Episode 9: Big City Challenge
After months of organizing outdoor adventures for CNIB Guide Dog trainees, I was more than just a bit anxious to run off with my new guide dog Lewis and get my independence back. But, being assigned a new guide dog meant that this was only the end of phase one. I still had to be trained with Lewis. And he, poor thing, needed training with me.
Ben Francis is the person who trained Lewis to be a guide dog, and he now became my trainer also. For the next two weeks, every morning or afternoon, Ben would drop by my home and Lewis and I would take on a new challenge. Each one designed to advance our sense of team. As this daily training unfolded, Lewis was still transitioning from the family where he had been living, and from his days spent with Ben, whom he adored. Lewis had to give up all notions that he would ever return to these important people in his life. Instead, he had been asked to start a new life with me and my family. And like I said, while Lewis was getting used to living with us, I was thinking up increasingly more difficult challenges for Lewis and I to take on each day as Ben continued to oversee the training.
What distinguishes Ben and CNIB from other guide dog schools I’ve attended in past is their 100% reliance on positive reinforcement. I’m not talking about clickers, I mean genuine praise. Now, I’ve often been told that my guide dogs are the worst behaved guide dogs that some people have ever witnessed. That may be so, but it’s for a reason. Whenever I would get home with a new dog, my goal was always to get the dog out of the choke collar. I know a that click on the chain of the collar was often sufficient to regain a dog’s attention, but they don’t call them choke collars for nothing.
These collars are meant to apply a sudden squeeze around the dog’s neck to instill a sense of fear. They aren’t actually meant to choke dogs, but to just scare them by reminding them that you had a hold of their neck, just as if their mother had, back when they were puppies. Mother dogs give scruff shakes, which are similar to what a choke collar is meant to administer, if only less effective. The problem is, if a dog has been trained using a choke collar, the removal of the collar often means the end of their training. No collar can result in no desirable behaviour.
It can take years before a choke collar can be removed without the dog suddenly feeling liberated and that is when you find yourself in a working relationship with the dog that is disintegrating. It’s sometimes easier just to leave it on the dog as a reminder, even if you don’t ever use it. Adding a regular collar is one way to start this transition. Another is to leave the leash at home. My goal, always, is to transition my dogs to a regular collar with just a short leash that I can use to have the dog heel when necessary, or to maintain contact with the dog when we are both seated. After all, nothing is more embarrassing than to find out your dog snuck off while you were talking to someone at the table. By sitting on the end of the leash, I may not see my dog try to slip away, but I’ll certainly feel it.
There are lots of ways to earn and maintain the respect of your dog. Tone, inflection, body position, energy level, and should all else fail, quietly growling directly into your dog’s ear. However, since I’m generally fine with my dogs being dogs whenever they are not working, I’m not that driven to maintaining strict discipline. That’s not to say that I don’t expect a lot from my guide dog when we are working. I’m not afraid to voice my encouragement or disappointment, and since dogs are highly sensitive beings, they generally try to keep the working relationship positive by avoiding things that cause me to express my disappointment through my voice and attitude. If things get totally out of hand, we simply take a time out until both our energy levels return to normal.
Back to the training. Ben, Lewis, and I spent up to three hours together every day for two weeks, except for weekends. That seemed to do the job. You can get a lot done in that time period. That’s usually all the training that both Lewis and I could endure in one day, especially if the temperatures were getting well above 30 degrees Celsius.
Something that caught me by surprise, and it was just how light Lewis is. For the past 15 years I’ve had two different guide dogs and each weighed between 40 and 44 kilos. Lewis weighs just under 30 kilos, and this means that whenever I stop or pull back on his harness, he was often forced to lift his front paws off the ground. Even though I try hard not to do it, Lewis has since chosen to use my strength as a source to repel from, like a climber descending a cliff face. He pushes forward with his rear legs to cause the front of his body to swing upward. It’s almost like he wants to stand on his back to paws. I think that he thinks it gives him an advantage when meeting other dogs on the sidewalk or path. Whenever that happens, I know there’s another dog heading straight for us. Lewis doesn’t leap about, he just elevates his body to look bigger than he really is. Also, whenever this happens, I generally stop because it’s usually impossible to move forward anyway with some other dog blocking our way. I just ask Lewis to sit next to me until the dog and their owner passes by. He is a springy little devil though, and has been known to bounce straight up in the air and plant a kiss directly on an adult’s mouth when we have a visitor come into our home. We’re working on this…
I work from home most days. This saves me three hours of commuting each day. I personally work out in my home gym each morning before starting my day, but right after lunch, Lewis and I hit the road for a good long and fast 60-minute walk about. I have all manner of options for walking around here, including three pedestrian bridges that cross over the Rideau Canal and Rideau River. Walking on shared bike paths can be a bit stressful during the working week, but since we are out there midday, we normally don’t encounter that many bicycles. Besides, most bike riders are fine people and they ring their bell when approaching from behind so as not to startle the dog and me, and they can be confident that I won’t deviate suddenly. However, every once in a while, Lewis will experience a bike passing a bit too close and a bit too fast, which I don’t appreciate and don’t hesitate in saying so. We also occasionally experience riders who are upset that don’t hug the right side edge of the path, which we normally do, but whenever the path widens out and there’s a painted centre divider, Lewis likes to stick to our side of the line, which means that bicycles might pass us on each side. All this to say, I think I have a pretty good idea of what bicycle riders complain about when riding their bikes on the street and must deal with inconsiderate motorists. I just wish some of them would keep this in mind whenever they encounter Lewis and me on the path.
It would seem that Lewis has a tremendous capacity to work. I’ve only ever had one other dog that enjoys walking as much as Lewis, and that was my first dog Wickett, who was a black Labrador retriever. Lewis will just go and go, no matter what the temperature or weather.
His speed is also quite astonishing. Lewis is a dog who isn’t content with an easy stroll in the park, he wants to walk the entire park and then the next on and on-and-on again. And if it’s somewhere new, he needs to get there now. Right now.
Sure, he likes to move along at a quick pace, but I’m good for it. Finally, all my treadmill training is paying off. It’s not running though, it’s speed walking, which is entirely different. Lewis will run no problem with me holding his harness, but it’s the speed walking that we both enjoy so much.
Thankfully, when we are on crowded sidewalks or in shopping malls, he knows enough to slow it down. He has no problem falling in line without feeling that he has to pass the person walking in front of us. This is a good thing, as passing people all the time on sidewalks can lead to incidents that cause people stress, or worse, accidents that can result in injuries. Being a big guy myself, this means that it’s not me that gets injured.
At this point in my life, I’m smart enough to know how to make my life easier. For years I never owned a white cane, and I used my guide dog 100% of the time. I even tried to bring one into the Toronto zoo. Looking back, I’m not sure what I was thinking at the time, but when the zoo officials explained to me that dogs were not appreciated by some of the zoo animals, I felt a bit embarrassed for being so naive. They offered to keep my dog for me in the air conditioned entrance booth, and knowing the personality of that dog well, I knew that he would enjoy the company of the young ticket sellers and would make the most of the occasion. We both had a great day, and no zoo animals were provoked to seek ways to exit their enclosures.
All this is to say that I now own a white cane and I use it when it makes sense. About once a month I fly from Ottawa to Toronto for business. Most times I don’t even stay over, and can fly home the same day. This means that it is a full day of taxis, planes, boardrooms, and the occasional hotel room. None of this is in anyway remotely fun for a dog. But Lewis has done it. His accompanying me brings me no real advantage to these business trips as I can do it quicker alone, and I don’t have to worry about Lewis finding somewhere to relieve himself. Staying at home, Lewis gets a day off, and I don’t need to worry about whether there’s going to be enough room for Lewis to be comfortable on the plane.
Lewis is also the first guide dog that I’ve ever had a hand in selecting with a view towards a special purpose. I don’t need a dog that can sit in an office all day without going bonkers. For all these reasons, he’s a bit more high-energy than most of my former guide dogs, with the exception of my first dog Wickett. What it really means is that I have a guide dog that is totally up to doing the outdoor activities that I like to do. And, when we go for our daily constitutional, we really enjoy ourselves by making the most of this simple opportunity. Lewis just loves to fly along, as do I. It takes about 12-15 minutes, but once we hit that point, both of us are breathing heavy. It feels good. I feel alive. And so does he.
Lewis loves to spend a day on the boat with me, or in the canoe. He’s always up for a new adventure. The first time he takes a new path he gets so excited. I think he thinks there’s going to be a big treat waiting for him around the next bend. He also wants to keep on going. It means I never walk there and back. Instead, I always work a loop into our walks. Even so, I still have to be careful as he always knows the instant our chosen path begins our route home. I have to be especially alert to his avoiding to alert me to important forks in paths that we need to take to get home. If it were up to Lewis, we would always choose the fork in the path that would lead to even more adventure. Sometimes I let him pick, but doing so means I have to demand that I pick the fork the next time, otherwise we would never get back home. Maybe we would, but it would be growing dark and nearing suppertime. When I do insist that we begin heading home, Lewis never seems sad, and from that point on will lead me home safely and with a wag in his tail. And then, when we get home, Lewis walks up the three steps on to the landing just inside the side door to our home so that he’s in position to lick my ears the instant I sit down on the step to remove my shoes. Nothing gives us more pleasure than his burying his head in my collar and my hugging his head to my neck after we arrive home. It’s a hug that can last forever, even though…