My Time at Guide Dog School
A week ago, I returned home from a guide dog school in the American south with a terrific new black labrador named Jackson. This essay describes the process one goes through to retire an older dog and to get a new one and the emotional roller coaster ride I’ve been on for the past couple of months surrounding such.
The X-Dog Retires
X-Celerator, my old dog, will turn ten in January. On human standards, this is young; in guide dog years, the X-Dog had worked for eight of them, this means that the dog should be retired. While the X-Dog remained happy to see me take out his harness and go to work, he also started slowing down on our routes and, over time, developed an issue in his joints that make walking downhill difficult and painful. It had reached the time when this dog could no longer work and, now, he’ll enjoy retirement playing in the yard and sitting on our Florida porch.
The X-Dog and I first met at the guide dog school in June 2006. Then, at 17 months old, he was filled with the joyful exuberance that one can only experience when with a puppy. He was a big and powerful 80 pound yellow labrador who wanted to work and play hard. The young X-Celerator and I would walk the streets in our Florida and Massachusetts homes and in my frequent and quite long trips to San Francisco.
During our time together, X-Celerator would work all over the US, Canada, Europe and the UK. Most people who have met me in the past eight years know me as the middle aged blind man with the big yellow dog. Now, I’m the same middle aged man but with a very sleek black dog.
X-Celerator has attended a number of skeptical and humanist conferences and was featured in the closing video at QED in Manchester last year. He has met many famous skeptics, atheists, scientists and other people this community would find familiar. X-Celerator has been photographed with a lot of skeptical leaders including Amy Davis Roth, Rebecca Watson, Shelley Segal, Hayley Stevens, James and Liz from Pod Delusion, Carrie Poppy, and others and is generally recognized as the most skeptical guide dog on Earth.
Needless to say, retiring a dog who has been in my constant company (excepting a few trips to South Asia, he’s traveled everywhere with me) is really hard. He and I have spent more time together over the years than I have spent with any human in my life and being apart from him is very hard on me, “why can’t dogs live as long as humans?” I ask sadly.
X-Celerator has given me the best years of his life, I’m glad he will be living with us rather than retiring to a stranger’s home but He’s the dog I know and all of the little tricks, our private vocabulary and deep understanding of each other is, for obvious reasons, not present in the new dog.
I arrived at the guide dog school on September 15 and would spend 25 days there. On the first day, we received our leashes, met the other students and the staff, enjoyed a lecture, ate dinner and went to bed. Day two started the actual training and, on that morning, a trainer came to my dormitory room and introduced me to a black labrador, also a big guy at 67 pounds, named Jackson.
The new dog and I sat in our room together. I said his name and pet and massaged the big boy. Immediately, I learned that Jackson enjoyed human touch, petting and cuddling far more than the X-Dog ever would. X-Celerator likes being affectionate from time to time but Jackson wants to cuddle all of the time.
The next thing I noticed was that I couldn’t for the life of me keep the dog’s name on the tip of my tongue. When we were alone, I’d remember he is called “Jackson” but, when we worked together, I would call him X-Celerator or any of the dozens of nicknames to which the previous dog would respond. I needed a lot of training in what would seem to be the simplest of tasks, remembering the dog’s actual name and that he’s a different dog from the one to whom I had grown so accustomed.
Jackson Gets A Nickname
My dearest friend on Earth also happened to be attending a different guide dog school and training with her new beast at the same time Jackson and I trained at our school. She and I talk a few times per day and on the call I told her I had gotten the new guy and his name and other characteristics (big and black), she suggested that I should think in terms of Samuel L. Jackson and not Michael or Andrew Jackson. Almost immediately, she and I thought of the scene in Pulp Fiction in the diner when Samuel L. is asked which wallet is his and says, “It’s the one that says ‘Bad Motherfucker’ on it.” So, I’ve nicknamed the dog, “Bad Motherfucker” and will be ordering a collar and tag that proudly pronounce BMF as his name.
For years, I complained that my first dog, X-Celerator, had a name with five syllables in it. When the school asked me my requirements for a dog, I told them that the name had to have three syllables or fewer. They comply and find me a two syllable dog and I go out and give him a five syllable nickname. I suppose that five syllables must suit me in some bizarre manner.
Training With A New Dog
Each weekday of training came with a 6AM wake up call, we got to sleep until 7AM on the weekends. Waking up early is something I do often, I’m a middle aged (54) guy who lives in Florida. I get up early to avoid the heat and often take a walk right after feeding the dogs. For me, 6AM is fine. Waking earlier would, as I found out, also give me an opportunity to spend some time with the guy who works as what I can only describe as a chaperone for the students overnight, ensuring that we cannot act like adults if we so chose. The “night nurse” as I called him makes some interesting music, has politics similar to my own and provided the most worthwhile conversations unrelated to dogs I had while there, little chats that would go a long way to preserving the bits of sanity that didn’t escape me entirely while at the school.
My day would start by taking Jackson for a walk to the relief area at around 4:15. He would take a phenomenal piss (after eight or more hours sleeping, he had tanked up quite a bit), drink some water and we’d walk together to the cafeteria, our me a cup of coffee and sit down with the night person for our morning talk. Around 5:00, the other students would start trickling in and, at 6:30, we’d be served our breakfast. At 7, back in our rooms, the dog food trolley would arrive and we’d feed our beasts.
After again relieving the dogs, the students, six of us in all, would gather on the porch to begin training. Each day, we would explore different tasks working to learn to work with our new dogs. The work mixes a lot of very high level cognitive processing, relearning a specific vocabulary, learning how this specific dog acts in different circumstances, correcting the dog when he makes a mistake, praising praising, praising the dog when he gets things right with the mind numbing boredom of waiting one’s turn to work with the trainer on our next route. While there was a lot of downtime, the individual blocks were too short to be productive doing anything else but long enough to make one want to scream for intellectual stimulation.
Second Dog Syndrome
Before I left for the school, a number of my friends who have had a handful of guide dogs each in the past told me that one’s second dog is always the hardest. I can confirm their assertions with my own experience. As I wrote above, X-Celerator, my first guide dog and I have spent nearly every hour of every day for eight years in each other’s company. Over eight years, a person and his dog will develop their own private vocabulary of words, gestures, touches, motions with the harness and leash and so on. The new dog, having not been trained in a vocabulary that only one person and one other dog speak, will, for obvious reasons, not understand any of the words or gestures and will not respond to them. Thus, in part, learning to work with a new dog is like learning a new and very compressed vocabulary.
Now that we’re back home, the new dog doesn’t know his way around the neighborhood as did the older one. Our first walk to get a breakfast at our favorite diner turned into something of an adventure. What I had forgotten is that here, in St. Petersburg, Florida, located in tampa Bay, the single most dangerous region in the US to be a pedestrian, many sidewalks are badly broken, some intersections do not provide straight lines to the next curb cut and a lot of parking lots, green spaces and other random detritus make determining a straight line on the “sidewalk” difficult for a new dog. X-Celerator knew the route cold so I had forgotten about all of the obstacles between my house and the eatery.
I’m happy to report that Jackson and I successfully went to the diner and back without any real adventures and without a sighted person in our company. It was, indeed, these poor sidewalks that motivated me to get a dog in the first place as independent cane travel seemed nearly impossible in my neighborhood. It was hard work teaching the path to the new dog and I’m happy he’s rising to this strange set of problems.
When, on September 15, I was to leave the house for the trip to the school, I hugged X-Celerator for the last time as a working dog, told him to stay and walked out the backdoor, the tears came uncontrollably. Deep sobs emerged from a sadness I didn’t know I possessed. We had driven some distance before I could again speak. A day later, I would meet Jackson, a terrific dog who, quite simply was not X-Celerator.
Over the weeks, Jackson has carved his own place in my heart. I rarely call him X-Celerator anymore and our routes around the neighborhood get better daily. I’m sure he’ll be great in other places as this area is especially hard.
The Culture At The School
While I found everything we did to train with the dogs to be valuable and I enjoyed most of the lectures about working with a dog to be useful, I also found that the culture at the school seemed intent on treating the students like children. We had restrictions on our speech and members of the staff would often insert themselves into a conversation to change a topic if they felt the notions discussed fell out of the set of “safe” topics that wouldn’t create any controversy among the students. I was quieted while quoting Thomas Payne in a respectful dialogue with another student about issues involving free speech. As I mention above, the school provided a chaperone to prevent the adult students (we had an average age of 68.7) from participating in any romantic interludes if they so chose. Students who might enjoy a beer or cocktail (not me, I haven’t had a drink of alcohol in many years) were not permitted to have such so the people who enjoyed sports couldn’t enjoy a pint while watching a game. I could go on, the restrictions on the behavior of the students were, in fact, far more extensive than my teenage nephew must abide by at Boy Scout camp.
Different guide dog schools have different cultural elements. If you are interested in getting a service animal, please do make sure you find a school that is compatible with your personal living preferences as, while I love everything about the dog and the training I enjoyed with him, the cultural aspects of the school I chose led me to feel very lonely and depressed. At the same time, the other students very much seemed to enjoy the entire experience so, as is often the case, I find myself to be an outsider even among my peers.
Gratitude And Respect
I have a tremendous level of respect for the people who work as trainers at guide dog schools. These incredibly hard working individuals went to college and then went into a long and difficult training process to learn how to work with a blind person and a new dog. Guide dog trainers do not make much money but find their compensation in the personal rewards in the satisfaction they derive from helping others become more independent.
I went to Harvard to learn to write. There I enjoyed cordial, friendly relationships with my instructors but the relationship was always respectful. I wish that guide dog trainers could be treated with the same respect as they provide we clients with such a tremendously valuable eduction. I expect to be treated no differently than I was in the corridors of the ivory tower and I hope that my treatment of our trainers was as respectful as possible.
I want to express my sincere and deep gratitude to all of the staff at the school, to all of its many contributors and to everyone else who helped bring Jackson, a truly wonderful animal into my life. My trainer was absolutely wonderful in every way imaginable. She taught me, a difficult student always asking “why” sorts of questions and looking for evidence and such, to work with a dog who already understood what he was supposed to do. We weren’t training the animal, we were training me, a much tougher nut to crack.
I’m also deeply grateful to the puppy raisers, a local family who lived with Jackson in their home from 12 weeks until 18 months. These people did all of the basic training and, after all of that work, had to return a puppy with whom they had worked, lived and loved so I could have him as a working dog. These people perform a really difficult and entirely necessary role in bringing the dog to me and I thank them for all of their efforts.
For those of you who don’t know, a guide dog costs roughly $60,000 to bring to a blind person. The people who contribute to guide dog schools (they are all privately funded with no government dollars in the US) make these dogs possible and, if you donated anywhere from ten dollars to tens of thousands, I appreciate your contribution greatly.
Guide dogs aren’t for everyone with a vision impairment. Some people feel more independent with a cane than a dog, I feel more independent with Jackson in my company.
It appears, however, to remain true that blind people do not receive the adult treatment that we might enjoy at a conference, graduate school or other institution typically associated with adult education. What made this feel much worse at the school I attended was that all of the corrections were given by sighted people to blind people. The rules for engagement seem arbitrary and ancient in philosophical nature. It feels as if the school is trying to protect its students from something which, indeed, I find offensive, I don’t need a nanny, I need a guide dog and find the two to be entirely separate notions. We were all adults and treating us any differently is simply wrong.
At the same time, different students have different preferences. I’m a sample size of one and I’ve only attended one guide dog school from the many out there. If you’re interested in getting a guide dog, do try also to make sure you attend a school as culturally compatible with your own tastes as possible but, also remember, getting a guide dog, attending guide dog school is focussed on the animal and the partnership you will enjoy in the future and is not a vacation. I wasn’t at the school to be entertained, intellectually or otherwise, I was there to get a great dog and we were successful in this pursuit.
If you (our loyal readers) are interested further in learning about guide dogs, the schools that provide them, their culture or anything else, please do feel free to write to me directly. I’m not an expert of any sort on this matter, I’m just a sample size of one, I will, however, try to be helpful and be happy to provide you pointers to sites where you can learn more.