Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Retirement: The Process and Emotions of Retiring My First Guide Dog

By: GDB graduate Nicole Schultz-Kass

For a number of reasons, I have waited to announce to all of you, that Picassa, my sweet girl, my first guide dog, will be retiring in the Fall. Many of you have been able to see and follow some of our experiences through posts on GDB's Alumni Chapter Mommies with Guides' Facebook page, so it seemed only appropriate, and perhaps helpful, that you could experience some of this process with us as well. I announce Picassa's retirement with sadness, but also with great respect for all she has done for me so willingly, and with excitement for the next phase of both of our lives.

In the earliest days of this conversation, I went looking online for others’ experiences. I found a beautiful video about Cricket, Becky Andrews’ retired guide dog, which you can see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWtPPSFe8yI. But, there wasn’t a great deal from other guide dog handlers' perspective on the process of retirement. Guide Dogs for the Blind  provided information and resources, however there wasn’t much out there by other people with guides. Next, I went to friends, and the women and men I’ve met through Mommies with Guides and they were such a huge help and comfort to me. They shared their experiences about retirement: the process, the decision, and the emotions. It was in those conversations that I realized opening up and sharing parts of this experience with you may be helpful, to even one guide dog user out there, and to those of you as puppy raisers, volunteers, and staff, as insight into the process of retirement with your first guide dog.

It was March 2011 on "Dog Day" during my training at GDB, I felt something akin to being on a blind date. I was about to meet a dog who would be my partner, my eyes, and my friend, for years to come.  I didn’t know her name, her personality, or whether she would like me!  The last thing on your mind when you’re about to begin the journey with your first guide dog, is what the end of that working partnership looks like.  The last thing you want to think about is the “R” word. Of course, there were people in our class who were training with a successor dog (meaning they had retired their previous guide), so I knew...logically I knew retirement was inevitable.  But, a couple of friends had guides who were eleven years-old and working like young sprouts, so I hoped that would be us and left the topic to wander far, far into the back of my mind — planning only to bring it out when I was forced to.

Nicole smiles (wearing a black dress and shoes) with Picassa (yellow Lab in harness) on graduation day on the Oregon campus.

Fast forward to April 2015, and I felt my pulse speed up and my fingers tremble just a bit as I wrote, nervous even then, to Picassa’s trainer.  I was sitting in the Las Vegas airport with Picassa, having left my husband at his work conference to travel home, and I knew I needed to begin a conversation with GDB, a conversation I wasn’t sure I wanted to begin….What if they couldn’t help me fix this?  What if they said…. the “R” word?  They wouldn’t dare. These trainers can do anything—they’re miracle workers. They’ve got this — there will be no “R” word for us.

Picassa had been slowing down for some time, something we had been working on at each annual check-in, and an issue we were typically able to address with additional techniques, encouragement, and reward.  In the last few months, however, she had been responding less regularly to my attempts and we traveled at a snail’s pace together most of the time. The Vegas trip not only amplified what was happening in our work together, but our travel there made it evident that this would quickly become a safety issue. I found myself scared to cross streets because I couldn’t rouse Picassa to cross the intersection within the allotted amount of time. I found myself growing frustrated as I realized….my world is speeding up, everything around me is speeding up, my children, my work, my activities, but we are slowing down. I realized as I walked through that airport, thankful I had given ample time because we were moving so very slowly, that I needed to write that email. It went a little something like this:

Dear Trainer,
Help!  Picassa’s pace is becoming a huge issue—my grandma could run me off the sidewalk and lap me on any given route—and she has ceased responding to the techniques that previously would get us moving a little faster.  Not even beef jerky could get this girl to go.  Please help me fix it…  and whatever you do, don’t even mention the “R” word.  She’s my first guide, my girl, and we belong together like sprinkles belong with cupcakes.
Forever grateful,

I wrote when I did for a couple of reasons.  One:  the walk through the airport had made this issue so pronounced, so in my face, that I couldn’t ignore it.  I felt this knot in my gut that compelled me to send “the email.”  I’m also a compulsive email checker when I’m dealing with something important like this… come on, you know what I’m talking about and I bet several of you do it too!  You click “send” and within two minutes you’re already refreshing your Inbox to see if you’ve heard back ridiculous — but true. I knew I wouldn’t be able to check my email the duration of that flight, and I knew I had to give my trainer time to respond. When her response came, it was something like this:

Dear Nicole,
It’s been awhile since we’ve seen each other!  I want to help in any way I can—what you describe with Picassa is really complex and could be many things—let’s talk and see how I can help!  I know you love your girl and she loves you—it will be ok.
Always kind and amazing,
GDB Trainer

*I should note, there was no mention of the “R” word — yet — I swear the trainers at GDB are skilled not only in their training, but also in the emotional and inner dynamics of these human-dog relationships.

This all sounds very cut and dry, especially with my abbreviated and somewhat silly versions of our email exchanges, but every email I sent to our trainer had me in tears. The “R” word was off limits, but it was implied. It sat there, just under the surface, and somehow when I wrote that first email, I knew. I wasn’t sure, and I was hopeful that our trainer would have a miracle technique to address what was happening with Picassa and me, but there was just something as I wrote the first email, something as Picassa and I walked together that weekend and in that airport, that told me where this was going.

I will sing praises of GDB here. I sing their praises often, but throughout this process I desperately wished I had a gift for our trainer, just something to show her how genuinely appreciated and how truly adored she was for her work with us and her understanding and kindness as I took this in, with lots of tears, and gradually came to accept it and move to embrace it. Our trainer spoke with me on the phone extensively, and when an opportunity presented itself that made sense (which happened to be within a week of us beginning this conversation), she came and spent over five hours working with Picassa and me to determine not only what was going on, but also how we might address it.

During that visit we went on a route, a simple route within my neighborhood, which ended up taking two hours. We tried talking, and silence, and leading, and rewards, and break-offs, and all sorts of tricks she had up her trainer sleeve, and still, Picassa, much like a fifteen year old kid, was set in her pace and demonstrated with perfection that she is one strong-willed chick who would do what she wanted to do, and what she wants to do is take life at a perfectly lackadaisical pace, slower than a granny. During that visit, we talked about options, including the word “retirement.” We praised my girl for all she has done in the last four plus years, her impeccable skills, and recounted some of the great experiences we have shared as a team. We laughed and took joy in talking about her personality and the strong relationship Picassa and I have developed, not something everyone shares with their first guide, and something I am so grateful for. And we giggled, just enough, about how my grandma could have run circles around us on that walk around my neighborhood.

Ultimately, that evening came to an end with the decision to try a few additional things, but with the likelihood that we would retire Picassa. I began the application process for training with a successor dog the next day, and I kept in contact with Picassa’s puppy raiser. I had contacted her earlier so that she was aware of the conversation that was taking place — I think we share a pretty great friendship and I’m so glad that we were connected through our sweet Picassa, and I wanted her to know and feel a part of this process as best we could while we are far apart geographically. Her responses were more than I could have asked for — she helped me to accept this change and to feel confident in these decisions and what was best for Picassa, and for me.

One thing I can tell you about retirement is this — the emotional process of it is different for everyone and there are many factors that play a part in how it will feel. My experience has been what it is because Picassa and I have shared a very close bond since early on in our relationship. I’ve always felt she was a perfect match for the time in my life that she worked in service to me. I have two children and a husband who are totally and endlessly in love with her and see her as an irreplaceable part of our family. And, I’m a pretty emotional chick, seriously, even my daughter’s “graduation” from kindergarten had me through a quarter of a box of kleenex. Some people are less emotional.  Some people have had huge challenges with their guides that have impacted their relationship.  Some people are not as connected to the dog for one reason or another.  So, for some this process may involve a lot of tears, some time to accept, and a process of transition and adjustment to go through. Time has been my friend in this. As we finalized the decision for Picassa to retire, and I began to let go of the questions and guilt I had been feeling, I came to recognize that these decisions were about respect for my girl and the gifts she has given me, and giving her the best and most enjoyable life in every possible way.

After working with us, our trainer made it clear that this was a preference for Picassa, not something I did or her saying she didn’t want to work for me. This transition would mean respecting her and allowing her to move to the next adventure: retirement. My family and I began discussing Picassa’s retirement and what it would mean for each of us — especially decisions we would need to make about what was next for Picassa. And, I began to make decisions about her work — traveling with her when pace was not an issue or we would not encounter major intersections or time sensitive situations, and using my cane for other travel. While some retirements are urgent and immediate, some can be gradual — Picassa's guide work is still very strong, so we are allowed to work until I return to GDB for a successor dog, but I have to take her pace and safety into consideration with any travel. This means that Picassa is also beginning the transition — from my constant worker and companion, toward being one retired, relaxed, chill pup who can play with her toys whenever she wants and lounge around as she sees fit.

What’s next? Watch for another post soon as Picassa and I move from retirement to seeing the next adventure retirement is going to mean for my girl, and for me.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Newshounds - Guide Dogs for the Blind in the News!

Paws for Independence: http://cedarmill.org/news/515/pawsforindependence.html

Elko Resident Receives Hearing Dog: http://elkodaily.com/lifestyles/elko-resident-receives-hearing-dog/article_fd2f7acb-a959-5050-917e-1fbbb720902b.html

NBC News Channel 3’s “Spirit”: Puppy with a Purpose: http://kiem-tv.com/spirit-puppy-purpose

Blind Hiker Trevor Thomas is the Toughest Hiker on The Colorado Trail: http://www.denverpost.com/fitness/ci_28402582/blind-hiker-trevor-thomas-is-toughest-hiker-colorado

Someone 2 Know – Guide Dog Puppy Raisers: http://www.ktvn.com/story/29291513/someone-2-know-guide-dog-puppy-raisers

Portland's KATU News AM Northwest: http://www.katu.com/amnw/segments/Guide-Dogs-for-the-Blind-307143521.html

Madison High School Students Train Guide Dog Puppies: http://www.ksat.com/content/pns/ksat/news/2015/06/09/madison-hs-students-training-guide-dog-puppies.html

National Geographic – Top 5 Service Dogs: http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/wild/barkfest/videos/top-5-service-dogs/

Blind Senior Gets Opportunity of a Lifetime: The Chance to Pursue Her Higher Education Degree:

Puppy Love: FFA Members Train Guide Dogs for the Blind: http://ffanewhorizons.org/puppy-love/

Being Blind and Fighting Cancer Didn’t Deter UTSA Graduate: http://www.expressnews.com/news/education/article/Being-blind-and-fighting-cancer-hasn-t-deterred-6250193.php

Guiding Paws in Colfax: http://www.auburnjournal.com/article/4/30/15/guiding-paws-colfax

Green Building & Design: Guide Dogs for the Blind New Student Residence: http://gbdmagazine.com/2015/guide-dogs-for-the-blind-new-student-residence/

Texas Today: Meet Malta, Guide Dog in Training: http://www.kcentv.com/category/170056/video?autoStart=true&topVideoCatNo=default&clipId=11474290

Paralympic Athletes Celebrate Their Best Friends On International Guide Dog Day: http://www.teamusa.org/News/2015/April/29/Paralympic-Athletes-Celebrate-Their-Best-Friends-On-International-Guide-Dog-Day

Woman’s Guide Dog Attacked Inside Convenience Store: http://kutv.com/news/local/woman39s-guide-dog-attacked-inside-convenience-store#.VSVybtzF9Yp

Making Airport Travel a Breeze: http://www.second-sense.org/2015/03/making-airport-travel-a-breeze/

Three New Guide Dog Puppies Join the Local Pack: http://www.sierrawave.net/33823/three-new-guide-dogs-join-the-local-pack/

GDB Graduate and Perkins School for the Blind teacher Marla Runyan Named 'Hero Among Us' by Boston Celtics: http://www.perkins.org/stories/news/perkins-marla-runyan-named-hero-among-us-by-boston-celtics

How to Take the Lead as a Guide Dog Puppy Raiser: http://www.aaha.org/blog/petsmatter/post/2015/03/05/268696/How-to-take-the-lead-as-a-guide-dog-puppy-raiser.aspx

Future Guide Dogs Get Trained at Houston Airport: http://www.chron.com/houston/slideshow/Guide-dogs-get-trained-at-Houston-airport-102270.php

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Meet GDB Graduate JR Quevedo

When John Ross "JR" Quevedo was in class for the first time to receive his new guide dog, he remembers thinking it was like ballroom dancing. "Working with a guide dog has a lot to do with body positioning and foot work, especially on turns," recalls JR. "As a new handler, I practiced every turn in my room while I was at GDB – I danced every night."

JR smiles while kneeling down with his arm around his guide dog Griff (yellow Lab) in front of a cafe in San Francisco.

JR’s mother had been infected with the Rubella virus while pregnant with him, causing his left eye to be totally blind at birth. At three months old, his right eye was able to be saved through surgery; providing him with minimal vision. "I always enjoyed sketching and doodling as a child, said JR. "I attended a regular public school and in class I was never able to see the notes the teacher wrote on the board, so I would usually copy them during lunch break, where I was inches away from the board. I started sketching on my paper and pretended I was taking notes like the other students during class so I wouldn’t stand out – I guess that helped my path of becoming an artist."

JR's digital illustration of a guide dog team looking out at the moon on top of a hill while under a tree.

JR later attended The Art Institute and Academy of Arts in San Francisco, where he majored in graphic design. He is more of graphic illustrator now, with a passion for typography and visual development through storytelling. "I might be visually impaired, but my imagination and storytelling is very much alive," he said. "I draw on paper where my eye is inches away from where I can literally kiss my artwork. Being a digital artist helps because anything can be zoomed in using a computer. I’m inspired by experiences and what I’m surrounded by - I just love to tell stories through illustrations."

JR holds up a post it with his unique typography that says "Everything is cool when you're part of a team" with his guide dog Griff and the ocean in the background.

While being an artist was a cathartic outlet for JR, he was always searching for something more when it came to his mobility and independence. "I’ve been blessed with great family and friends whom I could always count on to help me get around, but I really wanted to gain my independence," he said. "The cane helped, but I didn't like the stigma I felt with it. After reading examples of how a guide dog team works, that’s when I knew that was the missing piece."

JR's cartoon drawing of a young man with a backpack smiling while walking with his guide dog down a path.

JR came to GDB in January 2015 and said he fondly remembers Dog Day. "Griff was dropped off in my room and that’s when I first saw his energetic and affectionate personality – he jumped and went in for a hug the first time he saw me, that is when I knew we were a perfect match. I missed out getting excited to get my license for the first time and being able to drive a car, but I figure that moment of strolling with my guide at first must be the same. Full of joyous anxiousness!"

Shot looking down at JR's red Puma shoes with Griff's red Ruffwear booties and it between them on the pos-it it reads "We are a match."

Over the course of the two-week training, JR worked primarily with GDB Master Licensed Guide Dog Instructor Paolo Pompanin. "Paolo, was just phenomenal," he said. "He had so much knowledge and patience that helped Griff and me succeed. What I admire most about him and the rest of the team of instructors in my class was the relationship that was built. As class went on it felt like we were all becoming friends that got comfortable with each other through humor. That made learning and being in class a lot of fun. I really bonded with my classmates and gained wisdom from all of them."

JR holds up one of his unique typography notes on a post-it that reads "Who I am with you" - his guide dog Griff sits looking at the camera and behind him overlooks San Francisco.

Upon graduating, JR and Griff returned home to San Francisco as a confident team ready to take on the world. "In the short amount of time having Griff on my left side, I’ve gotten to know San Francisco a lot more, said JR. "That’s weird to say after living in the same city for years, but it shows how much I didn’t really want to be out by myself. I have this new confidence to become more of a risk taker and have more initiative now when I'm outside. There is this sense of security knowing Griff is able to see things that I might have missed. People see how cute and well behaved he is and that has taken the negative annotation out of having a disability.  And the best part – it's just the beginning!"

Sweet photo of Griff looking adoringly at the camera with one of JR's post-its that reads "Can't say love, not without you."

JR said that having Griff has brought so much joy into his life, that sometimes the best ways to express those emotions are through illustrations. Currently a freelance designer and illustrator, he said that all of his social media handle names are URBSTERS (Urban Monsters). "I had a hard time showing my personality when I was younger, because everyone would notice first how my eyes looked," he said. "This is why I love drawing monsters that are bubbly and cute, because normally everyone would just judge them as monster first before getting to know who they really are. I just hope people can see my personality before noticing my disability – Griff and my artwork has been a bridge to that."

Beautiful illustration of a young man sitting next to his guide dog facing the sunset (a large red circle).

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Two Career Girl

When Jim Jordan became a GDB Breeder Custodian for Trinity (raised by Don and Kelli Reiter in Seattle, WA), he knew from the very first moment that she truly was an amazing animal. Trinity retired to be Jim’s family pet after a successful breeder career, which included 23 puppies in five litters, one of which is current GDB male breeder, Jenkins.

Jim is an insulin dependent diabetic and had learned of Dogs4Diabetics when he met a fellow diabetic, Crystal Clearwater, and her medical alert dog, Dela. Knowing what an extraordinarily smart and devoted dog Trinity was, Jim decided that he wanted to try to train Trinity himself! He purchased the book How To Train Your Diabetic Alert Dog by Rita Martinez, CPTD-KA, and immediately began the training process. Trinity learned the basics quickly but when Jim hit some stumbling blocks in the later stages of training, he was able to have a few sessions with the author, Ms. Martinez, who lives in Oakley, Ca. The entire training process took the Jim-Trinity team a total of eight months when Trinity was proudly certified as a medical alert dog in March 2014.

Jim, Trinity (yellow Lab wearing her purple scarf and blue jacket), Don & Kelli from last summer’s Fun Day in CA

Trinity is now constantly at Jim’s side to be able to alert him whether they are awake or asleep if his blood sugar goes either too low or too high. It is a tremendous relief for Jim and his family that his faithful companion is always at his side and on the job. Jim hopes that other diabetics, particularly children, will learn of the Dogs4Diabetics program and the Early Alert Canines program to find a gifted animal like Trinity to help make their lives safer and easier.