Belfast Part 2: dog training

I was a bit tired on Saturday morning after
the night before,
but a shower and a lovely breakfast soon fixed that. After getting directions from Anna, the very helpful receptionist at
Beneficts,
we took the bus to Newtownabbey, for my first experience of professional dog training. I’ve wanted to watch a training class in action since I talked about dog training
here
last year. I contacted Robin Bates (APDT) from
Dog Training NI
and he invited me to observe his classes to get a better idea of what’s involved. I had no idea what to expect as we made our way to the Orange Hall in Mallusk, but this was a perfect introduction to dog training, because of the variety of things to observe.

Robin taught three obedience classes between 1 and 4 PM. The first was made up of adult dogs whose owners wanted them to learn obedience. Some of them had done the puppy class already, and all had a good understanding of what was expected of them.
Robin asked each owner to do tasks such as sit, down, heel while walking etc, then practiced recall and off leash walking. The dogs had to be able to wait while their owners left them at one side of the room, go to their bed when asked, and retrieve objects and bring them back. Like humans, dogs have unique personalities, and this is never more obvious than in a training room full of them. Jack the mixed breed and Hank the German Shepherd were almost always obedient, while Ralph the spaniel barked a lot and had a mind of his own. The rest were somewhere in between.
O J was an absolute star during this class, lying still, taking everything in but not getting up at all. Even when other dogs got treats and ran past him to retrieve their toys and play tug of war, he never moved. The dogs are all familiar with each other, so bringing a new dog into the mix can be a challenge, but they ignored O J and he didn’t bother them, which was more impressive because his harness was off and he wasn’t working. Many other people noticed this too, and complimented him. It was nice to have the opportunity to have him in such a distractive environment and see that he can completely control himself.

The second class contained two dogs who had specific problems that their owners wanted to fix. The female labrador seemed quite quiet, but Charlie the westie was a character. He kept wanting to meet O J and play, because he is so friendly and loves everybody, so we added distraction issues to the ones he was already dealing with. They did get a chance to play at the end, and O J was very gentle with such a small dog. Charlie was afraid of nothing though. He seemed like such a fun dog to be around, and his owner was great fun too!

The third and final class was puppy class, and wasn’t as chaotic as I had expected. It was their fifth week, so the youngest pup was about sixteen weeks old. There were nine in total, and they were quite quiet and relaxed. Breeds included shitzus, a rottweiler, a golden retriever, a cockapoo (cocker spaniel x poodle), a keeshond, and black lab/retriever Greg, who is owned by a first time puppywalker, and will hopefully progress to become a guide dog. He is a beautiful dog, and his owner was very friendly, so we talked for a while after. She was happy to meet O J and see a working guide dog, and she had lots of questions which I was happy to answer.

Before the class finished, Robin came to talk to me about what I thought of it, what I wanted to do in the future with dogs, and to ask if there was any way he could help further. It was great to hear how he became a dog trainer, and his views on particular courses. I asked many questions, and told him my concerns about training dogs from a blind person’s perspective. The work can be quite visual, and so much of a dog’s behaviour is detected through its body language. He agreed, and gave an example of how a dog in class bit him recently. He saw it coming and was able to step back, therefore avoiding a more serious bite. He didn’t seem to think it would be impossible, and never implied that I wouldn’t be able to do it which was nice. Perhaps obedience is a safer option than working with dogs who have behavioural problems. He also suggested looking more at the theory side of things, as there is still a lot of learning to be done in that area. Its definitely what I’m going to start with anyway and see how things go. He promised to email me a reading list, so the search is on for books in braille or audio formats. He told me to keep in touch and to come up again if I wanted to. It was great to have such a positive beginning to my dog training adventure. Who knows how far I will actually go with this, but even if it becomes no more than an interesting hobby, I have to thank Robin for his great introduction. His gentle way with dogs impressed me, and I learned a lot about how to act better around dogs, just by attending his classes.

We collected Dougal on the way home, and I was surprised to see him so calm. He was happy to see me but not in a mad hurry to leave the kennels, which was a good sign. Apparently he was quiet and didn’t bark as much as some of the other dogs. The kennel is more expensive than where I left him before, but worth it for the walks twice a day and the more professional care he would get.
Both dogs spent the evening cuddled beside each other when we got home. They like being away for a change of scenery, but I think they miss each other’s company.

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Belfast part 1: meeting friends

I never write posts in two parts like this, but since so much happened, it might make this easier to read.

I just got home a couple of hours ago, from a busy two days in Belfast. It was one of those things that was difficult to organise, because I wanted to do so much, meet certain people, and fit in with everyones schedule.
My PA Dierdre and I left my house at nine yesterday morning. My parents were also going away for a few days, so we left Dougal in
kennels
on the way to get the bus to Belfast. He’d never stayed there before, but they looked after our pet labrador often when I was small and always did a good job. We made it just in time for the ten bus, and it turned out to be an interesting journey. We sat in the seats at the back row because there was more room for O.J. There was somebody sitting at each window, and a seat free between me and one of them, a man who turned out to be absolutely terrified of dogs. We only discovered this half way through the journey. He told us how he had a dog of his own, and loved them until he was bitten by a golden labrador for no reason. I felt terrible for sitting there, and wished he’d said something earlier, but he was very nice about it and assured me that he was ok. To make me feel even worse, he was going to Belfast for a hospital appointment, which was no doubt stressful enough without being trapped beside an animal that you are terrified of for almost two hours!
O.J wasn’t offended though, because he had a teenager (who had mild special needs) keeping him company and hugging him lots. We also had an elderly woman in front of us, who at one stage removed a tissue from her top, blew her nose and then put it back again, all before putting on her glasses with only one lens. Sometimes being with sighted people who tell you absolutely everything that’s going on around them isn’t such a good idea!

I went to the RNIB to buy some things for my new house, including talking scales, a timer and sock locks (to avoid putting on odd socks, or that awful sock thief in the washing machine!) Then we went to Ruby’s Diner to meet
Torie and her guide dog Ushi.
I first met Torie in December 2007, through a project I was doing when I worked in Derry. We’ve talked online lots since, but only managed to organise to meet yesterday. I’d heard lots about Ushi, and she’s a lovely dog. She’s much smaller than O.J, though not tiny. She’s a great personality and seems like a good worker. Its clear that Torie absolutely adores her! The dogs were a bit excited to meet at first but soon lay quietly while we ate lunch outside. Then we walked them to Botanic Avenue for a free run in the park, which they loved. They played well together but did their own thing as well, and were both equally reluctant to come back sometimes when we called them. Those bushes must have been really interesting!
Torie’s dad and sister came back to meet us and we chatted for a while before they went home and we went to our hotel. We stayed in
Benedicts.
I always enjoy staying there as its a lovely hotel, but I had never stayed with O.J before. The staff were very helpful and friendly, and put a blanket in the room for him to sleep on, even though I didn’t even ask for one. Deirdre went to buy her son a birthday present while O.J and I chilled in our room. I made coffee and fed him, before getting ready to go out. I met a college friend for dinner, and another friend met us after for drinks in the hotel bar. We sat in a corner where nobody could walk past us or bother O.J. It was very busy with a hen party there, and the music got gradually louder. If we’d walked in first and it was that loud, I wouldn’t have went in, but O.J wasn’t bothered by it at all and stayed very relaxed for the few hours we were there. I think he is often more relaxed in situations than I think he is going to be. He handles things much better than I expect, and surprises me with his behaviour. This happened again earlier today, and I’ll write about that soon.

Buncrana Music Festival 2011

I often blog about music and gigs I have attended here, so I couldn’t exactly not right about the amazing festival that took place in my home town at the weekend.

Every summer, the week long music festival was a highlight in our town, and people travelled from all parts of the country to be there. It was mostly country and western music which I disliked, but the atmosphere in the town was amazing. The festival lay dormant for a number of years, and a new festival was revived by a committee of young people in Buncrana last year. The

Buncrana music and arts festival

is the largest non-profit festival in Ireland, and hopefully after the success of last weekend, it will continue to take place every year.

On Thursday evening I went to town to have dinner with my parents and our Spanish student before he went home. I met a couple of friends and we watched the

Studio47

dancers opening the festival. This was followed by performances from Derry band

Furlo

and Offally songwriter

Mundy</a

who were both brilliant! I went to the pub for an hour with my cousin to get heatened up before the night’s indoor gig in

the Plaza.

We watched

Mick Flannery

play a great set to a small but appreciative crowd. He would be among my top three favourite Irish singer/songwriters, so it was a very enjoyable gig for me.

We returned to the town’s main street on Friday night, where we only saw a small bit of

The Stunning’s performance

but they sounded great. The pubs were packed and there was lots of music, and it was difficult to know where to go, even more difficult when you decide to take your mum and aunt on a night out! It was definitely a night with a difference, but the downside was that I missed

The 4 Of Us,

which I regretted the next day because everybody told me that they were amazing.

O.J made his only appearance at the festival on Saturday afternoon, when I walked to town after taking him to the beach for a run. The street was buzzing and there were plenty of distractions, but he made a decent attempt at guiding me past everything. The strangers around town, as well as the warm weather meant that lots of people wanted to stop and talk to the dog. One of the stewards who was working at the door of a wrestling event kept asking me if O.J would come in for a match every time we walked past him.

That night my friends and I went to a friend’s engagement party, and then to the town for the end of the Knites of Leon, who always get a huge crowd when they regularly play in Buncrana. This was their first time to play on the street and the atmosphere was electric. Then I escaped to a small pub called Ruddens to hear a bit of

Mojo GoGo.

A friend offered to bring me because he heard they were good and thought I’d like them, and he was right. After a couple of drinks in another pub with my sister and her friends, we went to watch a U2 tribute band.

The Buncrana festival is known for its spectacular fireworks display at the beach on the closing night, and this year was no exception. Proceedded by music from

Balkan Alien Sound

and

TKO,

everyone said that the fireworks were fantastic. What was fantastic about them for me was that they were accompanied by none other than Toto’s

Bobby Kimball!

He had been on tour with a young Irish band called

Shadowplay,

who’s guitarist is from Inishowen. They played their own material, as well as some covers and Toto classics. Bobby Kimball might have had a few decades more experience than the Shadowplay boys, but they obviously impressed him, and it wasn’t hard to see why. They were more than capable of the job, and I know they will go on to do great things in the future. When the final fireworks went off, as the festival closed with the crowd singing along to ‘hold the line’, it was a proud moment for the people of Buncrana.

As with any festival, it is almost impossible to attend all the events that I would have liked too. I missed a few of the main bands, as well as many bands who played in the pubs and in one of the cafes which hosted live music during the four days. So, just because I didn’t mention a band doesn’t mean that they weren’t good! It was a great opportunity to spend time with friends, and meet people I haven’t seen in a while. It was fantastic to have my cousin around for the whole thing, because we like the same music so she wanted to come with me.

The festival committee must be congradulated for such hard work during the year, and for organising such a brilliant weekend. Everything went great and the events were on time. The committee brought the community spirit that Buncrana is known for back to the town, and hopefully this feel-good factor will continue, even though we have to wait until July 2012 for the next festival.

Bring it on!! 😀

The fundraiser wasn’t for me!

Last night I went to a fundraiser in a pub in Greencastle, about forty minutes from where I live. It was a barbecue and raffle, to raise money for
Keri,
who will be going to China for stem cell treatment to possibly help restore her sight. I work with Keri regularly in her school. She’s a great child with an amazing personality, which is why the presenter of ICR’s talk show instantly decided to organise the fundraiser after interviewing her.

My PA drove OJ and I down, and the rain just about stayed off for the barbecue. Everybody was very friendly and of course O.J was the centre of attention as usual. While I was being chatted up by a creepy Latvian fella with English that was almost impossible to understand, O.J got some water and was put in a small room beside the bar where we were sitting. It meant that drunk people couldn’t stand on him, but he could still see what was going on. The subject of feeding guide dogs came up briefly at one stage, but the barman obviously forgot. When we came inside after getting food, he told me that O.J had been “fed and watered” and was happily sleeping. Apparently he only gave him half of a bun, but I think he told me that when he saw my reaction and realised that I wasn’t impressed. After all, who would give a labrador with puppydog eyes a bun, when there were burgers and sausages on offer as well! I did mention the no feeding rule before, but obviously wasn’t serious enough, so I couldn’t really get annoyed at him .

The fact that O.J was fed when he wasn’t supposed too was the least of my problems. When we got there we realised that Keri and her family were unable to make it to the event. People kept talking about how the funraiser was for a blind girl who wanted to get her sight back, and since I was the only blind person there, lots of them got the wrong idea. The woman singing announced what the money was being raised for, and a few people smiled over at me sympathetically. A couple of them tapped me on the shoulder as they were walking past and wished me good luck. I have no intentions of trying to have my sight restored. I wrote about it here
a couple of years ago
and nothing has changed since. I spent the rest of the evening clarifying that I wasn’t Keri, and I wasn’t going to China any time soon. The last thing I want is for people to see me out with my guide dog in a years time and think, either my opporation didn’t work and feel sorry for me, or that I scammed them all because I never even went to China.

Luckily I have a good sense of humour about these things. Seriously though, I hope things go well for Keri. She will go far whatever happens, regardless of whether she has sight or not.

Don’t give up, there are still jobs out there!

Maybe this is easy for me to say because I already have a job, and am possibly in a very different frame of mind to people who have been unemployed for years. Its true that there are very few jobs on offer, and even less of a choice if you are visually impaired or blind, but if you really really want one, that’s no excuse to completely give up looking.

The reason that I’m saying this is because, earlier today I got a phone call telling me about a new post which is going to be advertised soon. The person thought I might be a suitable candidate because of my previous experience, and because they would prefer to employ someone with a visual impairment for this particular job.
I instantly knew that it was a job I wouldn’t be interested in. Even though I have most of the necessary academic qualifications, I wouldn’t be as interested or as enthusiastic about the area that I would be working in, as the person who takes the job needs to be. Still though, it was nice to think that they thought of me, believed I could do it and wanted to give me the heads up. If I get the funding I need in September, I’ll be more than happy with my current job until the end of 2012.

I wanted to blog about this because it might inspire other people looking for employment. For me, getting jobs turned out to be about who you know, and not what you know. In other words, I didn’t need specific qualifications for the two places I have worked in, but met brilliant people, through other people, who were willing to give me a chance to work and prove myself. Of course, the fact that I had a degree showed that I could work to a certain standard, which is never a bad thing regardless of what you studied.
I can’t stress how important volunteering was in helping me to gain employment, and even now, it still has many benefits. Also it looks good on the old CV! If two potential employees have similar qualifications, an employer is more likely to choose the person who has had the most experience, over the person with the huge gaps in their CV. I know its sometimes hard to realise this when your stuck at home because you don’t have a job. I used to inwardly curse my mum for getting me up at eight o clock three mornings a week for five months when I finished college, to come into her class and help children with disabilities. At the time I had know real interest in doing such a thing, and definitely not as a career, but it was a great experience and helped me to mature in so many ways.

I really believe that if you are an active member of your community, take the time to get to know people and find out what opportunities are around you, you will maximise your job opportunities grately. Many people will always have a perception that people with disabilities are incapable of doing certain things, and as much as we might hate doing it, it is up to us to change this perception. It means working that little bit harder, but it will be worth it in the end.
You never know, you might be pleasantly surprised someday, when you get a random phone call, with a job offer that you really weren’t expecting!

Thanks Freddie: the radio documentary

In June of last year, you might remember I mentioned the fantastic post entitled
Thanks Freddie
which Darragh wrote as a tribute to his guide dog, the day he retired and moved to his new home. It is one I have reread a few times since. It was subsequently published in the Irish Examiner newspaper. It was also noticed by Sinead Vaughan, a radio student at D.I.T. She made a documentary based on the post, which is well worth a listen. You can listen to it
here.

I know many Irish guide dog owners will have heard it before, but for those of you who aren’t on the mailing list or don’t follow @digitaldarragh on twitter, I thought I’d post it here.

Thanks Darragh, and of course, Thanks Freddie!

Dougal

I always seem to have some sort of dilemma to think about. At the moment I still haven’t sorted out if I want to study in September, whether to explore dog training, or do something in the field of disability which would be useful for my work and for future employment.
Right now though, our mischievous bundle of fluff, otherwise known as Dougal is causing the problem.

We got Dougal in January 2007, when he was only six weeks old. I felt that he was too young to be taken away from his mother, but the people selling the pups were moving house and wanted to sell them ASAP. I chose him because he was the more confident independent pup, because he liked being handled and didn’t mind being away from his parents or littermate, who was the complete opposite. My nephew Jack and I often wonder how different things might have been if I’d chosen the other pup!!

Dougal was always unbelievably independent and strong-willed. He is friendly and likes to be cuddled, but only on his terms. Pick him up when he doesn’t want to be touched, and he will quickly let you know he’s not happy. He dislikes having his paws touched and can be quite possessive about his toys or his bed. For this reason, I can’t relax with him around children. He is fine with my nephews who know his personality, but you can never be sure.

Dougal is a difficult dog to watch because he was so hard to housetrain. Crate training was the best thing I ever did, but we always have to remember to take him out regularly during the day or there will be accidents. His recall isn’t great, so when he gets outside off-lead if a door has been left open, he will run down the road and try to find something to eat (and this dog eats anything!), resulting in a dirty and often ill dog afterwards.

Dougal has a number of issues that make him difficult to look after, and a lot of it is due to inconsistent training from myself and my family. Its very difficult to convince everyone to treat him the same way that I do, and to put as much work into him as I have. I am concerned that when I move house, things will become much more difficult. He mightn’t get as many walks, or the consistent obedience training and attention he needs, resulting in more disruptive behaviour and my parents becoming frustrated with him. I am unable to keep him with me during the week because I am out during the day and I would be afraid he would bark and annoy the neighbours. I will live beside an extremely busy road, I’ve had one dog knocked down before and I couldn’t go through it again.
Its frustrating for me because when I’m with him on my own he is usually fine, and I know he has the potential to become a great dog. He loves other dogs and is great company for O.J, which I think is a great benefit when we meet other dogs in public because O J is so relaxed and doesn’t really make a big deal out of it. I like him to be able to have free time with other dogs when he is not working, and I think guide dog owners often under-estimate the importance of this.

I need to seriously think whether I will keep Dougal or rehome him. Living without O.J there will be a big adjustment for him, and if he doesn’t have something to occupy his day, then he will become an unhappy, distructive dog. I will know the reason for this and constantly feel guilty.
I have never rehomed a dog before, and swore it was something I would never do. I want to learn more about dog training, and feel like I am failing already if I give up on Dougal. I love the challenge of working with him and trying to shape his behaviour into something more manageable.
On the other hand, I need to think about the future and about when O J retires. My parents always said that they would look after him if I felt that I wasn’t in the position to care for two large dogs, but I’m not sure if they would want two dogs either. Dougal is will be hard enough for them on his own. By that stage my parents will probably have retired and would enjoy having a dog like O J around. By then Dougal will probably be eight or nine years old, and it would be more difficult and stressful to rehome him then.
If I do rehome him, I know its better to do it sooner rather than later. I would have very specific requirements as to the type of people he lives with, but how would I know that they are the right ones? Would I keep in touch with them or would I just be better to rehome him and forget about him? He would be somebody else’s dog then, and not my responsibility anymore.

So, now you can see why my heads spinning. I don’t know what is best, and I really don’t want to regret anything.

GDO’s Unleashed

A website for guide dog owners, called
GDO’s Unleashed
Was recently set up, to act as a community for people around the world. It contains a blog, a forum where people can discuss topics and ask questions, and a podcast. The brains behind the idea is Marie, who agreed to write a guest post explaining why she felt that there was a need for a site like this.

My name’s Marie and I’m 27 and live in greater Manchester, England. I have been totally blind since the age of six and finally trained with my first Guide dog Bailey five years ago. I was 22 when I qualified with my loveable pup and had waited to get my first guide until I was emotionally ready to handle the responsibility I feel comes with working with a dog.

before having Bailey, I had lived in California for a year on an exchange programme and had since made several American blind acquaintances, some of which were guide dog owners themselves. Over the years of online interaction with other visually impaired people who are or have been guide dog handlers, I realised fast that the service and support I had received from Guide Dogs in the UK was not a universal experience. I was saddened to hear tales of people having to “send” the dogs back due to some problem as though they were a faulty product or not feeling like they had anyone to talk to about an issue they were experiencing with their dog. As I have had incredible support from the association from which I trained, I got to thinking that maybe some kind of international network for guide dog owners could be established to enable those feeling a strain or not feeling as though they were being supported could confide in other handlers within a supportive and friendly network. they could hear stories of other tales of woe from other guide dog owners and not feel as alone.

The podcast was an idea to have a group of guide dog owners discuss issues that affect us on a daily basis working these gorgeous dogs in the public eye, problems we may be experiencing both with working our pups or a wide spectrum of issues. And to not only huddle together for support and comfort at our downfalls, because let’s face it, we all have our off days, but to celebrate and rejoice in the cherished partnerships that we have formed.

I wanted to show the differences in training, the attitudes within society, the wonderful relationships we build and although not a replacement for your school or association, a cushion for those who need a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on, or a stage to showcase extraordinary and indeed ordinary stories from all from across the globe.

For me, the relationship I have with my dog is special and sharing the good and bad times with others, no matter where they are in the world makes the good times seem great and the bad times not so bad.

New contributors are welcome, and they can contact the site by emailing
admin@gdosunleashed.com
or following
@gdosunleashed

Thanks for the post Marie. Hopefully some Paws For Thought readers will check out the site. It would be nice to hear their voices on a podcast in the future.
I think with regular updates and a variety of participants, GDO’s Unleashed could be a valuable resource for guide dog owners and people who just want
to find out more about these working dogs.

I want to try and make guest posts a regular feature on my blog, once a month if possible. If you would like to post something, or have an idea in mind
that I could research and post, please get in touch.