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One of Our Own Goes Through Guide Dog Team Training – Week 3

Suzy Wilburn allows us a first-hand glimpse into guide dog team training as she learns to work with her first guide dog, Carson.

One of Our Own Goes Through Guide Dog Team Training – Week 3 One of Our Own Goes Through Guide Dog Team Training – Week 3 One of Our Own Goes Through Guide Dog Team Training – Week 3 One of Our Own Goes Through Guide Dog Team Training – Week 3

Day 15:

Today we are heading out to the Discovery Center on Main Street in Sarasota. This is a step up in both people and traffic compared to downtown Bradenton. Things are not so scary now. I think we may have turned a corner in our (I really mean my) training.

Carson and I are almost an entirely different team as we head out. He’s confident and it’s rubbing off on me. We do some off-curb (also known as country) travel. This is a section of downtown that has no sidewalks, so we have to travel in the street. Other than a few sniffs here and there, Carson is on his game. I feel like a new person. I’m not thinking about picking my head up anymore. I had no idea that I looked down so much.

I come to the realization today that if I did not have decent Orientation & Mobility skills, Sarasota would be a nightmare! I have to learn when to cross the street based on the sound of traffic around me. I make a mention to my trainer at one crossing that it was safe to cross because someone crossed next to me first. No no no… I learned quickly that people like to cross against the light more than I could imagine. It’s another one of those “duh” moments. I’m having a lot of those lately.

Day 16:

We are heading back to the Discovery Center today. Yesterday it was closed to the public, but today it’s open. There are a lot more distractions for the dogs as we relax in the student area waiting for routes. You never realize how much people squeak toys when thinking about buying one, until you have a dog that tends to “perk up” every time someone makes a toy squeak. I’m finding that EVERYTHING can be used as a test of my skills as a handler.

Our route was a little different today but Carson and I did well. He and I are definitely becoming one. Sarasota is different from what I remember. I worked in Sarasota when I first moved here from Tampa. Things have changed and it makes me a bit sad to remember that I used to drive these same streets. Now I have Carson and I have a different “set of keys.” Most of the students will remind each other not to forget the keys to the car when we head out each morning. This is how we now refer to our harnesses.

We do occasionally approach someone who wants to pet Carson, so I need to figure out a tactful way of saying “Please don’t pet him, he’s working.” I want to make sure people are educated about why it’s important not to pet him while he’s working, rather than just asking them not to pet him. I’ve learned that he needs to stay focused while he’s in harness. I need to be his universe and if someone else is giving him attention, he might forget to focus on keeping me safe. I guess it can be compared to a few driving distractions…texting while driving, turning around and talking to your back seat passengers while driving, or eating while driving. This all starts to become much clearer this week. I think we’re ready for fine tuning now.

Day 17:

Tampa – omg…I wasn’t petrified, but I was a bit anxious today. I grew up in Tampa, and I know how crazy the drivers are there. I used to be one of them. I can tell you that having so much to remember was a concern for me. There are at least 40 commands for Carson while he’s in harness. If you couple that with having to gauge traffic patterns, obstacles, and people, it can be overwhelming. I am fortunate enough to have an outstanding trainer who is a pro at all this stuff. All of the students feel that way about their respective trainer. We not only share a bond with our dog, but we form one with our trainer too. We have to trust that if our dog steps off a curb instead of stopping at it, that our trainer will keep us safe. Go ahead…close your eyes and walk to the edge of a busy street with someone. Are you certain that they will stop you from walking out into traffic? I can say that, without hesitation, my trainer will do that. We are on our game now. Nothing is getting in our way and I feel like a whole new person. I feel like I have been doing this forever. Then we approach a revolving door.

I didn’t like these doors when I could see, so getting me into one now is near impossible. I clear my space as we approach to make sure I know what I’m in for. I grip the handle and pull Carson close. Here we go…I push and we move like we’ve done this a million times. We turn around to do it again, this time to head back out of the building. Do you think I remembered to pull my arm out? Nope…I was only concerned about getting Carson out safe. Have I said that I love him? We also cover stairs today. No issues there. Tampa is done and I am relieved.

Day 18:

Today is Vet day. We stay on campus and spend time at the veterinarian clinic. Some of the students get together and try to guess their dog’s weight. I guessed Carson at 74 pounds. Wrong, but not by much. He’s 69.4 pounds, and one of the smaller dogs, I might add. Carson checks out great and we head back to the administration building. We are on the downward swing now. We take our class and individual pictures today too. I’m told that I am a bit OCD when it comes to our class photo. You can decide for yourself. We have 1 Viszla, 2 yellow labs, 2 black & tan labs, and 4 black labs. I suggest we balance the picture by putting the Viszla in the middle followed by a black & tan on each side, then 2 black labs on each side, finished off with the 2 yellow labs on each end. Okay, when I type it out, it does seem a bit OCD, but the picture comes out great. Carson is very photogenic. He smiles, I smile, and we continue our love affair.

Day 19:

We’re heading back to the mall to learn escalators. This is an easy day (so I think). Carson and I are traveling extremely well together. I’m as comfortable as I used to be when I had full vision. I hear little comments from people passing about Carson and the other dogs being so beautiful and well behaved. It makes me proud on both sides (student and employee). So off to Macy’s we go to conquer the escalator. We have no issues heading up, but on our way down, the escalator is surrounded by mirrors. Apparently Carson feels the need to check and make sure he looks good, instead of getting off the escalator with me. I tug on the leash and it goes really limp. Carson comes scooting by me. That would be because my trainer saved my dog’s life (and paws). I come back to the realization that I don’t know everything and this is a 50/50 deal. I have to pay attention to him and keep him safe too. We work the escalator again without incident.

Once we get back to campus, we bathe our dogs. Carson is not a happy bath dog, he’s a “hurry up and get this over, I’m miserable” kind of bath dog. I have a picture to prove it. We learn how to clean ears and brush teeth today too. Carson doesn’t have a problem with either, although I think he’d pass on the ear cleaning, if given the choice. Why are we doing all of this today? Tomorrow is Puppy Raiser Day!

Days 20/21:

Puppy Raiser Day – I’m anxious about meeting the person who raised Carson. I want her to be proud of him and happy that he was matched with me. All the students have heard their puppy raiser bio. Carson’s raiser was 17 when she raised him. She did an amazing job.

Our morning will consist of a route while all the raisers are watching (no pressure), then a meet & greet with the raiser (no pressure), then pictures with the raiser (that one’s easy), then a brunch with the raiser. I can tell you as I prepare for my route, I’m as nervous as I’ve ever been. Carson gives me that look again to let me know that he’s got this and we’ll be fine. He was right. Our route was perfect. I head in to my room for a quick change, then off to meet Carson’s first love.

We have been told by our trainers what to expect. Our dog will take a few seconds to remember the raiser, go absolutely crazy with excitement, then eventually settle right back down next to us. I know at least one student was worried that his dog wouldn’t return to him, and I have to say that I was a little worried that Carson would completely ignore me and want to stay with his raiser. It goes just as we were told. Carson went nuts over his raiser, but he kept looking back at me as if to let me know that he can love more than one person at a time, but in different ways. I cannot explain to his raiser how grateful I am for the hard work and love that she put into raising Carson. He is the perfect dog. He is the perfect dog. He is the perfect dog. We have brunch and chat about all the things we each know about Carson and give a big hug goodbye at the end. I don’t turn around as I’m leaving because I’m tearing up and if I turn around, I will cry. Carson takes a quick turn as if to let his raiser know that he’s got this and he’ll be fine. Next week will be our last week.

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