I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them. I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smoothe. These are the things I will do. I will not forsake them. Isaiah 42:16
What is true of God is also true of guide dogs. I have so much more confidence and a much stronger sense of dignity and independence with a well-trained guide dog by my side. I’m looking forward to experiencing those feelings again soon. I am trusting God to bring the right dog into my life, the dog that is right for this time and season.
I am so appreciative of all the thoughts, prayers, well wishes, and support all of you have given me around this important transition. It took me a while to decide I was ready to go through this again. I’m a little scared, nervous, and excited, but I’m as ready as I’ll ever be and its about to happen! I wanted to give everyone some information about what I’ll be doing and what to expect when I come back.
June 1, I will fly to Pilot Dogs in Columbus Ohio to begin this new adventure. This is where I trained with Maggie and my first guide dog Poppy and is one of about 10 guide dog schools in the US. I will hopefully meet my new dog sometime the next day. I don’t know who my dog will be yet, but I requested another yellow lab. My dog will be around 2 years old. She will have been “predestined” by breeding to become a guide dog and her whole life will have been about preparing to help someone who is blind to travel safely and independently. She will have spent a year being raised and socialized by a foster family followed by 4 to 6 months of intensive guide dog specific training.
My new helper and I will spend two weeks in a dormitory type facility with other students training with their new guide dogs. Our day will start around 6:00 am and end around 8:00 pm. We’ll have on campus obedience training lessons, lectures about dog care and psychology, and off-campus outings. My dog and I will work closely with one primary trainer. Trainers go through 3 year apprenticeships under more experienced trainers before they can lead their own classes and train dogs unsupervised. They are very knowledgeable and dedicated people who have to be good with both animals and humans, and this is not always easy.
We’ll be out and about a lot getting lots of experience working in traffic and dealing with other situations that come up while traveling in a busy city. The challenges we face will become more difficult as time passes and as we gain confidence working together. We’ll be working around obstacles and people on crowded sidewalks, crossing busy intersections, catching busses, and getting around in the mall and other stores. Our trainer will make sure we are connecting well and can travel safely together before we’re allowed to “graduate” and return home. Our first time “flying solo” and working together without a trainer nearby will literally be when we fly back to SC.
I expect to be exhausted and a little out of sorts when I return to Columbia on June 13. That’s how I was when I came home with Maggie. I was so glad to be back but kind of overwhelmed, too. I’ll be helping my new dog get used to her new home and new routines. She’ll also get to meet my cat KC. I’m not sure how that’s going to go. I don’t know that KC is going to be too enthused about not being an only child anymore. He’ll be staying with my parents while I’m gone. Hopefully, there will be peace in the animal world or they’ll just ignore each other.
When I got Mag, and my first dog Poppy, I was on summer break from college so I could focus all of my energy on my new dog and getting us both used to being home. This time, I will quickly be returning to work and other responsibilities. This makes it even more crucial that I do things “by the book” as we’re taught during training. I will bring my new helper to work for the first time on Monday June 16. We’ll just hang out for a little while that first day, letting my dog get used to my office. For the next couple weeks, we’ll be there seeing clients for several hours each day and getting my dog used to the routine of multiple sessions in a row. I’ll be trying to focus on my clients while also carefully monitoring how my new dog is handling being in the office with people who are stressed or upset, making sure she can sit quietly and doesn’t become anxious or restless.
As most of you know, when guide dogs are wearing their work harnesses, they shouldn’t be petted or distracted. My new dog will be in harness much of the time, but even when she isn’t and is just with me on her leash, the same rule will need to apply for a while. My new friend won’t be roaming around and won’t be allowed to be petted, talked to, or fed by anyone but me for at least a month and possibly longer. This gives my new dog plenty of chances to get used to my expectations, receive praise for good behaviors, and keeps her from getting in trouble by doing something she’s not supposed to. Freedoms will be given very gradually. I did the same things with Maggie when I first got her, until I knew for sure that we were solid as a team and what kinds of freedoms she could handle. It takes a new guide dog team six months to a year for the working relationship to be completely connected and solid.
The other reasons are about me being a good steward of this amazing dog I’ve been trusted with. Guide dog schools get private funding to pay for my travel, lodging, and the training of my dog and me so that I receive all this completely free of charge. This is an amazing gift for me and all the other blind people who have experienced the freedom and dignity of well-trained guide dogs. This gives me a tremendous sense of thankfulness and responsibility. I have to be a good steward of such a blessing. So much time, effort, and dedication goes into each dog who eventually is paired with someone who can’t see to spend years leading that person and serving with love and loyalty. I want to do things right out of respect and appreciation for everyone who invested in my dog becoming a successful guide and in us as a team. This means the foster families who raised her fora year, her primary trainer, and the school itself and those who keep the program running.
I’m so thankful to have so many people who are excited and supportive of me as I undertake this new journey. Getting a new guide dog is like meeting your partner in an arranged marriage, adopting a baby, and getting a prosthesis all at the same time while being away from loved ones and dealing with a young dog who is also experiencing stress and transition. Its a lot to deal with physically, mentally, and emotionally. Knowing I have so much love and support makes all this a lot easier.
I look forward to returning with a new member to my personal and professional families and I know so many thoughts and prayers have gotten us here. Thank you for your sensitivity and understanding and for being a part of our lives. I’m excited to celebrate this new beginning surrounded by so many caring friends and loved ones. I’ll be in touch while I’m gone and will share news and more specifics as I know them. Talk soon!