Monday, March 1
A Day in the Life Of a Guide Dog Team In Training
6:40 PM: After stuffing myself with baby back ribs, I sit around and talk with my classmates. There is assigned seating because it makes it easier for the kitchen staff to make sure people with special diets get the right food. I guess I'm at the "will eat what you put in front of them" table. We talk about the days events and that evening's program. The new guide dog users have the evening off. There's an optional program for retrains, "Tribute to Retired Guides". I never skip optional programs unless I have to. But I am not looking forward to this.
7:00 PM: Tribute To Retired Guides. I walk down to the VIP apartment in the dorm practicing what I will say. "I have a really good dog back home who I am absolutely certain will live forever. Next!" When my turn comes, I can't pull the trigger. Instead I talk about how my wife keeps telling me my old guide dog shows no signs of missing me what so ever, the ingrate. I tell the story of how he would always trick me into going to the Memorial Union Terrace by subtly shifting left on the criss cross paths on Bascom Hill. We would be heading east down Bascom Hill and somehow, before I knew it, I'd find myself facing north and nearly to the Terrace. I wouldn't even know how it happened but I always figured that I must have done something wrong. After it happened 5 or 6 times I figured out how it was happening. Then I realized Walker must have been doing it deliberately. I'd have to correct him back to the right over and over. He really wanted to go to the left. Eventually, I thought that we were over it because I was onto him. But then one time the field representative from the guide dog school came out for the annual visit and he pulled the trick again. We swerved to the right to avoid a group of students and then came back too far to the left. Before I realised what had happened we were almost to the Terrace. I stopped, dropped the harness and the field rep came up. "You've confused your guide dog," she said. "No, he confused me," I said.
The tribute is being facilitated by an intern here at GDB. She's a young woman on her fourth guide dog. She asks me about Walker's bout with cancer. I just say that he worked almost a year without a tail. Then I find myself adding that I'd give anything to have him back. As much as I like Gui, I feel like he's an interloper. She says the only thing she can say, its natural to feel that way and it will get better with time.
8:00 PM: Back to the room. I check my email and write down a brief account of the days events in preparation for this message.
8:30 PM: Last relieving of the day. The lead instructor for our class is out there. He teases me about wearing my Packer pajamas out for relieving. I tell him its all for a good reason. If I go missing, they'll be able to describe what I'm wearing. "Even if you haven't seen me, you can just tell the police I was wearing Packers stuff from head to foot."
8:40 PM: Set up coffee for tomorrow morning.
8:45 PM: Phone call from Judy. We talk about the days events. While I was gone she's had to have the roof repaired. The car broke down. I miss her. I wish I was home.
9:05 PM: I download a new book in text format from bookshare.org. "Service With A Smile" by P. G. Wodehouse. A little light reading to improve my mood. Violating about a million rules, I unhook Gui from his tie-down and get him up on the bed. Together we drift off as the electronic voice drones on ...
Sunday, February 28
A typical day in the life of a guide dog team in training...
12:20 PM: Gui wakes up from his afternoon power nap. He wakes me up by licking my ear. The book, "Marlee and Me" is still playing on the computer. I'll have to start the CD from the beginning again.
There's just enough time for a game of tug before lunch. I get the tug ring out holding it at shoulder level. Gui surprises me by matter-of-factly standing up on his hind legs and calmly taking the tug ring right out of my hand. If he had been jumping around like crazy, I'd have been ready for that. Gui is a ferocious tug-of-war player and plays to win.
12:30 PM: The chimes for lunch are sounded. I grab Gui's leash and I heal him in on the trip to the cafeteria. I promise myself not to over eat. Lunch is shrimp gumbo. I have two helpings. Dessert is carrot cake. I am stuffed.
1:30 PM: Afternoon meeting. There is a chance of rain but right now it looks good so we're going into the city (San Francisco) for training. We'll relieve our dogs and then load the buses. On the way in, we have a discussion of the finer points of clicker training. Clicker training is a way to teach a dog a new behaviour. You are given a clicker that you are supposed to click exactly when the dog exhibits the behaviour you are training. You then give the dog a treat. The clicker acts as a "bridge" allowing the dog to know exactly which behaviour got him the treat. I want Gui to help me in a men's room. The instructor describes how to teach Gui that he gets a treat when I put my hand on a urinal. Very cool.
2:15 PM: Arrive in downtown San Francisco. I sit on the bus waiting my turn. There is one instructor for every 3 students. I try to listen to a book on database management but soon realize that I haven't heard a word the electronic voice has said for several minutes. Finally, my turn comes. Gui has developed a habit of stopping about a foot short of the curb. We try saying, "Hop up!" to tell him to get closer. That works each time but I'd rather not have to do it every time. My instructor suggest I offer him encouragement when we get close to the curb. "Good boy! Good boy!" This seems to work and I am able to put my foot right on the curb several approaches in a row.
We step into a building with a revolving door. I'm terrified of revolving doors. My instructor shows me how to use my left foot to keep the door from rotating while I get my dog into position. He plays the part of a careless pedestrian trying to make the door go while I position Gui. It works but I still have images of Gui's tail getting caught as we go through the door. After five or six times through the revolving door, I take a deep breath and we move on.
3:30 PM: Back on the buses for the return trip to San Rafael. I fire up my talking GPS so I can follow our progress across the Golden Gate Bridge.
4:30 PM: Afternoon relieving. After relieving, we're free until dinner at 6:00. I listen to the end of "Marlee and Me" and learn of Marlee's inevitable end. Too late I realize that this evening is the tribute to our retired guides. I'm a puddle already.
6:00 PM: Baby Back Ribs. I nearly explode.
Saturday, February 27
A typical day in the life of a guide dog team in training...
6:15 AM: The alarm on my braille computer goes off. Guillermo, already knowing what that means gets to his feet and starts nudging me. He is on tie down next to the bed but he is big enough to reach me with his nose. I get out of bed, put on some sweats, and go into the hallway to turn on the coffee. I am the unofficial coffee maker for the class. As a retrain, I already knew how to work the coffee maker.
I go back to the room and feed Gui. By the time he is done eating, the coffee is done. I grab his harness and my coffee cup and get in line to take him outside. Three or four students are there ahead of me. The instructor opens the door and as each student leaves the door, he or she calls out to the one behind that it is okay to step up to the door.
We walk back and forth in a driveway keeping our dogs moving for ten minutes whether they've already done their business or not. You never know when they might have a little extra to give. Gui is a quick reliever so the last 8 minutes are usually wasted.
7:15 AM: The chimes for breakfast ring. Do not be late. You will not get a breakfast, lunch, or dinner if you are more than 20 minutes late. You can help yourself to fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and milk any time, 24x7. But I have never missed a meal. Today breakfast is scrambled eggs, sausage, and hash browns. I help myself to a banana as well.
8:15 AM: Morning meeting. do not be late. They'll come looking for you if you're late. Although, if you make a habit of it, they'll stop and then you'll start missing things. Rarely, students have been asked to leave due to habitual lateness.
At the meeting they take our lunch and dinner orders, you have a choice between a main dish or a dinner salad for each meal. Next is an explanation of the days activities and goals. We'll be doing a route from the bus to the lounge. More on that later.
Next is an "obedience" session then we load the bus. Obedience is a series of command you give the dog to get his mind on his job. It consists of three sits and downs, a stay, heel, and a come.
After obedience, we relieve the dogs again and load the buses. The instructors drive us from campus about two miles toward downtown San Rafael. They stop at a point about 3/4ths of a mile from the training lounge. They drop me off about 3 blocks further away from the lounge than the other students. Remember that smart aleck remark you made this morning, Jack? We have a way of paying you back. Actually, it's because Gui and I are by far the fastest walkers of any team. Even with the extra distance, we are the second team back to the lounge.
On the way, Gui runs me into a street light post. He has figured out where we are going and his mind is into getting from point A to point B. I carefully back up a couple of steps, correct him, and motion him to go around the pole. He safely takes me around the post and we resume our journey.
Back at the lounge, I check my email. The lounge is a building in downtown San Rafael with bathrooms, a kitchen, a TV room, a Quiet room with computers, and a music room with a stereo. I usually hang in the TV room but nobody ever turns the TV on. We always just sit and talk.
When the last student comes in, the instructors follow close behind. The instructors had been lining our route, keeping an eye on the students. My instructor tells me I made a mistake reworking the pole. I tapped the pole and said, 'No! No' That, he says, will make Guillermo think poles are a bad thing. This could make it difficult for me to teach him to find a button for a walk signal. The time to say "no!" was right when he made the mistake. We want him to know that running me into the pole was the bad thing, not the pole itself. Instead I should have said, "Careful," when touching the pole.
Next it's back on the buses for the return trip to campus.
11:45 AM: Back in my room, I offer Guillermo water. He drinks the whole bowl, about 3 cups. I put his harness back on him and we head out to relieve again. We're back in the room by noon. Lunch isn't until 12:30 . I have brought my Macintosh mini with me. It has a CD player so I am listening to a book, "Marlee and Me". I spread a blanket on the floor and curl up with Gui with the remote control in my hand. Soon we are both sound asleep.
Sunday, February 21
Saturday, February 20
The weather has turned nasty. Its about 50 degrees and overcast. No rain yet, thank God.
I'm getting a reputation as the guy who always wears Packers gear. I explained that it makes it easier to match things. I know that a shirt with a Packer logo is green. I know I can wear that with tan khaki pants. Easy. Of course, I have a little harder time explaining the Packers coffee mug, Packers pajamas, Packers running shoes, Packers laptop strap, etc.
I cannot believe I've been here only a week. I sure would like to go home. Well, I'll try to remember to send another update next week. Wish me luck.
Students are housed in a dorm next to their administrative headquarters. The rooms were designed for two students but they try to give everyone their own room. The food is excellent. Already this week I've had prime rib, fried chicken, cheeseburgers, and teriaki maui-maui. They have an exercise room, a laundry, a library with hundreds of books on tape and CD, and a TV room with hundreds of movies with an extra descriptive sound track for blind people.
The training is very rigorous. Most days start at 6:15 and go until 8:45. Some of the students are struggling with the physical aspect of the classes. You need to walk several miles a day. But mostly, we are all struggling with mental and emotional aspect. It's a stressful thing. Being in very good shape and with this being my second dog, I'm struggling less than most but it is hard even for me.
There is absolutely no cost to the student. You could probably do the whole course without spending a dollar. They even tip the skycaps at the airport for you. But I've already spent $20 on coffee. I could work my new dog to the coffee shop, go inside, and then leave but I always buy a cup of coffee. Maybe next week I'll go to the ice cream store instead.
They match you with a dog based on your physical characteristics, life style, and personal preferences. I am tall and I walk fast so I got a tall, fast dog. I also said I wanted an assertive, independent dog to help me with construction sites, detours, and other difficult problems. Some dogs will wait for their partner to tell them what to do. Other dogs will "suggest" alternate routes by tugging on the harness in a particular way. Gui has already suggested alternate routes a couple of times. Of course, he has also tried to take some inappropriate shortcuts. It's up to the human part of the team to figure out when to do what the dog suggests and when to veto his plan. I feel that for me, an assertive dog is beneficial over a less creative dog. If I struggled with orientation more, I might ask for a more passive dog that wouldn't get me lost.
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