Category Archives: Disability

Mobility Update: My Guide Session 1

My first My Guide session took place last Thursday. Jenny had rang two weeks earlier to arrange everything but as I’d been going away to Newcastle for a fortnight, we had to postpone until I was home. Originally, we were going to meet at 10am and had agreed to start work on my best route idea: the long walk into Woolston, which is the nearest little shopping street. It’s also where my dad works and features several fish and chip shops, a Co-op, a Lidl and a 99p store to name a few. I estimated that the route would take 40-minutes to an hour to get there and the same return. That’s double the length of current routes I have and I couldn’t think of anything better to get started with. In the end, Jenny phoned me on Thursday morning to say that the weather was dismal and how did I feel about rearranging for the afternoon? I already had a meeting scheduled with my employment adviser for a review of things but decided to cancel and reschedule that for My Guide as not much progress has been made on the employment front and I felt learning new routes needed to take priority.

So at the rearranged time of 1pm, Jenny turned up at my house and kitted out in our raincoats and decent footwear, we headed out. It was still a bit blustery and Jenny said the clouds looked as if they could rain; but the weather report was positive, suggesting we might even get some sunshine. As long as we didn’t get thoroughly soaked and the wind kept at bay enough for me to hear Jenny talking, I didn’t mind.

The route, as I’d predicted, took just over and hour. It was lengthened a bit by me programming everything into my Trekker Breeze and Jenny figuring out which ways were best to go. Overall, I thought the route was great! I mean, its going to be hellish for me to learn, but its great for the end result. It’d get me out of the house for 2 hours just walking to and from Woolston and that’s without stopping off at any shops or for lunch or anything. Another added bonus to the way Jenny has decided to go is that it actually passes right by the entrance to The Archeries Park, another destination on my routes-to-be-learned list. This means that we are tackling two of my priority destinations in one go. In learning the route to Woolston, I’ll easily master the route to the park. In fact, I’ll have learnt the route to the park before I manage the whole way into Woolston.

On Thursday I programmed the whole there and return routes from Woolston, landmarking anything either Jenny or I thought was relevant to help me learn the route and orientate myself. When we arrived in Woolston, we popped into Dad’s shop and said hello. That is my main motivation for learning how to walk into Woolston. If I can walk there, I, and any future furry companion, have had loads of exercise and hard work and so can meet up with Dad and even get lunch together if we fancied. There’s a very tasty bakery in Woolston so what better way to work off the calories of a doughnut than an hour’s walk home? Plus, the little convenience store and 99p store sell very tasty doggy treats and toys. There couldn’t be a better reward for a hard working companion than a tasty treat or new toy to play with once we got home. Also, my grandparents take my elderly great-Nan into Woolston each Tuesday to get her pension and have a coffee and cookie in Subway. They always do a little bit of shopping and its nice to get out of the house and join them. Even if I caught the bus there, there’s no reason I couldn’t walk home, especially if I had a furry guide by then. A little further away than Dad’s shop is my doctor’s surgery and pharmacy so if I just had to pick up or put in a prescription, it’d be nice to lengthen the trip out with a long walk. Having the option of the walk as well as the bus is just a nice possibility.

I feel it is going to take me a long time and many many sessions to learn the Woolston route. But Jenny seemed quite positive and enthusiastic about helping me so I’m really hopeful that were going to have a really good My Guide partnership.

As well as starting to learn new routes, I have also been placed on the list by HumanWare for a new Victor Reader Trek unit in the new year. These are £545 plus £10 postage so to afford one I have sold my Victor Reader Stream and Trekker Breeze. Kindly, the man who has bought my Trekker has consented to me keeping it until I have my VR Trek up and running and all my routes and landmarks transferred. Kieran has agreed to help with that when it arrives because apparently the software needed is very fiddly.

Right now everything is quite positive. I had news from Zena’s new owner a few weeks ago saying sadly she had to let Z go too for reasons of her own. Zena is now living with a family she boarded with in the past as a pet and has been withdrawn as a Seeing Dog. Although I was sad for the lady who had her after me, I’m mostly pleased that Zena has been withdrawn as a Seeing Dog. I think she will have the life she so clearly needed with a family as their pet. I always said she’d make an excellent pet for someone. Sadly, I’m not in touch with her new owners but I hope she has the life she deserves.

My next My Guide session is scheduled for tomorrow. Jenny is meeting me at 10am and we’re going for round two of the Woolston route. Last week, Jenny guided me so I could concentrate on recording all the necessary landmarks. Tomorrow, I’m going to start doing it with my cane and Jenny following and directing me. The plan is to do the whole route with my cane over and over and hopefully I’ll start retaining it. If not, we’ll split the route into chunks and learn it that way. I just hope Jenny is patient!

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Mobility update: the outcome of my Guide Dog assessment

Since i last wrote a mobility update, quite a lot has happened. Last time I wrote, I’d had my mobility assessment with the instructor from Guide Dogs and she’d told me she felt I was more than ready for the next part of the assessment, where a GDMI [Guide Dogs Mobility Instructor] would come to my house and talk everything dog related. She advised I’d probably have to do a short handle walk, a walk where I hold the harness and the instructor walks as if they’d dog, and I command as if they are the dog. I felt a bit nervous about this as, 6 years ago when I had my first guide dogs assessment, that was one of the things they picked up on: that I wasn’t particularly vocal with the dog. At the time I was 14 and terrified; I was desperate for a guide dog for all the wrong reasons and absolutely heartbroken and gutted when, predictably, they told me I wasn’t ready yet. But I felt confident after this assessment; the woman had been more positive than I could have hoped she’d be. She said my mobility had come on leaps and bounds since she assessed me a year ago and that I’d finally done what she needed.

Unfortunately, at the next assessment, in mid October, things were very different. The tone of the whole thing was completely the opposite of that which I’d been thrilled about in July. The lady had filled me with so much hope and anticipation, which I hadnt dared to have before considering my previous negative experiences with guide dog assessments. Of course, in hindsight now I can absolutely understand why they made the decisions they did and I respect that; but I was so joyfully hopeful this time. Friends and family had been wholeheartedly encouraging me that this time, at last, I’d get the answer Ive been dreaming of for so long. Due to their unwavering certainty and the positive vibes I’d received after the assessment last time, I was quietly confident too, secretly hoping I’d get exactly what I was wishing for this time. But it didn’t work out that way. When the assessment started, we did a lot of talking; it was the instructor from the last assessment, a new GDMI I’d never met before and myself. Right from the beginning I was nervous; of course, even before they arrived I was nervous but as soon as they were in my lounge, an uncertainty I hadn’t had was with me. Once all the talking was done, during which I’d pretty much told them the full story of my experiences with Seeing Dogs, we went out for a route walk. As soon as the instructor asked, I knew things weren’t going as I’d dreamed; she wanted me to show them the route to the gym, which is my longest route and the one I learnt with John and Zena during our training and which became mine and Zena’s most used route. Slightly panicking, I grabbed my Trekker Breeze, praying they wouldn’t ask me to do it without it, and programmed in the route I needed. Thinking about it now, I might have been able to do the route without the Trekker – I did it so many times with zena – but I didn’t really want to take the risk. Plus, the difference doing the route with Zena and doing it with a cane is staggering.

The route went relatively well on the way there. They didn’t interupt or ask anything additional of me so I was able to concentrate on where I was going, with the additional landmark reminders from the Trekker as backup. They were reassuring and I was so glad I’d taken the risk of grabbing the Trekker. When we reached the gym, we immediately turned back around and headed home. On the return journey, I did do a short handle walk; it was terrifying. It’s so different from actually having a dog on the end of the harness and commanding a GDMI who is currently assessing whether you’re good enough for a dog you know 100% you want and need.

When we got home, they told me the verdict. Of course I wasn’t ready for a guide dog yet. Of course I dint have enough routes. My workload was nowhere near enough for a young lively new guide dog. I didn’t go out anywhere near as much as I needed to myself to enough different places to be ready for a dog. Secretly, I’d been expecting these comments. Although everyone else had been overly positive, a little secret part of my brain had been dreading they’d say all this. What came next was what I hadn’t expected. They had received comment back from Seeing Dogs, from John in fact, discussing my partnership with Zena. John had basically said that he thought I’d given up too soon, that my handling hadn’t been right and that due to my lack of routes Zena had gotten bored and therefore the partnership had crumbled. But according to him, if I’d tried harder or persevered longer, it would have all worked out. What I was experiencing was merely teething issues which every new partnership experiences for the first year after qualification. In a nutshell, it was my fault and I shouldn’t have quit. When I defended myself, trying to explain the severity of the issues I’d faced and the lack of support from the charity I felt I’d experienced, the GDMI said that I could experience any or all of these problems with one of their dogs, that usually many new owners do face these problems at the beginning of the partnership. I tried to counter that I didn’t feel the frequency of the occurrence of the problems were as bad with all new partnerships to what I had with Zena. Ours was pretty much a daily struggle with no high points.

They explained that due to my lack of routes and the comments from John, they had concerns about putting me forward for a Guide Dog. They explained again that I could experience any of the issues or even all of them with a new dog and because I’d given zena back, how would they know that I’d persevere with a new dog? Of course they didn’t actually say it like that but that was the message. Also, I needed to consider whether a dog was for me. They said that they felt I’d been given many opportunities to improve my amount of routes and hadn’t taken them. They said that of course they could appreciate there were two sides to every story where mine and Zena’s partnership was concerned but they couldn’t pretend that John’s report hadn’t given them worries.

So they left me with two options to think over. They said that if I felt after all this that actually a guide dog wasn’t for me right now I could close my application and reapply at a time when I did feel a dog would suit my lifestyle. Or, if I wanted, the instructor would put me forward for a My Guide application again and I could spend time working on my routes to create a large enough workload for a guide dog. The instructor said that if I chose My Guide then she’d contact the leader of Southampton’s My Guide service immediately so that I could be put forward for a new application. As before, she complimented my much improved long cane skills, saying how much more confidence I seemed to have whilst using it than she had seen the previous year. The GDMI added that I’d done a really good job correcting my own orientation errors along the route and that she felt it was a really good route. We did a lot of talking about how many routes I have. I explained how since the instructor had assessed me the previous year, I’d learnt a lot of new routes: the gym route (30 minutes there, 30 minutes back), the library route (a really recent learn, 20 minutes there and the same return), the routes on the bus both into Woolston our local small shopping street and into our main city centre, the route from Woolston on foot to my doctor’s surgery and pharmacy, and the locations of several shops both in Woolston and the city centre. Over the last year, I’ve personally felt I’ve made massive leaps and bounds in my mobility independence. I had a guide dog and despite the fact that she wasn’t a Guide Dogs dog and wasn’t the best working dog, she meant that I did my level best to leave the house daily more than just to put the rubbish out. This, for me, is huge! The addition of all the new routes is even more amazing progress. In 2016, it took me several months to learn the route to the local shop which is 5 minutes away from my house. But since then I’ve learnt routes that are lengthy, or lengthy in my book. Nowadays, I regularly meet up with my friend Josh, catching the bus into the city centre and going for lunch with him. That’s usually once weekly. And then most Tuesdays I take the bus into Woolston to have coffee and do a little shopping with my grandparents. Before Zena gave me that confidence, I’d never have dared.

This was all explained to the instructor and GDMI and although they seemed pleased that I’d made that progress, it was clear it still wasn’t enough. When discussing the My Guide option, we sketched out what I could accomplish with a volunteer’s help. We wrote out a list of routes I had in mind to try out and the lengths of each of them. Once we’d established this, the instructor and GDMI agreed that all of these combined would most definitely create a large enough workload for a guide dog but it was up to me whether I felt it was worthwhile putting that effort in, whether I thought creating that kind of work for myself was necessary right now and whether a guide dog would benefit my life. As they left, the instructor said to mull things over for a little while and let her know when I’d made my final decision.

To say I was crushed was an understatement. After all the hard work I’d put in learning new routes and still trying my best even after giving Zena back, I’d hoped I’d get a better answer than that. Right there and then, I couldn’t really think or feel anything, except shock that it hadn’t gone better and at what John had told them. As promised, as soon as the women had left, I ran upstairs and rang my sister Imi. In all of this guide dog mess, I have always had three solid figures in my life who I could rely on for sound advice and honesty. Of course my parents and wider family have been supportive too but the three main people, without whom I wouldn’t have pulled through all this, are Imi, my wonderful fella Kieran and my ex cricket captain and all round blindy hero Tiny. Of course, being Guide Dog owners themselves, Imi and Tiny have a whole host of knowledge and experience about Guide Dogs to fall back on when helping me out. As for Kieran, well, he’s my rock and always there for me no matter what, even when I’m wrong. The support of these three people in my life is utterly priceless to me and I can’t reiterate often enough how I wouldn’t have gotten through the worst times along this journey so far without them. Hence why Imi was my first port of call. To be fair, all she got when she answered the phone was a sudden gabbled statement of “I haven’t got enough routes and I’m not ready” before I burst into uncontrollable sobs. I say this not to be dramatic but because it was true. Poor Godwin probably thought things were a lot worse than they were because I don’t think shes ever heard me cry like that. Haltingly, I managed to tell her the full account of the morning’s events. The parts we focused on were the open option for My Guide and what John had told Guide Dogs in his report about me. Imi couldn’t believe how horrid he’d been; she saw mine and Zena’s partnership with her own eyes when we visited her in April so knows first hand how bad things. We’re. In fact, it was she who alerted me to some of the issues I hadn’t realised we were having. Eventually, we summarised that I needed to think what I wanted but that the My Guide offer was a fair one and definitely one I should take if I wanted to pursue getting a dog. However, I was so messed up about the whole thing that right there and then I wasn’t sure what I wanted. After everything John had told them, my worst fears seemed to be coming true. Maybe I’d been a bad owner. Maybe I shouldn’t have a guide dog. Maybe I didn’t need a guide dog and was again making up reasons why I should have one. The only solid argument I had for this theory was that however bad mine and Zena’s partnership had been, it improved my life dramatically. I was leaving the house with confidence and feeling good about my mobility. Yes, we had mountains of issues and these in the end made me decide that the partnership couldn’t work, but if nothing else, Zena proved how much guide dog mobility can enhance my life. That, above all my other insecurities and worries and uncertainties, makes me positive sure a guide dog is for me. At the end of mine and Imi’s call, I wasn’t feeling much better. But I was trying to take her level-headed logic and calmness on board.

Later, I spoke to Tiny on the phone. He was equally surprised about the outcome of the assessment. Above everyone else, he’d seemed the most certain for me that I’d get the answer I wanted. But as always he is my voice of reason. He knew what I needed to do before I really did. He knew I needed to reapply for My Guide, get all the routes I had in mind under my belt and then go back to the instructor and show what I’d accomplished. With all the routes I had in mind, I’d surely have a big enough workload then. He said that what John had said was unfair. He told me to give everything a lot of thought, at least sleep on it, before I decided what I was going to do. But we both knew what I was going to do. Tiny is always right.

As for Kieran, well, he was my comfort blanket, he said all the things I wanted and needed to hear. Over the following few days, gifts of my favourite sweets arrived in the post: 3 large boxes of Cadbury’s milk tray, a big bag of jelly tots and a box full of packets of love hearts. Although unnecessary, these gifts fulfilled their purpose; they cheered me up. Kieran hasn’t always fully understood my motives for being so persistent about wanting a guide dog. But he understands now;he knows for me a guide dog is my preferred mobility aid and that to me guide dog mobility feels almost natural, an extension of my arm the way his cane feels to him. And so his support is unwavering.

After giving it some thought and taking everyone’s comments on board, I’d made my decision. Like I’d thought that day on the phone with Tiny, I knew I was going for the My Guide option. Guide dog mobility improved my life that much that I felt giving up now wasn’t an option, especially when there was an open door of help to enable me to be ready for a guide dog available. Why would I slam that door? It’s the only available avenue to getting a guide dog left to me. I took the cheater’s way out with Seeing Dogs and look where that left me? Missing a dog that I loved with all my heart but who just wasn’t cut out to be a guide and who I’ve had nothing but abuse about from the charity she came from. I don’t regret having Zena in my life and I never could but the backlash and consequences of that that I’m now facing somethimes make me wonder whether it was worth it. The only positive I really got out of it is proof that guide dog mobility is the right thing for me. The pleasure of having Zena as my companion for 5 months was obviously a massive bonus and she taught me loads of vital dog ownership lessons, mainly to be patient when things aren’t going your way.

With Imi’s help, I sent an email to the instructor stating what I wanted to do. I told her I wanted to reapply for My Guide with the sole aim of learning all those routes we’d outlined in the meeting to then be reassessed for a guide dog. We also asked for clarification on just how many routes I needed to learn to have enough to form a decent workload for a dog. It was agreed that the ones I had in mind plus the additional ones I already knew would be enough. While I’d been thinking all this through and corresponding via email, my dad had already volunteered his services for helping to teach me routes. He already had one in mind: the route from home to a news agents. It takes a good 35-40 minutes to walk there from home but it builds on my existent route to the gym. Over the following few weeks, dad taught me this route as promised and I realised it was a very valuable route to have. Not only was it just an extension of an existing route I know solidly but it is also a convenient little shop to go to and it also passes a big park, perfect for free running. In fact, it’s the very park John and I used during training to free run Zena. I stopped using it because it became too much of a distraction for her whilst working on route to the gym. I felt this was a big accomplishment of mine and dad’s because really I’d learnt the routes to two new places. Although only additions to the existing route, still two new destinations and quickly learnt and memorised.

I was quickly contacted by the leader of My Guide, who did the application there and then over the phone. As soon as she’d completed the online form, she said she already had a volunteer in mind and could she come the following Wednesday so I could meet them and decide whether I thought she could help me. This took place in mid November. The lady’s name was Jenny and she’s helped others learn routes in the past. We discussed what I needed to do and then did a little walk outside. We just walked to the local Co-op and then came back. Jenny and I both said we were happy to work together and she seemed quite optimistic about achieving my route aims, the leader said she’d phone back in a couple of days and check with each of us that we were happy to go ahead and then fill out the appropriate paperwork so we could get started. A week later, she contacted us both by email to say we were a successful match and could start work together. That very evening, Jenny phoned me to arrange our first session. We agreed on the 7th of December at 10am with the plan to start my first new route, the longest of them all: the big walk into Woolston.

So eventually, the result was positive. I was matched with a volunteer swiftly and a plan put in place for me to learn new routes that would build up into a big enough workload for a guide dog. My aim currently is to take 6 months to learn all the routes I need. I’m not the quickest at picking up routes but am hoping 6 months will be long enough for me to be competent and confident with all the routes outlined in mine and Jenny’s action plan. That is the aim. Then, I’d like to be reassessed by Guide Dogs shortly afterward and then put forward for the waiting list. I hope by persevering with this and learning all these new routes that I can prove to Guide Dogs and anyone else that I’m committed to being a guide dog owner and committed to making any future partnerships I’m lucky enough to have the best they possibly can be. If all this hard work doesn’t show that I’m totally serious about owning and working a Guide dog then I don’t know what will.

Mobility Update 27 July: Guide Dogs mobility assessment

Last week, I received a call back from one of Guide Dogs’ mobility officers to ask when I was available for my Guide Dogs mobility assessment. We agreed on this Tuesday, July 25th, at 10am. I was nervous even on the phone. The instructor who was coming out to see me was the lady who had dealt with my case before I contacted Seeing Dogs and who, at that time, said she felt then wasn’t the right time for me to have a dog and that I needed a lot of route training before I’d be ready. Then, we agreed on a My Guide partnership, whereby they’d match a volunteer to me to help out with whatever I needed, which in my case was route training. Unfortunately, before I was suitably matched to a My Guide volunteer, John from Seeing Dogs had told me that Zena was a successful match. Of course, as someone who has always desperately longed for a guide dog, I was hardly going to take the opportunity of more cane training over the offer of a dog. However, as I soon discovered on Tuesday, I was wrong to be worried about seeing this particular instructor again.
I knew I’d have to show her one of my routes and I hoped, even though she’s seen it once before, she’d be happy with the simple route to my local Co-op. Luckily, a lot of discussing was done before we set out for the actual mobility part of the assessment. Mostly, she wanted to know what routes I currently have and use, whether they’d improved since we last met and what had happened with Seeing Dogs. Before Tuesday, I’d had advice from everyone about what I needed to say in order to prove that I have enough of a workload now to need a dog and that having a dog for me works so much better than a long cane. I explained all about Zena and what had happened regarding Seeing Dogs. I told her that I felt there needed to be more support and that for me Zena was totally the wrong match. I tried not to linger over all this for too long, instead emphasising how often I used to take Zena out and all the places I could go to with her. I made it quite clear how much more confident I felt with a dog in place of a long cane and how I felt able to get out of the house whenever I wanted to. She knew, from interviewing me last time I applied for a guide dog, that this was all a massive improvement on where I was 18 months ago.
Even before we went out for the long cane demonstration, she told me that she would be putting me forward for a guide dog assessment. This is the next step towards actually getting a dog. An assessor comes out to your house and discusses everything to do with owning a guide dog as well as making you walk with the handle of a harness, to judge your reactions and posture I think. This is when you can specify whether you’d prefer a particular breed, colour or gender of dog. As I commented when she was explaining all this, I’m not going to be disclosing any preferences. As long as the dog is matched appropriately and correctly, I’m not bothered if its female or male, Labrador or Shepherd, or golden or black. As long as our partnership is based on professional judgement, it doesn’t matter what kind of dog I get.
I was really surprised to discover that the long cane part of the assessment went really well. The instructor said that all aspects of my mobility had improved massively and when we arrived back at mine, she said that this was what they needed, that she hoped I understood now why they had to say no last time. If she’d said no tis time too, I don’t think I’d ever had agreed with her. But I do; I get it completely. I needed more routes. I needed more confidence. And it’s John and Zena I have to thank for that. I don’t think I’d ever have accomplished it so well with a cane. The assurance I have that a Guide Dog is the right mobility aid for me has made me determined to have one; and I’d never have known that for sure without the 5 months I spent with Zena.
So the next step from here is the Guide Dog assessment. The instructor told me to wait 8 weeks to hear from someone. If time stretched on longer than 8 weeks, I am to contact them immediately to hurry them up. If I am successful at the Guide Dog assessment, I’ll be put on the waiting list for a dog. As a side thought, I asked if I’ll be able to have further help to learn routes while I’m on the waiting list and the instructor reassured me by saying I could. Although I’m happy with how much progress I’ve made with routes in the last year, I’d still like to add more to my growing list. The more routes I have, the more I have to keep a dog busy. It has to be said, though, that I couldn’t have hoped for more from this assessment. I was absolutely terrified about it before it happened and afterwards I couldn’t have been happier but more shocked about the outcome. There isn’t a better option than what i’ve come out of it with.
My homework, while I wait for my Guide Dog assessment, is to do the routes to the leisure centre and the library independently with my cane. I’ve never done this before so it’s quite a challenge to be presented with. I’ll do it, though, at some point. I’ve asked my dad to do the leisure centre route with me so that i can log it onto the Trekker Breeze before approaching it alone. It’s not that I don’t think I can do it, it’s just that having the Breeze as backup is a big reassurance. Anyway, as I have two months to get it done, I think it’s ok to take an extra precaution with it.
So I’m on my way towards getting my very own Guide Dog. One more assessment, which everyone seems quite confident I’ll pass, then hopefully a match, then training and then hopefully freedom, even better freedom than what I had with Zena. I’ve been warned that the Southampton waiting list for a dog is currently 18 months so it could be quite sometime before i get that freedom. It’ll be worth it when I do though. Next stop guide dog assessment.
I just want to thank everyone who supported me in the lead up to Tuesday and who greeted my amazement at the outcome with enthusiasm and positivity. I wouldn’t be in this position I am,having the confidence and determination to continue with the guide dogs application process if it wasn’t for your support. Lets hope that I can get through the Guide Dog assessment successfully and be put on the waiting list. I don’t think I’ll believe it’s true if I’m that lucky. But I’m hopeful, really hopeful that this time everything is going to work out in my favour. I mean, if Tuesday is anything to go by, I really am going to be very lucky.

Mobility Update  13 July 

Since Zena left, I have been struggling to get back into a normal routine, adjusting to life without a guide dog. as I spent all my time with Zena — she even slept in my room — I’ve found it quite difficult to keep busy without her. the main thing I’ve struggled with is adapting to using a cane as my primary mobility aid. as I relied on Zena as my guide for five months, it is very strange to transition back to using a cane. the first thing I noticed was all the things I hadn’t had to think about when Zena was guiding me. Swinging a cane and finding every little detail along a route is a lot different than walking in the direction you know your route follows with a dog avoiding all the unnecessary details. The one thing Zena has taught me is that a guide dog is definitely my preferred mobility aid. Using a cane feels tedious and long-winded. Some people say that a long cane feels like an extension of their arm when it comes to being mobile. I feel that way about a dog. Some people have said that I criticised Seeing Dogs, their training and Zena herself. I have not. I quite clearly recognised how vital Zena has been in my journey to being independent. I will forever be grateful to John and the charity for giving me the chance of being Zena’s partner and for Zena for showing me that a guide dog is definitely what I want. However, when I signed my Seeing Dogs Ownership Agreement, I did so with the knowledge that Zena was going to be my guide and that if ever I felt she wasn’t fulfilling that purpose, I’d be able to contact Seeing Dogs and something would be arranged that was in the interest of both Zena and I. I felt that I tried every option available to me to make sure mine and Zena’s partnership worked and when I ran out of options, I did the last thing available to me. Some may feel that I wasted the charity’s time, effort and money. A lot of money, resources and time is put into every partnership they produce. But I feel that Seeing Dogs give people the chance of matching with their dogs with the full understanding that maybe the match won’t be successful, that some matches do fail. Therefore, I don’t feel that handing Zena back was a waste of the charity’s money. They gave me the opportunity that nobody else ever has, to learn that a guide dog is exactly the mobility aid I need. Having Zena taught me many valuable lessons, including how to look after a dog and how to function with a guide dog. Those things are invaluable. Anyway, even if the charity’s money was wasted on me, Zena was well looked after, loved a lot and will hopefully be matched to someone who she can help more than she could me. Moving on, this post wasn’t supposed to be a rewrite of my last post where I explained my decision to have Zena withdrawn. This post was to explain the plans I’m putting in place for future independence.
Last Thursday, I reapplied to Guide Dogs for the Blind. I wrote an email in which I explained that I’d like to apply for a Guide Dog again and also use the My Guide service to its full potential. The My Guide service is where a volunteer is matched to a blind person to help them get out and about more. As my way to learn routes is with a sighted person helping out, the My Guide service could certainly help me. I have been rejected from being put on the Guide Dogs waiting list for a dog twice before because it was felt that I didn’t have enough routes to form a good enough workload for a dog. Before I had Zena, I didn’t go out anywhere on my own. The only time I used my cane independently was while I was learning new routes and that was always with a sighted person following behind. Now that I’ve had Zena and she is gone, I will go out by myself with just my cane. Having the additional aid of the Trekker Breeze has so far been invaluable. It makes me feel safer in the knowledge that I can rely on it to tell me what street i’m on if I feel lost. Unfortunately, the overlap of Trekker and Zena wasn’t big and I wasn’t able to log all of the routes and locations I went to with Zena on to it before she went. I did manage to go to the local Co-op with Zena and Trekker, recording the route as i walked. The local Co-op is literally a couple of side road crossings and a corner turn away. It only takes me about 10 minutes to walk there with a cane. But that Co-op is incredibly useful and a very valuable little route to have in the bank. I’ve been lucky in that Guide Dogs have responded fairly quickly. I received a phone call from the Southampton office on Tuesday and went through the Guide Dog application form there and then. The lady on the phone said she’d send out the medical forms they need and forward my email to the mobility officers so that they could arrange a mobility assessment for me. Usually the first step is to attend one of their information mornings in branch but the lady on the phone suggested that was probably unnecessary for me as I’ve been to one before and been through the application process twice before. I agreed to this suggestion as I didn’t really see the need to attend another information session, especially as I’ve had Zena and now know what it is to look after a guide dog. Guide Dogs themselves have the added benefit that they cover food and medical costs. So in a way I’ve already had a bigger responsibility than I’d have if I was matched with a Guide Dogs dog; I wouldn’t have to add cost as a contributing factor to whether a guide dog is right for me. THe next step is to fill out the medical forms that came in the post today and get them posted off to Guide Dogs. I’m hoping i’ll hear back from them relatively quickly regarding a mobility assessment , My hope from there is that they will see that I have a need for a dog, offer me more help to learn routes with My Guide and find me a match., This time, I don’t intend to take no for an answer. I need a guide dog to be comfortably mobile and all i need to do is prove that to them.
I think I’ve dealt with Zena’s absence quite well mobility wise. I haven’t just sat at home every day feeling sorry for myself because my partnership failed. I’ve gone into Woolston twice to meet grandparents for lunch and taken myself into town on the bus to meet friends three times. I’ve also wandered up to the local Co-op by myself twice. The first time was just to get me out of the house but the second time Mum had given me the electric key and some money to put on it. It was good to have a reason to go out again. But that’s definitely the scariest walk I’ve done alone without Zena. I’m not really sure why it was so terrifying because if anything the Co-op route is the one I know the best. But it was horrible. I was sweating loads when I got home even though I was only wearing three-quarter length trousers and a t-shirt and it wasn’t even hot. I just felt so nervous. That’s where walking with a cane is so different for me. At times I felt nervous walking with Zena but those nerves don’t even compare to what I feel with a cane. That’s another thing that makes me know a guide dog is the right thing for me. The confidence I had with Zena despite our flaws as a partnership were incredible so the confidence I should have if I’m fortunate enough to be matched with a Guide Dogs dog who meets the requirements I have should make the confidence I had with Zena pale in comparison. I’ll be flying, I know it.
And that is exactly why I have to convince Guide Dogs. I and others around me saw the massive impact Zena had on my life so we can only imagine the changes a well-matche dog could have on my life. I don’t mean in the fairytale way of everything will be perfect and I’ll be able to go wherever I desire. I’m not that clueless. Zena has taught me that its hard work to have a guide dog and maintain a partnership. But if the dog and I were to work well together in a way Zena and I never managed, I know I would benefit hugely. Of course, if I’m exceedingly lucky and am offered both Guide Dog waiting list and My Guide opportunities, I’ll be able to build up my knowledge of routes while I wait for a dog, making the likelihood of a stronger more successsful partnership more promising. Obviously, I’m just dreaming there; I very much doubt that I’ll be offered both. If anything, I’ll be told I still don’t have enough routes, even though I’ll have proved to the best of my ability, and given a My Guide volunteer to help me learn more routes. But I’m trying to be positive. A lot has changed since they last told me to learn more routes. I’ve had an assistance dog, I’ve learnt new routes and it had massive benefits on my life. I’ve discovered truthfully that a guide dog is the right mobility aid for me and I have plenty of experience to use for a future partnership. I’m going to be stubborn about this. I know for certain it’s what I need and I know I can make a success of it if I’m given a chance. I just need that chance.
While I wait hopefully and impatiently, I’m going to do all I can to get as many solid routes under my belt as I can. I still have all the routes I could use with Zena and there’s always potential for more, especially as Southampton has the talking bus service. I’ve been logging all the routes I’ve been doing on to my Trekker Breeze and adding landmarks to its memory every time I go somewhere. All these little things will be helpful and build up to the bigger end picture that I’m hoping for. In thes next blogs focused on mobility, i’m going to write about every little detail of my journey with Guide Dogs, whether that be being lucky and being put on the waiting list for a dog or progressing with new routes with a My Guide volunteer. I want it all written down, i want to be able to look back in a few years and know I made good decisions regarding my independence. I feel like currently I’m making all the right decisions and doing my best to make myself independent. Zena and Seeing Dogs have been a great catalyst for my desperation to be independent again. I was desperate when I applied to Seeing Dogs but now I’m desperate in a whole new way; I’m desperate for something that I know exists, for something I know I can have given the opportunity. Somehow, I’m going to make this work.

The hardest, most thought through, heartbreaking decision I’ve ever had to make

So this time I have sad things to write about. Since January this year, I’ve had the pleasure of a four-legged maniac in my life. Her name is Zena and she’s been my guide dog. Until last weekend, I thought she’d be mine until she retired. But things haven’t been going well for Zena and I as a partnership for quite some time and so I made the decision to have her withdrawn. It is not a decision I made lightly or easily and only most of me believes it is the right decision to have made. All of me knows it was but there’s still a lot of me that wants her here with me, where I believed she was meant to be. But last Thursday, John came to collect her and she has gone home with him to be trained and matched with someone else; someone better, I hope. There are many reasons why I felt our partnership wouldn’t work in the long-term:

First, she always seemed to be racing ahead of me. No matter how much I’ve picked up my walking speed since the beginning of training at the end of January, I could never seem to match her pace. No amount of correcting and stopping to slow her down made the difference. John taught me how to flick the handle and say `steady` in the slow kind of sing-song tone to slow her down. He taught me how to stop abruptly and give her a firm correction with the lead repeating that `steady`. Nothing happened for it. For a little while, I thought Zena had improved with her speed. But it just became erratic. Sometimes she’d react to the corrections and the tone of my voice. Other times, she’d continue to speed along towards whatever it was that had caught her eye or to the destination in sight. I’m not saying I need a slow dog, but a dog who is happy to wander along at my side sticking to a steady pace would definitely be preferable. If I’m running along trying to keep up with a dog, I’m putting more energy to staying with them than I am to where we’re going and what’s happening around us, two vital things I need to be constantly taking note of.

Second, there was the crossing issue. Even on the most repeated routes we did, Zena was constantly over-shooting crossings (flying over them and into the road). John taught me the methods to correct this problem and I was forever using them but usually with no result. Sometimes, she’d pay attention and the route would improve for a while. But then the next day we’d be back to over-shooting. I don’t think I really need to explain why getting crossings right is crucial. As a rule, Guide Dogs teach their dogs to sit or wait at the crossing no matter where you are or the situation you are in. Zena needed several prompts before she’d sit and not often would she sit facing the direction we needed to go in. My sister pointed this out to me during our stay in York and I hadn’t really realised the severity of what Zena was doing until she explained how guide dogs generally work. From then on, I noticed it all the time; I had been thinking it wasn’t right beforehand, as it took me some time to get Zena sat at the crossing, but I hadn’t realised just how bad it was until afterwards. When I spoke to John about this, he gave me some further advice to improve the situation, reminded me to use what I’d learnt during training. But nothing worked. I corrected, rewarded, corrected again. No change. No matter how many some we went back over the same crossing, it had very little effect. Sometimes the rest of the route would go well because that correction had happened. But other times she’d just continue to be unreliable at every crossing.

Furthermore, she couldn’t guide in unfamiliar areas or if a member of the family or close friend was around. If I tried to get Zena to guide in unfamiliar settings, she’d just about do the job and I wouldn’t say particularly safely do that job. She wasn’t very good at weaving around people, rather preferring to say hello to everyone she passed therefore usually barging me into them. No amount of correcting changed that, either. With family and friends about, she’d race ahead, making it impossible for me to hold conversations or hear them if they decided to go in a different direction to the one Zena was pursuing. Also, if someone she knew well was around, they distracted her from actually guiding. So for both of these situations, I’d ask a family member to guide me. This in itself presented a problem. Zena walks a lot faster than anyone in my family does. So I was forever pulling her back, checking her lead to slow her down. In the end, the Halti head collar was agreed to by John and I started using that. It made quite a bit of difference whenever I just had her on the lead. But she still pulled. Even with the restraint of the half-check collar plus the Halti, she still attempted to get ahead. Again in unfamiliar settings, we had the crossing problem. She wouldn’t immediately sit at the crossing so I wouldn’t always know if it was a crossing or if she’d just stopped to have a sniff or seen something that had taken her concentration away from her work. Of course, I’m taught to encourage her on, to tell her to get back to her job, which I did; that then either meant she would eventually show me that it was a crossing or would continue forward into a potentially dangerous situation. I don’t know where this behaviour appeared from as during training, when John was present, she never hesitated. Especially when we learnt the new route of going to the gym, she was almost spot on. At that time, I was learning too so if we both made mistakes then that was fine. But even with the gym route, whenever she over-shot a curb, I’d immediately give her a lead correction, bring her back and do it again. No amount of this repetition seemed to make her understand. Sometimes, it would encourage a good response from her and the rest of our route would be smoother, more comfortable with no over-shot crossings and quicker reactions to sit at the upcoming curb. But then the next day we were back to square one again. And here I’m talking about our regular routes such as the gym and local shop. Those, which we did several times a week, were the ones she should have known off-by-heart. We did them so often it was impossible for her not to have known what she was supposed to have been doing.

However, this is where distractions came into play. As lovely a dog as Zena was in the house and off-lead greeting people and being generally loving, this should have ended when her harness was put on. On free runs, she loved to stalk birds; it’s in the Vizsla breed to hunt and a free run was the perfect opportunity for her to exercise this talent. Not on lead. No matter where we were or how much control I had over her, whether that be on harness or just by the lead, Zena was always distracted. It could be a crisp packet, bird, another dog, cat, small child, cyclist or group of people. Whatever was around took her interest straight away. Of course, I hurried her on, using corrections and encouragements whenever needed, and tried to continue with our route. But soon enough another distraction would come in the shape of something else. I understand that there’s no way she can concentrate constantly. It’s a lot to ask of a high-energy dog such as Zena. But I needed more concentration than she was giving. I needed her by my side, not at my side with er focus elsewhere. Perhaps I sound too critical of her but when you’re using an animal as your eyes, it really is true to say that you need the bond, trust and relationship to be perfect. Again, John was quick to suggest things I could put in place to minimise these distraction opportunities. Take the lead in my right hand and keep her going with encouraging words whenever I thought a distraction was looming. Reward her with praise and a small treat whenever she calmly passed something that was potentially distracting. No doing. Whether it be because I couldn’t hear whatever it was that she was seeing or because there was just too much to distract her, these actions to keep her focus weren’t always possible to implement. And believe me when I say I tried. I tried to be patient, kind and forgiving. She is only a dog after all; a dog who’s had hours and hours and mounds of money put into training her to be someone’s eyes. A dog who I’m supposed to rely on to get me to and from places safely, with my guidance and encouragements, all of the time.

Then, there’s the toilet problem. Ever since Zena first came to stay — and I’ve written about it before many times — she never seemed to get the hang of going to toilet once in the morning and once at night before bedtime. John told me that this was the necessary amount of times she needed to go to ensure that she didn’t spend on route. Fine, I thought, no problem at all. The last thing I wanted was for her to be going to toilet on route. That would just be another excuse for her not to pay attention. So I persevered. Every night about ten pm and every morning around eight, I’d take Zena out into the back garden and to her handmade spending pen. I’d shut the gate and stand on the other side, saying `busy busy` in as cheerful voice as I could manage. She’d do her circles and, if I was lucky, she’d speed them up to the point when she’d actually go to the toilet. At that point of knowing she was speeding up, I’d praise her, telling her she was a good girl and encouraging her on. If I was unlucky, however, she’d just mess about. It got to the point where some mornings and nights, she’d actually lay down on her belly at the far side of the pen and refuse to move. Now many will say that this was a clear sign that she didn’t need to go. Wrong. If I went out with her after she’d not spent, there was a guarantee that at some point during the route, she’d go. After a while, John told me to try some kind of punishment for not going. So, after a while of standing and encouraging, I’d clip her to her lead, walk her swiftly into the house and sit in the kitchen with her. She’d have to lay down on the floor and wouldn’t be allowed to move. If another member of the family came into the kitchen, they were to ignore Zena and she wasn’t allowed to greet them. Five or so minutes later, I’d take her back to her pen and begin the routine again. We would go on until she went or, the more likely option, it was that late that I needed to go to bed. If it was a lucky night or morning and she went straight away or whenever she actually went eventually, I’d produce a tasty treat — usually a gravy bone, milky bone, bonio or one of her favourites of a cheesy nibble or bacon chewy — and make her sit to receive it. Then, she’d be allowed out of her pen to go wherever she liked. Sometimes that was inside to receive fuss from whoever else was still around or other times it was for a frolic around the garden. That was her reward for going. My hope was that this would encourage her to go regularly knowing that as soon as she did, she’d be given a treat. Oh how mistaken I was!

Towards the end, when the toilet situation hadn’t improved and seemed to be getting somehow worse, I reached out to John for more advice. It had reached such a low that it was preventing me from going out. The dog that was supposed to be enabling me to be independent and leave the house more often was actually making my days more difficult and limiting the amount I could leave the house. So then John suggested a crate as a punishment. I let Zena into her pen and when five minutes of encouragement have passed with no result, I take her into the house on lead and put her in the crate, securely bolting the door shut. I leave the room and go off to do something else, which means that she’s alone and cannot be with me. Half an hour later, I come back, let her out, attach her to her lead and off we go to the pen where I encourage for another five or so minutes. This continues three times. If she hasn’t spent after the third opportunity, she’s locked in the crate. If it’s daytime, I go off to do whatever I have to around the house or if I need to go out, I do it without her. If it’s before bedtime, she’s sleeping in the crate. She only slept in the crate twice and the following morning she was quick to go. However, during the day it made no difference. Even when I went out without her and came home and tried to spend her, she still refused.

Several of my Guide Dog friends questioned why I had such an issue with this and the truth is simple but ridiculous. Nobody ever taught me how to pick up after Zena. Also, many guide dogs show clear signals to their owners that they’re going to go on route. Zena did not. There was pretty much no warning of when and where she was going to go, except that I knew that she would most likely go on route if she’d missed a go that morning or the night before. Combine the fact that I was unsure when she was going and didn’t know how to pick up after her cleanly and I was pretty screwed. So it came down to the fact that I was praying she’d go just so that I could get outside. It isn’t supposed to be like that. A suggestion John had to save me the humiliation of not knowing if she’d gone and to allow Zena to spend was trying gutter spending. This means that if Zena is showing signs of wanting to go, I take her to a safe space at the side of the road, lead her into the gutter and instruct her to go. With her issue with roads and crossings, though, I didn’t really see this as a valid option. Why encourage her to spend in gutters when she has problems staying on the pavement already?

The one other thing, and this is a smaller issue but one nonetheless, that I struggled with is that when John interviewed me last October and told me that he’d recommend me for training, he also said that he thought he could make it work — me having a guide dog despite my previous issues getting one — because he was prepared to put the time and effort in, if I was too, to help me get there. Obviously, he understood what I was trying to say to him and saw the need for a guide dog in my life. That I will indefinitely be grateful to him for. He believed in me where nobody else ever has. He gave me the chance I so needed to prove to myself and others that I was right about a guide dog. I’ve always had this feeling that a guide dog would improve my mobility millions. On good days, of which, despite this outcome, there were many, Zena and I bloomed together. I was able to go and meet friends confidently, walk to the gym confidently, go into shops boldly and ask for help with shopping. John was prepared, even with my lacking amount of familiar routes, to give me the chance to show that I could do it. And I did. But he also agreed that he’d come out in the future and help me learn new routes. Apart from learning the route to the gym during training, I haven’t had any support to learn any others. I bought a Trekker Breeze — it’s a little machine that you attach earphones to and attach to your belt that directs you along routes once you’ve programmed in where you want to go — to help me with this. That way, John would only have to go over a route with me once perhaps twice for me to have a vague idea and the Breeze to have the route programmed in. From there, Zena, Breeze and I would be fine to tackle it ourselves, with the back-up of Google maps if we got horrendously lost. But that never came. We’d agreed that June would be the month to do it. Now of course I understand that John is an incredibly busy man. He is pretty much single-handedly training all potential Seeing Dogs. Currently, he has three pups lodging with him who he is at the very early stages of training to become the next batch of Seeing Dogs. I know that I can’t expect him to come when I call and I certainly didn’t. But I needed to make progress. As Zena doesn’t work well with family around, there was no point in asking relatives to help me learn new routes with her. Even if I did, nobody was available to help. Both parents work full-time and Zena walks miles too fast to ask my grandparents to step in. Sadly, if she’d been a plodder, they’d have been gladly available to help because they did when I was using my long cane and preparing for a Zena to arrive. But by the end of the month, with all the problems outlined above not being resolved by every solution I tried and no hope of progress with new routes on the horizon, I’d had enough. I felt that Zena, more than anything, would be better off without me. Perhaps she needs someone with a little sight to guide because they will be able to spy when she’s being a cheeky monkey and stamp it out straight away. It took me until I could tell she was doing something naughty to be able to crack down on it. By then it was too late; the flow was interrupted and she’d most likely got away with whatever it was she’d wanted to do. Maybe she needed someone who has a full life. They work five days a week, meet friends or do activities every evening and have full weekends of things to do, all of which involve Zena guiding them somewhere. Perhaps that would keep her focused. I don’t know. I do know that I’ll never be that person for Zena. Probably, by the time I am, she’ll be a little old lady long passed working age. She needs someone now. I’m not her someone, however much I tried to be, however much I desperately wanted to be.

Of course there were things Zena was great at. She was good in restaurants whenever I went out to eat, happy to lay under the table as long as she had room to stretch out. She was good whenever I went to anything that required her just to lie down at my side. She was happy to lie still as long as she got a little fuss every now and then. She was the best companion and friend in a dog that any human could ever have asked for. She was always at my side whenever I moved but stayed put whenever I requested. She let me groom her even though she made it quite clear she detested the event. She let me clean her ears with horrible stinky liquid and cotton discs even though they must have been painful with the infection that flared up. She behaved perfectly at the vets, letting them prod and poke her, trim her nails. She didn’t even flinch when she received her vaccinations. Not even a squeak could be heard as the vet injected the needle. She’s certainly a braver girl than I. She waited, almost always patiently, whenever I presented her with a treat. Once she learnt how, she was queen of tug-of-war with her best toys: Jim the Kong teddy, tiger, rabbit and fox/mouse. She almost always greedily gobbled down her meals, sitting and waiting for the whistle to sound beforehand. She was loving to every other member of the house, too, but always coming back to pay me the most attention. An absolute angel on a free run. She’d run like mad but always come to the whistle for a treat or to be clipped back on to her lead. Running along nicely but energetically saying hello to every other dog in the park. If Zena was a person, she’d certainly be a very social young one. She’d be the kid out all the time for sure. She ate her worming tablet like it was a tasty treat, sat still to have flea treatment applied. Gave the best cuddles when I was feeling rubbish. Slept happily at the foot of my bed in her basket every night. Never howled if she was left home alone. And when I wanted her to work around other guide dogs, no problem. With my sister and my friend across the road, who have a lab retriever and German Shepherd guide dog respectively, Zena would be no problem. She’d follow along behind, keeping fairly close to our company. The only thing she struggled with then was not getting too close to the other dog that I was tripping over them and over-shooting crossings so that I collided with the other dog and/or person. But that was just her eagerness, I think. With more practice, I think she’d have been a star at working around other guide dogs. But I didn’t feel I had more time. I didn’t feel that I had the energy to teach her. Nothing was getting better. Nothing I tried was working, no matter how many times I repeated the action. So many people were commenting on Zena’s bad efforts at guiding. Several of them said that they were genuinely worried for my safety. Now I don’t know why she wasn’t doing the job she’d been trained to do. I don’t know if she was bored, if I wasn’t fast enough, if she really hated working, if her breed just shouldn’t be a guide dog. Most of me thinks it’s a bit of everything. For quite some time, I felt that Zena’s skills, especially her boundless enthusiasm, would be much better suited in another profession such as sniffer dog. Or just a pet dog. As a pet, she was wonderful. You couldn’t have asked for better. But as a guide? Not so much. And that’s the difference. I applied and made a commitment for a guide dog, for independence, mobility and confidence. At no point did I expect it to be instantaneous. Not once did I think it would be perfect — far from it! I’d been warned more times than I can remember how hard it would be, how much I would feel anything but love for my furry companion. But never was it supposed to be this hard. I wasn’t supposed to be waking up every day wondering if my dog would go to the toilet so that we could go out to do a route where she’d over-shoot curbs, walk me into people and pull frantically on the lead. Yes, I was supposed to feel tested, but not constantly like I was getting all the wrong answers. We were supposed to make progress, not take a baby step forward and immediately jump ten giant steps backwards. So I made the decision that enough was enough, I called time, I let her go. And for anyone who may have read this and thought I’m heartless, I quit, I didn’t think of her. I’m the opposite. I tried one-hundred percent of every day for the last five months to make mine and Zena’s partnership work. I loved her like I’ve never loved another animal. My sister calls her guide dog her furry daughter and I’ve never before thought an animal could feel like your child should. Now I’ve had Zena I know, even more so now she’s gone. As for not thinking of Zena? She’s exactly why I made the phone call and told John he had to take her away. If nothing else, Zena deserves more. More of everything that I can’t give her. We were not the right match in the slightest. She’s enthusiastic and speedy. I’m steady and methodical. They are opposites. Opposites do not attract where guide dog and owner are concerned.

There is nobody to lay blame upon for this. Seeing Dogs and John gave me the opportunity. I gave that opportunity everything that I had. It hasn’t worked out. Guide dogs are withdrawn all the time. It is the most hard, heartbreaking and thought through decision I’ve ever made and I wish it upon nobody. I wish every guide dog partnership could work out, that no one ever had to let their furry child go. If I could still have Zena here with me now but not have to make her be my eyes, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But to Seeing Dogs she’s a guide dog and maybe she can be someone else’s eyes and do well at it, like that person I mentioned above. Maybe she’ll be their superstar. To Zena’s next owner I’d say to watch out for the dribbly beard. There’s nothing you can do about it but she will leave puddles of water everywhere. To love her like no other, because she already unconditionally loves you. She’ll trust you and love you no matter how frustrated with her you get. She gives the best cuddles; if you lie down on the floor in the fetal position, she’ll come and curl up with you. Play tug-of-war with her, it’s her favourite. She loves a Dentastick every evening. They really do make her breath a bit better. If you get him, Jim is her favourite toy. She has him in her basket to sleep with and will bring him to you should you request. He was a present bought for her by my mum earlier this year and Zena’s adored him ever since. Let her have freedom, she loves that more than anything. Give her endless fuss. She’d sit or stand in front of you for hours just for a stroke if you let her; that’s the first thing I learnt about her. She loves raw carrot as an extra special treat, especially if you scatter them in her dinner. She is the most wonderful dog in all the world and you are definitely the luckiest person to live to have her, just like I was the luckiest to be her mummy for five months. I didn’t ever not love her even at the toughest times. I will always treasure that gorgeous bundle of ginger crazy fur. Despite our flaws together, she opened my eyes to what having a guide dog can be for me. She gave me the chance to see exactly what I want. She’s the most loyal, loving, forgiving, kind friend you’ll ever know. If you’re down, she’ll know about it. She’ll put her paws on you and nudge her nose against you. That’s her way of telling you `it really all will be ok in the end, mum` and that she loves you more than you know. I love her more than anyone could ever know. Sometimes, she loves a big comfy cushion to sprawl out on. Others, she’d love to just lay by your side whatever you’re doing. Don’t forget to appreciate her and all she is. I know I certainly didn’t do enough of that. I was too caught up in making her a guide dog. Her favourite food here was Arden Grange chicken. Other stuff might be cheaper but she loves it and she’s worth every penny, even if she’s being a cheeky monkey. That’s the best part of her. There’s so much more to her than the funny furry dog exterior. Let her have as many free runs as you can. If you want to take the risk, give her a tennis ball. She’ll race after it, get it and bring it back to you for hours on end. Afterwards, she’ll drink the bowl dry and drip her beard all over your floor. But she’ll love it. She deserves the best that anyone can give her and I wasn’t that person but I sincerely hope you are. I hope she gives you the independence and confidence you’ve been craving. I already know she’ll be the best companion you could ever have hoped for, because she was the best furry friend I’ve ever had and letting her go was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. But if she’s your superstar, I know it was the best decision I’ve ever made, for all of us.

What’s next for me? I hope to keep in touch with John and hear how Zena gets on, if and when she’s matched to someone else. I intend to phone Guide Dogs at some point and reapply for a Guide Dog and the My Guide service. I’d like to learn new routes and definitely want another guide dog. Mobility with a dog is so much more than that with a cane and a guide dog really does enable me to go places. I get out of the house with and because of a dog and that makes all the difference to my life. So my eventual aim is another dog and I intend to do everything I have to to achieve that aim. My only fear is that it will take years and years. I’m not a particularly patient person when there’s something I desire so much and when I know that it is more than possible and something is preventing me from having it. I guess I’ll just have to make sure that there’s no reason for me not to have another dog. The best thing Seeing Dogs and Zena have given me is the proof that a guide dog benefits my life more than even I thought it would. If Zena benefitted my life even with all the bad stuff, having a dog who really is a good match will be even more of a positive to my life. I miss Zena more than I can say and the only way to make sure that letting her go was the right thing to do, apart from her making a massive difference to someone else’s life in ways she never could mine, is to ensure that everything I learnt whilst she was mine doesn’t go to waste. The only way to do that is by having another dog and using the confidence I built up with Zena to allow a second partnership to flourish the way ours never could. My gratitude to Seeing Dogs but especially John for giving me the opportunity of Zena is infinite. She gave me so much in such a short space of time and for that there are not enough words of thanks. But for me the charity just doesn’t work. I need more support and that, I’m certain, Guide Dogs can offer. So now is the time to do everything I can to enable that potential to be fulfilled. And yet again, that’s exactly what I intend to do.

Zena update May 2017

Saturday 13 May

With some advice from John, today I bought a bottle of sunflower oil to add in small quantities to Zena’s meals. I explained to John how Mum noticed that Zena seems to have been struggling to poo recently and he suggested that I add a teaspoon of oil to each meal. The likelihood being that it would loosen Zena’s bowels and make the process much easier. In contrast, though, he warned me that the down sides to this may be that Zena’s fur becomes oily or developing a kind of dandruff flake to it. Neither of these would be particularly visually or textually appealing so I would really rather avoid them. However, anything to possibly aid Zena’s toileting routine. It still hasn’t really improved since during training. She still goes irregularly, although I’d like to think that she doesn’t skip times as much anymore. When it does happen, though, it still frustrates me beyond belief. I’ve spoken to everyone imaginable, asking for advice. The Vizsla community on Facebook came back with mixed advice, including those who felt the routine was too strict and turning the dog into some kind of machine. I can understand how, from an outsider’s perspective, it could seem that way so I, backed by the majority of the others who posted comments, tried to explain how vital the routine is. Another view, from my sister, was that I shouldn’t take the routine so seriously and shouldn’t feel that it dictates every other part of our partnership. She said that she doesn’t abide by a strict routine with her Guide Dog and there are hardly ever any poo hiccups whilst working. For a short amount of time, I tried her relaxed attitude to the routine, acting calm when Zena missed a time and trying to continue with our work. However, if she misses a morning’s poo, as soon as she is out in harness, she tries to go on the pavement or any neighbouring grass. John’s advice to this was to give her some sort of restriction which forms a type of punishment. His suggestion, which I tested during training, was to keep her on lead after taking her out of her pen when she’s refusing to go and make her lie by my side whatever I’m doing until I decide to take her back out to her pen and try again. If this is upheld, she should learn that if she doesn’t go to toilet when I want her to, there’s a consequence of her not being allowed to be free inside the house. She isn’t able to get to her bed, any treats, water or toys. The hope then is that she goes to toilet knowing that she can keep her freedom and in dread of being restricted. John said it’s me having all the cards, me having control; because if Zena gets control, she’ll use it in all aspects of our partnership, including her work. I put the oil on her food and she gobbled the lot down no problem, just like she always does. I bought some measuring spoons to pour the oil into to ensure I’m giving the right amount but even that is tricky. Trying to balance the spoon and then tip the bottle at the right angle, gauging how much is pouring into the spoon is just too difficult. The bottle is too full and spillage is guaranteed. So I’m going to have to trial other methods of getting an exact teaspoon from the bottle into Zena’s meal. My next idea is a syringe. If I fill a syringe with the oil and then slowly dribble it into the teaspoon, I can accurately gauge how much I need and put the remaining oil from the syringe back into the bottle. This should minimise spillage and make the task a lot easier. As soon as I find a syringe, I’ll be able to test it.
Monday 22 May

Last week was a bad week. We hardly went out at all for working walks. I didn’t manage to get to the leisure centre at all and that made me feel pretty rubbish. It probably made Zena quite restless, too. The weather was generally quite rubbish and then, when it started to improve, I started feeling awful. My stomach was bad, my skeleton ached and my head felt fuzzy. I didn’t feel able to work her. When it was pouring down with rain and the wind was howling, I didn’t think it was safe for us to try and work. The wind affects my ears and bucketing rain makes things harder. I explained my worries to John and he didn’t seem overly concerned. I knew I just needed to keep trying my best. On the days we didn’t work, I tried to play with her a lot with her squeaky toys. I didn’t want her to become bored and even destructive if she had too much energy. She didn’t, thank goodness. We managed to get out to the local Co-op on Thursday, but it wasn’t a good walk. At least it was something, though, I told myself. I vowed that I’d do my best to make this week better. The weekend wasn’t as bad as we went out so that Kieran and I could go on a date. Zena didn’t work but at least we were out. But today we’ve managed to go out. It’s 21 degrees outside and really feels it. While Kieran and I ate our breakfast, we left the back door open and Zena enjoyed racing around the back garden and basking in the glorious sunshine overhead. Our walk was good, too; one of the best we’ve had in a while, I’d say. There wasn’t much sniffing, she got almost every curb right and she stayed at a good speed. But it was boiling and we were melting. My plan was to make it at least passed the shop but hopefully to the gym. We sailed passed the shop and I was pleased. Sweaty, but pleased! We continued on to the library corner, which is where we turn to head up to the gym. I decided to return home. I was sweating a lot, Zena was panting and had slowed down considerably. I thought pushing on to the gym was asking too much. But I’m proud we got that far. It’s a big improvement on last week already. I’m hoping tomorrow will be even better. If not, I’d at least like to keep equalling today’s progress.

After our walk, I decided to groom Zena. Because it was so nice outside, we went into the garden and I filled a bowl with warm water and added drops of lavender and t-tree oil to it. This makes it and Zena smell nice. The scent isn’t so strong on Zena as it is in the water but it still makes a little difference to her fur. It makes my grooming process more thorough, anyway, and removes all loose dead strands of fur as well as any stains or sticky bits that have clung to her coat. She hates it but the benefit overall is good. It makes her nice and clean.
Wednesday 24 May

We had another good day today. The weather has been really hot all week and John advised that I didn’t do too many long walks in the blistering sunshine. Zena already tires herself out when running around the garden and comes in panting so I didn’t want to push her too car. However, today I decided to tackle the gym route again. After Monday’s success, I wanted something good to think about again and the rest of the week’s weather forecast told that it would be even warmer. So we went to the gym; on the first leg of the trip, there was minimal corrections needed and the walk was generally quite nice, if a little too hot. She got many of the crossings right and didn’t wander off down side roads or out into the main road. The return journey wasn’t as pleasant; I think she was all puffed out and fed-up with her task. I couldn’t blame her, to be honest, as it was boiling. But we got home all in one piece, with her seeming to be trying very hard to stay focused and behave appropriately.
Thursday 25 May

Today it was definitely far too hot for any kind of walk, working or otherwise. Instead, I took Zena, her grooming tools and a bowl of warm water, to which I’d added lavender oil, t-tree oil and a dollop of Jonson’s baby shampoo, into the garden to set about the task of making Zena smell better. She’d acquired a really stinky scent and I wanted to get rid of it as it seemed to be spreading around the house. With advice from someone on the vizsla Facebook page, I’d added the shampoo in hope that it would help erase the smell. Quite sometime later, when we were both rather soggy, I was finished. Half a new dog’s worth of fur had come out of Zena’s coat and she was smelling a lot fresher thanks to the oils and shampoo. The nasty scent was gone and we were both pleased the task was complete. It was so hot outside that by the time we headed back indoors, her fur and my jeans ! completely dry again. Thanks to the doggy deodorant blueberry muffin bought for Zena as a Christmas present from my sister, her coat really was smelling a lot nicer. Due to the hot weather, the doggy deodorant had dried out straight away, leaving the scent on her coat and taking away the opportunity for it to turn into a doggy stench.
Saturday 27 May

Whilst out shopping today with Mum and Tamsin, we had to go up on to the first-floor of a shop to get to what I wanted to see. Usually, when this situation occurs, we find the lift located somewhere within the store and use that to go upstairs. However, Mum wasn’t sure if this particular shop even had a lift. Instead of wasting time trying to find one, I said I’d use the stairs while they used the escalator. Guide dogs aren’t supposed to use escalators unless they’ve specially trained to do so. Even if Zena and I had been, I’d feel weary about using them considering the length of her claws. The idea of them getting caught in the moving staircase is worse than a nightmare. So Mum took me to the stairs and they used the escalator, which was directly alongside them. I picked up Zena’s harness handle and gave her the command. Off we went. The stairs had a platform break in the middle, which Zena dealt with confidently; she has to pause at the foot or top of any set of stairs in warning to me of what’s next. Then, once the command is given, she proceeds with me by her side. Today she stopped expertly at all necessary places in the staircase, both ascending and descending. As we’ve not done many solo trips up and down stairs, I felt this was quite a proud moment and definitely a good one in what has been quite a tough month for us. I was especially pleased because Mum and Tamsin were still in view and there were several other shoppers passing us in the other direction. Although Zena wasn’t giving me her full attention, there was no slip-ups in her work and she didn’t directly pull me towards anyone. That, in my eyes, is a success.
Monday 29 May

For my birthday, I’d asked my parents for several different things, giving them options, but one item was a toy for Zena. Usually, I’ll buy her toys from anywhere I see a good-looking one. However, the Kong toys are recommended by many pet owners and even by Guide Dogs themselves as suitable for a guide dog to have. Kong do a plush bear toy who has a squeaker in its belly and a knotted rope skeleton to reinforce it. They claim that this means it is stronger and will withstand a lot of rough play from even the toughest chewers. As Zena seems to have taken an interest mainly in soft toys, I thought the knotted rope bear would be a good next step with toys. Surprisingly, Mum bought the bear for Zena; she doesn’t like buying dog accessories as presents for me as she thinks it’s not really for me. But it saves me money and benefits Zena which in turn benefits me. As soon as I’d removed the packaging from the toy, I gave it to Zena. Immediately, she fell in love with it. Jim, as the bear has been fondly named, has slept in Zena’s basket each night since and I’ve even taught her to find him. When saying the command, `find Jim`, I can make Zena look and retrieve the bear. I thought it was a fluke the first couple of times she did it but now, each time I say it, she goes and finds her new beloved friend and either brings him to me or plays with him by herself. I’m really glad Jim is such a success, especially as she doesn’t take a massive interest in toys most of the time.

Zena update: the last weekend in April

I’ve decided to continue my writing from the time of qualification and training, where I documented how things were going with Zena. Of course, we are now almost three months on from qualification so I’m growing in experience each day with Zena. The main reason for writing these pieces is so that I can see how things are going; I’ll be talking about the good and bad. I don’t intend to sugar coat anything. I will be brutally honest about our progress and my feelings on being a Seeing Dog owner. This is all very brand-new to me, having my own dog and also the assistance dog thing, so I want to be able to look back on my attitude towards it in weeks, months and even years to come to see how my feelings are evolving about it. Also, I feel that generally the stories written about guide dog ownership — and I write `guide dog` with lower-case lettering because I’m implying all types of guide dog and not just those from the major charity Guide Dogs — are very fluffy and warm and lovely. Usually, the awe-inspiring stories of people’s matching, training, qualification and then glorious ownership are portrayed, showing how the dog has miraculously changed the person’s life for the better, completely transforming the way they are. Now I don’t say this to imply that it’s incorrect, because I’m certain, as I’ve seen it happen for friends myself, that it definitely does occur. However, I think that the negatives and less beautiful details of the journey should be available for people to see, too. When only the luscious details are shown, potential owners aren’t given a clear precise picture of how things can go. Not everything about owning a guide dog is perfect, as I myself have definitely experienced. Some things, though, are the mind-blowing miracles they are portrayed to be. So in these Zena-related posts, I’m going to be talking about my highs and lows, whichever are occurring, mainly for myself but also in hope that a clearer picture of what can happen is understood. I don’t know yet, as I’m only mere steps into my journey, what kind of picture mine and Zena’s partnership will paint in the long term, and that’s why I want to write about it in small chunks, so that gradually I and others around me can get a certain understanding of the way things are going, whether they be good or bad. So, I’m going to start the story with events from a fortnight ago, when Zena and I were testing new limits as a partnership. On the Saturday, we attended a cricket match together and, on the Sunday with the new equipment of a Halti attached, we attended a comedy show at one of my local theatres. Here’s how it went.
Saturday 29 April

It was time for Hampshire Visually Impaired Cricket Club’s season to begin. Our first match was against Metro Devils at their home pitch at Highgate Woods in London. This meant a long day of cricket as well as a mini bus trip and a lot of behaving for Zena. I was nervous about taking her, not sure how she’d act whilst out in a big field being told to lay down and be good. For her, big fields symbolise free runs and off-duty time. Although she’d certainly be off-duty for the entirety of the day, she still had to behave herself. In addition, I’ve never taken her on a mini bus before. The closest thing we’ve done to that is going on one of the city busses once a week and she’s allowed a lot more space to lie down on those. After packing a rucksack that included everything we’d need for the day, it was time to put Zena to the test.

I was amazed, to be honest. When we first boarded the bus, she was a bit tricky about lying down exactly where she wanted to. But eventually she settled happily on the carpeted floor of the bus at my feet. When one of my teammates, who has a Labrador Guide Dog, tried to board himself, Zena made quite a racket, growling and barking at him. I felt quite embarrassed, actually; I didn’t want Zena to give people the wrong impression right from the beginning. Thankfully, she soon shut up and the majority of the bus journey was peaceful. Each time we stopped, though, she seemed to think it was time to disembark and stood up ready to get off. It took us over two hours to reach London, so there was a lot of ups and downs throughout the journey.

The first thing Zena did when we set foot on the grass was do a poo. I was embarrassed yet again. Thankfully, one of the ladies with us kindly offered to pick it up for me, so I was saved. Not that I was happy about letting someone else clear up my dog’s mess. But she is the wife of the man who had brought his Labrador Guide Dog along and I knew she understood, which was a little reassuring if nothing else. We set up base on the field near the cricket pitch and I sat on the grass, getting Zena to sit and lay by me. I wanted to let her off lead so that she could run free on the mass of space available to her but there was no way it was safe. There were other dogs about and a lot of blind people. The last thing anyone needed was Zena racing about all over the place. Plus, I couldn’t be sure if she’d come back straight away when I called her, even if I relied on the whistle to bring her to me.

During my time on the cricket pitch, I left Zena with the ladies — one wife, one mother and one driver/helper — who had kindly offered to watch her. This worried me as Zena seems to like pulling quite strongly on the lead and sticking her nose into anything she can. I just wanted her to behave for the ladies because it was nice of them to mind her for me. At one point during the game, one of the ladies took Zena for a brisk walk around the field. I was pleased about this because I think Zena must have been very bored just being told to lie down all the time. As the lady headed off with her, I called warning that Zena is quite strong on the lead and, when spotting something she wants to approach, adamant to reach it. The lady shrugged off my worries, saying she had plenty of experience with her husband’s Guide Dog. But when she returned, Zena quite firmly leading the way, I was pretty glad I’d at least warned her.

She was great on the journey home, too. The ladies told me, and then Mum later on, that she’d been a `little angel`. That made me feel very proud. I’d been totally unsure how Zena would behave so that fact that she was getting that much credit was lovely. To know that she behaves herself with other people is reassuring, especially as I enjoy attending the cricket matches.
Sunday 30 April

Josh had booked tickets for the comedy show a while ago and originally the theatre had said that I couldn’t bring Zena as the seats we’d booked weren’t suitable. But when Josh asked again, they said it wouldn’t be a problem. They said that I could either try and lay her at my feet or, if that didn’t work, the staff would look after her in their office. I was hopeful that the first option would be the one that worked. Leaving Zena with strangers wasn’t a comfortable idea for me. Although they assured me they have plenty of experiences with guide dogs, I didn’t like the idea of her being with them and me not knowing what was happening for the whole show. Having her led at my feet during the show was definitely preferable. My parents had offered to drive Zena and I to the theatre to meet Josh but I’d agreed to meet Josh at the bus-stop in town. This meant that Zena and I could walk up to our bus-stop, get on the bus that would take us into town and then off the bus the other end where, hopefully, Josh would be there to meet us. Although it wasn’t a particularly long route for Zena, it was a little bit of work with a bus ride thrown in. She has to behave herself appropriately whilst on the bus so it was all good practice for her. Of course, as nobody was coming with us, it meant I was taking myself out to meet a friend for an evening out. I’ve never been able to do that before. Thinking about it, I know I very easily could have done just that with my cane probably several years ago. However, I’ve never really had the confidence to try it. But having a dog gives me the confidence. We walked to the bus-stop no problem and waited a little while for our bus. When it came, we boarded and the driver kindly offered to get out of his cab and take me to a seat. He also knew straight away that the audio announcements were turned on and working as they should be. Zena was really good on the bus, sitting by my feet. Usually, she likes to lay down on the bus floor but it usually means that she is stretching out into the aisle, getting in people’s way. It makes me feel awkward as I have to keep apologising to people and moving Zena out of the way.

There was also another first in this journey. For quite some time, I’ve been noticing that Zena pulls quite a lot on the lead. So her trainer and I agreed that I could try a Halti head collar. It fits around her nose and fastens behind her ears, with a clip that attaches to her collar and a ring to attach her lead to. It gives me so much more control over her and completely stops her from pulling. When I first put it on her that afternoon before going out, she absolutely hated it. She used her paws with all her strength to try and prize it off her face. But the clip behind her head kept it in place and soon she got used to the fact that it was a part of her equipment, just like the lead and harness are. Once off the bus at the other end, we walked just across the pavement to lean against a wall and wait for Josh. Usually, when Zena sees someone she knows, she frantically pulls towards them to get their attention. But the Halti completely restricts her from doing this. She couldn’t even move towards Josh to give her animated hello the way she usually does. It doesn’t hurt her in the slightest, just restricts her from doing the things that usually tare my arm off. When I’m being sighted guided by a friend or member of the family, Zena usually strains to get ahead or to the side or to anything that takes her attention. But when walking with Josh, she was by my side like she’s supposed to be. This was partially because Josh walks quite fast but a little to do with the fact that the Halti doesn’t allow her to pull ahead.

At the theatre, we took Zena in and she easily fit at my feet, even when fully stretched out. The couple next to us seemed to be keen dog lovers so were thrilled to have a guide dog beside them. I expected Zena to make noise during the show, whether that be her squeaky yawn or a bark at a sudden loud sound. But she was silent throughout the entire thing. Afterwards, we were able to meet the comedian we’d just been watching and she was thoroughly surprised that there had been a dog in her show. I was thrilled; that meant Zena had behaved perfectly. Waiting for my parents at the theatre entrance, I couldn’t help but marvel at how well the weekend had gone. Both the cricket and the comedy show had been a complete success, even with my furry companion by my side. That’s the wrong kind of sentence people hope to hear when you’re talking about your assistance dog. Usually, people talk about how amazing their dogs are, how they’ve changed their lives so dramatically in a matter of weeks. I don’t feel quite that way. She has changed my life in so many ways it’s unbelievable. But not in the miraculous way of I can go anywhere I feel like going to because of her. Route learning is still the hardest thing I have to do and for that reason Zena’s trainer is coming out to see us again to help us learn more routes to add to the few options we currently have. Whilst visiting my sister a couple of weeks ago, she commented that Zena doesn’t go directly to curbs and that it worried her because it’s one of the little things they should just do automatically. Zena’s trainer says that it may be because Zena doesn’t realise she has to work correctly in new places even though she’s wearing her harness. He said that the more routes we have under our belt, the more likely it will be that Zena will work appropriately in new places. Lately, she also seems very distracted in her work. If there is another dog passing, I can guarantee that Zena will pull in its direction, usually barking as well. Also, instead of dodging people standing on the pavement ahead, she will actively head to say hello to them. These two things alone are things that I really don’t want her to be doing, which is another reason why her trainer is coming out to help us. As well as physically coming to visit us, he is also giving me regular advice via telephone. To be honest, some of it completely boggles my mind but I’m trying to put all the suggestions he is giving into action. Usually, when he’s explaining something I could try, it doesn’t make much sense to me but when I put it into practice, it seems to materialise the way he’s explained.

“You just needed to grow a pair”

I’m just back from an amazing weekend spent in Yorkshire with my sister Imi and her dad.  I really want to write about it as it was such a great time so I want to be able to reread this and remember how great it was in the future.  Plus, it was my first independent train trip successfully completed with Zena rather than a cane.  Even more importantly, it was my first time away anywhere with Zena by myself, without the help of parents and support of her trainer; although, if I’d have needed him, I knew John was only a text message away.  I hadn’t partaken in a sleepover with Zena before or taken her anywhere to stay overnight.  Even though this opportunity was taken so that I could spend good quality time with my sister, it was also a chance to test my ownership abilities and to see what Zena is like living away from home out of a backpack.

 

Before our trip, of course, I had to pack the right amount of belongings into a bag for Zena and I.  I needed enough food for Zena and clothing for myself to cover our two night stay in Yorkshire.  Despite the fact that I’d been thinking it through in my head since the day I booked the tickets, when it came to packing a bag and including all the essentials Zena would need, my brain turned to mush.  Quickly, I text Imi and asked for her experience in packing for a guide dog.  She’s been owner and mummy to Noodle for almost five years now and has worldly experience in looking after her.  As one of the best behaved and most lovingly looked after Guide Dogs I know, I knew I could count on Noodle’s teachings to Imi as an owner to be useful for me in this situation.  Obviously, I was over-thinking the whole thing; when I rattled off what I intended to bring for Zena to Imi, she reassuringly said that I seemed to have everything covered.  As it turned out, as usual I was being over cautious and packed far too much.  To be honest, though, I’m glad I over-packed our bag rather than not taking enough.  Carefully, on Wednesday morning I sat measuring out bags of food for each of Zena’s meals.  I needed five separate bags of the right amount of food for each mealtime that we’d be away for.  The previous weekend, Mum and I had gone into Tesco and bought freezer bags, the kind with the zip-lock top to keep the contents securely sealed.  Although Imi had just said `sandwich bags`, I had decided I needed those with a zip that would prevent any kind of spillage.  Train journeys are fretful at the best of times so I didn’t want to mount the additional issue of food spilt everywhere on top of everything else I already had to think about.  Although I’ve travelled many trips independently on train before, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Zena by my side rather than a cane in my hand.  I was hoping that I’d feel even more in control of the situation than I had previously.  I was worried about seating arrangements as the travel assistance people had promised that I’d be given an extra seat so that Zena could use the leg space to lie in; I was worried that the train would be so full that someone would need the seat and I’d have to make her stand in the aisle or something.  I don’t know what my rights are, as an assistance dog owner, to insist that I keep the seat for my Seeing Dog rather than allow a paying passenger to sit down.

 

Despite all my worrying, Thursday morning dawned and the day of our trip had arrived.  Zena made my morning that little bit more stressful by refusing to do a poo in her pen at her scheduled time.  As I had to go with Mum in the car so that Dad could take me to catch my train, I didn’t have loads of time to encourage Zena to go.  She probably picked up on the fact that I was pretty nervous and the tension in the atmosphere was probably what caused her to refuse.  But I had other things to worry about.  We needed to be on time for everything.  However, the fact that we were about to embark on a five-hour direct train journey up North and she hadn’t been to toilet did worry me a lot.  The idea of her being so desperate that she went on the train flashed in my head.  I had no idea what I’d do if that happened.  I guess I’d just have to act really incapable and hope that a member of the train crew came to my aid.  Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary.  On our way to the train station, we stopped off at a Tesco so that I could buy supplies for the journey in case I got hungry or thirsty.  I ended up coming out of the shop after purchasing two packets of star bursts, a packet of Jaffacakes, some BBQ Pringles, some Thornton’s chocolate brownies and a bottle of Doctor Pepper.  Why I thought I needed that much sugary rubbish I have no idea but it all sounded good to me at 9am on Thursday morning.  Once we’d dropped Mum off at work, Dad drove us to the train station where we went in, requested assistance and were told to wait in their waiting room.  Right on time, the assistance person came to help me board the train.  At first, they offered me two seats where there was hardly any leg room so I politely pointed out that there was no way my dog, who was definitely giving me the `are you mad, mum?` stare, was going to fit into that tiny gap.  So he helped me along the carriage to a table seat, which of course had masses of room for Zena, who seemed much more optimistic about this arrangement.  As the train pulled out of the station and I dug around for a star burst to settle myself in, I realised that I’d already made my first travel error; I’d left my unopened bottle of Doctor Pepper in the car.  Disappointed, I text my parents to ask them to put it in the fridge so that I could have it went I came home.  Not long after I’d got comfortable and had started to listen to music, the train manager tapped me on the shoulder to inform me that actually I was sitting in someone’s reserved seats and as the table seats are quite popular, he imagined that they’d be booked for the majority of the journey.  As I was travelling for three quarters of the entire train journey, he suggested that he move me to somewhere where I’d be less likely in someone else’s way.  I was a little put out by the tone he used, like I was in the way, but I can understand what he meant and he was trying to be kind about it.  He found Zena and I two seats that had more leg room than the original one the assistance man offered us.  Eager to be settled again, I just accepted, hoping it would be comfortable enough for my nonplused dog.  As it turned out, it was a much better seat choice for us both.  Zena was comfortable and I spent the journey munching on star bursts and listening to my Spotify playlists.

 

On arrival in York, I was more than happy to exit the train.  After a quick toilet stop, I was with Imi’s dad, Mike, and we were heading for the car.  Imi and I had agreed that Zena would go in the boot while she sat in the front with Noodle in the foot well until they’d been acquainted.  As they were going to be spending all their time together over the next couple of days, we needed Zena and Noodle to get along like a house on fire.  It took us a little while to get to where we needed to pick Imi up from her therapy session.  She had warned me the night before, whilst checking that I was good with a quorn diet during my stay, that she may be worn out afterwards.  I was good with that because, firstly, she couldn’t help it, and secondly, I knew I’d be pretty shattered after the train trip anyway.  It took us a little while to get to the train station.  I was quite surprised because Zena settled down without fuss in the boot of Mike’s car and didn’t make a single sound until she spotted Imi and Noodle heading in our direction.  Quickly, Imi clambered in the front while Mike loaded her luggage — and I say luggage because there was loads of it! — on to the backseat beside me.  We chatted about all sorts on the way home, mostly my journey and Imi’s session.  When we arrived at Mike’s, Imi set up the plan for she and I to head inside with Noodle and Zena while Mike carried our bags inside.  Although this was the best idea any of us had, I was still a little dubious about how Zena would react.  Usually, whenever she sees any kind of dog out and about, she frantically pulls in their direction.  Stumbling our way to the front door, I was glad when I was in the safety of the living room.  Once Mike had bought our bags in, he set about making us our first cup of tea of the weekend, the first of thousands, I think.  Once we’d settled in and finished our first cup, Imi showed me upstairs to the bathroom so that I could shower and change.  We’d decided to get clean and comfy before we settled down in the lounge before dinner.  While I showered, Imi took the two dogs out into the back garden.  She wanted to start collecting photos of our stay; we always have loads of photos when we get together but many more were required seeing as Zena was with us.  Many many cute pictures of the two dogs were necessary.  After I was done in the bathroom, we swapped places; Imi jumped in the shower while I was left on babysitting duty of the two girls.  During my turn in the shower, Imi had given them both a meaty treat from the bag of Pedigree Tasty Bites she had.  Zena had never had these before but it was quite clear she was already in love with them.  Both dogs edged further and further towards the bed, trying to stretch their necks towards the bag that was way out of their reach.  Thankfully, Imi was soon back from her shower the we were able to escape from the room with the tempting doggy treats.  We went downstairs, where we were treated to even more tea.  Zena seemed to decide that she wanted tea too, so I had to use my lead to attach her to the chair so that she wouldn’t dip her nose into it.

 

Eventually, we agreed on quorn sausages with sweet potato chips and veggies for tea, of course accompanied by copious amounts of tea.  After we’d eaten a rather nice dinner, we fed the dogs theirs.  I was a little worried about whether they’d actually eat their own food or find each other’s irresistible.  Thankfully, with Imi and I stood between the two of them as a kind of human barrier, we managed to make sure that they ate their own food.  It also seemed that Zena was intent on making sure that there was no food or water left for Noodle.  After she’d emptied her own bowl and Noodle had wandered away from hers, Zena darted in and licked the bowl clean.  I think Noodle had made sure she hadn’t left any remainders for the taking, but Zena couldn’t miss anything.  Then, she darted in front of Noodle to take her fill from the water dish, which meant that she emptied it and then waited for more.  That was when Imi and Mike discovered the disaster that is Zena’s beard; she splashed water all over the kitchen floor.  Thankfully, Mike didn’t seem too fazed by Zena’s mess and we were all soon comfortable in the lounge again.  Eventually, we settled on watching Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, one of our all-time favourite films from our younger teenage years and a major bonding point from college.  While we watched, I took charge of Imi’s BrailleNote Touch, HumanWare’s new note taker for the blind.  It is supposed to be the massive upgrade to the BrailleNote Apex that I’ve loved for years.  However, it doesn’t seem to be the machine I’ve been dreaming of for years.  It is a combination of the Apex and an Android tablet, supposedly having the force and power of Android behind it.  Unfortunately, it’s so full of bugs and problems that it’s pretty frustrating to try and use.  I much prefer my Apex to it and even though I haven’t spent a long time trying to learn how to use the Touch, I know I wouldn’t love it like my Apex until it has had a lot of updates and fixes.  Imi had asked me to update it, but I had to wait for the battery to be charged to at least 20 percent before I could perform the update.  As the battery had been completely flat when I’d tried to turn the device on and seemed to be charging at snail’s pace, I was in for a long wait.  One positive to that, of course, meant that I could enjoy the film and conversation with Imi and Mike, which was highly entertaining, so much so that the film took doubly long to watch than the run time says it should.

 

At bedtime, Imi let the two dogs out into the back garden and we hoped they’d do what they needed to before we headed upstairs.  Once upstairs, we decided on Come Fly With Me on Imi’s Ipad to send us off to sleep.  No sooner had she pressed play on the first episode than had Imi fallen sound asleep.

 

The following morning, we got up, dressed and then headed downstairs.  Once Imi had let the girls out to do their business, Mike offered us breakfast of tea and croissants.  After we’d eaten, I checked on the Touch.  It had fully charged overnight so I updated the voices and fixed the incorrect time before putting it to sleep.  At around eleven thirty, we decided to head out.  Our only plan for our time had been to take Zena and Noodle for a free run.  Imi packed a rucksack of bits and pieces we may need and I took my little shoulder bag.  On our way out, we posed with the dogs both in harness for Mike to take some photos to add to our album.  Then, we were off.  For the first part of the route, both dogs worked, Zena walking behind Noodle and actually working quite well.  I’d expected her to be an absolute nightmare as working so close to another dog and human would surely be overwhelming for her.  As I’ve said, she’s usually pretty erratic around other dogs and as Imi was becoming ever more familiar to her, I thought she’d act how she usually does when I want her to work around any other member of the family.  But she was almost perfect.  I say almost because she was absolutely useless at finding curbs.  But we made it safely to the little convenience store where Imi bought us snacks and drinks to take with us on our little adventure.

 

Our `little` adventure turned into an almost 8 mile walk through some really gorgeous scenery.  I don’t need to have seen our surroundings to know it was beautiful.  As soon as we were away from the road, I put Zena’s play collar, bells and all, on and we let the two girls free.  They ran off eagerly, happy to be allowed to be dogs.  Zena doesn’t get many free runs at home, so this deluxe free run with a brand new friend was an extra special treat for her.  It was pretty special for me too.  I love spending time with Imi but spending it walking through lovely open spaces in the country chatting about whatever came to mind was amazing.  I love long rambling walks with no hurry to go anywhere in particular.  Zena seemed to love it, too.  She and Noodle ran and frolicked with abandon, checking every now and then that they were still with us.  Imi snapped countless pictures of them to add to our album and some pictures of the two of us as well.  About five kilometres in, Imi found a patch of ground for us to sit on.  She laid her coat of it and we sat to eat some of our snacks and take a lot of much needed liquid in.  For snacks we had crisps, chocolate brownies and star bursts; I had a Doctor Pepper and Imi had a Ribena.  As we headed off again, we encountered a couple with a horse called Rodney.  He wasn’t a very happy horse.  Imi and I backed away with the dogs on leads and stood facing in the opposite direction to Rodney and his humans while they tried to maneuver him passed us.  Neither Imi nor I like horses much so this was a bit of a nerve racking experience, especially as Rodney didn’t seem keen on moving on.  Once he was gone, we hurried the dogs on in the opposite direction and we were soon far away from him.  The rest of the walk was thankfully Rodney free and by the time we were working the dogs back to Mike’s house, we were all tired out.  Once indoors, after discarding our muddy shoes on the front doorstep, we let the dogs drink as much water as they wanted.  Then, we settled in the living room for what we hoped would be a long relaxing rest of the day.  Both dogs all but threw themselves down on to the carpeted floor and pretty much refused to move for the rest of the day.  After a quick check, I discovered that I’d walked over 18 thousand steps, my brand new record for one day on Fitbit.  No wonder the dogs were snoozing.  While we rested our aching feet, we watched a film on Netflix called Tallulah.  It’s a Netflix original about a teenage girl who lives out of a van with her boyfriend.  When she stumbles into a hotel and is asked by a neglectful alcoholic mother to look after her toddler, she stays.  It seems as if she is only staying so that she can take some money and any valuables in sight, but when the mother comes back and passes out almost instantly, Tallulah gets out of there as quickly as she can, taking baby Madison with her.  The rest of the film is all about how Tallulah pretends that Madison is her daughter and the daughter of her ex boyfriend.  She goes to his mother’s house and lives there temporarily, soaking up the atmosphere of food and care.  But eventually the secret is out and Tallulah tries to run away with Madison.  But Madison has a fever and Tallulah takes to a hospital, hoping for treatment.  There, the police arrive and arrest her and the baby is handed back to her real mother.  The film ending is a bit of an anticlimax as the last thing we see of Tallulah is her being arrested and the last thing we know about Madison is that she is back with her mother.  I wanted a better ending than that!

 

That evening, we decided to have quorn bolognese for dinner.  During our walk, Imi had asked, hypothetically speaking, if I had a gun to my head what would I choose, takeaway pizza or homemade quorn bolognese? As we’d planned to have Burger King the following afternoon at the train station before my trip home, I thought the bolognese option was the better.  As much as I love a good pizza, with Imi is the only place I get quorn bolognese and I absolutely love it; there was no way I was passing on that golden opportunity.  Obligingly, Mike made us the most delicious quorn bolognese, which we both devoured hungrily.  After our lovely long walk, we were both ravenous.  The bolognese certainly fixed that.  For the rest of the evening, we chatted about all sorts whilst watching Friday Night Dinner.  Whilst watching, I sat and sorted out Imi’s Kindle Fire.  Almost two years ago, we both decided we’d quite like one and after I’d bought one for myself and liked it, I asked Kieran, Cameron and Josh if they wanted to club together with me as an extra special birthday gift for Imi’s eighteenth.  They agreed and we bought the yellow Kindle Fire.  Her reaction on her birthday was priceless; in fact, she hit me rather hard, but it was a happy response despite the ferocity.  Unfortunately, at the time when we bought the Kindle Fires, the Voice View speech software wasn’t at its best.  It has since been improved and is a lot better than before.  However, this put Imi off and she didn’t fall in love with the little yellow machine the way we’d predicted.  Before Christmas, I sold my yellow friend because I wasn’t using it enough and Imi had found a different Kindle that looked a lot better.  It was just a reading device without all the extras that the Fire offers and a lot thinner and lighter than the Fire.  So we both took the plunge and bought one.  I liked it but didn’t like how you had to connect a bluetooth device every time you wanted to use it because it didn’t feature its own speaker.  I should have known before I bought it that that drawback would frustrate me beyond belief.  Checking that Imi still had her yellow friend, I sold the newer Kindle and asked if I could buy her Fire from her.  She was more than eager to get rid of it and insisted I didn’t pay her for it.  So during Friday Night Dinner, I sat and erased it from her Amazon account, adding mine to it and setting it up as new.  I updated it so that the Voice View software was a lot better.

 

Saturday was a bit of a lazy day.  When we got up, I jumped in the shower before going downstairs to join Imi and Mike.  Mike made us tea and toast for breakfast and we sat watching more Friday Night Dinner from where we’d left off the previous evening.  During this, I downloaded as many books as I could onto the Kindle, hoping that they’d keep me entertained during my train journey home.  When it came to getting ready for our trip to the train station, Zena decided that her stomach needed emptying.  She was sick all over Imi’s bedroom floor.  Quickly, we called Mike to come and help us and I took Zena downstairs to let her have a drink and go into the garden.  She did this before following me back upstairs and promptly emptying everything else she’d just taken in on to the floor.  Mike was great, coming in and cleaning it to the best of his ability seeing as we were on a tight schedule to get to the station.

 

On the way, Zena was again sick in the car.  I felt awful because Mike had been so hospitable and lovely to me during my stay, insisting that I should come back and stay again.  Thankfully, after listening to some Ed Sheeran and The Script on the way, we were soon at the station.  After nipping to the loos, we headed to the assistance desk and I requested the assistance I’d booked.  We had quite a while before my train was due so we headed to Burger King where Mike kindly bought us dinner.  I had a chicken nugget meal and Imi had a fish burger meal.  The food was lovely and soothed my irritation at Zena’s outburst.  Even after everything, she was still scavenging for food off of the station floor.  Sadly, it was soon time to go back to the assistance desk.  A lady came to help me and said that I needed to get on the train early because it was already in and she had to send it off.  So I hugged Mike and Imi goodbye, sad to be going already.  It was such a great weekend and so nice to spend loads of time with Imi.  It was lovely for Zena to spend time with Noodle, too.  Since I’ve had her, she hasn’t had an opportunity to spend time with another dog, let alone another trained dog.  They worked well together when we wanted them to and played happily together for the rest of the time.  Zena certainly loves her cousin.  I hope we can go back soon and they can come down south in the summer.

 

To Mike: thank you for having me to stay.  Thank you for dealing with all the bodily fluids we threw your way, not literally thank goodness.  Thank you for the yummy food and the countless cups of tea.  Sorry for all my teasing.  Thanks for cleaning my muddy shoes.  Thank you for ferrying me to and from the train station and for giving me the opportunity to spend time with your daughter.

 

To Imi: thank you so much for having me to stay.  Thanks for all the advice for Zena and for supporting me with her throwing up everywhere even though I know it was hard for you to cope with.  Thank you for the snacks on our walk on Friday and for taking me along such a lovely walk.  I love spending time with you any time we can and can’t wait for next time.  Thank you for the Kindle, the `little yellow bastard` is enjoying Southampton.  You will always remain to be one of the most incredibly brave, kind, caring, clever, wonderful people I’ve ever met.  I’m so lucky that you’re my sister.  Sisters for life, always.  I’m sorry if I ask too many questions and probe where I shouldn’t.  Never be shy to tell me to shut up and get lost, I won’t be offended.  Love you lots and lots.

Seeing Dogs Training Week 4: Qualification week

Monday 20 February

 

We are on the home straight.  In two days’ time, we’ll be qualified and free to go pretty much wherever we please.  When John arrived this morning, he put the photo he’d taken into our ID booklet and then we headed for the leisure centre.  I felt like Zena and I did quite well even though she seemed to be easily distracted today and I didn’t quite remember which roads we were supposed to indent on and so indented on too many and got us a little bit lost.  But we managed to get ourselves out of the situation and back on track for the leisure centre.  John had set out an off-curb obstacle on the lay-by that leads to the leisure centre but Zena just walked straight through the cones.  That’s a little part of her loveable monkey side showing through there.  Hopefully, if it was a proper road obstacle that blocked the entirety of the pavement, I could count on her to stop and not try to barrel through.  The cones probably didn’t look like too much of an issue for barging and so she gave it her best shot and won.  Other than that, though, we got to the gym no problem; I even remembered to cross the last road before turning up and heading for the leisure centre, which was how I’d messed up on Friday.

 

The route home was a much bigger success.  We didn’t make half as many mistakes and I indented on all the correct crossings.  Also, Zena took me straight down to my house instead of walking us down the right-hand fork of the path.  John said that her puppy walker is due to join us at about midday on Wednesday to watch our qualification walk.  I’m not really bothered about this any more, just a little worried that our qualification is going to clash with Kieran being collected by his auntie.  I want to be here to say goodbye to him before he goes, especially as we’re not seeing each other now until the end of April, but of course I have to stick to the plan for qualification.  Hopefully it’ll all work out and I’ll be able to fit both things in.

 

Tomorrow, we’re headed for the vets for Zena’s last check-up before qualification.  John said that he thinks Zena has put on a couple of pounds, which may have something to do with the gravy bones I’ve been treating her with each time she does a poo in her pen.  Hopefully it won’t be too much of an increase because I’d like to be able to continue treating her good behaviour because it seems to produce good results.  Plus, the promise of a treat afterwards is great encouragement to get her to poo in her pen when I need her to.  Anyway, once we’re qualified hopefully we’ll be going out even more than we have been during these weeks of training.  My parents are usually quite busy at weekends going shopping and things so it’ll be good for us to join in with that just how I used to before getting Zena.  It’ll be good exercise and work time for her, too, allowing me a little extra time to do university work during the week.  I’m hoping I’ll be able to start studying in cafes and things like that, though, so that I can work Zena and do uni work at the same time; killing two birds with one stone, I think the saying goes.  I’m hopeful that tomorrow may be better than today was route-wise and that the check-up appointment goes smoothly.  John said her ears are looking a lot better so maybe we’ll be able to stop squeezing the cleaning solution into them.  I think she’d highly like that if it was the case.  Over the weekend, Mum helped me apply the flea and tick prevention treatment I bought to the back of Zena’s neck.  So she is now covered for a month and I have put a reminder in my calendar to repeat the event every once a month on the eighteenth.  That way, she should always be protected against fleas and ticks.  I also have a reminder in my calendar for three months’ time when she’ll need anther worming tablet, which I have discovered are cheaper on Amazon.  As her bedding is starting to smell rather a lot and the vet bed mat I bought to line her basket is getting rather scruffy — despite the fact that I have only had it a month — I decided to revive my hunt for a proper cushion to fit in Zena’s basket.  Although I like the vet bed stuff, it hasn’t seemed to be as much a success as other people have told me it would be.  So on Saturday I spent a few hours searching around for a decent cushion or mat to line the basket with.  Eventually, I found one that wasn’t too cheap or too expensive, which suggests the quality should be decent, and bought it.  It has been despatched by the seller today and will hopefully be with us in the next few days.  When it arrives, I’m going to put all of Zena’s current bedding in the wash and give the basket a good clean with some soapy water and possibly disinfectant.  Then, she can try out her new cushion.  I’m hopeful that it’ll be good and we’ll be able to continue to wash the bedding once monthly, as long as it doesn’t get too stinky in the meantime.

 

Tuesday 21 February

 

Brilliantly, today, the day before we’re scheduled to qualify, Zena decided to point out all the reasons to discourage people for applying for assistance dogs.  She showed me all the negative points people pose when you first apply and the warnings that other assistance dog owners give you as you approach the beginning of your training course.  She was, it has to be said, an absolute bitch for the majority of the day, in and around our actual training; and when I say bitch, I don’t mean the literal term of female dog.  I mean absolute one-hundred percent pain in the backside.  I mean turned my brain to mush every command I gave her because she ignored me.  I mean messed about and misbehaved every opportunity she got, even if I wasn’t giving them.  Obviously, this is unrelated in all senses to the amazing training she’s had to get to this point in her little career and the charity that is supporting us to become a qualified Assistance Dogs UK partnership in under 24 hours’ time.  It is because she is a dog and she knows the ways to take advantage, even if I’m doing everything within my power to prevent those options.

 

Despite the above rant, unbelievably, the day actually started well.  When John arrived, we went in his car to the vets’ surgery for a check-up.  It’s part of the sort-of signing over process that happens with qualification.  It’s the charity making sure that she is perfectly healthy before they put her in my charge and make me solely responsible for her.  That way, if there are any existing conditions or sudden worries, they’re able to give us all piece of mind by putting treatment in place before we’re qualified and John leaves us to allow us to build up our bond and working relationship.  Thankfully, all with Zena is well.  There are no additions to last week’s trip.  Her ears are still a little inflamed and I’ve been encouraged to continue administering the cleaning solution to help clear the wax up.  Also, the vet checked over Zena’s bare skin patches where the fur still hasn’t grown back.  It seems to be looking a lot better on one side but worse on the other.  For a while, I thought it was looking better on both but over the last few days one patch seems to have increased in size.  The vet shone a UV lamp over the patches to see if there was any kind of infection.  She was concerned that it may be a fungal infection as the patches are so symmetrical.  However, the lamp showed nothing.  There is no kind of infection to be seen.  In the waiting area, John and I discussed whether melatonin tablets could help; they are a known way to cure the seasonal condition that causes Zena’s patches.  But when we spoke to the vet about it, she said it wasn’t worth treating it with tablets yet because the patches aren’t spreading and she doesn’t seem to be shaking or scratching any more than is usual for her.  Once all of that was done, John took her out to be weighed.  She was 23,5 kg last week and now she’s 24 kg.  Apparently the treats for encouraging her to poo in her pen haven’t been good for her weight.  The way I see it, though, is that, once we’re qualified, I’ll hopefully be going out walking more so she’ll be more active.  For example, during training she hasn’t been able to do anything during the weekends but when I’m qualified we’ll be going out with my family like I always have.  Also, the treats are helping with the going for a poo in the pen routine.  She seems healthy and happy and the vet didn’t seem concerned about the weight gain so I’m not going to be.

 

Once we were home, it was route time.  Off to the leisure centre we went again.  I tried to remember which roads I was supposed to be indenting on and which roads had dogs at that freak Zena out.  But it seemed I needed to worry about more than just dogs.  Any leaf, sweet wrapper, person, buggy, cyclist, breeze that ruffled her fur, overhead bird — literally anything at all distracted Zena today.  It was really hard work.  Strangely, when we got to the leisure centre, John said that the route had seemed, visually, really good.  He said that I’d handled her well but that she had been taking advantage quite a bit.  Also, I hadn’t indented on quite the right roads, despite my efforts to count them and remember which one I was on at every moment.  On the way back, I concentrated harder on where we were, which roads we were crossing, what Zena was doing and where I needed to indent.  Apparently, I indented well but Zena was generally an absolute nightmare the entire way home.  When we got home, I took her straight out to her pen and she had a poo almost straight away.  Before we’d left earlier, she’d also had a poo for John.  She’d missed one the evening before and this morning so technically that meant she’d caught up.  But it had caused the route to be horrible and that’s really not what I wanted for our last attempt before qualification day.  It may seem like I’m making this simple recurrence of the route we’ve been practising for weeks into more than it is but qualification for me is huge.  I’ve dreamt of being a Guide Dog owner for years and being a Seeing Dog owner is equal to that, of course.  Seeing Dogs have given me the opportunity Guide Dogs have continued to refuse to offer me.  They have given me a chance of getting independent the way I’ve always wanted to.  John believed in my reasons for wanting a guide dog and bought into them.  He matched Zena and I and has spent the last three and a half weeks getting us to a point where we’ll be safe on the streets without his supervision and guidance.  I am more grateful than the charity could ever know for this opportunity and I intend to do everything within my power to push it’s advantages to their limit.  But when Zena is being a nuisance and more than that, it makes me angry and frustrated because all this hard work and effort I’ve put in is being thrown back in my face with vengeance.  It’s not her fault.  She’s just being a cheeky girlie — I don’t expect her to be perfect all the time, she’s just a dog after all — but it makes me feel like I’m doing everything wrong.  She’s under my control and my command so I need to ensure our routes go right.  John was still encouraging when we were home, explaining what I needed to do in the future to rule out these problems.  The main thing is making sure she spends before bed and in the morning.  If not, I should prepare myself for the situation that I wouldn’t be able to go out for the day.  She needs to have spent otherwise there’s a chance she’ll go on route or we’ll have a repeat experience of today’s events.

 

While we were talking, John also helped by doing Zena’s ears.  He said they’re still looking cleaner each time we do them but that I definitely need to continue the treatment after he leaves tomorrow otherwise the problem will just recur and flare up worse than it is at the moment.  I’m hopeful that tomorrow will be a better day than today has been.  Kieran is also leaving tomorrow, which I am very sad about, so I’m hoping qualification won’t clash with when he needs to go.  I want to be here to say goodbye and to be able to say goodbye properly.  If I’m busy finalising things with John, it’ll be a rushed goodbye because Kieran will need to go and I’ll need to get on with what I’m doing.  I don’t want that.  So tomorrow I’ll be qualified; unless something drastic happens, anyway.

 

Wednesday 22 February: Qualification day

 

When John arrived this morning, he took Zena straight out to her spending pen because she continued to refuse to have a poo for me overnight and into the morning.  She did one for him which meant we were still one behind.  So we headed out on a short brisk walk to the Co-op in hope that the movement would encourage Zena to go when we got home.  It was a good walk, but she was being a bit cheeky.  We hoped this was because she needed the loo, but when John repeatedly encouraged her to go, nothing happened.  By midday, when her puppy walker was due to arrive, she still hadn’t gone.  So John said we would just have to hope for the best and if she went on route, he’d get out of the car and clean up for me.  Fifteen minutes later, he called to say to set off whenever I was ready; it was qualification walk time.

 

We had the most amazing walk.  I thought maybe it would be as terrible as yesterday but Zena was fantastic! The only mistake she made was to take me to the side curb rather than on to the side road where we needed to cross.  We reached the leisure centre in hardly no time at all.  John came in and we had a short rest before heading off again.  It seemed like the best return walk we’d ever done and when John met me at home, he commented that he felt it was probably the best walk we’ve ever done.  Then, our guests came through.  It is fair to say that Zena’s puppy walker, Penny, and her husband, Paul, are two really lovely people.  My uncertainty about meeting them was unnecessary and a little ridiculous.  They are wonderful and have obviously loved Zena since they collected her from her breeder as a tiny pup.  They bought gifts for us with them, which was really unexpected and kind of them.  Zena was rewarded with a nylabone treat, which I have discovered she likes quite a lot, and I was given a little double-sided comb and brush to use when grooming her for her beard.  I think these are going to be incredibly useful as her beard is always a tough place to groom.  The little comb is definitely going to be helpful for the tricky parts she hates the most.

 

After we’d chatted for a while and Zena had been thoroughly fussed, I went with John, Penny and Paul out to their car where I was allowed to meet Zac, the newest vizsla recruit to become a Seeing Dog in the next year or so.  He is absolutely one-hundred percent gorgeous.  Of course, I’m biased to think that Zena is but Zac really is.  He’s got the loveliest fuzzy coat and the nicest temperament.  He was happy for me to give him a big cuddle and a lot of fuss.  Also, I met their smooth-coated retriever, Alice, who has lovely soft fur.  I think it’s fair to say that sometime soon in the future, Zac is going to make a great Seeing Dog and Penny is obviously doing a fab job with him, just like she did with Zena and the others before her.  It was also nice to discover that Penny has been reading these blog updates.  Thank you, Penny and Paul, for all you’ve done for Zena and all the other vizslas that have become Seeing Dogs.  I think you’ve done a superb job and are definitely making a great fellow out of Zac.  I hope he flourishes into a fine lad and would love to know how he gets on.  Thank you also for mine and Zena’s lovely gifts.  It was so generous and thoughtful of you but you really shouldn’t have.  I’m sure Zena will have hours of fun chewing away on her bone and the brush and comb are going to be so useful when grooming her.

 

Then, we said goodbye to Penny, Paul and the dogs and headed back inside.  After that, there was nothing left to do.  We are qualified! The training is over.  Somehow, I managed to do enough to be given Zena for good.  We are an official Seeing Dogs partnership and I cannot express how proud I am of that.  I’m thrilled to finally have an assistance dog after all the years fighting with Guide Dogs but even more chuffed that it is a dog from Seeing Dogs.  The whole charity works so incredibly hard to make partnerships like mine possible and long-lasting.  John is the most amazing trainer and I’m blessed that he matched Zena and I and gave me the chance nobody else ever would.  I won’t mess it up, John, I promise you that.  I’m proud to be a Seeing Dog owner and a representative every single day for the charity and the hard work it does.  I’m definitely going to be spreading the word as far and wide as I can about the charity and the fantastic job it does.  Yes, Guide Dogs do exist and they do provide assistance dogs to the majority of the visually impaired community.  But there’s a little minority, myself included, who are refused these services.  That’s when charities like Seeing Dogs are really needed.  I wouldn’t be sitting here now, a qualified Assistance Dogs UK owner, if it wasn’t for the charity existing and the great work all involved do.  I’m not just saying these things because I’m sat here qualified, I’m saying them because the charity deserves it and so many more people need to know it exists and what it offers.  If someone had said to me this time last year that in twelve months’ time I’d be a qualified owner of a registered guide dog, I’d have laughed.  There was no way I was ever getting a guide dog.  And then I found Seeing Dogs and everything changed.  When John visited me in October and let me walk with Zena, I didn’t dare think the charity would agree to his recommendation for training.  Why would they? But they did and only weeks later John was telling me that Zena was my match and we’d be training in the new year.  And here we are, all qualified.

 

As well as gifts from Zena’s puppy walkers, I also received a gift from John and the charity.  It is mine and Zena’s official photo all framed nicely.  It’s the photo that was taken by John of us sitting on my front lawn a couple of weeks ago, the same photo that’s in my ID card and that will be my graduation picture.  I’m hoping to get a hook nailed into my bedroom wall and have the photo hung up there.  I’ve got pictures of most of the other things I love hung around my room so it’s only fair Zena is up there, too.  It was a really thoughtful touch from John and I really appreciated it, amongst all the other things I’ve appreciated that he’s done for me.  Recommending me for training started this whole thing and that’s down to him.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say thank you enough.  It may sound far-fetched and soppy but I never believed this would actually happen.  I believed I didn’t need a guide dog just how Guide Dogs said I didn’t.  But it’s nice to have proved them wrong, that’s for sure.  I intend to continue to do that by making mine and Zena’s partnership work one-hundred percent.  I will not waste this.

 

So, an incredible journey of waiting, hoping, dreaming and training has come to an end and now it’s the real thing.  To celebrate, Zena, the family and I are off to my grandparents for a homemade cottage pie.  They have a massive garden which I know she’ll love, just as soon as we’ve got her into a proper routine with the spending pen.  It is only slightly saddened by the fact that Kieran left this afternoon, collected by his auntie, so that they can fly to Newcastle together first thing tomorrow morning.  It was great to have him staying during my training and to be here this afternoon when I qualified.  That was the nicest thing.  To have someone, and more importantly Kieran, here to celebrate when John left was the loveliest reward.

 

I am amazed at how far we have come together, with John’s help and guidance, in such a short space of time.  Not even a month ago this hairy, slightly smelly, rather energetic but pretty amazing ball of fur was delivered into my life and not much time later, we’re a qualified partnership.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to post blog updates on our adventures to come.  I’ve really enjoyed writing these entries during training and it’s nice to know that people have enjoyed reading about our progress.  But for now, there’s not much to say other than, WE ARE QUALIFIED!

Seeing Dogs training week 3

Monday 13 February

We’ve leapt into our third week of training with a flying start. As soon as John arrived, we headed out in his car to an unknown location which was safe enough to do some traffic training; this is when Zena and I go to cross a road and John drives in front of us. I have to encourage Zena onward and if she steps into the road, correct her and bring her back. The aim is to keep her training topped up so that if ever a car suddenly pulls out in front of us, I’ll know what to do and Zena will be trained to keep me as safe as possible. I felt like we did quite well with this training and John seemed happy as well. We’re going to continue to practice it throughout the week.

On the way back, John talked to me about learning street names and the order that they are in on a route. He tried to stress as much as he can the importance of learning them so that if I got lost I’d be able to follow someone’s directions based upon street names. Also, if I always know the name of the street I’m on, I’ll be able to keep up-to-date with exactly how far along a rouse I am and exactly where we are. I’m going to try really hard to learn street names because I understand what John is saying about how vital they are.

When we got back, Kieran and I accompanied John into the garden to help build the spending pen. I didn’t feel like I was much help at all but Kieran and I held certain parts of the fence at certain angles while John screwed everything together. By the time he was done, it had four sides and a hinged gate. All that needs to be done now is to attach and fasten the bolt and somehow stabilise the whole structure. It is quite wobbly even with the gate closed and held shut. It wouldn’t move or blow around or anything but it would be good for it to be steady.

After that was finished, we had a break for a little while. Then, John rang me to tell me to head off to Bacon Close, a road on the way to the leisure centre, where he’d meet me to finish the route. I was super nervous about doing that much of the route by myself as I’ve never gone that far on my own before. Also, I’m still not confident at all on the route and doing that much by myself seemed dangerous. I was sure I’d go wrong somewhere. However, when we set off we seemed to get into a comfortable walking stride and in almost no time at all we were at Bacon. I had Zena sat at a curb and was ready to drop the handle of the harness as I was unsure of where we were when John came up and told me how brilliant the walk had been. I questioned that we were in the right place and he told me that I was and that the route looked great to watch.

The rest of the route went well, too. We got to the leisure centre with almost no hiccups whatsoever. John only gave minimal directions, which made me feel really good about the whole thing. He gave me and Zena loads of praise once we were sat down in the leisure centre. That made me feel great as I’d been really uncertain about the whole thing and that’s the best it’s gone so far.

The return route was great, too. John left us to it, mostly, just giving me little reminders every now and then. This time, he left us to it at the turning opposite the library, giving me instructions on how to cross the remaining roads. Mostly, the walk was nice. Zena seemed to be slowing down a lot — more than I need — and I wasn’t sure whether she was sniffing or just slowing down for me. When we reached home, I asked John about this and he said she was just walking slowly. I felt a little guilty for correcting her so frequently about her slow speed after all the time I’ve spent over the last two weeks trying to slow her down. Particular points of the route today were just too slow, though, and made me doubt what I was doing, which is never a good feeling. We’re going to do another run of that route again tomorrow and I’m hoping we’ll continue to do it every day. I think John is trying to understand why it’s so difficult for me to absorb the route quicker. I’ve got to try and learn the name of each street leading up to the gym overnight, too. I don’t think I’ll get them all right but I’m going to give it my best shot. I can see why it’s important to know them.

Tomorrow, we’re going to do the leisure centre route again and also some more traffic practice. John also clarified that Zena’s puppy walker is available next Wednesday, which he thinks will be qualification day, to watch us on route. When I expressed the wish to meet Zac, John said she may even have him with her, which would be a really nice bonus. We’ve also discussed plane and train travel. We’re going to be doing train travel in the next few days and John has spoken to Flybe, the airline I use when travelling to visit Kieran and family, who have said that as long as I phone in advance and check the flight I want, I’m able to book it and take Zena on board with me. As I’m hoping to visit Kieran sometime in March, John said he will do the outward flight with me as our test and, if it goes well, leave us to do the return by ourselves. If it isn’t that great, he said he’ll come up and do the return with me when I need to go home. We spoke about a work load at Kieran’s and John said that she’s allowed holidays but that it would be good if I could learn some routes up there so that I have some work for her to do other than when we go out with his family. I’m hoping all of this can go ahead according to plan. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s training and am hopeful that I can keep up our good momentum with the leisure centre route.

Tuesday 14 February

Since John left yesterday, Zena has refused to go to toilet in her new pen. Having the freedom of the garden seems to have made her frightened of the enclosed area I’m now presenting her with to toilet in. I spent quite a long time last night trying to persuade her to go and tried again this morning before John returned. When he arrived, he took Zena out and tried to get her to go. After several attempts, he came back in before going back out again and this time she did a very long wee. We then went to do some more traffic control in the unknown area we visited. She worked well as I tested her, trying to encourage her to walk into the road when John was driving in front of us. But she stood steady and didn’t move a muscle. Once, she twisted to stand up but soon sat down when I corrected her.

After the traffic training, we came back and tried Zena in her pen again. No more luck came so we went out and did some obedience work on the grass parking area in front of my house. This worked quite well and Zena mostly did what I commanded, such as laying down when I said `down`, sitting up quickly when I said `up sit` and staying still when I walked backwards away from her saying `stay`. Once we’d done enough of that, we headed back inside and tried the spending pen again. But nothing happened. So John did her ear treatment and we looked at going on trains for tomorrow. I didn’t want to do any route walking in case she went whilst working. So we decided, regrettably, to leave the day there and start afresh tomorrow, hopefully once she’s done a poo and started to catch up on her usual routine. Tonight, I have to feed her early at four o’clock and spend her every hour and hope that she goes to toilet. My thinking is that, as she did a wee for John earlier, she may continue to progress for me.

Wednesday 15 February

Today has been a very busy but great day. It was one of those days where pretty much everything about training went right. Firstly, when John arrived, he encouraged Zena to toilet in her pen. While I got my stuff together, he managed to coax her into having her first poo in the pen. I was absolutely thrilled; I gave her massive cuddles and loads of fuss to congratulate her. After that, we went in his car to the train station. Once there, I worked Zena into the station and to the ticket office where John bought two return tickets to Southampton Airport Parkway station. It is only a seven-minute train ride but enough to see whether Zena can cope well on trains or not. I worked her up the steps and over the bridge on to the right platform. Then, when the train arrived, I worked Zena to the door and then on to the train. Then, I dropped the handle and followed John down to some seats. We sat where there was a table so Zena could lay down underneath it. I took her harness off before she went under the table because with it on she was too tall. When we arrived at Parkway, we were standing by the door and a couple asked us questions about Zena and explained how they’d fostered similar breeds to hers over the years. They fussed her a little bit and we let them because they seemed genuinely interested in her and she wasn’t actually working. As the doors opened, Zena stepped fearlessly off the train and stood happily on the platform. As soon as I joined her, we walked forward a little way and then I put her harness on. I followed John through the station and out on to the road and then across the zebra crossing and into the arrivals hall of the airport. Zena didn’t seem at all fazed by the airport atmosphere — to be fair, it was quite quiet in there — so we didn’t stay long. We went back to the train station and sat on a bench to wait for the train. When it came, I worked Zena to the door and on to the train. John found us another seat with a table and this time I just took the handle off of the harness so that Zena could slide in underneath. At the end of the journey, she worked well getting off the train and then around the station. She walked me calmly along the platform, over the bridge, along the other side, through the station itself and out on to the pavement in front. Then, I dropped the handle and followed John to his car.

We took a detour on the way home to the place where we’ve been practising our traffic training. It was spitting with rain when I got out of the car and thankfully we managed to complete the traffic training quite quickly. Zena was excellent, again, and only went to stand up once. A firm `sit` from me had her sat down again and not trying to replicate the movement for the rest of the session.

After a break and weather check, we decided to go ahead and do the leisure centre route. During our break, it had been absolutely hammering down with rain and there was a moment where we considered to pass on route altogether. But my determination to do it as many times as I can and our good run with it on Monday made me want to do it even more. We only have a certain amount of days left to do the route with John’s assistance before qualification comes. We’re definitely due to qualify next Wednesday and John wants me to do it twice independently before he qualifies us. This can include the qualification walk but they have to go without him helping at all. So, when the weather had subsided a bit, Zena and I set off. John had agreed to follow and if I released the handle of the harness he’d come and help me. Otherwise, he was leaving us to it. It was amazing! We managed the majority of the route without issue or hesitation. I needed John’s help a couple of times; once, Zena went completely the wrong way, taking me to the side curb instead of straight ahead to the curb I needed. On our way to the leisure centre, there was a man pruning the hedges and his van was parked on the pavement. He said that Zena would probably be able to guide me passed it but offered his assistance. So I took his arm and followed him through the gap. I thanked him because he did a good job of guiding me and didn’t try to interfere with the dog at all. A little way after the interruption, I felt a bit confused so dropped the handle and waited for John. He drew up against the curb and I checked where we were before continuing on. After two side roads, I continued on to and lay-by and then confused myself by thinking we’d gone too far. Again, I waited for John and he confirmed my thoughts that actually we hadn’t gone too far. The next turning was for the leisure centre. Zena turned effortlessly and we headed for the almost flat entrance to the car park. It creates a road so Zena has to wait and then cross it, waiting at the lip on the other side. Sometimes, she goes straight on because I’m telling her to `find the step` when actually the tactile paving is barely raised. If this happens, I just have to correct her and make her do it again. On the other side of that tactile, we go straight ahead to the leisure centre, through the first set of automatic doors into the lobby and then on through the second set of automatic doors into the reception area. The information desk is on our right as we go through the doors and I think Zena knows it’s there. There are tables and chairs to sit at a little further in and John always lets me have a break before we set off home. While I did that route, I’d had Google maps on through my headphones to see if it helped me get to the leisure centre. But it was completely useless; it tried to take me a completely different way for the entirety of the route.

Walking the route headed for home was even more effortless. The only thing John helped with was getting passed the man pruning the hedges and watching us go down to the library corner and across that road. We got quite soggy walking home because the rain had returned. When we arrived home, I was thrilled that we’d done so well with the route. It is definitely the best we’ve done so far. John informed me that Zena had actually done a poo during the walk home but that we weren’t to make too much of a big deal about it because we’d done so well on the route and she’d done a poo that morning in the pen.

Tomorrow, we’re doing the leisure centre route and traffic training again. Friday is going to be a free run day with the leisure centre route embedded into it. There may be more traffic training, too. I’m looking forward to seeing how our last two days of week three pan out and then our last few days of training altogether leading up to qualification.

Thursday 16 February

Today was another great day. Although our traffic training didn’t go to plan because there was a bunch of kids doing their cycling proficiency test in our usual area, the route to the leisure centre was brilliant. I only had to ask for John’s help a couple of times there and not at all on the way back. He congratulated us on how well it went. Zena was a bit of a monkey on the way back because there were a lot of other dogs about. But overall the route was great and I’m starting to feel quite confident with it now. We’re going to do it again tomorrow accompanied with a free run. John also helped me put the cleaning solution in Zena’s ears but said they’re looking a lot better. He also commented that we need to return to the vets next week for the last check-up before we’re qualified. As Kieran and I are hoping to go out for dinner tomorrow evening, John said that I could take Zena with me but not work her; so I can take her on lead with the harness slung on my arm. That way, if anyone questions us I can present the harness to them as a way of confirmation that she is a working dog. I’m quite excited about this as I haven’t taken her anywhere without John yet and haven’t had a meal out with her beside me yet. I’m hoping that we don’t get refused from the restaurant we’re hoping to go to, though, because that would make the whole experience rather awkward. The spending pen situation seems to have improved, as well. This morning, she did a big wee for John and then, when we got back and before we headed for the gym, she did a poo. After coming back from the gym, she did another wee. I can only hope that the lucky streak continues for me overnight and into tomorrow and the weekend to follow.

Friday 17 February

We had a short but good day of training today. It is before eleven in the morning and I am already sat at home finished for the day with a cup of tea next to me made kindly by Kieran. As planned, I did the route to the leisure centre and we followed this with a free run for Zena. On the way up to the leisure centre, we had a few hiccups with other dogs being around and Zena not necessarily going to the part of the pavement I’d directed her to. But overall it was still a good walk and we only messed up properly right at the end. I didn’t cross the road to the leisure centre like I’m supposed to. I just tried to turn the corner too early on the other side of the street. John came and helped out and then we got to the leisure centre no problem. After giving Zena fuss for doing well, I dropped the handle of the harness and John guided us round to the field where I swapped Zena’s work collar to her play collar, complete with bells, and let her go free to enjoy herself. It’s been a really good week so a reward of a free run felt necessary; even if doggy logic doesn’t see it as a reward, I felt like I was giving her one. When I blew the whistle to test her recall, she came back without hesitation so I rewarded her with a treat. She seems to really like gravy bones, which is good because I have a whole tub of them. There were other dogs on the field today and John had to call her away from them; but otherwise it was a good free run. Because John had noticed that my ankle was playing me up quite a bit on the route up, he offered us a lift home in his car because we both agreed I’ve pretty much got the route figured out. Also, he didn’t want me to strain my ankle any further as we’re so close to qualification and things are going so well. So that was the end of our week. It’s been made even better by Zena using her pen whenever I take her out to it. Just before he left, John helped me administer the ear solution. He commented that her ears are looking good again.

So, week three of training is complete. Tonight, Kieran and I are going out to Frankie and Benny’s for a date night meal and Zena is coming with us. John advised that I ring the restaurant in advance to let them know that a guide dog is coming. That way, they shouldn’t be able to make any kind of fuss when we turn up with her later. Next week, we’ve got to focus all our attention on the leisure centre route and get it perfected so that we can qualify as expected on Wednesday. Also, we’ve got to take a trip to the vets and I think John may practice a few more off-curb obstacles and a bit more traffic training. Hopefully, though, this time next week we’ll be qualified and I’ll be taking Zena wherever I need to go.