As members of the Guide Dogs Tasmania staff, we often get comments like this: ‘Oh you’re so lucky!’ or ‘How lovely!’
Not all of us work with clients or dogs, but all of us know how important our work is, whatever our role.
Here is a true story written by one staffer, Kate Grady, and we think it’s important to tell it. It gives you insight into some of what we do and it reminds us why we do it. We hope you enjoy it…
This is the story of three stories that meet at the end with a woman and a dog, on five steps, in an office, on a wet November day in Hobart.
Story 1: The build.
I work in an office with about ten other people. Right now, my little office has a window I can look out and know if the sun is out or the rain is falling. It’s a functional office, with a desk and a bookshelf and a filing cabinet. Simple.
Before I had this office, I was in a different part of the building and there was no window. I knew if it was raining by the sound of the rain on the roof. And I knew if it was raining heavily by the slow dribble of water that made its way through the fluorescent light fitting onto the second hand carpet below. It probably wasn’t safe.
Despite these less than ideal conditions, the staff here work to provide services to people who are blind or vision impaired; either directly with those people, or in roles to support that work. In my first five years in that office I never once saw any of those people we were supporting in our building.
Earlier this year, we began a building refurbishment. It was a big project and took several months. For the first time ever, we now have a working space that enables our staff to instruct and train clients on the premises. The building is safe, there is a good range of facilities and equipment and once orientated, clients can navigate their way around and be independent. It is quite ironic that we haven’t been able to do this in the past. We supported blind people…as long as it didn’t need to happen in our building. Last week, from my refurbished office with a window and without a hazardous water feature, I saw two of these people.
Story 2: The Client.
Gaye went blind progressively. Slowly. She’d forged a career as a teacher of children with special needs. After multiple eye surgeries, not knowing if they would be successful or not, and not knowing what her vision would be like from week to week, she lost her way. When she pictures herself back in front of a class, she pictures a completely different person. It’s been a long journey and slowly, slowly her confidence is returning.
With help from two of my colleagues, Gaye learnt to use a cane. With it, she could be aware of obstacles, of known landmarks, or the differences in surfaces. She called it Fred. Fred was reliable. The best stick friend a person could have. She was getting good advice and was managing to get back some of the independence she had lost. She was doing well, and has been going out and walking to places by herself that she wouldn’t have done a few years ago. But Gaye and my colleagues agreed that she needed more than Fred.
In November, Gaye and Fred got on a bus and headed to Hobart. The ticket was a return: Sunday night – Friday afternoon. This in itself was a big step for Gaye and she was anxious. She was going to test drive a dog. Gaye had never had a dog before.
Her first would be a Guide Dog.
Gaye met another of my colleagues when she got off the bus. It had been a long day. Tomorrow, a new chapter would begin.
In the office there were two recently ‘graduated’ dogs, both waiting eagerly to work with their new handlers. The matching process had been detailed and dogs and humans had spent a little time together in their homes already. But they hadn’t learnt to become a team yet. Lee, the second client under instruction during the week, was about to receive his fifth Guide Dog. Another reason for Gaye to be nervous: she was a novice and Lee was a pro.
Gaye’s dog is Crosby. He’s two and just finished his training. He’s learnt a suite of commands like ‘find the lights’, ‘find the counter’, ‘steady’ (which means slow down a bit) and Gaye’s job is to learn them all too now, so they can become a team. Crosby is not a GPS. You can’t plonk him somewhere foreign and say ‘Ok Crosby, find me a latte’. He learns routes and can guide someone safely around obstacles and to places that he knows like work, a bus stop, home, and other regularly visited locations. But Gaye needs the confidence to give the commands so he can get her where she wants to go. It was pretty clear that the week was going to be intense.
From my new office I could overhear some of the instructions and conversations on Monday morning. Intense.
A few hours in, I heard Gaye ask a question that literally made me stop.
“What colour is he; I can’t tell.”
Gaye was being matched with an animal that would be spending the next eight to ten years with her. He would keep her safe, be on call whenever she needed him and expect nothing more than food and love. She had embarked on the journey with a fair amount of anxiety and trepidation and was willing to put her trust into Crosby. And she had absolutely no idea what he looked like.
He is gold.
Story 3. The training.
The teams were in and out of the building, in the technology room, in the lunch area and using the all of the space, so we had occasion to chat with each other. On the third day – Wednesday – I got up enough gumption to ask Gaye if I could observe one of the internal training walks that she and Crosby were undertaking with the instructor. I promised I wouldn’t get in the way; I was just genuinely fascinated by what was happening and was keen to watch. Gaye was very kind. She said she was very nervous still, but it would be ok. The session involved going through a particular door, using the lift, and going down a set of stairs. There is a ramp beside these stairs, but when Gaye and Crosby are finished with this aspect of the training, there will always be stairs, so no avoiding it.
The intense concentration of woman and dog was what I noticed first. So many things to learn. Crosby was one step ahead of Gaye: he’d been learning these skills for two years while her head was full of things from the last couple of days. Incidentally, she said she’d been so anxious the night before that she vomited. She wanted this to work and, watching them go through this session, it was evident that Crosby wanted it to work too. He was focused and very patient with her as she dealt with the nuances of holding the harness, turning, entering confined spaces, and trying things over and over again.
They disappeared into the lift and reappeared a couple of minutes later, this time with the instructor standing to the side, observing. Confidence was growing.
To the stairs.
Gaye was asked if she used the railing or the wall as a guide when she went down stairs with Fred. She said she did, but there wouldn’t always be a railing or a wall, so perhaps she’d better give it a go without. I stood to the side at the bottom.
Shuffle. Reposition. Shuffle. Reposition. One hand holding the harness, one hand outstretched looking for the instructor’s hand below. Just in case.
A stumble. A deep breath.
Have you ever tried to walk down stairs without holding onto the wall or railing, blindfolded or with your eyes closed? You don’t get very far before cheating with a little peek, do you? No blindfold for Gaye. Just a dog.
Back we go to the top and start again. Crosby, ever patient, knew what to do, but Gaye was obviously feeling very vulnerable. So much to remember. These five steps may well have been five hundred.
Crosby had learnt to go down steps one at a time, smoothly, without stopping between each. That’s what he knew and was comfortable with. One, two, three, four, five and away. Gaye was comfortable (well, more comfortable) bringing both feet together on a step before moving down to the next one. That’s what she knew. That’s a pretty big difference in the way two members of a team approach something big.
Crosby had never learnt to go down steps the way Gaye needed him to.
And then he did.
With Gaye using the command ‘steady’ on each step, Crosby understood, and worked with her. Watching her. Watching the steps.
And he got her to the bottom of those steps.
Just. Like. That.
From my office I can see if it’s raining or if the sun is shining outside. Last week, I saw two people being introduced to two dogs. I saw a woman called Gaye and a dog called Crosby go down five steps.
Thanks for reading. Stories like ‘Gold’ can be told because of the generosity of the Tasmanian public. We can’t train Guide Dogs, or their handlers, without your help. Please donate or apply to become a Puppy Raiser. Today.