November 19, 2008, 9:09 PM
Thus far my work and bonding with Africa have been progressing well. Already we have had many adventures. Yesterday Todd informed me that today our first route was to be the infamous “independent route”. It is a route that is considered “independent” because the trainer does not walk with the student and dog. Usually, the student is told their starting location and then, when dropped off, they are asked to make their way to the Guide Dog lounge.
The route is not overly challenging to anyone who has good mobility skills. In a training center where blind people are learning to walk as blind people they will travel many independent routes including some where no instructor is observing them. These are true independent routes where blind people are expected to gain confidence in their own ability to travel from place to place. The GDB independent route is designed to get the dog used to walking without their former trainer nearby. The route can be a bit of a test of a blind person’s orientation and mobility skills. However, GDB is not really providing orientation and mobility training so it is expected that blind students are already capable of walking routes independently especially one of the difficulty of the kind Africa and I traveled.
Once again Todd arrived at 9 sharp. After discussing Africa’s adjustment and behavior from last evening, (no problems), off we went to downtown San Rafael and our walk. Todd dropped me off at third and Lootens St. it was my job to get to the GDB downtown lounge while Todd did his best to stay out of Africa’s sight. To explain further, at this point in our training Todd is still a security blanket for Africa. She knows him better than me. In a sense she relies on having him around and although I am the one giving her commands she has not totally made the transition of loyalty from Todd to me. During our first six days of training Africa would look around from time to time to see if Todd was close by. Today would be something different as Todd would not be in sight, or at least that was the theory.
To get from third and Lootens to the lounge all I had to do was to walk up Lootens to 4th St and then to walk up 4th St until I got to the lounge which was located between E. and F. I brought along my BrailleNote Sendero GPS system in order to do some experimentation toward developing some possible GPS training for GDB.
Before starting out I notified Todd that I would be stopping at RadioShack along the way. RadioShack is located between C. and D. streets and thus it was right on my way to the lounge. With all the preliminaries out of the way I embarked on this latest adventure. Of course, on principle, I had programmed the route into the GPS system so I allowed it to tell us where we were and how to get where we needed to go. I even had it tell me when we got close to the RadioShack.
The trip went well. When I was in the vicinity of RadioShack I asked a passerby to help me locate the specific door. As often happens in such cases the person I asked said “I don’t know where that is”. When asking the question I indicated that I knew it was close by, but as usual, people don’t seem to pay attention to that part of my question. I informed the person again at RadioShack should be within just a few feet and finally the person looked around and, what a surprise, saw the store, one door away.
Anyway, I went into RadioShack and purchased a small speaker which I needed. I then left the store and continued on my way to the lounge. As I walk toward D. street Africa began looking around for Todd. She had done a little of this during the first part of our walk, but now she became more intense about it. With some encouragement and praise I refocused her. We continued to walk past a D. toward E. Street. Again, Africa looked around for Todd a bit. Todd informed me later that he had a real hard time keeping completely out of sight and that Africa spotted him more than once. I figured as much. It is almost like a game of cat and mouse between Africa and Todd. However, Africa needed to learn that Todd was not the boss and that she had to focus on my commands. She really did a pretty good job. She is a very bright dog and I think she got the message.
After crossing E. Street we continued on to the lounge without incident. I don’t think Africa looked around for Todd once on that final block. When I got to the lounge I discovered that there was a GDB van there with some trainers and some applicants engaged in a multi-day assessment. One of the wonderful programs offered by GDB is a process by which some potential students can come to GDB for a three day assessment of whether or not they would be good candidates for using a guide dog. Most people only go through a home interview and a telephone interview. Some people have more challenges which require a more in-depth assessment on both sides. These people come to GDB and spent some time working with a guide dog as well as doing Juno work to see how well a guide dog will fit their needs and lifestyle. I think there were four students at the lounge when we arrived.
About a minute after I arrived at the lounge Todd appeared. He was very pleased with the walk and Africa’s behavior, Africa searching for him notwithstanding. The important thing was that Africa re-focused when I asked her to do so. Todd and I both felt the walk was good, Africa’s guiding was good, and that we were progressing well.
We decided to walk back down 4th St and find a place to have lunch. Eventually we settled on The Broken Drum, a microbrewery between and B streets. Although a bit noisy, the place wasn’t too bad. It was a little bit of a different experience for Africa, which is why we decided to stop there. She was not bothered by the noise and distractions at all, no surprise to me.
After lunch we returned to the van and traveled to GDB for a consultation with the veterinarian staff. Every student has a vet consult to learn about the medical history of their guide.
All of the reports on Africa were very good ones. The only interesting thing that I learned was that Africa has swallowed a couple of socks in her lifetime. No surgery was required to remove them from her system, however. Meeting with the vet staff is always good because we learned much about our dog’s behavior and habits from the puppy reports they share with us. Forewarned is forearmed. Now I know that Africa is a potential scrounger. And she looks so innocent too!
After the vet consult we returned home and called it a day. I must say that if all of our training progress sounds too positive and too good to be true it isn’t. Sometimes things go extremely well and sometimes they do not. Sometimes progress depends on how the student reacts to unexpected behaviors of the dog. As I said before this is as much a training time for the student as it is for the dog. It’s a time to sharpen our skills and to be reminded of how to encourage the best behaviors out of our new guides. I’m very pleased that training is going so well with Africa.
I remember a time with my third dog, Klondike, when he showed a fear reaction to walking in downtown San Francisco. It took a lot of work to encourage him to do his job. We worked through the problems and then Klondike guided for 10 years. For my part, I learned a lot from the challenges I faced with Klondike during training. Terry Barrett, now GDB Director of Training, Admissions, and Graduate Services, was the training supervisor during my class with Klondike. I will never forget Terry’s encouragement and wisdom. His ideas and suggestions stay with me always and always come to mind whenever I faced a training challenge. It is good not to have major difficulties at this point in our training, but I know that if they occur GDB and I have the tools to surmount them.
Tomorrow is our last day of training! Todd suggests that we go back into San Francisco where we can ride the subway, called the Muni, and then walk around Embarcadero Center. It sounds like a pretty full day with lots of distractions and lots of good guide exercise for Africa and me. Come back tomorrow to read the results.