Getting a handle on things

As I have mentioned before, my guide dog has given me so much freedom and Independence, more than I feel I would have if I had continued to use my cane on a daily basis.

Vicky, however has decided that she is getting tired of her role as my guide dog and in recent months has slowed her pace considerably, to the point sometimes that I feel like we are standing still… She has had several health issues and in the past two years having suffered with a growth on her tonsil she has been receiving daily medication in the form of an inhaler. This has enabled her to breath easier. She is happy working and has been assessed several times as I would not wish to work her if she were not happy.

She is still very happy to work, her tail is testament to that, it is just that it is at a slower pace, a pace that is too slow for me.

Having celebrated her Eight birthday, thats Fifty Six in dog years!

The decision was taken last week to retire her from service, when a suitable replacement has been found or she decides she is no longer happy to work, which ever comes first.

This decision has been one that has been at the back of my mind for a little while now, so was not as a complete shock. But as she is such an amazing part of me and my family it is still one that fills me with upset.

I had commented before that when Vicky was to retire I would go on to work with a new dog, which I am still going to do. But I was not prepared for what happened next at the guide dog assessors visit last week!

To be matched with the ‘right dog’ it is important that the guide dog team know as much about your lifestyle as possible. This includes your usual day, places you visit, hobbies, interests, other family members, other pets, etc etc.

I had thought about this bit, I had even written a list, a list that is four times longer than the list I had when applying for Vicky, a list that impressed the assessor as it gave her a very detailed account of my life and what I would need from a dog.

This was all good….. Then E, my assessor invited me to do a ‘handle walk’ This is where she would hold the harness and work with me as if she were the dog.

This is a way of her understanding and judging my pace, stride length and most importantly control and balance, which are key for matching me with the right dog.

So off we went for a walk down my street, where all my neighbours know me and just in time for the mums at the pre-school to be walking past on their way for lunch pick ups.

I vaguely remember the handle walk from when I applied for Vicky, but this time it felt completely different, because I knew what I was doing, well….. In theory that is!

So, off we went. E told me that she was sniffing and I was to correct her, this is the same with a dog, (although with the dog on the harness you can feel them putting their head down to sniff, Vicky doesn’t actually talk to me) It is a vocal correction, where tone is key, if this doesn’t work then it is a correction using the harness, not to hurt the dog, but to stop them. This must be carried out with the correct verbal warning, where timing is crucial. Followed by immediate praise when the dog responds, which again is a different tone.

Then came the praise. Me walking along the street with a grown woman holding the front end of a harness, while I held the harness, telling her she was a ‘good girl’ as one of my daughters dinner ladies walked passed.

Another part of the test was my instructions. E had to find the crossing having been targeted to it, I then had to praise her with a soft yet exciting warm tone (thankfully she was happy for me to forgo the ear rub that they encourage in a new partnership!)

It was back to basics, time to put in place all of the commands that I use daily with Vicky, foot positions that have become second nature, so much so that when E asked me to stand in the ‘starting off position’ I FROZE. I couldn’t remember what this was or how I did it. E understood my hesitation and reassured me that I had used the correct position when we had taken Vicky on her walk earlier. But with E stood beside me I couldn’t remember it. Thankfully she came to my rescue and reminded me of what to do, a simple foot position that sets you off to walk forward or turn left or right in a fluid motion with the dog.

A motion that had become so fluid in fact that when I had to think about it, I couldn’t do it.

We worked on my preferred pace, my pace with the children and my ability to follow. This assessment was the same as the one I had had to complete when I first applied for a guide dog, because having had one dog did not automatically qualify me for another.

I have been assessed as fit to work with a new dog, awaiting medical conformation, which is standard practice. When received I will be put on the waiting list for my next dog.

This is a scary, yet exciting prospect. But one that will only help strengthen me for my future.

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