May 1st. 6 years ago today, May 1st, I arrived in Smithtown, NY where my instructor for the next 2 weeks picked me up in a class van at the ferry dock to attend training with my new guide dog. You can read a bit more about that particular day from my post this day last year for our 5th anniversary.
Today I’m going to touch a bit on the process and journey that got me to the Guide Dog Foundation and eventually Tom. As I talked about a couple of days ago for International Guide Dog Day, my first guide dog I owner trained and then tried once more with a couple of new puppies to no avail. Finding a dog with the temperament, aptitude, health, and structure to handle the high stress work of public access is a challenge. And if I was going to spend money on a dog, I didn’t want to purchase a labrador. It’s a personal thing. I think I could have more easily found a suitable owner trainer guide dog candidate had I been willing to look at labradors, but I wasn’t. Nuff said.
So, instead I started looking into my options for a program trained dog. My health conditions made that a bit tricky. Sensory processing disorder isn’t well understood. By anyone. Including the medical community. And commissions for the blind. And I, as a long time dog owner, am also rather particular about things such as ownership and breeding practices. I don’t do co-ownerships. And I wasn’t interesting in attending and supporting a guide dog program that had base policies of retaining ownership of the dogs they placed. Those things limited the organizations I was looking at and considering.
Once James retired, and I was seriously looking at getting a program trained dog, I knew I would need formal O&M training. Orientation and Mobility training, white cane training. Without James, my mobility and independence was suffering massively. I was avoiding going out, I stopped my daily walks, it was definitely time to do something about that. I worked with a local O&M instructor and was amazed!! I learned so much I cannot even recount! It was a whole new world being opened up for me. I didn’t have to figure this all out myself! Through that instruction I learned new ways to travel, assess traffic, figure out street crossings of all kinds, safer ways to travel parking lots, better more effective ways to stay oriented on my walks and so much more. My O&M training also brought to my awareness just how co-dependent I had been with James. Until then I didn’t really really grasp just how much James had been doing, and also just how dangerous some of it had been. O&M taught me how to actually be independent instead of co-dependent. I feel Tom and I have a much better, safer relationship and partnership because I received orientation and mobility training. I am so grateful for that. I am also a much more confident traveler both with and without a guide dog. While, yes, I prefer for many reasons to use a guide dog, I can get around with just my cane when I need or want to. Again independent not co-dependent.
After completing my orientation and mobility training, and researching various guide dog programs, I found myself returning to the information on the Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown, NY. I liked that they were on the east coast, the trained various breeds and crosses, they had generally flexible policies and seemed open to unusual circumstances. After meeting some teams with dogs from different programs across the country, the dogs trained by the Guide Dog Foundation really impressed me. They seemed temperamentally solid and structurally sound dogs. Talking with the folks who worked in Consumer Services, I decided to apply. I submitted the required medical, O&M, vision and other forms along with a video that included both my cane travel skills and traveling with James. After months of waiting, I heard that I was approved for the next step of their process: phone and in person interviews. The phone interview seemed to go well and then a month or so later a field rep trainer came over for my in person interview. He took me on a Juno walk to assess my ability to follow and cue a guide dog and watched me cane travel on a short route. Apparently I passed to satisfaction as a short while later I received my approved and placed on the waiting list notice.
If I remember right, I was placed on the waiting list in something like October the year before I got Tom. James had retired in July of that year. In December, a dog, a female yellow lab of all things, came into my life. I thought she might have promise as my next guide dog, so I asked the Foundation to remove me from the wait list. She was around 9 months old when I got her, but after just a couple of months, she showed some serious temperament concerns and I returned her to her breeder. That was a stressful mess of a time! As I had only been off their wait list for 2 months, GDF allowed me to resume placement on their wait list. For which I was relieved and grateful. After that yellow dog situation, I was done trying to owner train for now and wanted the ease of mobility a guide dog affords me sooner rather than later.
Shortly after that, just a couple of months later, at the end of April I got the call!! An offer to join the upcoming guide dog class! I was thrilled and shocked as I only had 2 weeks to plan, pack and rearrange my work schedule. From there, as they say, is history. Tom was perfect. Tom is perfect. He is absolutely the dog I needed, and is an amazing dog and amazing guide dog. I am grateful daily to the Guide Dog Foundation, their breeding, raising and training programs. And that Tom was the dog they matched me with. Over the past 6 years Tom has grown and transitioned with me as our lives have changed in so many ways I never would have imagined. I’m very much looking forward to where the future will take us and hope for many more years with Tom as my guide.
Video clip from our morning walk in the woods. Tom guiding and stopping for various roots, rocks and drop offs.