by Chelsey Zumpano
(Picture credit goes to Guide Dogs for the Blind).
Have you ever wonder what it’s like for a first time guide dog user? Well this interview with Ted will answer some of your questions.
1 What school did you get your dog from?
I attended Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael California. They have two locations, California and Oregon. My Guide Dog, Fauna came from this location, as do all the puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind.
2 What was the application process like and how long did it take?
The application process was straightforward, I filled out an online form and once my case was reviewed I received an initial phone call to determine if I was an appropriate candidate for the guide dog program. The call was followed by an in-home visit, which included a run on the “simulator” so I could feel what it would be like to travel with a guide dog companion. I was also required to have a physical and ophthalmologist appointment. Once I met all the requirements, I went into the que for the next available class with an appropriate dog match for me. All told, the process took a little over nine months.
3 How long were you at the school?
Training classes at Guide Dogs for the Blind last two weeks. The class contained new guide dog users and retrains – those who have had and retired a guide dog. This time ensures that everyone is starting off on the right foot with their new companion. Class sizes vary, my class was eight students, but they can house and train up to fourteen students at one time.
4 What breed is your dog and did you have a preference of what breed or sex you wanted?
My guide dog Fauna is a female black lab. I have had various dogs throughout my life and they have all been female. I requested a female, but also indicated that a male dog would not be a deal breaker. My feeling was that I was getting my first guide dog, and I was hardly an expert on the matter, so I left it up to Guide Dogs for the Blind to determine what breed and sex would fit best for me.
5 Do you like the fact that you know longer get tactile feedback with your dog?
I have been a cane user for seventeen years, I was very accustomed to the fact that I knew/know the location and distance from any obstacle at any given time. My biggest fear was that I would lose my proprioception – from Dictionary.com: “The unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself.”. Before I got Fauna, I tended to move through space by counting steps and knowing where everything around me was. It is an odd feeling I have not yet overcome that I am trusting this wonderful little girl to move me through space safely. As far as tactile interaction with my environment, I still have a connection, it is just through the dog rather than the cane. I feel her gate, her pauses, where her head is looking etc. all through the harness handle. I don’t feel less connected to my environment, I feel more comfortable in many ways because I have Fauna as a backup to my environmental perception.
6 Is it hard for you to learn to trust your dog, why or why not?
When I am using sighted guide, I trust the person leading me. I have had few problems with this mode of travel except for one time a good friend and my wife both thought I was guiding off of the other person and walked me directly into a fire hydrant. After the pain subsided, and my voice returned to normal a good laugh helped to clear up the fact that they both felt terrible about the situation.
Fauna is a highly trained guide, and she can get distracted just like a human. We must work together as a team to negotiate our world safely. I have her back making sure she’s not distracted by something and she has my back making sure I don’t run into things. She is constantly watching out for me a we travel our routes, she stops at obstacles and stairs, and generally keeps me safe. So far in almost a month working together, she has given me no indication that I should not trust her judgement in any situation.
7 Did you like staying in the dorms, why or why not?
The dorms at the Guide Dogs for the Blind facility are very comfortable. They have gone to great lengths to ensure that the students will be comfortable during their two-week stay. The food is excellent, with everything freshly prepared and tasty. The amenities on campus are also great, from the full gym to the hot tub and myriad of locations to relax or socialize depending on your mood. Being away from home for two weeks can be trying, and the folks at Guide Dogs for the Blind understand this.
The two weeks flew by for me, for the simple fact that everyone that works at Guide Dogs for the Blind genuinely care about the students there. The other students in my class were also very personable and were a true joy to get to know. Sometimes a group of people gel from the first time they meet, and this was one of those experiences. I can see myself keeping in touch with this motley crew of wonderful people for years to come.
8 What are some misconceptions that you had before getting a dog, (or others had)?
I went into this with a very open mind. I have had dogs my entire life, and most recently a black lab, so the care and feeding regiment was nothing alien to me. The time necessary to keep a solid relationship with a dog was something I had built into my daily schedule for her entire seventeen years with us. My only real thought about the program was that I would end up with a companion/teammate that would help me negotiate my world safer and faster. The broken toes, and scarred shins were a good example of me not doing this well by myself. My thought was that if a guide dog was close to the level of a sighted guide that I had to tell which direction to go, I would be fine, and I was not disappointed.
9 What’s your favorite thing about having a guide dog so far?
Walking around at what I would consider normal speed, rather than having to remember and tap my way through the world is great, but my favorite thing so far is walking at night. Before my car accident and losing almost all my sight, I used to love to walk and jog at night. After the accident I lost all my night vision and was unable to safely walk by myself at night. I cannot explain how awesome it was the first time to get out there and walk through the world at night. All of this, and I haven’t even talked about how amazing it is to be more independent in my travels. If I want to go to the coffee shop at night, I can just go – its great.
10 What advice do you have for others who are applying for a guide dog?
Be ready to work. If you haven’t owned a dog before, they will be more work than you expect with the feeding and relieving schedules and keeping them mentally stimulated. If you have had a pet dog before, be ready to be shocked, you will be getting a well-trained walking machine. When you get your dog, it will be close to two years old and still have puppy tendencies. They like to play and be goofy sometimes – they are puppies, but they love to work. When you go for your training, be prepared for the time commitment, get in as good of shape as you can, you will be walking a LOT. I obsessively walked, weight trained and ate well for six months before my class and it was physically easy, but I was happy I put in the work before. The day started at 6:30 am and went to the last relieving at 8:30. You will be tired, well fed and have an amazing time.
If anyone has specific questions about my work, my guide dog or my experience training with Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael California, feel free to contact me on social media at any of the following links. Thank you for the opportunity to tell my story, and share my experiences owning a guide dog (so far). On a related note, I am writing expanded weekly blog posts about my entire time at Guide Dogs for the Blind on my travel blog below.
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