“The Streets of San Francisco” – Day 5

 In Human-Animal Bond, Training My New Guide Dog "Africa"

Monday, November 17, 2008, 7:58 AM

Today was another gorgeous day around the bay at San Francisco. I haven’t mentioned the weather we have experienced during our training. In a word, the weather has been great! California has been experiencing drought conditions for some time. I hope that we will move beyond them this winter. However, for late November and needing to be outside training with a guide dog I must admit I can’t complain about the warm sunny time we are experiencing. The temperature has been in the 70s and 80s during the day. We’ve had little cloud cover but rather lots of sun. Southern California has been facing many severe wildfires which we hope will soon be under control and out. All of us in California fear the severity of fires during the dry conditions we are experiencing. I hope we get no more fires this year. All I ask is three more days of sunny weather and then let the clouds open and the rain poured down.

Todd informed me this morning that he expected that we would be done with our training by this Thursday evening. As I said earlier in-home training permits a lot of flexibility. Todd feels that by Thursday we will have covered everything we could possibly study and that unless something unexpected happens there is nothing else that he can do for us during the formal training process. Of course, Todd is always available to answer questions. Guide Dogs for the Blind also has an excellent Graduate Services Department directed by Brian Francis. In the first entry of this journal I mention Marc Gillard who is a member of the Admissions and Graduate Services section of Guide Dogs for the Blind. Marc works for Brian. Brian’s Department is always available to help graduates throughout the United States with any issues they may be having. I think it is great that GDB has such a good support network.

Once again Todd arrived on the dotted 9 a.m. Our plans for the day was to go back into San Francisco and work around Union Square, a major shopping, dining, and hotel area in the city. After that we would return to Marin County and do some work on streets with no sidewalks.

With our plan in place Todd, Africa, and I got into the GDB van and headed off to San Francisco. We arrived in Union Square just a bit after 10 a.m. Before we started on our route I helped Africa on with her booties. We expected to do some escalator work this morning and as I explained earlier the booties protect her paws from the escalator treads. I don’t think that Africa is a great fan of these booties by the way she walks in them, but she tolerates them pretty well. The booties would also be good protection during extremely hot weather and on snow-covered streets.

Our first destination on this route was the park in Union Square. When we arrived workers were installing the lights on San Francisco’s Christmas tree. In addition, the outdoor ice skating rink was in full operation. Go figure…ice skating in 80° weather in November. I’m sure no one expected this kind of weather which is why the rink was open.

While in the park Africa and I practiced a few obedience exercises. These exercises are one of the first things students learn at GDB. The idea behind them is to have a routine of commands which allow us to put the dogs through some basic paces every morning as kind of a warm up and a method to help them focus. Obedience consists of having the dogs perform a series of “sit” and down maneuvers. We then have the dogs stay while we walk away a few feet to the end of the extended leash. After waiting at the end of the leash to make sure that the dog remains where we told it to sit, the handler returns to the side of the dog and provides lots of praise. After doing the “stay” we begin another “stay” but this time rather than returning to the dog we called the dog to us with either the “heel” command or the “come” command. “Heel” in this case requires the dog to move to our left side and sit. “Come” tells the dog merely to come and stand in front of us.

Doing obedience in the park gave both Todd and me an opportunity to see how Africa worked with lots of distractions around. I should explain that these obedience exercises are a great way to regain a dog’s focus was being distracted any time. Many times during the day while I’ve been walking and my guide dog became too distracted by other things going on around him or her I use this obedience work to get the dog back on track. It works really well.

After obedience, which Africa performed very well, (what else), we left the park and walked over to Macy’s department store. We walked through the crowded aisles in this four-story building, as well as traveled up and down two floors on the escalators. As soon as I could hear the escalators near me I told Africa to ‘find the escalator”. True, she may find the down escalator when I want the up escalator, but it’s my job to determine the right one to use, not her. The point is that she gets me to the escalators for me to then make the right determination. Also, it should be noted that I need to be near the escalators for her to expect to find them. “Near” means we have to be close enough for me to hear the escalators and for her to see them. It is not practical for me to simply walk in the door at Macy’s and suddenly say “find the escalator” which may be at the other end of the store. I’ve seen some blind people who think this, but they’re not correct. Of course, I’ve encountered some sighted people who think that the dog does everything and never listens to discover that I’m giving the dog commands. Africa and I are a team. We each have a job to do. The best teams consist of members who understand each other’s jobs and who respect the abilities and skills of all the team members.

With Macy’s behind us we started off for the van and the return to Marin. Along the way we decided to make a stop at another crowded store, the Nike store. I didn’t even know one existed in San Francisco much less had I ever been there. It goes to show what I know.

We entered the store to the blare of loud Christmas music. This time, the escalator was right near the entrance and so I used the command “find the escalator” to tell Africa where I wanted her to go. We went up a long escalator to the second floor and then took another one to the third floor. After walking around a bit and not buying anything we return to the escalators, descended to the first floor and left that noisy cacophony of sound. It was a good experience for the team even though Nike didn’t make a dime off from it.

On our way to the van as we traveled through the park we stop for our traditional tea and coffee at a small outdoor coffee shop. Hey, what else is there to do on a bright sunny day in San Francisco? Less you miss the point of stopping for coffee and tea every day I should explain that it is a good way for the dog to unwind after doing very complicated and stressful routes. Make no mistake; this job is very stressful to a dog. I talked about this in an earlier post. Although I do not like to stress out my dogs it is important to keep up their work and practice. Going to places like the Nike store and walking a successful route through it and then conveying my pleasure to the dog is a great way to keep up her level of confidence.

We returned to an area near GDB in Marin to work a sidewalkless route. This kind of route is just what the name says. We had to walk in the street because there are no sidewalks alongside them. Also, there are usually many cars parked along the streets so it would give Africa a good opportunity to practice going up to cars, letting me find them, and then working around the car in order to get back on route. Part of the reason of doing a sidewalkless route is to make sure that the dog stays right near the edge of the street rather than walking out in the middle of it. Personally, I don’t need to do many sidewalkless routes, but they sure are good practice for the few times I am required to walk one.

The only challenge Africa had on this route was that there was a place where two cars were parked very close together. Rather than simply passing both cars and then regaining the route she tried to walk me between the two cars to get back to the curb as soon as possible. There wasn’t enough room so I was smushed against one of the cars. No one was hurt, but it was a good experience for Africa. She is a bright dog and I believe she won’t do that again.

After this walk it was time for lunch. We went up to Novato to the Vintage Oaks shopping center where we had lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. Vintage Oaks is also the home of Costco and Target. After lunch we decided it was time to call it a day. Todd, Africa, and I returned home around 2 p.m. Sure we could’ve walked more, but training is in part about good quality bonding time. It is not all about simply walking routes and keeping the dog in harness all day. The value of doing in-home training is that we get to spend our quality time at home so Africa gets used to our home life.

Tomorrow we get to do traffic checks. Come back to read what that’s all about.

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