Fourteen days from now, I will be at the Seeing Eye, a dog guide training school in Morristown, NJ, meeting dog number 4, whom I have afectionately dubbed ND (pronounced Endie) for the time being. I am often asked whether I will be going to "pick up" the dog, why I didn't choose a closer school, why I chose this school over other schools, why I keep returning, etc. I want to try to articulate these things. I also want to write about some of my memories. This trip is occurring just over sixteen years to the day after my trip to train with my first dog in 1991. In that time, a number of things have changed--both in my life and at the school. Some things have stayed the same. I did not keep a good journal during the first or third training; but I want to try to describe what I remember.
A dog guide is not something you just go and pick up somewhere and bring home. Traveling with a dog guide is a complex task that involves work on the part of both the dog and the person. Much of the responsibility falls to the blind person, who must know how to get from point A to point B and give the dog accurate directions. The dog must provide safe guidance around obstacles, through traffic, etc. Dogs go through several months of training in order to learn to guide safely. Typically, a person attends two to four weeks of training with a dog before bringing the dog home. Several schools around the country provide training; and selecting a training school is a bit like selecting a college. Since there are so few schools available to choose from, many people make the choice based on factors other than geography. Many factors influence the decision of where to go for training.
The Seeing Eye was not my first choice when I applied to dog guide schools. In fact, I was bitterly disappointed when I received my rejection letter from Guide Dogs for the Blind in California. I was seventeen years ols and had plans to start college at Anderson University in Indiana in the fall, 1,100 miles away from my then current home in a suburb of Houston. I had never been farther west than Colorado; and I thought that training in California would be fun. Besides the fact that I got rejected, the wording of the letter stung badly. It said that the staff did not believe that I possessed the motivation required to travel effectively with a dog guide. I wondered what could be more necessary than traveling 1,100 miles away from home to go to college!
I put in a half-hearted application to the Seeing Eye, knowing that I would have to wait a year to go to training. I was terrified of going to college with my cane; but I did it. When I was accused of dependency because I used "sighted guide" technique to keep up with other students in order to converse on the way to class, I swallowed hard and walked alone so that I could avoid the appearance of dependency. The implication hurt: if I made friends and wanted to walk with them, I would have to risk the image of dependency. If I wanted to prove that I was independent, I could not have friends. My existence was a lonely one during the fall of 1990 and spring of 1991.
In May, 1991, I boarded a plane to Newark, where I would be met by a limousine and ferried to Morristown for four weeks of training. Stepping out of the limousine in Morristown, an instructor greeted me by calling me "Miss Blake" and introducing herself as "Miss Early."
I wanted to gag. "Miss Early" was a fine thing for me to call her; but I still had five days to go before my nineteenth birthday! I wasn't "Miss" anything! "Please, call me Sarah!" I exclaimed.
"I can't," she said, explainning that everyone was required to address each other using last names. I felt very uncomfortable but resigned myself to being called Miss Blake.
In the years since then, this practice has been changed. Students and instructors are now permitted to address each other by first names. The practice of wearing business clothing to the lunchtime meal continues. This does not bother me. We often eat with staff and guests who are dressed in this manner; and it makes sense to dress likewise.
During my first training, there were eighteen students in training. The class was divided into three groups of six students, each with one instructor. When I was there in 2001, the class size was 24 and there were five instructors. They were aiming for a four to one ratio of students to instructors. I'm unsure whether they have reached this or not. I am fairly certain that there are at least five instructors as well as the class supervisor, who usually does not teach students. The instructors alternate staying overnight, and there is also an instructor who specifically is hired for night duty. She arranges social activities for those who wish to take part, handles some of the lectures, and also takes some students on night routes if desired. This is a great option for students who have partial vision and wish to work in low lighting conditions for any reason. I did it a few times with my last two dogs.
Students have single rooms, and each is equipped with its own bathroom. This is different from when I first began training in 1991--we had roommates back then, and the facility has been expanded with two new wings to accommodate all the extra rooms. This is a very nice arrangement. The rooms are on the first and second floor, two wings on either side of a central lounge. On the second floor, the lounge is a common lounge. On the first floor, there are two small lounges (if I remember correctly) as opposed to one big one. There is a nurse on duty at all times, and that office is easily accessible from the bottom of the stairs on the first floor. The staff offices, dining room, and another (more formal) lounge where visitors are received are all on a main wing that is straight out from the bottom of the stairs on the first floor. There is also a lower floor where the grooming area, laundry room, recreational area, and tech center (added in 1994) are located. There is a path outdoors for leisure walking which is about a quarter of a mile long. At one point that seemed like a very long walk to me. It will probably feel very short now considering how long my walk to campus is! The relief area is blacktop (if I remember correctly) and I'm told has been fenced in since my last trip there. There is also a fenced-in grassy area that is used to teach off-leash obedience if desired. I only used it once, and I don't know the particulars on how it is used now.
I wrote about the routine in my journal while training with Dori. A few small details changed when I trained with Meg, but the basic routine was the same.
At 5:30 AM, one of the instructors announces over an intercom that it is time to get up. Shortly thereafter, the instructors bring bowls of dog food to our doors. The dogs have been on chains which are hooked to the wall beside our beds all night. We feed them here at this spot. Then we give them three glasses of water and take them out to "park". This is the Seeing Eye's term for doing their business.
Park time can be one of the most frustrating aspects of training because the dogs aren't used to relieving themselves on a schedule. This is important because they must be able to control their relieving habits while they are working. The schedule allows them several opportunities for relieving during the day. Sometimes it can take the dogs some time to get used to the schedule, but Dori seems to be settling in. I am very happy about this.
Breakfast is at 7:00. I use the time between park time and breakfast to shower and take all of my medications.
The first trip is at 7:45. Each instructor takes two trips into town each morning and two more in the afternoon to work with students. Two or three students go on each trip. The second trip usually begins around 9:30. The time when I am not on a trip is free time for me to use as I please. I used yesterday's time to take a nap since I did not sleep well during Dori's first night in the room. She cried a little bit. I was anxious and had stayed up too late.
The dogs get another park time at 11:00. After this park time, we get ready for lunch. Lunch is moderately formal. We are asked to wear something such as we would wear to work or church because often people come in who are touring and who may be potential employers.
After lunch, there are two trips: one beginning at 1:00 and the other at about 2:30. The afternoon feeding and park time is at 4:30. Supper is at 5:15.
After supper, there is usually a lecture or a small group discussion. The final park time is at 8:00. After this, we are free to do as we please. Many people go to bed. Some do other things before going to bed. I've been down to the technology center a couple of times to check my email. One night I played the piano for a while. Last night I decided to just relax in bed and read a book. There is an abundance of reading material here, some of which I have brought up to my room.
There are no walks on Saturday afternoons and no work on Sundays. They will take you to church if you want; but the first Sunday you are supposed to leave your dog behind. (They may have changed this, and I don't know the reason for it. I opted to stay behind and do personal Bible study and play the piano. Some other students and I got together for worship during one of my trainings.)
During the first two weeks, we walk pre-planned routes that provide exposure to various types of traffic, distractions, and other environmental situations. During the last week or two, we do "freelancing," which provides a variety of exposures (country work, college campus if desired, mall work, turnstyle experience at the courthouse, NYC trip, grocery store trip, and other things you plan with instructor. I was working child care when I got my last two dogs so went to a child care facility and let Meg practice getting her hair pulled, etc. I will be doing home and away this time, so freelancing will be done in Anderson. Morristown is a mid-size town with reasonably busy traffic. It would be comparable in travel to most areas in
Anderson or even parts of Indianapolis. The routes take you in residential and business areas, including some multi-lane intersections with various kinds of lighting patterns. Various types of traffic situations are set up so that you can learn to read the dog's reaction patterns. The school has also purchased a quiet car so that they can teach the dogs to respond to these as well. That is a significant thing in my book because I am terrified of these things.
In the building, dogs are on leash at all times when you are out of your room. When you're going to meals, dogs are on harness and working and they encourage a reasonably orderly system of getting to and from the dining room by calling for one wing at a time so that the hall is not overly crowded. In your room, after the first day or so, they encourage giving some off-leash time. Dogs are not encouraged to be on furniture. If you go down to the tech center or rec area, there are tie downs and you are expected to use them. They do encourage the practice of leaving the dogs in the rooms for gradually increasing periods of time, beginning with five minutes during which you sit outside your door so you can monitor for whining and reward for quiet, etc.
Relief time is also called by wings, although there is room for everyone and eventually everyone is out there together. Instructors spread through the area and monitor whose dog is doing what until people get the hang of identifying it. Generally they scoop for everyone for the first couple of weeks until the dogs settle into a comfortable routine; but there are baggies available as you go out the door and buckets for dumping as you go back in. I think that for relief time, the dogs are supposed to be in harness and the harness is removed for the actual relief process.
The school provides a flexi leash for use when teaching obedience, and I find this extremely useful for working toward off-leash obedience. It has about a 20-foot range, and I used it to teach Meg to sit/rest while I went in the other room. Her obedience has been by far the best out of all of my dogs. They also provide a bell for use with this when teaching a command, "Go to your place," that is useful when you don't want the dog running to greet visitors or interfering with other things. I have used it with both Meg and Dori in child care settings as well as in church when I needed to get up and be able to return to my seat; and it works like a charm.
I could write many things about dogs and training. I will try to take time to capture some memories as I prepare to go to class. Stay tuned--you never know what will be a dog entry and what will be a Hebrew entry ... and what will be something else!