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26. SMALLS TALK: Meeting and Training with my First Guide Dog

For most of my life, my legs have been covered in bruises, whether that be from bumping into a counter or a lime scooter, tripping over a curb, or hitting my knee in some bricks. I tripped a lot, and up until last year, I thought that this was just a natural part of being visually impaired and also a bit clumsy. But this morning, as I was putting on my bike shorts for SoulCyle, I realized that my legs are completely clear. No more black and blue marks on my calves and Smalls, my new guide dog, is entirely to thank for that. I am very proud to report that I have not tripped over a single lime scooter, of which there are plenty on Georgetown's campus, in the past month. And today I'm here to talk about the guide work which makes all of that possible. Stay tuned for some Smalls talk to learn more about my experience meeting and training with my first guide dog.

*Intro Music*

Hello everyone. Welcome back to another episode of Legally Blonde & Blind. Sitting down to record feels extremely surreal. It was around this time last year when I had just started compiling my application for a guide dog. And now there's one sitting in my room. I was only on the waitlist for about six months, which is unusually quick. But I think the timing was perfect because I went “on class,” which means training, for two weeks in mid-January. So it was only the beginning of my spring semester, I didn't have to worry about any exams or major papers to do. So while I was away, I could focus almost entirely on my guide dog, which as we will get to, was very important.

For those of you who don't already know, I have a female yellow Labrador named Smalls. Oh my God, I love her. She is only about 57 pounds, so she is on the leaner side when it comes to Labradors, but she does have a big brick head. I had said on my application that I had a preference for Yellow Labs, and ultimately I'm very glad I got one because with my residual vision I can see some of her facial expressions and they are absolutely hilarious. For example, she loves to put as many dog toys in her mouth as possible. So oftentimes she'll be walking around my dorm room with her Kong Ring and a giant Nylabone in her mouth, and she doesn't even chew them. She just likes to parade around with them proudly. Or whenever she finds something like the steps, a door, or an elevator, she just gives you this look like, “Did I do it? Did I do it? Gimme my kibbles.”

On a more serious note, she is such a wonderful guide dog. She has a very strong pull. She’s a super fast walker, as my parents and instructors can attest. She does great in crowds. My favorite thing about her is that if someone in front of us is scrolling on their phone, clearly not paying attention, she will do everything in her power to get around them. She will speed up, do whatever it takes. She does not want to wait. She wants to lead, and I love that. Smalls is so, so smart. I tell people that she is more intelligent than 99.9% of the Georgetown student body, and that definitely includes me.

As I'm recording this, I've only had Smalls for about three weeks, but I can confidently say that I made the right decision. I wouldn't say that there was one big moment, though there might be at some point in our career, that made me realize that I made the right choice, but rather it's a ton of little things like walking past a cone or a curb that you otherwise would've missed. I notice things like that several times a day, and I never accounted for the amount of subconscious energy and stress that having to visually navigate with low vision brings. Because of her, my walks are more enjoyable and we get where we need to go faster. Then there is of course the relationship aspect, which is nothing like having a traditional pet. I have never truly thought of a dog as my teammate, as my equal until I started working with Smalls. And it's not all work. I love running around with her in my common room or snuggling with her on the floor while I read a book. I actually fell asleep while laying with her on the floor yesterday, which was not good for my back, but was most certainly good for my soul.

I could go on for hours about how much I love my new guide dog and all of her little quirks, but ultimately that is not why I am making today's episode. I think especially on social media, it's very easy to perceive this process as rainbows and sunshine, as magical, but it's not always so seamless and easy. The way I describe Guide Dog training to people is that it's simultaneously been the most challenging and rewarding thing I have ever done. I think it's like learning a new language, an entirely new way of communicating. It's extremely physically and emotionally exhausting. You're dealing with so many new feelings. Fear, excitement as you're meeting this new companion who is going to be with you 24/7 for the next few years. My goal is to shed light on the work required from both parties as we form this new relationship. I think the public has this perception of guide dogs as these robotic GPS systems that can tell us exactly where we need to go or when to cross the street, that they behave perfectly 100% of the time, that when you put their harness on, they stop being a dog. You'll often hear people say that guide dogs give blind people freedom and independence, which implies that the dog's doing the work, not the handler. As I learned throughout the application and training process, that couldn't be further from the truth.

I specifically wanted to make an episode recording my thoughts during these initial weeks because I think we need to hear the voices of people going through it. Most guide dog schools will actually recommend that you wait about three to six months before posting on social media about a new team because even after you graduate, sometimes matches don't work out. But as a first time guide dog user, it's one thing to hear YouTubers who have been working with guide dogs for several years talk about the challenges and it's another to go through them yourself. It's weird seeing people on the other side and having no idea how to get there. I hope as a newbie, by sharing my experiences, I can help to bridge that gap. And I also think it'll be really cool to look back on this years from now and see how my relationship with Smalls has evolved.

I want to make a few disclaimers before I get started. First, I am not trying to imply that guide dogs are better than canes. They both have their pros and cons, and ultimately it's a very personal decision. I am not trying to say that traveling with one mobility aid over the other is better or will give you more independence. I don't want to imply that Guide dog training is somehow harder than cane training or learning any other blindness skill. But I do want to call attention to the unique challenges and responsibilities that arise when you decide to work with a service animal. And in fact, that's why many blind people choose not to go down that route. You'll often hear cane users say, “I don't have to feed my cane or take it to the vet” and that's completely valid. There are happy independent blind people all over the world who use canes, guide dogs, or other tools at their disposal.

I also want to make it clear that I am not speaking on behalf of any specific guide dog organization. When I talk about the challenges I faced, keep in mind that I think they would have occurred at any facility or truly with any major change in my life, I am not trying to criticize a particular training program or philosophy here. Instead, I want to raise awareness for the sea of emotions that new guide dog users will experience, and more importantly, that these difficulties can be overcome. With all of that being said, let's discuss my decision to get a guide dog.

For most of my life, I was vehemently opposed to working with an assistance animal. If you could teleport to middle school and tell sixth grade Marissa that she would end up with a guide dog in college, she would probably faint. I think even in early Legally Blonde & Blind episodes I said something along the lines of, “oh, I don't think I'll ever end up with a guide dog.” It’s so strange to think that when Smalls was born on November 28th, 2020, I had no idea that she would be a part of my life.

The first step towards reaching this decision was reframing the way I viewed independence, mobility aids, and disability as a whole. Now, I've talked about this in several other episodes, such as The Art of the Blind Joke, Miss Independent, and White Canes in the Wild. I highly recommend checking those out if you want a more detailed explanation. But for most of my life, I believed that if someone could get around without a mobility aid, like a cane, a wheelchair, or a guide dog, they shouldn't use one. People who traveled without mobility aids were automatically more independent than those who did.And that learning blindness skills, picking up a white cane, was a sign of weakness, of failure, of giving up. Specifically in regard to guide dogs. I thought that they did all of the work, that they were a sign of poor orientation and mobility skills, that they were a last resort. One of the few guide dog users I had met as a child was hit by a car before they got their first guide dog. And so my conclusion from that was, “guide dogs are for people that can't cross the street.”

And while I now think that these attitudes were extremely simplistic and judgmental, I give younger Marissa some grace because I think these mindsets emerged from our emphasis on individualism and self-reliance in the United States. I mean, think of the language we use. We say “handicapped” seats or parking spots. We say somebody is “wheelchair bound.” It gives this extremely negative connotation to mobility aids and any visible markers of disability.

There is also the fact that generally people with albinism are not as connected to the blind community as a. And on one hand that makes sense because for people who can drive, they probably don't identify with that label. But the downside is that I was never exposed to that many people who use canes, guide dogs or other blindness tools. I think it's increasingly getting more common, especially amongst people my age. But in the early 2000s when I would go to NOAH conferences as a child, there would only be one or two people using a cane, and I would think they were the oddballs.

Starting Legally Blonde & Blind broadened my horizons in so many more ways than I ever expected. The two biggest takeaways I've gotten from the show at this point are that one, blindness is something that I can be proud of, that I don't have to hide. And two, that mobility aids are another tool in the toolbox. I think it was Lia Stone in my episode about blind baking who first used that phrase, and I really like it because it's so easy to think of these tools as indicators of independence or lack thereof. But it's not that deep. All that matters is that someone is getting where they need to go safely and confidently. I connected with many guide dog users, particularly Emma Chambers on Instagram, and through their experiences I learned that guide work is extremely collaborative. It is very much a 50/50 effort and contrary to my previous beliefs. I would have to improve my O&M skills if I wanted to get one.

The next step for me was being willing to invest in myself. I remember when I was young, one of my mobility instructors asked me, “are you okay with tripping or running into things sometimes?” And at that point I said, yes. That was something I was willing to accept. But after moving to Georgetown, learning to navigate streets and public transportation on my own for the first time, I gained so much confidence that I began to wonder, “why am I settling for just getting by?” There were a ton of little moments in my life where I would trip over a curb or hit my hip on the corner of a table, and individually I could brush them off. But when I started to think about them altogether, it made me realize the amount of stress, subconscious stress I was dealing with on a daily basis. I can obviously live without a guide dog. I have for 20 years and was at Georgetown for my entire sophomore year without one. But I eventually reached the point where I want more, and I think this is a really important point to highlight here. A guide dog by itself is not immediately going to give you freedom, confidence, and independence. You have to work for that on your own before you ever decide to get one. I think it takes a lot of courage to say, “I'm going to take a few weeks of my time, and instead of going to school or working, I'm going to invest in myself to build a skill that is going to be useful for the rest of my life.”

And finally, I simply choose joy. I wish we considered happiness, not just necessity when we talk about mobility aids. I'm a massive dog person and I realized that having a four-legged companion who could help me navigate quickly and more confidently would add greatly to my happiness. I think some people initially might have had the impression that I applied for a guide dog just because I wanted a dog in my dorm and while her being a dog rather than a piece of metal was a huge part of the decision, it's not like I just went into this wanting a pet. She is like any other mobility aid, considered medical equipment by law. But that doesn't mean she can't add happiness into my life or be part of how I express myself. Think of the design for most wheelchairs or walkers. They're very bland and clinical. I remember when I started cane training, I wanted a neon pink white cane, but that was nearly impossible to find. I realized that these tools can add value and happiness into our lives. They don't merely have to be something we are “bound” to. To sum it all up, I got a guide dog because I wanted to prioritize my safety and happiness over arbitrary notions of necessity or independence.

Now, you may be wondering what this whole application process is like. I won't get into too much detail because every guide dog school is a little different. But generally you will start out with a lot of paperwork. You'll probably have to get a medical evaluation, a functional vision assessment, an orientation and mobility report, and a letter from a support person saying that they can take care of the dog if something happens to you. And heads up, if you have ever been to a therapist or on any psychiatric medications, you will probably also have to complete a mental health evaluation.

Once all the paperwork is completed, they will probably want to meet you in-person or receive a video of you traveling. This serves several purposes. They first want to make sure that you are able to navigate with the white cane and cross streets independently, because contrary to popular belief, guide dogs cannot tell you when the light is green. It also gives them a sense of your walking pace and style so they can match you with the right kind of dog, and you may also have the opportunity to do a Juno session with a field representative. Juno simulates guide work by having you hold onto a harness while the mobility instructor is holding onto the other end. They essentially act like a dog and respond to your commands. But don't worry, this is not nearly as embarrassing in public as you might think. They're not gonna run around and bark.

Once you have been formally accepted into a program, the wait time is generally around 6 to 18 months. While successors or people who have used guide dogs before are generally given priority in these wait lists, it truly all depends on when the right dog comes around for you. I only waited six months for Smalls. I got a phone call in late December saying that I was matched and they invited me to class, their residential training facility, in mid-January. Most guide dog schools have a residential facility, but home training became more popular during the pandemic, though I would highly recommend going to a facility if you can, because it is so much less stressful when the people working there can control the environment and gradually introduce you to more challenging scenarios. I was at GDF for two weeks. I know some guide dog schools have longer programs, but either way, it's going to take a significant chunk of time.

Even though I have been with Smalls for less than a month at the time of recording this, I feel that I've learned so much from working with her at GDF and then transitioning back home in Georgetown. One of the first lessons I discovered very quickly upon meeting Smalls is that bonding doesn't happen instantly. This goes both ways. For me, I was most certainly infatuated with her when I first got to see her, but in many respects she felt like a stranger. I didn't know her mannerisms, her likes and dislikes. She's a Labrador, so she loves meeting new people, but at the time we were strangers. She had no idea that I would be her handler, her forever person. I didn't really consider the fact that Smalls had been working with an instructor for several months and that he was her person and that it would take some time for it to switch over to me. But I have good news for you. If you train at the Guide Dog Foundation or any other school that uses high rates of food reinforcement, this will happen very quickly because Labradors love their kibbles.

The next thing that hit home for me as I started working with Smalls was that having a guide dog is something you choose. You have to wake up every day and actively want to put in the effort to take on the responsibility to make this team work. Full disclosure, I was extremely overwhelmed my first few days at the Guide Dog Foundation. I had several nervous breakdowns. It was so much work, so much to remember, and I had no idea how I would balance it all with school extracurriculars in my social life. I kept saying to my instructor that “I'm 20 years old, my life can't slow down for a dog.” And when I voiced these concerns, I expected them to say something along the lines of, “oh, don't worry about it. You'll figure it out. It's not that bad.” But they told me that my concerns were valid, that it would be a lot of work and require some changes into my routine. It had to be something that I actively wanted and they told me “If you leave without a guide dog, no one is going to hate you. No one is going to think you're a failure. You need to reevaluate and think about what is going to be the best for you.” Ultimately, things became a lot more manageable throughout the process, and I began to see the benefits of working with a guide dog as we started going into busier environments. But for those first few days, there was some doubt, and that's completely valid. That is why you are at training, to see how you and your guide dog work together, if the match will be a success, if this is something you really want.

Now, the next thing I learned was especially difficult for me as a chronic perfectionist, but it's the idea that feedback does not equal failure. I had never been in an environment where I was receiving such continuous and instant feedback about my performance. Receiving constructive criticism has always been something that I have struggled with, and in particular, with guide dog training, it was hard for me to gauge how well I was doing because I would weigh the mistakes in my head much more heavily than the successes. But the truth is there are no grades in Guide Dog School. All that matters is you get where you need to go safely. It doesn't matter if your footwork was off or if you encountered a ton of distractions. All that matters is you've got where you need to go. And this was very challenging for me to process as someone who is used to getting grades for everything. It's this idea that no one is perfect and that there are always going to be corrections. The idea of training is to set solid habits, so when you go home and there isn't somebody standing behind you telling you to get into a deeper starting position, you do it anyway. It took some time for me to grasp that just because you receive corrections doesn't mean that you are a failure. It doesn't mean that they're talking about you and thinking about taking your dog away. That is the last resort.

On that note guide work requires significantly more precision and communication than I had ever imagined. Dogs learn from your facial expressions, intonation, hand signals, body language, everything. To paraphrase, one of my instructors would always say that every moment is a teaching moment. Your dog learns from everything that you reinforce, correct or ignore. I often describe it to people like learning a new language, a whole new way of communicating, and that requires active participation. It eventually becomes more second nature, and you don't feel like you're exerting as much energy. But the first few days it is exhausting. You have to think about everything you're doing and you're trying to become accustomed to your dog's behaviors. How can you tell when they're tired or thirsty? How can you tell if they're being cautious or if they're distracted by something? You are driving the machine and the precedents you set have a major impact.

One common misconception I often heard from people before training was that when the dog has the harness on, they're perfect and when they take it off, they can finally be a “dog” again. Two things here. One, they are always going to be dogs and as a result are never going to be perfect. They are not little robots. If you want one, you probably will be able to get a robot guide dog in a few years. And two, your behaviors tell them a lot more about whether they should be working or playing than wearing a harness does.

Finally, there are two things I wish I internalized before I started working with Smalls, and the first is that you have to take things one step at a time. Anyone listening who knows me personally will probably laugh at that because I am a massive planner and overthinker. But Guide Dog schools have been refining their training methods for decades, and I'm going to sound like I'm on the Bachelor when I say this, but you have to trust the process. They will not make you do anything that you are uncomfortable with or that you aren't ready for. One thing that helped me in the beginning was literally going day by day and listing all the things I learned. For example, on Monday, the first week, I was simply traveling to New York. I had never met Smalls. And on Friday here we are traveling through a small town crossing streets at the end of week one. I wasn't ready to go home with her. I wasn't ready to travel through Manhattan with her, but that's why I'm at the Guide Dog Foundation for two weeks.

And the second thing I wish I knew is that Guide Dog training will push you mentally and emotionally. There is no way of getting around that. Experiencing so many changes in such a short period of time will bring out your anxiety, your stress, your overthinking and perfectionistic tendencies. Anything that mentally you're trying to work on will crop up, and I think that's one of the key differences between cane training and guide dog training is that it's inherently a very emotional process. A cane never retires, has medical emergencies or passes away. A cane doesn't poop or stop to sniff a bush, but I'd say as someone who's gone through it, that these trials and tribulations are all worth it because you will form an indescribable relationship with your dog. It's nothing like having a pet. Less than a month in, and she already feels like a part of me. I can't even imagine what our relationship will be like in a year or two.

So keep in mind that it is a very emotional process. It's rare that someone goes through training without crying at least once, but at the same time, it is incredibly rewarding and you're not alone. There are so many people who want to help you. The best part of a residential training facility is that you get to see other people go through the process, and you guys get to share your joys, frustrations, anxieties, all together. I particularly loved that both of my classmates had previous guide dogs, so I could learn from some of their real world experiences and be constantly reminded that blind people have done it before and will do it again.

I wish I could teleport a month back in time and tell January Marissa that she can do it. If you have been accepted into a Guide Dog program, then you have the ability to learn this skill. They have confidence in you, and you should have at least a teensy bit of confidence in yourself.

Well, everyone, I hope you enjoyed today's episode and learn something new about working with Guide Dogs. I can't wait to see how Smalls and I progress as a team, but one thing's for sure, I will get her in the White House this year, that is my goal. If you like today's episode, make sure to subscribe to Legally Blonde & Blind on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, YouTube, and anywhere else you get your shows. You can also stay up to date by following my social media pages on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram @legallyblondeblind. Thank you for listening, and I hope to SEE you soon!


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