Monday 30 January
When I was told that I was matched with a dog from Seeing Dogs and that she was the very dog I’d had my practice walk with, I decided that, when the time came for training, I’d like to write regular updates on how things were progressing. Now, the time has come for my first week’s worth of experiences of training with Seeing Dog Zena.
On Friday the 27th, John, Seeing Dogs’ mobility instructor, brought Zena down to move in with me. Originally, he’d planned to leave her with me for a week to settle in and so that we could get used to each other but training elsewhere had meant that wasn’t possible. Looking back over the weekend now, I’m glad we didn’t have a whole week of settling in together because I think it would have shattered all our confidence.
Over the weekend, I wasn’t able to do much for Zena. I had to take her out every two or so hours to do her business, saying the command to encourage her to go. Then, twice a day, I had to feed her her meal of one full to the brim scoop of kibble. She seems pretty happy with her food and gobbles it down no instruction needed. I didn’t have a whistle over the weekend so couldn’t use that and feed her the way she’s been trained. We also figured out that she quite likes to sleep upstairs in my room with me so my cute little set up in the utility room downstairs was forgotten. Now, her big plastic basket bed with vet bed lining and two fleece blankets is positioned in front of my radiator, beneath the window. She seems completely content with this and is happy to lie in her bed the majority of the time. The rest of her time has been spent sniffing round every inch of the house she can manage to get her nose into. We’ve been practising me telling her to `lay down` and then praising her when she does, especially as to begin with she didn’t want to obey; everything else in the house is far too interesting, you see. There’s lots of new sights, sounds and smells to explore and a variety of people to choose from who may give her some fuss. John left me with an old lead of his and let me put the collar I’d bought for her on her as her work collar. He seemed to approve of the collar and all the other stuff I’d bought to use for Zena. I was glad because I’d thought maybe he’d think I was crazy dog lady or something.
By the time Sunday evening came, I was quite pleased to think that John would be back in the morning to give more guidance and support. Zena seemed to have been on a poo strike, because she refused to do her business until a little bit on Saturday evening after much encouragement and worry for me. Of course, she was probably just feeling a bit stressed and anxious about her new surroundings. Although everything is probably very exciting to her because it’s all new, it’s probably pretty daunting too. Her dad and fellow trainee Seeing Dogs are nowhere to be seen and there’s a new person giving her commands. To make matters worse, her dad has actually left her here and when he comes back on Monday morning and shows off a harness, he doesn’t even let her wear it or go out for a walk.
Before going anywhere with John this morning, we did a lot of talking about various bits and pieces to do with the training. Then, it was time to go out. Zena was staying behind until I was at least familiar if not good at the commands I needed to walk her properly. There was a lot to learn! From the foot positions to arm movements to commands I need to say in order to get her to do what I want, I think I’m going to be in action for quite some time. We did a lot of practising, with John telling me what I needed to be saying and doing whilst holding the body piece of the harness with me hanging on to the handle and lead. Tomorrow, we’re going to do a refresher on what I’ve learned today and then get to a good enough point for me to be able to take Zena out on harness. I feel absolutely terrified about that. I’m not really getting it right with John on the other end of the harness prompting me so the idea of having my actual guide dog attached is quite frightening.
Despite my worries, John seems quite pleased with what I’ve managed today. He said that I’m picking up the commands and body orientation well. He did comment that I need to be more vocal but he said it’ll come with time and practice. Our plan for tomorrow is to recap, like I said, and as long as the weather remains good, take Zena out and see how it goes. I think she’d like to go out because she seep quite restless being cooped up in the house. She’s not even allowed to play around in the garden because she needs to learn that that’s the place she does her business. Until she’s understood that, no playing permitted.
While John was here, he also went through the new equipment that arrived in the post over the weekend. The box trained a new lead, whistle, bells and the pieces that fit together to form a harness. The Seeing Dogs harness is green instead of the usual Guide Dogs white but John said it shouldn’t affect the public’s perceptions of the dog because most aren’t aware enough to realise that that it is different to Guide Dogs’ white. During one of our breaks this morning, John taught me how to assemble the pieces of the harness to form it ready to put on the dog. There are three pieces to the harness: the main body piece, the strap that attaches with a buckle and goes underneath the dog’s belly to fasten the other side with a quick release clip and the reflective sleeve that fits on to the strap across the dog’s chest. Obviously, as I didn’t take Zena out, I wasn’t able to put the harness on her yet. Also, John attached the bells to the spare collar I have for Zena — a fluorescent green one with a quick release fastening — so that when I take her out to do her business, I can put the collar not her and hear what she is doing. That way, I’ll know whether she’s sat still to do anything or not and will be more likely able to gauge whether she’s been. The bells are actually for free runs but I think this is a good use of them too. I couldn’t have them on her all the time, though; it would drive me insane. John also let me attach the whistle to my house keys and blew one of his own to demonstrate how it needs to be blown before I feed her. To be fair, she doesn’t really need the encouragement as she eats without issue but it would be good to keep that part of the training intact. He said that her recall is generally good but that we’ll be using that whistle when we take her on a free run. I’m looking forward to trying out the whistle tonight when I feed her and looking forward to seeing how much I can remember tomorrow morning when we do our recap. I’m hoping that I’ll remember well so that a walk with Zena is a good start to our training together. Of course, I’m expecting a lot to go wrong as I don’t know how much of the information I’ll be able to retain or how well behaved Zena will be on route. I’ll just have to wait and see, I guess.
Tuesday 31 January: day 2
Well, today was a new completely new experience for me. Firstly, this morning John and I recapped what he’d taught me yesterday and I mostly remembered everything right. Then, once she’d done her business, just as a precaution, John showed me how to put a harness on Zena, attach the lead and head outside. The first short walk to the bus-stop was terrifying. However, she knows exactly what she’s supposed to do. Even though this is the case, she can sometimes be very cheeky and do the complete opposite to what she’s meant to do and if I get even one instruction wrong, the whole thing crumbles. I have to remember every the `lead on`, `stay`, `straight on` `find the straight`, `sit` and `good girl` otherwise she doesn’t know what she’s meant to be doing. The one I seemed to forget the most was tell her to stay at a curb before we crossed and again when we reached the other side. There’s just so much to think about while you’re walking. Not only have you got to remember where you’re going, you need to remember all the correct commands to make the dog take you in the right direction and not walk you straight across a road without waiting. She’s quite an inquisitive girl, too, so I had to say a lot of `leave it` on our walk. There was plenty of `steady`, too, because she’s a really fast walker and although I can try to match her speed for a while, it doesn’t last long so it’s better if I slow her down so we can find a comfortable middle ground. After our walk to the bus-stop, we then went back out, after a little break, and walked to the shop. I was a lot more comfortable the second time round because there was no need to be nervous: I’d already messed up loads and John had reassured me by pointing out the positives. Anyway, I’m not expected to get it all right.
Once we came home from the first walk, we all needed to dry out a bit. It was only a quarter past eleven so John and I agreed to do a walk to the local leisure centre to see whether the route was feasible and to get me to understand it. Zena had earned a lie down on her cushion bed in the utility room. She wasn’t in the slightest bothered about being soaked through or being left behind while John and I went out again. The walk to the gym was quite a long one, longer than I thought it was. John walks at quite a brisk speed, which is good as I have to get used to walking faster with Zena anyway, so it was probably a lot shorter than it could have been. When we got back from that, it was lunch time. At a quarter to one, John returned and I put Zena back in harness ready for another walk to the shop. I made loads of mistakes again on this walk but felt that I got lots of things right at the same time. Zena discovered the cat that lurks on the steps outside the shop and this has posed a little problem now because the cat knows to antagonise Zena and Zena is obviously distracted by it. We had a good walk back to the house, though, with me doing a lot of correcting and Zena responding well. Tomorrow, the plan is to do the route to the shop a couple of times, maybe tackle the leisure centre and then do some grooming. All the wet weather has made Zena’s fur quite curly and she could do with a good brush to smooth it all out again. So I’m now looking forward to tomorrow’s training and feeling a little bit more confident about what I’m doing. Chatting away to encourage the dog doesn’t seem so ludicrous anymore now that I’ve done it. John seemed pleased by my chatter because I think his concern was that I wouldn’t be loud enough and wouldn’t talk much to help Zena along. Even if I did feel bashful about it, I don’t have any choice because if I don’t talk to her, she immediately goes wrong and the whole thing disintegrates. Anyway, I want to make this work because I can imagine it happening now I’ve tried it.
Wednesday 1 February: day 3
Today was a lot of hard work and effort. As soon as John came, I put Zena in harness and we headed for the shop. It was mostly a good route. Once we’d had about a fifteen-minute break back at home, we headed for the leisure centre. This route was a bit nerve racking for me as I’ve not really done it before, except for walking it yesterday with John. Zena seemed nonplused about the whole this and just kept responding to my commands. When I got it wrong, she went wrong and I had to correct us with John’s help. He also had to direct us a bit because I didn’t know the route well enough. The worst thing about that route is that Zena wanted to career on ahead, being super speedy with her walking and at times I had to break into a slight run to keep up with her. No matter how much I insisted `steady`, she wasn’t slowing down. We had about a twenty-minute wait sitting on the comfy chairs inside the leisure centre. Zena was good and just lay down at my feet, not even bothered by the person who came over to say hello to her. John chatted to me a bit about Zena’s speed on walks. He encouraged me to keep reiterating `steady` with the wrist movement and standing my ground if she’s going too fast. On the way home, we had a few mishaps, the biggest being that Zena had a poo on route. We’re not sure why as I’m sure she’s been going regularly here but John didn’t seem too worried. Once we got back from the leisure centre, we stopped for lunch. I also had some post waiting for me, one letter being some information from Chris at Seeing Dogs. The envelope contained two tags with split rings for Zena’s collars, a set of health cards for the vet’s, two printed copies of my ownership agreement, a Braille copy of the ownership agreement and a letter from Chris explaining everything. She also said, in her letter, that Zena’s puppy rearer would probably join us for my qualification walk. Currently, I’m not sure how I feel about that. Obviously, I’m thrilled that she’s helped the charity out and started Zena’s life off well, but I’m not sure is I want witnesses when I qualify. John said we’ll be going through the ownership agreement soon so I’ll ask him about qualification then. When John came back from lunch, he said I could put one of Seeing Dogs’ ID tags on her collar, which I did, and I gave him the paperwork that had also come in the envelope. Once we’d sorted all of that out, we headed out again for another walk to the shop. This time, John hung further away from us, letting me have more control over Zena’s actions. I think I did OK; we made tons of mistakes there and back and several times I felt a bit lost. It turns out I should have just followed my instinct because I was going in the right direction and knew where I was despite my wobble. We reached the shop, eventually, and the cat that loiters outside the door didn’t bother Zena at all this time. To be fair, if we’d stayed any longer it probably would have been a problem. On the way back, we had several hiccups. She seemed to be refusing to sit at curbs and, when we passed one of my neighbours, decided that she needed to assert her dominance and bark aggressively at their dog. John had to come and intervene then to tell her off. When we arrived home, John talked to me about how Zena knew she could take advantage of me and play up a bit. He said he understood that it was pretty horrible to be on the other end of the lead when she is being a pain but that it’s something I just have to ride through, that I’ll get a lot more of it as we progress through our training. I know that already, of course; being friends with Guide Dog owners who like to remind me of the negatives has taught me that this was never going to be all rosy and if anything very far from it. But it felt good to be mostly in control for the last walk. I’m hoping that, as the days pass and we progress, I’ll grow more confident and Zena will learn not to disobey me so much. I probably just need to be much firmer with her. Tomorrow, we are furthering the adventure with bus travel. Apparently, Zena is highly experienced in this and as I am as a blind passenger, I’m hoping we’ll do a good job as a partnership. We’re also doing grooming tomorrow, which I’m glad about as she’s quite smelly and her fur’s gone all curly with the wet weather.
Thursday 2 February: day 4
Another day of new experiences. Today, we braved public transport. When John first arrived, I put Zena in harness and we headed for the bus-stop. John guided me onto the bus with Zena by my side on lead. While we were on the bus, John asked if there was anything near to the bus-stop that we could go to and I suggested Costa as it is one of the routes that I’ve learned with Nan and Grandad. He agreed. When we got off the bus, I had Zena by my side on lead. Then, I put her harness back on and we set off for West Quay. I was a little confused when we got there as John said we had to make a left turn to go through the doors and when I’d done the route with cane, we’d curved right into the shopping centre. But of course it made sense once I figured out what had happened. Zena walks in straight lines so there had been no curve. The left turn was no problem and then we headed for Costa, which is much easier and quicker to reach with a dog than by cane. John led me into the shop and we ordered drinks before going over to a table. There, I moved my chair out a bit so that Zena could be caged in between my chair and the windowsill. This suited me as it meant she wasn’t able to edge out and sniff at people. She seemed to like laying her head on the table, probably to take in her surroundings, but John encouraged me to cut this behaviour out as I wouldn’t personally tolerate it and it’s not a good habit for her to keep if I’m likely to take her into restaurants. Once we were finished drinking and talking, we headed back out of the shop with John guiding me. Then, when we were a safe distance away from the entrance to Costa, I put Zena back in harness and told her to `find the door`, which she did no trouble. Then, we headed for the bus-stop. Zena thought that we were going back to the one we’d got off at so I had to encourage her on to the side road and then left to the zebra crossing. John taught me how to put my right foot in the gutter so that cars know to stop so that I can safely cross the road with Zena. She crossed it no trouble again and we turned right and headed towards another side road, which we crossed fine, and on to the bus-stop where we sat and waited a while for the bus. On the bus, John explained how I shouldn’t really tell Zena to sit or lie down because she has to be in a comfortable position herself to want to sit and forcing her to do so isn’t really fair on her. Instead, I have to sit and hold her as close to my side as I can so that she can’t creep forward into the aisle and sniff at people.
At the other end, John encouraged that I walked off the bus with Zena on lead and then put the harness on when we were on solid ground. Our walk back to my house went well and she’s learning to find the gate no problem. After Zena did her business in the garden, John and I sat in the living room and John read the ownership agreement out to me, ready for us to be able to sign in a couple of weeks’ time when I qualify. John doesn’t seem to have any doubt as to whether I’ll qualify. Everything is leaning towards that and he even asked me whether I’d want Zena’s puppy rearer to watch us on a walk. I told him I wasn’t sure how I felt about that and explained my reasons, which he seemed to understand. I think I will ask if she can follow us on a walk close to qualification but not the actual qualification walk. I feel like qualification is a big thing and personally I don’t know this lady. Obviously, I have absolutely nothing against them; if anything, I’m grateful to her for looking after Zena. But this is my time with Zena now and I feel like we need a fresh start together. I’d love for her puppy rearer to be in touch with me so that I can update her on how Zena is doing and hear about the new arrivals she’s looking after for Seeing Dogs.
In the afternoon, we headed for the leisure centre again. This time, we went a different way, turning into the street where the Co-op is but walking down the other side of it to get to the back of the leisure centre and then going around it to the doors. We walked home the way we had yesterday, which I think is a lot easier on my mind than this new way John discovered. Zena was quite difficult on this walk. Of course, a lot of it was down to my commands and confidence handling her. But some of it was genuinely her; she seemed to not want to sit at the curb no matter how much I encouraged it. `Steady` didn’t seem to be working, either, no matter how hard I tried to correct her with the harness handle and the lead. John showed me how to continuously check her with the lead as we walked to try and slow her down. It seemed to work a couple of times but generally didn’t. I’m going to continue trying to make it work in the future because I really can’t walk at her break-neck speed. Sometimes, I have to break into a slight run to keep up with her and that’s no way for either of us to work. I need to build the strength up in my arms and legs so that I can stand my ground and haul her back when she’s speeding away from me. We had to go back and go over a few of the crossings because Zena didn’t do them right. Just as John was leaving, Mum and Dad came through the door so John met Mum and chatted to them for a bit. He’s going to send me a link to the right flea and tick treatment to buy for Zena and confirmed that the dry food I’d found on Amazon was the correct food for Zena, which has pleased me as it was only 15 pounds for 12 kg, a really good price. As it turned out, Mum and Dad had been in town at the same time as us. As they were coming out of the car park, we were walking down the path towards the bus-stop. It just so happened that Mum saw us when Zena was trying to take me to the wrong bus-stop.
Tomorrow, we are taking Zena on a free run to Mayfield Park, which is opposite the leisure centre; doing a small walk to the shop, which I suggested as I want to keep working her as much as I can to get the experience for both of us; and hopefully doing the grooming. I think with everything we did today, it slipped John’s mind that we were supposed to be grooming her. I think the trip into town was a lot shorter than both of us expected it to be. It’s quite surprising to me because every route I’ve painstakingly learned with mobility help from professionals and family members is a hell of a lot shorter working with Zena. I’m looking forward to taking her on a free run and am hoping that our crossings tomorrow on our way to the shop are a lot better than they were this afternoon. I felt quite knackered and fed-up halfway through the afternoon walk but have boosted my spirits again since. Things like that happen and we’re only in the first week of training so it’s to be expected that we get things wrong. Over time, I’m hopeful we’ll be able to work together to get most things right.
Friday 3 February: FIRST WEEK OF TRAINING, COMPLETED!
This morning, John arrived earlier than usual and asked if I felt comfortable walking up and back to the shop with Zena on harness by myself. He said he’d follow in the car. He gave me instructions to get to the shop door, make her sit and then turn around and come back. Well, it was a pretty smooth walk, much better than the last couple of afternoons have been, anyway. She still did the curb thing a few times so I brought her back and corrected her. The more I do that, the more she’ll get it right. She hadn’t done a poo this morning so was a little sluggish at a few points and John confirmed, when we got home, that he thinks she was looking for a place to go. Thankfully, she held on until she was in the back garden. Next, it was free run time! I was allowed to take treats and we went in his car. He has it partitioned off in the back so that it can hold four dogs at any one time. At Mayfield Park, I was told to swap Zena’s working collar to her play collar — a bright green collar I bought from The Range a while ago that has her bells and ID tag attached — and then let her off lead. She seemed to love being allowed to be free and be a dog. Every now and then, John would blow the whistle three times and I’d stand, with my hand by my knee palm facing inward with a treat concealed and wait for her to come back. When she did, I was to take hold of her collar before turning my palm outward and letting her have the treat. She came back every time. At one point, she did dare to stray towards the open gate that leads on to the main road, but John called her back expertly. We stayed at the park for about half hour, walking around while she ran happily about, barking every now and then at other dogs. John said that she should stop this after a few times of coming to the same park. After a while, John called her back for the final time, I gave her the remaining treats in my hand and swapped her collars back over, attaching her lead at the same time. She didn’t seem at all bothered.
Back at home, John realised he’d misplaced his comb so just showed me how to brush Zena with the double-sided brush I had. It’s weird because I’ve ended up with quite a few brushes. I have a Zoom Groom, a Furminator shedding tool, the double-sided brush and a soft bristled small horse grooming brush. All of them have been recommended to me by various people since I found out I was getting Zena. But apparently all I need is the double-sided brush and a comb, which is on its way in the mail. It’s funny how the two simplest things are all I need. John also suggested that a leather Chamois leather cloth to bring out the oils and brighten up her coat. A few people on the Facebook group for Zena’s breed also said that the Zoom Groom may come in handy for picking out loose hairs. The Chamois only cost a couple of pounds from Amazon and I’ve bought combs from an online pet product retailers that Imi recommended to me. Zena loved being brushed. For a while, she was led contently on the wooden flooring in the utility room just letting me brush her head, down her neck and along her back. Sadly, I had to disturb her comfort and get her to stand up so that I could brush down her sides, a little on her tail, on her tummy and her legs. Over the last week, she’d gotten quite knotty and I was glad we’d found time for grooming. John recommended that I do it each day just to keep her appearance up. Her fur certainly felt nicer afterwards, even when she shook it all out. John explained how the metal prongs on one side of the brush would untangle her fur nicely and that the bristles on the other side would bring out the oils in her coat and take away loose fur. It’s good to know all this so that I can continue it after qualification in a couple of weeks.
There seems to have been some kind of mishap with my health book for Zena. Apparently, it was sent with all my equipment last week, so inside the box with her harness, bells, lead and whistle. But I didn’t notice any paperwork at all and am certain that I would have found it or heard it moving inside the box. John is going to ask for a new one to be made for me.
So, our first week of training is complete. It feels so long ago that it was last Friday and Zena was arriving. We’ve come so far in such a short space of time and I feel that it has gone a lot better than I ever expected it to. I didn’t expect to feel as confident talking to her on walks as I do or to remember all of the correct commands and foot positions. But I don’t seem to be getting it wrong often and I went the right way this morning when walking to the shop. In a strange way, it seemed easier to focus without John watching from behind. I knew he was following somewhere in his car but it was easy to forget that he was there at all. That way, I felt like it was my sole responsibility to get everything right. He praised us both loads when we got home and said that I’m doing really well for our first week. That makes me happy because I must be doing something right. Next week, we are going to the vets, doing off curb obstacles and continuing with our route work. I’m excited for our training to continue and hoping that Zena won’t be too bored over the weekend while she’s unable to go out anywhere. John has given me permission to go out for a little while, two hours maximum at one time, if I feel I need to get out of the house. If there’s a desperate reason for me to go, I will; but I’m not just going for the sake of going out. Zena seems settled now and I don’t want to disturb that unnecessarily. Overall, it has been a great week and here’s hoping next week can be just as positive.