Archive for May, 2009

A Busy Season and Goodbye to Mojo

Every year since I can remember, the month of May, and especially the days leading up to Memorial Day, is a busy season. Between school choir concerts, piano recitals, and end-of-year celebrations, it seems like everything happens all at once. But until last year, I didn’t know what busy really meant. On top of the previously mentioned events, I was also preparing to graduate high school, visiting my college to make sure the accommodations I needed were in place, learning some routes at my college to better prepare me if I got a guide dog, and last but not least, getting fitted for a dress to be a bride’s maid in my sister’s wedding. On top of that, my brother (Mojo’s owner) moved away last year on this date, and my family was helping him pack.
     So this date last year began on a sad note, as I had to say goodbye to Mojo. Mojo had stayed with us a lot the months leading up to the move because my brother was working, and also needed to make arrangements before the move, so my mom and I had started to grow attached to Mojo. But Mojo was my brother’s dog, and we also thought that it was probably a good thing that Mojo would not be living with us when I got my guide dog because he is very territorial and a dominant male (smile). So at about 6:30 in the morning on this date last year, my parents and I stood out in the driveway to see him off. I think my parents and I were both amazed at how happily and innocently he jumped in the car with my brother, never looking back at us. I wonder if he knew he was leaving us, or if he will remember us; we have not been able to see him all year because he is too big to go on an airplane. With my brother’s work schedule, he has not had time to drive back, and we won’t be able to make such a long trip any time soon either. But when my brother came back to visit for Thanksgiving, he assured us Mojo was happy and doing well. Just like after Indy died, when I received Gilbert three months after Mojo moved away, I once again found room in my heart for another special dog.
     I’m sorry. The way I am going on about Mojo, some might think that I missed Mojo more than my brother (smile). I miss my brother too, but in many ways, Mojo was like a best friend, always there to greet me when I came home, or cheer me up when I was down, and dogs, especially dogs like Mojo have an innocence, and an optimistic outlook on life, that no human friend has ever been able to match.
     After Mojo left, I didn’t cry, or anything like that, but there was definitely that all too familiar sense that something was missing in our house. But I think there is definitely some truth to the belief that keeping busy leaves less time to think about a loss, and I definitely kept busy. That very night, I had my last high school choir concert. Freshman, sophomore and junior year, I had witnessed seniors tearfully saying goodbye to the choir teachers, and singing a farewell song, but somehow, it seemed hard to believe that this day had come for me too. But surprisingly I didn’t even cry at the last concert like I thought I would. Why? As I stood onstage singing with the choir, my sadness was drowned out by the realization that my graduation party was only two weeks away, and I still had not sent out invitations!
     One year later, today is kind of a busy day, but nothing compared to last year. On Monday, my parents and I drove to Indiana to pick up my grandma, and today, my sister came home from North Carolina for my grandma’s 80th birthday party. While I thought about Mojo a little bit, especially since my brother is flying home tomorrow for the party, the thought also occurred to me that today marks the nine month anniversary of my graduation with Gilbert, my sweet, faithful guide dog, who just like Mojo, has an innocence, and a joy for life about him. I would not trade Gilbert for the world because he has reaffirmed my belief that while all dogs are special in their own way, and should never be forgotten, there is always room in the heart for the love of another dog. And in many ways, my bond with Gilbert is even deeper than my bond with Indy, Snickers or Mojo because Gilbert is not simply a pet, but a guide dog. In some ways, he is a pet, wagging his tail, giving kisses, and begging for a belly rub. But in harness, he keeps me safe, cautiously navigating me across streets, and over bumpy sidewalks, helping me to build self confidence, trust and independence.
     Over the past year, I have realized the truth behind the saying which says “the only constant in life is change”. This year has been full of changes, not the least of which was working a guide dog. But through it all, Gilbert has stood patiently and faithfully by my side joyfully stepping in to fill Mojo’s place and become my new best friend.

Jog for Guide Dogs

Last year today was the day I first met Gilbert! The program from which I received Gilbert was an extremely new program, and I was only the second student to receive a dog from them. Last year, this program held its first annual Jog for Guide Dogs fundraiser to raise money for Gilbert’s training. For any readers who may be unfamiliar with the process of training a guide dog, training one guide dog costs over $20,000, and since my program was not well-known like say, Seeing Eye, raising this kind of money required lots of publicity and fundraisers. Since I desperately wanted a guide dog, and since my teacher and I were amazed that a newly established in-home training program, the solution to my dilemma of not being able to travel far away for a whole month had the perfect dog for me just in time for college, I was happy to help this program in their fundraising efforts. I wrote a letter about what a guide dog would mean to me, and how an in-home training program was necessary for me. I wrote thank you notes to some extremely generous donors, and last year at the first Jog for Guide Dogs, I was asked to speak to everyone in attendance and encourage them to donate to the cause. But meeting Gilbert made this event so much more than just a fundraiser.
     Right when I got to the park where the fundraiser was being held, I could tell that everyone who cared for, and trained the dogs were extremely compassionate, and full of love for their dogs. In fact, it struck me as kind of funny when one of Gilbert’s puppy raisers came up to me and introduced herself as one of Gilbert’s “foster parents”. It made me wonder is she talking about a child or a dog? (smile). But like I said in an earlier entry, I believe that a dog must know they are loved to bond with humans, and referring to herself as Gilbert’s foster parent showed me that there was definitely not a lack of love in Gilbert’s life. Everyone had nothing but praise for how sweet and mellow he was.
     My vision teacher accompanied me to this event, and we walked the two mile trail using sighted guide. I brought my cane, and I was surprised she didn’t make me use it on the trail. But I suppose that like me, she had a gut feeling that Gilbert would work out, and that I wouldn’t be using my cane for much longer anyway (smile). After the walk, I ate a brat, and waited in eager anticipation through a presentation by the American Kennel Club. Then, I was called up to speak, and meet Gilbert! I remember being nervous and excited, and I am not a great speaker, but I think I gave a strong testimony about how much I loved dogs, and how a dog would give me so much more dignity and independence than a stick. I got to hold Gilbert on his leash during my speech, and I was amazed about how calmly he sat at my side while I spoke. That day, I am sure he was nervous too, thinking who is this stranger they have given me to? But over the past nine months, I can tell he has bonded with me, by simple things like nuzzling me with his nose when he is sitting by my side in public, or wagging his tail when I talk to him. For the most part, he is exactly the way he was that day when I met him, a well-mannered, sweet angel who follows me and sits calmly at my side in public.
     Then, the trainer took me to an empty sidewalk, where I walked with Gilbert for the first time. I had done a few Juno walks with my vision teacher, but not even a Juno walk can compare to walking with a guide dog. Juno walks may get your body used to holding on to a harness handle, which is much lower than the arm for sighted guide, but only by walking with a real dog do you learn to trust a dog. I was honestly very apprehensive on my first walk with Gilbert. Despite the inspiration my friend’s guide dog had given me two days before, I still felt strange trusting a dog with keeping me safe. On top of that, I exercised new muscles in my arm pulling on the harness handle, so I was tired after only a short distance. But considering that I had not been trained at all, and Gilbert had not yet finished training, we did a great job. I left this event even more excited than before. I instinctively knew that even though Gilbert and I were both nervous, with training and practice, we would become a wonderful working team.
     On Saturday, Gilbert and I went to the second Jog for Guide Dogs event. Since this was the event where I first met Gilbert, I wanted to come back and relive the experience with Gilbert, and tell everyone how wonderfully we both bonded, and how much independence he gave me in college. Also, since my graduation with Gilbert, two other people were placed with guide dogs, and I got to talk with one of them about our experiences.
     It was kind of ironic and funny that when we arrived at the park, he was far different from the mellow angel of last year. I guess I cannot blame him. Since we graduated, he hardly ever comes in to contact with other dogs because he is our only dog, so I am sure that seeing so many dogs he used to play with was like a family reunion for him (smile). Despite repeated corrections for lunging at dogs to sniff them, only after walking the trail did he start to settle down! His naughty behavior has prompted me to look in to obedience classes to teach him to obey me when there are other dogs around. But this year, there was no apprehention when he guided me through the trail. We walked quickly and confidently through long grass and down steep hills, when only a year ago, trusting a dog to walk me across a flat sidewalk scared me to death. Though we still have a few minor behavior issues to work out, after only nine months, we have become a confident working team, and I believe that based on how far we have come in nine months, over the many years I hope to spend with Gilbert, I am sure we will only get better.

Above and Beyond Her Guiding Duties

I wanted to share an incredible event that occurred one year ago today. Now that it was pretty certain that I would be getting a guide dog, this incident proved to me firsthand the intelligence and sensitivity that guide dogs possess.
     Every year, the vision teachers organize a picnic for all of the visually impaired students from sixth grade through twelfth grade in the county. A friend of mine who was in college, and who had a guide dog was also invited. After going to the grocery store to buy food for the picnic, we went to a nearby park, and had some time to socialize before we grilled the food. When we got to the park, I wanted to sit with my friend and catch up with her since I don’t see her very often. But with my cane, I was a slow walker, nervous about walking on the uneven terrain of grass, and with her guide dog, she walked fast and with confidence. In previous years, by the time I made my way from the parking lot to the picnic area, she was long gone, and had already found a spot to sit. I sometimes felt so embarrassed with my slowness and lack of confidence that I ended up sitting somewhere else. Last year however, I got to the picnic area, and I could still hear her talking to people and she had not found a place to sit yet. So I decided to lightly hold on to her shoulder so that when she walked, I could match her pace and not lose track of her. I still used my cane because I thought that since the guide dog was technically only responsible for her, the dog would not get me around any obsticles. It turns out I was wrong.
     As we were walking, we came to a tree, but my cane never hit the tree, and my face did not come in to contact with a single tree branch. My friend reported with amazement that the dog had guided both of us effortlessly around the tree! I always knew that guide dogs forged strong bonds with their handlers: this bond was definitely evident with my friend and her dog. But that day, I learned that guide dogs are not only loyal, but sensitive to others. My friend’s dog knew that I was also blind, and was holding on to her handler, and went out of her way to guide both of us, even though she didn’t have to.
     I have not yet had a blind person hold on to my shoulder while I walk with Gilbert, but given his gentle, sensitive personality, and his care and caution when he guides me, something tells me he would do the same thing.

PRAISE HIS NAME!

One year ago today, I was preparing for another ordinary day of school, and doing my usual check of my e-mails to make sure that I received all of the assignments my teachers send me for my morning classes. But in the process of checking my e-mails, it would become clear that for me, this would not be just another ordinary day.
     A few weeks earlier, I had asked my vision teacher if she had heard back from the guide dog school, and if the dog trainer could at least reveal the names of dogs they had in mind for me. When I am extremely excited about a new addition to the family, be it a new baby cousin (I got to experience the excited anticipation of a baby cousin four times), or in this case, a guide dog, there is something wonderful about simply hearing the name of the baby or the dog, and just saying their name allows me to bond with them before I even meet them. My vision teacher said she had not heard back from the trainer about a dog for me, and pointed out with an understanding smile in her tone of voice that the dog trainer might not want to give me a name until he was sure the dog would work out so I wouldn’t start getting attached to the dog, and then be devastated if that dog didn’t work out. I had a bad case of dog fever (smile).

     Back in February, I would visit the school’s website, where they posted brief profiles of all of the puppies in the program, but I had not allowed myself to visit the wevsite too often because I quickly discovered that reading about puppies would only make my case of dog fever worse (smile). Besides, when I first visited the website, there was only one dog in training; the other dogs were still living with puppy raisers. Therefore, I was trying to mentally prepare myself for the strong possibility that there may not be a suitable dog for me, and I may have to begin college with a cane. So as you can imagine, I could barely contain my joy, when one year ago today, I received an e-mail from the guide dog school, saying that they think they found the perfect dog for me, and his name was Gilbert!
     Of course, the next line of the e-mail said that I shouldn’t get too excited because there was still a chance he might not work out for me. The trainer thought Gilbert was absolutely perfect for my personality because he was extremely mellow for a puppy, and he walked slow, but he still had to complete traffic training. Many dogs who do wonderfully through most of the formal guide dog training cannot handle the pressure of traffic, and thus are unable to become guide dogs. But by the time I reached this line of caution, I was already so far gone with excitement that I completely disregarded this line, and I remember shouting to my parents, “my guide dog’s name is going to be Gilbert!” My dad immediately went on to the website, and pulled up Gilbert’s profile, which also included a picture of him. He was a yellow lab, and my mom told me he was adorable! That day at school, I found myself opening up this e-mail whenever there was downtime in class, wanting to relive this wonderful news, and I told all my favorite teachers about it. I found myself whispering his name to myself every time I had moments alone, and thinking “what an awesome name for a dog!”
     Four days later, I would get to meet Gilbert, and walk with him at a fundraiser, and I knew that after this, I would be hopelessly in love with him (smile). Though a small part of me feared Gilbert wouldn’t work out, somehow, I just knew he would.

A Tail of Flatulence

I hope readers of this journal don’t finish reading this entry and decide that I am totally immature, but I cannot resist telling a hilarious Mojo story that happened one year ago today.      Every now and then, let’s just say, Mojo had gas issues, and last year on this date was one of his worst episodes. The whole family was sitting around the table, enjoying a wonderful dinner my mom had cooked to celebrate my grandma’s birthday, when from the corner, we heard a loud “tute”. For a moment, the room was silent with shock. It sounded like it came from Mojo, but we never knew it was possible for a dog to tute that loud! So we all decided it had to be my sister’s boyfriend who was sitting next to the dog. When all heads turned toward him, he said, “It wasn’t me! It was the dog!” Since he wasn’t the type of boy to do something like that at the dinner table, we believed him, and we all burst out laughing.
     Then, I don’t know if Mojo couldn’t help it, or if he was enjoying the attention, but he did it again! And a few minutes later, wow! Let’s just say we had to open a few windows!
     After this incident, it occurred to me that if I got a guide dog, he may be extremely well-trained, and have good manners. But a guide dog is still a dog, and some things are involuntary (laugh). Could my guide dog asphyxiate the class during an important lecture? (laugh) Fortunately, on the rare occasions when my guide dog has gas, it is silent, and not too deadly.

Memories of Mojo

After Indy died, my sister and I desperately missed the bark when the doorbell rang, and being greeted with a wagging tail when we came home, and we desperately wanted another dog. But we did not have any luck finding a dog at the humane society that was suitable for our family, so my parents decided they wanted to wait until I got my guide dog. At first, I was crushed. I was in seventh grade, and the time when I would be able to get a guide dog still seemed a long way off. I absolutely loved Snickers, and I think she enjoyed being the only pet in the house. We spent many happy Saturday afternoons with her purring in my lap, or chasing around a cat toy. Still every time I went to a friend’s house who had a dog, or heard a neighbor walking their dog, I was filled with a sense that something was missing. Indy was a special dog, and of course, she would hold a place in my heart that no other dog would be able to fill. But Indy made me recognize that dogs do not live very long, and I believed I could make room in my heart for another dog without forgetting Indy.
     Six months after Indy died, this ache for a dog was eased considerably when Mojo came in to our family. Mojo was a black labrador retriever who belonged to my brother who lived about half an hour away. He was not officially our dog, but I got to see him regularly, and we occasionally got to watch him when my brother traveled, or when he had to work long hours, and did not want to leave him home alone so long.

     Just like Indy, Mojo did not have the manners for a guide dog: he loved people so much he could not resist greeting them by jumping on them. But by then, I was bigger and stronger and thus could brace myself when all eighty pounds of him jumped on me (smile). His table manners were much better than Indy’s. Sometimes during dinner, he would stick his head through your arm and beg a little bit, but he never stole food right out of your hand or climbed on to a chair to lick plates. The only thing you had to hide from Mojo, believe it or not was bread! If a bag of bread was left on the counter, he would put his front paws on the counter, force the bag open, and eat the loaf! After eating three loaves of bread one week, we finally learned that anything else could be left out, but we had to put the bread away securely.

     And as far as his behavior toward Snickers, he was the exact opposite of Indy. He did not give the poor kitty a moment of peace! If he saw her, the chase was on, so when Mojo came, we didn’t see much of her. But he made for a wonderful pet, and a loyal watchdog, reminding me of Indy. His free spirit, and joyful outlook on life uplifted me, and even when my brother came to take him home after a visit, I felt a renewed joy for life, and would think about him and smile as I went about my school routine.
     What stands out most in my memories of Mojo was that he absolutely loved to play fetch. One of our family’s favorite stories to tell is when Mojo got loose, ran to a tennis court, stole someone’s tennis ball, and then ran to the fire station, and dropped the ball at the feet of a fireman to play fetch! Even animal control thought it was cute, and did not give my brother a sitation. He loved fetch so much that if you even said fetch or ball in a flat tone of voice, he would jump on you in anticipation, so we had to spell it! Mojo is the only dog our family has had that actually brought the ball back. Indy and my guide dog are both the type of dog that chase after the ball, and then lay down to chew on it. He could play fetch until you thought your arm would fall off, and even when he is panting and exhausted, you could tell he was disappointed when you decided he needed to rest.
     Mojo also amazed our family with his intelligence. We swear he understood English. He knew the difference when we told him to get his ball or his bone. In another favorite family story, my mom had opened the outside dorr and said to Mojo, “go outside so we can go to bed!” That is exactly what Mojo did: he ran outside, did his business, and then ran up to the bedroom! Mojo was the true example of the fact that dogs are more intelligent than we give them credit for.
     Since I knew that Mojo was the last dog I would get to spend time with who was strictly a pet, I admit I could not resist spoiling him the way a grandma spoils her grandchild (laugh). When my parents fed him, they gave him a normal bowl, but when I fed him, his bowl was filled to overflowing. When he was at our house, my parents did not want him on carpet, and absolutely forbid him from the furniture because he shed a lot. But when we were home alone, and he begged to be with me, I would let him lay next to me on the couch. Once, I even let him sit on my lap, even though he was way past lap size, and he was practically suffocating me. He wanted to lay on my lap, probably wanting to go back to his puppyhood, and it was too adorable to say no!
     Last year, my brother moved far away, and I have not seen Mojo in almost a year. My disappointment about having to part with Mojo was lessened by the fact that just a few months later, I would receive a guide dog, and he would truly be my dog. I absolutely love my guide dog, and he is much easier to care for because he actually has proper guide dog manners, and he is so mellow you would think he is an old dog. Still, every now and then, I confess I find myself missing Mojo, and his untamed joy for life, coming from a dog who would not have made for a good guide dog, but was a wonderful, unforgettable pet who will always occupy a place in my heart.

Cat Memories

For years my sister had desperately wanted a cat. My parents were reluctant to get a cat, probably because, understandably, they didn’t think Indy would be pleased with a new creature in her territory (laugh). But the summer after fourth grade was the first summer my sister had her driver’s license, so since both of our parents worked all day, we spent our summer days sneaking off to the humane society to look at kittens.

     At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted a cat because I had been bitten and scratched by other cats. But after only a couple trips to the humane society, that were filled with the sounds of sad, lonely kittens mewing and throwing themselves against the door of the cage, desperate for love and attention, my sister had me hooked. With me on her side, it didn’t take us long to lobby Mom and Dad. Our main arguments were the usual promise that every kid makes, that they will do all of the work. Of course, we didn’t live up to our end of the bargain, but my parents came to love the cat so much that they didn’t mind. We also made the valid argument that while Indy was a wonderful pet, she was too big to sit in our lap, and a lap pet would be a wonderful addition to our family.
     On a Saturday in August, my mom agreed to come to the humane society with us, and we showed her the cats we thought had the best temperament. The next day, we brought home a black kitten whom we decided to name Snickers.
     Snickers is definitely not your typical cat. Most other cats I have interacted with hide somewhere and sleep all day, only showing up at meal times. Snickers is eight years old now, and she acts more like a dog than a cat. Whenever someone comes over, she greets them at the door, and she craves attention, always wanting to be where the action is. If someone is sitting on the couch, she will jump in to their lap and purr so loud you can hear her all the way across the room!
     Just like Indy, Snickers also has a mind of her own. If you try to pick her up and she doesn’t want to be held at that moment, she makes this wish very clear with a good bite. After eight years though, I can recognize by the way she moves her head that she is not pleased, and is about to bite, and have developed excellent reflexes! Also, I swear Snickers knows I am blind, and when she was a kitten, she used this to her advantage. Every morning, she would crouch and wait silently either in the middle of the hallway, or at the bottom of the stairs, and just as I would approach her, she would pounce and nip my ankles, scaring the daylights out of me every time!      Also, still to this day, despite our efforts to discipline her with a firm voice and a squirt gun, she insists on jumping on to the table or counter. No sooner do we shoo her off the table than she persists and jumps right back on. Almost every day, she persists with this until we either feed her, or have to lock her in another room.
     And as for how Indy and Snickers got along, it turned out that we had no reason to worry about Indy hurting Snickers. It still amazes me how much nerve Snickers had in her interactions with Indy, and how patient Indy was! If Indy was sitting in a spot Snickers wanted, she would just walk up to Indy and bite her! When we first got Snickers, she only weighed about five pounds, and Indy could have easily gotten rid of the pest with one quick snap. But instead, Indy would just give in, and move, letting Snickers have her spot! Growing up with a dog who was so forgiving and patient with a pesky creature that was smaller than her head has definitely given me a deeper respect for dogs and their level of compassion. When I took my guide dog to my grandma’s house, and my 15-month-old cousin came to visit, it came as no surprise to me when my guide dog followed him around, and laid down next to the baby when he was ready for a nap.
     Snickers also gave me valuable experience in the power that a gentle voice can have in bonding with animals. Being that Indy was such a big strong dog, she would only respond to you when you addressed her in a loud firm voice. But since Snickers was tiny buy comparison, and was frightened by loud voices, she responded best to a cheerful baby voice. With my guide dog, I try to combine both of these concepts, using the firm voice when he is naughty, but a sweet voice whenever possible. The fact that Snickers purrs with contentment, and my guide dog wags his tail furiously at the sound of a gentle, loving voice is more than enough evidence to prove that animals definitely have emotions, and want to know that they are loved. While practice and discipline are very important, Snickers has helped me to appreciate that expressing love to an animal is just as important for forging a lifelong bond, and thus a cohesive guide dog team.