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.
While 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.
Keeping 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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- By the way, in case you’re wondering, some of those things remain undone. ↩
- I have a bad guide dog training weather curse. Really. ↩