“Um, Well, a smallish sized dog who is calm and has a drier mouth, maybe a yellow lab although color isn’t as important. Oh, and I want a dog who is super fast.”
I could tell Roja met my criteria from day 1, even though bonding has continued to be challenging. I’m now in my second week of training, and I still find myself feeling jealous of other students and their constantly playful, cuddling dogs. Yes, Roja, gives “hugs” with her whole body and loves playing “tug” and occasionally rests her soft head on my lap, but these signs of affection are definitely on her terms, intermittently, when she feels like it! She still moves away when I reach to pet her head, and I’m still learning what makes her tick.
She’s probably still trying to figure me out as well. I sometimes wonder if she gets confused when I’m able to find doors on my own at times when I’m heeling her (off harness) but then need her assistance at other times when she’s in harness. Does she just think I’m another trainer, or does she know I’m her person?
Some partially sighted people who come to training end up walking ahead of their dogs or not trusting their guides as much because they are busy spotting things before the dog does. Prior to coming to training, I had heard that the trainers sometimes ask those people to wear blindfolds to help them fully rely on their dog. I thought I might end up needing a blindfold since I have some useable vision, and within the first day one classmate was already asked to wear a blindfold at times to help her following skills. But I was not asked to wear one during my first week, which made me wonder whether I’m less sighted than I thought, more perhaps just more trusting. Or maybe both.
My trust of Roja was immediate, despite our snail-paced bond. My trainers complimented me on my “following position” from the beginning. It just felt so natural to be led by her. When she gets into her trot, we fly.
Moving at this fast speed requires that I trust her, as one small error could really slam my arm hard against an object. When Palmer, my trainer who walks closely behind us, says “Roja has some work to do coming up”, this tells me that there are obstacles ahead that Roja needs to steer me around. I don’t have enough vision to know what those obstacles are, but I have to employ enough trust that she will do her job, or I would never be able to keep following her. It’s a bit nerve-wracking when I know we’re coming up on objects, but it’s absolutely exhilarating after she clears them, knowing she moved us past them safely.
Trust is definitely the biggest thing guidwork has taught me so far; trust in Roja, trust in the training process, and most of all, trust in myself. I’ve learned to trust my instincts when instructing Roja and to trust my ability to problem solve and think ahead. And with this trust has come confidence.
After my first couple routes on Monday and Tuesday, the training supervisor told me to picture walking confidently, with purpose, with my destination in mind. I thought of this today as I walked, holding my head up high, shoulders back, walking with purpose.
Until walking with Roja, I had never really been fully conscious of the fact that I usually have a small knot of anxiety in my stomach as I walk, nervous that I will run into something or someone. This anxiety lessened a lot with my cane, though I really couldn’t walk at the fast pace I wanted. With Roja, I can just close my eyes as I walk, blocking out the visual clutter that often causes more harm than help.
Of course, I’m not as relaxed as I eventually will be, as there is a lot to think about in training… when to halt, when to reward, avoiding distractions, up curbs, down curbs, leash corrections, verbal commands, silent timeouts, turning positions, alignment, maintaining your line of travel, and on and on. But I have heard all of that will become second nature over time. It’s like anything in life, whether a new job, relationship or challenge. At first it seems overwhelming, but eventually you adjust. I have a feeling that once we get cruising as a well integrated team, all of that will fade naturally to the back of my mind, and I will be able to daydream as I go on walks, a luxury usually reserved for the fully sighted.
Even with all of the guide work rules to think about, I still feel more relaxed walking with Roja than on my own.
When the training supervisor spoke to me after my last route for the day on Friday, he said that he saw a newfound confidence and assertiveness in my interactions with Roja and the way I walk with her compared to the beginning of the week. And I nodded because I feel it too. That little pit of anxiety melting away as I walk, and the confident person I have always wanted to be taking shape in its place.
With guidework, I’m learning that I must trust the entire process or I would not be motivated to spend time working on all the tiny nuances involved in training. All those small, repetitive steps involved in clicker training, leash cues, rewards, and working curbs would all be mundane tasks if I didn’t trust that they’re moving toward an end result.
I talked to my twin sister on Friday between training sessions, and she asked if there’s anything that has taken me by surprise at training. I told her that the only thing I am really surprised by is the fact that I am doing a good job. I know a big part of it is the amazing instructors, but the other part is the fact that I am focusing on pairing my brain and body together in a way I haven’t done before, thinking proactively about my positioning and maintaining my line of travel even when Roja doesn’t. I’ve done this type of pairing countless times in yoga, but I usually feel like I’m not doing the poses as well as I could or should, and I’m often the one in class getting corrected or readjusted.
But this first week of training, I feel like I’m doing it right. Sure, I make plenty of mistakes and have been coached on how to improve by my trainers, but overall I feel like I’m progressing rapidly and am moving toward being what those in the field call a “well integrated team” with Roja.
I know it will be months before we get there, but I have this very solid, inner confidence that we will get there.When Palmer and I had my review and goal setting meeting on Saturday, she asked, “how do you think you’re doing so far?”
“Really well,” I said, my voice cracking.
This was a very business-like meeting, so I think I caught us both off-guard when I started to cry.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, wiping away a slew of salty tears, “I just didn’t expect to do well. I’m not used to doing well at stuff like this.” And I don’t even know what “stuff like this” is because there isn’t really much to compare to guide work.
I cry again as I write this and don’t know why I feel so emotional, except that I’m really happy.
I’m going to go join my classmates in the lounge now. I’m so glad none of them see well enough to notice my puffy eyes and tear-streaked face!