Three Months Update

Sibyl has been my guide dog for three months now. In some ways it feels like she’s been here longer because she settled in so quickly, but when working, she still feels like a very new guide dog.

The last few months have been challenging in some ways. I’ve really had to adapt to a much smaller dog, and learn to feel as safe with her as I did before. There’s something nice about having a big protective dog by your side, but I’ve discovered that small ones can have equally big personalities!

I’ve really had to work hard at developing a good spending routine with Sibyl, and I think we’ve just about done that in the last week or so. It really takes a lot of patience, and sometimes involves changing plans or the types of walks we do. Saying that, dogs are dogs, and they’ll still need to go at times, but as long as she doesn’t go when her harness is on, and manages to wait until we get to grass, It’s fine.

An unexpected part of having a new dog was a small lump that a friend found in Sibyl’s mouth just over a month ago. Although her trainer and the vet were convinced it was nothing serious, the vet removed it two weeks ago, due to how quickly it had gotten bigger. If I wasn’t lazy I’d go and look up the medical term, but basically it was a virus, which could return, but which may have fallen off on it’s own. As the vet said though, better safe than sorry! It was disappointing because I’ve had so many things like that happen with O.J before, and this is obviously a new dog, so how could I be so unlucky again, especially after only having her for ten weeks at that time. Anyway thankfully she recovered with no problems at all. The ear infection she had at the same time seemed to be a bigger deal than the operation was, but that’s on the mend too, I think.

Sibyl and I both still have lots of work to do. Although I’m very happy with her work so far, I haven’t had that “one brilliant walk” yet. Guide dog owners will know what I mean, the one where you think waw! This dog is amazing! I think from that point on, you start to feel like you have a good solid trustworthy working dog to guide you. They say it can take six months to a year to really settle with a new dog, and I’m sure that somewhere within this timeframe, that amazing walk happens. I’m not rushing things though, and I’m very happy with the progress we’ve made so far, especially considering we’ve had to work out a spending routine, deal with a change of food and a small operation.

Although Sibyl’s work is far from perfect yet, I’m bringing her somewhere soon which will be a bit of a challenge, and something I’ve never done with a dog before. She has so much confidence and nothing really phases her, so I think she’ll be fine. I’ll blog all about that soon.

How’s O.J?

I get asked this all the time since O.J retired three months ago, so I thought I’d write a bit about how he’s getting on.

At the minute, O.J is living with my parents, a five minute drive from my house. He’s in great form, enjoying relaxing and going for walks. My aunt often calls into the house to walk him when my parents are working. Sometimes he goes for a walk in the morning before they go. Occasionally he comes to school with my mum, and spends time with the children in her class. He’s been staying with my sister during the last few days, and of course he visits me too. So even though he’s retired, he still goes to lots of different places.

O.J has taken up a new hobby since his retirement began. It’s called steeling food, and he does it on a regular basis. In his defense, my parents leave tempting food in the kitchen sometimes. They aren’t the best at remembering to tidy absolutely everything eatable away. O.J is a big dog, and part lab of course, which means if he can reach something, he won’t think twice about scoffing it!
So far since his retirement, O.J has eaten:
a steak, a frozen pie, sandwiches for my dad’s lunch, a piece of rocky road, a slice of apple tart, a generous portion of his own dog food, and maybe a couple of other things that I’ve forgotten. Last week he found a lemon and some garlic. He tasted both, but decided they weren’t very appealing.
What a silly dog! He hasn’t put on any weight at all, because they don’t intentionally feed him scraps or any extra food.
I’m looking forward to having him stay with me for a couple of weeks when I come back from holidays. Having three dogs in the house will be crazy but fun!

Good Things Always Happen in Cork

I’ve been to Cork five times in the last year. It’s one of my favourite counties, I love the accent, and every time I go, I always really enjoy it. I went there last weekend, and it was no exception.

Sibyl did her first journey on the Dublin bus on Friday morning. It’s one she’ll be doing many times, so luckily she seemed to enjoy it. We arrived in Dublin earlier than expected, and met Nicky at the train station, where we took the train to Cork. We stayed in a bed and breakfast in Ballincollig, as all the hotels nearby were booked up. It was quite basic, but the owner was friendly and they were happy to have the dog there. One of our friends was staying there too, so it was lovely to catch up with her.

Irish Guide Dogs had their AGM in the centre the next morning, which was the original reason we had decided to go to Cork. Sibyl didn’t seem too excited to be back at the centre, where we trained only nine weeks ago. Maybe she was afraid I was going to leave her back there. She behaved brilliantly, and wasn’t bothered by all the dogs and people at all. The dogs were excellent. The meeting probably lasted over three hours, and there wasn’t a sound from any of them. It was interesting to hear the questions and concerns that people had, and how the guide dogs organisation intends to deal with these. They do incredible work, but they are willing to listen to their service users and work to the best of their ability.

By this stage, you might be impressed by the fact that I traveled an eight hour journey by public transport, just to attend an annual general meeting. But there was another factor which made me very determined to be in Cork on July 11th. Some very kind person decided that the AGM should be on the same day that The Frames were playing in the Marquee, a venue I’ve always wanted to go to. I told Nicky I’d definitely go to the guide dog centre if I could get Frames tickets, even though it was sold out. It was the last gig of their three 25th anniversary concerts, I had missed the other two which took place in Dublin, so I had to be there! The hunt was on for tickets. Without the help of Laura and Claire, it would not have happened, and I’m so grateful to them, because it was a lot more than just a brilliant gig.

When you finish reading this long post, take some time to read
assistance dog Cassie’s
facebook page. It gives an incredible insight into the difference that an assistance dog from Irish Guide Dogs can make to the life of a child with autism and their family. The “Colm” you’ll see on that page is the violin player with The Frames. Sibyl’s trainer is also a huge fan of the band (she’s liked them even longer than I have), so it was really nice of her to tell me that they’d organised a photoshoot with the band. I don’t have pictures yet, but no doubt they’ll be put online by somebody soon.

Nicky and I arrived at the Marquee with Sibyl at 5 P.M, after the taxi driver frustratingly drove us around Cork city even though he didn’t really have to. We were met by one of the Aiken Promotions staff (who know us well at this stage), and from then on, we were treated like VIPS. That’s Very Important People by the way, not Visually Impaired People, as we are sometimes referred to!

When we got inside, the band had just finished their soundcheck. I hugged Glen and Colm, and was starting to chat to them, when Sibyl spotted her trainer, who she still loves. She stood up on her back legs and wagged her tail, much to everybody’s amusement! This was the only time she went a bit hyper all weekend, so I had to forgive her and just laugh too. There were three guide dog trainers, who had brought some dogs who are still in training. Assistance dog Cassie was there, and she reminded me a lot of O.J. It was great to meet Sheila and the boys too. We chatted and photographs were taken. The band seemed genuinely interested in the dogs, and happy to take the time to meet us.
The trainee dogs were left back to kennels while Nicky and I waited for my cousin to come and collect Sibyl. He watched her while we were at the gig because it would have been too loud. It was great to have somebody that I know who could watch her, while still be able to have her in the photographs.

The gig itself was fantastic as usual. The band played a great selection of songs from their 25 year career, and were joined by all the former Frames members. Unfortunately we were surrounded by a lot of talkers, which dampened the atmosphere a bit. Sitting during a Frames gig isn’t something I’m used to, and at times I just wanted to jump around, but you really can’t complain when you get guest list tickets.
The people involved with guide dogs were given wristbands, so we went back stage for a while after the gig. People just sat around chatting, children played quietly together, and the atmosphere was nice and relaxed. It was a really nice end to a really nice day.

I was really grateful to be in Cork on Saturday. Anyone who knows me well enough, even through this blog knows how much having a guide dog has changed and improved my life. They probably also know how much I like The Frames, and that I think they are a bit more than just a good band. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, I wrote
this guest post
for 2UIBestow in 2010, which might give you a better idea. Because of The Frames, I have been introduced to great music, met new friends and brilliant people, and had lots of fun during the last thirteen years. I’m not just inspired by their musicianship, but by their love for what they do, their incredible work ethic, and their constant ability to deliver more than the fans expect from them at every gig. Having my favourite band and my favourite organisation doing something together was really special, and a great way to celebrate 25 years of brilliant music.

The Tory Adventure

Last Saturday, myself, Sibyl and eight of my work colleagues took the boat to Tory Island. One of the girls comes from there, and we’ve talked about going there for a long time. I’m not sure if you’d call it a staff night out, but it definitely was a night with a difference!

I really don’t think Sibyl and I would make good sailors. The gap onto the boat was quite wide, so she was a bit afraid to go on. One of the boys gently lifted her on, and she was fine on the journey. Unfortunately I wasn’t as relaxed, and didn’t really enjoy the almost constant rocking motion. It was a good day and the weather was warm, so I dreaded to think what it would be like on a bad day. When we lifted Sibyl off on Tory, I tried to forget all about the boat on the way home, and started to really enjoy my time there.

People say time goes slower on an island, which I didn’t think was true, but it really felt like we were there for three days, in a good way of course. Tory has a population of under 150 people, and we met lots of the locals, who were very friendly. They are all very proud of where they come from, and were happy to answer all our questions about their culture. Sibyl wasn’t the only guide dog there, and we were delighted to meet Jock and his new owner Jimmy. The dogs knew each other from training in Cork, and we both had a nice chat. We met a dog who wasn’t so friendly on a walk later, but Sibyl doesn’t seem to let things like that bother her.

The local people on Tory were so welcoming, that when we set up a barbecue beside the hostel, the owners came out with pots of tea and coffee, and spent the evening with us. The fact that we weren’t staying in their hostel wasn’t an issue. We watched the Donegal match in the pub before going back to the hotel bar, where everybody seemed to gather. People played music and it turned into a bit of a session. We went to bed at three, but the hotel probably would have kept open all night if people wanted to stay in the bar. There are no guards on the island, and it’s such a safe place.

We were lucky to meet the king of Tory before getting the boat home on Sunday. The king is elected by the local people, and this man didn’t get the title for nothing! He’s a great entertainer and musician, with a real love of where he comes from. He welcomes each visitor to the island individually with a friendly handshake, and he’s got an infectious personality. He loved getting photos with us all, including Sibyl of course. He walked us to the peer and waved us off on the boat to the mainland. I didn’t feel brilliant on this journey either, and the dog wasn’t impressed by the big waves. Everybody was so helpful, and made her feel really relaxed.
I work with some great people, and we get on well. Some people have only joined within the last year, so it was nice to get to know them better. Hopefully we’ll meet up more regularly outside work, maybe we’ll just stay on dry land for a while though.

Happy 2nd Birthday Sibyl

I’m not one of those people who buys lots of toys for their dog and gives them lots of treats on their birthday. Boring I know! I usually just buy stuff when they need it. Poor Sibyl actually got nothing out of the ordinary today (still in the process of changing food, and trying to keep food as plain as possible.) We did go for a long walk with a friend, in a wooded area with lots of different paths, and I let Sibyl off her lead for most of it. We must have walked for at least an hour, though it didn’t feel that long.
We were almost at the end of our walk, when Sibyl stepped in a grassy area which sank down into a large puddle of muck. I think she scared herself a bit, because she tried to jump out very quickly and nearly fell over. Her paws were covered in muck, which is much more noticeable with her lighter colour. We had nothing to clean her with, so gave her some more time to dry it off in the grass before we went into a restaurant for lunch.
So although Sibyl didn’t get anything eatable for her birthday, or a run on the beach with O.J like I had hoped, she still had fun, and she’s been pretty tired all evening.

The Joys of a New Dog

Time’s absolutely flying, and I can’t believe Sibyl’s been here for almost five weeks already. I’m trying to blog more, so that I can remember how well she is procressing since we finished training, but I just never seem to have time.

Each week with a new guide dog seems to bring new changes. Visitors to my house are shocked by the playful enthusiastic dog that greets them at the door, compared to the shy one they met a month ago. She has become very vocal, making the strangest noises as she carries her toy in her mouth and jumps around looking for attention. She is particularly funny in the morning, or if I’ve left her on her own and she’s excited to see me back. I really need to record her. It’s a deep growl that a huge animal would make, and it’s hard to believe it can come from such a small dog.

Unfortunately I’ve had to change Sibyl’s food, since the Hills lamb and rice diet she was on didn’t seem to be agreeing with her. Without going into too much detail, it just wouldn’t have been practical to keep her on it and expect me to clean up after her! I’m changing her to Royal Canin, which O.J and Dougal already eat, and which I’ve always had good experiences with. Ordering it over the phone would really test your patience though! I’ll gradually change her food during the next ten days.This can sometimes upset a dog’s normal spending routine, but hopefully it won’t be too much of an inconvenience, and she’ll be eating happily and feeling better soon.

I honestly haven’t been working Sibyl as much as I would have liked, but I’m very happy with everything she has done recently. My own work has been busy, as I’m finishing up final reports for the school year, but after tomorrow things will become very quiet. Then the poor dog won’t know what happened her! She went on her first journey to Carlow last weekend. She took it all in her stride, and quickly made herself at home in Nicky’s house. She folloed him and concentrated well in town, and was really chilled out when we went to a Thai restaurant for dinner. I’ve wanted to go to the Weeping Thaiger for ages, but it was worth the wait.
Sibyl’s journey to Carlow was good practice for an even longer one she’ll have to do in July. I can’t say much about it yet, but i’m excited!

Sometimes People Are Just Two Nice!

Living in the same small town all your life is brilliant. People know each other, and they always take time to stop and talk. Everybody looks out for each other, and there is a great community spirit in our town. Most people know me, so I always feel safe, and know that I can ask for help if I ever need it.
This can get interesting when you train with a new guide dog, as I’ve been discovering since I came home with Sibyl.

When I began training at home with O.J, my instructor was amazed at how excited people were about meeting the new dog in town. People knew how much I’d wanted one, and how much independence it would bring, so they all wanted to stop and share their enthusiasm and wish me luck.
When I went to train with Sibyl, there was an article in the local newspaper to coincide with Guide Dog Day, so most people knew that O.J had retired and gone to live with my parents. They seem to be equally as interested in meeting the new dog, so needless to say, we don’t get anywhere in a hurry. Generally this doesn’t bother me, and I’m happy to talk if I have time. It really frustrates me when people talk to the dog and not me, or if they call or pet it without asking, but luckily people are very aware. I’m having more of a problem with drivers than pedestrians these days.

When you train with a new dog, everything takes more time, and the dog can often need lots of encouragement until it builds up confidence in particular areas. Sibyl is still having difficulty finding a crossing on the way back to my house, so I’ve been practicing it with her a lot. I have to slow her down, look for it myself, encourage her to come up to it and give her lots of praise when she does. It’s a very busy main road with an island in the middle, so people want to let me across if they can. If I stop for more than a minute to help Sibyl to learn, people slow down, put down their windows and tell me it’s safe to cross, even though I’m not standing in the appropriate place. I wave them on. I smile politely and thank them. I quickly explain why I can’t allow the dog to cross at a random part of the footpath. I focus on the dog and encourage her to find the right spot. But they insist on being too helpful. People have even gotten out of their cars and come over to me. One overly helpful man told me today that maybe I should have somebody with me for a while until the dog is trained. No! That would be too easy, and she’d start to rely on other people. That’s exactly why I’m taking the time to teach her at the minute, because I know she’ll soon do it without thinking when she becomes more confident.

I’m writing about this more in amusement than frustration. There’s no point in being frustrated with people who are only trying to be helpful. They don’t know enough about guide dogs. They don’t realise that I can’t ask my dog to cross a road in front of their car with it’s engine running. That goes against all she’s been trained to do. They don’t realise that a dog should cross in a specific place to ensure that we are both safe. I can’t see. I can’t run across a road as quickly as you can. Things take a little bit more time when you are blind. It can be a pain at times, but that’s just life.
It’s important to politely refuse help if you don’t want it, rather than being frustrated at people who are trying to do good. I’ve heard of blind people who rudely refuse help, which can make sighted people reluctant to offer assistance to others in the future. And who could blame them?

I began writing this, then saved a draft and went to the shop to buy milk. On the way back, for the first time, Sibyl found the crossing without any prompting from me at all. Her work today has been the best I’ve seen so far, and this was an even bigger bonus. Maybe she wants to prove that man we met earlier wrong. We don’t need anybody to help us. We’re taking our time. We’re not doing things in a hurry, and it looks like the hard work and patience is starting to pay off.

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!