Aries and I: Learning to Play

Interacting with a guide dog isn’t all work you know. There are lots of opportunities for exchanges of affection during grooming. And cozy snuggling at the end of the day as everyone winds down for sleep.More active moments might include things like wrestling after my golden gal’s breakfast, tugging a favorite squeaky toy, or playing fetch.

But wait. One of the players is blind. How does that work?

Well, I have discovered that playing with Aries is also a matter of learning. For both of us.

During our time at The Seeing Eye, we were able to play in our room, or in a special fenced area outside.However, the space in our room soon proved inadequate for Aries to run and jump as she loves to do. Despite her frequent prancing. She offered me her bone and tugged a bit amid fierce growling, and chased the ball when I was able to find it for throwing. The outside play-yard did not interest her very much. We used this as time for reinforcing “come” and she was more interested in this aspect than romping through the assorted large balls scattered around the area.

Sadly, once we were home, play continued to be a challenge.

The bone became more of a private focus. A way for Aries to release pent-up energy at various times of the day. Okay by me. I need my time too. For things like eating a meal, reading a book, and chatting on the phone.

But the squeaky toy and the ballwere slow in bringing us together. When I tossed one of them, Aries either ignored me completely, or pranced about as she did at the Seeing Eye–touching the toy to my hand, but never handing it over.

I started saying things like, “give to me,” and “can I play?”

But alas.

The situation became all the more frustrating when Aries decided that my sighted husband seemed a better playmate. She offered him the bone. Offered hm the ball. Offered him the squeaky toy.

He did his best to honor her training. But that eye-contact thing kept getting in the way. When he turned away from her solicitations, she stopped playing altogether for days. So he started saying things like, “take to Mama.”

No good. Mama doesn’t play right.

Finally, Aries took things into her own paws.

One evening she brought the ball to where my husband and I were watching TV. I grabbed it and tossed it over her head down the hall. She jumped up and ran, skittered and skidded on the tile as it bounced away and I whooped with delight. She returned with the ball, and put it on the sofa where I could find it. Again I tossed it down the hall. Again she ran, skittered and slid. As I whooped and cheered. And a new game was born!

Since then, Aries has taken charge. She puts the ball beside my foot under the breakfast table. Or brings it to where she is noisily chewing her bone.Sometimes she even puts it into my hand.

And as for the squeaky toy, Aries runs to get it, prances about sounding her whereabouts, and lets me “sneak” up on her to grab it and run away.

Genius! pure genius!

So yes, Aries and I share lovely moments of togetherness as I brush her each morning. And yes, we enjoy a good walk, and a cozy snuggle. But holy cow, watch out when it’s time to play! You just might learn something!

Aries Goes to Shul

Today Aries attended her first Morning Minyan at the synagogue. We hitched a ride with S as usual, walked up the long wheelchair ram which Aries targeted spot on, and entered the building without any problems. Aries led the way to the sanctuary, and then to my seat–expertly following each command.

How sweet to be back inside the sanctuary, to hush myself when readying for prayer, to feel the rhythm of Hebrew syllables washing me clean through.

And Aries behaved perfectly. She settled down at my feet, and rested quietly the entire time. Even as I stood and bowed and sat again, my feet not quite comfortably positioned around her, Aries kept still.

After the service, we chatted for a few moments with friends, then off we went. Out the sanctuary door, out the entrance, down the ramp–Aries did it all!

What a thrill to be walking beside this beautiful, spirited gal!

Morning Blessings

Blessed are You Beloved One for the birds singing outside

my open window expanding light

Blessed are You Beloved One for the breath of Life

my beloved’s and mine

Blessed are You Beloved One for water as we wash away the night

the dread of things unseen

as we fill our cups of rejoicing

and refill our bowls of blessing

Blessed are You Beloved One for the ability to stand

before You in awe

to push and pull and strive

in service to those around me

Blessed are You Beloved One in the midst of sudden falls

that keep me growing

and for the strength to get up again

despite uncertainty

Blessed are You Beloved One Who abides in silence

in laughter and in tears

You granted me children to stretch me beyond my plans

You granted me grandchildren to stretch me beyond my dreams

And Blessed are you Beloved One

Who granted me this dog who sheds too much

runs too much jumps too much

who is teaching me to remain childlike

and to keep my heart open

And let us say

Amen

Aries and I: August 25

Wednesday afternoon Aries and I returned to the synagogue with my good friend S. to review what we worked on last week. During that session we used clicker training for targeting the handrail leading up the bima steps. In case you aren’t familiar with this amazing training strategy, it involves a bell, a clicker, and a bag of goodies. The bell is fastened to the target– in this case, the handrail. A goody is offered at the target, and when the dog rings the bell, even accidentally at first, the clicker is sounded and a goody is given. Each time the bell rings, there is a click and a goody. Bell, click, goody. Bell, clicke, goody. After about 15 times, the bell-click-goody pattern is so anchored into the dog’s memory that you advance to the next step.

Step two involves moving a few paces back from the target, and giving the command. The word for this command is the Dutch word for find, zuk. If you have worked the first phase properly, at this point the dog rushes to the target to ring the bell, to hear the click, to get the goody. This is repeated a few times, moving back further and further from the target. Eventually the target is removed entirely and the clicker put away. The command is given and the team finds the target.

Aries loves this game. At The Seeing Eye, I used the technique for the elevator n the building, my dinner chair in the dining room, even a trash can when visiting a local college campus. In every one of these situations, Aries did a great job. My confidence knew no bounds. Maybe we would even try the clicker to locate the handrail when returning to my seat.

We drove to the building and got out of the car. This time I decided to see how Aries would do with the wheelchair ramp. Spot on. S unlocked the door and we all entered. Aries had no problem getting me to the sanctuary doors. She even moved me around a table which was very much out of place. Once inside, Aries took me to a seat for a brief pause. Then the moment of truth. Would she hit the target?

I stood. Aries stood. “Forward,” I said, and when we were within view of the handrail, “zuk”.

Bingo!

My right hand touched the rail and up we went.

But before we could do anything else, we were interrupted by a fellow congregant who had come to the building to work with the AV equipment used for broadcasting services over ZOOM. Oh well. We exited and regrouped.

We moved easily out the sanctuary, out the door, down the wheelchair ramp toward the parking lot. But before leaving the premises entirely, I proposed we try heading for home. I heeled Aries and walked human guide with S across part of the parking lot, across first one concrete island then another and part of the way home. Then we turned around and S took her place behind my right shoulder to coach. Aries stepped up. She pushed into the harness and we were off

I could feel her happy excitement as she followed my commands, first “Forward”, then “Right”. She stopped to show me the curb onto the first island. Then the down curb. Then the up curb. Then the down. Across the remaining parking lot and up the curb cut to the ramp. Up the ramp, pulling– pulling all the way to the door.

What a champ! I can’t wait to see where we go next time!

Aries and I: August 10

Tuesday morning Aries and I stepped out for our first trip to the synagogue. My girlfriend picked us up at 10 am and we drove to TBS. She informed office staff what we were doing, then the fun began.

Before we started, Aries donned her gentle leader , which always calms her down a bit and allows me more control. Then Aeries and I found the stairs, ascended and went inside as S held the door open.

With her assistance, we heeled lacrosse the foyer to the sanctuary door where I heaped on the praise for Aries. Then we heeled back to the door out and praised.

Next Aries and I crossed the foyer to the sanctuary solo as S spotted us. Perfecto!

Back to the door out. Perfecto.

We did this a couple of times and it was obvious how proud Aries was of doing good work. S told me later that at first Aries was looking all around, but then got into the groove and just got down to business.

After repeating the first phase, we ventured into the sanctuary and to my seat in the second row. This we did with my friend simply coaching us, and after a time or two Aries moved to the next phase, the bima.

The bima is the platform at the front of the sanctuary where the Ark containing the Torah scrolls is the central focus. There, too, stand the two tables from which reading takes place. One approaches by way of two steps, and the handrail is centrally situated. This handrail was my target.

We practice going up and coming back to my seat to settle calmly, and Aries did a pretty good job. Then we practiced exiting the sanctuary and heading for the door outside. Great work all around.

Finally, the social hall. The area all the way across the foyer from the sanctuary, where folks gather for food after services, and for meetings and other events. Aries not only managed to take me from the sanctuary to the social hall, but to a table and chair. Talk about a proud puppy!

I was pretty pleased myself!!

We have plans to return later this week for a review. This time we’ll see how Aries does without the gentle leader.

Aries and I: August 8

Aries and I have been home for over three weeks now, and we continue to learn something new every day.

I admit to being a bit apprehensive as the date for our family barbecue approached. Aries did not seem as connected to me as I thought she should be, not as responsive to my commands at home. How could I expect better behavior somewhere unfamiliar?

In fact, I had been feeling quite discouraged at the beginning of the week. Aries was obviously infatuated with my husband. What I mean is, she thought it was a party, a time of great joy and celebration whenever he came near. After all, he was always doing something interesting–watering plants, going in and out the door to deal with sprinklers or hummingbirds,and especially the car. And speaking of the car, he was the one who made it go , transporting Aries and me to places of wonder and adventure, places like the pet store where all those amazing sights and smells abide!

For his part, J was trying very hard not to be so interesting. He kept eye contact to a minimum, and limited signs of affection. But he was with us on our walks, and everywhere else we went together.

At last, I made a plan. I shifted the orientation and mobility work to my former instructor, and asked my friend to assist with acquainting Aries with the synagogue building. Then I phoned The Seeing Eye for their wisdom.

“Trust your gut,” I was told. New guides often become overly attached to spouses who drive. Extra time and the changes I had initiated would probably improve the situation.

So with my newfound confidence in hand, we arrived at the barbecue. Family members had been notified not to interact with Aries unless I said it was okay. They did a great job of keeping their distance, and limiting eye contact. Even my six-year-old grandson controlled his urge to pet Aries.

We had a wonderful time chatting and enjoying a pleasant, sunny afternoon. Aries barked a couple of times at my son’s cat as she stalked a nearby butterfly, but otherwise remained very well-mannered and calm. When things were just about to wind up, I informed the gang they could interact with my girl.

One by one they came forward. As long as she lay quietly at my feet she was permitted to meet them, to receive their pets and sweet words. And when we got home, she was permitted to receive my husband’s affection as well.

My confidence in our team is much sturdier as this week begins. Aries is finding her place…as we all are.

Wishing you sweetness always!

Aries and I: July 24

Just in case you are wondering, Aries and I took Saturday off as well as Thursday which was the first trashday since coming home. It just seemed like too much of a challenge to deal with all those obstacles right away. But Friday when we went out, some thoughtful neighbor had left his trash can out as a bit of a test for us, and Aries did a great job. She stopped, let me check the reason, then masterfully took me around the barrier.

Today was the first Coaching trip without the gentle leader. My golden gal started out rather wildly, but toned it down to a bounce when told to steady. She did walk past a curb, and led me to a driveway once when crossing. These mistakes were reworked and the outcome was good.

And oh what a love-fest we had upon our return home!

As I write this update, Aries is now having a wonderful chew on the mighty bone.

Each day is certainly a sweet surprise with this lively canine partner of mine.

Aries And I: July 21

Since returning home last Thursday, Aries and I have been getting to know the neighborhood a little better each day. Walking sighted guide, she has followed my command to sit at curb-cuts while I heaped on the praise. We traced the route a few times heading left out the driveway, then a few more heading right.

Well yesterday, we advanced to the second stage, coaching. With Aries in harness, we walked the route together, a human coach behind my right shoulder so as not to distract my working dog. His job was merely to point out our errors, like an overstepped curb-cut or the reason for unauthorized sniffing.

Aries was a masterful guide!

She missed a couple of curb-cuts, but once we reworked these she sailed on like a pro.

And oh the feeling of freedom!

When we reached our front door at last, you can believe there was a whole lot of whooping and wagging!

We’ve only been home a week, and I can’t imagine walking anywhere without her.

*4 doggy pawprints beside 2 human footprints*

Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid

Some things are better left unsaid

And some are best unheard

Rocks rattling inside my head

Could likely stone some bird

A faulty syllable left unchecked

Unweighed before delivery

Can never make itself erect

Or make a claim at chivalry

Love’s hand may seek to soothe the place

Where barbs have ripped assunder

My beloved’s gentle face

But my heart breaks at the blunder