Six Months With Sibyl

It’s been six months since Sibyl came home from Cork with me after training.
I’m not going to write about her progress since I’ve done that already. Just to say, I’m really happy with this dog, and I know she has lots of potential that I haven’t seen yet. I spoke to a large group of children in our local primary school almost a month ago now, and one of them asked a question which was very observant, and which I’m going to answer here. Answering it is a good way for me to reflect on six months with a second guide dog, while still having my retired one living close by. This post might also be useful for anybody transitioning or waiting for a new dog.

One student in the group last month wanted to know why certain dogs were given to certain owners, so I explained the matching process to them. I told them that there were characteristics that O.J had, which my next dog needed to have in order for us to work well together. Another child asked me if both dogs had very different personalities. I explained how they are both very different and react differently to different things, just like humans do. About ten minutes later, just as I was about to finish up, a very observant child who was paying lots of attention said,
“So you said that dogs have to have similar characteristics for you to be matched with them because you need a certain type of dog. You said that Sibyl is very different from O.J. So why did they match you with her if she is different from him? Do they not have to be the same?”

I forgot how exact you have to be with children sometimes, and how they pick up on absolutely everything. It’s a fair question though. Guide dog owners don’t like comparing dogs, and we’re not advised to. You can’t help it though, and I find myself still sometimes doing it now. Sibyl is still very young and obviously has a lot to learn, but she has the potential to be an excellent working dog. She may end up being a better worker than O.J in some ways because she isn’t sensitive and nothing phases her. She doesn’t stop to sniff while walking, and although she’s extremely nosey, she can keep moving at the same time. Of course the seven years and eight months experience I had with O.J will benefit our working partnership.

Sibyl and O.J are both Labrador/retrievers, and gorgeous looking dogs! Everyone says that, not just me! O.J’s retriever instinct was very useful for picking up things, and responding quickly to the find command when asked. He was particularly good at finding the button on the lights to cross the road. He’d enthusiastically point his nose towards it, as close as he could get, often embarrassingly pushing people out of his way in the process. Sibyl is mostly Labrador, and her finding and retrieving instinct isn’t as strong. I’m working on teaching her this, and although she’s improving, she’ll never be as obsessed with the word “find” as O.J was.

Both dogs have similar walking speeds and chilled out personalities when working. You could bring them anywhere with lots of people and they’d be great. They love attention, but are completely happy to be left alone. I couldn’t cope with a dog that follows me everywhere! They love the combination of town and country walks that we do, they love children, and they absolutely love the beach! Unfortunately they even seem to have similar health problems. I don’t know what that’s about.

I feel really lucky to have worked so well with O.J, and had a smooth transition to a new dog while he is still healthy and happy. I know of a few people currently waiting on dogs, and they’ve been without one for a long time. I’m also lucky that my parents kept O.J, and I can see him when I want. He just lives in a different house, but I keep reminding them that I still pay his insurance so he’s still my dog! He is always happy to see me and follows me around when I come to visit. He stays in my house sometimes, and there’s days when I leave Sibyl at home, just so that I can take someone’s arm and take O.J for a walk on his lead. Keeping a retired dog is definitely not the best option for everybody, but it worked for me. Knowing that I didn’t have to miss O.J helped me form a bond with Sibyl more easily.

If I had any advice for somebody who is retiring a dog and going for a successor dog, it would be this. Don’t feel guilty for comparing dogs. It’s normal to prefer certain characteristics in a particular dog. It’s important to recognise that each dog is different. To be fair to the new dog, it needs time to settle in and mature, just like the older one did when it began it’s working life. No two dogs are ever going to be the same, no matter how similar their working styles are. If you are lucky though, like me, you might have two dogs who are very similar, very different, but equally funny, and equally good at their job.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.