Awoke to a chill in the air, the doona pulled up tight to my chin, and the sun not quite breaking through the last of the greying light. As I rolled over and settled down to enjoy my last moments in bed, the realisation that today was progression day rolled over me and with it all the emotions that came with knowing that today I would say goodbye to my precious little Annie as she begins the next adventure in her life.
What is progression day you are probably asking. Progression Day is the day when our pups for the vision impaired move on to the next stage of their training. This also means that they move on from us, move back to the training centre full time and move on to a new trainer.
My little Annie is my third pup that I have trained and looked after for the first 12 months of their life. These beautiful souls move into our lives and into our hearts at around 8 weeks of age and live with us till they are around 12 months of age.
They arrive as these gorgeous little bundles of fluff, short stumpy little legs, which they still wobble on from time to time, and these eyes that just look up at you with love and trust from the moment they are placed in your arms.
Little Annie also came to us as quite a vocal little girl for the first 6 weeks. Vocal when she wanted my attention, vocal when she was playing with my other beautiful Golden Retriever, vocal when she wanted her breakfast, lunch and dinner and vocal when she was first placed into her crate at night to go to sleep. All this gave me was absolute joy at what a fiesty, no nonscense girl she was with a big attitude who knew what she wanted when she wanted it. Our job, when she was vocalising her demands, was to ignore her. Completely pretend like we couldn't hear a thing and just keep on keeping on with what we were doing. Show her any attention whatsoever to what she was doing and for her she would have scored a win. Sometimes at night while watching TV, little Annie would plant her stumpy legs at the side of the couch and look up at you with those amazing eyes of hers and start hammering on about how she was there, right there, why aren't you looking at me, why aren't you falling under my spell, why, why, why. I am cute, I am gorgeous, I am HERE damn you.
Annie also had an interest in the washing, when the washing was being placed in the machine, while it was in the machine and when it was coming out of the machine and placed in the basket. Left to her own devices she would plant herself in the washing basket, on top of the newly clean clothes and settle down as if this was the most wonderful place for her to have one of her many morning naps.
Rides in the car also proved to be a time when Annie felt she needed to "chat" to you while driving along. Unfortunately, her chatter was very loud and very high pitched and it didn't take long, by the time I got to the first corner, when I had had enough of the stories she was trying to tell me. Or perhaps she was demanding to know where I think I was taking her without her permission. Thankfully this entertainment during car trips didn't last for too long at all and she quickly learnt to lay down in the footwell and enjoy a nap before we reached our destination.
Mostly we always start our pups off with visits to the shopping centres. Short visits at first to get them used to the noise and the hustle and bustle of all those human feet rushing past. Can you imagine what it is like down at "dog level"?, it's pretty intimidating really. We also get them onto the travelators pretty quickly as well. Up and down we go, over and over again till they are flying on and off without any hesitation and with confidence. If we have to, get those toys out and play like clowns as we go up and down up and down and plenty plenty of treats until those travelators are the coolest things to have a ride on.
Settling at the shops is also one of the first things we practise on a daily basis as well. Grab a cup of coffee and a seat and sit there until the pup gives you a beautiful settle in the down/stay position and if really in the zone, you will find them enjoying a kip while you enjoy your coffee. Of course not all pups do this in a hurry, they are after all only 8 weeks old and shopping centres are so exciting, so interesting, or in some cases, a scary place.
These pups are with us 24/7. They go everywhere we go, joined at the hip almost. They live indoors with you mostly and they follow you everywhere there too. The toilet is not the private place it used to be or the shower. I have three girls, who all at the same time love to come and place their cold wet noses in your lap while you sit on the toilet trying to get the business done.
Our job as puppy raisers, is to get these little guys used to the big bad world. Get them used to going to most places a normal dog would never even dream of going. Trains, buses, shops, movies, taxi's, water taxi's. Riding in elevators, riding the travelators and escalators. We teach them to stop at all curbs, do stair work in a calm, relaxed, steady pace. We teach them sits, sit waits, downs, down/stays, upsits, stand, step waits and the list goes on and on. We teach them to only ever toilet at home (unless out for the whole day) never to toilet on a residential walk. To walk in a heal position where the lead is in a J lead position, no tention. There are many many many commands these pups learn in their year stay with us that become the base tools they will take with them in their journey to becoming the eyes for those without sight or very little sight.
We, as pup raisers, are approached by members of the public for many different reasons. We have the ones who just want to pet and talk to the dogs, the ones who want to abuse you for putting these pups to work in job that is so demanding, the ones who ask the strangest of questions like "how do they know when you are grocery shopping that you want apples, or bread or milk". The main question of course is "how on earth do you give them back, I just couldn't do it" This question/comment, comes at us a bit hard as pup raisers, as we feel it is almost like people are accusing us of being hard hearted which is the only reason why we could do the job, if we loved these pups then we couldn't give them back so easily.
Easy is not a word we would ever associate with handing these beautiful souls back after having them apart of our life for almost 12 months, and let me assure you, the more you do the harder it gets, not the other way around. These guys grab a hold of your heart and the love you feel for them is forever and it is immense. We spend so much more time with these pups than the normal pet owner would with theirs, and I mean that with no offence, it's just fact.
But also let me assure you that in the end, these pups decide whether living their life as a guide dog is the life for them. All of their training is based on positive teaching, positive learning. Everything is placed in front of them and presented to them in a positive nature as well as dealing with behaviour issues etc etc. Their is no hitting, no rough treatment. It is positive reward all the way. And at the end of the day, they let you know without a shadow of a doubt if this is the life for them. Once they reach their intensive training and even more "pressure" for want of a better word is placed on them, they either thrive or withdraw. These pups are never forced to do anything they are not prepared and happy to do.
My second pup in training Weezer, was one such pup. She is now back with us, living it up as just your everyday happy as a clown dog. She made it through training beautifully until all support was starting to be withdrawn and she was given whole control over all decision making. This was too much responsibility for my girl and she went no further. Other pups, like my first girl and I believe my current little Annie, thrive on the responsibility, love going out every chance they get, and have all the confidence in the world, nothing fazes them.
These pups are loved, they are treated with the upmost respect and admiration, as it should be. When attending a graduation ceremony, which celebrates the coming together of a blind client and their new guiding dog, the stories these people tell of how these dogs change their lives in the most amazing ways, making our sad parting, all worth it and more. These pups give the clients their life back, they give them back their confidence, and their independance and as one young 18 year old client told us this year, a great chick magnet.
And so for me today, comes the sad parting of ways for myself and little Annie. She is moving toward a higher purpose and I feel that she is going to thrive. She was born to do this job. Not only will she go on to guide someone safely through their day to day life, but she will become the most loving companion to them at the same time.
I stand before my supervisors, the trainers, my fellow pup raisers, and guide dog staff, to celebrate my journey with Annie, the highs, the lows, the laughs, the tears. I look down into my little girls face and see the love and intelligence there. I see the happiness by the mad shaking of her tail as Tracey, her new trainer comes over to take the reins as it were.
This little girl loves me like no other, I know this. I know that she will take a piece of my heart with her wherever she goes and that I will take a piece of hers as well. I have not only taught her the many different ways of life, but she, as they all do, teach me lessons that will stay with me for the remainder of my life.
I bend down and envelope her in my arms. She buries her head into my should and blows her soft breath into my neck. She licks my cheek and then my nose and her whole body wags with love. I do not cry in front of her. I do not want her to think there is anything sad about her moving on. I want her to walk away from me with the excitement of adventure to come, of a new chapter starting in her young life. I know she is in good hands. I know I will hear of her progress on a regular basis and I know that she is such a happy contented little girl that life ahead for her will be wonderful.
This may not be the most exciting chapter to read about Mary May, but it is the biggest and most important part of her life, my life. It is was fills me with great joy. It makes me feel that I am giving something back to the world, helping those less fortunate than myself. And for the 12 months those pups are a part of my life, I know they are loved in the best way possible, loved heart and soul.
There is so much more to say of these amazing pups and their journey in the guiding life, but for now I will leave it there. Just know, that this part of Mary's life is not tale, it is all truth.
n.b. if any of my readers ever want to ask me anything about guide dogs please feel free to message me.