A Sibyl Update

Cliodhna the guide dog instructor has come and gone twice since I’ve written about Sibyl. Overall she is very pleased with how well she has settled in,
and how relaxed and confident she is while working. I’m very happy with her too, and I know she will be a great dog. I just need to practice local routes
over and over again, and allow time for her to become confident with them.

Last Tuesday we brought Sibyl into town for the first time, and she learned where my aunt’s house is. I was happy enough to do that much with the supervision
of the instructor, and then teach her specific buildings and areas of town myself during the next week or two. The only difficulty on the walk to town
is finding the crossings. Sibyl just wanted to walk past them all, but with repetition and keeping her steady as we approach them, she’s doing very well.
Cliodhna came up with the good idea of putting a windchime from my yard on a pole beside the most difficult crossing, so when I hear it, I know to encourage
Sibyl to go in and find it. The fact that the traffic lights at another crossing have been broken doesn’t help, so I need to contact the council about
that. In a few more days, she’ll automatically find these crossings, without it being a big deal.

We also taught Sibyl to find my parent’s house using both the main road and the park. She was very excited by the park and the beach, but I think the novelty
will ware off soon. We encountered a lot of dog distraction, and one dog in particular who growled and snarled at Sibyl as we tried to walk past it. I
know the owner, and it’s a dog we meet regularly, but this turned out to be a good thing. Somebody else in that situation might have quickly walked on
in embarrassment, but this lady is a responsible dog owner. The instructor encouraged the dogs to sniff each other, and advised her what to do if she saw
her dog becoming uncomfortable. Sibyl wasn’t stressed at all by the dog, but a free run on the beach was probably the perfect thing to do when we got home.
Her recall is fantastic!

Sibyl went to the vet last week to be registered. The staff were surprised to see me with a different dog. The vet was very thorough. I knew Sibyl didn’t
need to be examined, but he did it anyway, and it didn’t do any harm.
She also visited my office in work for the first time, and of course everybody loved her. She is very good in social situations, and we’ve had plenty of
opportunities to socialise since she came home, with first communion and confirmation parties, as well as going for dinner and to a primary school for
work. That school visit deserves a post of it’s own sometime soon!!

Thankfully Sibyl has developed a more regular spending routine, which makes everything else we do during the day much easier. O.J and Dougal have been down
to visit, and they are all very relaxed when they see each other. O.J is always very excited to see me, so I make a huge fuss of him and then he relaxes.
Last week I had all three dogs in the house for most of the day, and it was great! I’m very lucky to be able to have my working dog and my retired dog
together.

Sibyl is slowly starting to feel like my guide dog now. For the first few weeks, it really felt like I was watching a dog for somebody else, and I missed
O.J so much when I was in Cork. Now that I can see him often, and know that he’s loving retirement, I’m adjusting more easily. I know I have another great
working dog now. I just have to remember that everything is knew for her, and I need to be patient and teach her. I sometimes expect walks to be better,
but it’s early days and she’s doing great, so I’m being hard on both of us by expecting too much. It can be exhausting having to concentrate so much, even
on the simplest of walks, but I suppose that’s just part of training with a new dog. It has definitely been a learning curve for me as well as Sibyl.
The guide dog instructor will come up from Cork at the end of June to see how we are getting on. In the meantime, we’re just going to get out walking as
much as possible, and adjust to normal life again. Sibyl has lots of places to go and new things to learn, but I know she’s up for the challenge, and she’s
going to be great.

Ireland Said Yes!

Very proud to be Irish today. We have voted in favour of marriage equality, and as a result, our country will change for the better.
Twitter has been incredible during the last couple of days. Hearing people’s personal stories, the amount of people who returned home to vote, and how this vote will change their lives has been overwhelming.
For the first time in my life, I was looking forward to voting, confident about how I wanted to vote, and really excited about the final result. Not for any personal reasons at all, just because I know it’s the right decision.

Same sex marriage has finally become legal.
Well done Ireland.

Settling In At Home

When you’ve worked with a guide dog for so long, you forget what it was like when you brought the first one home. Everything is new to them, and there’s so many new things to see and smell and discover.
Sibyl and I have been home since Friday night, and I’ve spent the weekend letting her get comfortable with the house. I brought the fleece bed that she had in Cork back, so it’s something she’s familiar with, and she has spent a lot of time relaxing on it. Family and friends came to visit, and she kept very calm. She’ll go over to them for a pet and then come straight back to me. I suppose I’m the only thing she really knows at the minute, so it’s like a security thing.

An important part of the settling in period is establishing a spending routine. For non guide dog owners, that basically means the dog going to the toilet on a regular basis. They are so well trained that they will go on command, in a designated area outside. In O.J and Sibyl’s case, it’s a small fenced off concreted area of my yard. A new fence was supposed to be made while I was training, but the people who had the job of doing it let me down. My dad had taken down the wooden one he’d built, so spent over an hour on Saturday morning building a new one, much to the delight of my four-year-old nephew who loves doing jobs outside. I had to let Sibyl go in the yard before this was built. Then I spent the next two days encouraging her to go in the new area, and teaching her that it was okay to do so. When the guide dog goes in the particular area, it prevents it from wanting to go on walks, and from just wanting to go anywhere on the footpath when we’re out and about, so it’s very important to get this part right from the beginning. There’s lots of praise and excitement from me when she does it where she’s supposed to!

As well as meeting my family and friends, I also wanted Sibyl to meet O.J and Dougal before my instructor came up. I met O.J on my own first, because I knew he’d be so excited anyway after not seeing me for two weeks. He jumped around like crazy! He instantly liked Sibyl, and although my back yard was too small for them to play properly, they made a good attempt. I can’t wait to let them play on the beach together soon.
I waited until today to let Sibyl meet Dougal. An overexcited dog wouldn’t have been good, and Dougal would have been totally freaked out. He barked a bit when she came close to him, but they soon became friends. I let Dougal off his lead in my parent’s house and kept Sibyl on hers. That meant that Dougal could approach her at his own pace, and walk away when he wanted to. After a lot of sniffing, they both began play bowing to each other, and I knew for definite that they were both happy. I didn’t let Sibyl off her lead, but I know when I do after they meet a couple more times, they’ll be fine. The only problem I’m going to have is stopping all three of them from playing too much!

The Guide dog instructor comes to Buncrana tomorrow, and she’ll help me to introduce new routes to Sibyl during the next couple of days. I’m really looking forward to working her in areas that are familiar to me, and giving her a challenge. I know she’s really intelligent, and many of the housing estates in Cork had her bored and distracted by the time we left. She worked best when we went to the City, because she had to focus and think. I was really impressed by what she did in that short space of time. I’m looking forward to introducing her to a whole new area, and helping her to be the confident hard worker that I know she can be.
The fun starts tomorrow!

Guide Dog Day

Today is guide dog day,. Irish guide dogs have collections and events taking place all around the country. It has replaced ‘shades’ week, which was their annual fundraising event at the beginning of May, which was always launched by their patron Roy Keane. Roy visited the centre two weeks ago, and did
an interview
with Kevin Kelly, who is from Donegal. Have a look, it’s really good.

Guide dog day seemed like a good day to introduce people to my new dog. She’s a golden lab x retriever, and her name is Sibyl.
I arrived in Cork on Monday afternoon, but we didn’t get our dogs until Tuesday morning. We’ve been getting to know each other since then, and so far I’m very impressed! She’s quite shy until she gets to know you, so the dog I have now acts completely different to the one I met three days ago. Her work seems good, and nothing really seems to phase her. The only major change I have to get used to is her small size. It feels strange when we’re walking, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it soon enough. She may be small, and have a cute lady-like name, but you want to hear her snoring!!!

I didn’t want to write a detailed account of training. Guide dog owners have done it very well, and I’m envious and impressed by how well they explain things in such detail. I just don’t have the brains for that this week. I’m very lucky to be training with a great instructor and two other trainees who are very nice. The evenings are very quiet, so thankfully we all keep each other entertained by talking and winding each other up. The three dogs on class all look very different, and they are all working well. The staff are great, and the food is amazing!

I’ve had lovely blog comments, texts, emails and tweets during the last week, and I really appreciated them all. Changing dogs is definitely not an easy thing to do, but I’m lucky to know so many helpful kind people who have made it a bit easier.

Happy Retirement Big Pup

It’s hard to believe we’ve come to this stage already. Seven years and eight months of great work and great fun.
I thought I’d know what to write, because I’ve been thinking about this day for the last five weeks. Now that It’s here, I have absolutely no idea.

I hadn’t really planned anything in particular for O.J’s last day being a working guide dog. The fact that we had hailstones was a bit of a surprise. O.J isn’t a fan of miserable weather, so apart from a two minute walk to visit my aunt, we went nowhere. He did get very close to a baby chick when we were there, but was more distracted by the cat than the bird. Technically his final walk in harness was yesterday, when we went to town. He spent an hour in my aunt’s house (we still call it granny’s!) which was the first house he ever visited in town.
My friends came to visit this afternoon, and my aunt called over with a retirement card, addressed to Oliver John as she likes to call him! I brushed him, we went to my parents for dinner, and my mum took some photographs of us.
So it was a normal enough day.

Now, I’m sitting here in a quiet house, after leaving the dogs to my parents. O.J has gone to his new home. It’s a place he’s familiar with, and he’s totally happy being there. I think that’s why I’m not upset like I expected to be. It was hard packing up all his things and leaving his harness behind, knowing that I won’t be putting it on him again. It just doesn’t seem real, and I suppose it won’t until I come back from training in Cork. Now it just feels like I’m going on holiday and leaving him behind. In reality, his life is just about to become one big extended holiday!

Working with O.J has taught me so much about dogs, about independence, and about getting out there and making the most of everything. He gave me so much confidence, and I was always proud to bring him with me, especially to new places. I could completely trust him, even when he was easily distracted, and he made me laugh every day, even when he was being cheeky. I hope the blog posts I’ve written since we started working together have done him justice and described his personality.

I’m so grateful to Irish guide dogs for giving me such a great first dog. I couldn’t have asked for better. Our family has raised just over 20,000 euros since O.J came to our town. Hopefully that contributed towards other people having the same opportunities that O.J has given me.
I know that all guide dogs are amazing, and my future dogs will be too, but O.J will always be special because he was my first. There have been days particularly in the last few weeks when I wished I could work him forever.

All I can say now is Thanks O J. Thanks for being the best first dog I could have hoped for. Hope you have a long happy retirement, with lots of cuddles, runs on the beach and swims in the sea.
I can’t think of a dog who deserves it more.

We Always Had Fun in Dublin!

In the last few years particularly, O.J has traveled to Dublin a lot, whether it’s on our way to Carlow, to visit friends, to go to a concert, or for work. He always seems to enjoy the change of scenery, and works enthusiastically when we are there. I never really took time to teach him particular routes there, but he remembers certain places, and is always happy to follow whoever we are with. We’ve been to Dublin twice within the last ten days, so I thought I’d write about both trips since they will be O.J’s last.

For my birthday in February, Nicky got tickets for the Barrytown Meets Musictown event in Vicar Street on April 12th. It was a musical and literary celebration of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy (The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van.) I love his work, and love all three books, and the musicians were some of my favourite Irish musicians too, so it was a perfect present.
Before we went to Vicar Street, we had a lovely afternoon and evening with Darragh, Emma and Meabh, and Nama the dog. Orrin isn’t well at the minute, so unfortunately Nicky had to share a dog, but we managed. Well just about! After a lovely lunch, Darragh and Emma walked us to our hotel to check in, and we had a funny encounter with somebody on the way, which made the two boys almost collapse with laughter. I’ll say no more, but Darragh hasn’t left me a blog comment in ages, so maybe he’d like to tell more!

O.J was as happy as I was to be back in Vicar Street, where the staff fussed over him as usual. I think he missed Orrin when he stayed in the store, but they checked on him and took him out to see me during the interval. Our seats where right in front of the stage which was brilliant. The sold-out gig had a nice atmosphere, and we were all kept entertained. There were some hilarious readings from Roddy Doyle’s books, as well as his own input. The music was great, but I particularly enjoyed Imelda May, Damien Dempsey, and Colm Mac Con Iomaire who opened the show. There was a tribute to Tony Fenton, as well as a nice mention for Christy from Aslan, who unfortunately couldn’t make the gig due to ill health. It was also lovely to hear Imelda May and Glen Hansard sing together. The gig will be broadcast (and probably heavily edited!) on RTE Radio 1 at 3 PM on May 4th if anyone’s interested in hearing how good it was.

I was back in Dublin last Monday for work. Our funders for the schools disability awareness and development programme run an annual conference, where we were asked to have a stand and talk to students about our workshops. This week is the end of a very busy school term, so my colleague and I enjoyed relaxing when we got to Dublin. We met up with a good friend from home who I hadn’t seen in a while, and she was glad to see O.J before he retires. The next day was a busy day in the Aviva Stadium. I’d never been there before. It’s an amazing building, and the staff were very friendly and helpful. We met lots of students, teachers and people doing great work. I was particularly inspired by how much confidence some of the students have. O.J attracted a lot of attention as usual, and brought many people over to our stand.
When the workshop was finished we had a quick cup of tea before getting the bus home. It was O.J’s last trip on McGinley coaches, who have always looked out for us on our many trips to the capital.

O.J has a few more last time things to do before the weekend. Tomorrow will be his last bus journey to work, his last school, and his last day in the office. Then we have three more days together before I go to Cork for training, and he goes to my parents house to play and sleep and do lots of fun things, just not with a harness on.

Will He Like Retirement?

I’ve been asked that question about O.J over and over again during the last few weeks. The answer is, I don’t think he’ll mind one bit!
It’s not that O.J is totally tired of working and ready to retire. He could still easily do another six months or more of good work. But recently he’s definitely become more distracted while working, sniffing a bit more than he usually does. And trust me, that’s a lot of sniffing!
Like many guide dogs, O.J has always made a huge distinction between work mode and play mode. He sniffs while working, but generally he’s very calm and quiet with his harness on. Take it off when we’re at home though, and he’s like a crazy puppy who just wants to play. All the obedience he ever learned while working was totally forgotten the other day, when he jumped up on my parents’ kitchen and tried to steel a slice of bread, with his harness on! He’s never ever done something that naughty while working. To my mother’s disgust, all I could do was laugh! Sometimes I’m convinced he knows he’s retiring, and just thinks, “I can do what I want now, who cares.”
Other times though, he does some amazing work, and we’ve made the most of it this week because the weather was so good. I’ve walked the legs off the poor dog!

The schools are off on their Easter break, so I only went into the office one day this week. O.J slept on his bed and snored like he was part of some snoring Olympics.
On Thursday I went to Derry to get a couple of things, but more importantly to take O.J to visit some places for the last time. We went to Cool Discs, which is obviously somewhere he’s spent a lot of time, and I bought some new music to keep me entertained in Cork. Then we went to the arts centre where I worked for over two years after I trained with O.J. This would have been one of the first routes he ever learned with me, and we hadn’t walked there in around five years. It’s pretty straightforward, but O.J was so excited and enthusiastic, I was very impressed. He chilled out in the cafe and enjoyed being in the recording studio again.

It’s strange walking him places and knowing that it’s probably for the last time. I found myself taking my time on our walks this week, not rushing him, and letting him dictate the pace at times when we weren’t in any hurry. On our way to meet some friends and their new babies for dinner yesterday evening, I purposely took a longer route. I know I’m very lucky that he still wants to work and that he’s still enthusiastic. I’m also lucky that my parents are keeping him, so I can see him as often as I like. He knows their house well and is completely happy (if a little mischievous) there. They know how well I’ve always looked after him, and that I wouldn’t give him to anybody to keep unless they can physically care for him in the same way that I did. He has never been a clingy dog, so as long as somebody is giving him attention, he’s happy. He will be living in a quiet area, two minutes walk from the beach. What more could a dog want?

So I think I can almost say for definite that O.J will really really like being retired.
He just has two more very busy weeks to get through before he can earn that freedom.

Guide Dog Training

Since the beginning of February, Irish guide Dog Instructor Cliodhna NiLaoghaire has been writing a fortnightly guide dog trainer blog, where she explains in detail what is involved in the advanced training and matching of guide dogs. It’s very informative, and judging by the reaction on the
Irish Guide Dogs facebook page
People like reading about it too. I’ve been meaning to share the posts here as well, so here’s this week’s one.

“Hi everyone, hope this finds you and your mutts well. Wow the year is flying by; I can’t believe it’s almost Easter (Mmmm Easter eggs! What can I say, I’m highly food motivated… just like the dogs!!).
Over the last two weeks I matched two more of my pack and I passed one dog back to another instructor called Martin. We generally go on class with four dogs and four clients so that is why I dropped my fifth dog back. He will get another chance to be matched on the next class later in the summer.
So myself and the now gang of four will have a busy month ahead getting ready for class, which starts the last week in April. A Guide Dog Class comprises three weeks at the centre for the clients and their dogs, followed by separate home visits once the new pairings qualify and leave the centre. These visits happen in the weeks following residential training which means lots of driving around the country for me! The home visits ensure the dogs are settling into their new environment and allow us support the client as they introduce the dogs to their routes and workload. (I’ll tell you more about class and post class in a few weeks!)
Now that I know who the dogs are going to I will try and adapt my handling and my training environments to prepare the dogs for what I like to call… Real Life! (You may have heard of it). I matched my male lab X golden retriever to a man that lives in the Dublin area and I matched my female lab X golden retriever to a young woman from the north of the country. Both of these people have had Guide Dogs before. I had already matched my other two dogs. One of them will be living on an island and the other from the west of the country in a town centre. One of the clients works in an office environment; another works from home; and one of them works with students in different schools, so as you can imagine a different type of life for each dog and totally different working environments.
The clients all have different walking speeds, personalities, accents etc. I try to emulate some of this except of course the accents. That would just be weird! The dogs do adapt quite quickly to new people though especially when they start to spend time with them and the client gives them their dinner, grooms them, plays with them and starts to work with them. Dogs have simple requirements (affection and food being high on the list!) and let’s face it we could all learn a little something from them and their positive outlook on life!
At this stage of training I am consolidating the dogs’ guide work. This means I am not really teaching the dogs anything new but rather testing the skills they have and making it a little bit harder for them. I will do some blindfold walks and I’ll rope in some of the other trainers and my colleagues to do the blindfold walks too. Any time I have paperwork or meetings I will usually bring one of the dogs with me. That way they are getting used to lying in the one place and not looking for attention. It probably seems strange for you to think about having dogs in canteens, meetings, offices etc. but that is all so normal to us here at the Guide Dog centre.
I hope to see some of you around for our Easter Egg Hunt at the training centre on Monday April 6th. If not, remember chocolate is toxic for dogs so take care to keep those eggs well stored away. Talk to you all in two weeks’ time. Take care, Cliodhna.”

One of the people that was matched to one of Cliodhna’s dogs is me!!

On 27th April I’ll be starting training with my second guide dog in Cork. It’s all happened so fast and so unexpectedly that I didn’t really have time to think about it. Cliodhna from guide dogs rang me the day after St. Patrick’s Day, and last Monday I travelled to Cork to meet the dog. I spent time with it overnight, and went for a couple of walks, after which the instructor asked me if I’d like to come and train.
I wanted to tell close family, friends and O.J’s puppywalkers before posting it on any social media.
After the initial shock, I’ve started to realise how fortunate I am that this is all happening while O.J is still happy, healthy and working well. Lots of people have to wait for periods of time in between dogs, and I know I wouldn’t be able to handle that situation well. Although this was a shock, I think it will be a good thing overall.

Good Work O.J!

I’m a bit late writing about the churchgate collection, but wanted to mention it since it’s probably O.J’s last one. This year we raised 1,505 euros, which I was very happy with. The weather stayed dry for a change, and it was lovely that people took time to chat before going into mass. So many people know O.J’s name, and talk to him like he’s a human, it’s very funny. Of course he loved all the attention.
I was lucky to have the help of my nephew, his two friends, my mum and her Spanish student to help me count the money. I wanted to make sure that it was lodged the next day since the rest of the week would be busy. We’ve no machines to count it, so always just do it ourselves. It doesn’t take long when there’s people to help, but I wouldn’t fancy doing it on my own.

After a stressful experience in the bank to lodge the money on Monday, I went to Glenveagh with my PA Donna, who is more like a friend at this stage. We walked the 4KM up to the castle, where we relaxed and had a cup of tea. I let O.J off his lead for this, and although he was very excited, he stayed close in front of us. Donna described the gardens and showed me some of the interesting trees. The weather was beautiful. It’s such a lovely part of the county, in the hills, in the middle of nowhere. O.J worked brilliantly all the way back to the car. He kept up a really good speed during the walk, and wasn’t as tired as I had expected him to be when we got home. He definitely sniffs a lot more these days, but his speed and willingness to work is still really good.

We’ve had a couple of nice walks since Monday, and worked in a couple of schools. It’s been an interesting week, but being able to get out now that the weather has improved has definitely helped to make it a good one.

Happy Birthday

O.J is nine today!

I’ve nothing major to write about, but I just wanted to mark what will probably be his last birthday as a working dog.
It would have been nice to bring him to the beach or for a long walk today since the weather finally decided to improve, but I had to go to work for a while, so O.J spent most of the day working. He was in a very inquisitive mood when I went for lunch and went to a couple of shops. He really is craving lots of attention these days. Funny dog!
Hopefully we’ll get a nice walk tomorrow before the annual guide dogs churchgate collection.