Beginnings With Brooklyn

I’ve been home with my third guide dog Brooklyn for over a month now. I flew up to Pilot Dogs in Columbus Ohio on June 1 and met her the next day. They had a black lab in mind for me, but then realized how much I had my heart set on yellow. The training staff had a very special yellow lab ready for the right person, but wanted to talk with me so we could figure out if I could be that person. One of the senior trainers talked with me about her Monday morning, explaining that she was a little more introverted and sensitive and would need a lot of nurturing and encouragement to do well. By the end of the conversation, we both felt that this dog and I could bring out the best in each other and make a good team.

Our journey together began a couple hours later when our primary trainer Ryan handed me a leash and said, “Her name is Brooklyn and she’s a very pale yellow, almost white.” I was so excited and relieved! I had my new yellow girl, and she had such a beautiful name. I was ready for us to take on the world. We went for our first walk together that afternoon and the process of learning and bonding as a team began.

It didn’t take me long to be thoroughly charmed by Brooklyn’s eagerness, sweetness, and laid back nature. As she became more comfortable with me, she showed more sides of her personality, and I began to see the silly inside that quiet serious girl. She has a definite mischievous streak but is also very good at playing clueless or innocent. I began getting a sense of this about three days into our training. “Who me? You think I stole your hat/shoe/socks? Does this look like the face of a thief to you?” “So I’m on my back with my feet waving in the air. You asked me to lay down and I am, right? What’s the problem?”

Brooklyn was the only yellow lab in a class with two Golden Retrievers, one Poodle, and four black labs. All four US time zones were represented in our class. All but one of us were retrains, meaning we’d had guide dogs before. The woman getting her first dog was eighty-eight years old. She was losing her vision due to age-related macular degeneration and wanted to stay as independent as possible. She was usually quiet but could be spunky and was very smart. She’d been very successful professionally and she earned my respect on several levels as I got to know her a little better throughout training.

My roommate was great, which was also a relief. She was outspoken, quirky, and energetic and was training with her second dog. She received a beautiful Golden who had the same name as my first guide. We did a lot of work together. We entertained ourselves giving Ryan a hard time whenever possible. We had a lot of fun with him and the other trainers we worked with, but got serious when we needed to, of course.

Training was intense and tiring, but I went in knowing it would be. We were up at 6:00 am each day and went on several outings before dinner at 5:00 pm. We practiced locating curbs and communicating with each other while properly executing turns. We crossed different types of streets, navigated sidewalks with all sorts of cracks and obstacles to negotiate, went to parks, stores, and on the bus. We worked in neighborhoods and in downtown Columbus. Brooklyn lead me around road construction, barking dogs, on to and off of elevators and escalators, and through revolving doors.

Things weren’t perfect. They never are, not even with teams who work together for years. I made mistakes at times and so did Brooklyn. Trainers were there to help us learn from them and to help me use voice and body language to get the best work from her. I wanted to make the most of the short time we had working under the supervision and guidance of Ryan and the other trainers. We’d be on our own in a matter of days and the decisions would be up to me. I wanted to be as ready as possible for that transition.

Brooklyn and I steadily gained confidence and skill in working together. We successfully completed our achievement walk on Wednesday, June 11. Ryan gave us our new harnesses and we took pictures for the ID cards that stated we were graduates of Pilot Dogs and a professionally trained guide dog team.

By the time Brooklyn and I graduated, the same trainer who had talked with me about her initially told me she thought we were a “perfect match.” Several other trainers told me how much they liked Brooklyn because of how sweet she was. One of them called her “Brookie Bear.” Maybe it was just my perception, but they seemed a little protective of her. I felt honored to be trusted with her and hoped they could all see that we were working out well. I assured them that we’d take good care of each other.

Brooklyn and I flew home from Pilot Dogs on June 13. We made it back to Columbia around midnight after flight delays in Columbus and almost missing our connecting flight in Charlotte. By the time I hugged my parents at the airport, I was having a hard time putting coherent sentences together. What I did manage to say as soon as we walked outside was, “Damn, its hot!” I couldn’t believe how hot and humid it was here, even that late at night. The weather in Columbus Oh had been in the mid to high 70s and low 80s. We’d gotten quite a bit of rain but the humidity hadn’t been bad. I’d missed sweet tea but I hadn’t missed the sticky, oppressive, energy-zapping heat hell that is South Carolina in the summertime. Not at all. The break was nice but it was here waiting to immediately suck me back in.

I haven’t gone through the process of transitioning to a new dog since 1999. Getting to know, and trust, a young new helper and companion isn’t something that happens in a matter of days, or even weeks. It happens slowly over a period of months as we live and work together. When I trained with my previous dogs in 96 and 99, I was on summer break from college and could devote most of my time and energy exclusively to them. This time, I’m dividing my focus between Brooklyn, a stressful career as a Professional Counselor and Marriage and Family Therapist in a group practice, a needy cat, and other responsibilities. Trying to find the balance has been fairly stressful for me. I’ve felt a lot of emotions, including being overwhelmed, exhausted, and frustrated at times. I’m sure it has been tough on Brooklyn sometimes, too.

Having a half-grown, newly trained puppy in the house and in the harness is very different from living and working with a dog who’s personality, work style, and behaviors are very familiar. I didn’t have to think so hard every second with Maggie up until she began declining healthwise. We lived and worked together so closely and easily for so many years. I recently honored the one-year anniversary of her passing and her birthday. I miss her, but I know she’s happy I have a young healthy dog helping me again. I think she would like, and approve of, Brooklyn. Brookie does certain things that remind me of her and bring back fond memories as we are building new ones. Her pull in harness when she’s excited reminds me of a young Maggie.

I’m a much more confident, settled, and assertive adult now than I was at twenty-two, so I am able to be more clear and consistent with boundaries while we are still in our “bonding bubble” as I call it. Fortunately, I have a great support system in my family, my work family, and great friends. They are all so glad I finally have a new dog. Those who know me well know I’m not truly myself without a guide dog by my side. Everyone wants Brooklyn and I to do well. I also communicate regularly with other guide dog handlers all over the US through online communities.

I live in a very walkable city area where we can venture out more. This was not the case when I first came home with my first two dogs. I was eager to get “out there” with Brooklyn, but the heat here is limitting. We usually try and get a decent walk in around 7:00 in the morning. Things start heating up quickly here, including the pavements. It helps me to be more oriented to my environment when there’s traffic on the roads, which isn’t the case if we go out too early. We don’t get home from work until its starting to get dark and we don’t take any solo walks for fun after dusk.

We’ve had a lot of nice walks, and a few “adventures,” so far, some more successful than others. We’ve gotten lost and gotten frustrated a few times. We’ve learned from each experience, though. At first, I was enjoying that sense of freedom that comes with working a guide dog so much when we first got home that I got a little overconfident, I think. I’ve learned to focus on giving her smaller opportunities to do things right so I can praise and build up her confidence and my own.

I have a lot of experience traveling and working with a guide dog, of course, but I have to adapt to how Brooklyn works and the areas of her guide work that need strengthening. I’ve realized there are things I need to work on, too, as far as my familiarity with some of the details of the streets and sidewalks near our home, and in how I communicate with her, so we can be as effective as possible as a team.

I live in an area with a lot of squirrels who are used to being close to humans and dogs and Brooklyn is fascinated with them. She gets a little distracted and overeager at times. She is a dog who needs a lot of verbal encouragement to keep her focussed and confident. I hardly ever have to use leash corrections with her. She wants me to be happy with her and seems to get a little upset or unsure if/when she makes mistakes. Sometimes, this leads her to be in a hurry and to try and predict what I’ll want. Sometimes, I have to slow her down and reassure her that she’s doing fine so she’ll relax into a good rhythm and wait for my commands. Brooklyn wants to work and wants to please. She thrives on praise and affection. She enjoys working but also settles down nicely once we’re home or at the office.

I’m very thankful Pilot uses crates now. Brooklyn loves hers and will go in voluntarily if I leave the door open. That’s her safe place and I know she can’t find anything to chew on, or chew up, when she’s in there. I have to keep very close tabs on her for that reason. She’s very young (just turned one in early February) and is all lab puppy in her mouth. She’s settled in very nicely at work, in particular, and is content to hang out under my desk with her chew toys.

She’s eating well and got her first vet checkup recently. I had to bring in a stool sample. Its fun to have to collect things like that when you live in a public area and never know who’s watching. We’ll have to keep a good check on her ears and allergies, just as we did with Maggie. She weighs 55 pounds and the vet said he wouldn’t want her to get over 60. I wondered if she might do a little more growing because she has such big feet but he said she wouldn’t.

The cat tolerates her. She doesn’t try to chase or bother him, of course. KC does best as an only child. Unlike my sweet little Fin (RIP quiet boy) KC is needy and whiney and much more high maintenance. He should probably live with a retired person who is usually home and can give him tons of undivided attention,snuggling, play, and conversation. We’re all doing okay together, though. The other day, I was sitting on the floor with Brooklyn laying on my left side and KC on my right. They both flipped over on their backs and I sat there rubbing their spoiled rotten bellies for about five minutes. I think they’re fine! I tell them they’re my “good critters.” Caring for both of them can seem like a lot at times but I love them both and am glad to have them.

There is so much about working with guide dogs that only others who know what this unique partnership is like can fully relate to, I think. Its a lifestyle and relationship that is so special and that comes with rewards and challenges that go so far beyond what even those closest to us can fully comprehend. I enjoy trying to articulate it, though. Brooklyn and I grow closer and learn new things together every day. It will take six months to a year for us to be truly solid and bonded as a team. I think it may take a bit longer with Brooklyn because of her age. I think her confidence will grow as she matures and gains more and more experience with me. My confidence in her will grow, as well. It takes time, energy, and patience. I don’t have tons of any of those things, but I remind myself to trust the process and the relationship. Its a new chapter, a new adventure. Like everything in life, there are rewards and challenges. Brooklyn and I are now facing them together. Welcome to my world, Brookie. I’m glad you’re here.

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How National Library Service for the Blind Users Can Download Carmella’s Quest

For those of you who read books specially produced by National Library Service for the Blind and have wanted to read Carmela’s Quest, it can be downloaded from the SC State Library Talking Book Services collection of recorded books on the LionShare site without having to bother with doing an interlibrary loan. It is not available for download through the BARD main site yet (TBS tells me they’re working on that). It is available through SCTBS’s own digital collection, however. TBS Lionshare is a service similar to BARD but for locally produced digital talking books and magazines. Besides Carmella’s Quest, there are a lot of other titles that may be of particular interest to those from SC, as well as others interested in good writing from or about South Carolina. Just like BARD, downloaded audio files are zipped and need to be unzipped onto a flash drive to play. Go to this link and do a JAWS find or search for “Carmella’s Quest.”
http://www.statelibrary.sc.gov/lionshare

When you download CQ from this site, you will be able to listen to me reading it. I recently downloaded it myself so I could leave it playing for my new guide dog if I’m away from her for a few minutes while in the shower or something. I wanted her to be able to hear my voice while she’s relaxing in her crate to continue the bonding process even when I’m not with her. I’ve listened to some of it myself again, for the first time in a while, and am still frankly amazed at how well it turned out. I’m so proud of this project and so thankful that TBS was willing to give my idea for how to do this a try. It turned out better than I ever could have imagined.

The article I wrote about this process, “In My Own Voice: The Carmella’s Quest Colaboration” can be found online in the March 2011 issue of The Braille Forum.
http://acb.org/node/218
This article received the ACB’s national Ned E Freeman Award for Excellence in Writing in 2011.
http://www.statelibrary.sc.gov/local-blind-author-receives-national-writing-award

Recording the book, writing the article, and receiving this award were all such great experiences. I am blessed and humbled by this whole chain of events.