Last Friday June 22 should have been an idyllic evening. Mom, Dad and I all had uneventful workdays and enjoyed a delicious dinner of shrimp marinated in teriyaki sauce. Them Mom took Dad to pick up his car that had some routine maintenance done, but when he got back, he offered to take me for a walk. I jumped at the chance as it was one of those perfect, cool summer evenings Wisconsinites wait all year for, and sometimes Mom is tired and does not feel like going for a walk, and Dad has so much work to do he cannot take me for a walk and I have to go on the treadmill. Unfortunately, as I have written about in the past, our street is a quiet country road, but my parents don’t think it is a safe road for me to walk by myself. There is a spot known as the hairpin curve where cars cannot see pedestrians and pedestrians cannot see the cars until they are about to run you over. Mom and Dad have almost been run over at other spots too because drivers don’t expect pedestrians and go flying down our street not even watching out for pedestrians.
Gilbert has had a little bit of arthritis since 2014, but in the past year and a half or so, it has become more pronounced. In the early days of his arthritis, he had no problem walking the two miles to Calhoun and back with Dad and me, but last spring, he would start limping on these walks, so we started taking him on shorter walks. This summer, we have developed a routine where Dad and I walk to Calhoun, and then as we are turning around to come back home, Dad calls Mom on his cell phone, and she brings Gilbert and meets up with us. It has been a win-win for everyone. Dad wants to get back to his work rather than have to go back out to take Gilbert and me for another shorter walk, and Mom prefers shorter walks as she is tired by evening. But last Friday night as Dad and I were walking, I was inexplicably overwhelmed by a mixture of sadness and frustration. “This is such a quiet street. I don’t understand why you and Mom won’t let me walk it by myself,” I said. Forgetting about the stories both my parents have told of almost being run over, and a time when Mom had to practically throw Gilbert and me into the ditch, I explained how I could hold Gilbert’s leash and walk him as I would a pet dog, and shoreline the grass on the left side of the street with my cane to eliminate the danger of Gilbert drifting to the middle of the street without me noticing as has happened in the past. Dad sighed in frustration himself and said, “we live just a short drive from tons of nice park trails where you wouldn’t have to worry about cars, but you never want to get in the car and use them.” He has a point. I will go to one of these trails on a Saturday every now and then, but it is so stupid and frustrating to me that we have to drive somewhere to take a walk. To me, it takes something that should be simple and turns it into a chore. In addition, while it is true that I don’t have to worry about cars on these trails, the trails aren’t completely stress free either. A lot of people walk their pet dogs on these trails, and while Gilbert is an amazing guide dog in all other situations, he has always had a bad habit of going bonkers when he sees other dogs, something I have never figured out how to break him of completely. And then you’ve got crazy bikers who think the park trail is a racetrack and come flying out of the middle of nowhere, and not wanting to slow down, they shout “left!” and there is this split second where neither my parents or I are sure if they want me to move to the left or if they want to go around me and want me to move to the middle. At the last moment, we always figure out what to do and I have never been run over by a biker, but that split second of panic is aggravating. Bikers are allowed on the trails we use, but these trails are meant to be strolling trails, or trails where little children can safely ride their bikes. If these crazy bikers want a trail where they can fly, my parents said there are hundreds of miles of bike trails in the country for this, so my dad and I have decided we will not feel intimidated by these bikers this year when we use the trails. If a biker tries to intimidate us, we have decided we will stay our course and force them to slow down. If I could walk right out the door of the house and be on a walking trail, I would be more than happy to put up with the annoyances of other dogs and these crazy bikers. The joy of being able to go for a walk independently would be worth it. But the way I look at it is since for the time being, neither the park trail nor our street are completely peaceful and neither allow me to feel independent as my parents have to drive me to the trail, I prefer to just walk on our street.
When Mom met up with us and I explained how restless I was feeling, she thought maybe I had become too much of a homebody and just needed a vacation. No, a crappy night’s sleep, a gross hotel breakfast, and a complete loss of independence was definitely not the solution I was going for. I love our quiet, off-the-beaten-track neighborhood, and until that night, the fact that there were no sidewalks or safe trails for me to walk independently had been in the mildly inconvenient and annoying category of my mind. But last Friday night, by the time we got home, I was so enraged by the inability to travel independently where we live that I was in tears. And then it occurred to me that this was the weekend the program that trained Gilbert was holding Jog for Guide Dogs, the fundraiser where I met Gilbert ten years before. Remembering some psychology from the communication courses I took in college, it occurred to me that what I expressed outwardly as anger over where we lived was actually just sadness as it struck me how old Gilbert is now. He will likely need to retire soon. He can still go to work with me, but his stiffness is very apparent now and he cannot walk to Calhoun and back with Dad and me like he used to. And his retirement and inevitable passing will also mark the end of an era. Ten years ago, I was young and full of dreams and ambitions. I couldn’t be as independent as I had hoped because the college dorms were just too stressful for both of us, and little did we know that the sidewalks we had practiced so well would be torn up by construction equipment the first week of school. So Mom or Dad would drive me to school, but Gilbert and I still cruised all over campus independently. I felt especially blessed to have him on a frequently used route through a tunnel full of twists and turns that went from the technology center where I had several night classes and study sessions, to the main campus center which included the dining room. I would get hopelessly lost when I tried to do this route with my cane, but he breezed through this tunnel with such grace. I am at peace with my current job, and it is a perfect job for Gilbert’s age as there is hardly any walking. Every Spring since 2015, the Guide Dog trainer (a different person than the one who trained Gilbert) gives me a call to discuss how Gilbert and I are doing. This trainer is extremely compassionate and back in 2015, he told me that while he knew of a guide dog that worked until he was fourteen years old, the average retirement age for guide dogs is nine years old. He wanted me to be emotionally prepared for the reality that Gilbert will eventually need to retire. But he sees nothing wrong with me continuing to work Gilbert even with his arthritis since my job doesn’t require him to walk a lot. Both last year and this year, we considered retiring Gilbert and training with a new guide dog, but the trainer thought, understandably that my current job would not provide enough physical activity for a young dog. This year, I mentioned that my parents were eventually planning to move to a smaller, lower-maintenance house and one thing they were going to prioritize when deciding where to move was a safe location where I could step out the door and go for a walk independently. In my mind, I was thinking along the lines of a long peaceful nature path, but the dog trainer hinted that ideally I should try to find an urban setting where I can learn routes to restaurants or stores. I didn’t tell the dog trainer this, but after we hung up from this call, it occurred to me that I didn’t really want to live in an urban setting. There are very few restaurants I trust given my Celiac Disease, and while I suppose I should know how to get to a grocery store in the event of an emergency, when my parents are no longer able to handle grocery shopping, I plan to join the modern age and order all my groceries online and have them delivered. Why struggle trying to maneuver heavy grocery bags and a dog when even sighted people are increasingly having their groceries delivered? I felt safe crossing the streets of my college campus because my college campus was in a smaller city where the streets weren’t terribly busy, and the streets had those beeping crossing lights for the blind. But given that I grew up in a suburban setting, busier streets, especially if they don’t have the beeping lights, are just too intimidating for me. So my parents and I have come to the decision that when they are no longer able to drive me to work, there is no reason for me to navigate bus routes and busy streets in the age of Uber and Lyft. I do concede that I will need to live a little closer to an urban center than where we live now because where we live now is so off-the-beaten-track that cab service costs a fortune. I researched the cost of having a cab take me to work and back in January 2016 when my mom had to go to New York for a few weeks to help my sister who had just had surgery, and found out that I would essentially have to pay two days worth of my wages for every day of cab service. Fortunately, my dad was able to adjust his schedule with another co-worker and drive me to work in the morning, and my brother who lived with us at that time was able to pick me up in the afternoon. So I recognize that eventually, I will have to live closer to the city where cab fare is more reasonable, but I still want a quiet neighborhood where you can open the windows in the spring and hear birds, not a constant flow of cars and trucks. But last Friday, it occurred to me that the consequence of these lifestyle choices might be that once Gilbert retires, I may never hold the handle of a guide dog harness again.
It costs over $20,000 to train a guide dog. Since no one would be able to afford a guide dog on his/her own, guide dog programs, with the help of generous donors, provide guide dogs to blind people free of charge. But since these schools are accountable to donors, they all require verification that the person would really utilize a guide dog. Each program enquires about a candidate’s lifestyle, daily routine, and living situation and requires that candidates are independent and confident cane users before they will match them with a guide dog. Gilbert had a productive career through 2014. He was with me as I pursued my Bachelor’s Degree at Carroll University, did an internship at the Milwaukee Public Library which also had whindy hallways I would have gotten lost in without him, and earned my Paralegal certificate at a technical college in downtown Milwaukee. By 2015 when I landed the job at the law firm where I still work today, he was showing signs of arthritis so the timing was perfect. My parents thought I might have been too humble when talking to the guide dog trainer, but I can see where the program is coming from. Since so much time and expense goes into training a guide dog, it makes sense to prioritize the blind person who lives independently and would benefit from a dog to navigate bus routes and cross busy streets to get to work each day over the person who gets driven to work at a very small office that is easy to navigate with my cane when Gilbert is sick, and would mostly use the dog for recreational walks on park trails, church and maybe the occasional outing with family and friends. I am the kind of person who has delayed emotional reactions to some things. I am the kind of person who doesn’t cry during a funeral, but a couple hours after it has ended. So when the dog trainer indicated back in May that I wouldn’t be eligible to train with a new guide dog until my lifestyle changed and I lived in a more urban setting, I was fine with this reality. But it wasn’t until June 22 that the sad implications of this hit me full-force.
Another realization that has struck me recently is that I get the impression that my parents want a break from pets. When Snickers passed away, my parents both indicated they did not want another cat, at least not for awhile. Mom wanted a break from washing cat hair off of every counter and table, and wanted to find out if some of our allergies cleared up by no longer having cat dander in the house. I was fine with this as Snickers was one-of-a-kind and it would be hard for any new kitten to measure up. And I still had Gilbert who was especially sweet after Snickers’ passing. I think he sensed I was sad, and maybe he was sad too because they had a lot of fun times together. But Snickers’ passing brought into sharper focus the realization that Gilbert is getting old too. Dad loved our German Shepherd, Indy who passed away when I was in seventh grade, but after she passed away, he wanted our next dog to be my guide dog. I was sad about having to wait so long for a dog, and my sister and I even made the mistake of convincing Mom and Dad to adopt a dog who had behavior problems we couldn’t handle, so we had to return him to the Humane Society. I was devastated for a few days but soon came to terms with it, and I still had Snickers and my brother’s dog Mojo whom we got to dogsit often. My dad has talked half-heartedly about maybe getting a German Shepherd when he retires, but he has also indicated that he wants a break from the responsibility of a dog so we can all travel without having to make arrangements for a dog. They are fully supportive of me working with another guide dog because the dog is my responsibility, and he is not just a frivolous pet but a dog with a job who would travel with us. I have had pets in my life since I was four years old, but it occurred to me that once Gilbert passes away, if the program determines that my lifestyle cannot justify the need for a guide dog, there will be no furry companions in my life.
Even if Gilbert is the only guide dog I ever work with, I had made up my mind that when we move to the house with the walking trail, I would adopt an easy-to-care-for pet dog to hit the trail with, his leash in my left hand and my cane in my right hand. My parents have talked about getting a house with a walk-in basement where I could have even more independence and privacy, so I could confine this dog to my basement area and he wouldn’t bother my parents at all. It wouldn’t be the same as holding a guide dog harness, but at least I would have more companionship on my walks than just a white stick. But on June 22, it struck me how much I wanted to walk park trails independently with a guide dog. That Friday night, Mom and I decided that rather than having her meet up with us Mom would go for a walk with Gilbert and me earlier in the day to the hairpin curve and back every day the weather permitted (Neither Gilbert or I do well when it is over 90 degrees). She would walk behind us and just alert me if Gilbert was drifting to the middle of the road, or rescue us if a car came upon us suddenly. It was wonderful to walk this route together again. The first half of the walk, he does pretty well, keeping to the left side of the road most of the time. On the second half of the walk, Mom and I speculate that he is either tired and loses focus, or just wants to get home so I have to correct him more the second half. But on this first peaceful walk last Saturday morning, I had a revelation.
A few days earlier, I was snooping around Facebook curious about what some old friends were up to as I had gone off the grid for awhile. When I was working full-time, I was so burnt out I didn’t feel like being online after work, and then I heard about all the political nastiness going on. But that day like I said, curiosity got the best of me and I discovered that one of my friends had trained her own guide dog, and she joined another blind friend of mine to start an owner-trained service dog academy to support people in training their own service dog. That day I was impressed, but shrugged it off as something beyond my abilities. But last Saturday, it occurred to me that before dismissing it as something I couldn’t do, I should give it some consideration.
I have been reading articles about owner-trained service dogs all week and plan to read a lot more and talk to people I know who will be honest with me. I recognize that choosing to train your own service dog is not a decision to make lightly. There are advantages and disadvantages to training your own service dog. The biggest advantage is that you can choose the training method that works best for you. When I received Gilbert, I had never heard of clicker training or the concept of positive re-enforcement. Gilbert was trained using the “choke collar.” If he obeyed my commands, I was taught to praise him, but if he disobeyed or got distracted by another dog, I was supposed to administer a correction. The dog trainer showed me how if the collar was put on right, it doesn’t choke the dog. He just feels a pinch when you administer a correction. Even when the dog trainer was still working with us, Gilbert got distracted by other dogs a couple times. The trainer would tell me to correct him and I honestly thought I was but Gilbert wouldn’t be fazed by it. So one time, the trainer took the leash from me and gave Gilbert a correction himself. I could tell by the sound that his correction had more strength behind it than I was capable of. I tried to be more forceful but my corrections were never as effective as the corrections administered by the dog trainer, and a couple times my dad. I would love to have my next dog trained according to the positive re-enforcement philosophy, not only because dogs trained this way are happier since they obey out of true eagerness to please rather than out of fear of punishment, but also because this style sounds more compatible with my personality and physical ability.
In traditional training programs, the dogs have passed through many hands before they are matched with a blind person. First they are matched with a puppy raiser, and sometimes are passed around to multiple puppy raisers their first year of life to expose them to many experiences. Then they spend a few months with the guide dog trainer learning formal harness commands, and then they are matched with a blind person. So just when a dog has forged a bond with someone, they are sent to a new person. For this reason I was not surprised when I learned that it can take a year or longer for a guide dog team to really feel as though they are bonded. I realize that formal training programs have to operate this way as these programs would be drastically limited in the number of people they could serve if the guide dog trainer had to raise every puppy himself, but if an owner raised her own guide dog and then just consulted with a trainer when it came time for formal harness training, think how bonded the dog and handler would already be before even putting on the harness for the first time. I would imagine that with this lifelong bond, the guide dog team would have smoother training sessions and the dog would be ready to work at an earlier age. Also although guide dog programs have procedures and reporting requirements for puppy raisers to try and ensure consistency and continuity, it is impossible for the program or the new blind handler to know everything regarding how the puppy was raised. So for example, if the handler is walking through a store one day and the dog won’t go down an aisle where there are small children, a person with a guide dog from a program will not know why the dog is acting this way, but a blind person who raised the dog from puppyhood would remember a specific negative experience involving children and this may make it easier to overcome said issue. On a similar note, by raising your own service dog, the handler gets to set the rules most important to them and make sure they are enforced from the start. For example, if it is very important to a handler that the dog doesn’t get overly excited when he sees other dogs, the handler can enforce right from the start that the dog must wait for handler’s permission before socializing with other dogs. But if handlers in the dog’s past allowed the dog to do things you don’t want them to do, it is a lot more difficult to re-train the dog when he is older.
The final and perhaps most obvious advantage to owner training that I have thought about is that the owner gets to find their own dog. The most common breed used for guide dog work seems to be the Labrador Retriever. Poodles and German Shepherds are also used for guide dog work but there seem to be fewer of these dogs. Most guide dog handlers I know have Labrador Retrievers. I absolutely love Labs. Gilbert’s happy nature and sweet personality makes me smile every day, and as long as he doesn’t spot another dog, especially a potential playmate his size, he has been a fabulous guide dog. Labs are also great for public relations as their friendly disposition means they are adored by almost everyone. But this can also be a disadvantage. In 2008 when I received Gilbert, the program encouraged, and I fully supported the idea of being friendly by letting people pet Gilbert as long as I wasn’t holding the handle of the harness and actually walking with him. I have no regrets about allowing this as Gilbert helped break the ice when starting college and meeting new people, which helped me quickly make new friends. Gilbert could sense who some of my closest friends were and would occasionally get distracted if he saw them while we were walking, but for the most part, this friendliness did not interfere with his work. But now that I am more mature and in the professional world, I would like to experience working with a Poodle or German Shepherd (ideally a Poodle) as these breeds have a less friendly, more aloof disposition that would draw less attention from the public, thus making it easier for both of us to stay focused on getting where we need to be. If I applied for a dog through a program, I could indicate that I would like a Poodle or German Shepherd if possible, but the program has the final say in the breed of dog I receive.
The biggest disadvantage to owner training is that you are largely on your own. Of course in my case, I could receive some support from the owner-trained service dog academy my blind friends started. If I enrolled in this program, I would need to go to Madison once a month for classes, but the rest of the month it would be up to me to make sure the dog was socialized and trained properly. In the early days of training, this would be no different than socializing a typical pet puppy. The challenge will come when I am ready to train the puppy in places where dogs aren’t typically allowed. Puppies-in-training don’t have the same legal protection as fully-trained service dogs and even puppy raisers who volunteer with recognized training programs are advised to ask permission before bringing the puppy into an establishment where dogs aren’t typically allowed. But owner-trainers can have more difficulty securing this permission because they don’t have the rapport of a recognized program behind them. If getting permission from businesses proved too difficult, I could always just use the guide dog only for outdoor walks and places like the Farmers Market where dogs are allowed. But ideally, I would like to be able to have my guide dog at work, church and the occasional outing with family or friends.
Another important disadvantage to consider with owner-training is the financial aspect. In addition to the cost of acquiring a dog from a reputable breeder, I would also have to purchase my own guide dog harness and any other necessary training equipment because all programs I am aware of require that the harness the program provided be returned when the dog retires. In addition, at least for the first dog I owner-train, I would have to pay for the assistance of a freelance guide dog trainer since I have never really trained a pet dog, let alone a service dog from the ground up. If I worked with the Academy my friends started, they would assist me in fundraising, but this would still be a huge financial investment that I would need to pray about and consider carefully.
Training a service dog from the ground up would also require discipline and a huge investment of time. Unfortunately, when college life got demanding, I fell off the wagon in regard to daily obedience sessions with Gilbert. Just like with a New Year’s Resolution, I would resolve to do obedience every day and would be great for a couple weeks, but then would fall off the wagon again. I will never know if some of Gilbert’s minor behavioral problems, even his craziness when he sees other dogs could have been lessened had I been more diligent with this discipline. Now I am doing an obedience session right before Gilbert and I set out for our walk to the hairpin curve. But now that I am ten years wiser than I was when I started working Gilbert, I regret not being more diligent with obedience sessions. So regardless of who trains my next dog, I WILL be diligent from day one and do obedience every day before I allow myself to eat breakfast. But a guide dog trained by a program has already been molded into a well-behaved dog when the blind handler receives him. Thus the daily obedience sessions can be short as the purpose is simply to remind an already good dog that you are the leader. But if I trained my own dog, the training sessions would need to be longer until he is mature and well-behaved, and falling off the wagon of daily discipline with a puppy would have catastrophic consequences. Also, while I worked him in all kinds of weather during college, now that Gilbert has arthritis which is worse in the winter, I don’t have to go out for walks in nasty weather which is fine by me. But for young dogs, daily exercise is crucial. So if I took the leap into owner-training, I would have to just tell myself that even if it is below zero outside, that’s just too bad. I have to suck it up and walk my dog. If I was able to get a dog trained by a program, I could at least take the dog to indoor places for exercise like the mall since he would already be a full-fledged service dog.
Finally, perhaps the biggest disadvantage I have read about with owner-training is that after pouring your heart into training the dog, the dog may need to be “washed out” meaning that the owner realizes the dog is not able to be a service dog, due to a health issue like hip dysplasia or a temperament issue that was missed when the owner selected the dog. Owners often enlist the help of a behaviorist, and they carefully research breeders to reduce the risk of such problems, but still there are no garuntees. The requirements for my dog would be less stringent than a traditional guide dog since the dog wouldn’t have to cross streets or handle stressful urban situations like public transportation, and if the dog didn’t work out as a service dog, he would still be kept as a pet. But it would be emotionally difficult to come to terms with the fact that after all the time and money you invested in training him, he couldn’t be a service dog after all.
Some people say I overthink things, but in a matter as important as this, I think this is a good thing. I plan to do a lot more thinking and talking to people I know who are both for and against owner-training, like a judge listening to both sides of a legal argument. Before making a final decision, I would also volunteer at an animal shelter to build confidence handling other dogs. Any puppy I adopt, especially one I want to train to be my guide dog, would be my responsibility. My goal if I chose to owner-train would be to only ask my parents for help when it came to driving me to the vet or obedience school. But I realize that since I really only have experience handling well-behaved dogs, handling a puppy at this point would be quite a culture shock that I honestly don’t feel ready for at this point. I need to make sure I can confidently handle being nipped, jumped on, peed on, you name It, by other dogs, and would appreciate feedback from staff on things I could do better, feedback I could apply to a puppy. And if the six month commitment is a horrible experience for me, then I will know for sure that I am not equipped for the daunting task of owner-training and will try for a dog trained by a program or just adopt an old, well-behaved trail buddy. Actually even if I do get a program trained dog, I still might volunteer at the animal shelter as gaining confidence never hurt anyone even if the dog will already be well behaved. I might even ask the staff if I can bring the guide dog to work with me so that he would have regular opportunities to practice ignoring all kinds of dogs.I will keep you readers updated on my thought process and what I ultimately choose to do. But if anyone stumbles on this blog who has owner-trained a service dog, feel free to share your thoughts.