And the evening activities didn’t disappoint. My sisters and I went to Golden Gate park and watched the sunset and then drank fancy cocktails named after Robin Williams’ films at a swanky wine bar in Sausalito. As I sipped on Patch Adams, Roja lying down snugly next to my bar stool, looking pretty posh wearing a red bow, sipping her own h20 cocktail provided by the dog-friendly bartender, I couldn’t help feeling giddy for multiple reasons. I went to bed that night feeling on top of the world.
Roja relaxing on my lap while driving through Golden Gate Park.
And then I woke up the next morning and had the worst airport experience of my life.
I’ll spare you the details. Just picture running late for an early-morning flight, getting hassled by security, being “assisted” by someone who directs you the wrong way, and boarding a jam-packed plane with no space in bulkhead. Late. With a dog. Oh, and you really have to pee.
Fortunately, Roja was her usual chill self and just slept the entire flight, despite the fact that I couldn’t get her positioned the way we practiced in training. Why did the space in front of my airplane seat seem so much smaller than the one used in the flight simulator we practiced with 2 days prior? And why was Roja’s rear end tucked under the lady sitting next to me’s feet? And why the hell don’t they make airplane bathrooms slightly larger and with accordion doors that don’t threaten to crunch dog tails when you’re trying to fit in a broom-closet-bathroom with a 60-lb animal? But we made it, and my family was waiting for us at Midway Airport.
The reunion at baggage claim was epic, my girls screaming running toward us, Roja confused as to all the commotion, and passengers who I had told about my family standing by watching it all unfold.
The first week home was a blur. It was a bit of a shock being back in “the real world,” and walks with my family were … different. Not better at first, as it had been with Roja and me alone. Just very different.
I had all these routes to train her on, but I didn’t have my trusted trainer Palmer behind me. I caught myself glancing back several times, to check with Palmer to see if I had done the right thing upon passing distractions. I wanted her with me at Walgreens, so she could tell me I did a good job positioning Roja while checking out at the counter. I went from having constant support, someone literally watching our backs at all times, to a stone-silent clerk at the counter. And then we did actually have people watching our backs at Walgreens, but they were 3 random teenage girls who literally followed us up and down the drug store aisles, feigning interest in whatever happened to be on the shelves behind us, but I could tell they were just trying to watch Roja and figure out how she helped me. In San Rafael, people were very accustomed to guide dogs in public and usually didn’t give us a second glance. But back home Roja is somewhat of a novelty.
It’s difficult to sum up the past 2 weeks, and my brain seems to be thinking in bullet points lately, so I’ll close with a few things that stick out in my mind from the first 2 weeks home.
• Time Management: At training, all of my meals and housekeeping were taken care of, and I had no children or spouse to attend to. I had this extremely concentrated period of time to just focus on bonding and guide work. And now I have snippets of time, scattered here and there between childcare and grocery shopping and cooking and housework. My girls started school a few days ago, however, so I now have concentrated periods of time to work on routes, obedience, grooming, and bonding.
• Walking with My Girls: While it wasn’t always ideal, my girls and I had our own routine before getting Roja. My girls would be on each side of me, holding both my hands, always looking out for me. Now I have my own personal Roja escort, and the girls don’t quite know where to stand as we walk. The first couple walks were comical, the girls darting ahead of, beside and behind us, changing pace constantly. Roja is accustomed to her “working pace” which is a fast trot, so adjusting to a slower pace really affects her focus, especially when I keep changing it on her sporadically throughout the walk, every time a girl needs to tie her shoe or darts after a butterfly, poor Roja is being halted or “hopped up.” We’re working on this, and my girls now stand slightly behind me to my right, and my 5-year-old is still able to hold my hand for the most part.
• Dog distractions: I work Roja in dog-dense areas, and we are literally almost always passing another dog while walking downtown or on the Riverwalk. Peoples’ pet dogs are not always well-behaved, which can be extremely distracting. She wears her “gentle leader” face collar a lot to help with this, and it’s something we will continue to work on.
• Daily Work Companion: Roja loves our trips to my “office” (aka Barnes and Noble) where I do my copywriting. She is a pro at escalators.
• Watching Roja With My Girls: I love watching them play and interact. Roja has already patiently allowed the girls to dress her up in a tutu, and loves helping me put them to bed at night, falling soundly asleep next to their bed. She is their love alarm clock in the morning, darting in to give them a good morning lick and whack of the tail. When I tell her it’s time to pick them up from school, she races to the front door.
• Continual Support from GDB: The at-home support from GDB has been instrumental in helping us transition home. My training supervisor, Mr. Kelly Martin, has both e-mailed and called me to help work through some initial challenges. Our conversations always leave me feeling focused, motivated and empowered as a guide dog handler. It’s helpful to talk out the details and reasoning behind various strategies, but the most helpful takeaway from our conversations is the “big picture” that he paints, helping me visualize the confident, competent dog handler I want to portray, and thus be, when I’m working Roja.
• Walks on the Riverwalk: Our town has a 1.75 mile brick-paved path that Roja and I use to keep our swimsuit figures in check. I have always avoided walking on the cement path closest to the river because I am nervous I will walk off the edge, but now with Roja, I can walk right alongside the river.
I still feel on top of the world with Roja by my side, but maybe just a touch closer to the ground now that we’re home.