Ten years of independence

This day ten years ago, I met OJ for the first time, and he changed my life for the better.

 

When I nervously picked up OJ’s harness handle for the first time in Cork in June 2007, I knew something special was about to happen. I hoped after a few minutes of walking with him that the trainer would say we were a good match. I can honestly say I’ve never instantly connected with any dog like I did with him that day.

 

OJ has been a huge part of my life during the last ten years, giving me independence and confidence that I never had before. He enabled me to go where I want safely when I want, travel, meet new people and make new friends, find new jobs and volunteering opportunities, visit family and friends, babysit my nephews, move house and live my life the way I want to.

At the beginning of our training, his trainer described him as such a genuine dog, and that has always been a good description. He’s gentle, affectionate, giddy, clever and charming. He’s obsessed with food, still walks to the left of everything, wags his tail the minute you speak to him, loves barking, loves poking people with his nose to get attention, enjoys swimming, getting groomed, playing fetch and play biting, loves his bed, and adores curling up as close to the fire as he can get until he nearly goes on fire himself.

 

OJ is my favourite dog in the world. I wish I could have him forever. His puppywalkers gave him such an amazing start for the first year of his life. I’m so lucky that his trainer persevered with his high body sensitivity and got him through the training at just seventeen months old. Other trainers might not have been so determined. I’m so grateful that she trained him, and even more grateful that she matched him with me.

 

 

How are the dogs?

I’ve become terrible at writing here recently. I’m in the house doing nothing on a Friday night, which is actually really nice after a busy week of work. I’m feeling sorry for myself though because Eddie Vedder’s playing in Dublin right now and I had nobody to go with. I’m really lacking people who like the same kind of music as me and have time to go and hear bands play live. Since it is one of my favourite things to do, it’s really depressing! So I’m writing this as a distraction, and of course to write about my three favourite dogs and how they are doing.

Sibyl is the youngest and silliest of the lot. If she gets her play time off her lead every week, she’s fine, but if not, I soon know about it. She’s in no real working routine now that I’m working from home, but it doesn’t bother her at all, and she’s ready to go at any time of the day when I pick up her harness. She still gets a bit too overexcited when we have visitors, and moves her bed, or lifts Dougal’s instead, which is really annoying. I’m working on preventing this though, and she’s getting better. Her work overall is excellent, and her dog distraction is practically non existent now since she had her glands removed.

Dougal is almost ten and a half now, and he hasn’t changed much at all. He likes going for walks if they aren’t too often! He loves walking with my PA, so she takes him once a week, sometimes with her own dog and they are great friends. Dougal still hates being groomed, and likes attention, but only on his terms. He’ll always be OJ’s buddy, and Sibyl’s housemate. They don’t fight though, and are actually funny to watch together, especially when they take turns chewing the same nylabone, even if there were three to choose from.

The main man O.J is in great form these days, after a tough month of not feeling too good. A week before he turned 11 in March, he began limping, and it got pretty bad pretty quick. The vet x-rayed and examined and did blood tests, which confirmed he’s very healthy for his age, but has bad arthritis in his elbow. After weekly injections for a month, and then trying two different types of medication, we finally found a treatment he responded to. He’ll have to take a tablet every day for the rest of his life, but they have made a huge difference, so I don’t mind. Luckily I kept him insured for another year, so the vet can monitor him regularly and I won’t be robbed! He went from a dog that could barely put his foot on the ground in March, to one with a slight limp, who doesn’t go for long walks anymore, but can still swim in the sea, just minutes from his house, and he still loves it.

I have three dogs at three very different stages in their lives. Three dogs who are so much fun. and three dogs that I’m very lucky to own.

Where Did July Go?

I’ve been writing this blog since August 2007, and I’m almost sure I’ve posted something at least once a month every month since then. I know that’s not many posts in nine years, but the point I’m making is that I never missed a month. Until now! Disgraceful! I did think about this during July, but never sat down to write, so here’s a summery of what I’ve been up to.

In January this year I became a volunteer with the local Foroige club in our town. I help out with the junior group on a Monday night, and the children are between the ages of ten and thirteen years old. Everybody was very welcoming right from the beginning, but I feel like it has taken me a while to really find my feet, and learn how I can be a help to the children. On second July we spent the day in Dublin at the citizenship awards, because our group had entered a project that they had been working on throughout the year. It was a long and busy day, with lots of noise and food around to distract Sibyl. She was quite sniffy and tried to eat sweets from the ground a lot, which is something we have to work on preventing. Apart from that she was good. The kids won an award for their project, so they all went home happy.

The following Saturday I travelled to Dublin again, without Sibyl this time. Myself and my five best friends went to see Beyoncé in Croke Park, which was a present for one of the girl’s 30th birthdays. I’m not a fan of Beyoncé at all, and honestly didn’t even know how to spell her name properly until we were getting the tickets!! The weather was beautiful, I had bought some new clothes, and we all rarely get a chance to meet up without partners or children anymore, so I was happy enough to be there. While a few of us waited for a taxi or bus to the stadium after dinner, a rickshaw drove passed, and I was so excited when the driver said he could take us there. It was such a fun journey, and I hadn’t laughed so much in a while. I said that even if the concert was rubbish, it was worth it for the journey there.
The concert wasn’t as bad as I thought. Beyoncé’s voice was amazing, and she seemed very humble and genuine, not what I was expecting. It was a very visual performance with lots of costume changes. Videos were shown each time she went off stage, which I didn’t really appreciate, and she played bits of some songs, without doing the full thing, which I found annoying. It definitely was better than I expected, but I wouldn’t go to see her again.

I had the next weekend free, which I used to finish a big transcribing job which I’d been working on for almost two months. It was really enjoyable and I learned a lot.
The following weekend Sibyl and I, along with my parents travelled to Liverpool, where we met Nicky and went to a wedding. It was very different from weddings we’d have at home, but it was good fun and the weather was amazing. I had a chance to meet a friend I hadn’t seen in a few years, and meet her new baby for the first time. We also used the trip as an opportunity to spend a few days in Wales, as Nicky had a friend there who he’d been promising to visit for a long time. I’d never been to wales before, but I definitely want to go back. We spent a few days with lovely friendly people, who I liked as soon as I met them. We went to Hereford to meet other friends and their new guide dogs, which Sibyl loved. We went to a seaside town called Barry and had the nicest fish and chips ever! The children walked Sibyl and bought us two mugs to keep as suveneers. We had drinks sitting outside a pub which had blankets if we got cold. We were spoiled and looked after so well. Hopefully I can return the favour if they come to Ireland next year. Sibyl wasn’t there long enough to really learn her way around, but it was useful to have her, especially in the airport on the way home, when Nicky walked with the assistant and we followed behind. By the time we had landed in Belfast, Sibyl had been to seven different airports, which isn’t bad considering that she went on her first holiday almost exactly one year ago. I wonder how many she’ll have been in by the time she retires?

Of course when you come back from holiday, life just goes back to normal, or what seems to be normal in O.J’s world anyway. We collected him from the vet on Thursday after he had another lump removed. I think this is his forth. I’ve lost count. This one was under his tail, and the vet didn’t like the look of it as soon as he saw it. It might be nothing, but he said that if they left it and it grew bigger, removing it could make him incontinent. That would obviously be a nightmare, so removing it was the better option. He had a cone to stop him from itching it, but it was annoying him so we took it off after a couple of days. He’s eating and going for walks and seems lively and happy. It’s the quickest I’ve ever seen him recover from anything before. The fact that he’s so fit really does make a difference.

So there it is, my July update, which could have been made into three or four well written posts if I took the time to write them.

Two’s company, and three’s crazy!

OJ has been staying in my house for almost a week, and he’ll be here for another one. It’s great having him, even if the house is a lot more hairy! He’s still his usual silly lively self, maybe more attention seeking towards me than usual. He interrupts me when I’m typing by poking his nose in my side and lifting my arm up so that I have no choice but to pet him and laugh.

Having three dogs in the house is a bit crazy. They don’t go upstairs or into the spare room, so there isn’t exactly lots of space. They work out who sleeps where though, and when I’m here on my own, you’d hardly know they were here.

I’ve worked out a feeding routine in the morning and evening. They all get fed in different places so that they don’t rush their food and go investigating in someone else’s bowl. An ideal morning is when they all do everything they have to do in the run (the fenced off dog toilet) in the yard. It’s easier to have to clean it all up at the same time, rather than remembering who went, and who still has to go later on. I would need a never ending supply of dog poop bags!
After grooming yesterday, I had a bag of hair, leads and brushes in my hands, and accidentally dropped Sibyl’s comb into the wheelybin. It smells in there, so there was no way I was going in to find it!

Dougal is more shy than usual with the two bigger dogs around. I suppose he feels very small, and he can only make himself known by barking. Sibyl has been surprisingly more calm than I thought. OJ, even though he is the oldest, is the one who instigates all the playing, and if I didn’t stop him, I’d have Labradors running around my kitchen at high speed ten times every day. They were particularly hyper the other day, but when I took them to the park with my PA, they just stood looking at each other.

Sometimes I feel like I’m running dog kennels. I think I could do it no bother if I had more money and more space. It’s a bit crazy round here, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Happy Retirement Big Pup

It’s hard to believe we’ve come to this stage already. Seven years and eight months of great work and great fun.
I thought I’d know what to write, because I’ve been thinking about this day for the last five weeks. Now that It’s here, I have absolutely no idea.

I hadn’t really planned anything in particular for O.J’s last day being a working guide dog. The fact that we had hailstones was a bit of a surprise. O.J isn’t a fan of miserable weather, so apart from a two minute walk to visit my aunt, we went nowhere. He did get very close to a baby chick when we were there, but was more distracted by the cat than the bird. Technically his final walk in harness was yesterday, when we went to town. He spent an hour in my aunt’s house (we still call it granny’s!) which was the first house he ever visited in town.
My friends came to visit this afternoon, and my aunt called over with a retirement card, addressed to Oliver John as she likes to call him! I brushed him, we went to my parents for dinner, and my mum took some photographs of us.
So it was a normal enough day.

Now, I’m sitting here in a quiet house, after leaving the dogs to my parents. O.J has gone to his new home. It’s a place he’s familiar with, and he’s totally happy being there. I think that’s why I’m not upset like I expected to be. It was hard packing up all his things and leaving his harness behind, knowing that I won’t be putting it on him again. It just doesn’t seem real, and I suppose it won’t until I come back from training in Cork. Now it just feels like I’m going on holiday and leaving him behind. In reality, his life is just about to become one big extended holiday!

Working with O.J has taught me so much about dogs, about independence, and about getting out there and making the most of everything. He gave me so much confidence, and I was always proud to bring him with me, especially to new places. I could completely trust him, even when he was easily distracted, and he made me laugh every day, even when he was being cheeky. I hope the blog posts I’ve written since we started working together have done him justice and described his personality.

I’m so grateful to Irish guide dogs for giving me such a great first dog. I couldn’t have asked for better. Our family has raised just over 20,000 euros since O.J came to our town. Hopefully that contributed towards other people having the same opportunities that O.J has given me.
I know that all guide dogs are amazing, and my future dogs will be too, but O.J will always be special because he was my first. There have been days particularly in the last few weeks when I wished I could work him forever.

All I can say now is Thanks O J. Thanks for being the best first dog I could have hoped for. Hope you have a long happy retirement, with lots of cuddles, runs on the beach and swims in the sea.
I can’t think of a dog who deserves it more.

Let the Waiting Begin!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can you hate buses?

I spend a lot of time on buses. I can’t drive, there isn’t always somebody to bring me places, and there’s no trains anywhere near where I live. People often feel very sorry for me when they hear I have to use buses so much. Okay, some of our local ones must be twenty years old and don’t feel too safe. The trips to work in Derry in the morning weren’t exactly the warmest, but the bus always got me there. I don’t have the luxury of driving a car, so I don’t have a choice. But it’s not as bad as you’d think. You meet some great people and get to overhear some brilliant conversations! Bring a dog on the bus with you and the journey definitely gets more interesting.

Nicky and I went to Drogheda on Saturday for Darragh and Emma’s baby Meabh’s Christening the next day. Going off-topic for a second, the staff in the D Hotel were very helpful, and Meabh’s Christening ceremony was probably the nicest I’ve ever been too.
A very helpful staff member at Bus Aras took us to the bus stop nearby to get the bus to Drogheda. I got on and was making my way to a seat when the woman getting on behind me said, “Balbriggan”, as that’s obviously where she wanted to go. The driver said, “what about it?” before giving her the ticket and laughing.
You just had to be there!
On Sunday evening we got the bus to Dublin airport where we were getting buses home. We were standing waiting to get off at our stop at the airport, and a man started asking about the dogs. He said he smelt the smell of wet dog, and I appologised. They’d got wet earlier that morning, and although they were dry, the smell was obviously still there. He completely surprised me by telling me that it was okay because he loved the smell of wet dog!!

When I got on the bus yesterday morning it was very full, and I had to sit half way down, beside a girl who had earphones in and music blaring. I just assumed she’d seen O.J, so I put in my own earphones and put on some Pearl Jam (their new albums brilliant by the way!) We were coming into Letterkenny and O.J sat up, so I took out my earphones and got him to lie down again. The girl said he scared the life out of her because she’d actually been asleep when we got on and had no idea that there was a dog beside her. She watched in amusement as many students gave him a quick pet on the head as they got off the bus at the college. Many of them looked surprised to see him there too. He’s usually on the inside of a seat, so many of the new students who sit at the back of the bus haven’t seen him yet.

So cars might be comfortable and faster and more convenient, but they aren’t as unpredictable and random as bus journeys.

OJ’s First Wedding

I haven’t disappeared off the face of the earth, or my blog hasn’t either, but I thought its time I wrote something. I’m typing this from my new office, which finally got sorted almost two years after I moved house. The front room was becoming a storage dumping ground, so my sister and brother in law came to Ikea with me last week to get a desk, CD holders and presses to store things. Luckily he loves making up flat pack things, and the room turned out great. Just in time, as I got a transcription job today which means i will spend lots of time in this room during the next few weeks. The deadlines closer than I thought, no pressure!!

Anyway, as the title suggests, that wasn’t what I wanted to write about. This has been a very busy year for weddings, and Nicky and I have been to three in the last month. OJ only went to one of these last weekend, as unlike the others, it involved a bit of traveling. Robin and Emma got married in Cavan last Saturday. They are friends of Nicky’s, and I’ve chatted to Emma lots before, but never actually met either of them. You’d think meeting the bride and groom the day before their wedding would make the day awkward, but not at all! I had a brilliant time.

The journey to Dublin started early and I was there by 11 A.M. I met up with Nicky and a couple of friends and we got a bus to Cavan. We stayed in the hotel where the wedding was taking place the following day, which made things a lot easier. I spent the day relaxing and meeting lots of new people. Everyone was so friendly and helpful, and the staff at the hotel were great too. There was lots of grass for the dogs, and it was great to have them there to help us get around.

On Saturday morning myself and a few of the girls got our hair and makeup done, and OJ lay quietly looking around him during all of this. Staff were great at describing what they were doing and asking exactly what I wanted which was great, since I’d usually have a family member or friend there when I’m getting this kind of thing done. As far as accessibility goes, you couldn’t have asked for better at this wedding. Braille readers were offered the wedding booklet in braille when we came into the chapel, and family members were there waiting to guide us to our seats. OJ and I sat in an area in the church which had plenty of room for him, but he still insisted on standing up every time I stood, much to the amusement of the people behind me. Nicky sang as part of the mass, and the music was lovely. You could tell how much effort was put into choosing the pieces. When the bus brought us back to the hotel, guests were entertained by a jazz band. The bride and groom didn’t go off and have photos taken, so it was nice to see them being able to enjoy the afternoon with their guests as well. Dinner was held in a marquee. The food was beautiful and the speeches were heartfelt and enjoyable. The dogs were given bowls of water as soon as we sat down, and waited patiently for their own dinner after ours. We left them in the room for the night. They were happy to sleep while we enjoyed the band, the disco and the sing-song afterwords. There were lots of amazing singers! I loved the fact that everyone was so friendly, and people introduced themselves during the day and wanted to talk and be friendly. Often at weddings people stick to their own group or table, but on Saturday that definitely wasn’t the case.

Its lovely to attend a wedding knowing only a few people beforehand, but feel completely relaxed with everybody and know a lot more by the end! Its also great to be able to take a guide dog and for that to be totally normal. Nothing was a big deal for anybody. The dogs were just like guests, so OJ will expect the same treatment next time he goes to another wedding! People offered help if they thought we needed it, but weren’t over helpful.
Robin and Emma put so much planning and effort into the day and it showed. They are a lovely couple, and I’m looking forward to getting to spend more time with them in the future.

Church Gate Collection 2013

I did the annual Irish guide dogs church gate collection last weekend in Buncrana. It was a week later than usual, which meant it took place over St. Patrick’s weekend, which was probably a good thing. Nicky helped with it this year, so it meant that we had another dog for people to see when they passed the gate.
We did the usual two masses on Saturday evening, and three on Sunday. There were four masses on Sunday, so Nicky and I went to two different churches which had masses around the same time. The weather was cold and wet, but I’ve collected in much worse weather.

I know I say this every year, but I honestly can’t get over the generosity of people in our town, whether it’s offering to collect, or donating money. Its a recession, people don’t have much, but we still managed to raise 1,924 euros, our highest amount ever! It means a lot, especially since I am currently the only guide dog owner in the town, so it isn’t exactly a local charity that affects a lot of people here.

Apart from an amazing amount of money, collecting was enjoyable, because it was so entertaining. We had lots of friendly chats with people on their way into mass. Some of the comments and things people said included:

“God, its a terrible day. You must be freezing. You could have picked a better day.
How olds the dog? God, he’s on the go a long time!
How did you teach him to be so good. I wish mine was that good.
I hope you feed that dog well.”
And my favourite:
Woman: “He’s lovely. Is he your best friend?”
Me: “Yeah, one of them.)
Woman: “Oh, so you have two guide dogs?”

People are brilliant! I honestly wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.