Starting Monday I will be whisked away to a hotel to complete training with my new set of eyeballs; a furry, four legged set at that. It's my third time going through this process and despite some differences between the UK and North America, the sequestering of students and dogs is a commonality. This lack of contact with regular day activities didn't really seem like a big deal to me until I was talking with a few friends about it and I realised that this process is incredibly misunderstood. So, me being the thoughtful person I am, I am here to, hopefully, clarify the training process for those wonderful people who have never and probably will never go through guide dog training. ;)
First thing is first, it is probably one of the most emotionally and physically demanding things I have ever experienced; this coming from a girl who has trained for and competed in three Paralympic Games. So much is riding on the outcome and you only have a very short time frame in which to make sure everything is as sound as possible. There have been and will be moments of elation, frustration, excitement, annoyance, nervousness, fear, joy and everything in between. Sometimes you can even experience all of these things all in one day if not in only one training session.
It is not only physically demanding because you are walking constantly, but you are expected to be focusing the whole time while you walk very quickly with a dog you don't know or trust yet. If it was just walking then it would be a piece of cake, but you are attempting to learn your new dog's movements in order to be able to interpret them. You spend time playing with your new dog and grooming your new dog all of which require a small amount of physical exertion. Despite the playing and grooming being small and enjoyable forms of physical activity, they shouldn't be discounted. All of these things add up over 20 plus days of doing this every single day. It's like going to work and never leaving. Of course it's enjoyable work for most, but you always have to be aware of your new dog and what your actions will do to your budding relationship.
It's also physically demanding because of the stress that the emotional roller coaster places on your body. Everyone knows the adverse effects of stress in a long term capacity and although I wouldn't say that a person suffers long term physical consequences due to stress from guide dog training, there is definitely some stress symptoms that occur.
Training with a guide dog is one of the most liberating and exciting experiences there is and none of the things I have written above is meant to take away from that, but I highlighted these aspects in order to make a point.
With all of these things going on, how is it possible to expect a person and his/her new dog to thrive in the person's every day life? What if the trainee has kids at home? If he/she is training from home, then the demands of the children will definitely be another factor the trainee has to contend with. In my case we have three other dogs in the home. It is probably better for me to be secluded with the new dog without the distraction of the other dogs wanting my attention or trying to play with the new dog. There are guide dog programs that train people in their home environments, including Guide Dogs UK, but for many people it is more beneficial to train in a controlled, quiet environment.
All of the emotional and physical demands are enough to contend with, on top of bonding with someone you are supposed to trust to keep you safe for the next nine to ten years. Why complicate things by throwing in more factors? This is why most guide dog trainees are "imprisoned" for about a month and this is why we do it willingly. We want our relationships to be successful and we will do anything we can in order to ensure the success; including forsaking our loved ones on Valentine's Day. (Ahem, sorry Mr. K). Simply, most of us need the quiet and mostly distraction free environment to be successful.
So, starting Monday, Mr. K and I will be restricting our communications to probably text messages and phone calls. Even then, if I am in the middle of a training session I obviously can't answer my phone or text him back. He's invited to come visit me on the following Sunday, but there are specific time parameters and I'm assuming location restrictions. Presumably we'll have to stay on the hotel property. It was basically the same when I attended Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Michigan. We'll probably be able to see each other again the Sunday after that and then hopefully I'll be home. It's just the way it is and in the long run it will be the most beneficial arrangement.
So, yes. It's odd being told when and whom you can spend time with, but training with a guide dog isn't your every day, run of the mill experience either.