From Cane to Guide Dog

From Cane to Guide Dog
By Anja Geleney
Summer 2007

How time flies! It has been a little more than five years now that my black Labrador , DJ, has guided me safely through city and country roads, prevented accidents from happening and happily accepted me as his handler and trusted human. If I had only known what I kno now about moving with a guide dog, I would have gone for training much more than twenty years ago. Here is how it all began.

I always had dogs, cats, birds and many other neat animals in my home. Some were my pets, some I took care of for friends, and some just chose my home as their’s. I remember a skunk family living under one of my homes in Maine , and none of them ever sprayed me. Some folks would say: That’s our critter woman, and it never bothered me.

When I was a child in Germany , I lived with my parents and 8 siblings, who also enjoyed the company of animals, but they were too busy to take care of them, and Dad would never have allowed irresponsible behaviors in our home. We didn’t have much, and Dad was under the impression that a guide dog, even if trained well, would just cost too much. Insurance was a must, and we didn’t have the money for food for a dog. but even so, it was not the right thing for me. Dad thought I would have too much to pay on health insurance for myself, and it would be worse, once I had a dog. This led me to believe, it wasn’t necessary to have one. I was fine using a white cane since I was 5 years old. I had learned to get around in my ever growing hometown, Mainz . Walkways were clearly marked, store fronts had a step to get up and into, or the entrance was marked with little stones that felt very rough, so it was easy to feel where I was. I knew about fast moving cars and how to listen for the traffic. Never did it occur to me, that one day, in a country setting in Maine, or even in the quiet city of Bangor, that I’d feel I needed a dog to help me navigate more safely, and to keep unwanted approaches of people who meant harm to me and my family from happening.

My husband, son and I had moved to Brooks in December of 1994. If there was ever a town where I felt guide dogs would end up unemployed, Brooks , Maine , was the place for this to happen. I received O & M through the division for the Blind and was ok with the cane. Then one day, while in college, it was now the year 2000, my family moved to Bangor , and this is when things began to happen that would change my thinking about guide dogs and safety forever.

I remember being on walks, and people would follow me, keeping up with my pace, and the vibes of some of them did not feel very friendly. I would keep these feelings from my husband. We were going through some difficult times then, and I didn’t want him to get even more overprotective than he already was. I started asking occasional questions about dogs, schools, how the training would go, how it would be to have a guide dog and going places and facing difficulties in public places. America struck me as strange. So many people owned dogs, but they weren’t allowed to go anywhere with their owners like they were in Germany . restaurants, busses, and other public places were off limits to the pet population. This is still strange to me to this day.

In April of 2001, my husband and I separated for a while. He moved somewhere, while I stayed in our little home in Bangor . I continued school, worked 2 jobs, took care of our son the best I could, and I tried to stay safe. One day, I walked along Main Street in Bangor , and as I passed the homeless shelter, a very big man attacked me. I was forced to use my white cane to defend myself. I remember being scared and angry at the same time. Suddenly, there were a couple of men, holding the attacker, and trying to get me from continuing to stab this guy with the cane. I almost got him in the eye. There was staff of the homeless shelter, and I was advised the attacker had mental health issues. I also remember yelling: “Then lock his ass up and throw away the key!”

About a week later, I had to go to the police station to report an attempted burglary in my home. I had heard the voice of the man and they wanted me to identify him. Some ten steps in front of the station to go, and I suddenly felt a strong hand grabbing my right arm and pulling me with my cane. I kicked, bit, hit with my free hand. I yelled as loud as I could, and then they were there: 2 policemen, ready to help me. One of them told me later: “I never want to see you pissed off at me. Holy cow, you bit the hell out of that one. You’re worse than a dog. You should get one. If you had one of those guide dogs, perhaps you’d get a warning before something like that would happen again”.

I remember going home that evening, hearing the words of that officer over and over in my head. Getting a dog, yes, but I’d have to take care of it, feed it, love it? I just lost 2 dogs before I left Germany , and I didn’t want the attachment to another animal; not after Ginger and Samantha, who gave her life and saved me from getting hit by a truck. And Ginger, who used to babysit my son, that is, she kept a close eye on him, so I could always find him when he tried to run off when he was little. Trust another dog? No. I couldn’t do that. It meant I had to get emotionally attached, and I didn’t want to risk that.

And then, that night, I kept dreaming about that attacker at the homeless shelter and the one at the police station. I woke up and knew, I had to do something if I wanted to keep myself safe, and I wanted for my son to have the assurance that I would be safe, no matter where I went. His Dad was not there for him, and I needed to be there, come what may. My son was my responsibility, and I wouldn’t let anything stop me from protecting him, even though he was almost 18 and thought he could do it all on his own. so I made the dicision to call a friend and have her help me fill out the application for the dog. I didn’t want a Shepherd, because I have a cousin who had a very negative experience with a dog he raised and owned for over 12 years, and this negative experience caused me to be very prejudice toward those very intelligent, loyal and often funny dogs. So, some of the schools were out of the picture already. I chose GDF, where I then ended up getting my still working DJ.

Now trusting a guide dog was harder than I imagined it would be. For more than 30 years, I had trusted my own hearing, sense of touch, instincts, common sense. How was I going to trust a furry critter with large paws, a blockhead and an attitude of a happy go lucky redneck boy? That is my DJ, who confidently will just keep on trucking.

I still remember the first day I was introduced to him.

It was May 14, 2002. We were finally told, after about a day of walking with a trainer on a make believe harness, who our dogs would be. Relief! I wasn’t going to have a golden retreaver. That would mean to many memories of Ginger, whom I would have compared that new dog with. Ok, dJ you had a clean slate. I knew what labs were all about, but I never thought I would get the instant attachment of this dog, who didn’t look like anything I imagined. He looked like a big pawed, not fully grown puppy, with misjiff inhis eyes and demeaner. His tail wagged as the trainer walked him into my bedroom. The first thing DJ tried to do was jump all over me. I kneed him in the chest, causing him to fly across the room.

“Oh, sorry about that, Heather, I just hate jumping dogs. They are so annoying. I never allow my dogs to jump, and he better learn it quick, or I’m going home without one GDF dog. If he jumps on me, what will he do with a stranger? And how would I then control one trained but ill behaving guide dog?” I never forget the laughter that came from Heather, who replied with: “I wanted to see what you would do, and you showed him who’s boss the first moment. He is a little energetic, but give him a try, and he’ll make a good dog for you. He knows his stuff and is a little too smart for his own good. He needs someone with a strong will and attitude, or else he’ll run all over you”.

DJ shook himself, then slowly walked to me, placed his nose into my hand, thenn rubbed his big blockhead with those light brown eyes against my arm, then moved his head under my arm, so I would hug him instead of just petting him. He had one paw in my right hand, and I could tell by the slow panting, he was listening and getting used to the sound of my voice. He came closer and snuggled in my lap. I had comfortably sat down on the floor now.

The next morning, after feeding him, brushing him and taking him for his busy-busy break, we were off to go for our first walk. They called this a nature walk, but I think, they need to come up here to Maine. The folks in Smithtown, New York, don’t know what nature walking really is all about. True to his nature, DJ started off on a high speed walk, which I didn’t much appreciate. I snapped the leash back and told him: “leave it!” He had to steady his pace to mine, and I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of bossing me around. With a slightly lowered head, he continued on a little slower, giving me the chance to get to know the harness movements, and how to really pay attention to where he was going, without looking left or right. These head movements were frowned upon by the trainers. They wanted us to keep looking straight and “listen” to our new dogs.About a half a mile into the walk, I started moving a little faster, and DJ’s tail started to move a bit faster. His head came up, and he showed some of his strength. He never tried to run again though, and I praised him up for being so good on that first walk.

One thing surprised me from the get-go. Whenever there was a hanging branch, a log in the middle of the way, or simply an obstacle I was unaware of, because I now did not use the cane, DJ easily and confidently led me past these things, or he stopped and I could feel what he tried to show me. Sometimes I would ask him to find the way, as we had ben trained to do, sometimes I would just have to climb over the log or other object, if there was no other choice. And as far as the overhanging trees went, a sudden stop and the lifting of his head usually were the indication for me to reach up and then command him to continue on. Oh, and inside any building, it was absolutely refreshing to just say: find the door, and not only did he find the door, he actually placed my right hand right at the door knob by grabbing it and then pushing it against the knob. He could always count on the praise.

He also found the seats wherever I asked him to find them, and pay phones were his favorite at first, until he discovered that people carry cell phones. Then DJ showed his pick pocket talent, and I have to admit, he ambarrassed me a few times in the mall when we practiced walking in crowds and learned how to navigate on escalators. These things could not be done as easily with the cane. There was always that difficulty finding just the right spot to place the cane, and having to feel for that rail on your right. All of this work was now taken over by this fun loving, misjivious black lab I called my new companion or buddy.It took a few days before we were off to the city, where I really learned to trust my dog. Our speed had improved, we began to understand each others moods and movements, and now came the biggest and hardest test. We were in Huntington , and 8 lane traffic was something I had never done before. in Germany I don’t know of any roads that were 8 lanes wide. So, with pounding heart, I commanded the dog to go forward, and off we went. In the middle of the 4th and 5th lane, the light went red, and DJ came to a sudden stop. This scared me, but his head rubbed against my leg, as if he wanted to say: don’t worry, Mom, this is normal. It’ll be ok in a bit. We’ll keep on moving in just a bit. What I didn’t know was: halfway through the 8 lane traffic, the light was going to be red, and Dj did exactly what he was supposed to do. When I thought it was safe to cross again, I commanded him forward, but I was a little too soon. He did his intelligent disobedience, and I praised him up and felt very relieved and overwhelmed at the same time. I really trusted him now, and I think, he knew it. At the end of that 8 lane crossing, he just made this “woof” sound, like someone who wants to say: “told ya”.

There was another very significant event that brought more trust for me into our work. Traffic checks. Suddenly appearing cars while we were crossing the road or walked past a driveway. DJ stopped on a dime, and it was very easy for me to praise him.

I can’t remember now when we did this, but I do remember one walk at night. I wanted to find out how fast I would walk with DJ. Turned out to be more than 3 miles an hour. Gee, I aught to find out how fast or slow I am with a cane. The biggest difference I noticed: I am not even close to the tiredness at the end of a walk as I was while using the cane. Looking back, I think it is because I can actually day dream a bit, while DJ willingly works and keeps me on track. I don’t have to feel my way through a parking lot, no more feeling around for steps, no more getting lost in unfamiliar areas. Once I walked a route with the dog, he finds it the next time around. If I choose a different route for the same destination, I get the attitude of a very confident and strong willed Labrador to deal with, and he very much reminds me of my son, who sometimes wants it his way or the highway. Only if there is too much bad weather or an urgent reason will I allow DJ to choose the route.

There are so many positive things about using a guide dog. When I was a frequent cane traveler, people treated me as if I was mentally retarded or had multiple disabilities. Now, I am often mistaken for a trainer. It’s funny, but let people believe whatever they want. Even my work life is different. I have since found a job, and DJ is very much accepted at work. I have had offers of people who want to take on my big boy after he retires. Not on their life. That’s my dog, and he will stay with me until he dies. I no longer have a problem getting attached to another animal. It is no longer scarey to walk along Main Street anywhere. I have since traveled to a few different states, both with my husband, who came back home, and alone, and I always could and will count on my dog. The freedom and independence I gained with the use of a guide dog can only be described as awesome. Once in a great while, I have to use a cane, and DJ has already destroyed two of them, and I have the srange feeling he knows what they are about. One of them, he somehow managed to rip the strong elastic rubber band into pieces, the second one, he chewed off the marshmallow type tip, causing me to have to take him to places where I didn’t really want to take him. My very allergic to dog friends were very understanding, however, and a couple of them even started to take medication, so they could be around him. He is not only a great guide dog, he is also a buddy. I used to be absolutely paralyzingly terrified of thunderstorms. When I was 4 years old, I was hit by lightening. Today, I still don’t like them, but I can now go outside when there is a storm. I also don’t freak out if I get caught in one. Dj remains steady and calm during a storm. He places his big head in my lap when I’m at home and snuggles up to me. Keeping me safe is his “second” job around here. If I had to do it all over again, I’d get a dog at a much younger age.

Here is another really important thing my dog does for me: He finds my family members. With a cane, you have to feel around all the time, and then you have to figure out where your loved ones are. When you are in a big place, this can be extremely difficult. Tell the dog to find someone, and his nose goes, and then comes the little, now gentle tug, and off we go, finding the rest of the family or friend I want to find. Ah, the eyes of my guide dog, and that nose of his. They are always at work, and I have yet to see him not wanting to join me on a walk for fun or going to work.

I can honestly say: it is a whole different game, walking with a guide dog. There are so many changing things around me all the time. I think I would spend a lot more time, if I had to use the cane, finding places, things, obstacles, people andso on. Once a dog knows what you are asking him or her to find, they will do it for you, over and over again, and it feels like a game to them.

I hope, that for some of you, who don’t have much or no guide dog experience, that my sharing these experiences will make a difference.

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