One of Our Own Goes Through Guide Dog Team Training - Week One

As promised, here is a wonderful first-person look at the student training period as told by Suzy Wilburn.

Day 1:

I know now that nerves play a huge part in a class setting. I had no idea who to talk to and what to talk about. We all arrived nearly at the same time. Some of us are “newbies,” getting our first guide, while others have had dogs before. Knowing the trainers made a big difference in my comfort level. Unfortunately, not everyone has that opportunity. I know my first thoughts were that I didn’t want to disappoint the trainers. I thought I already knew everything, but learned very quickly that I KNOW NOTHING! You’d be surprised to know that visually impaired people have no problem telling each other about their vision loss. In society, it’s taboo to ask how someone lost their vision, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue among us.

Day 2:

5:30 a.m. comes way too early! Having breakfast from chef Rob made it all worthwhile though. The way the student table is set up is ideal for gently forcing people to talk to one another. I felt more comfortable this morning, but was still extremely nervous. That seems to be a shared feeling with everyone (new or not). Sitting on “the other side” during this morning’s staff meet & greet was a proud moment for me. Hearing the sincerity in everyone’s voice while they introduced themselves and welcomed us made me that much more certain that I work at the best place in the world.

Watching the anticipation from the other students going for their “Juno” walk and test walking with dogs was quite entertaining. I heard a lot of “let’s get this going,” and “I wonder what dog I’ll get.” It’s a scary process, but exciting at the same time. I guess you could say that you run the full spectrum of emotions during the 2nd morning.  

We headed off to lunch, with the knowledge that when we returned from lunch we would have a short lecture then learn the name, breed, color, and gender of our dog. I don’t think I’ve ever seen people eat so fast. In fact, I can’t really remember what we had for lunch, and I already had my dog!

Sitting through the five minute lecture about meeting the new dog seemed like it took a day and a half. Once the lecture finished, each person was told the information about their dog and was sent to their room to wait. I think this only builds the excitement, knowing that your dog is on the way. I heard trainers telling students that they had to wait inside the room and not outside by the door.

The next sounds you could hear within the halls were the trainer telling the students to “call your dog.” Then the sounds of laughter and licks and wags and tears and…well that should sum it up for you. We spent the next 30 minutes all alone with our dog to get to know one another and start the bonding process. After this it was time for work.

Meeting everyone’s dogs and hearing all the comments was pretty emotional. Carson (my dog) is a yellow male Labrador that I thought was big. How wrong I was. In our class, he is the same size as the two female dogs. Everybody else is bigger. We have a full class of Labs at this point, but we know that we may have a Viszla among us very soon. We have black dogs, a caramel colored dog (that’s Carson), a pale yellow dog, and even 2 black and tan dogs. Everybody wants to know how they got their name, if anyone is related to anyone, and if their dog will love them as much as we love the dog. Tomorrow we will be introduced to the harness.

Day 3:

Morning breakfast was extremely entertaining, as one of the dogs was hungry and decided to test his new handler by slowly reaching his head up on the table and swiftly removing half of his handler’s breakfast. Oh, the things we will learn today. Once breakfast is done, we will learn how to feed our dog. You think that sounds easy, but there are 7 other dogs all in one area eating at the same time. Down and under is a tricky concept. I sit in my chair, my dog spins with his back to me, lays down and scoots under my chair. He won’t get fed until he does this, so he learned very quickly. More commands, relief time and then off to obedience.

Obedience is a way to keep your dog sharp. Obedience happens two times a day. This is really the first time that each of us sees that the dog is really responding to our commands. Looking down the line of dogs and handlers, everyone has their dog on their left in a heel position and everyone looks proud and ready to work. A few laps around obedience alley and we’ll be ready for our very first route.

Personally this will be the first time for me to go on a route with a guide dog and I am petrified! I don’t want to mess anything up. Remember that last phrase? Right out of the gate my trainer tells me to pivot 90 degrees to my left, make a left motion with my right arm, pull back slightly on the harness handle, and tell my dog “Left.” Here we go….pivot left, got it. Right arm in left motion, got it. Pull back slightly on harness handle, got it. Out of my mouth comes “Carson, right!” Not messing things up goes right out the door. I even think my dog gave me a look like…really? We had a good laugh and I think it will be something I remember for the rest of my life.

We are working the nature trail that runs along the back of campus today. Today also was the day that the daredevil helicopter pilot decided that spraying for mosquitoes was a good idea. The helicopter buzzed us a few times and Carson was as solid as a rock, although he did pick his pace up a bit to get us away from that crazy thing. I can’t believe that my dog has already stopped for his first curb, keeps me in the middle of the sidewalk, and has already forgiven me for giving him the right command on a left turn. We make it around to the back of the training kennel and to the gazebo, then turn around and head back. I am in awe! He is so awesome. It makes me tear up just writing about it.

Now we rest. We get a nice break before we eat lunch. This is our first meal with staff present. My dog REALLY wants everyone that passes him to say hello and come pet him, but he fights the urge and stays by my side. I’m his now.

After lunch we get ready for another route through the nature trail and down to the gazebo. Great, we’ve done this once, we can do it again. This time I actually gave the left command and off we went. No helicopter, so all is well. We approach the gazebo and there are two other trainers and another student with his dog already sitting there, so we are going to join them. I know how smart my dog is and he’ll get this with ease. “Carson, left left, find the chair.” He shoots me a look to let me know that he is about to pay me back for this morning’s right command. He sits. I tell him the find the chair and he sits again. We do this several times, as if in a battle of wits and then he finally agrees to find the chair. At this point, I’m just going to come to the understanding that I know nothing about my dog, and he knows me inside and out.

We did obedience, and we were off for the rest of the night. You would think that Carson walked 100 miles uphill in the snow today. He slept from 8:00 p.m. until 5:30 the next morning. He occasionally grunted and stretched, but was out like a light for the night. Tomorrow is more routes on campus.

Day 4:

Breakfast was uneventful. I think the dogs are learning that they can’t put one over on us. At least that’s my story. We are sliding into a routine now. Breakfast for us, then breakfast for our dog, then relief, then obedience, then routes, then lunch, then routes, then dinner for our dog, then lecture, then obedience, and finally rest. We can go in pairs now to the gazebo, as long as someone (trainer) knows we’ve left the building.

I’m still amazed, as Carson and I go on a route, that he is so smart. That sounds wrong…I know he's smart, but this is amazing. I’ve learned tons of commands, and he knows all of this already.

For obedience today, it was raining so we worked on recalls. This means we work inside the building, sit and stay your dog at one end of the hallway, walk to the other end and sit in a chair. With the simple command of “Carson, come!” he gallops my way with a huge smile on his face, as if to say “yes, I love you and here I come to show you how much I love you, catch me!” It was so exciting to see that my dog had the choice of going to any person in the room (7 other dogs, 7 other students and 3 trainers), and he came to me. Sigh…we are in love with one another.

Day 5:

This morning my first thought was there was only one more day until our first weekend together. Today was much of the same. Consistency is the key, so these daily obedience sessions and routes, only solidifiy our bond and gets me up to speed on what I need to do to make this team work.

Days 6/7

Today will be a busy day. We have a group coming in to spend lunch with us. It’s our first test around crowds. We have a shortened work day so after lunch, we will be on break until Monday morning. Lunch goes well and Carson sleeps right through it. Next week we go off campus! Our first steps together in the “real” world. I can’t wait.

Laurie September 16, 2011 at 06:48 PM
Great article, Susie. Really let's you be a fly on the wall. Can't wait to read about next week's adventures.


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