“Coming Home” – Day 8

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

November 20, 2008, 4:30 PM

Well here we are day 8, the final day of in-home training. Time sure flies! It’s a sad day, and it’s a happy day. It’s a sad time because it will be the end of our time together with Todd. Todd lived up to his reputation of being the best. As I said before I have never trained with Todd although he was the one who trained Roselle. I could not have asked for a better person to help Africa and I begin our journey together.
On the other hand, it is a happy day because of all that Todd has done to prepare Africa and because of all the work that Todd, Africa, and I have had the pleasure of accomplishing together over the past 8 days. Todd has helped lay a great foundation which will allow Africa and me to have many great adventures and wonderful travel experiences for many years to come.
You guessed it, Todd arrived promptly at 9 AM to begin this last training day. Africa was so excited to see him that I decided it would be a good idea to do a little bit of obedience work to refocus her before we left the house. I wrote in previous entries about the way obedience exercises can be used to regain a guide dog’s focus.
After obedience we left the house and headed into San Francisco and the Embarcadero area. We arrived near the Embarcadero at around 10 AM.
I should take a moment and explain what the Embarcadero is. It is a large complex of four sizable buildings which make up one of San Francisco’s premier shopping centers and office complexes. There is also a Hyatt Regency Hotel in the Embarcadero Center and there are several other major hotels in the general vicinity. In all, the Embarcadero Center and the surrounding area is quite a bustling place.
We parked a few blocks away from the Embarcadero so we can get in a nice walk and a train ride before going to the center itself. After leaving our van we walked about a block and then took a flight of stairs down into an open park. We decided to do some obedience exercises in the park to see how Africa would react around the hundreds of pigeons who made that area their home, at least during the day. Every so often Africa took a brief look at the pigeons but was not bothered by them at all. They did not prove to be any kind of distraction during her obedience work nor at any other time during the day.
I forgot to mention that before leaving the van I helped Africa on with her booties. Since we would be doing some escalator work that day the booties were called for. Africa seem to do a little better today with the booties although I have never felt that they really bothered her.
After leaving the park we walked another few blocks and finally reached the nearest Muni station where we planned to catch the subway. After going on a nice long escalator and walking through the turnstiles we waited for the train to arrive. While waiting Todd showed me how Africa had been trained to avoid the drop offs on subway platforms. I was aware of this, but I appreciated the reminder. Also it is good to see how much more subway platform training has improved.
The idea here is to make sure that when on a subway platform the blind handler is not put in danger of falling off the platform and onto the subway tracks. The student guide dogs are shown the edges of the subway platform and they are encouraged to look down onto the tracks to see how far they and their handlers would fall if they remain too close. The training of the dogs includes the use of clickers and food rewards to make sure that the dogs stay far away from the edges. Now the training goes so far that when a blind handler commands their dog to go forward and in so moving they might come close to or walk off the edge of the subway platform the dog physically turns the team away from the platform at least two or 3 feet before the team gets to the edge. When possible the dog will turn so that it is between the blind person and the platform. Of course, if there is a train in the station and the handler tells the dog to go forward toward the edge of the platform the dog will do so by going to the nearest door which would lead onto a train car. A dog properly trained will even distinguish between doors into the car and the space where two cars are coupled together. In all this training is quite extensive and is certainly gotten better over the years. I think that this is in part because more and more blind people are out in the workforce or are out traveling about cities and other areas where subways and trains are present.
After the train arrived and we boarded we took a short ride, (probably about six blocks), and then disembarked for our walk back to the Embarcadero Center. What we in fact did was traveled from one side of the Embarcadero Center to the other. This would make it possible for us to walk through the Embarcadero before returning to our van.
After leaving the train station and going up another long escalator we traveled two or three blocks before reaching the Embarcadero Center proper. We entered the center by going through a revolving door. Yes, the dogs are trained to do that. The easiest way to go through revolving doors is to drop the harness handle, heal the dog on the right side of the handler, and then walked together through the turning door. This keeps the dog on the inside of the turn as we go through the door and thus keeps it safer and less likely to have any part of it caught in the door. In effect, the handler is somewhat between the dog and the revolving door. There are some large revolving doors, such as the one at Portland airport, that permit the dog and handler to walk without the use of any special techniques. There was also a door like that at the Marriott World Trade Center. That revolving door was so large that it actually had a small flower gardens mounted to the insides of the doors so that as people were entering and leaving they got a nice view of some flowers to brighten their day.

After entering Embarcadero 1 we decided to locate a Mexican restaurant called Chevys for lunch. Chevys was located on the third floor. To justify the use of Africa’s booties we used escalators to get up to the restaurant. I was curious to see how Africa would do with her booties during the down time of our lunch period. I wanted to learn if she would get bored and try to take them off or whether she would even care. I was pleased to see that she left him alone and just decided to take a nap. Meanwhile, Todd and I had some nice fragrant quesadillas which Africa ignored. Good for her!
By the time lunch was over it was about a 1:45. We walked back to the van, going through the pigeon park on our way, and made it back to our vehicle by around 2:30 PM. Since Africa had worn her booties all day I took them off before we left San Francisco. We arrived back in Novato a little after 3 PM. In all it was another great training Day. It was a perfect end to our training and to our work with Todd.
I cannot end the discussion of this part of Africa’s and my adventures together without once again acknowledging Todd Jurek and the wonderful job he did with it for us and that he does every day. He is a master trainer who deserves the high accolades and great reputation that he has. I saw it with Roselle and I saw it again with Africa except that this time I got to be a part of the training process with Todd. Todd deserves and has my highest praise. I must say that he is not alone, however. I have found that all of the trainers at Guide Dogs for the Blind are excellent and much attention is paid in the training department to ensuring that they all have good people skills. They are great teachers.I urged anyone who wants a guide dog to consider Guide Dogs for the Blind as the school they attend. With leaders such as Todd Jurek, Adam Wasco, and Terry Barrett you can’t go wrong.
Now, our training is over. However the adventure has just begun. I will write again soon about Africa’s and my first weeks together. I’m sure the time will pass quickly and it won’t be long until December 4 and we fly to Minneapolis for a speaking engagement. This will be Africa’s first time on an airplane. Check back again soon for our next installment.

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Showing 2 comments
  • Sylvia

    Thank you for sharing your adventures with Africa, Mike. Your stories are always so interesting both because we are personal friends and because I find the whole guide dog concept so moving and interesting.

    Just this morning at church, I was talking about Buffy, another breeding dog that is at GD to determine if she will be bred just now. She is a lovely, snowy color and always bhaves perfectly in church…no surprise. Her owner was interested in Fantasia and both he and I wonder if her puppies have been born yet.

    God bless you for sharing so much of yourself with so many of us, Mike. Yesterday, Jim and were talking about why a loving God allows people like him to have received brain damage, our friend Carol, now entering a more advanced stage of Alzheimer’s and people like you as well. There is no doubt in my mind about the reasons. All of you contribute to the rest of us and are all the more precious because you do so.

    Your Loving Friend,

  • Rachael

    Hi Michael,
    I was trawling the net for accounts of experiences from guide dog owners about their training with their dog. I am hopefully about to train with my first dog in June. As I like to gather as much info about everything I do before I do it, I was very interested to read your diary of training with Africa.
    My fiance has a guide dog (his fifth) but getting him to recount the minutae of his training with his current lad two years or more ago might prove more than he could bear. So to read about what you did and when and where in such detail was very absorbing.
    Thanks for sharing it.

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