Glacier and I have been back from retraining at Leader Dogs for the Blind for almost two months now and every harness walk we take he just amazes me. We've done a lot of work since our return, including the streets of Toronto a very large city in Ontario, and even though he impressed me there, last night was just as impressive.
As of right now, my lifestyle does not require that Glacier and I get out and work every day. That said, I am working very hard to make sure we work, if not every day, every second day. I want to keep both of our skills sharp and continue building our communication skills. The way we communicate now is easy and although a sighted person watching may not think so, Glacier is a strong worker. He moves me at the last minute and a lot of people are afraid he'll run me into things, but we are a well oiled machine and last night was a prime example of that.
After my dad and I finished supper we decided to go for a walk. Glacier had gotten some indoor work in the morning as I needed to run a few errands, but I really like him to get street work as well. Each type of work requires different skills and decision making for both the handler and dog. It was a nice evening and so I harnessed up Glacier and Dad put Jetta's leash on her. Both dogs were very excited to get out.
I think what was the most impressive about last night was that almost every lesson we learned at LDB was incorporated into our walk. When leaving my parents' house we walked along the shoulder of the road and had to "indent" at an intersecting street. That would have covered the "sidewalkless or country travel"lecture at LDB, which we covered in retraining. Glacier did an excellent job of keeping me on the shoulder and taking me out just far enough on to the road to get by a car parked along the shoulder, but not too far out that I would have been in danger. I felt his huge head swing past my thighs as he checked the street and then gently maneuvered me on to the road, around the car and then back on to the shoulder. All without any cues from me.
Our next interesting test for Glacier was to merge onto a sidewalk from the shoulder of the road and he did it perfectly. We encountered a branch blocking the sidewalk and he moved me around it with a small step to the right. If you hadn't been watching closely you may not have even seen his movement. Quick and precise. These movements were part of my problem that I learned about in retraining. Glacier's a big dog, but his guiding is precise and unless you know him, his movements may be imperceptible.
After our branch encounter, which I wouldn't have known was there if my dad hadn't told me, we crossed another street and a set of railroad tracks; another LDB class lesson. Leader Dogs are taught to stop at railroad tracks to indicate to their human that there is something on the ground. Most dogs lose this once out of class because most people don't run into train tracks every day. Glacier doesn't quite stop, but slows down kind of pauses and picks his paws up really high before stepping over them. It's this high front paw stepping that indicates to me that there are tracks. The trainers at LDB would prefer that he stop, but I can read his body language and don't mind. He doesn't do this for any other ground obstacles, so we're all good.
We then crossed at a lighted intersection with five lanes of traffic and just as we stepped off the curb, some jerk zoomed right in front of us. Glacier slowed and pushed me back. Again, good dog. We cross the street safely and then crossed again with the light. There was an island in the middle of the road and Glacier did awesome by stopping at the "down curb" of the island before proceeding across the road. This pause let me know there was a step down and also gave me enough time to assess the traffic and determine we had enough time to get across the second half of the street.
We walked along the very busy street for a while and at one point Glacier took me up on to the grass on the right side of the sidewalk. I was about to correct him, but then heard the clicking and whirring of a sprinkler. I busted out laughing. Glacier had decided the sprinkler spray was an obstacle. As soon as we past the spray, Glacier gave a very sharp move to the left and got us back on the sidewalk. Good dog!
We continued along our path, crossing grocery store parking lots and streets. We worked our way through a residential area with sidewalks and Glacier's "traffic checking" ability was tested twice more. We were halfway across the street when someone drove in front of us at a four way intersection. I was pissed. The third and final traffic check came at a "stop" sign and the person who was supposed to stop didn't. There hadn't been any traffic coming and I had determined it safe to cross and about three quarters across the street, the car drove in front of us. I tried not to lose it in order to keep Glacier focused. Dad told me later that he gave the driver the finger. Glacier found the curb, but it wasn't where you would step up on to the sidewalk. I told him, "left" and he followed the shoulder up onto the sidewalk
Oh, Glacier. You are so good. He handled himself well in a stressful situation, with the proper responses and was confident in his harness.
The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful as we were on the home stretch. No more a**hole drivers and Glacier maneuvered the branch and parked car perfectly on the return trip. He was very happy to find the house and the door, which lead him to having some water and a cookie for his efforts.
Every time I am out with Glacier, I am grateful for our working relationship and that we were able to retrain together. There is not a trip where I don't get down and give him some good loving once we've reached our destination, but there are trips like last night that really blow me away. His work was practically flawless and his enthusiasm for his job is amazing. His "decision making" skills were tested last night and he made great decisions that kept me not only safe, but dry as well. :)