One of Our Own Goes Through Guide Dog Team Training: Week #2
Southeastern Guide Dogs’ very own Admissions Manager, Suzy Wilburn, is getting her first guide dog, this article covers her second week in training.
Today was our first day out in the “real” world, away from the safety of our campus. For me, this will be my first trip walking a neighborhood without a family member since 2005.
Today is routes at the Bradenton Downtown Training Center, better known as the DTC. We have a comfy room to relax in while other teams are out and about. I would be completely untruthful if I said I was excited about this. I’m anxious and nervous. This is not my neighborhood and I don’t know my way around, and I’m up first.
Harness on and away we go, white knuckling the harness handle all the way down to the steps. I know Carson can feel the anxiety and he reacts to it. If you’ve ever been told that your emotions run down the leash and directly to your dog on the other end…you should listen. We were awkward and a bit clumsy down the steps and to the curb. I say we, but it was really me being so unsure of myself that I could’ve curled up in a ball and just cried. For those of you who know me, you know that is not my usual demeanor, but this is different. I have to learn to trust my dog. Off we go with a left command and then forward.
Our first true obstacle was a palm tree overhanging at face level. He stopped, looked up at the palm as if to say “I’ve got this, really I do”. Have I told you that I love him? Not for saving me from the overhang, but for understanding that I need him.
We took a stroll around a few blocks. We started to encounter some issues with my commands. I have a deep voice to start with, so my correction and command voice are starting to sound the same. I do have to say that my trainer has commented on my praise voice though. I think I could do the voiceover for Minnie Mouse.
The rest of our day consisted of lunch, one more route, then back to campus for lecture and obedience.
We’re headed back to the DTC today for more routes. Things are still challenging, but I’m not alone in this journey. Even though I have one trainer, I also have eight other students to bounce questions off of and compare notes. I do this to make sure I’m not messing things up too badly.
We had an eventful first route around the neighborhood. We followed another team on this route and encountered a stubborn little cat on the way. I say little, but I have no idea the size of this brave soul. The team ahead of us found it first. It was incognito, hiding under a car, just waiting to test us. The team ahead re-worked this “distraction” several times. Carson wanted to join to help his fellow guides deal with the situation, but we waited. Once we approached this furry fury, I prepared myself for a handful of dog. You have to understand that I have a cat at home that Carson would love to be friends with, but that has absolutely no interest in Carson. I’m prepared for the worst….he passes right by without hesitation and doesn’t give the cat a second thought. I’m proud and confused at the same time. This training is much more mental than I ever imagined.
The rest of the day goes on without incident. We head back to campus for our regular afternoon schedule. Consistency is the key. Tonight I decided to get myself all worked up about how I am not going to succeed with a guide dog. Don’t ask me why, but I felt like I was ruining my dog. I couldn’t even bear the thought of Carson not being my dog at this point. Just the mental image of him back in the kennel wondering why he wasn’t with me makes me cry even now. I have to get myself out of my head. Tomorrow will be a true test. We have the mall and night walks.
I’m privileged to the information that night walks are coming tonight. I don’t share this with others. I have made the decision though not to look at the remainder of class schedule, because I don’t want to know what’s coming up.
We do a quick route at the DTC, then off to the mall. This may sound small to some, but for most of us, it’s a big step to head out to a crowded place and trust that our dog won’t run us into someone or something. We head off to the mall after an uneventful route at the DTC. I follow a fellow student with my trainer. This student has a much faster pace than I do, so I ask Carson, “Please don’t try to keep up with him”. I’m amazed again at how Carson knows to move around and keep me safe. He follows the wall on the left all the way around the inner part of the mall without missing a beat. He is absolutely amazing, no matter how much I mess up. We finish up our routes at the mall and head back to campus to rest for the afternoon in preparation for night walks.
Night walks is a nightmare to even think about. I don’t travel out at night because my remaining vision is just horrible after dark. Lights from a car or street light cancel out any detail I may be able to see. So we are back to white knuckling the handle and praying that Carson gets me around everything. I trust him 95%. I trust my trainer 100%, so I start to calm down as we take our first steps. Eventually I will learn to follow my dog’s lead. I run smack into the very first obstacle we approach. I didn’t “listen” to my dog when he said “move left so we don’t hit that.” It scared the life out of him, me, and anyone who may have been in ear shot. Follow the harness handle and trust your dog. Follow the harness handle and trust your dog. Follow the harness handle and trust your dog. Now I get it! I need to relax and trust that my dog knows what he’s doing. He and I are becoming a team and I have to realize that I am 50% of that team. I’m scared because I can hear people I don’t know and I cannot see them. Carson just focuses on his job and eventually I focus on my part and we move with ease past strangers and obstacles and my stubbornness.
We are tired. Last night took a lot out of both Carson and me. Not so much physically, but mentally. We have obstacles on campus today, so it should be an easy day: nope, not so much. I’m struggling again with my own issues about how I am breaking my dog. I can’t figure out if we are in a battle of wits or he just doesn’t want to work today. At the end of the routes around campus, I realize that neither is the case. It’s me, and it’s been me from the beginning. I KNOW NOTHING. I need to re-focus and remember that Carson will keep me safe and my trainer knows what she’s talking about. I have one of those “duh” moments when I come to this conclusion. I have to stop over-thinking everything. A good break in my room with Carson, butt-tucking around, letting me know that I need to let it go and have some fun, is just what I need. It works perfectly. I am ready for tomorrow’s fun!
Two words: traffic checks*! I don’t want to get in to a lot of details, but it’s safe to say that Carson knows when to stop for a crazy driver in a near silent hybrid when it comes close to running us over! I know now that I can trust him 100%. He will keep me safe and I will not do anything to mess that up. I think at this point, the bond is as solid as a rock.
*A note about traffic checks…guide dogs learn a very important skill during their training and that is “intelligent disobedience.” In essence it means that they will disobey a command that will put the team in danger. In order to test both the dog and the handler, Southeastern does traffic checks in a controlled environment. During a traffic check, the dog will keep the team from proceeding when an oncoming (and silent) hybrid vehicle is going to be in their line of travel. While this might appear to be a bit dangerous, every precaution is taken to ensure the safety of all involved and it is an incredible learning experience designed to keep them safe in the real world.
Saturday morning goes on without a hitch. Today is Freshman Orientation for Guide Dog U, when all the new dogs are coming in for training from their puppy raiser homes. The campus is bustling with new smells, sounds, and people. Carson and I go for a nice leisurely stroll with another student and her dog to the gazebo. He’s got it now. We don’t miss a beat. Other students are preparing for visitors and some well deserved off campus time. Carson gets to spend some well deserved time in the play yard with his new found friend, Rickey. I think this is just what he needed to release some energy and have some dog time with his new buddy.
Monday were heading off to the Discovery Center in Sarasota. We will rest for the remainder of the weekend. Time is starting to fly by.