There’s No Place Like Home!

Well readers, I promise that the next entry will reveal all the duties I perform in my amazing internship. But I thought that since I have at least ended the suspense about where I am doing my internship, that you guys wouldn’t mind a break in the series for the assistance dog blog carnival. I made this decision for two reasons. First, Gilbert has reminded me again that this blog is called “Gilbert and Me.” Thus he would appreciate it if this blog would focus on him every now and then. Second, I thought it would be nice to post my entry in advance for a change, not at the last minute when it is too late for my fellow assistance dog handlers reading this to participate. With that being said, the theme for this carnival is “differences”, and the deadline for submitting entries is July 22. To read the details and submit a link to an entry should you choose, visit http://brilliantmindbrokenbody.wordpress.com/2011/06/25/the-carnival-is-coming-to-town.

     So I learned the theme for this carnival when I got home from a family vacation a couple weeks ago, and realized it was very fitting after this trip because it reminded me once again that away from home, Gilbert is a different dog.

     As I wrote in my reflection on the one-year anniversary of the day Gilbert came to live with me (you can find this entry in the very first Assistance Dog Blog Carnival), I will never forget how although Gilbert hardly knew me, he made himself right at home. When I sat on the kitchen floor to pet him that first day while the trainer talked to my parents and me, he smothered my face with kisses. When I took him around the house on leash so he could sniff everything, he jumped on to my bed! (The following day I learned that this happened because I had forgotten to shorten the leash.) I made him get off my bed right away because I didn’t want to encourage bad habits, but I secretly found it adorable that he already felt comfortable enough to try jumping on my bed and making himself at home.

     I have heard that often times, new guide dogs are so upset about being separated from their trainer and left in a strange environment that they don’t eat. This wasn’t the case for Gilbert who excitedly tried to eat directly out of the food bin! And when the dog trainer left us alone for our first night, Gilbert didn’t cry. Thus, except for some minor issues with barking if I left him alone in his crate the first week, he was clearly happy with his new home.

     Three weeks later was move-in day at the college dorm, but I figured this would be no problem for Gilbert. As is typical for all dogs in a training program, I knew that Gilbert had already transitioned to three different homes: the kennel where he was born, his puppy raisers and the trainer’s home. But this transition would be easier I thought, because he would only have to adjust to a new place, not a new handler. Besides, three weeks isn’t long enough to really get attached to a place, is it?

     As is often the case, I was wrong. Other students may not have noticed it because when there were visitors, he was as friendly and exuberant as ever. But when they left, he preferred to crawl in to his crate instead of following me around the room or lying at my feet when I was sitting at my desk. Eventually it occurred to me that this room didn’t have soft carpet to lay on and thus I couldn’t blame him for preferring the dog bed in his cage to the cold tile floor. So during the daytime, I would pull the bed out of the cage for him. But he still just didn’t seem himself. This may sound strange to some people, but although Gilbert spends most of his time sleeping even at home, somehow I could just tell that in the dorm, his sleep wasn’t the sleep of doggy contentment, but a listless, depressed sleep. (His depression never prevented him from inhaling his food at least!) He never could get comfortable relieving himself as cars drove by since the homes where he was raised, and my home are in rural areas. And most telling of all, he learned which driveway was home in no time flat and to this day, he turns in to it without any prompting when we return from walks. But he rarely if ever stopped at the correct dorm room, requiring me to make a braille label to mark my door. Maybe he honestly wasn’t sure which door was mine as all the doors were identical, but looking back, I wonder if he did know, but in bypassing the door, he was trying to make a statement. “This dorm isn’t home! I want to go home!”

     When my parents could tell I was lonely and invited me home for a burger on Labor Day, Gilbert didn’t seem too phased about being home. But after the first two days of classes, my mom could tell I was exhausted and wanted me to come home and rest for the weekend. This time, the instant Gilbert’s leash was removed, he ran laps through the house! My mom and I both agree it was his way of shouting for joy, “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!” It was such an incredible, unforgettable display of pure joy that occasionally my mom and I still laugh about it to this day.

     That first week would turn out to be the longest stretch of time I ever stayed in that dorm. When people asked me why the dorm didn’t work out, I blamed it on the stress of getting myself and Gilbert ready for an 8:00 morning class in an unfamiliar dorm and decided it would be better to live at home where I could be more efficient, and maybe try independence again when we were more acclimated to college life and each other. This was true, but another part of it was that Gilbert’s transformation when we came home was too dramatic to ignore.

     I would spend an occasional weekend in the dorm when there was an event I wanted to attend, and would go back to my dorm to study when there was a gap of time between classes, but not enough time to go home. I would try to make these times fun for Gilbert and also to ease my loneliness in that notoriously antisocial dorm by inviting friends to visit my room. A good belly rub, which my friends were always happy to give, cheered Gilbert up in no time. (In the beginning of our partnership, it seemed like he didn’t like my belly rubs as much, probably because as the trainer said, I treated him like he was made of glass. But now he wags his tail as hard as he does for everyone else when I give belly rubs.) Occasionally, my friends would even play ball with him. I left ball throwing to the sighted people as it was a small room and I didn’t want to become a legend told for years to come. “We had a blind student on campus one time who broke a window playing ball with her guide dog!” There were no safe areas near campus that I knew of where Gilbert could run off-leash, and one of my suite mates and I were politely busted by a resident assistant when we let him chase the ball in the much more spacious hallway once. But for all practical purposes, Gilbert and I had decided we were happier at home. I wonder if the reason Gilbert ran through the house with such jubilation at the end of that first week was because he could sense subconsciously that we were essentially home to stay.

     Gilbert loves going to class with me and socializing with my friends, but at the end of the day, he always has his little ways of saying “it’s good to be home!” As a puppy, he would express this by running to the living room and chewing contentedly on his bone. As he has gotten older, he is less interested in bones and will just flop down on his favorite spot, the floor in front of the couch and sigh with contentment. If he were a human, I know he wouldn’t be the type of guy who volunteers in the community after work or goes golfing with his buddies. He would be the guy who crashes on the couch with a beer or something good to eat, passing the evening watching television without a care in the world.

     And that brings me to our trip two weeks ago. Most humans view a vacation as a chance to relax without a care in the world, but I was reminded once again that Gilbert prefers to relax at home. That Saturday morning as I always do before trips, I had to measure out dog food and dump each individual meal in to ziplock bags. At first, Gilbert got excited, thinking he was going to get an extra meal, but when he observed me putting the food in to bags, he laid down at my feet dejected, probably thinking “great. Another trip.” While my parents, sister and I enjoyed sitting on the balcony of our hotel room which my parents told me had a fabulous view, Gilbert spent much of the time pacing and growling at all of the unfamiliar noises. When he would lay down, he remained alert and nervous. This means that while I can leave Gilbert home alone in his crate if I want to go to an event without him, my parents and I agreed we should never leave him alone in a hotel room. It would be too traumatic for him, and he could even potentially get us kicked out of the hotel if he barked too much. So when we wanted to go to the water park that was included in our hotel fee, my parents and I took turns sitting with him at an out-of-the-way lounge chair. I think he might have enjoyed the water park atmosphere more than the hotel because he never barked at anything, but I still don’t think he fully relaxed the way he does at home.

     I have thought about asking other guide dog handlers or Gilbert’s trainer if there is anything I could do to make him more comfortable with new places, but our family is the kind that takes very short trips that usually only involve one night in a hotel. If he had a few more days to get used to the new environment, he would still look forward to getting home, but maybe would relax a little more. But as it is, when he barks I reprimand him, but then try to console him with comforting words like “It’s okay buddy. We’re going home soon!”

     Thanks to the vastness of the resort which required a long walk to the water park, not to mention our walking on the town strip to get a taste of the night life and the added concentration required of him to guide me in these relatively unfamiliar areas, he was finally tired enough to relax when we got back to the room and he slept like a rock all night. But as usual, his tail wagged the next afternoon when we came home.

     You know, now that I think about it, Gilbert probably gets his stress about being away from home from his owner. I have heard so many handlers say that if they are stressed, it transmits to the other end of the leash and the dog is stressed. It could also be that we are just the perfect personality match. But whatever the reason, while the rest of the family enjoys the change of scenery, Gilbert and I look forward to getting home again.

     I have yet to find a hotel or house where the shower was as easy to use as the shower at home, or with furniture as comfortable as ours. At the same time, I am sure Gilbert is thinking “you just cannot get carpet as soft as it is at home, or find such spacious rooms perfect for running circles or playing with cats when I get a burst of energy.” While he is stressing out about the unfamiliar noises, I am stressing out over the unfamiliar hotel room and cursing the fact that hotel rooms cannot have the nice pantry setup we have at home, where his food bin is on the floor when you open the right-hand door, and his dishes are stacked conveniently on top of it. In the hotel room, I must first hunt for the doggy bag amidst all of the other luggage. Then there is the slightly cumbersome task of filling the dish with water from a tiny hotel room sink rather than the big kitchen sink at home, and then finding a place to station the dish where it won’t be a trip hazard. Then the hunt through the luggage begins anew, this time for my toiletries since hotel rooms dont come with toiletries conveniently arranged in drawers. Neither of us can fully relax on the balcony of the hotel room or in the lounge chair area in the water park because both are so much noisier than our peaceful patio, and a stationary lounge chair isn’t nearly as relaxing as our porch swing and its soothing squeak as it rocks back and forth.

     While I don’t like the inconvenience of sharing one tiny bathroom with three other people, I am sure Gilbert wishes he could just step right out the front door with me when it is time for him to relieve himself, instead of having to wear his harness to guide me through a huge hotel and then often for a long ways outside as my dad helps me find a secluded grassy area. We both would rather walk on our familiar country roads or the sidewalks of our college campus, and then only for the purposes of exercise or getting between classes. Neither of us go for large crowds, unfamiliar bumps in the sidewalks, unfamiliar obstacles to get around or the boredom of stopping all the time while the sighted people shop or look at something. When we get home for the day after school or currently, my summer internship, we like to devote one hour to a good aerobic walk and then spend the rest of the day immersed in a good book, or in his case, a good dream. We both enjoyed some aspects of the trip. I loved swimming, even if it was a little cold for swimming that day, the delicious food we ate for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant, the fudge we bought at a candy store on the strip that evening and most importantly the $23 I won at a casino now that I am old enough to enter casinos. I think Gilbert enjoyed when a couple little kids came up to admire and pet him at the water park, and he always enjoys licking crumbs off the floor at restaurants! But as the car pulled back in to our driveway Sunday afternoon and we entered the house him with a wagging tail and me with a contented sigh, it was clear we were both saying “there’s no place like home!”

     Next year, I will graduate college and if I find a decent job, I would kind of like to move out of my parents’ house and try my hand at independence again in an apartment or condominium. I would hate the unfamiliarity and lack of comfortable furniture at first, but over time I know I would adjust. And of course, my own home would be a long-term home, so I would not be living out of a suitcase like I do for vacations. Therefore, I would get to arrange Gilbert’s food and my toiletries so that they could be located efficiently, eliminating a lot of the stress I mentioned above. But I will probably never live in another house as spacious and peaceful as this one. For one thing, with the economy going down the drain, nobody in my generation will be able to afford such a nice house. But even if I could afford it, as a blind person, I cannot mow the huge lawns and don’t want to shovel snow off the long driveways that come with spacious rural houses. I don’t think a smaller house would be a big deal for me, and maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal for Gilbert either once he got used to it. Maybe some of his depression in the dorm had to do with the fact that we were such a new team then that the transition to the dorm was just too much for him. Maybe now that we will have been a team for almost four years by the time we would move, he might have an easier time recognizing the truth in the saying that it is the people that make a home, not the place. Even so, a small part of me cannot help but worry that when we move, he won’t be able to call any other place home.

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