Saturday, February 13, 2010

Day Twenty at Guide Dogs

Graduation day.

It's hard to put into words how I feel today, it's such a mix. Whe've already exchanges contact information to keep up with each other. My classmates are dealing with it in various ways. Some sequester themselves away in preparation...avoiding goodbyes. Some busy themselves with imagined duties to take their minds off farewell. I use my standby device...humor, to lighten the blow of "so long".

Even the dogs are aware of the change. Burgess sat up, looking at the suitcase and then at me, with a worried expression as if to say, "what's happening?? Where are you going??" I explained to him that this was not our home and we were going on a happy trip where he'd be taken care of, even better than he is here. Once I packed the dog food, he had no problem with it.

The rest of the day will be what you might call the doggie red carpet. Dogs and students will be groomed to the teeth and on display for visitors as exemplary proof of what the organization can do. One may speak a few words at the ceremony, or's a personal choice...and one I'm stuggling with.

You see...I may break down.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Day Nineteen at Guide Dogs

The last day of training.

Today was taken up with the bare bones of iteneraries for going home. Some of us are leaving directly after ceremonies. Others like me, are leaving at dawn of the next day. Mostly, goodbyes ruled the day. It's been an experience learning to work with a guide dog in San Francisco and the Bay Area. I feel I can do it anywhere now. I've made a great frienship with not only a phonomenal dog but with a fellow classmate in my area, and I feel the future is bright. To think, less than two years ago I was afraid to leave my house due to my disability. A walk to the mailbox was a triumph. I found that my story was'nt new. I heard it over and over again, out of the mouths of people from 22 to 78 years old.

I learned a lot here, and not just about guide dogs.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Day Eighteen at Guide Dogs

Less than 48 hours to graduation.

Today, we did guidework in Berkely. God, it was great to be back there. It has'nt changed in 31 years. I thought that it might have become a glossy metropolis, but it's still the funky, hippified, college town that I remember from the seventies. Students don't walk the campus... they float along. You can almost smell the pot in the air. Burgess loved the meadnering walkways and the crowds of students, he walked so briskly, that it was an effort to keep up with him. You don't get many chances to revisit your past and have it be just as pleasant as you remember...I'm a lucky fellow.

Later in the afternoon, we went through the aforementioned exit interviews...a blessedly short process, where I voiced the concerns of yesterday's post. I got a very pleasant and informed explanation that it was difficult to find African-American applicants. Mind you, Marin County is an exceedingly white enclave, but I'm of the opinion that one finds what one looks for, and the net should be flung wider. I opined to this director of training, (a white South's THAT for flinging your net?) That since the student population was incredibly diverse, that it was a detriment to not only the school, but to the students and to the program itself, that diversity was'nt mirrored in it's staff.

I'm also somewhat anxious about the graduation excercises. Apparently this event draws dog-crazy aficianados from all over the area, and Burgess os a well-known dog 'round these parts. He seems to recognize people I've never met or seen...and they know him on sight.

This will not be an easy getaway.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Day Seventeen at Guide Dogs

Another one of us got sent home without their dog.

This was especially wrenching, because it is only 48 hours from graduation. The Brooklynite cum San Franciscan I spoke of earlier and his dog, Tiki...Burgess' kennel romance. By the gentleman's own admission, he was poor in guidework technique...If one does'nt have that it's a a danger to the dog and to you. He'd have benefitted from the four-week course, which is no longer offered, in favor of this three-week intensified program. This wonderful man...a Vietnam vet, and husband...needed more time. Unfortunately as he is starting a new job in three weeks, time just isn't there. In this case, instructors and students were shedding tears over this sad occurrence. The scene of his classmates and teachers crowding his dorm doorway to hug him was truly moving.

Tomorrow is exit interviews, where we as students will clinically asses our time here, and this new program they've instituted. In my opinion the staff here are outstanding. The program is rigorous but thorough, but two things trouble me. One is the fact that the instructors have a tendency to be snippy and condescending at certain junctures, a fact that I was warned about, by a former graduate whom I met by chance on a bus in Seattle. The second thing is far more disturbing. There are NO African-American persons on staff at this facility. I'm told, that this school has been in operation since 1942. Every day, since I've been training here, I've lunched with a different person from a different department of this school...sometimes two....and not one of them is black. The only people of color employed here are latino, and they are relegated to kitchen and household staff.

A fact that I will mention.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Day Sixteen at Guide Dogs

...and the days dwindle down to a precious few.

This day was taken up with post kennel vetrinary care and the stipulations of agreement. For one thing, the dog ALWAYS remains the property of Guide Dogs for the Blind...for the rest of the their life. You can, of course register for ownership of the dog, but certain stipulations have to be met.

One also recieves annual visits for two years, so that a representative my observe the health and progress of the guide and answer or help with any challenges or concerns the owner may have. In fact, concerns about the health or guide worthiness of the dog are encouraged to be asked at any time and if urgent help is needed, it is dispatched.

But the kicker of the day is always guidework with Burgess, and today it was San Francisco's Embarcadero. I also recieved two reports from Burgess' puppy trainers, via the administration. The first, a fifteen year olg girl wrote her report fom the dog's point of view. She described what I'd already discovered...that Burgess was a friendly, laid-back, happy, loving dog, that when nervous or lonely, he chewed things, but I also learned new information.

The second girl, one year younger, described quite a more posh life...apparently, Burgess sunned his early days away running on the high-priced beaches of Malibu, swimming in the ocean and attending horse shows. I'm told he loooved horses.

Boy, is Burgess in store for a rude awakening.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Day Fifteen at Gude Dogs

It's winding up!

Today adressed itself to transitioning home. Seperate counseltations were done, student to instructor, about the practical aspects of how each dog will graft into the household or family. The gift shop opened today and some of us went a little crazy. We're all a little dog loony at this point.

I was informed that I will have a guest at graduation excercises. My dear friend Bobby, who I've know for over two decades, will be in attendance. The other highlight of my day was taking Burgess to Union Square. It's was a kick walking around with that big, beautiful animal. People consider you differently with a dog. Whereas with a cane, it's "Look at that poor blind man" with a dog it's, " Wow! look what the blind guy can do with that dog!"

I have to admit it has a certain style.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Day Thirteen at Guide Dogs

Rain this morning and sun in the afternoon.

Saturday being the half-day, things get popping in the afternoon. I toddled off to the mall down the street and found a pub. Grown men need their relaxation and I found mine in a couple of boilermakers. But when I returned to feed Burgess, I found that others of my male compatriots preferred stronger medicine. Later about that.

Before Burgess' pm feeding I thought a little playtime was in order, so we made our way to the doggie paddock by the kennels. During a rousing game of fetch, I chanced to see Burgess' girlfriend, Tiki, and her master, a Brooklynite now living in San Francisco. We let the dogs play and they got into a heated game of tug of war. It was hilarious. The smaller faster, Tiki teased big Burgess...daring him to take the coveted rubber ring. When he finally did, he commanded it for a while and then put it down in front of his childhood dog is such a gentleman.

Upon returning, I ran into a friendly lady who described three of my male classmates to a tee, and asked where she might find them. She had a girlfriend with her. I ushered them right in.

The strong medicine I spoke of earlier.


Friday, February 5, 2010

Day Twelve at Guide Dogs

Not much to report today.

The weather was a complete turnaround from yesterday's downpour. Sunny, warm and clear. Even Burgess was back to his old self. Today's focus is the people I am training with. These folks are all diverse individuals from different walks of life, different ages, races, genders, countries, outlooks, values, and types of blindness or visual impairment.
But we all have laughed together, shared, supported each other and made it this far with our guide dogs. I've seen tough guys turn tender, and tender women turn tough. These folks are an amazement to me, as this is the largest collection of blind people I've ever had the opportunity to be around.

It's an experience that's bringing me back to myself, and making me feel not like the person I was before....but better.

God bless these people.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Day Eleven at Guide Dogs

Whew! Today was a wet one!

It POURED....all day. Cold wet and rainy. Dogs don't like that...even water dogs. Burgess woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. He's developed a slight infection in his right ear, and the vet gave me some ointment to put in for four days, until he's seen again. He does'nt much mind me applying it, but it causes him to scratch his ear and become rather sluggish and downcast. He did'nt want to get the day started, returning to his bed again and again. No morning happy-dance. But being a professional...once the day progressed and the harness was on, he performed like a champ, as always.

After lunch, we recieved what is referred to as "clicker-training". you have a clicker in your left hand, get the dog to perform a simple task, and the second it is done, click the clicker to mark the event...then you immediately reward with a treat. First I got Burgess to touch his nose to my fist, put out in front of him..."click"-treat. Then, his nose to my fist on a chair seat..."click"-treat. Then his nose to my fist on a chair back..."click"-treat. In five minutes, Burgess was showing me an empty chair..."click"-treat! Like magic! The great thing about this is that the dogs LOVE it. And once the task is learned, you don't need the clicker, until you want to teach another task.

Later in the afternoon, we were taken on "destination training". We were bussed several blocks away from a familiar destination and one by one left to find our way the pouring rain, of course. I've never seen Burgess move so fast. He was determined to get himself to the destination and out of the rain, and he just bloody well took ME along with him!

Make no mistake, the time spent here has been gruelling on us, and the dogs. Everyone's dog has lost between three and five pounds under this intense training.

But the goal is in sight.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Day Ten at Guide Dogs

Sad news began the day,

One of our group was sent home without their dog. Although conciencious and well versed on paper, my classmate could seemingly not make the transition from theory to practice. Their dog seemed to confuse them. The basis of guidework is obedience training, and that is where the problem lay. To be fair, the dog was also not in good digestive health...however my classmate fell into a couple of traps. One was the aforementioned inability to grasp basic doggie obedience procedures...the second was more personal. My classmate let things get to them..personalities...past events. After all, this is a learning experience, and one must be flexible of mind and spirit to learn. My most vivid memory is the little video camera this individual carried to record their daily experience and progress, along with many of the tender, impromptu moments that occur in a setting like this. My hope is that, rather than view these images as a painful reminder, my former colleague will see them as a springboard to future, better, triumphs. They will be sorely missed.

As for Burgess and me, our day took us on more practical adventures, such as would be found in daily life. While walking through downtown San Rafael, instructor closely in tow, we chanced to pass a movie theater. I felt Burgess guiding me in a half circle around something, and my instructor said, "Oh, my you know what that was?"
"What?" I asked. "It was a mountainous pile of dog poo!" Burgess proceeded to perform this blessed service once more within the next two blocks.

I tell you this dog is golden.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Day Nine at Guide Dogs

A day of great success.

Guide dog training is becoming more intense. Today's lesson involved traffic mishaps. Cars that pull out in front of you or approach head on. The dogs are trained in these eventuaities. Burgess led me through blocked sidewalks, and errant traffic like a pro. He's like a dog on remote control, ticking off his duties in stellar fashion. Every day I feel more comfortable with him as my guide, It's exhilerating walking the streets beside this noble creature, and I'm confident that should I ever lose what minimal sight I have left, my friend and protector will step in admirably.

Oh yes, and today's lesson is:

"If you're in the wrong, admit it."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Day Eight at Guide Dogs

Week two starts anew.

Subtle changes are taking place. Those of us who are getting into the flow are REALLY getting into it...and those of us who aren't...AREN'T. Regimentation and discipline don't sit too well with some people and it's really starting to show. Today was, (to call things what they are)..."evaluation day" progress reports were traded between student and instructor. Some fared well...others....well let's just say they face tougher challenges. Instructors were not exempt from scrutiny either...In fact, the head instructor, who has ruffled more than one student's feathers, found himself convieniently absent due to "family emergency".

Otherwise the day was a smooth one...the new two-week students were introduced to their dogs. Some are here for their sixth time. The process that we underwent a scant week ago reinvigorates itself. One gets to talk to one's fellowes intimately in a setting like this...I suppose all schools and dormitories echo with the confidences of the individuals that pass through them. But here, it occcurs to me that this place is special. It's a healing place...

a place of love, found rather than love, lost.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Day Seven at Guide Dogs

And on the seventh day we rested.

Sunday is a blissfully quiet day here at the campus. It started at 6 am, as usual...but after the initial session for doggie relief, Burgess and I went back to bed and slept in. There are no classes or lectures on this day. Brunch is a buffet and there are no assigned tables...people and dogs can sit wherever they want. The dogs are a little bit confused by the break in routine, but by mid-morning, even THEY get it.

I had the privilege to come across two of my fellow young guy, profoundly blind, strolling the grounds with his middle aged gentleman classmate, partially blind...the older man describing the surroundings of a lovely morning to the younger one.

Lunch is in a box for us....made to order, so that we can eat it whenever and wherever we like today. Later this afternoon the two-week re-training students will arrive and join us. This being visitor's day, some of us had friends and loved ones drop in to chat and meet the dogs. One of our group, an amiable older man, originally from Brooklyn, now living in San Francisco, brought his lovely young wife, who showed herself to be a confirmed dog nut. She wasn't satisfied until she took pictures of every dog in the place....several times. With the grand finale being a group shot of dogs, people and dogs.

More comrades.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Day Six at Guide Dogs

Saturday here is much less hectic. The exacting instructors are cut loose by lunch time, so the morning is taken up with minimal lecturing and training. However, they do not go gently into that good afternoon without the announcement that Monday will begin with evaluations that are disguised as informal chats.

By 2pm, there's an informal hour's seminar on canine massage....otherwise known as "petting your dog". Having interviewed a dog masseur on the radio talk show I occasionally host, I am somewhat versed in the theory. The practice, however, is much more silly and theraputic. Seven grownups rolling about on the carpet massaging dogs of various sizes, while a facilitator explains techniques like "Tiger's Paw" and "Cow's Licking Tongue", is simply too much to take seriously. The dogs, of course...think it's heaven. The humans do too...although the are loathe to admit it. One very tough, street-wise African-American gentleman, from the urban jungles of LA, falls and master spooning on the floor. This was also an excellent opportinity to meet the kennel staff, who have been raising our dogs from puppies. In fact, our dogs snap to recognition at their very presence, and we get to hear all the kennel intrigue. It seems that Burgess and another dainty morsel named Tiki, who was given to my fellow student, Greg...have had a kennel romance going since they were puppies. you'd never know it...they're so discreet now.

the latter afternoon was taken up with myself and Burgess, strolling the beautiful sunny grounds of the campus. I took along my grooming kit and he obligingly let me pretty him up... ahhhh, a dog's life.

Four of us guys, somewhat fed up with the idyllic simpishness of all of this, decided to sneak off down the road for some beer. The only place around was a Rite Aid that sold it. Imagine if you will, four grown men...two legally blind, and two profoundly blind, of different races and decades, tappity-tapping their way down the road to buy a half-rack and consume it, somewhere that they won't be seen.

It was a comedy of epic proportions.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Day Five at Guide Dogs

Burgess continues to be a wonder. Every day is another level of trust and love, both personally and professionally. The body positioning required to be led by a guide dog is tantamount to's sort of a turnout...very foreign feeling to the body, but like ballet, every little movement has a meaning all it's you and to the dog; but when it's done right, it's a thing of beauty.

Every day I spend with big Burgess is another marvel of communication. The day we were introduced, the first thing he did was put his big paw on my knee and look me straight in the eye...he continues to do that whether we're on the bus to go for guide training, or in the dayroom watching TV, or just in my room playing. I did'nt understand that gesture then, but I do NOW. It's his way of saying, "I love you". There's others...his chin resting on my lap, his five-minute wiggle dance when we first wake up...or even a quick smile he'll flash me. Tonight while playing tug of war with him, the "King of the Kennel" yanked me out of my chair on onto the floor.

Like all roomates though, there were personal hurdles to be surmounted. For instance, when I took him out for a walk, he wouldn't go at all for two days...nothing. Actually he STILL won't go in front of me...unless my back is turned. He'll circle around me a bunch of times to see if I'm looking, so now the deal is, that I turn my back and he shows me where it is afterwards, for scooping purposes. Burgess the persnickety pooper.

The revelation of today is trust your dog. Stay with the stride of your guide.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Day Four at Guide Dogs

Today, was a bit crazymaking if you ask me... and I learned a valuable lesson.

All dog trainers are NOT created equal.

For example...some treat dogs like people...and others treat people like dogs. Our day starts pretty early...(6 am to be exact)...and is scheduled to death. The dogs are "relieved" (taken to potty) approximately every three hours over a 13 hour period. In between, time is taken up with obedience, command drills, orientation and mobilization training, grooming...(well YOU get the idea)...and the instructors care more about the dog's poo than yours. While there lots of staff services, there ARE the personal responsibilities of dressing, bathing and keeping one's room clean, which ALL, apparently, are supposed to be crammed in between being drilled on doggie ethics, by canine trainers who think they are Socratic law professors.

Mind you, much of the information they impart is mighty pertinent to one's survival. We are bussed into central Marin twice daily to the Gude Dog Sattelite Training Center, to learn how to read traffic patterns, cross busy streets safely, maneuver about obstacles deftly with our dogs, and basically act as a partner with a highly trained animal.

The only difficulty is that so much empasis is focused on the animal...that we as people seem to fade into the background in the estimation of these dog-focused instructors.

The only saving grace is the dogs themselves...who offer us their wet, friendly noses...their furry, wiggly butts for scratching, their unwavering loyalty and dilligence, and their clear, earnest eyes, that look up at us as if we're the only ones in the world.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Day Three at Guide Dogs

I fell in love today...we were introduced at 11:30 this morning.

The object of my affection is named Burgess. He's bright pale yellow with carmel ears, light brown eyes and a pink polka-dot nose. The thing is, he's huge...he's at least 80 pounds, and stands 5' 10'' on his hind legs, with big feet and an enormous butt. He's extremely laid-back though. He does'nt lay...he sprawls...he yawns and stretches and takes up half the room...he shuffles his feet. He's like a like a big, blond, laconic, lumberjack. He can probably wear my clothes. He's waaaaay more than I expected, but he's as smart as a whip. He's more than a dog, he's a bodyguard. More like a big handsome boyfriend that people admire, but get the hell out of the way for. At least that's what they did when we went walking through downtown San Rafael, today.

He's the curiosity of the entire place...the dining room staff filed out at dinner, just to look at him. One woman said she'd worked here thirteen years, and NEVER in all that time had she seen a dog that big. Frankly, I think they just snuck-in two guys in a dog suit, on me.

It was'nt one of those high-romantic was more like a cordial handshake and a careful perusal. Everybody's friendly and all that, but hearts aren't bursting.

Drastic changes are going to have to be made on the homefront, but that's a worry for another day. Right now, I've got a rather large roomate to get to know.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Day Two at Guide Dogs

Today is like Christmas Eve for the first timers like me. We get to meet our dogs tomorrow!!!

Everyone swears they won't be able to sleep tonight, what with all the anticipation. I'm in a group of eight diverse people...three ladies and five gentlemen, and we range in age from 23 to 53....a thirty-year span...yet we all are feeling the same thing. The day was full of a lot of serious work and non-serious laughter, starting at 6 am, no less. There's a kennel full of dogs on the premises, being trained just like we are....puppies too. Our morning was taken up with basic obiedience work with several dogs, so that we got a feel for the personalities and behaviours of different ones. It only made us more curious as to what our particular dogs will be like.

We had lunch with a charming woman who is the CEO of the entire works. She took great care in getting to know each one of us, as does the entire staff here. There's something about the colletion of people and dogs that makes the day just fly by. After lunch, we were driven into the town of San Rafael, to do mobilization work on the streets, with the instructors acting as dogs. San Rafael is a lot like Queen Anne Hill. Homes nestled into steep hills, busy thoroughfares, lots of little shops and folks walking about. Since I have some minimal sight, I decided to do part of my training blindfolded, so I could understand the challenges of those in our group who are completely blind. Like all blind folks, we all have different levels of, and reasons for, our disability. Maladies, diseases, and sudden accidents are the cause. Most peolpe don't realize that there are as many reasons and kinds of blindness as there are individuals who struggle with it. One fellow in our group has a little telescope 'round his neck that he uses to focus in on this or that. In my case, it's my purple aviator shades that has everyone's attention. Another individual's tattoos are a source of interest. It's as if we are each a conversation piece in our own way.

The REAL conversation of tonight however, is the anticipation of at last, being partnered with our dog....our dear loving companion...

and we're all like children about it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Day one at Guide Dogs

A most wonderful day...that started at 4:30 am. The flight to San Francisco was two hours late taking off. It gave me lots of time to meet and talk to my fellow passengers, though. One German fellow gave me extensive information on the training of special needs dogs. he told me that he has a good friend who trained dogs to deal with diabetics and those with epilepsy. Our conversation attracted others close being a lady who was on her way to train with me.

The two hour flight gave me time to remember a not so wonderful day in 2002. I had returned to my hometown of St. Louis to care for my mother who was no doing well health-wise. I'd already had to quit one evening job because she was getting worse and she'd begged me not to leave her alone from 3 till 11 pm. So in desperation I went back to my college and asked them for a day job. they found one for me at the campus bookstore, ordering art supplies for the semester's students. I had a master's in Fine Arts from there, so I knew what they needed and what the professors required.

After working there about eight weeks, I was at my desk doing paperwork one afternoon and my left eye felt weird. A sickly green color spread over my vision and clouded it completely....then went dark. I was terrified. I finished the day as best I could, stumbled on the college shuttle to go home, and thought...."God, what am I going to do?" I've got NO insurance, NO doctor to go to and my mother's seriously ill. I can't tell her this. I can't burden her, even though I'm scared to death.

That was when I decided to say anyone. I thanked God that he gave us two of everything, so that we had a spare, when one was lost.

I never dreamed I'd lose the spare as well.

Well, anyway those are the thoughts that consumed me on the two hour flight between Seattle and San Francisco....

What a journey....and it's not over.