Here Almost a Year!

Tomorrow is guide dog day, a fundraising day for Irish guide dogs, with events taking place all around Ireland. Last year I was in Cork for
guide dog day
training with Sibyl. That means she has been living in Donegal for almost a year. And what a great year it has been.

Retiring a dog and working with another isn’t an easy thing to do. Although you have lots of experience with the first dog, and you know all the basics before you start training again, it can be hard to get used to a totally different dog with a different personality. When I trained with O.J I was so excited, because I’d wanted a guide dog for so long. Although I was delighted to be matched with Sibyl, to be able to retire O.J when he was happy and healthy, and not have to wait in between dogs, I wasn’t very excited about training. I didn’t have the same instant love for Sibyl that I had for O.J, if I’m completely honest. That’s probably because part of me knew that she was continuing the job he had already done so well, and could have done for another while. I felt guilty that I wasn’t still working O.J, and then I felt guilty that I wasn’t crazy about this new dog straight away, because that seemed ungrateful. I had to often remind myself to give her more of a chance during training, and not to compare her to O.J. I had to give her time during the next year to learn and mature and settle down. Sometimes I was probably hard on her, and hard on myself, expecting both of us to do routes and walks without mistakes or so many distractions, but this was unfair. Training with a new dog can be emotionally exhausting!

I’m writing all this as a reminder for myself. It’s interesting to reflect back on this, almost one year after we have qualified. O.J is enjoying the perfect retirement, and I can visit him whenever I like, because I still miss him at times. Sibyl and I have both become so much more confident working together since we left Cork. Sibyl is the perfect successor to O.J. She is so different in some ways, but still has that brilliant personality and dependable nature that he had. She is lively and silly and playful, but in social situations when she needs to be good, she’s chilled out and patient, particularly around children. She loves travelling, and we have lots to do during the next few months to keep her busy.

I feel so lucky to have been matched with Sibyl when I was. Even though
I was shocked at the quick timing when I got the phone call to come and meet her, I’m so grateful that it happened when it did. Sibyl came at the right time. A time when I knew a career change was in order. A time when I was so unsure of what was ahead of me. A time when I want to travel more and do new things. A time when I need a confident dog with lots of energy to keep me busy. Sibyl won’t let me get bored or get stuck in a rutt. She has too much energy and enthusiasm for that, and she has the confidence to try new things, so I think we’re very well matched.
If you have a few euros to spare and you meet anybody collecting this weekend, this is why you might want to think about giving it to guide dogs. Because they really do change lives and provide the best independence, and we need as many people as possible to experience that.

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A Very Special 30th Birthday!

I was 30 last Thursday. I had decided a long time ago that I wanted to do something different for my 30th birthday. I didn’t want a party or presents, but my family love celebrating birthdays, so I knew it wouldn’t be that easy! I also wanted to spend time with them, so it seemed like an obvious thing to celebrate for guide dogs.
I came up with the idea of having a coffee morning in my uncle’s bar. People could come and spend time together, relax, have some food, and donate a small amount of money to Irish guide dogs. I literally came up with the idea, created a Facebook event, told a few people, and put ten posters around the town. Everybody else did everything, and it was such a special day.

I woke up early and was entertained by my best friends sending me messages on our what’sapp group. They sent youtube videos of happy birthday songs; one sung in harmony, one barked by dogs, and one called ‘happy birthday Jenny!’
Some of us had spent the previous afternoon having lunch together with Sibyl and a couple of their small children. One friend drove to the cafe (a 20 minute drive) without even telling me where I was going! Only because she knew she would get away with it because I can’t see. Another friend baked me a cake! They are so generous and always want to have fun. I’m very lucky!

Unfortunately Nicky had to go back home that morning, and was unable to be there for the day. My brother-in-law also couldn’t be there. I really missed them both, and thought about them a lot during the day. They would have enjoyed it. Unfortunate things happen, and there was nothing anybody could do. It was too late to cancel anything, and the day just had to go on.

My sister came to do my make-up and brought me to the bar, where people had been busy organising and decorating all morning. They even had napkins with labradors on them! People had made granola, scones, buns, bread and another birthday cake! They decided that a breakfast/coffee morning would be a little bit different rather than the usual sandwiches and lots of sweet buns. People seemed to like the idea too, because during the next 4 hours, probably 200 people came through the pub doors, right from the minute they opened at 10:30. People made such an effort to be there. People that I hardly know. People that I wasn’t expecting. People who went out of their way. Two other guide dog owners came. Everybody donated so generously, and I spent the day feeling so overwhelmed and happy at how supportive people in our town are. My family did so much. My nephews all helped to make it very special. One worked hard behind the bar, while the younger boys made sure that all the children who came were fed, as well as keeping me up to date with anything they felt that I needed to know. O.J was there too of course. Himself and Sibyl had sniffing competitions where they lay, but they behaved really well, and everybody enjoyed petting them.

I received some lovely presents, even though I wasn’t expecting any. Some people even gave me hand-made cards. Everything was so thoughtful. My phone never stopped all day. I was exhausted from talking when we left the bar after 3 PM. We visited my Godmother, who gave me a present, and another homemade cake! That’s three cakes in 24 hours! All very different, but equally Yummy! My brother and his girlfriend made a lovely curry, which we all enjoyed before sitting down to read cards and count the money. There’s still donations coming in, but my birthday raised over 1,600 euros so far. That’s an incredible amount of money!

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.

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!

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!

We Always Had Fun in Dublin!

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

My Kind of Music

That’s the title of Nicky’s brand new album, which he launched in the 7 Oaks hotel in Carlow last Thursday evening. The lineup featured friends of Nicky’s who are all well-known in the country music scene, most of who I’ve come to know through our annual trips to Portugal. The Ryan Turner band who also play there provided all the music on the night. The boys are fantastic musicians, and always make a gig very enjoyable. There was a great crowd, and everybody seemed to enjoy it. The only criticism I heard people say was that Nicky should have played longer!
Donegal was well represented on the night, with twelve people traveling down for the gig. My parents and some of my aunt’s and uncle came, as well as two couples who aren’t related in any way, but have heard of Nicky and decided to come themselves. It was great to meet up with friends we’d stayed with in Kerry over the summer, and Darragh and Emma, who are always very supportive when it comes to Nicky’s music. Emma was snap happy with her camera, and you can see some of her work on Nicky’s facebook page.
I think Darragh is busy updating the website and making the album available on Itunes soon. Maybe he’ll have a list of shops that stock the CD copy too, because I know you can’t get it everywhere.

There were five dogs at the gig, and as you’d expect, they were all well behaved and quiet. My parents were staying in the hotel, so I left O.J there during the performance, and took Orrin up to keep him company during the interval. He was in really good form, but quite restless during the day. He kept getting up if people came near and he thought he might get stood on. Maybe its just a sign of him getting older and a bit more stressed out more easily. The fireworks didn’t bother him on Halloween evening at all, and we walked to a restaurant to meet everybody for dinner with no problems. It didn’t seem like Halloween there though!

It was lovely to travel to Carlow and back with my parents in their jeep, rather than spending time on the bus. We could stop when we wanted, and the weather was bad on the way home so we took our time. We stopped in Monaghan to visit a friend who owns O.J’s brother Ozzy. We hadn’t seen each other in at least four years, and Ozzy is retiring in a couple of weeks. I wanted to get a photo of the dogs together, and wanted them to meet up probably for the last time. They were excited to see each other, but quickly lay down and relaxed. I hope O.J can work for another year, but it makes it all more real when I see the first of his siblings to retire.

I had a busy but fun couple of days, so it’s nice to stay inside and relax today. I think I’m on my fourth cup of tea at this stage! I have another busy week ahead, with working in a school that’s far enough away, going to Dublin for a training day, going to a wedding, and going to a gig on Tuesday that I’m very excited about!