Welcome Breezie! – Guide Dog Home Training

yellow lab in guide dog harness lying on a hardwood floor

In January this year, I began my application with the Guide Dog Foundation for my next guide dog. While Tom was still doing just fine, I noticed he wasn’t as keen as he’d usually been about winter. So I decided it was going to be the last winter I asked him to work. Tom is now retired, and only has to go out in the snow and cold when he wants (which seems to be about never as of right now! He’s going to be sooo annoyed that a blizzard it set to dump a lot of snow on us tonight).

Of course Covid hit a few weeks after I was placed on the wait list. I figured I’d be waiting a long, long time. Thus my surprise to get a call October 30th from two GDF trainers to talk to me about a potential match!

Normally, guide dog matching is shrouded in secrecy. But Covid has changed many things. The Foundation is currently only doing home trainings and the instructors wanted to confirm I would be ok with training with covid restrictions, and be ok being matched with a female (I had requested another male). I learned then the dog was a female yellow lab, who was confident, quick, had a nice consistent strong harness pull and was a bright, enthusiastic learner. Everything they described sounded great, so the decision was made to go ahead so long as the dog continued to do well in the 2nd half of her training and the states didn’t shut down.

She indeed did do extremely well with the remainder of her training. And the governor didn’t shut the state down. Therefore, on Dec 7 the instructors arrived in MA and as of yesterday we have completed formal training! Let me introduce Breezie!

yellow Labrador lying on a blue carpet

She is a wonderful girl and once again the Guide Dog Foundation exceeded my expectations with the match, the training and the on class (home training) experience. In the past decade the organization has made some pretty major changes in their training philosophy, management style and apprenticeship program, all for the better in my opinion. The instructors I worked with were fantastic, Breezie is amazing and overall I had a very enjoyable 9 days of home training. If anyone is looking for a non-profit to support, I cannot say enough good things about the Guide Dog Foundation.

For those who might be interested, I did a little chronicle of our days of training below.

The week before training:

My girl passed her final evaluations in NY! Let the count down begin! I got a Covid test. Had a pre-class phone call with the instructors to hash out a loose plan. Cleaned and new-dog-proofed the house while we were in proactive self-quarantine. GDF was taking as many covid precautions as possible while still being able to go forward with training. We would all wear N-95 masks, wash our hands/use hand sanitizer frequently, the van would be disinfected daily, daily covid screening and temp checks, the vast majority of training would take place outside, and we would avoid contact with other people as much as possible. I then spoiled Tom and Zora since they are going to of course now have a new housemate. Tried to imagine what my dog’s name might be (that’s one thing they held on to until just before I got her).

Home Training Day 1:

In the need for simplicity, we decided to send Zora to my sister’s for the first few days of training, so it would just be us, Tom and the new pup. Home training will be 4hrs either in the morning or afternoon (the instructors have another local student they are working with on the off period). We dropped Z off, then came back home for me to try (fail) to get any work done before the instructors arrived a few hours later. My primary instructor is a newer apprentice, hence why her supervisor also came out.

The instructors arrived, we did the daily covid screening (questions, temp check, etc) and then they gave her to me! She’s lovely! Breezie is light, almost white, yellow color, with a pink nose, and she’s a petite 57#. She’s very enthusiastic, wiggly and bouncy. We did a bit of meet and greet, then hopped in the van to drive to a quiet place for our 1st walk. The instructor and I did some Juno work (ie making sure I remember the footwork for turns, various verbal and hand signal cues that the Foundation teaches, etc), then harnessed her up.

The 1st routes were amazing! Breezie is fast, and super responsive. Very easy for me to follow and reinforce. She worked like a champ! I’m super happy with her!

Back home we introduced her to Tom. Tom was not convinced she was all that grand, but was willing to be in the living room with us and her so that’s a first day win. We then spent a quiet night resting. We were both exhausted.

Day 2: Well I learned Breezie snores. Like a chainsaw. This morning she and I worked obedience before I gave her free run in the yard where she and I played a bit of fetch which she liked. She can get a bit impatient when asked to wait, she wants to get moving! so she and I worked on waiting for release cues. She spent some time in her crate while I took Tom for a walk, then hung out at my feet while I got work done until training began at noon. She has really really nice house manners, the puppy raiser did a good job!

yellow Labrador lies sleeping soundly on a blue dog bed surrounded by various dog toys

For training, today we went to a neighborhood I often walk in. Yesterday’s route there were no curbs, sidewalks or street crossings. Today we were in a true neighborhood with sidewalks, curbs, streets and blocks. We started with Juno again so I could learn what Breezie has been taught for performance management and obstacles. This is something that has changed with the Foundation from a student instruction standpoint. We used Juno quite a bit in the first week of training to give me an opportunity to really get the mechanics straight before I worked with Breezie. I found this a great addition as it lessened confusion for Breezie since I was able to learn what she already knew first. I then worked her on the blocks and eventually walked back home. Overall it went really well. Her pace and pull were spot on. She’s very conscientious and doesn’t make the same errors twice. Also, she does overhead obstacles!! Something Tom has never really mastered. On the route home we had a dog distraction, which I felt went well. She’s definitely more distracted than Tom ever has been by other dogs, but she kept her head and was able to work past it.

Breezie and I also started to work on her targeting. She LOVES to target. She will now target my front steps, the back door, the deck steps and put her head into her harness on verbal cue. Each of those she grasped in 3-5 reps, so I was impressed with her on that.

Day 3: Our morning was similar routine as yesterday. I had more computer work that needed to get done, and Breezie was excellent at just snoring on her bed for a couple of hours. The afternoon training session we worked at the outside shopping plaza a couple of blocks from my house. This dog blows me away. A person she’s known not even 3 full days, new place to work with many challenges and distractions, and she was a rock star! Really, really happy with her today! And she found our driveway on the 1st try!

After a short break we went back to the neighborhood we were at yesterday and worked on distractions. There were a couple of people walking their dogs, and then the trainers set up toys and food for us to practice working around. Breezie was super. She definitely has the propensity to get distracted, but she worked really hard and was successful much of the time at keeping her focus on task. Really proud of her.

GDF then set up a zoom meeting for all of the retrains (people who’ve previously had guide dogs) currently going through home training. It was nice to chat with them all

Day 4: We worked the morning half of the day, bright and early 7:30am we were headed to Target to work elevators and escalators. I was warned that Breezie thinks escalators are an amazing fun carnival ride, they weren’t kidding. Her enthusiasm for escalators makes me so happy!

Due to Breezie’s escalator love, the instructors had us just target the escalator foot plate, not ride the escalator today. They were concerned if Breezie got to ride the 1st escalator she saw with me, she’d think she gets to ride every escalator we ever find. (I told Breezie we can ride as many escalators as she wants in our life together lol). So instead we rode the elevator and then will come back to actually ride the escalator tomorrow. The way I prefer a dog to indicate we have reached an escalator is different than how Breezie learned, so we worked on her indicating the metal foot plate first, then showing me the handrail. She had been taught to just show me the handrail. Similarly, she’d been taught to find just the center of the elevator doors, not the elevator buttons. We worked on her targeting the buttons for me, as well as teaching her to find trash cans (a very useful skill!)

Inside Target, we practiced moving turns and building work. Breezie started off kind of floating through the turns which I wasn’t keen on. After a brain storm with the instructors, we were able to tighten up the turns in a way that was easier for me to feel. We also worked on people and cart avoidance. Breezie needs a bit more confidence and practice with moving me to the right around things, and we’ll make a point to practice that with her more over the next couple of days.

The 2nd half of our session, we returned to yesterday’s outdoor shopping plaza to do more of a solo route. The instructors gave minimal feedback, instead letting Breezie and I work things out ourselves as much as safely possible. I think it went really well. Yesterday we had some right side clearance obstacles to rework that seemed to make Breezie really think and figure out how much clearance she needs to give me. Today she was much improved on them, especially the ones where there was an obstacle to her left and one to my right. She didn’t make any of the same errors as yesterday, and only a couple of new errors. I love her thinking and figuring it out. As I said she is very conscientious and a quick study. I was also pleased she remembered all of target spots we introduced to her yesterday. In the shopping plaza route there are some challenging curb cuts and bits through parking lots. She nailed those spot on. I love a dog with a good memory! The walk home we had her wear her boots in prep for a winter of salted walk ways in the near future. The instructors did an excellent job desensitizing her to wearing them while she was in training with them.

We ended Day 4 at the train station I use most often. It was eye opening for the instructors since the station lay out is nothing like those on Long Island. The way GDF teaches the dogs and wants students to do train station platform work is impossible with this station lay out. They had me show them how I do it, and agreed it was the safest way. A good way to end the day.

Day 5: We began the morning back at Target to actually ride the escalator. I brought along a small front foot plexiglass target I have to make it easier for Breezie to learn to put her 2 front feet just barely at the start of the metal foot plate. We struggled a bit with getting her to understand that’s where we want her feet the day before. The target helped a lot (it clicks when stepped on) and we were able to fade it quickly. After riding her favorite carnival ride (the escalator), we reviewed trash can and elevator button targets from the day before. And practiced harness work and heeling with a shopping cart.

Since I often use the follow cue in stores and Breezie had not yet been taught it, we introduced that to her as well. She figured it out in about 3 min, smartie pants.

Next we headed to the house we’re in the process of purchasing to work on the route to the train station there. (Yes, pandemic, buying a house, new guide dog, and oh it’s end of grad school term also. Nothing like shoving it all in at once). The way parking lots are taught now is very different than when I was last a GDF. Since I walk through a small apartment multi car lot on the route to the train I was able to practice the new method. Breezie is to indent around vehicles when there are more than 2 parking spaces open between cars, take me to the curb, follow the curb, then go around the next car we reach. That pattern is continued until we reach the end of the lot.

She did excellent work on the route to the train. We taught her a couple of spots to target as landmarks. On the route back, she remembered all of them!

After a short rest at the nearby little grassy area with park benches, we introduced the route to the bike path. A few blocks from the new house is a 1.5 mile paved bike and walking path through the woods. I anticipate waking on it often so was good to teach Breezie how to get there. The route has some very flat no landmark curb cuts that I have trouble finding. Breezie thought they were a breeze to find, no problem.

The instructors also gave me the a-ok to work Breezie outside of our half day sessions with the instructors. This was excellent news! That evening my spouse and I were able to take both Breezie and Tom for a walk. Tom walks farther and gets more exercise when I’m there too, so it was win-win for all.

Day 6: Today was a big day for a few reasons. First, the guide dog manager came out from NY for a few days as there are a couple of different home trainings happening in New England and observed our session (turns out, she’s a lovely person, super nice, approachable, and I enjoyed talking with her). Second, we spent much of the morning at the park working on dog distractions. And third, Zora came home. It could not have gone better!!! If I didn’t already think Breezie was a rock star, I would after today. We began at another local train station that has a double track. This was as close a simulation to South Station track set up as we could get without actually going into Boston (which I said no to due to the high covid #s). Breezie found the overpass stairs, rocked the double track set up, and acted like she’d worked the station many times before.

From there we headed to a large, open space park that I knew had high chance of dogs and people. I also seeded the park with people I knew well. It went fantastic. Having a couple of dogs there I knew with people I trusted made working on passing people/dogs much easier. My mum came with her VetDog puppy, which was a great bouncy distraction. (My mum is a puppy raiser now for the GDF sister organization, America’s VetDogs). A friend of mine came with her dog that loves me so he barked when he saw me. Plus there were people and their on-leash dogs there enjoying the park too. My sister and young nieces also came, the kids were so good. The whole time we were at the park, Breezie kept her head in the game, only got slightly more than minorly distracted once, and we were all super impressed with her.

While we were at the park, my spouse was wearing Zora out. Having spent the week at my sister’s, Zora needed a good long walk. I arrived back home, left Breezie in the van, said hi to Zora, then harnessed Breezie back up and we all went for a short walk together. This gave the girls a chance to practice ignoring each other and Breezie to keep her brain in her head. Back home, we introduced the girls in the back yard before taking them inside. Things have been surprisingly sane since. They both took nice long naps and have been just chilling in each other’s presence. Score!

black retriever Tom, yellow Labrador Breezie and black and white corgi Zora all sit next to each other on the green lawn

Day 7: Today we were back to training in the afternoons. The morning was spent checking some items off my work and home to-do list. The 3 dogs have been doing swimmingly together so far. I was even able to play a bit of fetch with both girls. They each stayed with their own ball and me as the center. Excellent! Zora’s occasional alarm bark does get Breezie going. Zora barks and Breezie rushes over to investigate as well. So we are working on Breezie not following Zora’s lead or getting involved.

For afternoon training, we headed back to the new house and worked a few routes there. To the pond. And to the walking trail through the woods. Many dog, bike, and people distractions which Breezie kept her head and focus on task through it all. Yay!

We also had a challenging off curb obstacle where a utility truck was blocking the way, a fence gate was open and it all dumped us into a parking lot. The instructors were impressed with Breezie’s problem solving as she figured it out like the pro she is.

We then took our official photo together. And signed the transfer of ownership paperwork. Breezie is now officially my dog! In going over the vet report I learned Breezie had her second birthday while we were training, Dec 10th!

To finish up day 7, we did our night walk up to the shopping plaza and back. While we were there we spent a short time in the pet store to practice with those distractions. Despite the enticing smells and some barking stressed out dogs, Breezie behaved herself rather well. Overall a good day!

Day 8: 2nd to last day of training and it was a hot mess! While there were some positives: she did great at the off curb obstacles and sidewalk-less work we did, overall the afternoon ended feeling like a major trash fire. Such a mess that we decided tomorrow, the last day of training, we would go into down town Boston. As mentioned earlier, I was trying to avoid Boston with the high covid risks, but I needed to regain my confidence in her. If we could handle my usual routes in Boston, then I knew we would be able to handle anything.

When we got home from training, Breezie and I snuggled on her dog bed and had a heart to heart. Hopefully tomorrow will be a better day!

A highlight of day 8 was having a zoom meeting with Breezie’s puppy raiser. Breezie was raised in Georgia on a college campus and was this raiser’s 2nd puppy. I learned Breezie was raised with another dog in the home, that she loves to swim, and it was confirmed she loved to play as a puppy (she works hard and she plays hard, every day). I’m glad her raiser got to see her (albeit through video).

Day 9: A challenge of yesterday was Breezie not realizing she could back me up. Therefore, the day began with some training. I set up a back up channel with the fence and some lawn chairs that ended in the fence. Once we reached the fence I cued forward, the only way to then go was backwards. When she took steps back as she’d been trained, I praised and rewarded the heck out of her. We then did it with the spouse pushing the wheeled trash barrel towards us. After a few reps, Breezie was intentionally backing me out of the way as she’d been taught when she was in formal training with the instructors.

After signing our life away to the bank (we closed on the new house!) it was off to Boston. Where Breezie was perfect. Beyond perfect! We had traffic checks, people on their phones cutting us off, dogs lunging on leashes, bikes, and brazen “I move for no one” pigeons. Breezie showed me straight up she loves the city, and is a master at keeping us safe from idiot drivers, tourists, egotistical bicyclists and treating pigeons as obstacles despite her knowing they can actually fly. After the 1st traffic check where a motorist decided to drive diagonally through the intersection directly towards us on the sidewalk, and Breezie not only refused my forward cue (I thought the person was going in the direction all the other traffic was!) but moved me decisively far far away from the car, my trust and confidence in Breezie was instantly recovered. Thank the freaking stars!

We wrapped up our Boston travels by walking along the wharf where Breezie adamantly refused to take me anywhere near the edge of the pier to the aquarium to visit the outdoor harbor seal exhibit. Breezie was adorable. Curious about the seals, who were equally curious about her, then settling down to just hang out at my side. It was a wonderful way to end the day, to end a great team training and to start what will hopefully a long, happy partnership with Breezie! (now to keep our fingers crossed we don’t end up with covid…)

yellow lab in guide dog harness lying on a hardwood floor

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