Archive for January, 2012

Slamming in to Obstacles

This entry is for the sixth edition of the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. For more information about this carnival and how you can participate, visit http://dogstaracademy.com.

The theme of this carnival is “obstacles.” Many contributors will likely go the figurative route with this theme, but given that I use a guide dog who is trained to navigate me safely around obstacles, I thought I would take a slightly more literal approach to this theme.

     I will never forget the first day of training when the dog trainer, my parents and I sat around our kitchen table for a meeting before Gilbert was brought in to the house, and the dog trainer mentioned that guide dogs, just like humans, are not perfect. Guide dogs can and do stop for curbs and stairs, guide their handlers around obstacles more gracefully than clunking them with a cane, back up quickly if a car pulls in front of them, even practice intelligent disobedience if a handler commands the dog “forward” to cross a street when cars are coming. Guide dogs have been declared heroes too, such as Roselle who calmly guided her handler Michael Hingson out of one of the twin towers on September 11.

     But just like humans, guide dogs have their off days, or just moments when they are not paying attention, slamming their handlers right in to obstacles instead of navigating their handlers safely around them. While I have bragged in past entries about how wonderful and cautious Gilbert is, I will never forget the day I discovered he wasn’t immune from these off moments either.

     It was a cold Tuesday morning in January 2010. Usually at that time, I am in class, but since our college doesn’t begin the spring term until after Martin Luther King Day, I was off and so decided to go to bible study with my mom and grandmother at a nearby nondenominational church. The speaker that day was a pastor who is well-known locally as an excellent speaker, but I forget what he talked about now. It could be that what happened on the way home from hearing this speaker overshadowed that presentation, but it is possible that minor brain damage could have had something to do with it. (smile).

     Gilbert and I walked in to the chapel uneventfully. After the usual admiration of my dog by Mom’s friends, Gilbert sat quietly at my feet through the presentation. Then we followed everyone to a classroom for a small-group discussion, where again, Gilbert was a shining example of the grace, independence and confidence that the sighted public adores in guide dog teams. And then it was time to go home.

     Usually Gilbert and I walk so slow it drives my parents crazy. Dad will run ahead and say “come on! Come on!” Mom will laugh and tell Gilbert he walks like a little old lady. But that day was one of those rare days when Gilbert felt like booking it. Yes, as his handler I could have disciplined him to slow down but since guide dogs are actually supposed to walk faster than Gilbert and I usually do so they stay focused, I decided to trust him and go with it.

     It was one of those moments when all felt right with the world. I had been enriched by an excellent speech and lively discussion and was happily chatting with Mom’s friends as Gilbert and I walked down the hall in perfect step. And then a loud PING resounded through the halls of the church, and Mom thinks the building may have even shook! I wonder if any pastors felt the building shake and briefly wondered if the end of the world had arrived.

     Half a second later, as I and everyone following behind me stood in shocked silence, I realized that PING was the sound of my head hitting a metal pole so hard that despite being totally blind since I was six months old, I understand what sighted people mean now when they talk about seeing stars! I learned that day that some hallways in that church are separated by double doors with a metal pole between them. Usually, Gilbert guides me through them so smoothly I don’t know they were there, but that day, he wasn’t paying attention and while he got through the left side of the door and kept walking, I hit the pole.

     It was one of those moments when I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. My head really hurt, but on the other hand, when you are blind, you tend to develop a dark sense of humor to cope with the challenges. So as I stood there massaging my head, and assuring the alarmed friends of my mom behind me that I was alright and that despite what they just witnessed, Gilbert really is an excellent guide dog most of the time, I think I did both.

     After these several seconds of shock, I rubbed my head one more time and kept walking. On the way out, my mom and grandma wanted to take a few minutes to peruse a christian bookstore operated out of this church. Since this bookstore has narrow aisles and is crowded that time of day, and since a nice ugly shiner was starting to take shape on my forehead, Mom found a chair outside the store for me to wait and some ice to hold on my head. As I sat nursing my head, it occurred to me that amidst all the excitement, I never officially corrected Gilbert or had him re-work that door which is what guide dog handlers are supposed to do when the dog makes a mistake, especially one as egregious as this one was. But it would turn out I didn’t need to.

     In the days following this literal obstacle, I found myself facing an obstacle which I thought I had overcome in training: I found myself lacking trust in him. I found myself wanting to walk with my right hand outstretched in case he ran me in to something else, and my demeanor was nervous and alert, not confident and trusting. A week later when I went to bible study again, I asked Mom to walk ahead of me a little ways and stop us if it looked like Gilbert might run me in to that pole again. But to my astonishment, despite not getting corrected on his mistake, I would discover Gilbert had been shaken up by this incident too. A full week later, he remembered this door, stopped a few feet before it and was afraid to take me through it! After talking to him gently and coaxing him forward, we got through it but he took it very slow, making sure I was well clear of the pole. To this day, despite the fact that it is often months between visits to this church, he still slows down when we come to that door!

     The journey toward overcoming this obstacle of diminished trust and confidence in Gilbert which plowing in to the pole symbolized was bumpy. But in the same way that you often hear how rough patches in a marriage or mountain climbing team make the partnership stronger, the journey to overcome this obstacle has definitely enhanced my partnership with Gilbert. I think it has helped us both be more cognizant of the fact that guide dog teams are called teams for a reason. Neither one of us can be successful without the other pulling his/her weight. It is all too easy to get lulled in to complacency by life and forget this fact. Gilbert didn’t uphold his responsibility to the team when he slammed me in to that pole, but I have also let him down, all too often forgetting that he relies on me to know where I am going and getting flustered when he stops at the intersection of two sidewalks on campus waiting for me to direct him, or when I fall off the wagon of daily obedience time and then wonder why he seems to be getting distracted easily and not obeying me as dutifully as he should.

     Thus, I hope that this experience can provide reassurance to new guide dog teams just beginning their journey, or even seasoned teams lulled in to complacency as I was that slamming in to obstacles, literal, metaphorical or both, is a natural part of any team oriented relationship. No matter how much training a dog or human goes through, neither are perfect. Thus it is unreasonable to expect a service dog team to be perfect all the time. So the next time you do slam in to an obstacle of any kind, don’t lose confidence or view it as a failure. Instead, view it as an opportunity to learn from one another and grow stronger as a team.