Category Archives: Guide Dog Schools

‘Opal Winfrey’, ‘Bubba’,’ Ope’…

You’re not REALLY suppose to call dogs by names other than their real, given  name, but sometimes stuff just seems to roll off the tongue…’in the moment’. For example, I often call Opal, ‘Puppet’. This is my special  term of endearment for her. Admittedly, I have occasionally also saddled her with; ‘Little Girl’, “Ope’, ‘Little One’, ‘Opal Winfrey’, ‘Magoo’, ‘Bubba’, ‘Goofy Girl,  ‘Pooping Machine’,  ‘Destructo’, and ‘You Big Galloot’. I’m sure you can figure out how some of these handles developed. She is a petite, compact dog, albeit a bruiser. She can just about knock you off your pins with her powerful tail or swaggering butt. She plays hard, no doubt about it.  A  ‘waif-like’ woman (which I am NOT) would keel over handling this dog.  Good thing CGDB gave her to ME. ‘Opal Winfrey’ was her nickname at Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind where we trained (Maybe it had something to do with her being a black, powerful bitch…oops. Did I say that?!). As for ‘Bubba’, that came in a dream… weeks before Opal entered my life.

Several weeks before I left for Manotick , Ontario to train with the dog that would eventually be my guide dog, Opal, I had this dream. Realize that one does not learn any details about the dog which the guide dog training school is planning to match you up with,  until after you arrive on scene.  I  had no idea what breed or sex of canine I was getting, nor did I  know the  name of this dog…until the day we met (that’s for another blog or book chapter). I had been reading the CGDB pre-training material . I listened to  a CD and learned about the expense of training a dog/handler team ($35,000.00+). I worried about the difficulties the school might have in finding a dog for me.  When I lapsed into dreamland that night,  I saw myself at the CGDB training Centre. There I was… sitting in a room,  about to learn the details of my dog’s pedigree. The chief instructor came in and sat on my cot ( apparently they could no longer afford beds for their clients). She  said, “Your dog is an  8 and 1/2 year old miniature collie mix”. I asked her, in horror, why my  dog was so old and so small. She replied, “Money, there’s little of it. We can’t afford pure bred dogs any more. We collect strays and train them”.  She added, “Don’t worry, he’ll take up so little space in your  home”.  Then, I asked  about the dog’s name. “Bubba”, she replied.  Mercifully, I awoke at that point in my dream.   I later mentioned this nutty dream to the real chief instructor when I spoke to her on the telephone, a day or so before leaving for Ontario.

I recall sitting in the lounge at CGDB several weeks later, having just arrived there the day before.  This was the big moment when we (me and  people I was training with) were  being told the details about our dogs. My turn finally came.  I held my breath. The instructor had an impish smile in her voice when she said, “Helen, you’re NOT getting a dog named Bubba…you’re dog is a black lab bitch, named Opal IV.” The rest…is history.

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Funky Dog Will Go To Metro Dog Wash

When it comes to hygiene and grooming, the relationship between a dog and its human caregiver is not unlike that of child and mother. Mums (and dads) take great interest in the body odour of their kids. Kids are popped into tubs as funkiness sets in. Parents absently spit onto tissues and clean off gooey messes on the fly. They pick at, clean off, wipe down,  wash and rinse the various creepy, smelly  substances that append themselves to their loving tots. They change diapers or examine their kid’s poop in the toilet bowl, not with revulsion, but with the inquiring mind of a scientist. Ditto the dog owner with their pooch.

Recently,  someone at church casually mentioned that Opal “has a little bit of a smell”.  I dismissed it with. “She smells like a dog”.  I went home and ruminated on this comment. I love Opal’s smell, but I’m her mum. That pretty much makes me incapable of objectivity.  It wasn’t always like that. The very first time I ‘picked up’ after Opal at CGDB,  I nearly hurled. The first time I experienced her distinct ‘wet dog’ odor after we had been out in the rain at the training centre,   I really began to wonder how I would survive life with a dog when we got home to Nova Scotia where it rains A LOT.  I once worried about my clothes having dog hair or goober (saliva) on them. Now, I seem oblivious to any of it. On the contrary, like any mum, I  inhale her smell and it makes me smile.  However, I am not impervious to rational public  opinion.  I  called up my sweetie immediately after the church lady’s comment and demanded the truth. “Does Opal smell funky?”, I asked.    LA.  spoke  to me as cautiously as a hostage negotiator would.   “Umm, well darling, she does have a little stronger smell than usual these days”.   I  was shocked…and worried.  It’s November. I hadn’t anticipated a bath ’till spring.

The happy news is that the forecast  high for tomorrow is 14 C. With a lot of planning, I have arranged for a ride home from Metro Dog Wash, so that Opal (who is terrified of dryers), can get home without getting a chill after her bath. Metro Dog Wash is the best little business in town. You take your pooch to their storefront location on Cunard street, and  for a modest fee, use one of their numerous waist-level sinks (dog walks up a couple of steps) to wash your own dog.  If you have an old, arthritic dog, you can use the walk-in tub at floor level. There is a device to tether the dog so that there is no Great Escape from the sink. You use their shampoos and conditioners.  There is an endless supply of  temperature-controlled water coming from the hand-held hoses and sprayers. They provide rubber aprons for the washers, and Zoom Grooms to use on the washees. Then, when your fido is all clean and rinsed, you can use as many towels as you want to dry him off. There are dryers for dogs who are braver than Opal.  You leave with a clean dog, minus the mess you would have at home. Metro Dog Wash offers grooming services and sells lots of dog gear too. Best of all, they offer a 50% discount off of their bathing fee for service dogs. I highly recommend it.  (Visit via link on blogroll) If all goes according to plan, Opal will smell lovely to me AND my church friends next Sunday.

It’s All About The Dog

Yesterday, I was trying to get into my cab at the local Sobey’s grocery store when a man called out, “Excuse me..” I thought I was blocking his path (it’s a narrow squeeze on the sidewalk by the store entrance). I hustled my heavy bag of groceries into the back seat Opal and myself into the front. Again, I hear, “Uhm, excuse me”. Now I am wondering if I dropped something. Or, maybe I’m supposed to recognize this guy’s voice and the body attached to it? No, none of these. He continued speaking to me through the open taxi window. “Is your dog from Ontario or the USA?” It suddenly became clear to me. This was a ‘Dog Stop’.

At the training centre of Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind in Manotick, Ontario, one of the topics we covered in the ‘theory’ part of the training, was our responsibility as Guide dog handlers to maintain a positive attitude with the public who observe and question us as a guide dog team. I understood the rationale of educating people on guide dog etiquette and of being an exemplary representative of CGDB’s program. I did not have any idea how significant a part of my life this would become. People with pet dogs often comment that their dogs are a vehicle for social interaction, even a means of getting a date. But guide dog handlers? We are a curiosity that gives rise to an open invitation for interrogation, conversation and  commentary. Mostly, it’s all about the dog. The top questions? “How old is your dog?”, “What’s your dog’s name?”,”How long have you had your dog?”, ” Is it a female or male”, “Is that a Seeing Eye (NO!)/ Guide dog?”, “Is that a black lab?”  Top comments? “What a beautiful dog!”, “What a smart dog”, “I bet she’s your best friend”, “that’s a well-behaved dog” and so on. I am often approached by people who want to tell me about their dog, sometimes one that is ill or that just died. It seems people think I would ‘understand’ about the loss of their special friend, even though we have never met and are in a public place when they bare their souls.  I have had strangers (on buses, in malls etc) ask me if they can take our photo, though I suspect that I am often cropped out of these images. People who meet us, and do not see us for a year or more will often not remember my name. that’s understandable.  They might not remember MY name, but Opal’s? you bet!

The man standing outside my taxi went on, ” My wife raised puppies for Canine Vision….” I listen politely as the driver waits (meter running) for me to give him a destination.

Opal Wants to Join AA

That’s right.  I would like to join AA today. Nah, not the club for humans who drink too much and get silly, sick and sad….No, I would like to join AA, the GIRL, for a birthday celebration. She is the not-so-little girl who raised me as a puppy for Guiding Eyes For the Blind’s puppy raisers program in North Carolina. They traded me to Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind in Ontario (like a pro baseball player) and I ended up with my mum in Halifax.

We had such a great time together when I was a puppy. You slept on the floor next to my crate, played the violin for me with your brother, took me to church (I was a Mormon then, but mum says we are UU’s now…I don’t care ’cause church is fun). There is confusion about whether I am the puppy who barked while you sang in church, or if it was Lacy, the dog you also raised, the one who grew up to become a famous arson detective dog in Ohio. I don’t remember, but somehow, I think it was probably Lacy…I was the one who ate the cushions on the couch and pooped at the mall once (I don’t EVER do that anymore), remember AA?  They say that I was the one that made you come out of your shell. I don’t remember you having a shell…some sweatshirts and other normal clothes yeah, but no shell. I just remember that we were very happy together, and that after I showed up at your house, you weren’t shy at all anymore about talking to people, especially about dogs.  Dogs, dogs, dogs! That’s all you still talk about. I approve! Happy Birthday, my friend.

Stuff They Don’t Teach At Guide Dog School

Guide dogs receive extensive training that includes many aspects and exposure to many situations. Ideally, these dogs are raised with people who consistently expose them to ‘stuff’ as pups: all types of walking surfaces such as gravel, pavement, grates, escalators, wood, grass…, all kinds of noises; example: traffic, bangs, shouting, music, clapping, machines…, all kinds of people (kids playing, people in wheel chairs, runners, people performing….), many different types of venues like restaurants, malls, churches, office buildings…., numerous modes of transportation such as cars, trains, subways, buses, airplanes, boats…, and other animals, including cats, dogs, cattle, birds…. and so on. Then they leave the puppy walker and go off to a guide dog training center to practice the skills they will need to help the  blind person with whom they will eventually be matched. Trainers and apprentices harness them up and spend months teaching  them to walk around obstacles, to stop at the top and bottom of staircases, to ignore other people and animals, to respond to verbal commands, arm signals, and foot positions. They learn to disobey or over ride a  command in any situation that would put the handler in danger (Intelligent Disobedience). They practice and practice and are exposed increasingly to more types of routes (busy downtown streets, country roads, suburban areas…) and situations to which they must respond appropriately (stopping when cars back out of driveways, walking through construction zones, ignoring food on the ground, ducking around shopping carts, remaining calm when fire alarms are sounded, ignoring off leash dogs that come up to them….). Trainers try everything they can think of to season these dogs. Umbrellas are popped open, stacks of books are dropped, fans blown and more, all to prepare them for the numerous situations they will face as guide dogs.  They train in hot and cold weather, in the pouring rain and driving snow. All training centers have a resident cat or two because it is likely that some of the dogs will go home with handlers who own a pussycat, or at the very least, will occasionally visit someone who has one.  Once the guide dog school has selected or “matched” their blind client with a dog, they train the dogs some more with the client’s specific size, gait, walking speed, home environment, activity level and lifestyle in mind. The residential (and usually final) part of formal training involves multiple daily training ‘walks’ with the handler, the school trainer and the dog. This month-long period of mind and body-numbing activity concludes (hopefully, but not always) with ‘qualification’ and the blind handler returning home with their guide dog.

But there is ALWAYS stuff that Guide dog schools don’t teach you or your dog. It’s impossible to cover everything. For example, Opal and I once encountered a woman walking a pet rabbit on a long leash. A sighted observer explained to me why Opal was so eager to pause; she was watching a bunny going for a stroll. Then there were the beaded curtains in the hallway of  a local restaurant (I thought  those went out in  the 70’s). It WAS an obstacle, albeit one that she could see through…we figured it out. There was a Halloween costume contest last year at the local supermarket that really grabbed her attention. In fact, she went nutty the first time I put on my balaclava (the woolly thing worn for heists, not the Greek pastry). Then, there was the time a kid vomited on the bus,  and the OTHER kid who dumped a chocolate milkshake over her when we were on the ferry to Dartmouth, a horse on the sidewalk (don’t ask), and the time we wandered into the annual pride parade by mistake and were pelted with silly string. We nearly got pepper sprayed as we innocently tried to get to the library…where a political demonstration was in progress nearby. Opal knew something was wrong when a fist fight broke out between two kids as we walked by them (I yelled at them to stop, or I would command my dog to attack—grin). I discovered that Opal also has a tap dancing  fascination (we saw ‘White Christmas’ on stage and I put on my own tap shoes now and then). One day, a couple of cars crashed as we walked by and left us showered in broken glass. I tore my quad muscle last year and had to walk at a snail’s pace WITH A SUPPORT CANE FOR THREE DAYS (and Opal), because I had no one to care for her. Fortunately, I managed to keep moving at least enough to get her outside to relieve. I’ve heard about one handler who was IN HOSPITAL WITH his guide dog for several days. Totally unfair to staff, the patients, and the dog. Other things?  You discover how to cope with them as they come up. Guide dog schools don’t tell you how to work out the strategy required for intimate times at home with that  new ‘significant other’ without one or the other (dog or partner) getting their nose put out of joint (physically, but more often, emotionally).  Opal put herself to bed at 6 PM the first time my sweetie and I… There might be any number of unusual or unique situations that a handler will face and need to figure out during their guide dog’s working life. Life with a guide dog is ever-changing and a relationship with a working dog is an endless ‘work in progress’.hen t

A Blog is a Blog is a Blog…

This is the 173 rd blog I have written. The bean (stats) counter on this page reveals that 13,479 + hits have occurred…and still counting  like Micky D’s keeps track ….”139,000,000,000,001 (bad burgers) served”. Traffic has been low for some blogs and through the roof for others. I am grateful for the interesting assortment of loyal readers and occasional visitors.  I know that some readers occasionally find my opinions harsh, my tone insolent, my satiric wit inappropriate….but I would say this in all seriousness…actually, I think it was Voltaire who said, ” I may not believe in what you say, but I will fight to my death for your right to say it”….

What I do NOT appreciate are misguided comments regarding the content of this blog.  Allow me to explain. It seems an individual is on the receiving end of reading (er, listening to someone read  TO them) SELECT blogs and  select ‘comments’ which I have written in response to  reader comments. That person is ‘disturbed’ by my words. My first thoughts are, (now get this straight ‘reader’/paraphrasing guy!!) you are not reading this yourself. Neither of us knows if you are getting an accurate rendition (verbatim and complete) of what I have written.  Reading is very subjective and interpretive.  Tone, inflection, reading speed, response to punctuation etc are all factors in the process that impact our perception of the text.  You, sadly have no control over that because someone else is reading to you and we don’t know how well they are doing that.  You have apparently not listened to someone read those numerous  blogs I wrote which I know you would find astoundingly interesting, informative, and sympathetic to the human condition.  Assuming that you are getting  an accurate reading of the controversial ones,   my second thought is, GET A GRIP!   Yes, I do have strong opinions about many things…the CNIB for example. That is my right. I have not slandered them. They do a fine job of screwing themselves up.  As for the mayor and my comment about “short guy with a whiny voice”? I talked to him last night. We kibutzed and laughed. He’s OK with me and my blog. He also is grateful that I work so hard for his city without payment…and he IS short and does have a whiny voice. it seems you are the one with a problem. The problem? You are in that horrible, dependant situation of passively receiving bits of my blog via a  third party  because you can not access it independently. Frankly, I think THAT  is more of an issue than the contents of this blog. That aside, I would say that the essence of any communication and voicing of opinion,  lends itself to a contrary or different opinion on the topic by anyone and everyone who hears or reads it.  The minute we open our mouths in the morning and begin saying stuff … ” I don’t like big cities, or Republicans, or Liberals, or the taste of chicken, or the movie last night”, someone else is going to have another opinion. That’s life. You would have enjoyed the blogs I wrote that support your like-minded position….on gay rights, homophobia (see ‘God loves Everyone’)  tips on independent living, fairness to animals and more. Trouble is, nobody’s reading those to you. Hmm. Maybe you should get over to that charitable organization you feel I trash too much and see if they will find you some computer gear so that you can check my blog yourself. If you do not wish to do so, (or they won’t/can’t give you what you need–a more likely scenario), then realize that I usually voice my opinion and temper it by adding something to the effect that others may not share it.  While I may talk ABOUT  the organizations or groups that I am involved with, I do not speak FOR them.  It seems that your ‘reader’ is doing you a selective disservice. I can not write something that will interest or please every reader all of the time, or even half of them. What I do know is, that many people including: guide dog handlers and  puppy-raisers, animal lovers, a jeweler in Australia, an urban planner in the UK, guide dog trainers, a blind guy who applauded my blog on who is suited to having a guide dog,  several authors,  Unitarians, environmentalists, a micro publisher in California, a gay guy somewhere in the world,  a woman in Italy who has a blind friend, a budding film maker, a vacuum cleaner rep, many people who want their bus stops announced, friends, a centre for the blind in the Eastern USA, a small initiative to publish audio books in Africa….all of these people and many more have found something useful in my writing. Others? Some are not happy, but they tend not to comment directly on the blog or to me very much….they just bitch behind my back. The wonderful thing about freedom of speech and the information age, is how the inter-connectedness of the world becomes so evident. This is the end of this discussion my friend…unless your selective ‘reader’ does not pass THIS blog on too.

What’s In a (Guide Dog’s) Name?

One of the pleasures in acquiring a new puppy or kitten is spending hours with your family deciding on a name for the critter. The kids want to go with ‘Bandit’ or ‘Princess’, but you’re leaning towards a loftier, more meaningful handle, like… ‘Mandela’ or ‘Climate Change’. If you live alone, you find yourself scouring the ‘Names For Baby’ book at the library.  When people ask me what my Guide dog’s name is (and they do so incessantly)  I sometimes give my standard fake answer, ‘Lucy’, particularly if we are captive on a bus when the likelihood of loud, repetitive calling out of ‘Opal’ is great.  On occasion, I fess up and say, ‘Opal’,  and some people comment on her “lovely name”.  When I have a moment, I explain that I had no say in choosing it.

Guide dog training centres all have breeding programs. The larger schools, like ‘The Seeing Eye’ in Morristown have hundreds of their own dog ‘stock’ at any given time. Opal originally came from Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s program. She was raised in North Carolina before being sent to Canadian Guide Dogs For the Blind in Manotick, Ontario  (a little like being traded to another ball team in the major leagues).  Her pedigree information (like player stats) proceeded her, revealing that her mum (Dam) is named, ‘Regina’, and her dad (Sire) is ‘Buzz’.  (Buzz has fathered hundreds, if not thousands of dogs and his sperm is shipped around the world, or so I am told) . Opal  is in fact, Opal IV.  The litter into which she was born at GEB, as in all cases, was assigned a letter of the alphabet.  It was time for an ‘O’ litter.  All the dogs in Opal’s litter were given names that started with the letter ‘O’ (She has a brother named, ‘Othello’). The naming process for guide dogs is not whimsical. Care is given to check records of active and retired dogs’ names before naming them. Sometimes a name is re-issued.  I imagine it’s a bit of a challenge to name the ‘X’ litters… ‘Xena’, ‘Xaviar’ … then what?  The sponsors and financial contributors of the schools and training centres sometimes influence the choices too. After all, if a generous company or individual donates a large amount of money to provide guide dogs to the blind, then why not?  Not that I would want a dog, named…um, ‘Acme’.

I recall a conversation at the CGDB training centre in Manotick. A fellow trainee (whose own dog was a step-sister and kennel mate of Opal’s), said something about black opals (referring to the gem stone). I had never heard of such a thing but it stuck in my mind.  In my Internet research, I discovered that New Zealand and Australia are lousy with them. In fact, I received a comment on this blog from an Australian jeweler bound for Canada who happened to Google a bunch of search terms that included, ‘opal, Halifax’ and ended up on my blog reading about Opal.  I’m not rushing out to order a black opal-studded collar for Opal, but someday I may just buy myself a nice ring with a black opal set into it.