Editor’s Note: September is National Guide Dog Awareness Month. This month is a celebration of the work of guide dogs in the United States as a way to raise awareness, appreciation and support for guide dog schools across the United States. It was established in 2008, as a fundraising drive to benefit non-profit guide dog organizations accredited by the International Guide Dog Federation. It is observed during the month of September. Gail Handler a visually impaired writer and blogger shares excerpts from her training at the Guiding Eyes For the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York. Later this month Audrey Demmitt, another guide dog user, will share about how her years of using a guide dog have assisted her with having a more independent life.
I applied to guide dog school the end of January, 2014, and was accepted in April, 2014. My first class was on October 26, 2014. Below are excerpts of my blogging journal from school.
There IS something worse than going outside at 6:00 AM. That would be going outside in the drizzly, cold, windy morning at 6 AM!
Even with crappy weather, we had a stellar walk. I handled turns, curbs, and distractions almost like a pro until we came to a curb with a huge puddle that I didn't see, but Pippi caught. I gave the Forward command and she refused to go. I gave a leash cue, didn't budge. Asked my instructor what was up and she said, "Miss Prissy pants doesn't want to get wet and she can't find an option to go around!" With instructor assistance, Pippi skimmed the edge of the puddle. Her job was to get me safely across the street. That doesn’t mean she has to keep ME out of the puddles! The dog has a rebellious side...we are so well matched.
Sunday is a down day. I decided to watch some TV. I sat cross-legged on the floor. Pippi immediately plopped her 50ish lbs. on my lap. There was a doggie butt on one thigh and a doggie head on the other. Last week, if you told me I'd be sitting with a dog, and kissing her head I would have said, "Yeah, when h*all freezes over." All I can say is you better get out your winter coat, folks!
I am amazed how much I have learned in 2 weeks. I believe I will have the tools I need to continue learning. We simulated traffic checks where your dog slows down or stops and backs up due to an on-coming car. On Saturday, we went to White Plains and an instructors drove a real car toward us. She appeared out of nowhere. Pip hit her breaks and did a backward shuffle. I was supposed to shuffle back as she did but I took a couple of giant steps backward instead of the baby steps needed. That threw her off.
Later, we all worked on different things with instructors, to fit training to our environmental needs back home. I worked on targeting bus stops.
Coming to New York City is a cacophony of sound, smell, movement and a mass of people who always seem to be walking the opposite direction.
We took the commuter rail into the city and arrived at Grand Central Station, a cavernous, bustling, overwhelming place for the sighted, let alone the sightless. Next we took a subway a few stops. We walked from 42nd Street to the 60s. Grabbed a bus, rode to 90th Street then walked over 4 blocks 94th to a restaurant.
Watch words to remember: Be in the Moment. Focus on Pippi as she weaves in and out around people, poles, construction, roadwork that requires slowing down and smaller steps to not overstep her lead. It means being aware of her movements and discerning distractions that take her focus off working. I need to be aware of my body language which Pippi constantly reads. Can you say 'multi-tasking?'
Each morning, we were awoken to a bit of music then 'good morning.’ On this last morning, we were serenaded by "Leaving on a Jet Plane." Boarding the plane with a dog in tow actually was rather exhilarating. Everyone acts like you're the Next Big Thing. Or maybe it's just the dog. Pippi lay down and curled up like a little ball of fur.
Currently, Pippi and I are approaching our one year anniversary! In the 11 months we've worked together, I can say that it's been a learning experience and an adventure. I compare it to my first year as a teacher; I had all the training, the basic skills I needed, enough information to get started, but you aren't really a true teacher until you have some experience under your belt. Same is true as a guide dog teammate. Pippi and I have been learning what to do and how to do it together. We have our ups and downs but keep on going. Instructors told us that the bond between person and guide dog takes about a year to solidify. I think it happens when you each learn to trust the other one. I can honestly say I can't imagine a day without her.
So, for you who are visually impaired and reading this post have you ever considered a guide dog? Why or why not. Do you think a guide dog would benefit your life and help you with your independence as a blind or visually impaired person? Share your thoughts and comments in the section below as we discuss guide dog awareness this month.