I am sitting at my desk yawning and it’s not yet 6:30 pm! Did I have a late night the night before? Too much partying? Watching TV until the wee hours of the morning? No, none of the above. My yawns are the result of the unbelievable experience of being blindfolded and guided by a Guide Dog called Eli, a beautiful black Labrador, in a very busy street in Parkview.
Gail, who heads up training at SAGA, was already waiting for me at 8am with a blindfold in hand and a smile on her face. After going to kennels at SAGA and organising Eli, we joined the group of first time Guide Dog owners who were on class at SAGA in the bus. Permit, their trainer, was in charge and after ensuring I didn’t decapitate myself or injure Eli as we boarded the bus, we were on our way.The spirits were high in the group and it was fun chatting and getting to know my comrades and hearing their war stories of their training experiences over the last few days. Having no sense what direction we were driving in or where we were at any stage, I started to get really carsick but managed to keep it together until we parked at our destination. I managed to get out the bus but nearly lost my balance and I was very disorientated for a few minutes. How pathetic I felt. I had only been under blindfold for about an hour but for others it will be a lifetime. A few deep breaths, a pat on my new faithful friends head and with Gail nearby, we were off.
I know Parkview but I was very disorientatedinitially and when Gail stated explaining the route and after the 5th crossing detail (there was 9 crossings in total) I started to stress as I could not remember the detail and I asked her to break it into two parts (what a blonde). It almost felt like one of those assessments you go for a new job to test your memory-and guess what, I would have flunked!!
Your hearing suddenly takes on new meaning: dogs at gates barking, traffic, lawnmowers, more traffic, cell phones in the distance ringing, people chatting, young children at play, more traffic. I could suddenly smell the streets, fresh cut grass, the sweetness of a flowering shrub or tree, coffee, fresh bread, petrol and exhaust fumes, garbage, that lovely fresh smell after heavy rain the night before. My senses were heightened. I could feel the fresh breeze against my skin which was welcome as it was a hot day.I welcomed the shade as we passed under various trees on route. People were living their lives all around me and I felt like my life had gone into slow motion and the rules had all changed but no one had given me the new rules to read. There was a moment after we had started where you actually feel so overwhelmed and I think if I had tripped or knocked into something it would have really affected my confidence. This was hard.
Being a puppy raiser I am comfortable with dogs but this was the first time Eli and I had met. There was no bond between us and I kept standing on his toes and giving him the wrong instructions-he must have been so confused but he was such a trooper and hardly showed any reaction to this idiot he had to guide. After about two street crossings my trust in this amazing dog began to grow as we navigated around obstacles and building rubble and lots of traffic. I was starting to get the hang of it.The hardest part for me was the kerbs. Initially, I would start to slow down and hang back if I thought a kerb was coming as I was scared I would fall off and fall flat on my face.By the end of the session I was overly confident and sometimes over-shooting the down kerb when the dog had actually stopped on the down kerb correctly, what patience Eli had. There were moments I felt at one with Eli and relished the feeling and had some sense of this special relationship and bond that forms between a dog and their visually impaired handler.
I was quite numb when I was finally allowed to take the blindfold off four hours later back at SAGA.I felt I wanted to go into a room and close the door and just be by myself. I felt unhinged and needed time to get my mojo back.I learned many things through this experience, mostly they are all clichés. I realise that we are all disabled in our own way and we label people so freely without understanding what it’s like to live in their shoes. Usually when I see a Guide Dog owner I say hello and always ask permission to say hello to their dog but let me tell you it is so distracting for the dog and for the blind person and I promise going forward I will not do that again.
Today I chose to live in someone else’s shoes for only 4 hours. To all those Guide Dog owners out there- I salute youand to those very special working Guide Dogs-my heart swells with pride that I am privileged to be part of your development by being a puppy raiser and lastly Gail- your patience, knowledge and unwavering dedication to what you do is an example to all.