Gil Johnson is a talented woodworker and the author of Gil’s Guide to Home Repairs and Parenting or Grandparenting with Vision Loss on the VisionAware website. You can learn more about Gil’s early life and professional accomplishments at Meet Gil Johnson.
This month, Gil is at The Seeing Eye, Inc. in Morristown, New Jersey, training with his new guide dog (pictured left). In Part 1 and Part 2 of his diary, Gil documents the experience of meeting, and learning to work with, his new friend and partner: a black Labrador named Harley. In Part 3, Gil and Harley provide an in-depth look at the training required for guide dogs and their owners.
Wednesday, May 15
Harley and I fly home tomorrow. It’s hard to believe that I have been here for 16 days. They have kept us very busy. Our flight is 6 ½ hours long, and it is Harley’s first time on an airplane. I think he will do fine, but that’s a long time for an energetic puppy to be inactive. I think I have a window seat. All I can hope is that the middle seat will be vacant, but on my flight to The Seeing Eye from Denver to Newark, the plane was completely filled.
We have been exposed to different types of travel situations in the downtown area of Morristown during the past two weeks. Usually, the trainer will follow slightly behind us describing what is up ahead and coaching us on ways to direct the dog. For those of us who have had dogs before (“retrains”), we are reminded of techniques we have learned, forgotten, or ignored from previous trainings.
We have gone up and down escalators; taken a train and bus; gone through revolving doors; walked along country roads without sidewalks; explored a large hotel and business center with a waterfall, elevators, and large lobby; taken a night walk; explored a large, noisy, multilevel shopping mall; walked on trails in a state park; shopped in a pet supply store (where I had to keep Harley from grabbing treats or stuffed toys from the shelves); and traversed the aisles of a crowded grocery store, where I had to pay attention to keep Harley from trying (silently) to snag a snack.
Our New York City Trip
Yesterday we went to New York. My trainer Erin and I and took the subway to Columbus Circle, descending and ascending by elevator, stair, and escalator. We traveled past Central Park to sixth Avenue, and from there walked to Times Square and then to a restaurant near Port Authority for a quick lunch. Harley guided me at full speed through traffic, dogs on leash, and hundreds of people going this way and that.
With that amount of congestion and confusing noise, the only thing you can do is trust in the dog. I did not bump into anyone or anything. Harley stopped exactly at every corner, awaiting a command to turn or go forward. I could not have traveled that quickly and gracefully with my white cane, even on the best of days.
Progress with Harley
Every day, Harley and I are more well-coordinated. He wants to please me and do what I want him to do. If I am uncertain about where we are or which way to go, he senses that very quickly. Harley walks briskly and has a much stronger pull and faster pace than Nero [i.e., Gil’s previous guide dog] did. Sometimes he will attempt to go where he thinks I might want to be going. Sometimes he is right and sometimes not.
I have to be careful how strongly I discipline Harley. He wants to please me so much that a harsh reprimand almost stops him in his tracks. He still gets distracted by other dogs and whenever he sees Drew, his former trainer, he wants to go to him even if that is not the way I want to go. As we become more experienced in working together, these distractions will lessen.
Rights and Responsibilities
In addition to excursions in different environments in the community, we participated in lectures and discussions on a variety of topics:
Rights and Responsibilities
An important topic was access laws that make it possible for service dogs to go anywhere, including restaurants, public and private buildings, and all types of transportation. Occasionally, restaurant managers, taxi drivers, and others will not allow entry to a person with a guide dog. A guide dog owner has to decide if he or she wants to (a) try to persuade the manager or driver that the dog has a right to be there and will not harm property or other people, (b) press the issue by getting the police involved, or (c) let it go.
Another lecture was given by one of Seeing Eye’s veterinarians who has worked at The Seeing Eye for more than 20 years. We discussed a range of health-related topics, such as daily dental care, selection of the kind of food the dog does well on, and the quantity of food the dog needs each day, which is critical. The motto that should guide what, and how much, a dog eats is “Lean dogs live longer.” We are strongly encouraged not to give the dog table scraps or to let others do so. Treats should be used mainly as rewards for good obedience.
Massage and Obedience Exercises
We also discussed the value of regularly massaging the guide dog. This helps to relax the dog and owner and also helps detect weight gain in the dog and early signs of medical problems. There are also several obedience exercises that we are encouraged to do daily to reinforce that the dog must obey the leader of the pack: the owner.
Well, Harley is asking to use the computer again so he can have his say. As a reward for doing a good job, I’ll let him.
You are getting to know me better every day and you don’t make as many mistakes as you did when we first started traveling together. I am glad about that because I like you more and more and probably will let you be the pack leader.
No Petting? Why?
What I don’t understand, however, is why you won’t allow some of the nice people we meet to pet me. I hear you telling them that I am “working,” even if I’m just sitting by your side. I guess if I have my harness on, no one but you is supposed to pet me. I heard you tell someone that, in the past, you let people pet Nero, that other guide dog you had, and maybe that was a mistake.
And No Feeding?
You won’t let other people give me anything to eat, either. You could bend the rules a little bit, but I have heard Erin, our trainer, remind you not to let other people touch me or feed me, especially when we are walking together.
Just one more little gripe: You sometimes still call me “Nero” even though you know my name is Harley. That hurts my feelings, because it means you haven’t forgotten my predecessor. Even though you are 75, you really should try to learn important things like that more quickly!
To be concluded in Final Part 4.