The first time we tried cross country skiing was on a path that follows the bank of the Rideau River not far from my house. The second time involved travelling outside the city into the Gatineau Hills to take advantage of some professionally groomed cross country trails. The first test went badly. The second went much smoother.
Joining my wife Anne and I for cross country skiing was Andrew Hanlon, Director of CNIB’s Guide Dog Program. Joining were trainee dogs Sherman and Piper. Our first experiment was with Sherman, and the second was with Piper.
Now I know I can cross country ski on a flat patch of snow without any tracks. I don’t need to have the groomed slots to slip my skis into to make sure I don’t cross my tips and fall. However, the day we tried the path down at the river with Sherman, the path was icy, and this posed a problem.
Every time Sherman pulled on his leash, which was wrapped around my left wrist, I slid sideways over the ice on my skis. It’s not that easy to stay upright when you are slipping sideways while you try to maintain forward momentum. Let’s just say that Sherman was having his way. He must have found it extraordinary just how little resistance I was able to put into the leash to keep him from straying off. The fact that I was repeatedly slammed on to my side didn’t seem to faze Sherman at all, but why would it? He was still a pup and knew almost nothing about guiding blind people.
There are some who combine their love of cross-country skiing with taking the dog out for a run. You can buy a special harness for both the dog and skier. These allow the dog to run in front of the skier and actually help pull the skier along in a sort of a blend of dog sledding and cross-country skiing. Sounds great! But this isn’t something you want to be doing with a guide dog. No. You don’t want to run the risk of your very expensive and necessary guide dog taking on a joint injury, which certain breeds of dogs are susceptible to. If you want to be pulled by a dog, find someone who has a dog suitable and already trained to do this sport.
Why I take a guide dog skiing is for different reasons. Having my guide dog with me to walk between the vehicle and the start of the trail is handy, and having a guide dog that can guide me back out of the forest should something happen to my sighted guide is also a nice feature should things take a turn for the worst. While I’m skiing, my guide dog neither pulls or guides, it simply lopes along next to me and enjoys the day. That’s another reason to have the dog come along, because they enjoy the exercise and natural setting.
To cross-country ski properly with a dog, I simply make the leash long and then I loosely loop the one end over my wrist. This gives the dog about two meters to work with. I want the dog to stay that far from me, no closer if possible, and not in front or behind. I have two ski poles that I use to aid in my forward movement and I don’t want the dog coming close to the poles. If that happens, I simply turn the pole sideways to the dog and use the side of the pole to gently remind the dog to keep its distance. They don’t like being touched by the pole, so it only takes a couple of reminders before they get the hint.
Our session with Andrew and Piper on the groomed trails in the Gatineau Hills went great. I was able to maintain enough control over Piper without being pulled sideways and off my feet. Piper picked up on what was expected of him within minutes. And just to make sure, Andrew started off with a second leash attached to Piper’s collar so he could intervene if necessary.
Everyone was quite happy with the results. Anne could breathe a bit easier knowing I wasn’t being toppled over, as she had witnessed with Sherman on the icy path. Anne and I regularly skied together with my previous dogs, so witnessing the situation going sideways with Sherman caught her by surprise, and she wasn’t happy. Not this time though. We all had big grins on our faces, and even Piper seemed totally content.
I like Piper. What a beautiful Golden Retriever. He’s got the perfect temperament and he seems to be a natural guide dog. Even Anne fell in love with Piper that day. This will make coming to a decision over which of the seven dogs will be my next guide dog very difficult. I love them all. I’m starting to think that an arranged partnering may just be the best way to decide.