Things I learned After Guide Dog School
I am pleased to say that Grandt and I have survived our first year together as a guide dog team. I use the word "survived" because there is lots of work involved in becoming a good team and it typically takes at least a year to learn how to read each other's movements. I attended classes to learn how to work with a guide dog at the Leader Dog facility in Rochester Hills, Michigan.
Now Grandt is my very first guide dog. So I had lots and lots to learn. First of all, I learned that he was a real sportsman and loved to take me skiing behind him when we went for walks. "Whoa" is not one of the commands that they teach guide dogs. So as I am moving along the sidewalk at the speed of light, Grandt was as happy as he could be doing his guide dog job. At the end of the first week of training, I was sure my left arm was at least three inches longer than my right arm. Of course, that came in handy since the harness and leash are always held in the left hand. The right hand is used to give directions and occasional corrections.
I soon realized that even guide dogs are "dogs first" and love doing dog things. But when the harness and leash are put onto the dog, he takes his job seriously. That means that when I call his name and give a directional command, he is to go to work. And work it is. Grandt and I must practice obedience training every day as well as go out and work (walk) in the community to keep his skills sharp.
For those who can use their eyesight to navigate around obstacles, there is no thought to walking up or down steps or walking around a decorative retaining wall. They simply see the obstacle and adjust their direction. Grandt has been trained to let me know when we are approaching an obstacle. He lets me know when steps or a change in elevation is present by stopping at the edge of the change. This gives me time to investigate my surroundings by carefully moving my foot forward to see what is there. Occasionally, he will miss obstacles that are at my shoulder height because he is working and looking around at the height of my knees. That means that we have to practice and learn together where the obstacles are. It takes a tremendous amount of trust from me to let him show me where those obstacles are located. But every time he leads me around a storm drain or stops at the edge of a curb, I trust him more and more.
There is much to understand about being blind and working with a guide dog. Grandt does not know how to take me to a nearby restaurant. He simply takes commands from me to help me safely get there. It is my responsibility to plan out the trip and to know the turns and streets. I must use my skills in judging when it is safe to cross a busy intersection. For the casual observer, it may look as though Grandt is telling me when it is safe to cross. He actually waits for me to make the call. Now, if I misjudge the situation and an automobile is moving to the intersection quickly, Grandt has learned "intelligent disobedience." This means that he will step in front of me and move me back to the curb or edge of the road. This is the only time he is to make the decision for me to keep me safe.
When visiting a store to shop, I call ahead of my visit and ask for a shopper helper to assist me with my selections. This means that I have to create a shopping list in braille and take along a backpack for gathering my purchases.
If Grandt and I take the same routes for trips to specific places, he can learn to "Pattern." This is the ability to go to specific items or locations with just the command: "Grandt, find the (fill in the blank). So if I say Grandt, find the door outside." You can bet that if I am in the back of Wal-Mart at the lay away area and I tell him to find the door outside, we are moving along very quickly to the nearest exit. Now you would think that having a skill like that would be great. Well, it has a few draw backs too. For example, if I walk into a store and ask for him to find the counter, Grandt goes directly to the first counter, which is usually a checkout counter. Now it doesn't matter to Grandt if there is a customer there or not. After all, he does take me to the counter and that was what I commanded him to do.
He goes with me everywhere. Yes, that's right everywhere. He can fold himself into a very small position and get under airline seats as well as in the back floor area of an automobile. He attends church with me and "sleeps" through the entire service. He does occasionally snore a little. But everyone knows it is Grandt and not me.
Grandt is so very loyal and is right by my side all of the time. Even as I am preparing this short article, he sleeps on his mat near my desk. I cannot begin to describe how very wonderful it is when he just walks over to me and puts his head in my lap. Since he is a golden retriever, he is always bringing me things he gathers. He has this little soulful sound he makes when he holds his head back to get me to scratch his back. I was told by my instructor at the school that they did that soulful sound when they totally adore their partners. I'm so glad he decided to be my partner!
Thank you Leader Dogs for the Blind for giving me and Grandt the opportunity to become a guide dog team. And a very special "thank you" to Debbie Komondy, our instructor, for those hours and hours of encouragement, instruction, and patience. You were right. All of that hard work is worth it.