How I see it … training with Sienna

Meet Sienna, the new addition to my family; she is a Guide Dog who is 3/4 Labrador and 1/4 Golden Retriever and is 20 months old. I will preface this narrative by saying I have never had a dog before; my family are primarily cat enslaved people, so this post covers my learning about dogs and guide dogs.

Your food please mum – Sienna

Sienna arrived the evening before training started. Like any new parent of a first child (in this case, a dog parent), I was nervous, apprehensive, and a little like a helicopter parent. I knew that Sienna had cost around $175,000 to train and in the back of my mind, I wondered if I was the most worthy recipient of her as most of the cost of training her was funded by public donations.

To give a little context, my parents lived during the depression after World War II in England and have conditioned me to question need versus want. One of my childhood memories is constantly being told that someone worse off than me might need something first or more urgently, and this has meant that even now, I usually consider the needs of others above my own.

It took me some time to work through the above train of thought, and I concluded that I have a degenerative eye condition that will worsen. Although I have pretty good visual acuity now (not enough to drive), I have monocular vision and the part of my sighted eye that I can see from it is restricted to 10 degrees instead of the usual visual field is approximately 180 degrees for people with “normal vision”.

The week before Sienna arrived, I told my mother about being matched with Sienna, her reaction was to ask me if I was sure I “really needed a guide dog?” While this comment came from a place of caring and compassion, it made me re-question my own need.

Because of this, one of the first conversations I had with my Guide Dog Mobility Instructor (GDMI) was about the matching process and criteria for guide dog handlers. She reassured me that the selection process was related to eye conditions, measurements, functional needs, and lifestyle, which helped me work through the worthiness question again.

Here is my logic: I have been a full-time long cane user for several years now and rely on tactile feedback to judge distance and changes in the pavement in front of me. I go through cane tips at about $39.99 per month and was labelled a heavy cane user. With this much reliance on a cane, a Guide Dog could assist. Secondly, companionship has been almost 20 years since my husband passed away now, and the companionship of a dog opens up a whole new lifestyle as a dog owner. Thirdly, getting around and retaining my job is essential and a guide dog can streamline this process.

Fast forward to almost two weeks of training. By training, what I mean is that I have had training as Sienna graduated her training about 3-4 weeks ago.

Here are some of my thoughts and some things that have surprised me:

I don’t miss my white cane at all. During the first couple of walks, I missed the tactile feedback my cane provided because I relied on my interpretation of feedback from my cane to find and maneuver around objects.

However, when I walked with Sienna, I realised the constant cognitive load and shoulder pain that navigating with a cane caused me and the relief of not having that mental processing while travelling gave me. I have since found myself relaxing while walking as I have learned to trust Sienna more and more. To put this simply, avoiding obstacles (Guide Dog travel) instead of finding and navigating around obstacles (cane travel) is a breath of fresh air.

Having Sienna has reminded me of a few things as well. For example, what it means to play (albeit with dog toys) and the joy this brings. Similarly, waking up in the morning to someone pleased to see you is amazing, and it was something I had forgotten. For example, I get bought all of the dog toys and the excitement and exuberance she shares at seeing me in the morning is infectious and makes me start my day feeling less stressed and more ready for the challenges ahead.

I will post again later in the week after the final two days of full-on training with Sienna.

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