Daily Life

October 6, 2017 by

Oh my friends, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, guide dog ownership and handling is tough. I had heard it can take six months to a year to fully bond with your guide dog, but I didn’t grasp what that meant until I actually got one. In this age of instant gratification, six months to a year is starting to feel like an eternity. 

I continue to struggle with the impact a guide dog has had on my daily life. My work day is an hour longer now, to accommodate the extra time needed for relief breaks and feeding. It is also more interrupted; Starla sleeps a lot but there are times when she wants to play (usually when I have just settled in to focus on a project), and I/we get a lot more visits from loving coworkers needing a pet with a sweet, cuddly dog. And the extra energy needed for all of this and guidework leaves little at the end of the day for dishes, laundry, or sweeping up the crazy amounts of fluffy white dog fur that is everywhere.

I’m trying to manage as best I can, but I suspect this will also take six months to a year to adjust to a different schedule and work day. Fortunately, I have a gracious boss, and an even more gracious husband, which helps more than I can say.

The good news is, my confidence in guidework seems to be better, as I worry less about what others think. It’s such a process though!

That’s all for this week’s update. It’s a three-day weekend for us, which is much needed. God is good, all the time. I’ll leave you with yet another photo of Miss Starla Grace in a fabulous sleeping position. 🙂

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Starla is Two!

September 29, 2017 by

This cutie patootie turned two today! Here she is chewing on a tasty bacon bone from her Puppy Raiser Jessica. She is one happy pup! 

Progress

September 28, 2017 by

I am happy to report that Starla and I are making progress as a handler and guide team! We met with our GDB Field Service Representative last Friday and again this past Tuesday, and I got the help and extra training I needed to feel more confident. I can’t tell you what a relief it is! And the best part is, twice this week I felt confident enough to try new routes.

Tonight after work, as we walked into the bright sunlight (making it impossible for me to see anything) “Rock Star-la” Grace wove her way through the commuters and delivered me like a champion to the train station doors. I am starting to see how our handler/guide relationship will progress and mature if I remain consistent, and keep working on my handling skills. If feels like the hard work over the last month and a half is starting to pay off, and I could not be more grateful.

In other news, Starla turns 2 tomorrow! Sounds like a good time to break out the Jolly Ball, baby carrots, and ice-cubes. 🙂

So close…

“One Eye Double Blind” and “The Money Maker”

September 14, 2017 by

I gave my eyes nicknames. (That’s normal, right?) My right eye is “One Eye Double Blind” and my left eye is now “The Money Maker.”

Another long morning at the doctor’s office confirmed that I am now legally blind in my right eye both peripherally (less than 20 degrees) and centrally (20/200 with corrective lenses). My left eye is legally blind peripherally, but my central acuity is holding steady at 20/40 with corrective lenses.

This morning I heard vague phrases like lesion, debris, fluid, and scarring sprinkled between more technical terms like Retinitis Pigmentosa, cystoid macular edema, intraocular vascular tumor, and cataracts. Bottom line, there’s a bunch of junk in my eyeballs and there’s really not much anyone can do to fix it.

I left the appointment feeling defeated. These are the moments and days when I am most at risk of succumbing to depression, usually in the form of sleep, food that is either fried or chocolate, and Jane Austen adaptations. It solves nothing, but somehow it numbs the pain of “there’s really not much anyone can do.”

The good news is, this too shall pass. I have been in this position many times before and the blessing is that I always snap out of it eventually. You can only wallow so long before you realize how ridiculous you look wearing pajamas with chocolate ice-cream dribbled down the front.

And, let’s be honest, it’s hard to wallow at all when you have the adorable Miss Starla Grace looking up at you with her big brown eyes. She is a comfort in more ways than one. And right now she is telling One Eye Double Blind and The Money Maker that it is time to go for a walk, get some fresh air, and let the wallowing go.

Starla at Dr Fishmans

Starla’s Puppy Shower

September 8, 2017 by

I have some seriously amazing coworkers, and today they proved it again by throwing Starla a puppy shower.

Starla received toys and bones, bath wipes, treats, gift certificates, towels, poop bags, and a fancy new bed for the office, among other things. Their generosity was such a blessing to me! GDB provides a lot of equipment, which was helpful in getting started. These gifts are the icing on the cake, and will provide Starla fun and entertainment at the office.

Big love and lots of gratitude to my colleagues for planning such a fun party and showering Starla with these gifts!

Work in Progress

September 7, 2017 by

After two weeks of training (actually three, if you count my week of Juno O&M at the SF Lighthouse last December), I was sent out into the world with a beautiful pup and a duffle bag full of dog-related gear. I felt almost as lost as I did the day I met Starla and was told to “bond” with her for an afternoon. (FYI, I could totally do that now. Progress!)

My journey as a guide dog handler feels like a chess game of two steps forward, one step back, uncertain if I am making the right move at any given time. As Starla and I have moved through our first few weeks at home and work, I have struggled with confidence in myself and in her, and questioned (yet again) if a guide dog was the right choice for me. (Emphasis on “guide dog”, not Starla specifically. Starla is the best, and I love her to pieces.)

Guide dog handling takes time, patience, consistency, energy, and grace. On any given day, I might be successful in one, two, or maybe even three of those areas, but a “pentafecta” is a rare thing. By the end of last week, I was exhausted on every level. I took a couple of days off and slowed everything down. Starla and I took time off from guide work and I got to know her for the funny, sensitive, and super smart pup that she is. Best of all, the long weekend gave me a chance to unwind and let go of the “pentafecta” expectations I had placed on myself.

I had no idea a guide dog and guide dog handling would be so much work. I don’t wish to scare anyone away from getting one, but I do wish I had known more before I showed up on campus. Here are a few examples:

I wish I had spent time with dogs in any way possible: dog sitting; playing with dogs at a shelter; visiting friends with dogs; dog walking; watching videos about the care of dogs and a dog’s anatomy; learning what an ear infection or skin irritation looks like; knowing what to do if they get diarrhea or constipation; learn how to use different equipment for different situations; figure out toys and play time….  The list is endless, and it only covers “dog”. I haven’t even started the “guide dog handling” list.

Bottom Line: If you’re thinking about getting a guide dog and you don’t have any dog experience, do yourself a favor and get as much experience as possible before you show up on campus. Doing so will allow you to focus fully on training to be a guide dog handler.

I have had Starla for a little over a month now, and I feel like we are settling in fairly well. I’m still struggling with knowing how to manage her when she gets distracted while working, so I’ve requested a visit from my Field Service Manager. Just one of the many benefits Guide Dogs for the Blind gives their students. I’m continually impressed with the level of care they provide their dogs and alumni.

Starla seems to be acclimating well to the long commute and office hours. She gets lots of visitors and love at work, which helps. I’m still trying to figure out “the look” she gives me… It usually means Feed Me, Play with Me, or Take Me Outside. She’s giving it to me right now, but we’re on the train with 20 minutes to go…. Here’s hoping it’s not Take Me Outside Immediately. 🙂

I’ll leave you with my current favorite photo of Starla by the Chicago River, taken by my husband. Love this gal!


Transitioning Home

August 24, 2017 by

Miss Starla Grace and I graduated with Class 862 from Guide Dogs for the Blind on August 19, 2017! We did it!

One of the best parts of Graduation Saturday was getting to meet Starla’s raisers. Jessica and Tammy (and their families) raised, trained, and socialized Starla from when she was about eight-weeks old to 14 months. Here’s a pic of me and Starla with one of Starla’s raisers, Jessica, and the next puppy Jessica is raising.

And here is a pic of my team of instructors who patiently led me through the journey of becoming a guide dog handler:


From left to right: Paolo (GDB), Katt (SF Lighthouse), me, Starla, and Lauren (GDB)

We flew home on Sunday, and as per the usual, Starla was a champ. She plopped down and slept the majority of the four hour flight. The gentleman in our row kept saying “remarkable” every time he looked down at her, and even took her picture.

Monday and Tuesday were “rest” days for us. I took Starla on walks around the neighborhood, introduced her to the train, and we spent time simply getting to know each other outside the rigors of training.

Yesterday, it was time to get back to work. We made the long commute without issue, introduced her around the office, found a pet relief area a block from my office (huzzah!), and Starla even managed to get in a good nap.

Starla continues to amaze me with how well she does with various modes of transportation, and acclimating to new environments. I wish I could say the same for myself. This week feels a bit like Week One of training all over again. Everything feels “new” and I find myself fumbling and doubting as we encounter new situations.

As we walked from the train station to the office this morning, I had to remind myself to take a deep breath, slow down, stick to the basics (e.g. 90 degree turns instead of moving turns), and ignore the hundreds of commuters walking around us. I tend to get caught up on the “commuter mentality” of needing to walk fast and stay on the right side of the sidewalk. Starla likes to drift left and walk slowly so she can take in all of the new sights and smells. I find I am constantly reminding myself of the transition that happens between Week One and Week Two of training, and to stick with it and be patient.

Enough of travel and commuting! I thought you all might enjoy hearing the things that have surprised me the most (so far) about owning a guide dog:

  1. Starla is a dog, not just a guide dog. Okay, so this wasn’t actually a surprise, but I completely underestimated the amount of “Dog 101” and “Intro to Dog” training I needed in addition to the two weeks of Guide Dog Training.
  2. Strangers view my dog as an invitation to tell me about their own pets.
  3. People ask me if I am training Starla. I suspect it’s the combination of “residual vision” and the fact that I give her a piece of kibble when she’s doing a good job. Whatever it is, several times a day I am asked if I am training her.
  4. Starla is a conversation starter. In addition to the pet owners and trainer questions, I find I am interacting with a lot more people than I did when I used a cane.

That’s all for now. I’ll leave you with one last mug shot of the adorable Miss Starla Grace.


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Sweet Starla 

August 17, 2017 by

Starla amazes me. And by that, I think what I really mean is, I am amazed by the extraordinary team of people needed to breed, raise, socialize, doctor, and train just one guide dog, According to GDB’s website, it takes an average of 251 volunteers to do just that.

What the website doesn’t say is how many volunteers it takes to train, corral, encourage, nurse and support one guide dog handler. I suspect that number is also close to 250 when you factor in donors, admissions personnel, travel coordinators, nurses, resident assistants, food service workers, housekeepers, volunteers, alumni coordinators, field representatives, supervisors, O&M instructors, and guide dog handler instructors. And then there are all of the residents and companies in San Rafael and San Francisco who patiently endure students and instructors invading their space for the good of the cause. It’s amazing, and it’s a privilege to be a beneficiary of such generosity of time, resources, and, I suspect, a little blood, sweat, and tears.

Back to Starla, she’s amazing in her own right. She’s also funny, sweet, and stubborn (especially when it’s time to relinquish the Jolly Ball). We are continuing getting to know each other, and when to give and when to push. By far, distractions remain our biggest challenge; for her it’s how to ignore them, and for me it’s how to manage her when she loses focus. What I’m realizing is that this won’t be solved by the time I graduate. It’s going to take time and a lot of corrective consistency. Aside from distractions, Starla seems to excel at everything (I might be slightly biased though).

The past couple of days have been a blur of traffic checks, subway rides, a night route, crisscrossing through the Embarcadero district in downtown San Francisco, and a walk along the Bay at Crissy Field. Tomorrow morning will be our last training route. Our time here is winding down, and I find I’m excited and eager to take sweet Starla home.

Super Pup

August 14, 2017 by

Today we hit downtown San Francisco! It was amazing to see Pup work around construction sites, jackhammers, barricades, and then cross six lanes of traffic with no problem. I’m starting to call her Super Pup for her rock star abilities in a big city and also because when she’s chilling out on the floor, she often like to stick her two back legs straight out behind her, so it sort of looks like she’s flying. All she is missing is the cape.

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We rode on a public bus (dog boards first), and I learned how to tuck her cute little booty under the seats. We passed tons of dogs (or maybe it just felt like tons of dogs?) and she did well, compared to last week, but there is still room for improvement. Her pace was pretty fast today and I had to work to keep up, but it is apparently easier to slow down a fast dog than trying to speed up a slow dog, so I’ll take it. At one point on our walk, we passed an little toddler who looked like she was just learning how to walk. When she saw my dog, she let out the most delightful little squeal. It was adorable.

This afternoon we had another neightborhood route, followed by a trip to the pet store. Oh boy. That was an Olympic-sized test on my dog handling skills. Needless to say, I was pretty tense and stressed out by the time we left. Poor Pup just wanted to sniff everything, but I couldn’t/wouldn’t let her. She did end up with a bacon flavored chew toy though, so all is well that ends well.

Speaking of toys, Pup LOVES the Jolly Ball. She can’t get enough of it. If we are in our room and she hears another dog playing with it outside, she just stares at the door, willing it to open. Her favorite time of the day is when we have play time in the “paddocks” (an enclosed space with astro turf where she can run free). Here’s a pic of Pup in the paddock with a Jolly Ball:

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As I settle in more I realize the stress I feel is from not only having to learn how to be a guide dog handler, but also how to be a dog owner. I think if it was one or the other, these two weeks would feel much more manageable. As it is, my poor instructors are fielding questions from me that range from “How do I work my dog on a street with no sidewalks?” to “How do I get my dog to take a pill if she has to?” Once again, I find myself feeling so thankful for the endless patience of everyone who works here.

Tomorrow is a BIG day. In the morning we are going to be tested on vehicle “interactions”, which apparently includes how our dogs respond to moving cars that stop suddenly in front of them, how our dogs work around cars that block sidewalks, etc. In the afternoon, we’ll meet with a GDB vet and review our dog’s complete medical history with them. And tomorrow night is our night route walk, which will be huge for me as I have so much less vision at night than I do during the day. Based on feedback from my home interview, I have been told that I grip the harness more tightly when it’s dark out, so Pup and I need to train with me gripping the harness differently than I normally do. (Seriously, the details that go into guidework are astounding.)

Big love to all of you following along! Thanks for all of the encouragement and support. xo

Week One at GDB

August 14, 2017 by

So.Much.Information. It’s been an long, full, challenging, emotional week and I am grateful to finally have a few minutes to sit down and reflect.

Sunday, August 6 – Arrived at GDB in San Rafael, CA. Met my six other classmates.

Monday, August 7 – Met instructors. Reviewed lessons on Communicating with Your Guide Dog, Obedience, and Guidework basics. Oh yeah, and we met our dogs.

I was excited to meet my guide dog and learn her name. We were told to spend the afternoon “bonding” with our dogs. My dog was brought to my room. We sat there and looked at each other. I have no idea if we bonded.

Tuesday, August 8 – Learned basic routes in downtown San Rafael. Reviewed lessons in Orientation and Learning Routes. “Worked” my dog for the first time as a guide dog. Started doubting my decision to get a guide dog.

I think I expected perfection. That’s what I imagined, anyway — Handler and guide dog gliding down the sidewalk together, gracefully sidestepping coffee shop signs and yahoos on their cellphones. What visually impaired person wouldn’t want that?

Here’s what reality looked like: An inexperienced handler and a highly trained, athletic dog (who have clearly not bonded, but are expected to read each other’s minds) walking down the sidewalk at a snail’s pace because the handler has no clue how to manage the dog. The dog senses the handler’s lack of experience and confidence and uses the opportunity to sniff every object and lunge after every dog within sight.

Wednesday, August 9 – Reviewed lessons on Street Crossing and Addressing Guidework Errors. Continued to rework set route in San Rafael. Major focus on pace as pup was either walking too fast or too slow for my gait.

The more I walked with my pup, the more stressed out I became. Distractions were everywhere and I clearly had no clue how to manage my dog. I couldn’t remember when to drop the harness, when to hold onto the harness, when to give a time out, or when to just walk on. My turns were getting sloppier by the minute. I was forgetting hand gestures on some turns, or neglecting footwork on others. Poor pup had no idea what to do when I instructed her to turn left while facing right, or when I gave the verbal command to go “Straight” instead of saying “Forward.” The good news was that she was going to the bathroom when and where she was supposed to, which given everything else going on, was a small triumph in my mind.

Thursday, August 10 – Reviewed lessons on Dog Encounters, Advanced Management and Handling, Care of Your Guide Dog, and Playing with Your Guide Dog. Continued reworking route in San Rafael.

Everything came to a head Thursday afternoon. We had a good morning route and our pace seemed to be getting better. But during the afternoon walk, she was slow and highly distracted. At one point, my dog veered off course in the middle of a street crossing to say hello to some random woman crossing the other way. Not good. I hit a breaking point: Should I continue with this dog? Should I try another dog? Should I go back to using my cane? I was overwhelmed.

My amazing, kind, knowledgeable, compassionate, caring instructors sat me down. We talked through the current situation and discussed a multitude of options available to me. We agreed to sleep on it and reconvene first thing Friday morning.

Friday, August 11 – Reviewed lessons in Guidework in Buildings (moving turns, escalators, elevators), Customizing Your Dog’s Vocabulary, and Clicker Training.

Decision time. I am sticking with my gal! I have no idea how it happened, but I think she and I finally started to bond! I decided to spend Friday morning going back to the basics. My hope was that if I could solidify my muscle memory of right turns and left turns, then I would have more mental capacity to tackle distractions and advanced guidework. It was a wise choice. After that, I focused solely on dog distractions with my instructors. Over and over, pup and I worked through a set-up and we finally started to click. She’s smart AND beautiful (not that there was any doubt)!

Friday afternoon, we headed to the local mall and this is when the magic moment happened. As a visually impaired person, malls seriously stress me out, and the food courts are the worst: running kids, flashing lights for kiddie rides, random chairs scattered everywhere, wet floor signs – you name it. But as I walked in with my guide dog, I realized I was gliding through the nightmare obstacles stress free for the first time in years. It Was Amazing. I had forgotten how freeing it was to simply walk and not be constantly scanning for things I might run into. This is why I wanted a guide dog! It was happening! It wasn’t perfection, but it was a moment of reassurance that I was on the right path.

Saturday, August 12 – Reviewed lessons in Walking in Areas Without Sidewalks, Leaving Your Dog Alone, Why Does a Guide Dog Work, and Addressing the Public. We took a morning walk in a neighborhood without sidewalks and then headed to the mall to learn how to ride escalators and go through revolving doors with our dogs. Saturday afternoon was our “halfway” review meeting with our instructors.

Halfway Review?! I’ve been here for a week?! I only have a week left?! Pride for my accomplishments was quickly followed by panic for all that is still to learn. Another opportunity to remind myself that today’s grace is for today’s problems. Tomorrow will have a different fountain of grace for tomorrow’s problems.

My classmates and I celebrated our halfway point by going bowling. (I’ll pause a moment while you envision six blind people bowling. It was as fun and entertaining as it sounds.)

Sunday, August 13 – Rest Day. No formal lessons. We got to spend 30 minutes rolling around with a bunch of six to eight week old lab puppies. Heaven for us. Then we learned how to give our dogs a massage. Heaven for them. And I concluded today with a massage of my own, which is just what I needed to separate myself from the craziness of last week and prepare for the craziness of next week.

It’s time to rest and get ready for a new day of grace.

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