly,” you say, “how much work can she possibly be doing?” Okay, I’ll give you that she isn’t actively “guiding” her blind handler when lying under a chair or something similar. But as I’ve said before, don’t forget that first and foremost a guide dog is a dog. It’s not in the nature of a dog to be calm and just sit around for long stretches of time. Using my current guide dog as an example, anyone that has seen her out of harness can attest to the fact that she is capable of anything but lying around. Right now she’s racing back and forth through the house with her squeaky football, which she’s been doing nonstop now for at least the last 30 minutes.1 Part of raising a guide dog puppy, their formal training, and ongoing obedience regimen with their handlers is to get them to understand that this sit-and-wait routine is actually, well, routine. Each handler has her own average activity level for a given day, but every guide dog will have substantial time chilling out under chairs, tables, desks, and the like. That does not mean it’s okay to distract them from this task because while it might look like lounge time to you, it’s actually a lot of concentration for the guide dog.

“I love dogs! And she’s so [insert endearment of your choice]; I just have to pet her!” No, no you don’t. It’s really not that much impulse control to restrain yourself from doing so. I know because I’ve seen children as young as four not pet my guide dog without any prompting from their parents or cautioning from me. If you can’t manage what a four-year-old is capable of you should be very ashamed of yourself.

“What if I ask to pet your guide dog?” Well, hallelujah, now you’re learning because that is the key. This really should be something you do when approaching any dog, but yes always ask first if you want to pet a guide dog. Now that doesn’t mean the handler is going to say yes. Usually my response goes something like this: “I’m sorry, no you can’t as she’s working and shouldn’t be distracted.” Lately I’ve been tacking on a further “thank you for asking” because so few people bother to do so. Of course, when it’s a child who asks me my response is generally very different because, provided I have the time, I will allow them the opportunity to pet my guide dog while I educate them about what a guide dog is and emphasize how important it is to ask about petting one.2

“And if you say no, what then?” No means no. It’s not personal. Really. I’m sure you’re awesome. And I’m even more sure my dog will love you. But her job is to guide me. Please respect that.

  1. I wish I was exaggerating.
  2. I actually started doing this as a training exercise with my last guide dog because she was super distracted by children.

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival

[UPDATE: The fifth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is here!]

It’s time once again for another Assistance Dog Blog Carnival! This quarterly event gathers together submissions from bloggers about all aspects of assistance dogs based around one central theme chosen by that edition’s host.

Assistance Dog Blog CarnivalAnd I am quite thrilled — and rather nervous — to be the host for the fifth Carnival! It’s also my pleasure to announce that this fall’s theme is:


Seems that I fit in with all the previous hosts in having difficulty in choosing a topic. I had several that immediately came to mind, though some of them seemed a bit too close to previous Carnivals. In the end, the decision almost made itself for me when I looked at the calendar and realized the timing fell right inline with a rather momentous date for my current guide dog: her birthday! Of course, that’s only one of many examples of achievements that we can boast about as a team — and that’s not even getting into my two previous guide dogs!

To help spark some ideas within this topic, here are a few questions you might ask yourself:

  • Is there a memorable or momentous event that you and/or your assistance dog have accomplished (e.g., learning a new task/route; traveling together for the first time)?
  • Is there any particularly important date for you and/or your assistance dog (e.g., the day you were partnered; the day your puppy went to training school)?
  • Have you overcome any difficult obstacles in your partnership?
  • Do you have a great milestone that you’ve reached?
  • Have you set and/or accomplished any specific goals with your assistance dog?
  • What daily/weekly/etc. achievements do you have?
  • What would you anticipate for the future that you and/or your assistance dog might achieve?

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