Guide Dog Training: One Skill at a Time

Dindi, a black Lab guide dog
Photo by Maribel Steel

Editor’s note: In celebration of National Dog Day August 26th, peer advisor Maribel Steel shares her experience of being paired up to a new guide dog in Australia.

Decision Time

For almost a decade, I’ve been using a white cane as my mobility aid. After my first guide dog went to the great kennel in the sky, I wasn’t ready to train with another guide dog. It seemed easier to continue my independent travel with a cane.

Yet my sight continued to fade and it became obvious that where once I felt confident on my own on a busy street, I was beginning to falter and to feel stressed. I began to imagine a guide dog by my side again, and how much easier it would be to follow a guide dog to the right door or station platform.

I contacted Guide Dogs Victoria (GDV) and after I completed all the appropriate paperwork and visits, I was on the waiting list.

First Impressions

A few months later, a trainer called to let me know they had a match for me. She came to my home to introduce Dindi, my possible new guide dog. Upon jumping out of the vehicle, a young and trim black Labrador showed little interest in me. She was just a dog, and I was just a human.

Dindi sniffed the ground, distracted by the new smells in this neighborhood and ignored any eye contact with me. I knew not to take this personally; while her trainer was in close proximity, she held the dog’s heart and attention.

It was after our walk, when Dindi gently lay across my feet, that I felt the possibility of forming a bond with this guide dog. Having experienced her spritely and curious nature, she seemed the kind of dog I could grow to love.

The Newness of Everything

A few months later, I was bowled over with the generosity of the staff at the training center. A chorus of ‘hellos’ greeted me as three guide dog trainers waited to welcome me and four other clients as we were shown around our new ‘home’ for the next three weeks.

Before we could meet our guide dogs, we had a group chat in the lounge room. Here, we were given our surprise show bags, with certain items we’d need for the care of our dogs. After lunch, we went to our individual rooms. It was here where guide dog and new handler spent some quiet time together to get to know each other.

Establishing Trust

The first 24 hours with Dindi were not what I had expected. She was fretful and showed signs of separation anxiety when away from her trainer. She was obviously more of a ‘sensitive’ dog who needed me to consider her needs in this new and unfamiliar situation. My heart opened to her and I tried not to be too concerned; we would go gently in our new relationship. I knew it was about giving our friendship time, but she was way out of her comfort zone.

Dindi sat facing the door, waiting for her trainer to return. I coaxed her to sit by my side, where my hands gently travelled over her back in calming massage movements. I accepted that these first hours were more about staying calm for her sake, to give her time to adapt and to trust me as her new handler.

The following morning, a warm tongue licked my outstretched hand. It was as if we were saying hello for the first time. Her tail wagged, making a friendly thumping sound on the bed. She licked my hand again and my heart melted – she was ready to accept me.

Raring to Go!

Within only a few days, my beautiful Dindi and I were developing a special bond. Her stress had vanished, and in its place came the spritely spirit of a loyal companion, eager to help me be a confident partner in this guide dog team.

There were many new skills to learn, even for a handler who has had a guide dog before. Those first two weeks felt like being behind the wheel of a fabulous sports car. My guide dog was eager to take me to new places, but I didn’t have the skills yet to ‘drive’ her onwards. No fancy spins around the block; our trainer made sure we had the basics well under control.

The ‘gears’ I had to learn were a series of voice commands and body gestures that would help Dindi keep moving smoothly to our destination and past distractions along the way.

Her Guiding Eyes

What I came to love about Dindi was that she showed how keen she was to be my guiding eyes, how focused she could be. Her goal was always to get us safely back to where we had started. When you have struggled to see landmarks as a person going blind, trusting a guide dog who could obviously keep me safe brought tears to my eyes.

As we travelled down a busy street, staying calm and steady, Dindi led me confidently past all sorts of obstacles: road works in progress, cafe tables and signboards, shops full of interesting scents. Dindi picked a path through all these distractions.

On one walk, a flood of emotion swept over me. With Dindi guiding me, I could keep my head up high and look straight ahead, something I was not doing when using a white cane.

Travel Buddies

Maribel and black lab guide dog in front of Sydney Bridge
Photo by Harry Williamson

I am grateful for all the human hearts who have invested their time and affection in making Dindi the working guide dog and loving companion she is today. They have passed on their skills, which Dindi and I are perfecting each day: at work and at play.

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