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.