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.

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