Mobility Update: The outcome of my Guide Dogs Further Assessment, and My Guide session 14

Originally, I was just going to write my usual My Guide update, describing how things went with the walk and talking about banana cake as usual. But I’ve finally decided that now is the right time to blog about my Further Assessment with Guide Dogs, the outcome and what had happened since as before now I only said that things didn’t quite go as I’d have hoped. The usual My Guide update will be below.

The assessment day itself was as I expected in the way that we did all the things I expected to and I felt nervous and wobbly the whole way through. It started with an informal greeting and explanation of how the day was going to pan out. Each member of staff introduced themselves and then we went around our little circle and introduced ourselves. The first thing I noticed was that another applicant had bought a family member with them when I’d been advised I shouldn’t really bring anyone. But I wasn’t bothered. I hoped it maybe made me look a bit independent not having my parents sat either side of me like I was 5 years old… Even if I did have to get my dad to take the day off work and drive me there. After the introductions were over, we were split up to do things individually. The first thing I got to do was obedience, having the dog on my left-hand side and trying to get it to walk nicely to heel, praising it every time it put a paw right by treating it with the kibble in the treat bag I’d been provided with and had strapped around my waist. When I had Zena I loved all the accessories that came with being a dog owner and if I ever have another dog I’ll definitely be getting one of the dog treat bags I borrowed during the Further Assessment. When I had Zena, the treat bags I tried out were quite fiddly, all with drawstring closures, but this one had a magnetic closure to the treat compartment which meant every time — and there were loads of times! — I needed to grab a treat quickly and give it to the dog as a reward for whatever good behaviour it had presented, I was able to grab it easily and fuss-free.

I felt a bit wobbly during the obedience section of the day. I’d felt nervous since the moment I’d been told I’d been put forward for Further Assessment but actually being there with the instructors and the dogs was a whole other story. The fear of getting a no, being told I was unsuitable, being told I’d never have a Guide Dog was so high it was unbelievable. But I tried my best. I tried following their instructions, commanding and rewarding the dogs in the way they told me too. It just didn’t feel like I was getting anything right.

After I finished the obedience section, I went out with the instructors to do a long cane walk. To begin with, I’d been terrified at this prospect as it was out walking with my cane in an area that was totally brand new to me. I thought maybe they’d expect me to start picking up some of the block route and I knew that just wouldn’t happen. But that part went quite well; they directed me where to go and I just walked. I was asked to cross a road safely which I did no worries. After that the real nerves came in; it was short handle walk with the instructor time. It just so happens that this is my least favourite thing to do with Guide Dogs to do. It just feels so forced and fake and definitely like they’re judging your every move. I know that’s a daft thing to say as the whole day is an assessment day but that section of it particularly feels like a test. And it wasn’t a test I passed, that’s for sure, and I knew that there and then. During the harness walk, one of the instructors started asking questions about Zena. This made me more nervous. It felt as if I was expected to know things I didn’t, be confident when working a dog in a harness and I wasn’t, mainly because the way Seeing Dogs did things and the way Guide Dogs do things are polar opposites. Perhaps back in the olden days were similar. I’m sure Seeing Dogs’ trainer does things how he remembers from when he trained with Guide Dogs in the 80s but their methods have changed a lot lately, especially with the positive reinforcement training coming into play fully. Literally every time a dog does something right it’s the most enthusiastic praise you can muster and a treat at the ready. The biggest fuss has to be made out of the smallest good behaviour on the dog’s part just to reinforce its training. After I hurriedly tried to explain the differences Seeing Dogs has that I know of from Guide Dogs, I tried to focus on making my commands and vocal tone the best I could during the remainder of the short handle walk. But it just didn’t feel good. I felt like I was expected to get everything right. Whether this was a pressure they put on you to get the best out of you or something that was totally in my head I don’t know. But of course I should’ve been at my best. This getting a dog has been a goal of mine for years and years. But I just couldn’t get the right tone and pitch of voice they wanted. I tried and tried and I thought it improved a bit. But after the short handle walk, I just felt like I’d completely screwed my chances up. Add to that the bad feelings during the obedience session and I really thought my chances were up.

Then, it was lunchtime. Nobody really talked to anyone. The applicants were dotted around the room and the instructors were all together. I didn’t really mind. I wasn’t feeling confident about things right then and thought if anyone tried to chat to me I’d probably melt into a blubbering wreck for no apparent reason. Lunch didn’t last long though and we were soon back to the necessary tasks. My next thing to do was a proper working dog walk, the bit I’d been looking forward to ever since deciding to never put Zena in harness again. First, I walked with the dog I’d done obedience with. She was a tiny and very energetic little black Labrador and I thought our walk together went well. Not perfect, far from it, but much improved from the short handle walk earlier. I didn’t get the vocal bits right most of the time, I knew that, but I tried to keep improving on it during the walk and every now and then one of the instructors would praise me for a good bit of vocal praising. After that, I went out with a different dog, this one a big Labrador/retriever cross who I was told had just had his matching visit and would be on class very soon. This walk was a lot harder. This dog needed much more encouragement even to move let alone do the right things. The instructors explained that was his nervousness around new handlers. To be fair, mix that with my nervousness and it probably wasn’t destined to be the perfect walk. But it went ok for some parts. I kept trying to improve on my vocal praise and kept trying to take what the instructors were saying on board about my handling of the dog.

Once the harness walks were done, it was my turn to have a go at grooming and play time. This time, I worked with another little black Labrador, actually the cousin of the one I’d done obedience and my first harness walk with. I groomed her with a bristle brush, a comb and a zoom groom, something I was very happy to see as it had been a piece of equipment I’d used with Zena. I thought grooming time went quite well. I checked that I was doing the right things with the instructor that was with me and I seemed to be doing things right and the dog seemed quite happy with my grooming. Afterwards, we had a little playtime but she didn’t seem all that interested. Because it looked quite nice outside, the instructor suggested we all go out and sit on the benches. We did a bit more obedience whilst outside, practising the “wait” command with the dogs. Mine seemed a master at it and didn’t move once. She was very interested in the other person and dog that were out there with us though.

When we went back inside, that was the end of the day. The dogs were taken away to be put in the vans, we were thanked for coming and told we’d probably hear the outcome by the end of the following week as case reviews took a little while to be put in place. Dad turned up ten minutes later to take me away and I was glad the day was over, although feeling quite a bit more optimistic than I had in the morning. Although things hadn’t been perfect, I thought I’d done a good job and tried really hard to show that I could definitely make progress in the future should they decide I was ready to be put on the waiting list. I updated all my family and friends with positive news, telling them I hadn’t been perfect but I thought it might just have been enough.

Of course, I now know it was far from it. A day later, on Wednesday the 14th, I got a call in the afternoon from one of the staff members who had been at the assessment day to tell me that actually the case reviews had been completed that morning and much quicker than they’d expected and that she had my outcome for me. That being that the team had decided I was completely unsuitable for a Guide Dog due to the fact that my vocal praise and interaction with the dogs had been very poor and that actually my work in harness hadn’t been that great either. My problem solving abilities whilst working the dogs just hadn’t been good enough. To say I was crushed was an understatement. At first, I just couldn’t speak. I asked the instructor if there was no way they could reconsider, if there was anything I could do and if this was their final decision. No, no, yes, came the response. I was told that I did have the right to appeal if I was unhappy with the decision but that that was the only decision left available to me. When I hung up the phone, my dad, who hadn’t been with me during the call but who had answered the phone when it rang, was hovering hopefully in the background to hear the verdict; and couldnt believe his ears when I told him what they’d said.

The prospect of explaining the situation to everyone I know that has been following my progress with Guide Dogs over the years seemed daunting. How did I tell them I wasn’t good enough? How did I tell them how I felt about this? How did I explain that my mind was absolutely scrambled with the whole situation? My first call was to my Mum, who had been pre-warned by my dad that the news wasn’t good but who was absolutely dumbfounded when I explained things fully. My next messages were almost simultaneously to my two Guide Dog gurus, the two people I go to with every Guide Dog query or thought or feeling: Imi and Tiny. Both responded swiftly. Tiny by ringing me even though he was at work and Imi by picking up on the first ring. Both were shocked and didn’t seem to quite believe what I was telling them. Both apologised endlessly. Both tried to reassure me. Both tried to suggest how we could move forward from this point. But nothing was sinking in for me. I was just listening to their voices knowing they’d be my voices of reason throughout everything to come. They always are. All I knew was that I couldn’t let go of this yet. I had to fight it until I had no fight left, got the answer I wanted or an alternative to work on. Being unsuitable for a Guide Dog just wasn’t sitting well with me. If I was on assessment day, surely there was something I could do to rectify that? Surely this couldn’t be my only answer?

By the end of the day, I was certain I was going to appeal. I’d wobbled a bit, worrying maybe Guide Dogs were right, maybe the Seeing Dogs trainer had been right too. Maybe I was kidding myself. But Imi and Tiny didn’t think so. Without saying so they seemed to be silently agreeing with my mind that I should appeal the decision.

So appeal it I did. Over the next couple of weeks, with Imi and Tiny editing my original copy, we composed a letter that everyone seemed mostly happy with. In the end, the draft I sent to the Guide Dogs complaints team in Reading was the draft I was happy with. Just to be safe, I sent a copy via email and by post to the addresses provided. But I didn’t even need to send the printed copy in the end. To add to this, both Imi and my friend Jemma wrote supporting letters to assist mine in getting my point across fully. I really appreciated these and the words both wrote meant a lot to me. I felt that they both supported my letter well and got across the points I was trying to say from other perspectives. I sent the letters on the Tuesday evening before I caught the train up to see my brother and his family and got an almost immediate automatic response. A day later, I got an email telling me the complaint was being passed on to the southampton team and I could hope to hear from them soon. The necessary time they had to respond in before I could make any further comments was 15 working days. I didn’t expect them to take that long as I thought it would be quite unprofessional but I didn’t expect the response quite as swiftly as I got it. Only a day later, on the Thursday, I came down from having a shower to discover I had a voicemail from the Southampton Mobility Team’s service delivery manager asking if a meeting at my house with herself and their senior practitioner, actually the member of staff who had rang me to tell me the decision, on Monday 9th April at 2:30 would be ok? They wanted to come and discuss the decision they’d made and the response I’d made to it in my letter. I didn’t reply immediately. It was about to be the bank holiday and I was up visiting my brother. I wanted that time to be hassle free time not worrying about Guide Dogs or uni or anything else. So when I got home from his, I rang Guide Dogs and told them that her offer of a meeting suited me just fine. As soon as I’d got the call, I’d spoken to both Imi and Tiny, of course, and asked Tiny if he could do me the massive favour of being in attendance for the meeting. I didn’t fancy doing it on my own and didn’t think my parents were the right people to be there, not because they don’t have my best interests in mind, they do, but just because I think for them they are too emotionally attached and can’t see beyond the fact that Guide Dogs aren’t giving me what I desire. It wouldn’t matter to them if Guide Dogs’ reasons for not giving me a dog were totally justified; to them no reason is good enough and I appreciate their loyalty. But I knew Tiny would see things clearly. He’d fight my battles with me unless he thought I was wrong and then, subtly, he’d let me know I was fighting a losing battle. Amazingly, Tiny agreed; he checked with his wife and then confirmed not long after I asked him that they’d be there. His only advice was that I gave Guide Dogs fair warning that he was going to be in attendance so that they didn’t get defensive about it on arrival. I just emailed the team an amendment to my phone call to let them know and the response that arrived the same day was positive.

The appeal first stage meeting took place last Monday as scheduled. In my appeal process leaflet that I got with my assessment outcome letter, it explained all about the process of the appeal and what to expect. The first stage is, once the notification of appeal has been received, your local team will be informed and contact you to arrange an informal meeting to try and resolve the situation. This has to be with the service delivery manager of your team so that, if you don’t feel things have been resolved, the second stage can come into play. This is asking your team to have the case reviewed by a service delivery manager of another team. If that team don’t give you the outcome you want and you still feel you have grounds to continue, you can progress to the third stage of the appeal. The leaflet doesn’t describe what happens in the third stage but warns that the decision here is final. Tiny and his wife arrived three quarters of an hour before the southampton team so that we could discuss how we were going to angle the meeting. I just asked Tiny that he speak up if I don’t seem to be finding my voice or any time he felt he needed to. So that’s what he did. I recorded the whole meeting for my own listening afterwards and instead of taking notes. I did this at my mobility assessment in July and found it very helpful. The meeting was very intense. There were lots of questions asked, points made and helpful interjections from Tiny. I think, had he not been there, I would have completely fallen apart without Tiny’s input. He was great and I cannot stress how much I appreciated him coming and voicing his own opinions and thoughts to support me.

However, Guide Dogs are unmoving with their decision. To them, I’m still not suitable and my interaction with the dogs and the way I handle them in harness just isn’t what they’re looking for in a prospective Guide Dog owner. I didn’t expect them to change their mind. But it was good, in hindsight, to hear them explain fully where I’d gone wrong and why they’d made their decision. One thing that did change, however, was the finality of the decision. From the letter I received and the way the appeal process leaflet is worded, it made it seem that if they said no now and my appeal wasn’t successful, that meant I’d never be suitable for a dog, that this decision really was final. That’s not the case. Apparently, I can reapply in the future and I would be completely reassessed and my suitably be reconsidered for a dog. That, if nothing else, was reassuring to hear on Monday. After the meeting, I wasn’t feeling particularly optimistic about much. To be fair, I wasn’t feeling anything much at all, just absolute gratitude to Tiny and his wife for coming and relief that the meeting was over. But I was soon thinking things through, possibly not quite with a clear head at first but at least starting to make sense of things. During the meeting, it was made quite clear that I have two main areas I need to improve on before they would reconsider me for a dog: the way I interact with the dogs in all aspects of having one and the way I handle a dog in harness. The staff implied, though, that if I mastered the way I interact with the dogs, the way I handle them would probably improve on its own. Interaction is key, and the way I do it even more so. The only suggestions the staff gave me of ways to improve how I interact with dogs was to volunteer at a rescue centre. I am going to attempt to do this. Ive emailed my employment adviser to ask if she could help me find positions working with dogs. I’m also hoping to spend as much time as I can with friends and their Guide Dogs so that I can take note of how they are with their dogs and maybe even join in with things like grooming, free runs and play time. If anyone reading this has any other suggestions on how I can improve the way I interact with dogs please please let me know. Although Southampton think I’m unsuitable at the moment, I want to change their minds. I know I’m not going to change their minds overnight and it’s going to take a lot of work on my part to get to the point where my interaction with dogs is what they’re looking for but I’m willing to try. It doesn’t matter how many times they tell me not now for whatever reason, that won’t dampen my intense want for a Guide Dog. I’m still certain it would be the right mobility aid for me. I just need to make myself the right kind of applicant for a dog. I didn’t expect it to be this difficult but I’m not giving up. However long it takes to get that yes, it’ll be worth it. I’m not expecting it to be easy or any time soon. But I am intending it to happen sometime. Perhaps I need to be volunteering for someone or in actual work before I apply again. Maybe that will help, having a real routine of leaving the house in place. Perhaps having all my routes completed with My Guide will also help. All I know is that I’m at a point in my mindset where I’m at peace with their decision. I have Imi to thank for much of that for listening to my ramblings and guiding me in the right direction with my thoughts. I’m not totally happy with the decision. A bit of me still feels maybe a lot of the things they’re commenting on would be things I could progress with during training should I be matched with a dog. But perhaps I’m wrong. I’m sure when I eventually get to a point of being accepted and matched I’ll fully understand what they’re trying to tell me. From the Further Assessment day, most of me understands why they’ve said what they have about the handling and interaction. I was very uncertain with my commands and the way I used the lead and harness and I knew on the day that my vocal interaction wasn’t great. Maybe the improvements were true. They just weren’t quite improved enough for the team.

So there’s my plan. Continue trying my best to be the right kind of applicant. Carry on working on my routes with Jenny until I’m at a point where I know them fully. I want to have all my routes under my belt before I consider reapplying. In the meantime, I will find a way to spend as much time with as many dogs as I possibly can to work on my interaction skills. Also, I will persevere trying to find volunteering and employment positions in hope that these will open up more opportunities for needing a Guide Dog. I intend to email the southampton team at the end of next week when I have an appropriate draft written outlining my plans, asking for any help they can offer and telling them that I’m still as determined as I’ve ever been that one day I will be a Guide Dog owner. Their service delivery manager seemed like a very reasonable person and I feel that with her in charge there’s a possibility that the team are viewing me differently to how I presumed. I thought that they’d taken on board the negative comments given to them by Seeing Dogs’ trainer and this was probably counting against me. But they’ve reassured me that that wasn’t the case and the service delivery manager gave Tiny her word that any future dealings with me wouldn’t have any mention of Seeing Dogs in them. So I’m hopeful. Secretly terrified nothing I do will ever be enough to be suitable, but a little hopeful that if I really work my socks off with my routes, finding some kind of out-of-the-house routine and working on my interaction skills I’ll one day have done enough to be the kind of applicant they’re looking for. I can only try my best like I have been all this time and hopefully one day it will pay off the way I thought learning my routes and putting so much effort into that would. I’m determined that next time I apply, when Ive done everything I think I need to and am at a point where I think they’ll say yes, they really will say yes and I’ll be successful. But for now it’s just working on getting to that point. So without further ramble, here’s the account of Thursday’s My Guide session.

After a little break, on Thursday I was back to route learning, back to walking the pretty much hour-long walk into Woolston with Jenny. We’ve missed two weeks of My Guide because we’ve both been busy. The first Thursday we missed was because I was up in Stoke-On-Trent visiting my brother and his lovely little family and meeting my new niece for the very first time. Then, Jenny was away visiting her family the following Thursday so it was agreed that we’d just miss those weeks out. But yesterday we were back to it and, as a little added bonus, the weather had perked up for us too.

The outward journey into Woolston went quite well. I’d been a bit worried that I wouldn’t remember much of the route after having such a big break but my memory proved me wrong. Just after my last My Guide post, my Victor Reader Trek was returned to me with a new battery free of charge as according to HumanWare that had been the reason for its malfunction. However, not long into the journey yesterday — literally just after I’d walked out of my front door and powered on the unit — I discovered that HumanWare had been mistaken as not only was it not fixed, it was worse! I sent it away because when in orientation mode, the unit would suddenly and without warning stop working and become unresponsive to any button press, even the hard reset that’s supposed to revive it. But yesterday not only was it doing that, it was also telling me I didn’t have any maps installed and so it couldn’t access my location or any route instructions. It could still use my landmarks and some of these were still quite accurate for the 20 minutes that the Trek worked. Safe to say it’s definitely not fixed. Once I realised it wasn’t helping, I decided to do the route unaided. The Trek was annoying rather than helping me so I thought it was best that I just ignore it altogether. This is a good mind testing opportunity for me, seeing if I can remember where to go without the prompts from the Trek or assistance from Jenny. Mostly, I seemed to do quite well, especially considering I haven’t practised that route in a while.

As usual, we stopped in Coffee Mac’s for a little break. I decided I didn’t fancy apple juice so instead had a glass of milk. They didn’t have my favourite banana cake again so I decided to go for a slice of their homemade coffee and walnut cake. It was very different to my banana cake with butter icing filling and topping. Jenny had her usual Americano with hot milk on the side and treated herself to a toasted tea cake. I think we both agreed it was a very nice snack.

The walk home was just as successful, I felt, even if the weather wasn’t quite as nice. I seemed to remember which direction to go in and where crossings were. The only thing I’m not very good at without the Trek’s prompting is which street I’m on, have just left or am approaching. But I think this will come with more practice.

When we arrived back at my house, I was feeling quite tired. I thought this was probably due to the fact that we’d had a couple of weeks off and I hadn’t done that route for a while as even before our little break the last session was spent testing out the route to my sister’s school. That’s our plan for next week; now Jenny knows exactly where the school is and as long as my Trek is back in time, we should be able to record the new route and I should start retaining some of it, especially as Dad and I have walked it a few times.

Once we’d scheduled in our next two sessions and Jenny left, i went upstairs and phoned HumanWare. I wanted the malfunctioning Trek situation sorted asap, especially as it’s only recently supposed to have been fixed and I still haven’t really had it all that long. The person I spoke to on the phone was more than helpful and seemed quite surprised I was still having problems with the unit. His reaction seemed similar to mine and he agreed almost immediately that HumanWare would send a courier for the unit. I expected him to tell me they’d look at it and fix the issue but he said as the unit had already been in for repair once before not that long ago, they’d just issue me a brand new unit. To be honest, I think this is the best course of action as even if the missing maps are an easy issue to solve, the fact that they’ve already tried to fix the other orientation problems and failed suggests that the unit itself is faulty. They collected the unit yesterday and I’m hoping to have a replacement before my next My Guide session next Thursday. Although, there would be nothing wrong with trying to do the route unassisted by technology. But we’ll just have to wait and see. All I know is that I’m going to work hard on learning these routes and so having Jenny’s support and help is still vital for me.

PS: I just want to add a huge thank you to everyone who has supported me in any way during my Guide Dog journey, from when I was 14 right through having Zena last year, letting her go and then reapplying to Guide Dogs last year. Your support has been priceless to me and I can’t say thank you enough. From anyone who has read these rambling posts to those who have listened to me blabber on and on about having a Guide Dog, I appreciate you all. Special thanks to Imi and Tiny, of course. Without you both, I wouldn’t be anywhere with this situation. Tiny, your support always humbles me and I always appreciate any advice or opinion you have, even if I don’t agree immediately. Also, you coming to my meeting and offering your never ending support means the world to me, even more so as it was your wife’s birthday. I will appreciate it indefinitely and hope I’ll forever have your support with my Guide Dog journey and anything else I trouble you with. Imi, will what do I say? You’re my twin, my sister, my saving grace, usually my voice of reason. My world wouldn’t be the same without you and I’m so thankful we met almost 5 years ago. I hope I’ll always have you to advise me on any decisions I’m making. I hope you’ll always be able to make me see when I’m going wrong. I hope you’ll continue to put up with my incessant running commentary of my brain’s digest, mostly about Guide Dogs haha. I don’t know where I’d be if you didn’t. But you are always more than welcome to tell me to shut up; I won’t blame you. Thank you for everything you do for me, you truly are my soul sister for life and I’m here for you always, no matter what.

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