Wednesday, August 10, 2011

International Assistance Dog Week: The Yellow Fellow

I don't remember the exact date Jetta retired. I know it was around August 10th or so of 2008. I never really clung to that date because I think I had so much going on to distract me from the fact that she had just walked out my front door. I didn't really write anything from that time period, so I don't really have anything concrete to go off of, but I know that I was pre-occupied with getting ready to leave for China and compete on the international stage for the last time.
Our flight left Beijing China on September 18th and I was at my parents' for a total of two days before I boarded another plane and flew to Leader Dogs for the Blind for the second time. I always got sick after enormous competitions and so I was sitting in the airplane battling a fever and a head cold. I kept willing myself to get better because if you are too ill to work with your dog, the instructors will send you home until you are better and then reschedule your training class. I did not want this to happen. Despite feeling like my face was going to explode from the pressure built up, my mind was whirling;  a million different questions.
"Would I get a boy or girl?"
"What breed?"
"I had asked for a big dog...would he/she be big or small?"
The flight took just over an hour, but it was all I could do to sit still.
Upon arrival, I was met by an instructor and was seated to wait for other students. Once a few more had arrived, we piled into a van and were off to LDB. Again, I sat quietly and listened to the other students talking around me. For most of them, this would be their first dog and their excited chatter filled the hour drive to the campus.
The first thing I noticed when entering the LDB building was how different it was. They had built a completely new residential building, complete with revolving door to practice with your dogs. I was shown to my room and I was immediately impressed at the single occupancy set-up. The beds were a double as opposed to the single I had stayed in the first time and they were incredibly comfortable. There was a door at the back of the room that lead out to the dogs' park areas. This was a nice improvement. The first time at LDB, we had to line up in the hallway and go out the front door to the park areas. It was chaotic and noisy. It was probably a bit stressful for some people and dogs; not to mention, very time consuming.
I spent that first day tucked up in bed, only getting up to eat lunch and dinner. I fell asleep at 7 PM and didn't wake up until 6 the next morning, feeling good and ready to go.
The next couple of days went the same as my first experience at LDB. We did "Juno" walks, had lectures and just generally got comfortable on the campus and downtown training centre. On one of our Juno walks my instructor asked me if I thought I could handle a big dog. I said of course and she asked me to give a correction to demonstrate my strength; turns out I was too strong because I corrected the harness right out of her hand. This happened twice more when we were practising leash corrections and she was pretending to be distracted by a squirrel. When we got back to the centre, she said something about me being small and soft spoken and that was deceiving. From then on, she didn't ask me to do corrections anymore.
On September 24 2008, I met my new partner. We did Juno walks in the morning and after lunch our instructors sent us to our rooms, collected our dogs' leashes, told us our dogs' names and went off to get/deliver each dog. I remember sitting on my bed, shaking with nerves and excitement. I heard other people getting their dogs; including the woman next to me who was a first time handler. I pressed my ear to the wall just to hear her reaction and to catch what information I could about the new dog-I was so excited for her and the waiting was driving me nuts. I was the last person from my training team to get my dog. My instructor knocked and asked if it was all right if she entered. I said yes and she informed me that another instructor was with her. A, my instructor, had not trained my dog and the woman who had wanted to see him issued. Of course I said yes. I was standing in the middle of my room and A told me to call Glacier. I did and this gigantic oaf came bounding into the room, paws sliding on the slippery floor. Once he reached me, he stood up on his back legs and planted his paws on my shoulders; standing like this he was almost as tall as  I was. He gave me three huge kisses on the cheek and then plopped back on to the floor. A and the other instructor laughed and I think, but cannot be sure as I can't see, Glacier's trainer got a bit misty. I think he was "teacher's pet." I knew right then that I loved him. My love for Jetta was not that instantaneous. I don't know if it was because I was younger or if it's because of Jetta's personality, but Glacier and I fell instantly in love. I knew I would do everything I could to make things work with this big goof.
The next three weeks went by quickly and at one point I asked the instructors if they thought Glacier and I would be all right. We had a few diagonal street crossings and he seemed to lose his quick pace. We also took a bit to gel and I was worried. I think part of my worry was because I was used to working with a seasoned dog. Glacier's movements were totally different, considering he was 25 pounds heavier than Jetta. He was also quite youthful  and although it made me laugh, it concerned me. Once, stopped at a curb waiting to cross the street, he started hopping in harness because he wanted to chase a scuttling leaf. They assured me we would be fine and I went home, loving my dog but worried about my working partner.
We struggled at home too. His obedience routines were great, his recall was fantastic and he followed me everywhere in the house. Our working was a bit spotty and it made me a bit nervous, but I remember having problems with Jetta in the beginning too so I let it be. I hoped it would get better with time. There were times where we made improvements, but something still was not meshing. He would shut down if I leash corrected him and we'd stand in the middle of the sidewalk completely still. How was I supposed to get to where I was going if my dog refused to guide me? The hardest part for me was when Glacier was on, he was on. He was a great worker when he was working and I felt confident with him guiding me along. He made me laugh and he was the sweetest guy. He loved to play and he was amazing at "down stays" while I was massaging classmates or clients in the school clinic. I didn't even have to attach him to anything. A lot of changes happened in the last couple of years and I think it contributed to mine and Glacier's rocky start. I made some choices that compounded the issue, but life also just happened and that caused things to decline.
In the middle of March of this year, I realised that Glacier and I were not safe. He walked me out in front of two cars and no longer watched out for me when we were working. He jumped curbs and walked me into people. Knowing that we were moving to Scotland, I contacted Leader Dogs for the Blind in the hopes that we could do something to rectify the problems we were having. I wanted to travel abroad with this big yellow guy with me. Our move was set to happen in August and even if they had retired Glacier, it would not have given me the time to get a new dog due to the travel restrictions placed on animals traveling into the UK. I did not want to end up in a foreign country guide dogless, but I also needed to do what was safest for both Glacier and I.
On April 12th 2011, Leader Dogs for the Blind welcomed Glacier and I back on to the campus for a twelve day retraining excursion. I didn't know what to expect and I was very afraid I'd leave without Glacier. My flight into Detroit was much different than the first two times. I was nervous, but because I may not have a guide dog anymore. I may have to give up the dog I had loved from our first meeting. I had two meetings within the first 24 hours of arriving at LDB, basically to determine what our problem areas were and to let me know that there was a very real possibility that Glacier may need to be retired. I knew that, but I was willing to do everything I could to make things work.
I learned a lot in those twelve days, which I wrote about the whole time I was there. I learned that Glacier is much more sensitive than I thought and leash corrections are usually not necessary. I learned how to trust him more and to read his body language better. He learned to trust me again and to love working again. The structured environment was great for both of us and brought us back to the basics. We were paid very high compliments from different instructors and with five days left, the trainers knew Glacier would be going home with me. I had a few tests I  wanted him to pass, traffic checking (stopping me if a car pulls in front of us), and working in doubles (working with another guide dog user) and staying focused and responsible for my safety. Glacier proved trustworthy and reliable in the last five days we were there and when we headed home, I felt confident and excited about our future.
It's been almost four months since Glacier and I left LDB for the second time and I have to say the improvements I saw in him, and myself, have been maintained. I have a whole new way of handling and I am incredibly grateful that the instructors at LDB put their faith in me and made me a part of the retraining process. I learned so much and have a lot of new tools to use when we reach Edinburgh, just in case Glacier or I have an adjustment issue. We even have a representative of the guide dog program in Scotland meeting with us to introduce us to Edinburgh. I think this will help with the transition and ensure that Glacier and I are still a competent working team. I am excited to walk the streets of Edinburgh with my big, Yellow Fellow leading the way.
What is the point of all of this rambling? Well, first of all, it's to honour both of my guides and to thank them for their patience and for what they have taught me. It is also to let everyone know that there are ups and downs in guide dog/handler relationships like there are in every relationship. It's also to remind myself of the pledge that I have made to Glacier, to be a better handler so that we can work together for many more years. It's also to raise awareness about assistance dogs and the important roles they play in people's lives.
Tomorrow International Assistance Dog Week continues and so will my stories about my guide dogs. Perhaps we will visit some of the funnier things we have experienced together. :)

5 comments: said...

What a great post. I got very teary eyed. As a guide dog puppy raiser it's so crucial to know exactly what the needs are for the dogs so that we can work on those distractions those first eighteen months. Thank you for sharing!

Jess and Glacier said...

Thank you so much for stopping by and reading. Puppy raises are amazing people. :)

Jen said...

Was it strange going from working such a small dog to such a big one? Why did you want a big one? Just curious, as the first time I met OJ I thought he was too big, because i'd been expecting something a lot smaller. Now I don't think I would like a small one. I mean I wouldn't refuse it, but I like the protection and strong feel of a big one.

Jess and Glacier said...

It was really difficult going from such a small dog a huge moose of a dog. I think that is part of the reason we struggled at first...but if someone had pointed that out to me, I think we might have had an easier time.
I wanted the bigger dog to feel safer. I had roommates when Jetta and I worked together, but I was going out completely on my own and wanted a bigger dog-he's really not that scary, but I think someone would think twice because he is a healthy 75 pounds and looks it. LOL
I wouldn't mind working with a smaller dog again; now that I know there is a difference and I would be prepared for it. That said, I like having the big guy for feeling safe-German Shepherd next time? :)

browndogcbr said...

Hi Y'all,

Playing catch up again.

Having followed along on all your adventures and trials, it once more brought a tear to my eyes as I read about the retraining portion of your experience with Glacier.

BrownDog's Momma