Okay, I have to be honest, when I started writing this, Julio and I had a little over a week to go until we had officially been home for six months. However, I think it is only fair that I get to start early, to share all of the stuff I want to, and not forget it. I also don't want to pull an all nighter on February 21, just to get this thing written.
When I first thought of getting a Guide Dog, I always pictured a girl Guide Dog. Why, I do not know, maybe because many of my friends have girls? Anyway, that's not the point.
When I got to Guide Dogs, and they had us doing Juno stuff, I always called Juno "Good girl!" When we got to practice handling live dogs, the instructors gave me girl dogs. This made me sure "They're going to give me a girl!"
On Dog day, I sat with expectation through the lecture on meeting our dogs, and what they might do. Then, I waited to hear what my dog's name was. "Nickie, you have Julio, a male yellow lab." I tried not to let my disappointment show, I'd really wanted a female.
When I met Julio, they told me he was a beautiful dog. One of the instructors snapped pictures, while I petted Julio. He was very excited; he tried to burrow under me and asked me to scratch his tummy. I heeled him back to my room, and he and I started to get acquainted. I learned that he could play hard, but then settle down when I asked him to.
I started to love him almost instantly. That first day, I was overwhelmed. Even though we have always had pet dogs at my house, I had no idea how to work with a dog consistently. What if I screw up? Was my first thought.
And that first day, I did screw up. Julio quickly learned I am a sucker for cuteness, and like any intelligent dog, he used that to his benefit. It took me a long time to learn to read him. The first time I corrected him for something he didn't do, I started to cry. Sometimes, I felt helpless, unsure and scared. But Julio didn't always make me feel that way.
Although the first week was hard, and I don't wish to experience it again, I experienced freedom I rarely felt before. For once, I was in total control of my destination, and I could concentrate on other things. Some people describe it as a more relaxing walk, but for me, that wasn't even close to the case at first. I had so much to concentrate on, even if I didn't have to concentrate on avoiding obstacles and second-guessing my traffic reading skills.
It seemed I had a constant checklist that grew ever longer with each step:
1 Stand up straight!
2 Relax that arm.
3 Be confident in your commands.
4 Follow your dog.
5 Give firm, effective corrections.
6 Praise your dog.
8 Do the rework correctly.
But slowly, things came more naturally. I started to be more assertive. I started to remember more of the rework procedures. I even started to trust more. And the best part was, I started to feel free.
Freedom didn't come easily. I didn't trust myself, and that was the hardest part. Slowly, I learned to trust both of us. I started to figure out what was happening more frequently too.
There were so many days I wanted to give up, but there were some great days too. I'll never forget the feeling of getting a CD and a latte all in one trip, without being driven to either location.
During training, I learned more than guide dog handling. I learned how to do my laundry on my own. I learned more about my energy threshold and more about myself than I sometimes want to know. So much of that time was hard for me. Sometimes I doubt that I was really mature enough to get a Guide Dog. But somehow, we made it.
I'll never forget the day we graduated. The feeling of knowing that we were a safe team, and that we'd made it through training was so overwhelming. I remember being so excited when Julio and I fount outside together. And when I realized that people saying "What beautiful dogs!" were talking to me, and it was real, I was amazed.
But as any dog handler can tell you, graduation is just the beginning. There is still so much to learn! So much joy, and sometimes so much frustration. It's hard to explain it all.
I think I'll just share some stories about the two of us.
One of the interesting aspects our family faced when I came home was getting used to how Julio and I traveled. As dad put it "Julio really steps out!" This point was illustrated on a Friday night about a week or two after we came home. We'd just gone out to dinner, and were about to drive home. Dad remarked that there was a statue in front of the restaurant. I asked dad to repark a little way away from the restaurant so Julio and I could work a little more. My parents agreed to follow from a distance and cue me to stop when I got to the statue. I was traveling in an L shaped route, not crossing any streets. But I got to the end of the L, and hadn't been cued. I stood at the intersection, wondering what'd gone wrong. I finally decided to retrace my steps. Turns out they'd taken a "short cut". But Julio and I'd still beat them, and by the time they were there, I was gone.
I knew I shouldn't cross any streets, but there I stood at the corner, wondering what to do. And of course, neither of them had their cell phones, or if they did, they sure didn't hear them ring! Mom and I reconnected, but it was definitely a learning experience!
When people heard I was getting a Guide Dog and taking it into a high school, there responses were either "That's going to be tough," "I'd never do that! It's so mean," or "I just hope the kids don't ruin it." Of course, my friends always encouraged me; they assured me I could do it and gave me some valuable suggestions about how to handle high school-and a lot of other situations--with a Guide Dog I talked to teachers, and the school administration in advance about how to educate the students and teachers. So when I got home, I knew what to do.
My Dad copied off the Guide Dog Etiquette brochure so I could take it to church and school, where I really needed to do some educating.
On a Wednesday morning, I gathered up my courage and entered the media center. Julio and I stood in front of the teachers and I explained how Julio works and how the teachers and students could help us the best. I talked about etiquette, explained that I'm still learning and asked teachers to explain the information to their students if at all possible.
Then, my mobility instructor and I set to the work of introducing Julio to the school. It was hard work at first. It took some repetition, especially since all the doors look the same to a dog who can't read signs. I was still getting used to not trailing the walls, so it was an adventure indeed! But by the time we were finished, Julio was confident in the school.
The first day of school wasn't nerve wracking at first. He was excited to see so many new people. But by the end of the day, he seemed a little stressed. We played, and he was much calmer.
The teachers and students accepted Julio as a part of school pretty quickly. My French teacher took each student's picture, then hung it on the wall in a construction paper frame. Julio got his own separate picture and frame. She used him in examples, asking questions such as "Qui dors en classe?" At which point she'd respond "Lui" and point at Julio. I think that helped people learn stress pronouns. For those not initiated in the French language, she asked, "Who sleeps in class?" Then she responded "him."
Most of the time, having Julio almost feels normal now. It was actually pretty funny when I went to a pep fest for homecoming. I did not take Julio; instead, he stayed in the room where I keep my technology. My mobility instructor watched him, since we had done very little alone practice in that setting. I'd forgotten how it feels to run into things with a cane! Needless to say, outings with the cane (concerts and things like that aren't suitable for Julio) make me remember exactly what I don't miss.
Sometimes, we need these things too. Julio and I have had some struggles. One time, we diagonally crossed a very busy intersection. For anyone who knows what I'm talking about, it was the Kodiak route, and it was the last intersection. The scary thing was, I didn't even want to cross one street. I ended up crossing both. Needless to say, we had follow up.
Julio and I struggle with the high school cafeteria too. A food-distracted dog isn't going to work as well in a high school cafeteria, let me tell you! But we're working on it, and I may call Guide Dogs for some help.
The independence Julio and I have is incredible! It's so cool to go to the mall, and be able to go to a store, without going sighted guide because I'm scared of the Christmas rush. Julio handles the crowds of a mall with ease, especially after dealing with the hallways of a high school everyday.
I'm finding that I'm more comfortable in a new area with him. I can use follow, and follow people if I'm unsure. I've taught Julio that "show me" means get me back where I came from. That means that when I'm at the dentist, for example, and I ask for help finding the rest room, I don't have to have someone wait for me. I don't use this all of the time, but it's definitely cool to have.
After the first quarter, I stopped having to show Julio to my classes. I can direct him to them successfully, without patterning. It's really nice too, because this quarter, he found my desks the second day we were in those classes. The second day is always the worst; the teachers think I know where things are, but I often don't yet. Julio hasn't really found the desk for me since, but hey, I know where it is now.
Julio's been amazing in other ways too. My foot hasn't exactly resolved itself, so I've still had doctor's appointments. Julio handles these with ease, but he is concerned about me when I sit on an examining table. I've also had to take heavy medications for allergic reactions a few times this year. To say the least, these disorient me. Julio really takes initiative, guiding me to my classes, even when I'm less than helpful with my directions. When I'm ill, Julio knows it, and tends to be much more calm too.
My word processor says I'm almost to the fourth page now, and that's with single spacing, so I think I should end this. I want to say, though, that having Julio is amazing! He's forced me to grow up, which I sometimes do gracefully, but usually not! I still wouldn't trade him for anything. As I always tell Julio, I love him more than peanut butter in a Kong!