When I went blind in April of 2008, I was put in touch with the friend of a friend who is blind. I remember her telling me all about her guide dog and how I just had to get one. Mind you, I had only been blind maybe a month when she was telling me all about going to San Rafael, CA for a month. Are you kidding me??? Get on a plane and go stay at a school for a month? Yeah, how bout no. At the time, I didn’t even have a white cane. The thought of leaving my boyfriend and my friends was way too scary.

Well, after a rough period of adjustment, I started learning “blind skills” like orientation and mobility with the white cane. I had learned how to use a screen reader. I went to the blind center often. Life was getting back to some sense of normalcy.

One day I decided to look up guide dogs. I ended up spending an entire day reading all about Guide Dogs for the Blind, or GDB. It was the school that lady told me I just had to attend. I was hooked. I applied. I told my friend about it and it was then that my blog was born. I had joked about writing a Doggy Diaries to document the journey and she told me I should and told me about Blogger. I’m so grateful I did, because now I can just click certain labels and remember the whole journey.

I was asked to blog about my experiences in training, but I had to give some background hehe. So, after I applied, I had a home visit. A man from the school came to look at my home area and assess my travel skills. The visit went really well. I also had to submit a ton of medical paperwork which was pretty easy; I just asked my doctors to send in the required info. I had to get a tetanus shot and a TB test. Once all that was in, I waited. I got my acceptance email on December 29, 2009, after having applied in September. I would be going to school on February 15! The classes have changed now and are only three weeks, much to my relief.

I had joined an email list of other GDB grads and began signing my emails with my name and “insert doggy here”. Soon we all referred to my unknown dog as “Insert” haha! I have an “Insert” label on my blog so I can go remember the waiting and the anticipation. I started doing a doggy countdown.

Already, Insert had changed my life. Because of the blog and the email list, I had made so many amazing friends. I sometimes wonder how I made it before I met all my Blogger pals.

Finally it was time to go. I boarded a plane to California, about to begin the biggest adventure of my life. At the campus, I had my own dorm room. The other students and I joked that it would make great video if someone filmed us in our rooms, feeling around, getting to know the place haha! The first few days we worked with the instructors on learning the guide dog commands. We learned how to harness “Wheeler” the fake dog on wheels. We did Juno work, Juno being a rolled up piece of carpet. We learned obedience commands and even got to practice with a few dogs who were still in their formal training.

March 17, 2010 was dog day. We’d be getting our dogs that day. The instructors had painstakingly matched each of us to a dog, based on information gathered from our home interviews and discussions with the instructors. All I knew was that I needed a chill dog because of my auto immune disease. That was really my only requirement. I was convinced I’d be getting a black lab female. Don’t ask me why.

The morning of dog day, they went around the room and told us our dog’s names and details. My heart pounded as I waited for them to get to me. Finally they did.

“You will be receiving Jayden, a yellow lab male.”

I sat there, whispering his name to myself. They took us back to our rooms and we had to wait for them to come take us to meet our dogs. Finally they came and got me. I had been furiously writing on my laptop, though at the time I wasn’t on the internet. I have the whole experience documented on my dog day label.

I finally had my dog! After all the waiting and the anticipation, I had him. He was awesome. He was chill. I got him back to my room and crouched down beside him and he put his head on my shoulder. I instantly knew he was the perfect dog. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. The training began immediately. We spent some time together and then I took him to lunch. We didn’t work the dogs in the building yet, so I heeled him next to me. That afternoon was our first workout together. I harnessed him up and we went for a walk in downtown San Rafael. There are many experiences I’ve read about the first walk. For me it was nerve wracking haha! There was so much to remember, so many commands, when to take out the leach, when to tell him to hop up, when to probe out when he stopped, finding curbs, listening for traffic. It was intense. I was still fairly new to traveling blind and here I was trusting a dog to guide me.

I won’t lie. The training was hard. It was grueling. There was a very set feeding and relieving schedule. My day went something like this:

Wake up at 5:45. Get dressed, make instant coffee. Feed Jayden at 6:20. Relieve Jayden at 6:30. Breakfast at 7:15. Meet in day room at 8:15. Relieve Jayden at 8:30. Board bus. Arrive at downtown lounge, go on a work out. Arrive back at campus at 11:30 and water and relieve. Lunch at 12:30. Relieve at 1:30. Board bus. Do another workout. Arrive back at campus. Feed and relieve at 4:30. Dinner at 6. Water at 7, sometimes have a night lecture. Relieve at 8:30. Pass out.

It was hard to find time to shower or do laundry. I limited phone calls to my boyfriend and family only after quickly realizing that phone time was too stressful. All I wanted to do was bond with Jayden. In the dorm rom, we would play or cuddle. He was with me all the time. He went with me to meals in the dining hall. I’ll never forget when I finally could work him in the building. I told him to take me to dinner and he took me right to the dining hall, and then right to our table. We flew through the halls!

I learned so much in those three weeks and I thought that was it. But no. The training really begins upon arriving home. Jayden knew that campus and San Rafael from his formal training days, but he didn’t know my home. The first few weeks were all about showing him routes. I patterned him by heling him and using the cane to walk routes. I used food reward to mark places we’d go on a regular basis and always had a party when we reached my door, so he’d do anything to get me to those places.

We got lost a few times, right in my apartment complex haha! Luckily there were always neighbors around, but once I had to call the office and get rescued. I quickly learned never to leave the house without my phone and a poop bag, oh and kibble of course!

The last time we got lost, a storm had blown in out of nowhere. I couldn’t hear to get my orientation. I didn’t have my cane. I had no idea where we were. Finally I said, “Jayden, find home.” And he took us right to my door…that was the day it all began to click. That was the day I finally turned my life over to my guide dog. I fully trusted him then, and we haven’t gotten lost since.

Jayden fit in well right from the start. He quickly earned house freedom and was only on tie down at home for about two weeks. I started giving him small amounts of freedom and he never once tried to eat anything or kill a cat haha! The training continues and will for awhile. I do obedience with him regularly and even have made it a game of hide and seek. He knows I’m boss, but also knows I love him more than anything. I’m the keeper of the food. 🙂

Having Jayden has changed my life. Those grueling three weeks of training at school were so worth it. Jayden is my guide, my companion, my best friend. He picks me up when I’m down either by throwing his head into my lap when we’re on the couch, or dropping onto his back in front of me for a belly rub and a romp. I love my guide dog!

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