Renewing My Vows to Gilbert

Well, hello readers. Gilbert and I are back from the fair, where we had a great time! Neither of us probably need to eat for the next week since I gorged myself as usual with a brat, half a grilled cheese sandwich, a quarter of a burger, two cheese curds (basically deep fried cheese that are a day’s worth of fat and calories in and of themselves), apple pie, chocolate covered chocolate chip cookie dough on a stick, chocolate covered bacon (a weird combination I would never eat again but had to try), a bite of a cream puff and a few bites of a hot fudge sundae to top it all off. So needless to say, I have got a lot of treadmill walking to do now, especially since I get weighed at the doctor in about two weeks. As Gilbert mentioned in the last entry, he loves to find food on the floor when I am not paying attention. So I tried to pay better attention this year, and I think I did do a better job of correcting him when his nose was getting suspiciously close to the ground. But he can have something swallowed and his head back up so fast that I couldn’t stop him every time, so I am sure he too got a little bit of everything I ate, and some other stuff I probably don’t even want to know about, which is why when a woman came by offering free samples of all natural dog treats, I accepted them, but to Gilbert’s disappointment, put them in a bag to take home and give him later. I kind of felt guilty at first for not letting him have a treat at the fair because the fair is a special occasion where we humans allow ourselves to abandon healthy eating habits, and despite all the delicious treasures Gilbert found on the floor, I am sure he didn’t eat as much as I did. But since it had been less than a week since he got such a clean bill of health at the vet, I wanted to keep the momentum going and make him walk off all the treats he found on the ground before giving him any more treats and I believe good health is more rewarding than a dog treat since the treat will give him maybe five seconds of pleasure, but good health will give us both more happy years together. But though we both did a lot of eating, it wasn’t the only activity we enjoyed at the fair.

We also went to a pig race since Gilbert loved it so much last year, although this year was kind of disappointing because instead of the race starting with a bell, it started with a bugle, which for some reason didn’t get Gilbert as excited. But make no mistake, he was definitely still sitting at attention interested in those pigs since they are not exactly a regular sight around our neighborhood or college campus. I should also make a correction to a statement Gilbert made in the last entry, and one which I also feared would be true. He mentioned that we would be going to a pig race whether my sister was wild about this prospect or not because in the past when we pressured her to join us for stupid silly fun like when we rented these bikes made for four people that look like Fred Flinstone cars and rode them around the lakefront a couple years ago, she was mortified the whole time that she would see someone she knew, and we figured that embarrassing experience would be nothing compared to watching a pig race. But to our joy and surprise, she said she loves pig racing and goes to watch one every year at her state’s fair, and she even won a prize when a pig she bet on won, so the pig race was a fun experience for all. We also walked through some barns where Gilbert forgot to mention that he was absolutely terrified of the cows last year and was scared again this year. I could tell because every time he saw a cow, he would flinch and shrink back, and he was all tense the entire time we were in the barn. My mom and dad think the reason for this fear is probably that to him, cows look like dogs on steroids. But I think it is good to expose him to new things, and I know from following a blog from the school I received Gilbert from that many of the puppies in training are taken to farms. So although my mom thought maybe we should skip the cow barn, I assured her it was good exposure for him, and by doing sighted guide with my dad and holding the leash tightly so he wouldn’t have the stress of guiding me when he was scared, as well as saying soothing words as we walked, Gilbert faced his fears pretty smoothly. I should probably try to expose him to cows more often than once a year, so maybe with every exposure, he will come to understand that while those giant dogs are intimidating, they won’t hurt him. We also walked through a barn of sheep and goats, but since they are closer to Gilbert’s size, he looked at them with interest but never seemed scared.

In addition, we saw some Chinese acrobats which I enjoyed because even though I couldn’t see the acrobats perform, the music that accompanied their act was cool, and my mom did a great job of describing the amazing and seemingly impossible things they did. In one routine, I guess a woman was standing on a man’s head! But the highlight of my fair experience was when my sister and I rode the sky glider. For those of you who don’t know what a sky glider is, it is basically a bench with no floor under it where you sit down, have a lap bar lowered for safety, and go about thirty feet up in to the air where you can just close your eyes, let your feet dangle and glide peacefully around the fair grounds. I am sure sighted people have a spectacular view from this ride, but I love it too because it is almost like you can hear a bunch of stuff all at once too, but at the same time, you get this cool feeling of silence and serenity because you are literally floating above it all. It is really a cool sensation that you should definitely experience if you never have. Anyway, it wasn’t the ride itself that was the highlight of my fair experience, but the incident that occurred on the ride that my sister and I would have been involved in if we had gotten on the ride just an hour later than we did. At about 7:00 after doing a lot of walking and standing around, I wanted to sit down and relax, so I thought that would be the perfect time to go on the sky glider. I think my sister was feeling ready to relax as well because she was all in favor of this plan too. My mom and dad said they would watch Gilbert since they are not as interested in those kinds of rides and there was no room for Gilbert on this ride. But before we parted ways to go on the ride, Mom said something like “How about we all relax and listen to some music together first and go on the sky glider a little later?” I love my mother and usually try to respect my elder and go along with what she wants to do, but some instinct told me that we really should ride the sky glider now and not put it off until later so I voiced protest to this plan. Well, it turns out it was a good thing I listened to my instinct because my sister and I got off the ride without incident at 7:20, and at 8:45, some motor on the ride malfunctioned and the sky glider stopped midair. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but special pieces of rescue equipment called cherry pickers had to be brought in by the fire department, and I think it was three hours before everyone was off the ride. Now of course, this experience would be a hilarious memory to look back on, and a guarantee that you would never forget your 2010 state fair experience. But my mom also pointed out that it could have also been a traumatic memory, especially for people who had to go to the bathroom since it is entirely logical that people might just decide to go to the bathroom after the ride, especially if they were only going one way like my sister and I did. The one way ride was only supposed to take ten minutes after all. Of course, this too could be a funny memory to look back on, but it wouldn’t be so funny right in the moment, so fortunately, people who had to use the bathroom were given first priority by the rescuers. The motor was repaired, and the sky glider was open for business as usual Friday morning. I bet this year with the memory of such excitement fresh on everyone’s mind, business on this ride will be slow. But I can tell you that by next year, I might go to the bathroom before the ride just to be safe, but although my mom may object, I cannot wait to live on the edge and get back on this ride next year!

Well, I guess I got a little carried away in my synopsis of the state fair. Although it was a fun experience that I obviously enjoyed writing about, my original intention when I set out to write this entry was to reflect on how much my life has changed for the better since Gilbert entered my life two years ago. I apologize that this entry isn’t as timely as I hoped since our official two year anniversary was last Wednesday, but with my sister here, I couldn’t find the quiet time or the inspiration to write an entry that would do proper justice to all of my appreciation for Gilbert. But actually, when I stop and think about it, though our anniversary day was special since it marked the beginning of our journey together, I think our entire journey through training where we both had to develop a bond and learn to trust each other, was equally special, and I have found that with each day as I think about the training we had together on that day two years ago and how far we have come since then, my appreciation for him is renewed, bringing me to the conclusion that it is never too late to express this appreciation. Just before writing this entry, I thought it would be fun to go back and read the entry I wrote on our one year anniversary, and in this entry, I recalled how my mother compared the milestone of receiving a guide dog to a wedding day where I would vow to love, honor and cherish Gilbert in exchange for the loving companionship, independence and confidence he would give me. In thinking back to this wise analogy, it occurred to me that although I am no marriage expert, this is still a perfect analogy not only to describe the beginning of a new era of responsibility for the well-being of another creature, but also one that can be extended to describe the amazing progress of our emotional bonding and trust for each other over the two years we have been together.

When I first received Gilbert, although I felt like he sort of loved me from day one when he practically tackled me on the kitchen floor and gave me kisses, or when he would get all excited when I was about to feed him, I hate to admit I did have my doubts over whether this love was genuine, or if he would love anyone who pet him or fed him, but never really bond with me. Another friend who received her first guide dog a couple years before me told me that it is difficult to bond with a new guide dog because for awhile, their loyalty is still with the trainer, so I didn’t take it personally when Gilbert seemed depressed each afternoon when the trainer left, but wagged his tail all happy when the trainer rang the doorbell each morning. But for weeks after the trainer left, I still wondered if he really loved me as much as I loved him. He would follow me around, especially when it was nearing meal time (grin), but if someone else called him over to pet him, he would leave me in a heartbeat and rush over to greet them with tail wagging. There was even an incident on the third day of college classes when my communication class had just ended and all of the other students had raced from the room, but I was still packing up my backpack, and thought Gilbert was right beside me waiting patiently. It turned out, he wasn’t because a boy came up to me and said nonchalantly, “Your dog is in the hallway.” Someone else quickly found Gilbert and brought him back to me, and of course, though the incident made for a funny story, it also illustrated the importance of knowing where that leash is. But it also raised a question in my mind about whether Gilbert just innocently saw everyone else leave and thought he was supposed to leave too, not understanding that he was supposed to wait for me, or if his bond to me wasn’t strong yet & he would have happily gone home with anyone and not give me a second thought. But two years later, I have come to the realization that I had no reason to worry because I have heard people talk about how in real human marriages, bonds are not forged overnight, but gradually as the partnership is strengthened over time through shared experiences and just time spent together. So just like a real marriage, Gilbert’s bond to me has been gradual, but after two years together, it has occurred to me that there are so many things Gilbert has done, little things I have often overlooked, that prove to me our bond is strong. For example, my dad often wakes up a lot early than me, sometimes as early as 6:00, whereas I like to sleep until 7:30 or 8:00. So when my dad wakes up, he likes to let Gilbert out of his crate since Gilbert is a social dog and will cry if he can tell people are awake and moving around when he is stuck in his crate. But as soon as he is out of the crate, he doesn’t hang out downstairs with Dad, but runs straight up the stairs and lays down right outside my door, ready to jump up, wag his tail and give me a quick kiss on the hand, his way of saying “Good morning!” as soon as I open my door. Back when I passed out from dehydration after my birthday, Gilbert was asleep and did not bark or alert my parents that I was in trouble. But when I got home from the hospital still feeling pretty weak and exhausted, my mom was going to take Gilbert outside to relieve himself and then put him in his crate again so we could all get some sleep. But when he had come in from relieving himself, he dashed straight upstairs where I was already laying in bed with the bedroom door open, and laid down on the floor right beside my bed. When my mom tried to call him dow to his crate, he completely ignored her. When Mom came up to the bedroom and took him by the collar to try to drag him downstairs to his cage, in the second that she let go of the collar to open the door to the crate, he got away and dashed back upstairs to lay by my bed, his way of saying, “I can tell my mommy is sick, and I have no intention of leaving her side!” This display of love and concern was so adorable we decided to break the rules of the guide dog program and let him sleep out of his crate that night. Without him in his crate at night, I feared he would get in to something naughty while I slept, but I am a light sleeper, and never heard a peep from him all night, and when I woke up six hours later, he was still laying vigilantly beside my bed.

And then just this morning, I was reminded once again of how strong our bond is because although it is extremely rare that Gilbert does not accompany me, and he has never missed a day of work at the switchboard, my hours changed unexpectedly since the student who covered the switchboard with me quit and moved away sooner than I thought he would. So instead of working 2:30 to 6:30 this week, I am now working 8:30 to 2:30. But before I knew that my schedule would be changing, I scheduled Gilbert’s follow-up vet appointment to check his ears for 1:30 today. So rather than make life difficult for the receptionist at the vet since their schedule was pretty full this week and this was really the only appointment I could get, I decided to keep the appointment and my mom said she was happy to take him to the appointment for me. We talked about having him come to work with me and then my mom would come to pick him up early, but thought that would be a lot of unnecessary backtracking, so we decided he would stay home from work today. I didn’t think Gilbert would mind staying home because his loud snoring during my shift indicates that he gets pretty bored at work (smile). But this morning when he saw me pick my backpack up and walk toward the door without calling him or putting on his harness, he actually tried to block my path to the door as if to say, “Hey! Aren’t you forgetting something?” Gilbert will still wag his tail and go crazy when he sees other people, especially when the dog trainer comes to visit, but these instances I just mentioned and numerous others like it these past two years have made me realize that I am the true love of his life. Whenever you hear stories in the media about the bond between a dog and his handler, you often hear stories about a dog that senses when his owner is going to have a seizure and alerts someone, saving the person’s life, or the guide dog that calmly led a blind man out of the World Trade Center on September 11. Fortunately, I am not prone to seizures and my college is in a safe area, so our bond has never had to be tested in a life threatening situation, and hopefully never will be. But as I reflect on his many displays of love and loyalty these past two years, I truly believe that if we were ever faced with a life threatening situation, Gilbert would rise to the occasion because this bond to me definitely shows when he guides me.

For example, all guide dogs are supposed to stop when there is an official step or curb, but it didn’t take Gilbert long to sense that I am prone to tripping over smaller cracks and dips in sidewalks so he will stop for them too even though he wasn’t officially trained to do that. When I first got Gilbert, I dreaded the arrival of winter when the ground would be slippery with snow and ice. But I had no reason to worry because it didn’t take Gilbert long to sense my apprehension and slow way down when we got to ice patches, and in the two winters I have worked with him, I only fell once and that was in my freshman year when Gilbert didn’t realize that snow banks outside buildings were also a tripping hazard for me. But now, he has learned to slow down for snow banks, and made it through last winter bruise free!

Of course, just like with any marriage, Gilbert and I have good times and bad, and there are some aspects of our relationship we could both work on. For my part, I still need to work on trusting Gilbert in some situations. For example, back in April when I went to my teacher’s house on the lake and spent the weekend with eleven other dogs, we decided to take Gilbert, my friend’s guide dog, and my teacher’s guide dog puppy in training, Geyser, decided for a walk on this paved nature trail behind her house. The other dogs were in the lead, and the dog trainer told me that when walking with other dogs, guide dogs want to be in the lead, so the dogs will walk faster to keep up, but not to worry because walking faster would not interfere with Gilbert’s guide work. But the whole time we were walking, I was hyperventilating, partly because he was giving me a better workout than I was prepared for, but mostly because all I could think of was “Oh my God Gilbert! Slow down! It’s only a matter of time before you won’t stop in time and I will trip over something or crash in to a tree!” I think my teacher could sense that I didn’t trust him too because when we had caught up to the other dogs and Gilbert finally was starting to slow down toward the end of the walk, she told me that Gilbert was really doing a great job, and pointed out that although he was walking faster than I was comfortable with, he did a wonderful job slowing down when there were some narrow places, and tripping hazards like pipes and tree branches. After just praising how much Gilbert has bonded to me, I realize that part of what is required for forging a bond in any kind of relationship is learning to trust the other person, or dog in this case. So this occasional lack of trust has made me realize that in some ways, Gilbert’s bond with me is stronger than my bond with him, so my goal for our relationship in the years to come will be learning to trust him so that my bond with him can be just as strong as his bond has already become with me.

In fact, the first year I went to an overnight camp, one of the activities was a morning of team building exercises on a ropes and challenges course, where the director mentioned that the more you can learn to bond with your team mates and trust them, the more cohesive the team will be, a philosophy that I now realize is just as applicable for forming a cohesive service dog team, and indeed, in a lot of the stories you hear about a dog saving a person’s life, the handler will say that their life was saved because they trusted their dog. So Gilbert would probably rise to the occasion by say, walking fast to guide me out of a dangerous situation, but I hope that in time, I can learn to reciprocate this bond and rise to the occasion myself by trusting him so that we can be an even more cohesive team that could handle any situation with confidence and dignity.

Gilbert and I will both have the occasional struggle in our own ways with displays of immaturity. For example, I remember how last year when reflecting about how receiving Gilbert would be the end of the childhood era where I had no responsibilities, I was thinking about the physical responsibilities like taking Gilbert out to relieve in all kinds of weather, and remembering to make sure he has food and water. Indeed, taking on these responsibilities was quite an adjustment, especially in our first year together. But one aspect of my responsibility of caring for Gilbert that I did not foresee being as difficult as it was, especially in the first year of our relationship, was the responsibility of advocating for his best interests, and taking charge when he misbehaved. Part of the reason for Gilbert’s weight gain in our first year together was that although I never let people give him table scraps, I would often say yes if another student, neighbor or bank teller asked if Gilbert could have a dog treat. If we were walking and Gilbert noticed say, a person who had the scent of dogs on them in the campus center lobby, and walked over to give them a sniff, I couldn’t help laughing it off because while this was very naughty and unprofessional, I thought it was kind of cute. But after these kinds of transgressions, I would immediately feel a sense of guilt and wonder if I was really worthy of such a wonderful guide dog. Gilbert for his part, would go crazy when he would see other dogs when we took walks in our neighborhood or went to fundraising events for the school Gilbert came from. This distractability sometimes got to the point where I couldn’t control him, and though I tried harder to discipline him in these situations, there were times when to my extreme embarrassment, my dad or vision teacher would have to intervene for me to give him a stronger correction and get him under control. So after many a walk that was supposed to be a relaxing experience and a breath of fresh air, or a fundraiser where I wanted to make a good impression and show how well we were doing, I would come home practically in tears thinking “Why do you put me through this Gilbert! Why!” But in our second year together, while there are still the occasional vestiges of our immaturity, we have come a long way. Sometimes, on special occasions, or when Gilbert sees a friend we haven’t met in a while, I will let him have a treat or let go of the harness so he can say hello, but in general, I have developed the maturity to not be afraid to say “no, I would rather he not have a treat” and not be afraid to correct him when he sniffs people because Gilbert is not supposed to be a pet that gets to go to school with me, but a service dog whose behavior speaks volumes to the public about my own maturity or lack thereof. Gilbert still goes crazy sometimes when he sees other dogs, but even my blind friend noticed that he wasn’t as out of control as he was the year before. Then there were, and still are those days when there are other things on our minds and Gilbert crashes me in to an obstacle that we have flawlessly gotten around countless times, or when we would get turned around on a route we have walked countless times, but even these days are fewer and further between the more time we have been together. The only conflict that we haven’t been able to resolve is Gilbert’s obnoxious snoring, a common source of conflict in many real marriages, and one that got Gilbert kicked out of my bedroom (smile). As we embark on our third year together, I know there will still be frustrating moments, and discouraging days, but I no longer feel the unworthiness and occasional hopelessness that I felt on our first year together, now that I realize how just like with a real marriage, the sense of bonding, trust and mutual maturity cannot happen overnight, especially when it is my first guide dog, and Gilbert’s first time being a guide dog, which means if you stop to think about it, that while I have focused a lot on the end of the childhood era for me, I am sure just like with a real marriage when both partners must leave their familiar world and childhood behind, becoming a guide dog and leaving the familiar world of dogs and people he knew must have been a huge adjustment for him too. But when I think of how much we have both matured and bonded despite this huge change in both of our lives, it makes me realize how blessed and special our relationship truly is, and how excited I am for the many more years we will hopefully have together. On that note Gilbert, I promise to love, honor and cherish you, in good times and bad, until death do us part.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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