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.

 

 

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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!

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.

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.

Will He Like Retirement?

I’ve been asked that question about O.J over and over again during the last few weeks. The answer is, I don’t think he’ll mind one bit!
It’s not that O.J is totally tired of working and ready to retire. He could still easily do another six months or more of good work. But recently he’s definitely become more distracted while working, sniffing a bit more than he usually does. And trust me, that’s a lot of sniffing!
Like many guide dogs, O.J has always made a huge distinction between work mode and play mode. He sniffs while working, but generally he’s very calm and quiet with his harness on. Take it off when we’re at home though, and he’s like a crazy puppy who just wants to play. All the obedience he ever learned while working was totally forgotten the other day, when he jumped up on my parents’ kitchen and tried to steel a slice of bread, with his harness on! He’s never ever done something that naughty while working. To my mother’s disgust, all I could do was laugh! Sometimes I’m convinced he knows he’s retiring, and just thinks, “I can do what I want now, who cares.”
Other times though, he does some amazing work, and we’ve made the most of it this week because the weather was so good. I’ve walked the legs off the poor dog!

The schools are off on their Easter break, so I only went into the office one day this week. O.J slept on his bed and snored like he was part of some snoring Olympics.
On Thursday I went to Derry to get a couple of things, but more importantly to take O.J to visit some places for the last time. We went to Cool Discs, which is obviously somewhere he’s spent a lot of time, and I bought some new music to keep me entertained in Cork. Then we went to the arts centre where I worked for over two years after I trained with O.J. This would have been one of the first routes he ever learned with me, and we hadn’t walked there in around five years. It’s pretty straightforward, but O.J was so excited and enthusiastic, I was very impressed. He chilled out in the cafe and enjoyed being in the recording studio again.

It’s strange walking him places and knowing that it’s probably for the last time. I found myself taking my time on our walks this week, not rushing him, and letting him dictate the pace at times when we weren’t in any hurry. On our way to meet some friends and their new babies for dinner yesterday evening, I purposely took a longer route. I know I’m very lucky that he still wants to work and that he’s still enthusiastic. I’m also lucky that my parents are keeping him, so I can see him as often as I like. He knows their house well and is completely happy (if a little mischievous) there. They know how well I’ve always looked after him, and that I wouldn’t give him to anybody to keep unless they can physically care for him in the same way that I did. He has never been a clingy dog, so as long as somebody is giving him attention, he’s happy. He will be living in a quiet area, two minutes walk from the beach. What more could a dog want?

So I think I can almost say for definite that O.J will really really like being retired.
He just has two more very busy weeks to get through before he can earn that freedom.

Retiring a dog

My boyfriend Nicky’s dog retired at the weekend. He retired a couple of days after his tenth birthday, after being a working guide dog for over eight years. Ralph could be described as a gentleman of a dog. Every time I’ve seen him he was so quiet and obedient you’d hardly know he was there. He was an enthusiastic worker, and loved to be petted and fussed over like most dogs. I don’t know any dog who enjoys rolling or eating icecubes as much, and the big shake he sometimes did while working used to always make me laugh.

O J and Ralph had a funny relationship. They got on well together, but O J didn’t constantly wind Ralph up and want to play, the way he does with other dogs if he thinks they’ll react.

 

I was there on Saturday when Ralph’s new owners came to collect him. He is living in an ideal situation for any retired guide dog, on a farm with lots of space, four other dogs and most importantly, with people who absolutely love animals! He retired when he was happy and healthy, the ideal situation for any dog.

 

The lead-up to Ralph’s retirement has made me think a lot about O J’s, and how much I need to consider beforehand. I hope its at least three or four years away, but its worth thinking about in advance. I’ve learned that its easy to assume that you know who will take care of your dog if you can’t, but its good to have a backup plan encase that person’s circumstances change over time and they are unsuitable to keep your dog. I’ve always thought that the ideal situation would be to notice that your dog needs to retire, and go on the waiting list while you are still working that dog. That way you’ll hopefully go from working one dog to another, and not have a long wait in between dogs. When a guide dog is your preferred mobility aid, going back to a cane or assistance from friends and family can be stressful, so the less time you have to do that the better. On the other hand, I think maybe a short break between dogs could be nice, even if its only for a couple of weeks. Maybe going from one dog to another is more emotionally draining than you’d think. There’s probably no correct way of doing things, everyone is different and experiences things differently, and whatever way you do it, its going to be tough. I would hope that guide dog organisations are helpful during the retirement process, but I’m not sure if they understand what its really like from a blind or visually impaired person’s point of view.

 

I have also thought a lot about what I want in my next dog, and what to specify in my matching visit. Like I said, I hope this is all a few years away, but the weekend has made me think about it all a bit more. In the meantime, O J and I will look forward to getting to know the new dog that Nicky will be working with.

Guest post: Dora’s Retirement

Guest posted By
Beth Finke

We were on a normal walk to town when I first noticed. My harness hand. It was dipping and swerving with each step. I leaned down to feel Dora’s shoulder. She was limping.

Arthritis, the vet said. Taking his advice, I started Dora on a daily dose of buffered aspirin. The limping stopped, but the walks to town that used to invigorate Dora just plain wore her out. She started taking long naps after our excursions, and she didn’t rouse from those naps as easily as she used to. She’d need to retire soon.

Back in 1990, it took two terrifying mishaps in traffic to convince me to switch from a white cane to a guide dog. Now, after ten years of side-by-side travel with Dora, it was going to take a lot to convince me that I’d ever love my next Seeing Eye dog as much as I did her.

Blindness dictates practicality, however. For Dora’s and for my sake, I signed up to return to the Seeing Eye for a replacement dog. Dog-loving friends assumed I’d keep Dora at home when she retired. My husband Mike would have liked us to keep her, too, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to devote myself to a new Seeing Eye dog if Dora was still around.

Another option was to bring her back to the Seeing Eye. They keep a long list of volunteers interested in adopting retired dogs. I’ve never done a formal study on the pros and cons of bringing a retired dog back to the school they started from, but I’d talked to two people who had chosen that option. Our conversation took place way back in 1991, when I was training with Dora. Their stories have stuck with me all these years.

Barking in the Kennels

I talked to John and Jeri about their dogs’ retirement at the Seeing Eye during one of our rare breaks from the daily training routine. John described walking into the front hallway with Robin, his previous dog, and being met by a Seeing Eye staff member. “Say goodbye to your dog,” the staff member instructed. “I said goodbye, and then someone took her away,” John said. He heard Robin’s harness jingling as she walked away. “And that was that.

Once Jeri got started telling me about her retired German Shepherd, Sarah, all she could do was cry. The only thing I understood through all the tears was that she was convinced she could hear her dog barking in the kennels at night. “I know it’s her,” she said, taking a couple big sniffs. “I can tell it’s my Sarah.” John claimed, too, that he could pick out Robin’s barking amongst all the dogs we heard each day in the nearby kennels. “I know she’ll be happy here,” John said, talking to himself now rather than to us. “They’ll take good care of her.”

Dora wouldn’t be going back to the seeing eye to retire. There was no way I could concentrate on a new dog while hearing Dora bark in the distance. The new dog wouldn’t stand a chance.

Adoption Option

Lots of people showed interest in adopting Dora. The post office worker who helped with my packages had just lost her yellow lab the year before. she told me she’d like to take Dora. The waitress at our favorite restaurant wanted Dora. One day at the library, the man behind me in line heard me talking to the librarian about Dora. He passed me his business card. “I’d take her in a second,” he said.

But I’d pretty much decided that if Dora was going to live with anyone, it’d be with Randy. Randy lived alone and dated an old friend of ours who was a single mom. When we first met Randy, he took an instant liking to Dora. After finding out that Randy did foster care for the local animal shelter, I took an instant liking to him, too. So did Dora.

Dora spent a happy trial weekend with Randy. I liked the idea that at Randy’s, Dora would get a lot of individual attention. Plus there’d be plenty of opportunities for play with children when our friend and her kids came to visit. Best of all, Randy only lived a half-mile away. This meant that when I got Dora pangs, I could easily head over there for a hug. Which I did. Many, many times. Every time I visited, I found Dora lying on the couch, happy,fluffy and…fat. “I give her treats all the time!” Randy gushed. “She is such a beautiful, beautiful dog.” He bathed her every week, too — that’s why her fur fluffed out the way it did. I could hardly recognize her by the feel of her coat!

Happy in her retirement, Dora lived to be 17 years old. These days when I think about my own retirement, I hope it’s one like Dora had: living with a man who spoils me, lets me lie on the couch, feeds me bon bons and tells me all the time how beautiful I am.