What It’s Like: Guide Dog Training

I will never forget how I got my guide dog. Including filling out the application form. Mostly, though, that’s because I was, at the time, living with a roommate and her two kids and Hurricane Juan had just ransacked our city. We had been without power for four days, and couldn’t get anything done while the kids were awake, so we sat down one night and filled it out by candlelight. And almost as soon as we finished, the power came back on. Because of course it did.

Basically, it was just a form with questions about my eyesight, mobility, living situation, etc. Nothing weird.

Not too long after I sent that off, a trainer came to Halifax to assess me. This involved watching me walk with my cane, guiding me to see if I was any good at picking up on cues that way and taking a look at my living situation to ensure that it was a safe environment for a dog. And that was it. I was then assigned a class in March of the following year, and flew out there.

The school itself was pretty cool. It housed the kennels for all the dogs in training, offices for staff, dorms for the students, kitchen facilities, dining room, recreation area and enclosed area for the dogs to run around. We each got our own room, and they were surprisingly spacious and comfy.

On our first day, we met the dogs, but weren’t assigned one specific dog. We were a class of seven, and there were ten dogs assigned to us. That first day, we met them, got to spend time with all ten, play with them, have them sit with us and learn how to put the harness on.

The next day we started actually working with the dogs. They had sort of matched us up with a few dogs, and we cycled between them. I mostly worked with Aggie, an extremely hyper but very pretty golden lab with this sort of white gold fur and an exceedingly chill and sweet black lab named Bandit.

I liked them both, but I’ll be honest with you, Bandit stole my heart. They warned us not to do that, but I sort of did.

After a few days, they had made their decision on who would get paired up with who, and brought our dogs to us, one by one, while we waited in our rooms. It was almost like a ceremony, they did make the moment seem very serious. They brought me Aggie.

I was disappointed, but it was just a small degree of disappointment, as I did really like her, too. Aggie was a sweet girl, and fun, but hyper and a bit stubborn. Training with her was challenging, but I persevered.

Right up until the first day they had us walk around the block solo. Or, well, solo with two trainers about fifteen feet behind us. Aggie took it into her head to ignore me and wander off in some random direction on her own, and it was the last straw for the trainers. They sat me down and explained that this wasn’t my fault, that they had paired me with Aggie because they thought I was the only one in my class who had the chance to actually make her listen. They told me that they planned to try her once more with the next class, and if that didn’t work she’d be retired and go be a pet. I suspect that’s probably what happened. She’d make a really great pet, but not a guide dog.

I thought at this point that they’d surely pair me with Bandit. He was the other dog that I had worked with the most. However, the day prior one member of our class had decided that this just wasn’t working for him and left the program. He had been paired with Wilson, an adorable chocolate lab that I’d worked with myself once or twice before they shunted him to this other person, and it was Wilson that I was paired with.

Again, I was disappointed, but it didn’t last long. Wilson had this endless capacity to just love everyone and everything he met. The first night I had him with me, he tried to climb into my lap as I sat in my room watching television. He was, at that point, about sixty pounds. That didn’t matter, he wanted snuggles. It pretty much sealed the deal for me.

Working with Wilson was much, much easier. He actually listened and took me where I wanted to go. Wilson had an endless desire to please, and to be glued to my side.

Now, to back track a little bit, when you start learning how to work with your canine companion, it starts off simple: they lead you down a straight hallway, turn around and lead you back. Next, the trainers put up barriers in the hallway that the dog has to weave its way through, with you learning both to follow its lead and actually trust. It’s harder than it sounds. Then, they add a short flight of stairs into the mix so you learn to read the signals.

At that point, you’re ready to go outside. It starts off with you just walking up and down the sidewalk outside the school, then to the end of the block, then around the block with the trainer by your side, then around the block alone, and then you start going on full routes with turns and crosswalks and traffic lights.

Finally, they pile you and your doggo into a van, take you on a wee drive and drop you off somewhere. They don’t tell you where. You need to first find out (by asking) where you are, and then find your way back to school on your own. I know that sounds horrifying, but the van is trailing after you the whole way, so you’re not really on your own. It does feel that way, though.

All the while this training is going on, there’s plenty of time to socialize with your fellow classmates and to take your dog outside to the courtyard and play with them. The month is just as much about forming a bond with your dog as it is about learning how to work with them. There’s also lessons on dog grooming, dog relieving, dog feeding, talks about our rights with the dog… lots of things.

And finally, graduation. Which is an actual ceremony, where the foster families of the graduating dogs are invited, those students with family in the area (or in my case, a mother who just decided to make a road trip to see me graduate from guide dog school), speeches and everything. And a video montage of our training to a Hillary Duff song.

And then… well. Then, I flew back home and started my life with Wilson, my sweet boy. Who grew to 80 lbs, was eternally sweet but not perfect, loved to show off his toys to anyone who would listen, and literally guided me through several big changes in my life. I had him for eight years until he retired, which is fairly standard.

And that is how you get a guide dog.

As always, please be kind to yourself and those you encounter. This year continues to be challenging, and we could all use some kindness. Just don’t forget that that includes yourselves.

Want to follow or interact with me on social media? Find me on Twitter by following @jennifermorash or head over to https://www.facebook.com/jennifermorashblog. I post blogs every Wednesday.

hat It’s Like: Guide Dog TrainingWhat It’s Like: Guide Dog Training

Deconstructing Ableist Statements

Ableism is kind of insidious. It’s one of those isms that are often perpetuated by very well-meaning people who intend to be kind. I think it’s often based not in hatred or fear, but in a lack of understanding. Well, okay, sometimes it’s fear, I’ve had a few people admit that I made them uncomfortable because of my disability. (And before anyone criticizes this, don’t, I admire the hell out of someone willing to admit their discomfort and talk to me about it so we can work through it)

That’s part of why I write about it with increasing frequency. If it’s based in misunderstanding, then the best tool I have to fight against it is to get folks to understand.

So, I’m going to talk about some well-meaning sentiments that I have encountered. A lot. By good people, by people doing their best to be kind, and not really thinking through what they’re saying. So, if you’ve said any of these to me or anyone else who is disabled, don’t feel bad, don’t apologize, just think about what I’m saying.

“If I lost my sight, I could never cope.”

When people say this to me, they think that they’re complimenting me on my ability to cope. They mean well. I’m convinced of this. But what does it really say? That the blind are, at base level, less able to live a fulfilling life.

It would be like me talking to someone who was 5’1″ and going “Gosh, if I were that short, I don’t think I could cope.”

It’s true that some people are better at learning coping mechanisms than others, but that’s true of all humanity. Also, I firmly believe that we are utter crap at determining what we can, and can’t, cope with.

“I’d rather lose (insert sense/function here) than lose my sight.”

This is the one I really, truly hate. Of the bunch, it is the one I’ve never been able to just shrug off. Is being blind ideal? Of course not. Of course it poses it’s own challenges. But it’s not the end of the world. It didn’t end my life. In fact, I have been far more of a contributing member of society since I lost the majority of my eyesight.

Loss of a sense or function is not a life sentance to misery. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to spend the rest of your life as some poor, pitiable thing that is less than human, but that is what this sentiment makes me feel like you see me as.

“Wow. You hold down a job? You’re so strong/brave/incredible.”

Uh. Would you say that to literally anyone who wasn’t somehow disabled? Unless they were already holding down a job (parenting included, that is absolutely a full time job). But would you say that to anyone else? I doubt it.

It’s not miraculous, though I was more or less led to believe that this was the case. I remember attending a week-long career thing for the visually impaired and blind, and the careers they introduced us to were not particularly aspirational. Or varied. It was not the encouraging, uplifting week they thought it was.

Yes. I work. Part-time, yes, but the reasons for that actually have nothing to do with being blind and everything to do with other health issues. The education for this career was challenging, but the job itself? Not at all.

“You’re so brave.”

This is close to the last one, but I want to talk about it specifically. Blindness in particular seems to have this weird mystique about it. Somehow, we are portrayed as noble martyrs. Poor, brave souls.

We’re not. I’ve known some blind people who are jerks. I’ve known some who are manipulative. Some who aren’t particularly brave or strong. Kind of like humanity as a whole.

At the end of the day, we’re just people.

Now. Here are some things that aren’t awful. Actually, I like hearing these.

“Here, look at this picture.”

People always react with such chagrin when they say this and either realize what they’ve said or had me gently explain it. And I try to be gentle, because I know they’re going to kick themselves about it. (Or laugh, the awesome people laugh)

Showing pics to friends and family is a normal thing. By automatically trying to show me one, you are telling me loud and clear that you think I’m normal.

I am normal. Weeeell. More or less.

“I keep forgetting that you’re blind.”

Good. I want you to. Or, if not forget, then not have it be the first thing you think of when you think of me. Think of me as a blogger, a massage therapist, the person who likes to dye their hair purple, the chick with the unicorn on her bag or just a friend.

“You’re good at (insert thing here).”

So long as “for a blind person” doesn’t come before or after that statement, I love it. If you want to compliment me, do it without any qualifying statements. This one absolutely applies to those outside of the disabled population. “For a woman” “For a gay man” “For a black person”. None of these should be included as qualifying statements. I’m a good massage therapist. Period. End of sentance. Not despite or because I’m blind.

At the end of the day, it’s easy to brush all of this off when you’re not living it. They’re just words, right? Does it really matter?

It does, because I hear this stuff all the time. Seriously. All. The. Time. The more you hear it, the easier it is to believe the undertones. I mean, I’m 44 years old and It’s only in the past year or two that I even started to question the validity of this kind of thing. Because I’d heard it so much, from so many people, that it must all be true.

All of those people meant well. You meant well, if you ever said these things. Meaning well doesn’t negate the impact, though. All I ask is that you think about what you’ve read, and perhaps start catching yourself before you say these things.

Like always, I urge you to be kind to yourself and to those around you. Times are hard. You deserve kindness. So do those you meet.

Want to follow or interact with me on social media? Find me on Twitter by following @jennifermorash or head over to https://www.facebook.com/jennifermorashblog. I post blogs every Wednesday.

What It’s Like: Socializing

For those new to my blog, the “What It’s Like” posts are what things are like for me as a blind woman. While some generalizations could possibly be drawn from these, I would like to remind you that I am an individual. All of us with visual impairments are, so what is true for me may not be true for another.

This week, I want to talk about something that many people once took for granted. Many folks probably didn’t give any real thought to it. That has changed.

Socializing. Hanging out with friends, even dating. It used to be so easy, didn’t it? At least, it was easy for a lot of people. Not so much for those segments of the population with social anxiety, certain cognitive challenges and, yes, those of us with physical disabilities.

When one is in a wheelchair, the very act of getting where you want to go has to be considered. Once there, can you get in? If you can get in, are the tables, if tables are part of the place, at a good height? Is the bathroom accessible? For the hearing impaired, I have to assume that you need to take into account how loud a place is, to make sure that if you have some degree of hearing you’d be able to use it, or make sure that someone can understand sign language and interpret for you.

Now, for me at least, socializing with my particular disability of blindness is actually a mixed bag. There are a few good things about it. I’ll save those for the end, though. Mostly because I’d rather end on a good note.

So, first of all, let’s talk about social cues. Those ways we humans have of indicating any number of things. Like or dislike, interest or boredom, attraction or repulsion. Most social cues are non-verbal. Aside from tone of voice, the rest aren’t even audible. I quite literally have only my ears to guide me.

Ears aren’t enough. I know for a fact that I missed out on romantic interest being aimed at me from more than one source simply because I couldn’t see the other person. Couldn’t see the looks, the way they smiled at me, the position of their body. How do I know? At some point, they told me, but usually only after that ship had sailed.

I have also recently come to the sad realization that someone I thought was a friend, or at the least a friendly acquaintance, doesn’t actually like me much any longer, and I have no clue for how long that has been happening. I don’t bring this up for pity, this is a thing that happens in many friendships in time, it’s just an illustration of the fact that I missed it for awhile.

That makes socializing difficult. It’s a little bit easier one on one, but gets exponentially more difficult with every person added to a group I am in. Heck, I don’t even always know if I’m meant to be included in any given conversation, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m interrupting if I join in. Or, worse, sometimes I am interrupting and don’t realize it.

Secondly, there is the logistics of getting to places to meet folks. Generally, if meeting a group for, say, coffee or dinner, you meet inside. One person nabs a table, everyone else comes and joins upon arrival. I can’t. I can get there. I can get a cab. Sometimes, I can get a bus though the spot I live in isn’t great for that. But I can’t find them. That leaves the tactic of texting or calling someone and asking them to come fetch me, which is both awkward and does come with it that sense of helplessness that I so loathe.

Sometimes, I can’t even get there, though. What if you are meeting at a spot inside a building with multiple places, like a mall? I can get to the mall, but if I don’t have the layout memorized, finding the precise spot is tricky.

Third is the preconceptions of others. Well-meaning as people are, there is often this subconscious idea that I am the poor blind girl, not the fun friend. You want to ask your fun friend out for coffee, but do you want to ask the poor blind girl? I have found that I often have to get to know someone very well before I can shift out of “poor blind girl” and into “fun friend”. Unfortunately, without socializing, it’s really hard to do that getting to know of people, so that turns into a viscious circle quickly.

So, what’s good about it?

First, there’s less judgement of me towards others. This isn’t because I’m a better person than anyone else. Trust me, I’m not. But I can’t see your shoes. I don’t know if your clothing is some designer brand or thrift shop chique. Skin colour, degree of socially decided on levels of beauty, hair colour, state of your nails. I am oblivious, and I like it just fine that way. I’d rather make my judgements on a combination of actions and what is said.

Secondly… look, have you ever had one of those days when you’re getting ready, you glance in the mirror and can’t help but notice those one or two (or three, or six) flaws? Your hair isn’t quite how you want it. You look a bit pale. The shirt isn’t falling just right. Then, poof, there goes your confidence. I know that feeling, I used to fall into that trap a lot when I had sight. That never happens any longer. Not that I walk around thinking I’m the epitome of beauty or anything, I just don’t suffer from the false fear of not being as good as I could be.

Perhaps some of you are now wondering if there’s anything you can do to make socializing easier for any friends with a disability. Yes and no. Honestly, understanding is the biggest thing you can do. It is sometimes enough to have a friend who understands that if I am reluctant to go somewhere, it’s not a reflection on my desire to be with them, and more that some times the greater effort it takes for me to do a thing that is easy for everyone else outweighs the fun of doing a thing. Try to work a bit more on your communication if dealing with a blind friend.

Aside from that? No. Understanding and communicating are the big things. And perhaps just noticing that it is more difficult. You don’t have to fix the world for us, but it helps if you’re aware that the problems exist.

And, as always, be kind to those you encounter out there, and be kind to yourself. Especially when glancing in the mirror before going out to socialize.

Want to follow or interact with me on social media? Find me on Twitter by following @jennifermorash or head over to https://www.facebook.com/jennifermorashblog. I post blogs every Wednesday.

What It’s Like: Having A Guide Dog

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about what using a white cane was like. I said it was like navigating by frustration, though my inner critic is kicking itself for not coining the term “navigation by frustration”. Oh, well.

If using a white cane is navigation by frustration, then using a guide dog is like navigation by adoration.

To get a guide dog, you first have to be skilled in orientation and mobility. Basicly, you already need to know how to get around independantly. That’s important, because while a dog can make simple decisions, you’re the one who has to tell it where to go.

There are many schools all over the world, and they have different requirements, but that one is pretty standard. I got mine from Guide Dogs of Canada. I had to fly out to Ontario for a month and train, and one day I’ll likely write more about that experience, but for now just know that it does take some intense training to learn how to be a guide dog handler. Part of that is learning the commands, but part of it is also learning to trust your companion.

The basics of how it works is this: Every guide dog wears a harness. The harness has a long handle which you hold onto, putting the dog a bit ahead of you. You’re the one calling the shots, though. You tell the dog when to go forward, turn right or left, turn around and stop. Additionally, though, the dog is trained to make a few of those decisions on its own, and will automatically stop at stairs, curbs, doors and the like as well as veering right or left to get you around obstacles. As the dog walks forward, it puts a gentle pressure on the handle you’re holding onto, and you follow its lead.

The dog is also trained to know when to disobey an order. For instance, if you are wanting to cross the street and order the dog forward, but a car is coming, the dog will not obey.

Trust lays at the center of the relationship. You are trusting your dog to get you safely from point a to b, and the dog is trusting you to know what you’re doing. In that dog’s eyes, the two of you are a pack and you’re the leader of that pack, which is why I call it navigation by adoration. You and your partner are going to go everywhere together. Unlike a cane, the dog can’t just be tucked away on a shelf when not in use.

Having a guide dog has its disadvantages. For one thing, be prepared to be remembered more for your dog than for yourself, and often the dog will be greeted before you will be. Be prepared for clueless people to try to pat your dog at the most inopportune times, more on that below. Be prepared to have to take that dog outside in the worst of conditions. Blizzards and rainstorms don’t matter much if the dog has to go. And be prepared for facing the fact that you’re working with a dog, not a machine, and dogs aren’t perfect.

On the other hand, I found that having a dog gave me a lot more freedom than using a cane does. My cane can’t see anything. It doesn’t know where the door is. I did things with my dog that I’m not brave enough to do without him, because it felt much safer. I also had a constant companion who loved me unconditionally, even when I accidentally stepped on his paws.

I did mention above the problem of petting the dog. I know it’s tempting. They all just look so darned cute with their harnesses on, and there’s also the novelty of encountering a dog where you usually wouldn’t. Most of you do have the sense not to pat the dog when it’s actively working, at least, though I have experienced someone patting my dog while I was in the middle of crossing a road where it intersected with the highway. However, even if the dog is just sitting there at the feet of its handler on the bus, doing nothing, don’t pat the dog. That dog is trained to associate wearing the harness with being on duty, and to not seek out affection or attention while working. You patting the dog is a tiny crack in that training. If it happens enough, the dog will start to think that it’s okay to seek out attention. The only time it’s okay to pat a service animal is when the harness is off and its handler has given you permission.

I do miss having a guide dog. Perhaps someday, I’ll get another one, though for many reasons I’m not currently in a position where it would be a practical choice. But having one is absolutely fantastic. They are amazing animals.

Navigation by adoration is absolutely worth any of the disadvantages.

Want to follow or interact with me on social media? Find me on Twitter by following @jennifermorash or head over to https://www.facebook.com/jennifermorashblog. I post blogs every Wednesday.