Further Tales of Training

Training Update

Here we are at the end of week 4 of training and it is going very well indeed. It isn’t a total bed of roses. But even a beautiful flowerbed needs some stinky stuff to make it truly flourish, doesn’t it?

I thought I would journal something of the process to share with you:

In the last blog, I gave a bit of an insight into the matching process. Here the right dog is chosen to fit the needs of the human partner. Now I will attempt to share something of the last four weeks of our life as a working partnership – with L-plates.

Tracey & Loki posing against a lock beam.
In working mode at one of the locks on our journey!

Of course, this is not quite the ‘normal’ way of things due both to Covid restrictions and to our unusual lifestyle and circumstances.

As I briefly touched upon in the last blog, normal procedure for a new Guide Dog partnership would be the first couple of weeks would in a hotel for very intensive training together. This would be followed by a further four weeks (ish) of concentrated learning of a few regular routes out from home (perhaps to local shops, pub, health centre, gym etc, just for a few random examples).

For us, however, due to Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, the hotel bit is totally out of bounds. Plus, we don’t have any such thing as regular routes because we are nomadic.

For Loki and me, our equivalent of the ‘regular routes’ is arguably the towpaths and locks. Although these are in ever changing locations, there is little variation in their style. Towpath guiding is actually relatively easy work for Loki. There is little in the way of ‘find left’ or ‘find right’ and certainly no ‘find the kerb’ or ‘find the door’. Anymuch deviation from ‘straight on’ would result in a faceful of hedgerow, or a big splash!

Loki’s main job here is to keep me on the straight and narrow and to guide me around hazards such as mooring rings, overhanging tree-branches or sticky-up tree roots. Of course, there is the occasional obstacle such as a gate barrier, a bridge, a cyclist, or perhaps an angler with a huge trolleyload of kit.

As mentioned in the last blog, locks are fairly reliable in layout, within a few minor variations. With a very small number of exceptions, any lock around the inland waterways network is basically a rectangular slot with a gate, or pair of gates, at each end. The most predominant variation within this template is the positioning of the paddlegear and the presence or absence of a bridge over the lock.

So, the canal-side environment is the easy ‘normal’ for Loki to learn. It equates, I feel, to the more standard Guide Dogs’ home environment in which they build their confidence and working bond with their new human partner.

A typical narrow lock.
A typical lock – complete with pub!

Over the four weeks that we have been together now, Loki has confirmed this thinking.

He has most definitely settled really well into working in this environment. Loki is now almost faultless in following the command to ‘find the beam’, ‘find the paddle’ and ‘find the bollard’. He walks me up to whichever of these I’ve asked him to find. He then stops and gives it a good ‘boof’ with his nose to show me what a clever boy he is. This gets him a tiny training treat each time.

I then ask him to ‘sit’ and ‘wait’ while I do the lock-working. It is going very well indeed. Loki often occupies himself during the process by finding himself a twig to chomp. He seems to have a bit of a twig habit! If there is a suitable bollard (they are only present at some locks – and on some of those, they are on the wrong side for our purpose), then I will drop his lead over it.

If there is no accessible bollard, then I will ask him to come with me on every manoeuvre. I will put my foot on the end of his lead, if necessary, while I use both hands to operate the paddles. When I do this, he is now getting very good at ‘come come’ and ‘back back’ with me as I push/pull the beam whilst holding the end of his lead. This is all for safety. Especially if we are anywhere near a road or other place that could pose a risk if he did happen to wander off in pursuit of an interesting smell for example.

In safe environments (eg out in the countryside with no escape routes from canal-side) then I am working on verbal command obedience with him, so I don’t worry about tethering him; I just keep up the verbal commands of ‘sit’, ‘lie down’ and ‘wait’. He is very good, but I am not yet quite confident enough that he wouldn’t wander off to find a strong-enough enticement.

In town working, we have a little way to go yet. Loki knows his stuff and is very good at it. He is just, it seems, feeling a little insecure. This is totally understandable! He has been through an enormous amount of change recently and it will take a while to fully adjust. I have to bear this in mind and be patient.

He has shown fantastic prowess in his work in that he has guided me beautifully a few times into town/village areas to find a shop, for example. He has even taken me off kerb to get around some hazards and barriers on pavements. These are bits of the training that we are yet to cover officially, so he has done this spontaneously, remembering his training and putting it into perfect action.

He is very good at his job; pawperfect on commands such as ‘find left’, ‘find right’, ‘find the kerb’, ‘find the crossing’ and subsequently ‘find the button’, ‘find the door’, ‘find the way out’, ‘find the steps’ and a few others that escape my brain at this moment! So he really does know his stuff. There are absolutely no worries or concerns about that.

The sticking point at the moment is in Loki’s confidence and security. As I’ve said, he has been through a huge amount of change recently; he has left everything that was familiar to him and arrived at an entirely new life, environment and set of expectations.

I have fallen totally in love with this beautiful boy. However, I know that the bonding process is an evolving thing that will take a while. This is an important part of our development as a working partnership. So, the last few days have been a bit of a challenge for us both and we have had to seek Alan’s help and advice.

Alan, our GDMS (Guide Dog Mobility Specialist) has been coming to find us two or three times each week to work with us to train and develop our working partnership. Alan has been one of the constants in Loki’s life over recent months, and the only one that still remains, so it is totally understandable that he is clinging to that one thread of reassuring familiarity.

Whenever Alan is around, Loki is fixated upon him and keen to be close to him, rather than taking commands from me. We have been walking in the normal way that trainees and trainers do, except with a bit more distance between us due to Covid requirements; this is often with Alan walking a few paces behind us to watch, direct and advise.

The problem with this has been that Loki has then been going REALLY slowly and keeps looking back over his shoulder to make sure that Alan is still with us. On occasions, Alan will phone me when he arrives, and Loki and I will set out on a pre-arranged route and Alan will follow us at a distance. The hope in doing this is that Loki will not be distracted by Alan’s presence and will focus on his work better, enabling Alan to assess our progress more objectively.

Unfortunately, though, Loki, being a dog, of course, has an incredible sense of smell and seems able to detect Alan’s presence from a long distance! This is full testament to Loki’s astonishing nose – not to Alan’s personal hygiene! The consequence is that Loki walks along with his nose high in the air and turns to the direction from which he has detected Alan’s scent! On the whole though, this system works well, and Alan is pleased with our progress. (We have become very attuned to wind-direction!)

Loki’s insecurities though have been the cause of some anguish for me over the last few days: We’ve had a few attempts at harness walking around towny-areas that have been awful! Nothing dangerous – just terribly slow or just stopping altogether. This is, it seems, all because of all the changes in life, so totally understandable.

Loki is finding that the most appealing place to be at the moment is safely aboard the boat. Again, this is totally understandable; the boat is the most constant unchanging thing in his world at present, so it is his safety-zone. When we set off for a workywalkies, all he wants to do it turn back and get to his ‘familiar’ place. It contains his bed, his toys, his best buddy Ozzie and, most importantly to any Labrador; his food!

For me, this has been horribly reminiscent of the problems I had with Teddy two years ago. Teddy went on a go-slow and frequent sit-down protests and then, when I reached out for help from my then trainer, he was taken back for retraining and reassessment and then subsequently withdrawn from being a Guide Dog (he is now living a treasured and very happy and fulfilling life as a pet with a purpose)

Tim has reminded me that Teddy was also exhibiting some other difficult issues too. That reminder is reassuring for me as I was beginning to have concerns that I was heading down a similar horrible and very distressing path again. Not so with Loki. Alan is super positive and confident that this is just a minor glitch and that we will overcome it.

So, for this coming week, as Alan is on holiday, we have a take-it-easy time. This will hopefully relax us both and strengthen our bond so that we can get back on track next week and ongoing. As we continue our journey toward Whitchurch, we will work towpaths and locks in harness as we have been doing.

This is proving to be very successful. It is good to continue to build on Loki’s confidence and proficiency in this. However, we won’t be doing any town work on harness until Alan returns, by which time we will (God willing) be in Whitchurch. This town is apparently familiar territory to Loki, so will be a good place to rebuild his confidence.

We will stay there for a while until we are established as a partnership. During that time, Alan will no doubt work closely with us to get things going properly again and to cover the bits of training that can’t be done so easily as we travel around. This will include traffic hazards and obstacle work.

Becoming a functional Guide Dog partnership is certainly not an easy undertaking. I knew that. I remember it well. However, each new attempt at it serves as a hefty reminder of the immense amount of hard work that goes into it. It is exhausting; physically, mentally and emotionally.

This last couple of weeks have certainly drummed the emotional bit into me again. I have to admit to having had a few sessions of leaky eyes and wonderings about whether I really can do this. Then a day of really good times working the locks and walking the towpath serves to remind me that it will be worth it.

Yesterday we worked our way down ten locks over a distance of 6 and a half miles (we didn’t walk all of that!) on the Trent and Mersey Canal; part of what is known colloquially as Heartbreak Hill. This was the first time working with Loki that I truly relaxed into trusting him to guide me along the towpaths.

He was strutting his stuff, carefully weaving me around the patches of rough cobbles and rugged, rubble-strewn packed-earth underfoot. I became aware that he was taking care of me. This enabling me to listen to the choral melodies of all the birds around. I also began to relax into using my little dot of vision to take in something of the views around.

An appreciation I haven’t been able to enjoy for the last two years. A white cane, for me, is not enabling enough to facilitate such pleasurable intake.

I truly thank God for Loki and all the promise of freedom that lies ahead of us. Also for Tim and the solid rock of support that he is to me. My gratitude also rolls out to the incredible people that form the background of Loki and all the other life-changing dogs from Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (GDBA).

Loki and Ozzie (our pug cross) curled up on our sofa together after a hard day.
By default, Guide Dogs are not allowed on furniture. However, in the limited space of our narrow boat, it’s a necessity!

The charity itself, and its staff is astonishing. But my gratitude and admiration is more for the army of volunteers that put their all into these dogs: The Stud Dog Holders, the Brood Bitch Holders, the Puppy Raisers, the Boarders/Fosterers, the Fundraisers and other supporters… To each and every one of you – an unspeakably huge T H A N K   Y O U! You are phenomenal people!

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