Neutron in Time Square

Jameyanne standing in front of a crowd in Time Square with Neutron at her side. Both person and puppy are smiling.As I write this, I’m flying home from Seeing Eye, with Neutron at my feet under the seat in front of me. This is Neutron’s first plane flight. I’m glad to be going home, but this has really been a fabulous class with a great group of people, and I’m not sure I’m ready to get back to the real world. There have been a lot of things I’ve been putting off while I’m here, saying I’ll deal with it when I’m back from Seeing Eye. Well, I’m almost back from Seeing Eye, so now I’m going to have to deal with all that stuff. (Note: At the time I’m posting this, I’ve arrived home, been mobbed by dogs, and started unpacking, organizing my life, and catching up on sleep).

 

I’ll talk about arriving home in the future, when I’m awake enough to string two words together. This post is about my last week of training with Neutron.

 

We cruised through our second solo. There were a lot of challenges: dog distractions, planned and spontaneous; an idling bus sticking out of a driveway; the facial salon Neutron was intent on taking me into; people not looking where they were going and nearly mowing us down. Neutron was fabulous the whole way through, and we had a lot of fun. I’m not sure when, but somewhere between our first solo and our second, things really clicked into place for us and we just started zooming along.

 

After our solo, we began freelance work. During freelance, we did some standard things as well as work that was similar to what we might face at home.

 

We started with escalators. Yes, it is possible to take a dog on an escalator, and no, the dog doesn’t have to wear shoes to do it (though I must say Neutron has some super snazzy shoes for snow storms and extra hot summer days). The trick with escalators is to keep your dog resting at your left side and reach out along the railing with your right hand, and the second you feel the railing start to flatten, you and your dog start moving and walk off the escallator. If your dog is moving, there’s no chance of their feet getting caught. Neutron is a huge fan of escalators. His tail was wagging all the way, and when we got off, he was all wriggly and prancy because he did it right.

 

Revolving doors didn’t go so well. On our second morning of freelance, we went to do revolving doors. I never learned how to do revolving doors with Mopsy—I always took the regular door—and once I found myself in a situation where the regular door was locked and the security guard refused to open it for me, so we had to wing the revolving door and it stressed everybody out. So I wanted to make sure I actually learned how to work Neutron through a revolving door. We practiced primarily on manual revolving doors, the kind you push. The trick with these is to keep your dog on your right side, rather than your left, so they’re in the widest part of the door. Keep them up as close to the glass in front of you as possible, and push the door with your left hand. I didn’t do so well my first try, and I accidently bumped Neutron’s butt with the door, which caused him to get nervous and not trust me so much on revolving doors. The second time I did better. And yesterday, we went to another, bigger door to practice on (because I wanted more practice to feel confident), and we nailed it. Neutron was super happy about it. We learned how to do the automatic revolving doors too, but we didn’t actually practice on them, and honestly those freak me out so we’re going to generally stick with the regular door to the side, which by law they have to have (so there, random security guard who wouldn’t let me in with Mopsy).

 

We also did work on roads with no sidewalks—country work. Neutron and I walk on the left side of the road, so we’re facing oncoming traffic and I’m between Neutron and the traffic (I’m  more visible and it makes Neutron feel safer). We went to a grocery store and practiced using a cart with Neutron. I said it seven years ago and I’ll say it again: there’s a reason I didn’t pass driver’s ed. We wandered through the Morristown courthouse, which was a maze of interconnected buildings with lots of trick staircases and short turns and narrow hallways. We also went to the pet store, where I got Neutron another bone and an ID tag and we worked through all the distractions (there was literally a wall of dogs). We worked on how to deal with medians in the middle of streets, and we cruised around a shopping mall where we practiced getting directions for different stores and in general dealing with the public. Personally, I prefer Amazon, but we found Neutron some nice lacrosse balls to play with, and we fended off small children who wanted to pet him and people who were trying to take sneaky pictures of him. Folks, I can hear your phone make the little camera noise and I will chew you out for it, because taking pictures of my dog can distract him and possibly endanger my safety, and also it’s just rude and an invasion of my privacy. Flip the situation and ask how you would feel if someone was sneakily taking pictures of you without asking and you get it. Just don’t do it. Rant over.

 

We worked with buses and trains as well, and we used the clicker to get Neutron to target the bus stop (more training me to use the clicker than Neutron). We did a trip in downtown Morristown at night, so I could practice with Neutron when my residual vision isn’t nearly as good, and we rocked it. And of course, we took a couple trips to get ice cream, because ice cream is life and we had to make sure Neutron had proper exposure to ice cream shops with me.

 

Finally, we went to New York City for a day. We started at Port Authority and walked down to 30th Street, where we encountered a lot of construction. I wanted some construction work because there’s a lot of construction in Boston. We worked on how to deal with construction that blocked the sidewalk and funneled you out into the street with a barrier between you and the cars, as well as scaffolding slalom, both things I had to handle this summer on my way to my internship. Then we took the subway up to Columbus Circle. In the subway station, we worked on platform awareness with the dogs in the subway. If you tell the dog forward thinking you’re facing the way to go but you’re actually facing the platform, the dog won’t take you into the platform but will steer you right or left, guiding you along the platform. Neutron brought me close, following my direction, saw the edge, went “oh nope,” and then steered me away. When I insisted, he steered me even farther away from it. All indicators that, if I was confused and thought I was heading somewhere else but was really facing the platform, I would need to reassess where I was. We also did more practice with the clicker, teaching Neutron to target the turnstile to get onto the platform. When we got out at Columbus Circle, Neutron took me right to the turnstiles even though it was a totally different station. From Columbus Circle we walked down Broadway to Time Square, where we worked through the crowds of people and dogs over to a burger place for lunch. And after lunch, we walked back down to Port Authority and went back to the Seeing Eye. Neutron was just flying through New York, weaving around pedestrians, poles, dogs, pigeons, bicycles, mail carts, gratings, and the one guy in a wheelchair with three off-leash chihuahuas in sweater vests. It was really an incredible experience, and I feel like if we could handle that, we can definitely take on Boston.

 

It’s taken me longer to write this than anticipated, because Neutron was a bit anxious during take-off and landing on the plane (it was his first flight and there were so many noises so he tried to climb into my lap). But he was zooming through the airport. I can’t wait to get home so I can see Mopsy again and Neutron can meet her and our pet black lab, Rocket. We’re going to have a relaxing couple of weeks as much as we can, letting Neutron settle in and get familiar with home and my new apartment at school.

 

It’s the sleep-deprivation talking, I’m sure, but all of this still feels really surreal to me. I just can’t believe that I went to Seeing Eye, was matched with this super smart, sweet, curious little boy, and now I’m almost home with him. But we did it. For me, training at Seeing Eye this time was almost all about learning to listen to this new dog, and this new dog learning to work with you. Training’s over now. We’re a team, and off we go.

Neutronian Physics

Picture of me sitting on the wall outside the downtown training center with Neutron at my feet with a big puppy grin on his face. Exactly one week ago, I was matched with my second Seeing Eye dog. He’s a sweet little black lab golden retriever cross named Neutron. He’s 22.5 inches tall and weighs 55 pounds, and he’ll turn two years old in September. So he’s roughly the same size as Mopsy. I’m actually told that he bears a striking resemblance to Mopsy (based on the pictures I’ve sent home).

 

It’s hard to believe I’ve only been working with Neutron for a week. It feels like it’s been at least a month, if not longer. Part of that is because I’m tired. We’ve been going from before 5:30 in the morning to after 8:00 at night with very little time to stop, and the last few days the heat has been incredible.

 

In our first week of training, we do set routes with our dogs. The first route was a big rectangle—down four blocks, left for one block, up five blocks, left one block, and then left again to find the training center. At first we did it with our instructor coaching us through each crossing. Then our instructor backed off until, Sunday morning, we were doing it completely independently. There was a barricade and a planned dog distraction we had to work past as well, but otherwise it was pretty straightforward, and I could focus on learning to feel Neutron’s signals through the harness rather than on where I was going. Even though I know how to work a dog now, Neutron is still different from Mopsy, and we need to learn how to dance together.

 

After our successful solo Sunday morning, we started our second set route. This one was more complicated both in terms of the crossings and obstacles and the general orientation. It’s like a quarter of a pie with a hook on the end, if that makes sense. The street crossings are wider, and the sidewalks are narrower with trees, telephone poles, and sometimes trash cans. It’s a significantly greater challenge, but this was the point where Neutron and I hit our stride, and we’ve been flying. He’s had to wear his booties a couple times because it’s been so hot, and he goes even faster with those on. Like the first route, there’s a baricade set up to block the sidewalk that we have to work past. This baricade is more complicated, because it blocks the sidewalk but also extends to block us on the left as we approach, so we either have to approach the barrier and turn out of it to get to the street, or we have to turn before we reach the extension at all (that choice is up to Neutron). There’s also a more complicated dog distraction, where we have to work past a poodle who then follows us down the street. I’m pretty sure Neutron thinks poodles are part of a weird religious cult. We’re doing our solo for this second route this morning.

 

This afternoon we’re going to start our freelance work, where the training is tailored to what we’ll face when we go home. We’ll learn to work escalators, elevators, and revolving doors. Seeing Eye has two rows of airline seats to practice sliding our dogs under the seat in front of us or situating them in the bulkhead (I’d prefer to slide Neutron under the seat in front of me because it’s safer, and I think he’ll fit there, but we’ll see). We’ll work through department stores and shopping malls, and we may practice on roads with no sidewalks, paths through the woods, and college campus settings. We’ll also do buses, trains, and subways, and one day we’ll be going into New York City.

 

It’s been a lot so far, and it’s going to be a lot to pack into our last week here. Of course I’m also grooming Neutron, cleaning up after him, and playing and cuddling with him. He really is a sweet little lab. He loves belly rubs and cuddles. When he has a toy he likes to run around holding it in his mouth and making little snorting noises. He likes to claim me with his paws, and if I’m sitting next to him on the floor giving him scratches, he’ll put his paw on my arm and sort of wrap it around my elbow like a hug.

 

And of course there are all the science puns I can do with his name. My favorite nickname for him right now is Neutron Star, and I’ve already determined Neutron’s first law of motion: a Neutron in motion tends to stay in motion; a Neutron at rest wants to get moving.

 

I’m still considering Neutron’s superdog name (Mops was Mopsy the Magnificent). A friend suggested Neutron the Wonderdog, and I came up with Nuclear Neutron, but I’m not sold on either of those. Any suggestions are welcome.

 

Obviously at this point we’re both still learning how to work with each other, but we’ve come leaps and bounds in just one week, and I’m sure we’ll go leaps and bounds this week too.

And the New Dog Is…

Just kidding. I don’t know. I will be meeting my new superdog partner tomorrow morning. But I wanted to write about what I’ve done since I arrived at Seeing Eye yesterday before it gets overwhelmed by the excitement of the new doggy.

 

I arrived at lunchtime on Monday. I’d forgotten how good the food is here. Also one of the instructors in my class was my instructor when I was here seven years ago training with Mopsy. She isn’t my instructor this class, but it’s cool that she’s there.

 

After lunch, my instructor gave me a tour of the campus so that I could navigate independently. I remember bits of it, but they’ve renovated the building since I was here in 2010, and they’ve changed things just enough that I’m a bit confused.

 

After the tour of the campus, we went on a juno walk. A juno walk is when I hold the harness handle and the instructor holds the other end and measures my pace and pull on the harness. These are the most important factors in matching me with a guide dog. Of course there are other factors. There are different lengths of harness handles, but no one’s going to give me a Great Dane or a Chihuahua. For this first juno walk, we went up and down the Seeing Eye driveway. We worked a lot on my pull on the harness handle. It’s different with a person rather than a dog, but apparently my arm position was wrong, so either I’ve forgotten how to hold the harness or I’ve been doing it wrong for who knows how long. To be fair to me, they’re teaching a different grip on the leash than what I learned and did with Mopsy, so that might have thrown me off. Still, I’m figuring it out.

 

After the juno walk, I had some time to unpack. Then it was dinner and a welcome meeting. After going over the schedule for Tuesday, they handed out our leashes. It’s funny because Mopsy’s leash has become super soft and either dark dark brown or black, I can’t tell. But the new leash they handed me is all stiff and rough and this light light brown.

 

We were up at 6:00 this morning. After breakfast we came to the downtown training center for a brief lecture on what class is going to be like, and then we took another juno walk, this time in a much busier area. I learned that actually I haven’t been doing anything wrong with Mopsy, but because Mopsy and I were so familiar with each other that I didn’t need to do a lot of the things that I’ll need to do with this new dog, like coming to full stops before turning. To work on my issue with keeping pressure on the harness handle, we did an exercise where I held the leash as if it was a harness handle. The instructor explained it out the difference between towing a car with a chain and towing a car with a tow-bar. If you tow the car with a chain, it could be flopping around in the back. I have to maintain pressure so that the dog can feel me. It’s just as important as me being able to feel the dog, because if the dog loses the pressure the dog isn’t sure I’m still with them and could become anxious. With just the leash, rather than the rigid harness handle, it was much easier to feel when I was losing pressure and correct for it. It was really effective in showing me just how important it was to maintain pressure, because if I lost the pressure I felt like I was floating in space with no direction.

 

We did another juno walk this afternoon, and it was really great for cementing the pressure thing. I still have to work on waiting for the dog to go when I say “forward” instead of leaping into action myself. This has resulted in me trying to both move and not move at the same time and doing what one instructor called “quite the charleston.”

 

With every hour that passes I become more and more excited. This afternoon, we had a terrifying demonstration of silent cars (they are really silent!), and the lecture on the history of the Seeing Eye while our instructors decided which dogs we’ll get tomorrow. By the time we sat down to dinner, they knew, but they won’t tell us anything. In a few minutes, we have a cheese and wine party, which will be our last chance to eat food with our hands without our dogs’ leashes dangling off our wrists. Then it’s off to bed to try and sleep despite the anticipation. Morning comes early here (once we get our dogs it will come even earlier).

 

Tomorrow morning, we’ll get up, have breakfast, and have a quick meeting while our dogs are being bathed. And then we’ll meet the dog. Despite my best efforts, my instructor has given me only a few hints. The dog will either be a male or a female, and it will have four legs, a tail, and soft ears. The suspense is killing me.

Seven Years a Team

Jameyanne and Mopsy cuddling on the floorYesterday, June 21, was our dogiversary.  Seven years ago, my sidekick came wagging into my life. Okay, she wasn’t wagging. She doesn’t have a tail, which is a shame, so I wagged enough for both of us.

 

Since we met seven years ago, my sidekick and I have been all over the world, having all the adventures. Four years of college at Kenyon, where I learned all about literature and Italy and how to sing in tune with my sidekick’s clarinet and also why chocolate chip cookies are bad for me and bounding through the snow is the best. Then a year in Italy, where we conquered the sidewalks cars and motorcycles liked to race on, mastered the art of jumping into trees without dropping any gelato, and taught a small Italian town a thing or two about what a Seeing Eye dog and her sidekick can do given a chance. When we returned victorious from Italy, we spent a year at home. I got to explore where my sidekick grew up and meet her high school friends while we learned about disability rights and applied to law school. And last year, we started law school together at Harvard, which mostly involved my person learning the basics of world-saving (she could have just talked to me) and me reminding her when she’d been studying long enough and it was time to play. We got out and about and explored Cambridge and Boston some too.

 

Towards the end of the spring and at the beginning of the summer, we started going out a lot more into the city, which was fun, but I realized I can’t guide my sidekick as well as I used to. I was nervous in crowds, and even when my sidekick and I had the whole road to ourselves, I got startled when another person or a dog came too close to us. I felt like I had to tell the other dogs to stay away from me because I was so nervous, so I started barking at them and lunging at them. My sidekick tried to remind me that this was not proper Seeing Eye dog behavior. She even tried to bribe me with treats to get me to stop—as if I, a well-groomed Labrador, would stoop to the level of doing things for food. Nothing helped, not even the treats. I just didn’t feel like I was able to guide my person the way I used to, and I wanted her to understand that, because I didn’t want her to be relying on me for her safety. So my sidekick had a talk with the trainers at the Seeing Eye, and then my sidekick and I had a talk. We decided that it’s time for me to retire.

 

Don’t worry, I am not giving up my place on this blog. I have way too much fun writing these posts, I’m looking forward to telling you all about retired life and giving my sidekick’s new superdog partner some friendly advice. I’ll be going to live with my sidekick’s parents and their dog Rocket. Rocket isn’t a superdog because he’s never guided anybody anywhere, but he’s a black lab too, and he’s nice enough, for a crazy puppy. We’ll be good friends, and I like my sidekick’s parents lots too.

 

My sidekick will be going back to Seeing Eye at the end of July to meet her new superdog. I can te’l that she doesn’t know how to feel about it. She’s excited, because she hates using her cane (that long white stick that for as long as I’ve been with her, she only uses to fish one of my toys out from under the bed). But I can also tell that she feels bad for being excited, like she feels like she’s replacing me or something. I want to tell her that’s stupid, and I think she wants to tell herself that’s stupid too. Sometimes feelings don’t listen though. But I don’t want to work anymore, and I want my sidekick to have a superdog partner who will keep her safe, so I’m glad she’s going back. Also I’m sure the new superdog and I will be great friends.

 

And my sidekick and I aren’t done having adventures. We have sunbathing and cuddling to do, ropes and bones to wrestle for, walks and walks and walks to take. And who knows? Now that I’m learning to be a retired superdog, maybe I’ll try that swimming thing again. No promises though. My butt sinks.

Puppy On a Mission

It is hot. Really hot. But this morning, I still woke up my sidekick by jumping onto her face and licking her ears. Just like I did almost exactly six years ago when we first met. My sidekick says she can’t believe I’m eight years old. I’m still the same crazy bouncy puppy I was when I was two, apparently.

 

That’s right. Today’s my birthday! I’m eight years old today. Wow!

 

And no I don’t feel any different than I did yesterday.

 

All this year, whenever I take over my sidekick’s blog, I’ve been talking about what we’re doing in the present and connecting it back to things that happened to us before she started letting me write for myself. Today, though, I want to talk about what happened to me before I met my sidekick.

 

Eight years ago, I was born at the Seeing Eye. From the beginning, they told me I was a special puppy. I wouldn’t spend my days chasing down tennis balls or cuddling up in my person’s lap. I would be trained to do all sorts of important work, because the person I would get when I was done training couldn’t see. It would be my job to guide my new person anywhere she needed to go.

 

When I was old enough to leave my mother, I went to a family in Pennsylvania. The little girl in that family took care of me and started my training. I learned to sit and stay and lie down and come when I was told. I learned to park (that’s the Seeing Eye dog word for doing my business) outside. I learned to walk nicely on a leash. I got to go all sorts of places—like school and on the boardwalk—so that when I started my real training, I wouldn’t be scared by crowds or loud noises. I don’t really remember this, but when my sidekick trained at the Seeing Eye with me, they gave her a paper that said all this. It also said that I like squeaky toys, that when I’m really happy I’ll pick up my bed and bring it to you with my tail wagging my whole butt, and that when I have a bone everybody should duck because I’m probably going to throw it (this is all still true).

 

Just after I turned one, I went back to the Seeing Eye. At the Seeing Eye, trainers work with a string of dogs for four months and then they spend another month in class training the dogs with their new people. So I trained for four months. I learned to stop at curbs and steps, to go around obstacles like poles and hanging tree branches, and not to let my person cross the street if there’s a car in front of her (that’s called intelligent disobedience). It wasn’t my job to know where I was going. My sidekick would know where we were going. It was my job to get her there safely.

 

Then my trainer went up to New Hampshire to do a juno walk with a girl who was applying for a Seeing Eye dog. A juno walk is when the blind person holds the handle of the harness, and the trainer holds the part of the harness that is usually on the dog, and the trainer measures things like how fast the person walks, how much pull they want on the harness, how tall they are, stuff like that. My trainer came back to Seeing Eye, and she told me she’d found the perfect sidekick for me. I would have to wait for her, though, because she was still in high school, and she had to finish before she could come get me. So I did four more months of training, just to make sure I wouldn’t forget anything. I turned two. And four days later, I met my sidekick.

 

We trained at Seeing Eye together for a month. Then I went home with her, and we’ve been together ever since.

 

That summer, I was guiding my sidekick into the market when we passed a little kid and their mother. Like all small children when they see me, this little kid cried, “Puppy! Mommy, look, puppyyyyyyyy!”

 

When it comes to what parents say to their kids about me, I’ve heard it all. “That puppy is helping her,” is a common one. So is, “That’s a blind puppy,” to which my sidekick always replies “I sure hope not.” But this mother said, “That puppy’s on a mission.”

 

Best response ever.

 

Because I am on a mission. My sidekick and I have been all over the world together, and it has always been my mission to keep her safe and lead her where she needs to go, whether that was getting to class on time and navigating the dining hall at Kenyon or dodging maniacs with motor vehicles in Italy. Three years ago, my mission became more important when my sidekick lost her right eye, but I stepped up to that challenge too. And now we’re off on another adventure: law school! We’re already learning our way around Cambridge and practicing the subway routes. Adventure awaits! But for now, I’m going to play with my new squeaky football. Or maybe eat a bone.