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.

Penguins Don’t Eat Ice-cream!

O.J, my PA Deborah and I spent the morning in
Rosses Community School
in Dungloe at a book launch. It was an unusual way to spend a Monday, but it was a nice change. It was also a fundraiser, with half of the proceeds being donated to Irish guide dogs.

First year and leaving cert applied students wrote stories about their pets, which were compiled into a book called ‘Penguins Don’t Eat Ice-cream!’ The title was inspired by a school visit to the zoo last year, when one of the students, Jack Gray, decided to feed one of the penguins some of his ice-cream. This got him into a bit of trouble, but made for a funny story which he recounts brilliantly in the book. Other students wrote about their pets, as well as writing letters to some celebrities, asking them about their own pets. They received some great replies, including lots of information about the queen’s corgies!
I also wrote a piece about working with O.J for the book. His photo features in it a few times, so it’s a lovely keepsake for him to be part of during his last year as a working guide dog.

I have worked in Rosses Community School a couple of times now, and ms. Brennan is one of the most enthusiastic teachers I’ve ever met. The students have really grown in confidence since I first met them, and that was obvious when they read stories from the book and helped out during the launch this morning. Guest speaker was Angela Dromgoole, past pupil of the school, and more recently, Dublin creative business person of the year. In her speech, she encouraged students to work hard, do their best and follow their dreams. I didn’t speak long, but just thanked the students for choosing guide dogs to benefit from the sales of their book. O.J was very relaxed, which is always good when you are representing the organisation at these types of things. The students all signed a copy of the book for me, and I bought one for a friend. Hopefully sales will go well, because they’ve put in a lot of effort, and it’s a good quality book for only é10.
The teacher appologised that she hadn’t produced a braille copy for me, so I suggested that maybe with all this new confidence, the students could consider making an audio copy soon!

Didn’t I tell you we’d be busy?

All this talk of retirement hasn’t meant that O.J is winding down at all. We’ve been busy recently, and he’s worked and behaved like a star through everything. This is a long post, but the point is, I love this dog!!

On Thursday 5th I went to see
Duke Special
in McGrory’s in Culdaff. It’s my new favourite venue. It’s intimate and cosy, the people who come really love their music, and you can order coffee and nobody laughs or thinks you are strange!
The gig began with some songs from a band called the Pox Men. I can’t even describe them. There were some good musicians in the group, but it wasn’t really my thing. I wasn’t expecting any full bands to be there and they were quite loud, but O.J never moved.
Derry singer/songwriter Soak played next. She’s only eighteen, and has been getting a lot of attention during the past year. There’s something about her voice that makes you stop and listen, and the audience were silent while she played and kept us entertained with her great sense of humour.
Duke special himself played next, a solo gig just on piano. He’s more than capable of doing a great job on his own, and although it was random, enjoyable and entertaining, it wasn’t the best I’ve seen him play. It was nice to talk to him before the gig, and O.J got to say hi too.
We got one of the best seats in the room, because we had a comfortable sofa and lots of space in front for O.J to stretch out and relax, without being in anybody’s way. I think this was why he was so chilled out during the whole gig, and people were surprised that there was even a dog in the room.

On Wednesday morning we worked in a local school, and took the bus to Dublin afterwords. One of the only bands I love but still hadn’t had a chance to see live was the Decemberists, so I was delighted when they announced a gig in my favourite Dublin venue, on a day when I had to be in Dublin for work anyway. Nicky and I met up, fed the dogs in our hotel and met my cousin for dinner before the gig. She walked with us to Vicar Street, and we were all very impressed when O.J enthusiastically turned left into the entrance of the venue without even being asked. He knew that this was a place where he would be spoiled and petted and well looked after, and as usual, the staff couldn’t have done enough to help us.
The dogs chilled out on a mat in the store room while we watched Irish band Windings, and then the Decemberists. The audience were lively and really knew the band so well. Colin’s voice is amazing live, and he’s very funny. They played for just over two hours, and they were brilliant. The wait to finally see them was worth it.
We left the gig happy, with two happy dogs, who would have stayed for another few hours if they had to.

O.J worked really well around the hotel and nearby area, especially since there was no grass like we thought there was. It’s only taken him seven years, but he finally leash relieved on concrete twice! This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but in the awkward life of O.J, it really was!!
He behaved great during the training day on Thursday. It was my first time going there on my own, but everybody is so friendly and helpful that it wasn’t a problem. Meeting up with them is very reassuring, and it makes me want to continue the work I’m doing in schools a lot more than I sometimes do when I’m in the office. Irish Aid’s
World Wise Global Schools
team are so supportive and easy to work with. One of them even took the time to wait with me until I got the bus home. We went for coffee and had a good talk, and the four and a half hour journey home felt a lot easier.
Next morning we were up early to travel to another school. The students have been brilliant recently, and they’ve done some great presentations as part of our workshops. Work is feeling a lot more promising than it did before Christmas.

O.J had a well deserved run on the beach and a swim yesterday after all his hard work. My sister washed him after the beach, so he’s lovely and clean. He really seems to be taking advantage of his Sunday rest today, but he totally deserves it.

Let the Waiting Begin!

As of Wednesday 4th February, I’ve been officially on the waiting-list for my second guide dog.

It’s taken me a few days to really process that sentence properly. It’s funny when you know something is coming and you are expecting it, but when it happens, it still feels a bit unreal.

I had a detailed conversation with a member of the client services team in Irish Guide Dogs, making sure that they had as much information as possible about what I want in my successor dog. The trainer captured everything during the assessment last May, but there were a few things I wanted to make sure of. It’s a totally different process second time round, because I know what to expect from a dog, and I know what I want. Not that O.J wasn’t a perfect match for me, he definitely was, and I couldn’t have asked for a better dog. I hope my next dog will be very similar regarding work and temperament at least. The appearance and personality will be a nice surprise, that I’ll just have to wonder about until the dog comes. I’ve also started praying that it has a name I’ll like, because I have no control over that either.

When I hung up the phone on Wednesday evening, I knew there was no going back, and at the time, I felt bad, especially for O.J.
Thinking about this now, a few days later, I know I’m in a lucky situation. Although it will be difficult working two different dogs so close together, I don’t want to be without one, and going on the waiting-list now will hopefully mean that can happen. I won’t be waiting for a while without a dog. There are people who have to retire dogs suddenly and have no choice but to wait without one. O.J is still happy to be working and does his job very well. He’s healthy and playful and full of fun, which is the perfect way to retire a dog who has worked hard for seven and a half years, and hopefully still has a bit more to do. I don’t want to retire him yet. I still need time to find the best place for him to live, and I think that’s what’s making it difficult at the minute. When I have that organised I’ll be a lot happier, and can enjoy and make the most of our working time together. I want to take O.J to as many things as possible, and blog about these so that I can remember the things we did. I also want to organise a fundraising event for guide dogs. We did one when I got O.J, and I think it would be a small way of thanking the organisation for such a great dog if we did one again before he retires. It would also be a nice distraction, and a positive way of thinking about O.J’s retirement. I just have to come up with a good idea!

So now the waiting will start. I have no idea how long it will take to find a suitable dog. Ideally I’d like to train in August or September, but it doesn’t work like that, and there’s no guarantee that I’ll even get one this year. I’m fortunate that I’m in no major hurry, and although it needs to happen sometime, every month of waiting is another month with this funny, lively scamp of a dog that I have now.

There’s Nothing More Fun Than a Primary School Visit!

That is true for myself, O.J, the children and even in some cases the teachers. We visit primary school children a lot less frequently now that my work as a disability awareness trainer is based with transition year students in second level education. It’s interesting and more challenging, but I’d be lying if I said it was more fun. I’m lucky to have regular access to the school where I was a past pupil, and the staff are more than happy to have O.J in for a visit.

When my oldest nephew Jack was nine, he asked his teacher if I could take O.J into his class. The advantage of keeping a blog is that I can still remember
that day.
We’ve done hundreds of school visits since that day in January 2008.

Last week my seven-year-old nephew Danny excitedly rushed into my house after school, looking for a piece of paper and a pen. He wanted to write down the dates I would be free to come to visit his class with O.J this week. He talked to the teacher, and she was happy to have us in on Tuesday. It wasn’t just his class though, it was three classes of seven and eight year old’s, all in the P.E hall, with questions prepared as part of the previous night’s homework. They were as good as gold, considering there must have been about sixty of them in the room. O.J was very quiet too.
The questions came, and I was surprised how mature they all were.
How was he trained?
How does he know where to go?
How do I find the button to press to cross at the lights? Luckily O.J does this for me!
Who washes O.J?
They were surprised when I showed them the feeding cup that I use to measure OJ’s food. How does he look so healthy just eating that amount of food?
One girl wanted to know how do I always know where he is, and another asked what happens if I accidentally stood on his tail, at which point I had a chance to do my best dog whimpering impression!
They wanted to know if it was difficult to learn braille, do I watch TV, and why I don’t ware glasses.
They loved seeing how my phone works, particularly the ‘tap tap see’ app, and the talking colour detector. A few of them told me that their parents know me. Two of their parents were even in my class in school. That made me feel really old.

The teachers told me that they learned a lot. Pupils often ask questions that they themselves want to know, but are too afraid to ask. They took photographs, and asked Danny to present me with biscuits and sweets to say thanks, which was a lovely gift that I wasn’t expecting. I allowed the children to pet O.J on their way out of the hall, and everybody left happy.

My youngest nephew Harry started in the same school in September, so I decided to call into his class for a quick visit as I knew they’d be having lunch. I don’t know what I was thinking! Taking a dog into a classroom of 30 four year old’s, on their lunch-break when their usual teacher wasn’t around was a bit mad! Harry was delighted and surprised to see me, telling everybody who could hear him above the noise that I was his auntie and O.J was a guide dog. O.J was surrounded by a group of excited children hugging and petting him. I had to watch where his head was as some of them had sandwiches and bananas in their hands. They told me about their dogs and all the dogs they knew. One boy asked what age O.J was, and told me that his dog was ten. By the time we were leaving the class, his dog’s age had been changed to 100. We were probably only there for ten minutes but it felt like a lifetime!

When we came home, O.J played in the snow, before having a well deserved sleep. The weather’s been so bad since, and we haven’t been anywhere, but the school visit on Tuesday really made our week more fun.

New Year, New Changes

Happy new year! I’m assuming I can still say that when today is the 6th. Which reminds me, the Christmas tree really needs to come down tomorrow. I’ll be glad to put it away, since the dogs eating the berries even though they are artificial, and knocking decorations off was starting to get very annoying!

2015 is going to be a fun year, with two of my friends expecting babies and one getting married. I didn’t see much live music last year, but this year will be different. Having a concert to look forward to always cheers me up, and I have two planned for February already.
Last year I started yoga, and I’m hoping to start some new things in 2015. Flying the plane and doing other less adventurous things last year has inspired me to challenge myself more, and do things that are out of my comfort zone. I think I’ll naturally be forced to do a bit of that this year anyway, whether I like it or not.

As usual, I’m uncertain about work, and what’s going to happen in June when my contract is finished. I’m no closer to knowing what I want to do, or where to look for work. Some days it really annoys me, but I try not to let it. As long as I’m busy, I’ll eventually work it all out. I know I have to seriously think about what I want, rather than other people, which is what I’ve been doing recently.

The thing that freaks me out most of all is that by the end of 2015, I could be working with a new guide dog. Obviously I always knew that the time would come, but the fact that it could happen this year makes it all seem too quick. I don’t know if I’ll keep writing a blog when I start training, but I want to at least write more this year when O.J is still working. The dog and the blog started together, so they might as well finish, and we’ll see what happens after that.

Thanks to everyone who still reads, and the 4 or five regular commenters :)
I see a wordpress email in my inbox and try who guess who will have replied first! Those of you who blog yourselves, I’m looking forward to reading more of what you write in 2015.
I hope it’s another great year.

Holiday Mode

I intended writing about the gig in Dublin a couple of weeks ago, and the lovely time I had there with my cousin. Now it’s almost new year already!
I enjoyed the lead-up to Christmas, being finished work early and having time to buy presents and relax. My brother and two cousins came home for Christmas, and we didn’t think they’d be here, so that made it even better.

I stayed in my sister’s house on Christmas eve and enjoyed watching the boys getting their presents from Santa when they got up on Christmas morning. Lots of people my age think Christmas is boring, but I’m lucky enough to have children around to make it exciting. After the traditional breakfast in my sister’s, we went visiting as usual. My aunt made dinner for twelve people, and we all stayed in her house. Dougal went to stay in kennels for a few days so that things would be easier for him. He doesn’t like crowds of people, and can sometimes snap when he is stressed, so although it was strange not having him around, I only had O.J to think about, and it was much more relaxing. I got lots of nice presents, mostly clothes and perfume which is always good.

On boxing day morning I took O.J for a short walk with my parents. In the afternoon I met up with my five best friends for a lovely couple of hours. The next time we’ll all be together will be next Easter, when two of the girls will have had babies. I can’t imagine that at all, but it’s very exciting. Nicky came up that evening, and we’ve just spent the last couple of days relaxing.

This year was the 10th anniversary of the Asian tsunami which myself and my family were caught up in. We were in Thailand at the time, and are very lucky to still all be here. I kept thinking about it lots on Friday. It was nice to be able to spend the day with family and friends. Things could have been so different if we’d been where we had originally planned to be that morning. Even ten years later, that still freaks me out a bit. I’ve done so much since then, and without sounding totally morbid or corny, I’m very lucky to have had the chance.

Is Anybody Feeling Christmasy?

I’m usually a bit slow getting into the Christmas mood, and this year was no different. Most of my friends put their trees up at the beginning of December, and that’s all everybody seemed to be talking about. I think it seems to come around earlier every year. The thing that started to get me excited was a phone call from my brother about ten days ago telling me that he was definitely coming home. We thought he wasn’t, so it was a lovely surprise.

We had our work Christmas party on Wednesday. It was in the Silver Tassie hotel in Letterkenny as usual, and we all had a lovely meal. There wasn’t a huge crowd so it was a lot quieter than usual, but we made our own fun. We’ve had a couple of new staff members recently, so there’s a good group of people around my own age, and we all get on well. I stayed in the hotel that night so that my colleague wouldn’t have to drive home if the weather was bad. It was strange booking a hotel in Letterkenny, only 40 minutes away, but it made the night more relaxing and enjoyable. So much so that we didn’t go to bed until after 4.
The staff in the hotel were lovely, but I don’t think they’d ever had a guide dog stay there before. When I rang to book the room and mentioned him, the receptionist had to go and ask the manager. She came back and said that the dog was fine, except she was instructed to “designate a certain room” for us. I thought, here we go, some kind of complicated fuss now, but that room turned out to be a big family room with more space for us all. It was a nice surprise!

I put up my new tree on Thursday with the help of a few kids who were very excited. They did more of the work than me, but I was a small bit tired!
I’m still stuck for Christmas present ideas for a few people. I hate buying things for the sake of it, and like to know what I’m looking for before I shop, so this kind of thing stresses me out! Going to Dublin tomorrow (literally for 24 hours), so I might get some ideas there. O.J is giving this one a miss this time, although the National Concert Hall where I’m going to a gig tomorrow evening was more than happy to have him, and even look after him if the music was too loud. I might write about that particular gig when I get home, depending on how it goes. It’s a combination of musicians I’ve seen before, but the structure of it means I have no idea what to expect at all. Sometimes that’s the best way.