Guide Dog Training: Breakdown to Breakthrough
The best things in life are often waiting for you at the exit ramp of your comfort zone.’
I discovered a simple truth
on the first day of guide dog training; being out of our comfort zone happens
to dogs too!
Little did Dindi, my new
guide dog, know that to feel unsettled and anxious to be left in the company of
a stranger – ME, would shift dramatically within only 24 hours of being
I knew it was about giving
our ‘friendship’ time but for my guide dog, she was way out of her comfort zone.
Here we were, in an unfamiliar shared space at the Guide Dog accommodation
centre. Like in a hospital where midwives aid a new mother to adjust to her
baby, I felt the guide dog trainers in those first few days were our
‘doggy-midwives’ helping a group of us to settle in and adjust to being patient
guide dog handlers.
In the first hour, when Dindi’s
trainer left our room, my guide dog fretted.
‘Hey, Dindi!’ I said gently,
trying to get her attention, she simply cruised around the room with head and
I knew that she was taking in the newness of it all and so I let her wander around as she observed the room from her amazing sence of smell. It seemed to give her a feeling of security to work out her new surroundings. At one point, she snorted so loudly from underneath the door, vacuuming up any tell-tale molecules of scent from the corridor, my trainer Eamon told me later, Dindi’s deep inhalations sounded like a creature out of Jurassic Park!
On my side of the door, she panted, she sat facing the door – waiting... ready to escape. My heart felt for her. Poor girl. I coaxed her to sit by my side where my hands gently travelled over her back in calming massage movements. I accepted these first hours were more about staying calm for her sake, to give her time to adapt and adjust. And then it happened – Dindi’s breakdown to breakthrough moment!
When I awoke at 6am the
following morning, a warm tongue licked my outstretched hand.
It was as if we were saying
hello for the first time. Her tail wagged, making a friendly thumping sound on
her dog bed. She licked my hand again and my heart melted –she had gone through
the dark night of her ‘doggy-soul’ and was ready to accept me as her new found
All the first week of our
guide dog training, apart from learning how to give specific commands to our
working dogs, it was even more important to use every opportunity to PRAISE our new guide dogs when we
succeeded in achieving true teamwork.
Within 24 hours,
Dindi was lying quietly on her bed. When I moved a foot, Dindi rose to greet
me. And within only a few days, my beautiful Dindi and I were developing a
special bond. Her stress had vanished, and in its place, came the spritely
spirit of a loyal companion, eager to help me learn about becoming competent
communicators as a working guide dog team.
After the first week of
training and ‘bonding’ with our guide dogs, clients were given the weekend to
go home while our dogs would be cared for in the kennels. It was hard emotionally
to leave our new dogs but the weekend went quickly and was a welcomed pit-stop
to catch up with family and friends.
On arriving back at the centre, my trainers escorted me to my room –to meet Dindi again. After settling my exuberant Labrador, I noticed my trainers were hovering in my room. Then Eamon said quietly, showing me the packages poised on my desk ‘These were delivered to your room today. They are a gift from Dindi’s puppy raiser’.
I stared at him in total
surprise. Christina and Eamon smiled as I touched the packages, one hamper of
goodies for Dindi and one for me?
‘There’s even a message on the package for you.’ Eamon said, and he began to read, I began to cry...
‘Dindi loves to chew on Nyla bones, She loves a game of tug-of-war,
She loves to chase that
donut, rolling down the hall,
Her favourite treats are all
onboard, for her to enjoy.
We wish you well on journeys together, And hope you have a ball.’ Mandy
In only a week, so many
blessings, so many surprises – and with so much support from our guide dog
trainers, my next post gives an insight into how being out of one’s comfort
zone, for human and canine alike, is mastered with positive strategies – one
skill at a time.
Becoming an effective guide
dog team is knowing the system; everything we learn has a reason, a tried and
tested program that creates successful teams of human to their beautiful guide dog.
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Audio: Courage on a Mission
© Maribel Steel 2019
first published on maribelsteel.com