I got a chance to take the "Cadillac" (aka Promise) for a test drive today...more like stepping up into the saddle of a race horse, if you ask me! We did a little Juno work (using the harness minus the dog), then it was time to "saddle up" Promise and give me the reins--have you have ever seen a cartoon where the horse takes off with its rider flying out of the saddle leaving the rider holding on for dear life with his feet flying wildly in the air behind him?--that's pretty much how it initially felt when Promise took off "out of the gates" like she was charging for the Triple Crown. My 2 awkward, blindfolded feet were no match for her 4 feet and good eyes! I managed to stay on my feet, but thank goodness Caroline works out and could keep up with Promise and then showed me how to slow her down a bit, once I caught my breath.
It takes a while to put enough trust in her to follow her when she makes a slight change in course, let her step off the curb first and if she slows down, you slow down. It is a continual partnership, though. She takes her verbal and body language cues from her partner, and it is ever so easy to get disoriented. As we took a break in the hospital lobby, I actually assumed Doug was standing beside me as we talked. It wasn't until Caroline sent me this picture that I realized he was in front of me! At one point when my shoulders were not facing the way I had asked Promise to go, I confused her, and we got a bit off course. Thank goodness Doug and Caroline were there to correct that situation, too.
For those of us who have had "not so perfect" dogs, you will be happy to hear Promise did run me into some low-hanging branches, but in her defense, she's a bit lower to the ground than some dogs, and she must have thought if she could clear them, I could clear them, or maybe she's smart enough to do it and secretly laugh about it to herself. I wouldn't put it past her. When we were done and I was able to take the blindfold off and love her up a bit, Promise did have a very distinct, somewhat sly smile on her face. Oh yeah, and there was a near miss with a ladder, but I think I was lagging behind on that one & I guess Promise mistakenly thought I could clear it (my 40-something hips are just a "bit" wider than hers!).
Having been in this puppyraising game for some time now (3+ years), I have come to believe that every guide dog starts out as an all-around good dog and that comes from some proven breeding lines and a good bit of luck. The perfect guide dog loves what they do, can make split-second decisions even if they have to use their own judgement and like an Energizer bunny, wants to go and go and go. These things are not so much trained into the dog as they are honed and polished. That does not take away anything from their lives with their puppyraisers. I also truly believe we give them the foundation they will remember for a lifetime and start them on their way, but the real test comes in the advanced training, and dogs will show their true colors there. Some dogs are happier leading and some dogs are happier following. Some dogs either have "it" or they do not, whether it is the drive, the stamina, the intelligence, or combinations of that and other useful traits. A dog who doesn't show those traits is not a dog I would want to guide anybody; he will get his partner hurt or get himself hurt or at the very least live a very unhappy life doing something he does not care to do, and none of us who love these dogs would want any of those things to happen. At least we know that even if we raise a dog who is happier following, because of the foundation the puppyraiser laid down, he will follow obediently and politely and respectfully and always be a joy for someone to have in their family.
Doug was telling me how sometimes as he walks with Promise, they hit a rhythm and everything just seems to flow and it's easy and fun. I have to say I had some moments like that as we made our way back to the final destination and Promise and I had come to an understanding of what a reasonable pace should be for her and I. I felt myself standing taller, relieving my death grip on the harness, letting Promise pull just enough to allow me to feel confident she would keep me on a safe path, and you understand for just an instant, how these dogs we raise who love what they are doing as much as Promise does may give someone a whole new feeling of independence, and may even change a life. Pretty cool.