Moving On

Having worked with two guide dogs before being partnered with Uschi I already had an inkling of the hardships that comes hand-in-hand with transitioning into a new team. I’ve often explained to others that the bond that a handler forms for her guide dog is like an extension of her very being.1 The best example I have found is to note the times when I have been separated from my guide dogs. From big things like realizing I’m stunned at the extreme silence in the house to something smaller like catching myself absently running my hand along the dog’s back these actions are all means to “check” on the dog and they are so routine as to be an unconscious habit.

I’ve had both extremes when transitioning from one guide to another. With my second guide, Yara, I had been sans a guide for nearly two years. And then I worked her pretty much to the last day before being partnered with Uschi. I don’t really think one is better or worse than the other, but there are certainly pros and cons to each. Those two years without a dog are two years I would have gladly worked one if the opportunity had been there, especially during the very long winter months! But it did give me the time to reevaluate what I wanted. Did I want to continue working with a guide dog? Did I need to continue working a with a guide dog? Did I want to go back to the school that trained my first guide, Dolly? Did I want to go to a school-based program at all? Did I want another Labrador retriever? Or was a different breed a better alternative? If I had been able to train with a new dog right after retiring Dolly I wouldn’t have had the chance to think about all these things. At the time I probably wouldn’t have cared, but I was well aware of my dissatisfaction with many aspects of the training program I had initially attended. I think it would have worked out, but even then I would have said I was settling.

Headshot of Yara in harness on a white backgroundWhile the lengthy time between guides was not by choice and I did my utmost to shorten it as much as possible, it did allow me to ruminate extensively on what I wanted to do. I had ample time to delve back into researching training programs and dog breeds so that by the time I received the call about Yara I was fully certain that I had made the best decision for me. It wasn’t without some risk as I was going to embark on my first experience with home training and working with a German shepherd, but they were acceptable  variables.

The biggest drawback of this lengthy wait was the actual being without a guide dog for so long. Though, I did enjoy the rediscovered freedom I had when out in public without my black Labrador symbol of blindness. It was something of a relief to not constantly be bombarded by questions about my furry companion and I definitely enjoyed not having to shoo people away from petting, feeding and outright distracting my mobility aid. But it only took one step with my white cane to remember all the reasons why I detested using it.2 And I would come to find out almost immediately upon being introduced to my second guide dog that I had forgotten a lot of things during that lengthy lapse. In many ways Yara’s entrance into my life was like getting my first dog all over again!

It’s hard to compare training experiences, though because training one-on-one at home with an instructor is incredibly different than attending a school. Not to mention there are differences in techniques between each program. But absent those things, I found that I felt, well, rusty. I was generally praised for how well I handled my new guide, though I felt incredibly awkward and often found myself second-guessing my actions. I wasn’t plagued with the lack of trust and nervousness of my first training experience, but I definitely felt like the slow kid in class as compared to Yara!

Conversely, I had just over a day between my last day working with Yara and starting training with Uschi. And that day was entirely a fluke! Given that this was scarcely two weeks after being notified of my new match, I felt completely unprepared. Just look at my to-do list from then!3 I was also coming down with one of the worst sinus infections of my life, but even if I’d been completely healthy I doubt I would have been any less overwhelmed by how intense everything was at the time. I would rather not repeat things exactly as they occurred this last time, but I am a chronic worrier to the point of neurosis and this fast paced approach did have the advantage of not giving me the time to focus on that.

Headshot of Uschi in harness on a white backgroundKeeping those two years without a guide dog firmly in mind, Yara’s retirement was planned very specifically that it wouldn’t end until I had a new match. I vehemently refused to go through winter without a guide dog. So, I didn’t. Perhaps in a way to solidify that fact, Mother Nature made sure to have us train during some of the worst of it.4 Once again, training was a new and different experience with Uschi than either of my previous guides. Even removed some six months from our training I still can’t pinpoint all the factors that played into how altered my experience was from my first home training. Obviously, the horrific weather and my being very sick were major influences in our inability to work and my status as a “competent handler” training with a successor guide meant that many beginning aspects of training were unnecessary. Still, my lasting impression is a feeling of disjointed incompleteness and in truth it’s partially why I’ve been uncharacteristically terse on the subject. I’ve no lack of faith in Uschi’s guiding ability. Nor do I feel inadequate in my knowledge or abilities as a handler. But throughout training I felt like something was missing and it remains as elusive to me now as then. My conclusion is purely theoretical, but I think the rushed events left me lacking time to fully absorb everything going on and the swiftness with which training was completed leaves me, to this day, with the niggling feeling that something was forgotten. Strangely, for as harried an experience as it sounds, training was very laid back, almost lethargic. Training styles have changed with each of my guides and coupled with Uschi’s calm demeanor in harness the experience was less instructional and more . . . trudging through snowbanks. Several people, our trainer included, have joked that there was little difference in the training than were we to have been left on our own completely. I’m slightly horrified at how close to reality that joke really feels to me, but I am left wondering if I had been anticipating specific things to happen because I so clearly remember training with Yara as it was a mere three years ago. . . .

Others might be able to specify their opinion on their ideal form of transition and whether my personal experiences would be good or bad for them. As I said above, I honestly can’t. Irregardless of any of the positives or negatives either situation brought me, at its root I find transition to a new guide is both a fulfilling and difficult experience. “Dog Day!” — as I like to call it — is one of the happiest and most stressful times of my life. That first meeting is always exciting and exhilarating if only because the dog is always super excited to greet this new stranger. But it’s also the first step in a new partnership that at this point is best described as precarious. And while a good handler knows rationally that she can’t compare her new partner to any previous guides, it’s hard not to be constantly aware of the numerous differences. It’s a learning experience for both team members and it’s not without its stress, too.

In their own way, I do think all these conflicting aspects are important. I’ve known handlers who have sworn off subsequent guides because they don’t feel any other guide could compare to a previous partner or that it would be too painful to go through the process again — I’m not about to preach on those subjects. I can only speak for myself and personally I’ve found with each new guide dog I’ve discovered more about how to work with my new partner better and been taught a few lessons about myself. I’ve expanded my own understanding of what depth there is within the handler/guide dog bond and gained strength through some very difficult experiences. I wouldn’t complain if I finally had a transition that went “nice and easy,” but the end product has been well worth the effort.

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

  1. A working dog should essentially be considered invisible and thus completely ignored save for her handler; however, personally I rather detest being viewed as a single entity with my dog. I expect I’ll expand on this at a later date.
  2. Unlike many blind people who profess to disliking the use of a white cane my reasons do not stem from lack of proficiency with it, but rather that I find it lacking in several ways. However, that is a post unto itself.
  3. By the way, in case you’re wondering, some of those things remain undone.
  4. I have a bad guide dog training weather curse. Really.

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.

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.

Department of Justice Proposes Vast Changes in ADA

Recently, the DOJ proposed some rather alarming revisions to Titles II and III of the Americans With Disabilities Act. These changes include:

  • A new definition for service animals;
  • A significant weakening of the readily achievable barrier removal requirement for public accommodations;
  • A significant reduction of elements required to be accessible in state and local government facilities;
  • An exemption for all existing facilities from the new recreation and playground rules;
  • And many others!

IAADP as an organization has already made an official comment regarding the new service animal definition, emphasizing that the following changes be made:

  1. Eliminate the phrase “providing minimal protection” from the definition of service animal;
  2. Eliminate the phrase “do work” from the definition because it is redundant and the example of work given in the NPRM, grounding, undermines the Department’s goal of maintaining a clear distinction between specially trained service animals and those animals whose mere presence can provide emotional support, companionship or therapeutic benefits.
  3. Limit the use of other species only to animals which can be trained to meet the same standards for behavior and training that assistance dogs must meet to qualify for public access.
  4. Avoid placing a size or weight limit on common domestic animals such as assistance dogs.

Further information from IAADP can be found here.

These changes in the ADA, especially the service animal definition, heavily impact the disabled community and I urge everyone to please take the time to add your comments to IAADP’s official comments and/or add to the draft comments from Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF).

Please understand that even though these organizations (and others like them) have made comments that is imperative that DOJ receive your individual comments. We want to flood them with comments and we need the individual’s voice just as much as any large, faceless organization.