March 8, 2018
I had my final solo destination walk this morning. We were given a route and a layout description of a local coffee shop called Beans and Leaf. Trainers watched from vantage points as we made our way through blizzard conditions to the destination. “L” and I got there, she found the counter inside, I made my purchase, and she found the ONLY vacant table for me when I asked her to “find a chair”! What a good girl!
The afternoon was taken up with exit interviews and general paperwork. Leader Dog takes pride in their programs, and exit interviews give us an opportunity to provide feedback on every aspect of the program. I also had my last touch-base session with Tina, went over the material in the “going home” package, and signed my Leader Dog contract. Tina did an amazing job training “L”, and I am forever thankful to her and the rest of her team for their dedication both to the dogs and to us as students and ultimate handlers.
“L” and I will be going home tomorrow! Because I have had a Leader Dog before, I get to go home early; first-timers stay a little longer.
During training, I have begun to bond with “L”, and we have started to learn how to work together. We are just starting to get to know each other, and it will take 6 months to a year for us to become a smooth working team. She will make mistakes, and I will make mistakes; we will make mistakes together.
“L” is trained and knows her job, but she is young and inexperienced. It is amazing to think that she only started formal guide dog training in October – when I think of all the things she knows and how good she is at her job already, it is truly amazing!
Now we are venturing out into the real world together. We are about to leave the protected environment of the school. We won’t have a trainer to give us feedback, and we won’t have a trainer to problem-solve with us. Throughout training, we have been exposed to many situations that we might encounter once we leave and resume our life; we are as ready as we can be to go home and spread our wings. We will have ups and downs as we transition to our home life. There will be mistakes we make and outings that seem as if everything went wrong – I know this is normal in the settling-in phase, but it can still be a trying time emotionally.
We were reminded to be patient with our dogs and with ourselves, because we both will need time to adjust. We won’t start at home at the same level of work that we are at now. With the transition, we can expect similar issues as we had when we first received our dogs at Leader Dog. If possible, it is best if we can start slowly just as we did here – introduction to home and other pets, simple routes, and gradual progression to more complex situations – all the time building on success. If possible, we should also avoid extended travel and hectic noisy events until our dog is more settled. For some people, though, they must hit the ground running with busy work schedules, etc. I am fortunate; I can take time to acclimate “L” to her new island lifestyle, and I can avoid travel and busy events until she is more settled. I do not want to rush this process.
For the times I might question myself or not know how to handle a situation, Tina, my trainer, jokingly said I should get a T-shirt that says “WWTD” – What Would Tina Do. In other words, think back to all the things Tina has told me over the past three weeks. I can rely on my previous guide dog experience, but “L” is a different dog. She is not Bode, and she has her own responses and ways of doing things. Tina has helped me begin to understand how “L” works and what she needs. WWTD will be my mantra.
From “L”’s point of view, she doesn’t know this next change in her life is about to happen. For all she knows, the student residence is her new life. Now she will be transitioning to life on our island, to a new city, to a new climate, to new routes… new everything. For “L”, the only common denominator and sense of security in this change will be me.
The very first thing we will do when we arrive home is introduce “L” and Bode to each other. Guide dogs are very well socialized and get along with other dogs. However, it is still very important to introduce the dogs on neutral territory. I will wait somewhere on the road with “L” and have her out of harness; Jim will bring Bode on leash and let them sniff and get to meet each other. Once they are comfortable with each other, we will proceed home and into the house with the dogs being friends.
“L” will be on leash or tie-down at the beginning, just as she has been in class here at Leader Dog. Gradually, freedom will be given in the house under supervision; it is much easier to establish good house behaviour right from the beginning rather than correct bad behaviours that are allowed to develop – freedom is earned, not granted. We will give “L” a chance to explore the yard off leash without Bode at first. Once she has had a chance to scope out her new yard, she and Bode will be allowed to play together, again with supervision at first. We don’t want either dog to bully the other. Knowing both their natures, I’m sure they will get along very nicely.
One thing to point out is that even with all her training, “L” is still a dog. She will do doggie things; she will put her head on your knee if she can get away with it; she will lick your hand because she is a licky girl; she will shed and she may drool – as they say, you can’t take the dog out of the dog. While I will do my best to manage her “doggie” side, remember that she is still a dog.
Like Bode was, “L” will become part of my identity and self-image. While she is just a dog to others, she is much more than a dog to me – she is part of who I am, she is my independence, she is my freedom.
I will have one more post to wrap things up as I get home. This has been an amazing journey. Although I have trained with other guide dogs before, the story never gets old, and it never ever loses its magic. As long as I am physically able, I will choose to have a guide dog by my side.
Paws up salute to all my wonderful guides: Eli, Kyte, Piccolo, Stetson, Jack Pot, Bode, and “L”.