joyandroja“What are you looking for in a guide dog?”

“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!

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21 thoughts on “I Believe I Can Fly (summary of First Week at GDB)

  1. Love, love, love!!! And once again, I am full of tears. Your vulnerability and willingness to be uncomfortable is already showing through in your confidence level. I can’t wait to see you walking with Roja! I’m so happy for you!!!

  2. Never be sorry for your tears dear Joy. They are a part of you and they are special.
    I am crying now as I read this wonderful blog about your first week.

    I am a fully sighted person and I don’t know if I could do the training that you are doing right now Joy. I am so proud of you.
    You are saying “yes”to life just the way it is and just the way it isn’t right now. I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes “yes is a world and in that world of yes live ( skillfully curled) all worlds”

  3. Lovely reflection on an emotional week. Thank you for sharing. I hope to go thru the same some day

  4. Thanks, Joy! Your posting is a real joy….and boost of confidence to me also. Our shared humanity shines in your writing. Grateful hugs . Kevin Kuhn

  5. This is absolute beautiful, Joy. I am so happy for you! It fills my heart to hear about you and Roja. I love you both! 🙂

  6. Joy, your commentary was beautiful and so moving! It is all about trust, isn’t it? One of the scriptures this past week was about trust when the disciples were in the boat crossing over to the other shore in turbulent waters and Jesus appeared to them walking on the water. They were afraid when they saw him and he tells the “Be not afraid. It is I”. Peter trusts enough to get out of the boat and begin walking on the water towards Jesus as long as he keeps his eyes on him and stay focused. When he becomes distracted and takes his eyes off Jesus he begins to sink and cries out, “Lord, save me” and he does. You are becoming a great example of trust for all of us as you and Roja grow into a more trusting relationship in the days and weeks ahead. I just can’t wait to see you both and meet Roha for the first time. Know I love you and have you both in my prayers.

  7. Thank you for your lovely commentary at this point in your training. I found it absolutely fascinating and insightful. When I was doing classwork at the Assistance Dog Institute (now the Bergin University for Canine Studies) in Santa Rosa, CA, one of our classes was taught by someone from Guide Dogs for the Blind. He chose me to be the person holding onto the brace of the dog harness, while he was the dog, and guided me around the room with my eyes closed. I’ll never forget how well I found I could navigate, but then I didn’t think he would let me run into anything, so very different from the trust you must have with your guide dog. I admire your strength and determination, and I’m sure you will make the most of this opportunity that you have been given, which is not to take for granted the many obstacles you will face. My very best wishes to you!

  8. You write beautifully, Joy, I am loving reading about your training. I have had several labs; one was a CC from GDB. My current pup, Gabby is almost four. Roja sounds something like her. Gabby isn’t super cuddly and she doesn’t like to have her head touched or give lots of kisses, but I know she loves us and is a very happy girl. Roja will love being your guide and part of your family!

    • Thanks Susan! I’m glad to know someone else out there has a guide dog who is not super affectionate in the usual dog-type ways! I am beginning to notice Roja’s ways of showing affection, and she can definitely be playful at times! But yeah, still not a cuddler! Maybe Gabby and her would be friends!

  9. Hi Joy, as a former puppy raiser, I love reading your blog and how this training works! I am proud of you
    and your accomplishments! I love hearing about the trust you have to have with your amazing Roja! All the best to you as you become an amazing team! Keep up the great work! Terri

    • Thanks so much Terri! And much gratitude to you for your time spent as a puppy of the most selfless things dog-lovers can do for people they don’t even know….it amazes me!

  10. Well, dear Joy, this is Alex writing you. I happen to be the Pastor of Faith Lutheran in Leavenworth and have come to know your momma and papa, whom I have greatly appreciated. Tom forwarded me your very touching, genuine, and heartfelt blog. Commendations on your willingness to risk vulnerability and such honesty, Joy. And what a beautful photo of you and Rojo.

    Thanks for sharing, Joy, and reminding me of the complexities and complications of being sight impaired. May you be sustained in your efforts with gentle Rojo and also in your heart of hearts. Alex

    • Wow, thank you Pastor Alex. My dad has told me great things about your church! I appreciate your sincere response to our video and continue to feel grateful for the connection with you and others through shared human experiences that everyone can relate to, sighted or blind. I am incredibly blessed.

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