Nala is here! On a rainy, cold Monday afternoon in the middle of February, the van marked Southeastern Guide Dogs finally pulled into my driveway again. This time carrying a special cargo for me. The excitement was so intense and the pure joy was so overwhelming that my face couldn’t hide the glee despite a broken heart still reeling from the loss of my father just over a week before. These special cargoes can do that for a heart. This special cargo, named Nala, turned out to be a 45 pound golden-colored Goldador that didn’t walk down the sidewalk. Nala wiggled because her tail was wagging her entire body. Nala wiggled her way not just down that sidewalk, but wiggled straight into my gloomy heart, bursting it wide open with golden sunshine.
After I met Nala, it was time to introduce her to the rest of the family- new Daddy Scott, big sister Hartley, and big brother Little Joe. To do that properly to help avoid jealousy and possible strife or aggression, we brought the dogs out one at the time, first to sniff and see for just a few seconds. Despite the rain and cold, it is best to do this outside, so the dogs don’t feel territorial on their first meeting. After meeting both dogs separately, we bring everyone out including Daddy and all go for a family walk down the street for a bit. We didn’t have any problems, but we were on the lookout for any signs of aggression to instantly correct for it with a good, “NO!” There is only one alpha in this family pack, and that is me. After our walk, we walked in the house together showing that Nala is part of the family pack now which will help decrease the chance of aggression between the dogs. We must be watching, though, to make sure there isn’t any subtle growling or other dominant behavior. That is hard for me being DeafBlind, but I am constantly vigilant of any tension in the room. My husband will also be watching and listening for me, too. After we entered the house and got a few instructions from the trainer, we were left alone for the evening and night for me to begin bonding with Nala, which meant keeping her close and happy. Cuddle time! For now, since she isn’t mine yet, that means cuddling on the floor and not on couches or the bed. Cuddling is fun. Nala wiggled around showing off toys in her mouth saying, “Look at me. I’m wonderful, right?” Yes, you are wonderful, Nala!
For several weeks, to ensure that Nala only bonds to me, my husband has to ignore Nala which is hard to do because she wants attention from everyone. All feedings, busying (bathroom breaks), praise, and corrections must come from me. Nala will also be on a leash beside me during waking hours or tie down (restrained gently to a chair or hook in the baseboard) and crated at night. That bonding is important to make sure Nala looks to me for love and instruction and that she is looking to please me the most which is the foundation for a good working relationship. We also want Nala to only learn good habits, so exploration is supervised until she learns what is expected of her and what things she can’t bother. On leash, I can help her to learn that without her getting into trouble that would result in a harsh correction rather than a low and somewhat gentle “No!” or “Drop it”. Start them off right is the best policy. Harsh criticism in the early stages will only hinder her process of becoming part of our pack.
The training began bright and early the next morning. Well, not so bright because Nala must remain on school schedule until after the training period which means getting up at 6:30 a.m. for busying outside on leash on command, followed by breakfast. Busying on leash is important because when out working in public, restroom breaks must be done in certain places and at certain times and always on leash, as required by law, to always have your guide under your control. In order for the dog to feel comfortable doing their business with you standing close and then only when you give the command, so they are doing the busy in an appropriate place, you have to practice this often, and let it become a normal feeling. Nala was raised this way as was Little Joe from an early age, so they are used to doing it that way. As long as Nala is working, there are certain things we must continue to do to help her to always feel comfortable doing what is needed. Busying on leash on command is one of them. The on command part is even more important because she can’t just busy inside a store or even sometimes outside even if people walk there. I need to be able to walk her to an appropriate but out of the way place and say “Busy Busy” to let her know that it is ok to busy there. Of course, I never want her to have to be holding the business too long, so I always give her a busy opportunity before we go in a place and after we come out to help her work experience be comfortable from all aspects. Accidents have happened, though, if a dog suddenly becomes ill, but not only do I carry bags to pick up after my guides every time, anywhere, I also carry along cleaning and sanitizing materials in case of the rare accident. I also do not work my guide if I know they are sick or if the temperature is too hot for working, but sometimes we are both surprised. Our motto is like the Boy Scouts we used to be a part of, “Be prepared.”
The trainer arrived shortly after 7 am to begin our busy day of obedience exercises and short route work. Obedience is the exercises we do for a few minutes each day to practice basic commands of SIT, DOWN, STAY, COME, HEEL, etc. We don’t always include all of the commands because there are quite a few, but we do always include these basics ones. Each exercise involves giving the command, expecting prompt obedience, praise when done correctly, and correction, if done incorrectly. Correction is a firm, low, “NO!” The no can be followed by a quick tug on the leash if a No isn’t enough, or if the guide is waiting to see how many times they can ignore before having to obey. Dogs can be like children at times who want to test you. It is best to teach them that they should do what you ask the FIRST time you ask, not after the third time. Consistent, proper training always results in a happy and loving working relationship. Give your dog lots of love and praise and you will have a dog who loves to do as you ask to please you. I want my guides to want to work, not because they are forced to work. Neither of us would be happy that way. Southeastern Guide Dogs stresses this in word and in their methods. Praise often, so praise after each followed command and have a good praise party at the end of the obedience session and after working. Love them up for what they do for you.
Each day was a little different and with an increasing level of difficulty to allow Nala and I to transition together while we also continued our bonding. We began with short walks on the country road without a curb in front of my house and then moved on to sidewalk work on quiet streets in city neighborhoods to busy streets in commercial areas. Safety was always prime for me and Nala. Though DeafBlind and unable to see or hear traffic, I learned to let Nala help me along our paths, but my trainer was never more than a shoulder’s grab away from us to make sure we were never in any danger as we made our way around barriers, across broken sidewalks, through overhanging branches, narrow pathways with utility poles too close, crossing a busy intersection. Though Nala has been taught intelligent disobedience which means she has been taught to disobey me if the command I give will put myself or her in danger, I can’t rely on her to see or hear all dangers or even to perceive every type of danger. It is my responsibility to know my limitations, accept them, and stay within those limitations safely. Hearing blind listen at intersections to follow the traffic flow and know when it is safe to cross. I can’t do that, so I accept that I will always need sighted help when crossing streets and in certain areas. I’m ok with that. Helen Keller National Center for the DeafBlind has developed some techniques and resources to help the DeafBlind get that help even when the DeafBlind person travels alone using special signs that the DeafBlind person holds to get attention and requests someone to help them safely cross the street. That method works, and I have used it successfully myself when needed. With Nala, as with Little Joe, I accept that I will always need that help, so I will never travel alone or only in areas I know and using those methods I learned at HKNC.
Our training also included working in restaurants and in stores, using stairs and elevators. I personally chose not to be taught how to use escalators safely. That can be done if necessary, but there is always a danger to the dog, so I chose not to be taught that method with Nala. We will always avoid escalators. With Little Joe, we did learn the method and did it safely a few times in large cities when necessary, but it was never a comfortable experience. Knowing that I will probably never be in a situation again where an escalator is my only option, I feel it is best for us not to use the method. If it should happen, I will rely on my sighted companion to determine another route or ask the building managers to turn the escalator off to let us use it as a normal staircase to prevent injury. I pray I will never find a situation again where the escalator is the only option.
My trainer taught so many things by deed or in lecture which I got as emails to read in braille at night. We worked often during the day and even in the evening for seven packed days, despite the continuing cold and rain. During the coldest times, we found indoor work areas, but we worked rain or shine, cold or warm, indoors, and outdoors in as many kinds of settings as possible to give Nala exposure to as many of the environments that we will be working in while I had a trainer there to help us adapt to the setting and each other. It was a lot of hard work, and at times anxiety crept in which would travel down the leash to Nala making her nervous and hindered her working properly for a brief time, but together we faced each moment and worked through it because Nala is determined to help me.
Nala knows I can’t see, and she wants to help. I now know that she has begun to realize that I can’t hear, either, and is finding ways to help me there, too. At first, she would go to the door when she needed to go busy. Of course, I was taking her often to find her pattern at first, but I can’t hear her whine at all, so it wasn’t always obvious that she needed to go even on leash by my side. After a few days, I would let her off leash to play with me in the room while I gave her complete attention to make sure she didn’t bother things that might get broken or hurt her. Still even with that vigilant attention, I didn’t know when she was going to the door just to see outside or if she was telling me she needed to go out. After a few times of that and I guess noticing that I would note she was growling at noises with my hand on her neck or shoulder, Nala began coming to me and touching my leg with her snout or in my hand. Then she would go to the door and sit. After a few determined repeats of this, I realized she was telling me she needed to go busy. Never once did she have an accident, but she was smart enough and observant enough to quickly find a way to let me know what she needed. That is a wonderful dog!
After learning about barriers, on curb and off curb work, vehicle safety, night walks, landmarks, medical care, and so much more, and when my trainer felt we were ready, training days came to an end, and I signed the transfer of ownership agreement on Feb. 22, 2015. Nala is mine with no limitations as long as I take good care of her in all ways including good health routines and vet care, maintaining a healthy weight, and making sure she is safe physically and emotionally. A dog is a big responsibility. A working dog is an even bigger responsibility because while the dog gives its all to take care of me, I need to give my all taking care of the guide. I promise I will, just as Nala promises to take care of me. Part of that promise includes letting Nala have a spot on the couch next to me and my other fur babies. Nala approved heartily.
Training isn’t really over, just the supervised training is over as we learn more about each other and experience new things. I also can contact SEGDI at any time for questions or additional help, so we are not alone. We still have more bonding to do, too. In a few weeks, Nala will be comfortable enough at home and know our routine and house rules well enough to relax off leash when not working. Then Daddy Scott will be able to pay more attention to her which he is very excited about, but my bond with her must be first and foremost to have a secure and healthy working relationship. It all begins in earnest here. Now we must travel life together maximizing our teamwork to be independent and productive. I never walk alone, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.