I got the call. Wednesday afternoon my cell phone rang and on the other end was one of the Guide Dogs trainers letting me know that they had a potential match for me. He wanted to meet up Friday to see if the dog and I would work well together. He said that we were perfect on paper, but that was just paper. The trainer that I've been working with up until now had gone to see the dog and told this trainer to call me. That in and of itself was encouraging. So, we agreed to meet Friday for a walk and a chat.
Friday afternoon came much too slowly in my opinion. I was very excited Thursday night and didn't sleep well. The trainer picked me up just after 1 and drove me out to the area that the dog's been training in. We chatted on the drive about the process ahead and the sorts of things that happened during training if we got there. At the training area, the trainer unloaded the dog from the back of the van and put the harness on. He explained that we'd be walking along both quiet and busy streets and that he'd have an extenda leash clipped to the dog just in case I needed him. I still was incredibly nervous. I was so worried that things wouldn't work out and I'd have to keep waiting. I was also worried that I'd decide that we were a good match and be wrong just because I didn't want to wait anymore. I had told myself the night before to try to be aware of anything I might not like and to mention them. I wasn't going to go down the same path as I had taken with Glacier. I had noticed things in training and had mentioned them to his trainer, but was brushed off. I was determined not to be brushed off again.
The first part of the walk took us along side a park. The dog was very focused and despite other dogs running off leash in the park, the dog kept us moving forward. Little reminders to "straight on" helped, but the dog was very easy to re-direct and re-focus. "Straight on" was a new cue for me, so I had to keep reminding myself to say the right cue. Leader Dogs uses just "straight" and so sometimes I'd almost forget the "on" part. At the first curb we came to, we hung a right and began walking along a busy street. My left arm/hand was very tense and the trainer asked me if I was okay. I told him that it was a bit scary since I hadn't done this in a while. I made a conscious decision to relax. I knew that the dog would be able to pick up on my uncertainty and nervousness which would make the dog uncomfortable.
The trainer warned me of a bus stop that was coming up. There was also a pole in the proximity of the bus stop that required the dog to navigate me carefully through. We approached the bus stop and I could hear people waiting for the bus and just as we walked up the bus arrived. I was a bit concerned about getting through the crowd, but the dog moved cleanly through, leaning towards the bus door as if to say, "in here?" A "straight on" was all that was needed to keep us moving forward.
The walk carried on from there with many obstacles for us to work around. It was garbage day and so there were a lot of bins/bags/boxes out on the curb that we had to avoid. Not to mention, your every day pedestrian traffic, other dogs, birds and at one point the sea. Along the section where the sea was on our left, I had to keep reminding the dog "straight on" and gave the dog one small collar correction when the temptation of the sea was just too much, but again, re-directing the dog was so easy. There was no heavy corrections needed, no harsh tones either. The dog seemed to respond well to calm, quiet cues and this is how I like to work. I also didn't have to play cheerleader the whole time we were walking.
When Glacier and I used to go out, I'd have to praise him the whole time and keep talking to him or he'd lose confidence and stop working. Thankfully, this dog doesn't need that. Jett had needed harsher tones to keep her focused; not agressive ones, just a sharper tone to "leave it" or "straight." Anything less and she didn't pay attention to me. Again, none of that was necessary.
We moved between parked cars, around a van blocking the entire sidewalk and past three dogs without incident. To be honest, I didn't even know we past the dogs until after the walk and I asked if there had been any dog distractions besides the ones in the park. Suffice it to say, I was very impressed.
I also learned a few more new cues and some new body positioning. The body positioning is very particular when you're crossing streets with regards to your foot position as well as when you need to go down a side street and the dog is in the way of turning that way. The trainer had to keep on me about relaxing my arm and remind me about foot positions at crossings, but none of those issues were with the dog itself. My biggest fault was the tense arm and I had difficulty remembering to slide my right foot behind the left before telling the dog to "forward," but that will all come with practice.
The trainer has even trained the dog to "find the pole" at particular crossings. I'm so glad he's done this because it means that it is a transferrable skill to other areas/objects. When the dog is told to "find the pole" the dog walks up to the pole and touches it with its nose.
When our amazing walk came to an end, the trainer asked me what I thought. I told him I was blown away at how easily the dog listened to cues and at how responsive the dog was. It was also very obvious that the dog loved working and that was a relief to me. The trainer had warned me that this particular dog liked to anticipate and sometimes would rush because of this, but that wasn't really hard to deal with. I just had to remind the dog to "wait" at curbs sometimes and only twice I had to bring the dog back into a "sit." I like that the dogs here are taught "wait." It was something I later taught Jetta and Glacier, but it's nice that it comes built in already with these dogs. :)
The sitting at the curbs was something I had to get used to, but to be honest, I think that it was beneficial. Before now I didn't think having your guide dog sit at curbs was a good idea and perhaps in most cases it's not, but for the way I work and the way this dog works, it's a good thing. It keeps the dog from rushing and makes me feel more relaxed at crossings. I feel like I can take my time deciding if it's safe to cross.
We talked a bit more about how the walk felt and then the trainer told me that he had unclipped the extenda leash in the last half of the route. I had had my suspicions because he'd leaned forward once and then was walking in a different position than before, but I was too busy paying attention to the dog and trying to read the dog's body language that I hardly gave it any thought. Knowing that he felt comfortable enough to let us fly solo, so to speak, made me feel so much pride in our work. It also made me hopeful that this dog was the one.
I brought the dog into the heel position at the back of the van and the dog sat. Then the trainer instructed me to remove her collar and with it, the leash. The van door was opened and the dog was told to "wait." After a few seconds the dog was told that it was all right to get in. I can't quite remember what the wording was because my head was buzzing with a million questions and replays of the walk, but it was something like "in you get" or something like that.
The humans then hopped in the van to get warmed up and the trainer asked me if I liked the dog. Of course I said yes. He asked me if I liked working with the dog and of course I said yes again. Then he asked me if I wanted to go into training with the dog. I laughed and said, "yes please." He laughed too and said that he thought we were a good match and that he wanted us to train together. So, it was decided that I'd probably go into training some time at the end of February if everything went as planned.
The trainer took me to meet the volunteer that the dog is staying with during this phase of training. This too is different than most North American schools as the dogs usually stay in kennels during harness training. Here, the dogs stay with a volunteer family so that the dogs live in an environment that is as real as possible. After that, we headed over to the hotel where we will be staying during our training together. This is also different from most North American schools as well.
When I got Jetta and Glacier, I stayed in a very large, purpose built residence building on the campus of the guide dog school. In Scotland, they use hotels. This particular hotel is very nice and all of the staff that I met were very friendly and seemed helpful. I definitely won't mind staying in that hotel for two and a half weeks.
After the hotel tour it was back home we went. We made plans to meet again on Wednesday to have the dog meet my crazy family of Hermione, Otis and Roscoe. We'll also show the dog the flat and then we're going to discuss routes that I would take on a regular basis. The idea behind that is to teach the dog as many of the routes that we will be taking as possible. I'm so lucky to be training locally so that the trainer can start early on our routes. It should make the transition for both of us a lot easier when we come home after our two and a half weeks of training at the hotel. Once we return home, the training will continue for another week or so with us living at home. I think this is so that the trainer can help with any settling in issues as well as go over local routes.
So, the point of this gigantic rambling blog post is that there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. I have met and liked my potential new guide dog. I have to wait a month while the trainer works on polishing skills with the dog, but from what I saw on Friday, I'm going to be a very lucky woman come end of February. I'm not going to share any of the dog's details just yet as I'm not sure that I'm supposed to. Besides, I don't want to jinx it. :) Maybe after our meeting Wednesday I'll be able to tell you more.