Guide Dog: Take II Graduation

It’s finally here!! Today is graduation day! Wesley and I are both very excited for the day’s festivities. I will get to meet Wesley’s puppy raisers who flew all the way to Oregon from Alabama to see him graduate. Just from speaking with them on the phone last night, I can tell how much heart and soul they poured in him. I feel so grateful to be benefiting from the care and compassion they shared with Wesley in his puppyhood. I already consider them family and can’t wait to reunite them with their special boy. I’m sure Mr Wesley will be thrilled to see them again!

In talking with many people these past two weeks I have a different perspective on graduation. It never really made a lot of sense to me why we as handlers would be considered graduates as this is only the beginning of our journey and we honestly haven’t done a whole lot in training. In truth, today’s purpose is to acknowledge and thank the hard work and generosity expressed by the people who make Guide Dogs for the Blind happen. It is the puppy raisers, staff, volunteers and donors that set this school apart as the elite guide dog organization in the country. As I said in an earlier post, GDB could not run without even one of the contributors to its success. Today is a day to honor all that has been invested in these wonderful dogs. They are the true graduates. The dogs walking across the stage are the ones who have made it through all of the tests involved in becoming a guide dog. They have successfully completed all of the requirements and can now enter into a lifelong career. It just so happens that we as blind people get to receive these new partners. To say I feel blessed would be a major understatement.

Today is not about me or any of my classmates. Its about recognizing others for what they do. Here’s to a smooth and joyful celebration of Guide Dogs for the Blind. Cheers all!!

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Guide Dog Take II: Day ? Reflection

Clearly I have lost track of how many days we have been in training but it has been going well. Over the last few days, Wesley and I have gotten a lot accomplished and we are starting to really settle into a good partnership. I am finally whole with Wesley by my side and am more grateful for him and his old soul every day.

As we near the middle of Week 2 of training, the group is getting into more specific instruction based on common specific situations and custom work catered to our living and working routines at home. My partner and I did some sidewalkless work with our instructor as it is something we both encounter at home. Wesley did great even when I was a bit uncomfortable with a new environment. We have also walked a night route that went well despite everything looking (and smelling) differently in the dark. Wesley was a champ as always. We worked on an obstacle course with PVC pipe overhead obstructions at head level. Wesley struggled with this but it is a difficult skill for any dog when they have to be aware of the space so much outside their personal clearance. Yesterday we worked on public transportation which will be a major part of my life at home. It was refreshing to feel confident traveling on a bus and train in a relatively unfamiliar city. Today we had a traffic route where our supervisor drove the dreaded Prius in common traffic encounter situations. The dogs are trained to respond to a potentially dangerous situation with any obstacle but especially cars. This can come in the form of a car pulling in front of a team in a driveway, veering in the direction of a team, coming up behind or coming straight at a dog and handler. Wesley did great for all of the situations with only one mistake with the head on confrontation. And might I mention that it was freezing cold outside for this route with a bitter wind chill. I have serious respect and gratitude for my instructor who walked this route six times with each team in such cold weather. He continues to impress me with his dedication to thoroughly training our wonderful guides and walking alongside (figuratively and literally) as we begin to bond and become a true partnership. He has said several times that he is instructing me as if I were an apprentice trainer and I have a lot of appreciation for his acknowledgement of my abilities. Wesley and I are definitely blessed to have such an awesome coach.

Earlier today my partner and I went on a unique route with our dogs and supervisor. We went on a walking trail type route that had a defined path but still involved obstacles, direction changes and surface changes with bridges. My partner and I are both fast walkers so we were cruising through the trees and taking everything in stride. This route in particular was the one that left me feeling empowered. It felt so good to almost jog down the path with full trust in Wesley. It may be cliche but I really felt free; free of the limited speed of a cane; free of any worry or doubt in navigating and most of all I felt free of my own insecurities. I was fully connected with Wesley and that was all that mattered. We were both enjoying the moment and it was refreshing to just let go. I felt like my fearless self again.

We are now nearing the end of training with graduation coming up quickly on Saturday. Although I am happy to be returning home with my new partner at my side, it will be bitter-sweet to leave such an uplifting group of people. My classmates and I have really bonded into our own little family and it will be sad not to banter and hear their stories every day. I will miss the encouragement of our instructors, supervisor and staff but I know that support extends past our training time on campus. I am so amazed by the time and energy invested by volunteers as well and their kindness and generosity is honestly inspiring. Hopefully I will get to meet Wesley’s puppy raisers before graduation and thank them for raising such a loving and gentle guy. Wesley is clearly a reflection of the family that cared for him in his puppyhood. And although I have not met them personally, I feel more connected to GDB donors here in training as I am benefiting and growing from the generous contributions to this one-of-a-kind organization. Their investment lasts for the lifetime of these dogs and I am reminded of what a blessing that is. Guide Dogs for the Blind could not reach such success without any of these integral components that make it such an effective agent to monumentally change lives.

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Guide Dog Take II: Day 5 and 6 Thankful

This post is a combined update from Thursday and Friday (Day 5 and 6). I apologize for the length in advance!!

Thursday Day 5
Today Wesley and I went to Portland in the morning and worked our primary route. It felt so awesome! Things just seemed to fall into place and it felt like we were clicking nicely. Even though it is still very early in the journey, I can already feel a bond forming between Wesley and I. One thing I am really noticing this time in training is that my voice and body language communicate so much to Wesley and he is super sensitive and responsive to what I do or say. And today I started to settle into the routine that Wesley works best with which means being purposeful with my voice volume and intonation and making sure I follow through with presenting the appropriate body language for what I am asking of him. He is looking to me for direction, encouragement, praise and leadership and I am trusting him to keep me safe. It is a mutually beneficial relationship with very dynamic two-way communication.

After our morning route, we returned to GDB campus for a big Thanksgiving feast with all of my classmates and also our instructors, supervisor and their families. It was so incredibly delicious!! For those who know me well, I love to eat good food and a lot of it! I cleaned my plate and still had room for two pieces of pumpkin pie that was amazing! Even though I spent Thanksgiving away from my family for the first time in my life, I really enjoyed the company of some really wonderful people. I am also really grateful for all of the kitchen staff and volunteers who came in to serve us on such a family-focused holiday.

Thanksgiving is a really fun holiday for many reasons and I’m realizing as I mature and get older that it is becoming more and more of a day to reflect on all of the blessings around me. I couldn’t list everything that I am thankful for if I tried but there are some things that are profoundly humbling today. The fact that I am in a beautiful facility eating delicious food and receiving training with a life changing partner is reason enough to give thanks. And the fact that I am given all of this free of charge is even more incredible. I am grateful for Guide Dogs for the Blind and all of the work they do on a daily basis. Every person in this organization has a distinct role and and I wouldn’t be here if even one of those roles didn’t exist. So much energy, so many resources and a huge amount of genuine love are poured into these beautiful dogs who offer blind people a whole new world of independence. It may sound cheesy but I just want to extend a heartfelt “thank you” to anyone who contributes to the GDB mission. Your selfless actions do not go unnoticed and the impact you make is one that lasts a lifetime.

I am thankful for many other things including my dear Wesley, my beautiful family, wonderful friends, supportive community and most of all I am grateful to have a good and gracious Lord who is my rock and salvation. It is through His love and sacrifice that we live to enjoy His kingdom and all of His living creations both two and four-legged.

Friday
Up until this point, the weather here in lovely Boring, Oregon has been more than cooperative. My classmates and I have returned from routes sweating and commenting on how warm and pleasant it is outside. All of that came crashing down today! By the time we go to Portland and I headed out for my route, it was pouring rain. Now I’m a proud Seattle girl and I can handle pretty much anything in terms of weather but this wet, windy morning was just plain uncomfortable. Thinking I was just being whiny and needed to pull up my big girl panties and suck it up, I pushed through and focused as much as possible on the sweet boy at the end of my leash. Despite the awful weather, Wesley tried his very best for me. But eventually the wet started to get to him too. He occasionally drifted toward the overhangs on the buildings trying to get out of the rain but I politely asked him to maintain our straight line despite my similar discomfort. He wanted to go as fast as he could so we could get inside and got a bit antsy while we were waiting for traffic. I understood his unease but eventually had to firmly remind him that he still had a job to do. I made sure to talk to him and tell him that it was ok to slow down because we were in this together. Toward the end of the route he began to calm down and settle back into the plucky little trot that I experienced earlier in the week. Maybe it was because we were working our way back to the gdB Portland center or that I relaxed but I was still proud that we were able to pull it together for a solid ending to an otherwise difficult outing.

After we finally made it back inside, Wesley and I dried off as best we could. I’m not going to lie, it was slightly adorable how he leaned into me as I rubbed him down with a towel. We then packed up the team and headed into Gresham for an afternoon route. The plan was to practice some sidewalkless work but when we got there I started to feel a bit sick. Airing on the side of caution, I decided to pass on the afternoon route so Wesley and I just cuddled up in a comfy beanbag. The picture is of us all hunkered down, catching some snuggle time. As our wonderful nurse went to take the picture, Wesley leaned up and licked my face (kind of precious!).

When we returned to campus, Wesley and I worked on some clicker training with our instructor. I found this part to be super fun. Wesley got so excited when he figured out that if he showed me the chair we were targeting, he got a click followed by a food reward. His earnest effort to play the game and receive the reward just made me smile. It is something that he obviously enjoys and it builds his confidence as there is really no way he can lose this game. Its all about setting him up for success every time. In the evening we practiced brushing our dogs’ teeth and cleaning their ears. This is a review for me as I did these things with Retha but it was good to see how Wesley did with them too. He did not like the ear cleaning very much but as usual was very patient and trusting for me. I just talked to him and he did just fine. He seemed to like the teeth brushing though. I guess any dog would as we were using the delightful poultry-flavored toothpaste (Yum!!!). I was sitting on the floor next to him while I brushed his teeth and right when I wasn’t expecting it, he licked my face and let’s just say I got a little taste of the toothpaste too! Just for the record it is not as delicious to this human as it might be to my lovely canine. Despite my surprise, I couldn’t help but smile at his little sign of affection.

Now as I sit writing this post, listening to the rain outside and enjoying the soft sound of Wesley sleeping at m side, I am happy. I finally feel complete again and it is such a simply good feeling. I hope everyone gets to feel this sense of wholeness at some point in their life.

Thank you all for reading and following my journey. I hope I get to know your story as you get to know mine. Feel free to shoot me an email if you’d like to connect.

Good night world!image-2

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Guide Dog Take II: Day 4 Building Confidence

This post is for yesterday. I know I said I would be better on posting about each day on that day so that will start now after this post. ;)

Today Wesley and I went walking on our route in Portland. Our first route in the morning went really well. We noted several things to work on including my turn mechanics especially to the left. On our way back to the GDB Portland Center, Wesley and I approached a curb as usual and when I cued him to go forward and cross the street, he resisted. When I asked again, he tried to move to the left so we reset. I asked him one more time but we just decided to go sighted guide across the street. The principle here was to “get to the good” stuff and reward for that. So when we walked forward with my instructor being a sighted guide, Wesley did come alongside me, maintaining the line we were traveling. When we got to the other side, my instructor informed me that there was a large puddle of water in front of the down-curb which was why Wesley did not want to move forward. We noted this as something to pay attention to in our afternoon route. The rest of the morning route finished out nicely and ended on a positive note.

When we went out for our afternoon route, everything seemed to flow a bit smoother. My turns were better but did get a bit sloppy toward the end. The big accomplishment happened when we approached the very scary dog-eating water puddle. Wesley showed me the curb as usual and when I asked him to go forward he didn’t even hesitate. He took a big step and went through the puddle like a champ! I felt like an overly proud mom when we got to the other side and he looked up at me seeking approval and reward. He got that praise in full! It seems like such a small accomplishment but to me it just showed how hard Wesley tries to do good. All the way back on that route, he trotted with a little hop in his step. It was like he was proud of himself too.

With every day that passes, I feel Wesley and I growing in confidence and connectedness. With each moment of praise or encouragement, he works a little bit harder for me. I can’t even describe how good it feels to be behind the harness again and especially with such an earnest and honest partner. Wesley continues to endear himself to me and I just love every second I spend with him. He seems happy to be with me and work as a team.

After dinner, Wesley and I did some snuggling on the floor. He was so affectionate and kept leaning into me as I pet him. He licked my face and laid his head in my lap. I really enjoy how responsive he is to physical praise. I feel like it connects us on a deeper level. We played a little with his bone and kong and eventually he decided it was bedtime and tucked himself in a ball in the corner. Before I went to bed, I made sure to give him some love and tell him how good of a boy he is and how much I love him. This partnership is just plain awesome. I know it won’t be spectacular like this forever but the love I feel between us hopefully will never go away.

Tomorrow we work in Portland in the morning and Fred Meyer in the afternoon for inside work. I’m looking forward to just another day with Mr Wesley.

I’m going to try and get some pictures of us working on some of our routes.

Stay tuned and may your Thanksgiving cooking go smoothly!

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Guide Dog: Take II: Day 3 Playtime

This was technically yesterday. I’ll try to write subsequent posts on the day they happen!

photoToday Wesley and I had some really awesome routes! It felt so good to be behind the harness again. Our paces match perfectly and I absolutely adore the way he works. He needs more encouragement than Retha did but he is so sincere in how hard he tries. Even when he is unsure of what I’m asking, he still tries to do the right thing. Working with Wesley is providing many opportunities for me to learn as well. I am working on making my voice intonation with commands more consistent and confident. This is something I never even realized with Retha but Wesley responds extremely well when my commands are firm but still encouraging. My instructor suggested thinking of Wesley doing whatever I am asking him to do instead of waiting to see if he will actually do it. I found this really helpful. It’s definitely something I will have to keep working on but Wesley is a patient teacher.

In between routes, Wesley is so mellow and relaxed. I had some homework to get done and he just laid quietly at my side even as other dogs came in and out. Occasionally he will become curious about what the dogs near him are doing but when I ask for his attention, he is quick to refocus. This level of consistency is so refreshing and exactly what I need in my life right now. I can already tell that he will do great in a class setting and in the dorms.

After returning back to campus from our away routes today, we received instruction with our grooming kits. This was largely a review for me but still exciting with a new dog. Wesley really likes being groomed but is very sensitive. Sometimes he gets unsure about what I’m doing but just looks around to check it out. His coat is so soft and fluffy and super easy to groom. Selfishly, I admit that I am really happy he has black fur because I can finally wear my large collection of black yoga pants that have been in the back of my closet for too long!!

After dinner, we were given Wesley’s favorite thing… toys!!! We have a bone-shaped tug toy, a kong and a nylabone. Wesley loves all three and is so gentle when he plays. He has such a soft mouth and likes to just run back and forth with a toy in his mouth. i threw the kong just a few feet away and he playfully ran to get it and bring it back to me. It seems that he really just wants to be close to me when we play. At one point, he was chewing on his bone a few feet away from me and I was sitting on the floor watching him. He then got up and left his bone, walking over to me and nudging my arm around him. He laid down against my side and took a little nap. I almost cried because of how precious this is. After some snuggle time, Wesley got up and went straight to his bed and fell asleep. Again this is just adorable.

Tomorrow we head into Portland to begin our new routes. I’m really excited to practice more with this sweet boy. With every minute of our journey, I adore him even more. Stay tuned!

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Guide Dog: Take II: Day 2 Wesley

Today I met a beautiful soul who happens to be my guide dog partner. I could not be more thrilled with this match. It is only the first day of our journey together but I am already in love.

This morning my classmates and I began with some Juno work. For those not familiar with GDB lingo, Juno work is when an instructor holds the harness or collar and simulates common dog behaviors. Using this method allows for handlers to learn commands and offers an opportunity to troubleshoot through possible distractions. In all honesty, I found that my concrete obedience and guidework were really rusty. I felt like I had forgotten everything and had to start from scratch. My patient instructor helped me to gain confidence and find my “guiding legs” again. The muscle memory started to come back to me and I eventually settled into the rhythm. There are a few other retrains (handlers on their 2nd, 3rd… dog) in my class and they had trouble with Juno as well which made me feel much better about struggling at first. Through doing this Juno work, I did discover that I have some less desirable habits that I’ll be working to correct. But I’m up for the challenge.

The fun really began after lunch. I waited in my room and waited for my instructor to bring my new partner. As I listened to all of my classmates open their doors and welcome in their dogs, my heart beat faster and faster. I ran through whatever name possibilities I could come up with in my head “Alejandro? Donald? Ricardo? Luigi? Frederick?” And as I continued to wait, my anticipation ever rising, I couldn’t help but notice that I was overcome with peace. This surprised me. I would have expected to have metal butterflies in my stomach as is normal for me when something new or important is coming. I attribute this serene feeling to none other than the Holy Spirit. This whole journey of retiring Retha and waiting for another guide has brought me so much closer to God. I’ve faced a higher sense of vulnerability than I have felt in a long time yet these past few months have been different. Instead of being overwhelmed by anxiety or stress I found it relieving and enticing to lay my burdens before the cross. I had full faith that God held me in His hand. He had a plan and however difficult it was at times, I had more trust in that plan than I’ve ever had. As Jesus was with me as I handed over Retha’s leash in August and as He jumped with me when I dove head-first into a new year of school without a dog, I know that He stood at my side today as I awaited my new partner. These past months have been miserable in many ways but the soft blanket of Godly peace I felt today is proof that the struggle was worth it.

After an indeterminable amount of time, I heard the promising knock on my door. I leapt to open it and met my instructor leading Wesley, a stout, male black lab. I knelt to greet Wesley as he affectionately licked my cheek. I held back tears as I ran my hands over Wesley’s soft and fluffy coat, listening as best I could to the information from my instructor. Once we were alone and given time to get to know each other, Wesley flopped over on his side and asked for a good belly rub which I of course provided. He couldn’t have cared less about the numerous smells on the floor. He just wanted my attention and I was glad to give it to him. Automatically I knew that this was my dog; this was the partner that God had readied for me.

Wesley and I worked on heeling and some basic guidework around the GDB campus. I admit, it felt much different from with Retha but I felt with every step that Wesley was trying with all of his heart to do the right thing. We used a lot of food rewards and I discovered that Wesley is highly motivated by them but also thrived on physical and verbal praise. At dinner, Wesley laid at my side like a perfect angel. And now as I sit writing this post, he sleeps next to my bed, positioning himself as close to the bed(where I’m working) as possible. He is so mellow and calm and I absolutely adore that. We seriously have the same temperament. I simply adore him and his old soul.

The real work begins tomorrow and I am excited to get walking with this precious boy. I have a feeling that our journey together will be full of joy and discovery. Of course it will take time for us to bond and become a true team but I just want to enjoy every step along the way with Wesley.

Thank you all again for your continued support in this journey! I am beyond blessed to have such a loving community around me and now around Wesley as well. Stay tuned for more updates about our progress in training. Welcome to the family Wesley. image-1

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Guide Dog: Take II; Day 1 Arrival

Some very exciting things are happening! A few weeks ago, I received a call from Guide Dogs for the Blind letting me know that they had an open spot for training November 23 to Dec 6 and they had a dog ready for me. needless to say, I was overjoyed that God had set such a miracle in my path. My prayers had been answered in every way.

So here I am on this lovely Sunday morning, sitting in the back of my best friend Sarah,s car as we drive to Boring, OR for training. I honestly can’t believe this is actually happening but I am so grateful that it is. Tonight I will meet my classmates and settle into my room for the next two weeks. It feels a little bitter sweet making this drive because Retha is not with me but I know she is with a wonderful family and is living the life she deserves. I am so very excited to meet my new partner tomorrow afternoon and am hopeful that we will be a good team.

As I did when I was training with Retha, I will post daily updates of our two-week training so stay tuned hear of adventures with my new best friend.

Thank you all for your support and encouragement through this process. The time I spent without a guide was some of the most lonely and desperate time I’ve experienced. But within that discomfort and struggle, I believe I found myself. I learned that a cane does not define me and it is possible to live a life without sight and still carry myself with grace and humility. I know now that God gave me this time to discover more of my identity as a capable young woman who happens to be blind. I confess that I am thankful this time is over but I understand that all of this is just another part of my journey.

As I enter this new chapter with a new partner by my side, I am confident.
Confident that the lessons I learned without a dog will endure.
Confident that neither fear nor insecurity will hold me back.
Confident that I will persevere as it is my God given habit.

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