Getting me up to scratch as a guide dog owner.
Bree never ceases to amaze me….
Before I was partnered up with Bree, she lived with another family who put her through all the necessary processes of becoming a responsible guide dog. I was surprised to hear that not all dogs who go through the training process succeed in becoming a guide dog. Those that don’t make the cut are still well-trained dogs and are usually partnered up with other people living with disability, such as PTSD and Autism. Otherwise, they make great family pets.
Bree managed to pass her guide dog exams, although at times, I am very surprised she did. Nonetheless, I was eventually partnered up with her after she completed two years of intensive puppy and guide dog training, which included road safety, detection and avoidance of hazards, handling large and noisy crowds and a whole lot more.
Just to give you some interesting information, guide dogs are given names according to litter. In Bree’s case, her brothers and sisters all have names beginning with the letter B. A guide dog will work with the client from the age of two to eight. After the age of eight, the dog is reviewed by a trainer based on their continuing capacity to perform their task as a guide dog. Between the age of eight and ten, the dog is eventually retired. Once this happens, the guide dog becomes a regular pet and is either kept by the client or the client can choose to foster the dog to someone else. It’s also very important that people don’t interact with guide dogs, especially when they are wearing their harness and guiding the client. By patting them, you distract them from their important job. In some cases, it can become dangerous. For example, if the client is trying to cross the road, the guide dog isn’t focussing on hazards.
As a client, and especially because Bree was my first guide dog, Bree and I had to travel to Adelaide for a week-long training course. I was actually excited about this because my transport, accommodation and meals were all taken care of. Little did I know that it wasn’t a holiday.
I stayed at a nice motel which had a restaurant. Foolishly, I decided to go to the restaurant for dinner on the first night rather than dine in. I was expecting Bree to take me where I had to go. Instead, I spent half an hour walking around and around in the carpark as Bree sniffed all the trees, flowers, plants and everything in between. Guide dogs have the decision-making abilities similar to a three-year-old – not a good start. Guide dogs are also creatures of familiarity. Put them in a new environment, and they get lost. Where they work best is travelling on familiar routes. It's an odd working situation. My job is to direct (that's a worry in itself) and her job is to navigate around obstacles (again, equally worrying). Bree is not a GPS.
As time went on, we became familiar with our surroundings and the training was very useful. We learnt what to do when going on a bus, how to travel in a car (coincidentally, a guide dog sits in the front on the floor with the client). We went walking on paths, in shops, up and down stairs and in lifts. What was fascinating was the commands you had to learn, such as sit, stand, wait, find left, heel. There are also feet positions which the dog will respond to. Overall, it gave me more confidence with Bree and a greater sense of independence. Something I hadn’t had for a long time before.
One thing I learnt while bunking with Bree is she yaps when she’s asleep. I have heard that dogs do this when they dream. At the time, I believed she was in pain and it frightened me. Nowadays, wherever I hear her doing it, it makes me smile. It can be quite loud.
In the end, the week long training did not stop there and then. Every time I go for a walk with Bree, or we go into a restaurant or whenever she is guiding me, we are both training each other so we can become a better team.
So, what did I learn?
It is possible to train an old dog like me. It takes a special dog like Bree.