Most days things kind of run at hurricane speed around here. Poor Mr. K is always telling me to slow down or sit down. He says I'm going to give myself a heart attack. The man's got a point. Going through guide dog school for this third time, with a new school and obviously a new dog who needs different things from me in order to do her job, is also driving this lesson home.
Yesterday a friend of mine sent me a link to her blog. She kept a daily account of her experiences when in training for, what I think, is her fourth dog. She was attending a new school that she had done a lot of research into and she and her new set of eyeballs graduated last August. Despite my new guide dog coming into my life nearly seven months later, a lot of what she wrote about rang true with me and also gave me a new perspective on the whole working with a dog thing. She also was able to put a lot of things into words that I've never been able to. Her writing was actually quite candid and I give her props for that. When I attempted to keep track of my training days with Nala, I think most of my posts focused primarily on the technical side of things and kind of omitted much of the emotional turmoil that getting a new guide dog causes. I took a lot of things from reading her experiences, but the two things that really struck a chord with me were her thank you letter to her dog's puppy raiser and how she struggled to switch from one handling style to another.
The first thing I did when I was finished reading her blog was send my instructor a heart felt thank you email. I can't remember really telling him exactly how grateful I was to him and the work he did. He hasn't responded, so I may have made him feel awkward, but it was really important for me to tell him thank you.
Secondly, I really thought hard about how the handling of guide dogs has changed since I was first matched with Jetta in 2002. I realised that some of the issues Nala and I are having are because I haven't let go of these more assertive handling tendencies. I mentally swore to myself, and in writing now I guess, that I would work harder to really think about my handling style and really try to implement the changes that the trainer here had taught me. I had learned some of these new techniques when I went back for retraining with Glacier, but I didn't realise just how much I had held on to from my Jetta days that is probably standing in the way of Nala and I becoming a well oiled machine.
In some regards, I have to give us both a break in that we have only been a working team for two months. It's difficult to remember that sometimes and I get frustrated wen we make mistakes. Those little errors will work themselves out with time as long as I stick to the ways that the trainer taught me to work with Nala. I'm not saying that Nala and I are having any sort of big problems, because we're not, but I think I'm a bit over sensitive to a missed cue or a wrong turn because of the issues I had with Glacier. I'm so worried that Nala and I are going to turn into that mess that I don't give either of us enough credit.
What's also difficult is that Nala and I did not go through hardly any growing pains in class. I am used to that happening and have been basically holding my breath since we got home, waiting for the wheels to fall off. I didn't realise I was doing this and since recognising my thought process, thanks to my read last night, I've been trying to alter my thinking patterns.
Today when we walked to the gym, I made a conscious effort to stay plugged in, so to speak, and pay attention to what was going on. I also monitored my voice inflection and response to things that Nala did and realised that I had been using a louder speaking voice before and praising her way too excitedly. I had to be Glacier's cheerleader for four years which was something we talked about in class. The trainer had to keep reminding me to watch my voice and since he's not around anymore, I think my voice was slowly increasing in pitch. On the way to the gym, I kept my voice calm and praised appropriately. Of course I said "good job" in a happy voice, but it's sort of a quiet "I've got a secret that I'm only sharing with you" voice. It's so different from what I had been used to before. I also made a conscious decision to pay close attention to my body position when approaching curbs and to focus really hard on my foot positions.
With both of my previous dogs, when they stopped at the curb you did too. It's the same with Nala, but because of the style of the harness being different here, you have to move up beside her shoulder yourself, whereas, my previous harnesses kept you at the dog's shoulder. So, the extra maneuver by you wasn't necessary. I thought I had been doing this, but I don't think I was doing it soon enough for Nala. She really takes a cue from you moving up to her shoulder and all of her crossings were spot on. In fact, the trip to the gym was amazing. I would say it was flawless. I literally was fighting back tears as I headed into the building. Her speed was fantastic-she didn't need any encouragement from me. Her crossings were exactly right and she was very confident. It was so reassuring to do that route correctly and at her high walking speed as well. The trip back wasn't as magical, but it was still good.
Nala's never been a fan of return trips. I think she enjoys working so much that she just tries to do everything she can to keep going. Most return trips from the gym she tries to take me to a pub that we go to sometimes, Asda and the cafe by our flat. She also walks at a snail's pace and is very unfocused. Today though, I focused really hard on my voice on the way back, even though I was exhausted from running six kilometres, and tried to position myself correctly at curbs as well. I've gone, as they say, back to the basics. Most of our trip home was fine, but at one point, somehow we ended up diagonally crossing. Diagonal crosses always freak me out because it means you have put yourself into the intersection. I think this crossing may have been my mistake as I think I angled us the wrong way to cross the street. None of the crossings on the way to the gym are straight and so it's not surprising that we crossed wrong. I knew the mistake as soon as it happened and in hindsight, I should have directed her back to the side of the street we should have been on, but my brain panicked and I just kept walking to the wrong corner, thinking I was closer to that curb than the one on the other side. Once there, we picked up our line of travel again and reached a crossing where, on the way to the gym, I would have Nala find the pole so I could push the button. She went to find the pole, but I didn't want to reward her for finding it this time since we approached it wrong. I didn't want her to think that crossing diagonally was a short cut and that she still got treated for finding the pole on the way home. So, I kind of steered her left without realising that the sidewalk opens up right there and we were on our way to Asda.
I knew where we were, but I didn't know how to get us out. There are a bunch of little criss crossing roads/driveways/parking lots and I wasn't sure how to direct her to get us home. Not to mention, there were three giant dogs barking at each other over by the entrance and she was definitely distracted by the commotion. Instead of flailing about and confusing us both more, and frustrating us both more, I had her sit so that I could collect my thoughts. I also hoped that someone would come by so I could ask them to direct us out. Fortunately, someone did come along and the funny thing is that they were actually two Canadians on holiday. It made me miss home so much just talking to them.. Anyway, long story short, my time out helped me calm down and push the ridiculous panic back down that was starting to take over and the nice Canadian couple helped me get back on track.
After we returned to our correct line of travel, everything was smooth sailing. She found the pole I needed to cross the street and turned nicely on to our street. Her pace was still a bit slow, but quicker than it has been on previous trips home. I kept reminding myself to use my calm quiet voice and it seemed to help. Now that I'm aware that one spot is an issue for us, I can be aware of it next time and make sure we don't go wandering down the wrong path.
Despite there being a glitch on the way back, I am still really glad we went to to the gym this afternoon. We had one magic walk and one good walk that taught us a few things. It gave me a chance to practice being calm and collected when I was stressed out and I think it helped mine and Nala's working relationship in the long run. I know the day will come when neither of us will have to think so much when just trying to get to the gym and those magic walks will be nearly every single one. However, sometimes if you don't have the mistake walks, or the learning ones as I like to call them, you never really get the full impact of the true beauty in the ones that go oh so perfectly. I'm still on a bit of a high from our trip to the gym.
So, basically, what I'm trying to say in a very long and round about way is that, I really do need to slow down a bit, exercise some patience and embrace the newness of this whole experience. Nala really needs a handler who has her head on straight and when I'm rushing about, usually panicking and thinking about everything else except for what I'm actually doing, then she doesn't get that, and really that's not fair to her. We will be a better working team int the long run if I cut us both a bit of slack now and then and really focus on working together.
Thanks to Nala, Mr. K and my friend for putting things a little more into perspective.