When I had to retire my third guide dog, Abby, early for medical reasons, I was full of conflicting emotions. However, I made all of the necessary decisions: where she would live (with me), who would become her primary caregiver (my mom) and how I would meet her needs for special food and extra medical care (with financial help from some amazing friends who adore her, too). The adjustment to retirement was not a smooth transition for either Abby or myself, but I made the best decision for my girl. Abby is much healthier now without the stresses guide dog work put on her body. Abby has a new job: head of Homeland Security, and she makes sure no squirrel, ringing doorbell or knock goes unanswered at home. She enjoys meeting other dogs and still goes to dog-friendly places. Another bonus for her is that she has a younger brother to play with: my new guide dog, Fonzi.
Training with a new guide dog is an adventure, full of emotion with long days of hard work, going to new places, learning new techniques and figuring out what makes the new dog tick. While many people told me “to enjoy my vacation at guide dog school,” training is more like boot camp than vacation. The daily schedule is rigorous. We trained for 7 hours each day doing activities such as working an on-campus obstacle course, and we participated in lectures each night. We trained in multiple locations around Long Island, and even spent 2 days training in busy Manhattan and Central Park!
In the early days of training, we completed several Juno walks. A Juno walk involves the trainer holding an empty harness and simulating the dog’s movements while the handler follows. This technique helps the trainer match the dog and student’s walking pace and pull in the harness. It allows the handler practice in correcting his/her techniques without unduly stressing the dog, as well as helping the handler to refine his/her body positioning and footwork.
The initial days of guide dog school involved the trainer assessing various aspects of each handler’s life so they can be matched with an appropriate guide dog. The trainer carefully evaluated my needs, living situation, work environment, activity level, walking speed, amount of pull I need in the harness, hobbies, allergies and personality. I was given a fast, hard-pulling, “city dog” who was best able to handle my lifestyle and would be able to handle anything I could throw at him, no matter how busy or chaotic the situation.
My new guide dog, Fonzi, is a 64 pound, male, black Lab with a large-and-in-charge attitude. Fonzi also happens to be the sweetest goofball you will ever meet. After being introduced, I spent some time alone with Fonzi so we could begin getting acquainted, but then the work really began! I worked with the trainer while Fonzi was in harness and taught him to follow various routes around campus, find doors in the building and we practiced using the stairs. My balance is heavily affected by my allergies, and stairs can be tricky for me, but Fonzi slowed down and watched me carefully as we went up or down a step at a time. He did not mind that we modified his technique on stairs slightly to help me keep my balance.
The lecture that night dealt with helping handlers grieve the retirement or death of our previous guide dogs. The lecturer spoke about the emotions that occur during retirement as well as training with a new dog, and gave us tips on how to move forward positively with our new dogs. It is the hardest lecture we do, but also the most helpful.
On Day 3, we worked on leash-guiding which involves the dog guiding through the leash without the leather harness. My school is the only one in the country that teaches this technique. Leash-guiding is useful in very familiar, calm environments like the ABVI office. It is nice not to have to put Fonzi’s harness on just so I can get my lunch from the kitchen or go to the restroom. Also, if his harness ever breaks, he can still guide me safely until I get a replacement harness from the guide dog school.
After we worked on leash-guiding, we had our first harness walk outside. The first harness walk out in the open is amazing because there are no turns to master and no streets to cross, just an open path where you and your dog really turn on the jets and see how well your paces and pull match up. It was the best feeling. Before dinner we attended lectures on obedience and grooming, and then we practiced what we learned and had some time to groom our dogs. After dinner we attended a lecture on harnesses. The trainer demonstrated taking a harness apart and putting it back together. It is important for us to know how to reassemble our harnesses in case it ever comes apart. Being comfortable reassembling your harness is also helpful when you have to remove your harness handle for riding in small cars and planes.
In the mornings of days 4-7 we worked on mastering the route for our nightly walks. The walk began at a restaurant, wound several blocks through a busy city to a pharmacy, carried on through the building and out the back exit and continued several blocks up the other side of the street back to the restaurant. As we learned this route, Fonzi and I encountered several dogs, performed different kinds of traffic-light controlled street crossings and walked past people eating outdoors with food debris all over the sidewalk. It was critical that I learn the route so I could give Fonzi the proper commands to guide us through. Some people think that guide dogs know where they are taking their handler, and you can get to that point eventually, but the dogs follow directions from the handler. If the handler does not know the route, the team goes in circles, and both guide and handler can end up frustrated, confused and disoriented. That is why knowing where you are (orientation) and how to safely get where you want to be (mobility) is crucial for people who are blind.
We spent the afternoons of days 4-7 working in the local mall. We maneuvered through massive crowds, learned to safely ride escalators, practiced various kinds of moving turns and worked on stopping in store entrances so I would know that we had gone into one.
One afternoon, we performed a high-level obedience exercise where I put Fonzi in a down-stay in the center of the mall. Then, my trainer walked me in a circle 30-40 feet away from him, and he held the down-stay while people stepped over him or walked around him. Fonzi did very well, and he got lots of praise and kibbles as a result.
For our last training day at the mall, Fonzi and I worked doubles with my training partner and her guide dog. Our dogs walked so closely together that one of us was always sandwiched between the dogs, but they never let us touch a thing. Our dogs were evenly matched in pace, so we would switch off which dog led for short periods and which dog had to follow. Fonzi does not like the “follow” command, as he prefers to think he always knows where we are going, even if that is not actually the case.
On Day 7, I practiced whistle recalls with Fonzi in a long hallway in the dorm. A whistle recall tells the dog to come to the handler when the whistle is heard, and then the dog gets rewarded with food. Whistle recalls serve multiple purposes. I use them to call Fonzi to come to me when he is playing loose in a fenced in area, I use them as the signal that Fonzi can eat his meals and I can use them in an emergency, such as if Fonzi got away from me and was running toward a busy street. The dogs should always come because they want the food that comes after the whistle.
That night, we performed the night walk that we had spent the past few days practicing. Our night walk was more of an adventure than our trainer planned. We encountered a loose dog outside of a bar, and the pharmacy (a stop on our planned route) was closed when we arrived. We had to walk 3 extra blocks we had not practiced, and Fonzi kept stopping to show me things on my right, but I could not find them when I checked with my hand and my foot. Turns out, the objects he was alerting me to were piles of cardboard boxes. Then, when we were crossing a difficult street, a car cut us off, even though it was our turn to cross. By the time we finished the route, we were wiped out, but Fonzi handled all of the challenges well.
Day 8 included practicing off-curb obstacles on the left and right, walking on the Long Island Railroad train platform, country walks and going through traffic checks. Off-curb obstacles meant that my path was completely blocked, and Fonzi had to take me into the street near traffic to get around the obstacle, then return me to the sidewalk so we could move on. Many times off-curb obstacles are due to construction or delivery trucks blocking a sidewalk.
Walking on train platforms requires extra caution, and the dogs use their intelligent disobedience skills to keep themselves between handlers and the train tracks. Intelligent disobedience means that Fonzi will disobey any command I give that he decides is dangerous. Using caution on train platforms is extremely important so that you do not fall off of the platform. You only turn right on train platforms so that your dog is between you and the platform edge and the tracks are never on your right side, minimizing the risk of getting too close to a platform edge.
Country work is really complicated, because there are no sidewalks to follow, and they involve different kinds of distractions. We walk along the edge of the road or path that we are following, stopping occasionally to check that we are not drifting too far from our line of travel. When walking along roads in country work, crossing streets becomes more complex. We curve around the street corner, stop, turn, cross the street and then curve around the next street corner to continue going in the direction we had been originally. We “indent” around street crossings so we always know how many blocks we have crossed. We encountered chickens and a huge rooster on our country walk. Since my neighborhood has a mix of country work and sidewalks, this was practice that Fonzi and I needed.
Traffic checks involve a trainer, in a marked school van, cutting off a team while they are crossing a street. This training is critical as all handlers need to learn what his/her guide dog feels like when it reacts to a traffic check. Fonzi’s reactions include slowing down, speeding up, stopping completely or turning around, depending on the situation. Traffic checks can involve vehicles running a light, but also include obstacles such as strollers, bicyclists, grocery carts, etc.
That night I met Fonzi’s puppy walkers, the family that raised him from 8 weeks old until he went in for formal training, taught him his basic manners and obedience skills and took him as many places as they could for new experiences. They were great! Fonzi was their first puppy, and he had a young boy to roughhouse with. The family raised Fonzi in an office environment during the workday, which was a huge bonus for me. They brought also Fonzi’s favorite toy as a puppy, which was very sweet of them.
Days 9 & 10 were spent in Manhattan. We trained in Central Park and on several busy city blocks. In Central Park we encountered many people, pigeons, dogs, bikes, carriage horses and pedi-cabs. We walked through tunnels and over bridges and under arbors. Outside of the park, we tackled riding the subway, which is not something I had done with my previous guide dogs. The hardest part was getting Fonzi, his leash and myself through the turnstiles without getting tangled up. Fonzi was a pro with all the pushing and shoving around us.
My class training ended on Day 11, three days early, since I needed to travel to North Carolina for the Blind Idol singing competition finals. Despite leaving early, I felt comfortable with Fonzi and the skills we learned together. We make a great team and I am excited for our future together!