Technically, International Assistance Dog Week started yesterday as it runs from August 07 to August 13 2011. More information about International Assistance Dog Week can be found
In honour of IADW and my guide dogs, this week's blog posts will be dedicated to them and other assistance dogs. So, let us start from the beginning.
In November of 2001, I made the decision to finally put in my applications to various guide dog schools. I had wanted a guide dog for as long as I could remember, but due to my swimming training schedule, I had not been able to go and get one. I was still in high school and leaving during the summer would have been the only time that would have not interfered with school, but the swimming season really picks up in the summer and so I had resigned myself to wait. Knowing that I would be graduating in June of 2002 and would be heading off to university, I picked independence and safety over swimming competitions and mailed my applications off. I had selected two schools and it took some waiting before I heard back from either of them. Leader Dogs for the Blind was the first to respond and the first to send a field representative out to test my orientation and mobility skills.
The field Rep videotaped our session and asked a lot of questions. Normally, LDB is a little hesitant to match a dog and a handler during the first year of university as the dog tends to turn into a glorified pet. It is quite easy to be in social situations and use your dog as a conversation point or let some of the rules slide because it makes interacting easier. I can say that, because I was in that situation more than once and had to make quick decisions to be a responsible guide dog handler. I'm not saying I was successful every time, but I really tried.
After realising that I had a lot of responsibility as a competitive athlete, the field Rep said that he'd put a good word in for me. He didn't want the selection committee to judge me based only on my age and the fact that I was off to university.
The call came in April that I had been accepted. I remember being overwhelmed with gratitude to the field Rep and with excitement. I set about getting ready way far in advanced because I was so excited. I'm pretty sure my suitcase was packed at the end of that week. Those few months felt like I had to wait forever. I kept going out with friends to the mall or to coffee and thinking
"My new dog could sit here," or "fitting a dog into this change room will be interesting." My thoughts were completely consumed with the prospect of my new companion.
July finally arrived and LDB flew me to Detroit where I was met by a trainer who was to drive me to the campus located in Rochester Michigan. There were other students packed into the van and I sat quietly listening to everyone chatting. I was the youngest in the van by far and was a bit shy. You'd never know it by reading my blog, but if I don't know you, I am usually very quiet on first meetings. I had so many questions, but I kept them to myself and just listened. Many of the other students were asking them for me as they were first time students as well.
In 2002, LDB still housed their students in the old residence building, which is now torn down and has been replaced by a much more modern and spacious building. I was told I would have a roommate and I was a bit nervous about that. I was 18 and everyone in the van had been over 60. Not that there is anything wrong with people over 60, but when you are 18, you tend to wan to socialise. Thankfully, my roommate turned out to be a very cool girl who was probably more shy than me. We have stayed in contact over the years and you can find a link to her blog
The first couple of days there our trainers took the time to get to know our voice inflections when giving commands, our walking speeds and the type of travel we would be doing when back in our home environments. We also attended lectures about meeting our new dogs and how the dogs may be feeling and information about our harnesses and other equipment. We went on walks called Juno walks where the trainers held the front of our empty harness with us holding the harness handle. Our leashes were fastened to a D-ring on the side of the harness and we walked along, the trainer acting as the dog. We practised commands this way and corrections too. This particular activity is probably the most important for a trainer to get to know your working style.
Finally, on July third, three days after our arrival, we were issued our dogs. I've talked before about Jetta's first reactions to me, so I won't go into those details, but I do have to say that July third 2002 changed my life forever. It sounds so cliche or insincere when I put it that way, but there is no other way to describe it.
We didn't do our first harness walks with our dogs until the next day and I was so nervous and excited, I didn't know what I was feeling. I was so flustered I tried to put Jetta's harness on wrong. She stood patiently, waiting for me to get my head on straight and consequently her harness. Jeorge, mine and Jetta's trainer, hooked his leash to the side of her harness and we headed out. The instructors often do this the first few times you are out to ensure control is maintained and that both the dog and handler feel comfortable.
The first curb Jetta stopped at was a magical moment for me. Jeorge had told me to ask her to
"find the curb" and she stopped abruptly at the curb's edge. I praised her like crazy and we continued around the block. I knew the instant we got back to the downtown training building that I would never go back to using a White cane again.
Jetta and I had a six year working relationship. It was filled with ups and downs and a lot of crazy adventures. Practically every memory I have from 2002 to 2008 have Jetta in them, or me wishing Jetta had been with me. It was extremely rare that I left her behind. When she started showing me signs in March of 2008 that she no longer wanted to work, I contacted LDB and started the process of applying for my new working partner. I knew that I couldn't get a new dog until the end of September as I was attending my third and final Paralympic Games. I wasn't going to take Jetta with me because the rules and stipulations China had put on bringing guide dogs into the country had made me nervous. I had a strong feeling that if I came back after a month of being gone that Jetta would not want to work. Perhaps if I had not attended the Games, Jetta may have worked for another six to eight months, but the month apart solidified for me that she wanted to retire and I did not feel badly entering Leader Dogs for the Blind's newly built residence centre on September 21, 2008.
If you have time, go over to Leader Dogs for the Blind website found
and browse the information they have. Currently, LDB is looking for puppy raisers and the application and information about being a puppy raiser can be found on their website. As I've said to someone recently, without puppy raisers there would not be working teams. I am incredibly grateful to the two people who made the decision to raise puppies for LDB because without them, I would not have Glacier, or have had Jetta.
Stay tuned tomorrow for more "tails" from my life working with guide dogs in honour of International Assistance Dog Week. :)