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I procrastinated getting a guide dog for about 2 years, turning down 3 different training dates offered to me after being accepted to the program, all because of fear.

My fears? (in order)

Poop. Allergies. Dog Hair. Drool.

None of these 4 excuses that I spent 730 days fixating on ended up being issues.

Ironically, my main concern during training ended up being stress over my lab for failing to cover me in slobbery kisses while wrapping her dog-hair-dander-filled body around me.  Oh, and I actually WANT her to poop, praising her excitedly when she does.

That’s what happens when an over-thinker becomes a guide dog user.

I spent the first week of training reveling in it all, loving the incredible food they serve at GDB, appreciating the fact that I was progressing in the program so well and that not a single allergy symptom appeared after hours and hours of being with tons of dogs and Roja sleeping in the crate right next to my bed. I reveled at the fact that I was not only given this gorgeous dog who I wasn’t allergic to, but also that she was guiding me like a rock star.

Oh, and I was also feeling extremely thankful that Roja is a gentle food taker. One of my Chicago field rep’s concern during my initial interview and evaluation over a year ago was that I wasn’t comfortable feeding kibble from my hand right into the training dog’s mouth. I was nervous and kept yanking my hand away, dropping the treat, which is very problematic for training since you’re feeding treats at every single corner in the beginning. Thankfully, Roja gently laps up the kibble in one swift swoop, never once grazing my hand with her teeth, and I only drop about one treat per day!

So what happened to my gratitude for this beautiful, gentle dog during week 2 that I felt so immensely the first few days?

Apparently the fastest way to turn gratitude into ungrateful grumbling is to overthink that which is. And the fastest way to re-enter the realm of gratitude is to accept what is. It’s one of those lessons that keeps repeating itself in my life, cycling over and over again. I think I’m getting the hint.

My over-thinking really affected us as a team at the beginning of this week. My energy, attitude and focus just wasn’t there the first couple days, and as a result, neither was Roja’s. I had to crate her while practicing obstacle clearances wearing sleep shades, something I had prided myself on not having to do during week one. I began to inwardly doubt our success as a team. It wasn’t until a good friend who recently moved away texted me to ask how I was doing, kindly reminded me to have faith that Roja and I are deeply connected, that I changed my train of thought. It wasn’t Roja who needed to change; it was my thinking.

Roja is slowly teaching me to accept things— life and people and animals— as they are.

Roja’s personality is cautious and calm, similar to the way my children are. My kids are super cuddly, though, so at first I thought Roja didn’t fit the snuggle bill, but now when I return from leaving her in our room for a few minutes, I’ve come to expect her giant dog hugs, where she bends her head down and just leans into me.  This is the most perfect sign of affection for me because it’s not a slobbery, messy one.

The idea of a dog jumping all over me and licking my face made me cringe prior to coming to GDB, but now Roja actually does give me a quick lick on the chin once in awhile, and I think it’s adorable. In fact, I eat it up, my high-pitched cooing voice kicking in, spouting off all kinds of ridiculous pet names for my sweet girly-girl, puppy-pup RoRo. And I listen to myself, wondering who this crazy dog-person is.

I also don’t know how I’ve transformed from someone who can barely figure out how to adjust the straps on my daughter’s carseat to someone who is handling all kinds of clips and straps successfully. I typically suck at anything having to do with straps, buckles, or tie mechanisms of any kind (which really takes the fun out of zip-lining!)  So, again, the learning curve with harnessing a dog, switching from short leash to long leash, high collar, fitting general leader head collars onto Roja’s face at times, unhooking and rehooking the harness handle in vehicles, clipping her leash to my carabiner, managing the clicker around my wrist during clicker training, and so on, you’d think I’d have given up by now. But working with instructors who actually know how to explain and demonstrate these physical mechanisms to people with vision loss makes a huge difference.

By mid-week this week, I finally understood that Roja is already well trained; it’s me as her handler who is being trained to handle her properly. One of my classmates who is here getting his 3rd dog told me that when his first trainer gave him his first guide dog, he said, “I am giving you this dog who is like a world-class trained athlete, and you are going to spend the next 8 years slowly making her sub-par. I’m here to train you how to mess her up as slowly as possible.”

Even though this made me laugh because it’s not the most encouraging way of putting it, I can see his point. I can do my best to be consistent with Roja and not “mess her up”, but I will never do as well as the professional dog trainers. I’m hoping our bond will compensate for small training errors on my part.IMG_5110-2

There’s one more part of week 2 that I can’t leave out… getting run over. Or, almost. Wednesday was a wacky traffic test day, in which our training supervisor basically drove all over, hunting me and my classmates down on our routes, trying to run us over in various parking lots and across several streets. We never knew where he’d show up, gunning his engine right toward us, sometimes less than a foot from us, sometimes simply blocking our path. We had to simply trust that our dogs would respond appropriately, steering us out of the way.

And do you know how I got through that day without having an anxiety attack?

By not over-thinking a damn thing!

Roja is a world-class trained athlete, connected to me in ways I’ve seen and felt and also in ways not yet known to me.

What’s not to trust?

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29 thoughts on “Guide Dogs for the Over-Thinkers (aka. Week 2 at GDB)

  1. Wow, again, Joy! “And the fastest way to re-enter the realm of gratitude is to accept what is. It’s one of those lessons that keeps repeating itself in my life, cycling over and over again. I think I’m getting the hint.”
    Thanks for this Kevin Kuhn

  2. Have been reading your posts on Face book & here & your post today reminded me of when I had my Cocoa in training…..or should I say….me in training because that’s what it was & I am chucking about your comments because I said the same thing when I talked to friends when I was doing the training myself. Although Cocoa was not a trained guide dog, she was a blank slate that, with my training, she learned to do what I asked her to do. I had never had a dog that I trained from 2 months old….they were already teenage or adult dogs with previous training. It was and still is to this day, my part in keeping up the training I was taught to keep her doing the right thing & it is great to see your blossoming love for Roja. Can tell by your words how much you have bonded with her & as she stays by your side, you will become one. They are precious living things that bring great joy & love. They never have bad days that they will take out on you & will never talk back. They are forever your loving devote child completely depending on their humans for everything.

    I am so happy for you, Joy.

    Thank you for sharing the experience and your feelings through this.

    • Thank you Melisse! Yes, you have definitely experienced the joy of having a dog, who loves unconditionally (and w/ food rewards! lol) I feel so fortunate that I get to experience this now too. Thank you for reading and for sharing your experiences with Cocca!

  3. Joy! My eyes welled up with tears as I read this. So many amazing life lessons that you alluded to, that I need to incorporate more into my daily life. Overcoming fears, gratefulness, accepting what is, trusting, learning from others, etc. I’m so impressed with this whole guide dog thing….how well trained Roja is, and how well she guides you. It sounds like you’re doing an incredible job, and that Roja really is the perfect match for you. She’s gorgeous!

    • Thank you Michelle! She really does amaze me, and I never in a million years thought I’d be experiencing this kind of bond and trust with a 4-legged friend! I’m sure you’ll see us shopping at Trader Joe’s soon! 🙂

  4. I’m so excited, Joy! And I love that you’ve become a bit of a “crazy dog person.” Can’t wait to see you again and meet Roja!!! <3

  5. I am praise God for your new tool/ friend/ freedom giver. I can’t wait to meet Roja <3 So proud of you Joy!

  6. Once again your vulnerability and realizations amaze me. When I read about your experiences it makes me want a guide dog, too! Only God can have a guide dog transform your thinkng and life! How I love you!

    • Amen! Thanks Patty! Yeah, it’s funny you say you’d like a guide dog because my 6-year-old niece told my sister that she doesn’t want to learn to cross streets because she just wants a guide dog (and she’s sighted!)

  7. You inspire me with such courage to let go of control! The only time I experienced anything close is when I finally let go and hired a housecleaning service since I could no longer move and bend in the way needed to keep the dust bunnies at bay. Good luck with your new service dog.

  8. Joy, I stumbled across your blog and I have really enjoyed reading your stories and sharing in your experiences at GDB. As a former puppy raiser, it is always fun to see experiences of Guide Dog graduates. Reading your sister’s and your posts inspired me to share my own story. Check it out. https://lowvisionadventures.wordpress.com Once again, congratulations on receiving Roja. I am confident you guys make a wonderful team and I loved getting to read your perspectives and thoughts. Great writing!

    • Thanks Kathryn! We feel so honored that we inspired you to start a blog of your own! I checked it out and really enjoyed your first posts! It’s so interesting that you ride horses and do competitions with low vision. I’d love to read some posts about your experiences as a puppy raiser too! Would you qualify for a guide dog?

  9. It was so interesting to read about your experiences with the guide dog training. Thanks for sharing it and with such great detail and honesty and humor.

    • Thanks Susan! I know from reading your amazing blog that you love your cane, but have you ever thought about a guide dog? Just curious!

      • I have! I’m not sure I would quite qualify. I’ve done some light googling, grin, and I can’t figure out if my impairment is “significant enough” if that makes sense. So I’ll continue on with my trusty white cane for now but who knows what the future holds.

        • Yes the cane is a great tool! I actually have been more apt to grab my cane when I can’t bring Roja with me since getting a guide dog (i.e. if we’re going to the pool on a 100 degree day!)

  10. Thanks so much for sharing about your GDB training, Joy! I am starting to seriously consider getting a guide dog, and your blog is helping me to think through what life might be like if I did. My biggest concern is that I still have too much vision even though I am legally blind. Do you know how GDB determines this? That is the only thing holding me back… I think, lol. I want to feel that freedom you describe when I am walking down the street! 🙂 -Luci

    • Luci (great name by the way! It’s my daughter’s name!) I would definitely suggest giving GDB a call! They are actually AMAZING at working with students who still have a good amount of useable vision. Since you are legally blind you would definitely qualify vision-wise. Their trainers are able to work with students who still have vision, and they actually were really encouraging to me and helped me find ways to use the vision I do have left to help Roja and I as a team. If walking at a smooth, comfortable pace is something you desire, I would definitely pursue it! Feel free to e-mail me with any other questions! joyellenthomas@gmail.com

  11. Luci,
    I received a guide dog from GDB and I have a significant amount of vision remaining, especially during the day. At night, not as much. If you feel a guide dog would be beneficial, I would encourage you to apply. It is through the application process that you will be able to help make a decision. Traveling with a guide dog with remaining vision depends on how well you can let the dog do its job and not let your vision over ride that. For me, it allows me to just relax and it is a much less stressful way to travel. Good luck!

  12. Thank you, Kathryn and Joy! I am going to move forward with the process! I did the phone interview last week and am now waiting for them to schedule a home visit. Very excited, and still a little nervous (lol)!

    • Awesome Luci! Feel free to connect with me after the home visit! I actually had a difficult time after my home visit and felt really unsure, so I am here to listen or talk if you need someone!

      • Hi Joy! I had my home visit with Lauren Ross this past Thursday night. It went really well! She said I would be a good fit for a guide dog. I am very excited! Thanks for your encouragement!

        • Yay! So excited for you Luci! Do you have a training date yet? Lauren is awesome, and she helped me to really know what it would take to be a handler when she came for my home visit!

  13. Congratulations Luci on taking this step. Feel free to contact me if you need any support during the process.

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