The Ups and Downs of Guide Dog Training
I am almost at the end of my training with my new Guide Dog Lacey. We did three ‘full-time’ weeks and have one more day left before we graduate as a team! It has been an exciting, stressful, tiring, frustrating and rewarding few weeks.
Week one was basically Lacey and I getting to know each other and feel comfortable together. The first few days we stayed in, cuddled and I learnt the basics of taking care of a special dog. We did a walk without the harness, just on lead, so Lacey could get a feel for my local streets. Toward the end of the week, my trainer and I took Lacey to a park with the harness. It was my first experience having Lacey ‘work’ with me. We got to the park and I asked Lacey to ‘find me a seat’, and she did. That moment I was in shock about how clever she is. She was so confident in trotting forward and finding me a bench. We then did a basic walk around the path in the park so I could get a feel of what it was like and learn the commands (which I continually forgot in my excitement).
Our next harness walk was to the local shop. This was about mid-week of week one and our first longish walk. I found it really hard to do this walk as Lacey was lagging and really slow. She was acting like a princess and wouldn’t walk fast over sticks and berries on the ground. I had to keep tugging her with the lead and using the command to increase her speed but she wasn’t really responding. The walk was becoming laborious and taking so much longer and with so much effort I just wanted to turn around and go home. I remember thinking ‘she is way too slow I can’t do this anymore’. I was thinking it wasn’t going to work out and I’d have to give her back, back I had already fallen in love. I know I was jumping to conclusions but it was really hard to walk with a dog that just didn’t want to.
We managed to get to the shop (where she found me the Pepsi Max in the fridge no kidding!) but the walk back was just the same. That evening I was really upset. I felt bad for Lacey and I thought I was doing something wrong. I wanted us to work out as a team but I knew I couldn’t do it if she was going to continue at that speed. I wanted to help her but I didn’t know how. I spent the night cuddling her on the floor and we had an awesome spoon in front of the heater. I wanted to make her feel as comfortable as possible and hoped that it was just a bad day for her and she was still getting used to me.
The next day we did a different walk which was longer. She was like a different dog; she had the perfect speed for me, a cute little trot happening and was so confident as she made her way to the curbs and across roads. I got a taste of how we work together and how much she actually helps me. I hadn’t noticed how much I strain my eyes to stare in front of me on what is up ahead or on the ground, making sense of the blobs and blurs and scanning my peripheral to figure out what is going on. With Lacey, I can trust her to be my eyes, to move me out of the way of people or obstacles.
From then on Lacey smashed it. She is the perfect dog for me. We work so well together and have similar traits; we are both stubborn, we both love to go to the gym and nap (yes I’m known to go to the gym and lay on the floor), we love to sit at cafes and not leave and we thrive on social interactions. We have conquered the gym, shop, cafes, pubs, parks and shopping centres. The fact that I am getting to all these places is incredible considering six months ago I was riddled with anxiety and panic attacks and couldn’t travel a block from my home. Lacey has given me an extra boost of confidence and having a breathing, calm furball by my side is comforting.
We have had a few moments together where I have had panic attack meltdowns. The training process is stressful and demanding both physically and mentally. During the first week we were downstairs from my home and I felt the wave of panic coming on. I was alone with Lacey and I had the feeling that I needed to run and find someone. My chest tightened, my hands got clammy and I could feel my heart start racing. I was so emotional from the change of having Lacey that I burst into tears on the footpath whilst hyperventilating. I slumped down to the floor, tears streaming down my face and I felt a little nudge and looked up to see Lacey and her puppy dog eyes. She put her head over my shoulder and I wrapped my arms around her. It was the first time she hugged me and knew I needed it. Having her next to me calmed me down. Even though she’s not a person, she is there for me and to help me get around. She has the sweetest temperament and having a big cuddle from a warm body is just what I needed in that moment.
There was another emotional moment when we were training Lacey in the shopping centre. My anxiety disorder has prevented me from entering my local shopping centre for about four years. I haven’t stepped foot in there (or near) and the thought of going to a place where there are crowds of people to navigate, places to find when I can’t read signs and the feeling of wanting to escape a place where there are numerous obstacles brings up panic just thinking of it. The last few months I have been working really hard to expose myself to panic-inducing situations and the shopping centre was one of them. I’d managed to get there several times with someone and my cane but the experience was overwhelming to my limited senses and I was on edge and would have panic attacks, usually turning around and leaving.
I did my usual routine to get to the shopping centre, this time with Lacey working by my side. She had never been there before but she was so confident and listened to my directions and commands. As we got closer to the station, the crowds of people increased. Usually I would feel overwhelmed and struggle to find my way through people without having people walking into me, touching me or invading my personal space. I usually feel like I want to put my hands over my head and shelter myself from the hustle and bustle. Not this time! Lacey navigates me around people and through crowds. She does it so subtly that I barely noticed we were slightly weaving. Once I did, I started to get emotional because I was so calm (so rational huh!). I started tearing up because I wasn’t stressed and I felt confident. I hadn’t felt that way in years!
It’s been three weeks since Lacey has come into my life and I am already noticing the difference. I have never felt so confident in going out and I actually want to get out and conquer my anxiety and break the invisible barriers that have been holding me hostage for the past five years. Guide Dogs are not just a mobility aid, they help a person on so many levels. They are a companion, a confidence booster, a comfort and a best friend.
I encourage anyone in my situation to explore their options in regards to mobility aids. Take into account your whole situation, not just your level of vision. The cane did not help me with overcoming the barriers from anxiety but Lacey certainly has and she will continue to help me get my life back and achieve my goals.