Tails and Training
Warning – This could be a long tale so, put the kettle on, make a cuppa and get yourself comfy! Then we shall begin…
This has been a long time coming – both the blog and the news within: I haven’t had the time to write for a while – and that is because I have been very much occupied with not only our new home to move into, but also with a new Guide Dog named Loki (for screen reader users – this is pronounced Low Key, not Lockie as my computer tries to tell me!). A new Guide Dog comes with a fairly hefty and intensive training program. Loki is fully trained, but he needs to teach me now! We have to undergo a few weeks of learning together to become a working partnership.
Loki is a rather handsome yellow Labrador with eyes that resemble pools of melting golden syrup! He is a gentle lad with a super laid-back temperament and a huge brain that he is keen to put to use.
Throughout their puppyhood and training process, Guide Dogs are continually assessed and monitored and their qualities and personality traits are logged and graded. We humans are also assessed thoroughly in terms of our physical, social, and domestic needs, capabilities and circumstances. Then, when a dog is ready to be matched with a suitable potential human, the two lists are compared side-by-side to find the most ideal match.
For me, living a nomadic life aboard a narrowboat, this was an extra challenging matching process. As far as we know, I am still the only Guide Dog Owner (GDO) living nomadically aboard a narrowboat. This doesn’t really fit into the ‘normal’ criteria for being matched with a life-changing dog. The superb charity Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (GDBA) has been fantastic in accommodating us though.
When I was matched and trained with my first dog, Oakley, we were still living ‘normally’. In other words, we lived in a house and therefore had regular routes to navigate from home. When we were planning on moving afloat with Oakley (having already had a few boating experiences with him to test out whether it would be feasible), a senior chap from the charity came to meet us and discuss it. He told me that, if we had been living aboard a boat when I applied for a dog, then I would have been declined!
However, because Oakley and I were already an established partnership, the charity agreed to support us and work with us. I remember him telling me ‘You are going to be pioneers for GDBA. You need to prove to us that it can be done’ (No pressure then!). It would seem that we must have passed scrutiny, because I was assessed and accepted again onto the waiting list when Oakley retired.
Our hobo lifestyle means that the matching was harder; I had to wait for the right dog who would be up to the extra challenges of working in a never-ending succession of new places. Guide Dogs are generally trained to work a number of set routes that their Vision Impaired human would normally need or wish to navigate. This might be, for example, the local shops, library, health centre, gym, pub etc. The dog will guide them on these routes as and when needed. They will very quickly become super familiar and proficient in their working of these specific paths.
We, however, are seldom in one place for more than a few days, so repetition of route is not part of our remit. We also have the extra ‘interest’ in life of needing to navigate the often rugged terrain of the locks and towpaths. So Loki has been selected for me because of his incredible ability to rise to these extra challenges. He is at his best when on new territory and really enjoys the ever-changing scenery and surroundings. He is a super bright boy who can apply his guiding skills to whatever situation we find ourselves in.
Loki has also been selected because he is very happy in the company of other dogs; necessary because we have little Ozzie doglet in our crew. If they didn’t get on then it would never work. In fact, they are already absolutely besotted with each other! Loki loves children too. Extra good news for us for when we get to go visit our now increased family down in Sussex. (New home, new dog and, as of last Friday – a new granddaughter too!). All of these factors, as well as many others, are part of the matching process from the awe-inspiring charity Guide Dogs!
Outside of Covid-19 restrictions, the process would usually start with a matching visit, then proceed to a couple of weeks of intensive training based in a hotel, then would move to home where the dog and owner would steadily and systematically learn their set routes together. Of course, with lockdown and ongoing restrictions, this has to be very different now.
The hotel bit is not an option and the GDBA staff are not permitted to enter people’s homes. This has had huge ramifications for the charity and the dogs alike. The breeding program had to be halted and the puppies have been staying with their volunteer Puppy Raisers and Boarders for much longer than usual. Matching visits and ongoing training and check ups have had to be carried out very differently to follow correct protocol.
Alan, our Guide Dog Mobility Specialist (GDMS) has been fabulous! He really has gone above and beyond the call of duty for us. GDMSs usually have a set area that they each cover within their team’s territory. (The country is divided up into geographical regions, each with a team covering it). We are now under the wing of the Shrewsbury Mobility Team, which covers Shropshire, Staffordshire and the Black Country. When Loki was selected as a potential match for me, we were in Crick, near Rugby. This is way out of area for Alan, yet he was willing to drive all the way to do the visit.
The matching visit, on Monday 1 March, began with a trial walk for me with Loki wearing his brown training harness, and Alan (safely socially distanced) walking with us. We headed out from Crick Marina, across the road and up into the village – and back again. That all went very well, so it was onto the next stage; to check if Loki and Ozzie could get along.
The Marina Manager had kindly agreed to let us use the doggy-paddock within the marina for this. So we all walked around the moored boats to this rather nice fenced in area of grass and trees. We let both dogs off lead to get acquainted on their own terms. It was instantly clear that they were going to get along just fine! They had a wonderful time playing together and burned off a fair bit of energy in the process!
So, it seemed promising that Loki was going to be a ‘yes’ for me. Alan then left him with us (along with some essential supplies) for a couple of days. This was to check that the boys continued to get on, as well as to go for a cruise to check out Loki’s reaction to being on a moving boat. This was not in his list of previous experiences, so it was a bit of an unknown.
Having been potentially matched a few months ago with another dog who was equally fabulous on harness but turned out to be terrified on a moving boat, I was rather apprehensive about this. I was trying incredibly hard to not raise my hopes – just in case… My worries were blasted away when Loki simply laid down and snoozed on the back deck while we bimbled along the canal for an hour or so.
The boys instantly became best buddies; even sharing a bed and a selection of toys and bones!
Alan returned on the Wednesday to check out how things had gone. He was very happy with everything and declared us a good match. He then took Loki back with him for a few days of final training and farewells to his boarders. Ozzie was a VERY sad little lad! He really missed his new buddy and moped about like the end of his world had come!
The Training Begins!
Sunday 7 March was our day to leave Crick Marina. Once we had completed our final bits of clearing out, cleaning the old boat ready for market, and moving everything aboard the new home, we set off to find ourselves an overnight mooring near the Watford lock flight. We had already been in touch with Canal and River Trust to arrange our passage through the flight. (Due to Covid lockdown, they were being kept closed except for arranged transit due to extenuating circumstances. Moving for Guide Dog training was deemed acceptable extenuating circumstances). We had also liaised with Alan to meet up at the locks and so to begin the training for Loki and me.
At the top of the flight there is a lovely area of open grassland where we were able to reintroduce the dogs and let them burn off their exuberant greetings and a little energy before the work began. It went very well indeed, except that Ozzie ate half his bodyweight in bunny-berries! It seems that rabbit droppings are a bit of a doggy-delicacy – but they tend to reappear in less pleasant format a while later! (Ugh! One of the joys(?) of dog ownership!).
Hooning and hoovering done, it was on with Loki’s new and very smart white harness and on with the job of learning how to be a lock-working Guide Dog. He did incredibly well: by the end of the flight of seven locks, this clever lad had begun to learn to ‘Find the beam’ and ‘Find the paddle’. The volunteer lock-keepers were fabulous too; allowing us to do what we needed to teach him and not rushing us at all. All in all, a very successful first lesson!
Next came a short cruise to Braunston Tunnel. Loki took it all in his stride as if he had been doing it all his life. Didn’t bat an eyelid at any bit of it! We then had the Braunston lock flight to tackle by ourselves; these are double-width locks, so a little different in technique to the narrow Watford flight which is operated for us by the lock-keepers. Again, Loki took it all in stride and learned very quickly what was needed.
Alan was learning too, as this was his first ever day of tackling the tasks of canal life. He was great – he demonstrated to me how to teach Loki, using positive reinforcement techniques, to boof his nose onto the beam and then the paddle to show me where to find them.
On a good eyes day, of course, I can generally see the beam myself; it is a thumping great sticky-out bright white lump of wood on the end of an equally thumping great black log! However, occasionally they are not so clearly defined; some are not painted or the paint is worn and faded, so it blends in with the background. Also, on a bad eyes day, or in less favourable light conditions, I might be seeing things very differently, if at all.
It is a useful starting point anyway; an easy target for Loki to find and guide me to for a moment’s pause to scan and assess the lock layout. Yes, they are all (almost all) a simple rectangular trough of water with a gate or two at each end. They do vary though in the location and style of bollards, paddle gear and ground surface. The next target for Loki is to ‘Find the paddle’ for me. Again, these can vary in position and sometimes blend into the background making them hard to locate visually.
This lad is a fast learner and now knows very well that beams and paddles dispense yummies when he boofs them with his schnozzle! The Doggie Boat’s stock levels of training treats are now in rapid turnover!
Today, as I type this blog, we are well into week four of our training and it is all going very well indeed. Alan has been wonderful; he has driven to wherever we have got to (mooring places have been carefully planned of course) and has been training us as we go. This has been not only the whole new-to-Loki realm of working locks (37 of them so far) and walking towpaths – all very alien to the normal realm of a Guide Dog, but also some more normal work in various town areas and shops along the way.
Alan came today with reinforcement! He brought Howard with him; another (more senior, I think) member of the Shrewsbury Guide Dogs team. On arrival, Alan phoned and Loki and I set out on a pre-arranged route. Alan and Howard followed at a distance (hoping that Loki didn’t catch their scent). It worked well.
We went along the towpath, up and over a bridge and around a street route to Morrisons. A quick zip around the shop and a pot of yogurt bought, we were off again on the return trip. It seems that we were then downwind of Alan and Howard as Loki’s nose shot up in some frantic sniffing. He was then quite distracted, trying desperately to look back over his shoulders to find his pal Alan! I had to work hard to get him to go ‘Forward’ and ‘Straight on’, but we made it and, after a bit of coaxing, he got back into stride and guided me superbly on the route back to ‘Find home’.
This extra person visit is normal procedure during training; an assessment of progress. We were congratulated on how well we are doing! That is so reassuring! Loki truly is a diamond-class dog! I am hugely blessed and privileged to be partnered with him.
We are now at the beautiful Westport Lake moorings where we plan to stay for the Easter weekend. We will be setting up the Doggie Boat shop along the side of the boat. This will be our first open trading session of the year, and, apart from a quick ‘pop up’ shop in Crick in September, the first since the couple of arranged floating mini-markets back in the break between lockdowns. It will hopefully be a pleasant chill-out time for the dogs. We are very much looking forward to meeting, greeting and serving any passing dog-loving folk. All appropriately socially distanced and hand-sanitized of course!
We will then continue our journey to Whitchurch over the next couple of weeks. Alan will catch up with us along the way to continue the training. Then, when we arrive, he will hopefully complete the training with the necessary but dreaded traffic hazards and a few other details that need to be covered.