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The joys of Guide Dog training with your fith dog

Pre Class. Is it love?

Houston arrived for two days prior to us going on class together. A big sigh of relief to discover new and retired dogs get on. Playing tug together. Old timer Zeke dragging the new Houston  lying on his back paws in the air tugger in his mouth and Zeke dragging him across the carpet. Oh well, it saved me having to groom him.  Later on, they are both lying side by side, Houston’s head on Zeke’s back.

Zeeke Tugging Huston over rug

 Day one of training. Your guide dog hangs on your every word!

Tried out the wonderful command “Hup sit”, worked really well, I put my hand down to check that he was now sitting rather than lying, to discover he was now lying on his back with all four paws up in the air. When we went next door to Steve and his German Shepherd Waffles room.  I stuck my head around the door, to see if Steve was ready, then went on.   I hadn’t realised Houston had also sneaked his head around the door and snagged one of Waffle’s toys. Houston did have the grace to drop it straight outside Waffle’s door for Steve and waffle to stand on when walking out of their room.

 Houston is the first of my guide dogs who hasn’t jumped up onto my bed when left in the hotel bedroom on his own at meal times.  However he does seem to think my bed is a double in order to give space for him to join me on, at night once I have gone to bed. 

Mornings. Oh the joy of a youngster who thinks five o’clock is for playing and working out how best to sneak back onto your bed again. No must only have referred to no, I don’t want to share my bed with you at night, but clearly I will be happy for you to come and join me in the bed in the early morning.

 My other dogs had the grace to look guilty when I told them off and kicked them off the bed.  Houston instead, try’s to dig his metaphorical heals in. becomes a very heavy lump that is impossible to drag off the bed and Oh Yes clearly deaf. No longer able to hear any commands.  Once you have got the teenager off your bed you get the “Its not fare” expression as he flops dejectedly on his own, very plush holofilled bed.

Day two: So, how many toys can a lab retriever hold in his mouth at once? 

Apparently four is the record, always at least two.  I am not sure it is “One for me and one for you”, but he is pretty generous and willing to share.


Day Tree: Relax

Then at last come tea time, the leggy teenager is back again. This time flaked out and exhausted and needing to recharge his battery.  At least curled up on my feet with a toy wedged under his nose, I know where he is and that he isn’t getting into any more trouble.

 

Houston & Vicki

Day four. Can you multi-task with your new guide dog?

Best not.  This morning demonstrated that you need all your wits about you when first on training with your new dog. Trying to make phone calls, check your emails, make sure you have the right gear for the days training, while rushing down slightly late to meet up with everyone else for the morning briefing, is a receipt for disaster.

Your new guide dog senses that he does not have your full attention. You might not have realised that he is slightly taller than your just retired dog and he can stretch his neck round placing his chin on the table inches from food.  Or having joined the group, grabbed the available chair failed to invest the time to persuade him to laying down properly, you are now distracted, trying to listen to the pearls of wisdom from your trainer explaining the activities and training programme for the day, while using the other side of your brain to try and work out how to stop the new boy from stretching making himself as long as possible in order to reach the dog lying down within three feet of him.  You successfully intercept that maneuverer of his, but miss the question directed to you by your trainer. You refocus on the trainer and his question and the boy senses this and does a dummy stretch and roll and makes it to the guide dog previously lying placidly on his other side. Again it is amazing what a heavy immovable lump a guide dog can become when you want him to tuck in close to you and he wants to continue being a nuisance with the pretty black Labrador on the other side of the table.  You have now failed twice; either to follow your instructors talk or to control your guide dog adequately.  I will try to do better.

Vicki,Zeeke & Houston

 

Day five. Can a two year old spell?

It seems Houston can get as far as “GU”. But is confused between Guide dog and Guard dog. Barking at a gentleman in the bar for just staring at him.  His trainer is suitably unimpressed. But does inform me he is on “special offer”. Apparently, he is a “two for one”, and I am lucky to have both a guide dog and guard dog.

 

Day six. Is it Green for go, or red for stop?

Houston can really step it out when given the chance on a decent walk. He can also be very frustrating when doing what he considers is a “pointless” exercise such as off curb maneuverers.  I really do need to learn how to manage a retriever as opposed to my four previous Labradors.  Cleary the on off buttons are in a different place.

Day seven. Traffic, what’s that all about?

Your dog is taught not to step out in front of a moving car. A particularly difficult exercise as they have to disobey your command  to go forward.  Houston was perfect, but decided in Houston style, to take it a stage further. He had identified the nice blue car which was stalking us, so Houston kept trying to let me know where the car was and thought it would be a better game if we just went to the car, rather than waited for the car to come to us.  An intelligent clown and you can kind-of see his logic.

 

Day Eight. So that’s where the phrase came from!

Houston has a besmirched reputation for his recall, but we have cracked it. Fish treats work every time. So, that’s, where the phrase “It works a treat”  comes from. One fish treat and I am now Houston’s best buddy.

 

Day nine. How many dogs can you meet during  just one walk?

An amazing walk with Houston through Dawlish. Ducks, geese and dogs galore. Nothing daunted Houston and lots of opportunity to let him know that I decide where we go, not him, “No I don’t want to go into the pet shop and, yes I know there is yet another dog there”. Walking back up through the park along the river side, the trainers held their breath as an off lead Labrador , leapt across in front of us and dived into the river, Houston thought about it, the trainers hovered ready to intercept, but no at the last second Houston thought better of joining the recalcitrant Labrador, instead continuing on with our journey with his head held high.

 

Day nine. The joys of bin day!

It’s not easy being a guide dog. Now back home and trying out our first home walk. None of us remembered it was bin day. The pavements had sprouted green wheelie bins . Houston took it in his stride, treating them like a slalom course. However it was the even more challenging second home walk,  meandering through the maze of narrow streets of terraced fishermen cottages with no pavements,  which really caught Houston’s interest and problem solving skills. Far more interesting than boring wide straight pavements. However after his first day working in Brixham, the boy wasn’t too tired and later found the energy to race around in circles in the park in the early spring sunshine.

Day Eleven. How much space can a dog take up?

A moving dog jangling the bells on his collar is easy to find, , a pooched pup stretched out on his side now oblivious to the world, is less easy to locate. Not realising my husband was curiously watching, I attempted to manoeuvre around my flaked out new guide dog sprawled across the floor. I knocked into his head with my foot, then attempted to step wide around him but still managed to step onto his tail, not that he moved a muscle with either assault. “Yes”, observed Ivan “Good to know he has two ends, ”. Clearly amused that I had just managed in one go, to step on both nose and tail of my dog.

Day twelve. Boys and their toys.

Awoken at six this morning by Houston repeatedly and continuously squeaking his favourite noisiest toy.  I must remember to frisk him more thoroughly for loud toys when he climbs the stairs to come to bed.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t put it past him not to have during the day, secreted a noisy toy hidden under the cushion of his bed, just for the purpose of being our morning alarm clock.

 

Today Houston and I did our first walk without his trainer. The roads around where I live are not easy, yet Houston was great. He coped with the sections without pavements, taking me to the correct crossing points. He was suitably cautious on the narrow pavement while approaching the large gentleman with his equally large dog.  The goofy boy can put his sensible head on when he needs to, areal confidence boost.

 

Day Thirteen. Just like the first day back at school.

Armed with Houston’s favourite kong filled with biscuit and a carrot jammed in the end, we headed into my office. Houston remembered the route from his very first matching visit six weeks ago, to see if we were a match. A bit like a “Blind date”. He wound his way through the corridors, finding the small narrow steep stair case, then a right turn, followed by a left through two security doors, then a right finally stopping outside my office door.
He was so confident walking the routes through busy corridors filled with trolleys, bustling visitors, patients, staff, speeding up and slowing down as necessary.
We then visited the staff Education centre including an invitation to briefly join a teaching session. One attendee remembered my first guide dog, a beautiful shiny black Labrador called Rhea. A shock for both of us to realise it was twenty-five years ago.
Back at my office and Houston quite liking the idea of a large work place, Unbeknown to me, went off to visit all the other offices on the corridor., The Hospital consultant in the room three doors down was a little surprised to discover he was now sharing his office with a dog. Houston has many talents but Gastroenterology isn’t one of them. It was definitely time for another carrot filled kong.

Day Fourteen. How do you keep the new boy entertained?

Our first route on our own to a meeting. Houston was so good no one even notice it was a different dog!

Houston goes from inquisitive new boy to crashed out teenager in a matter of seconds, but while in play mode tugger toys and noisy play growling seems to be a favourite. For those long hours at work, we invested in a level one intelligent toy for dogs. Two layers which can be spun by the clever dog to expose hidden treats. It took us longer to choose the new toy in the shop, than it took Houston to find and remove all eight treats. I would guess it took him only fifty-five seconds. It’s now back to the shop to find a level three toy.

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Week Three:

A leap in the dark.

Houston and I are now learning the route from town to home via the sea front.  My concerned trainer feels it necessary to point out to me that I am walking beside a deep drop into the harbour.  I cheerfully let him know that it won’t be quite such a long drop at high tide.  I am not convinced that reassured him.

Dog distraction?

You learn to control your new dog even when it is distracted by other dogs.  However no one mentioned before the issue of guide dog instructor distraction, as she stops focusing on your training walk with your new dog and becomes fascinated by the three seals playing in the harbour. I am sure that the trainer would have mentioned it, if Houston had decided to walk me down the slip way, rather than bear left to high ground. Maybe I should always work Houston in Wellington boots just in case he has a sense of humour.

Week Four:

Where is my shoe?

Back to frisking the dog. I do check Houston for toys when I let him out into the garden, but clearly not well enough, when friends ask if there is a reason for my favourite pink trainer to be in the middle of the lawn.

“The Great Escape”

Last night, humming the theme tune to the “Great Escape”, Houston burrowed his way under the new fencing to emerge in the holiday camp below us. Luckily, due to an eight foot bank and a dog scared of heights, Houston was then stuck until rescued by Ivan climbing over the wall to push him back under the fence. Each of my previous four guide dogs have all escaped at some time, For Houston, it was just a question of “When and where”. Now where did we put the spare wood, hammer and nails?

 

Week Four: My imaginary friend.

Houston is now doing well. His guide dog trainers now follow from a distance. When I met a good friend I cut our conversation short saying “Must go, I can’t keep the Guide dog trainers waiting “. Only later did I discover they were still staying discreetly out of sight, leaving me looking delusional. Next I will be imagining that I am accompanied by a six foot white rabbit called Harvey.
 

What is in a name?

Houston has a gorgeous button nose. He is either scenting the air or his nose is vanishing into vegetation. I spend my time saying “NO sniffer”. Houston has heard the phrase so often, he now thinks his name has been changed to “Sniffer”.
 
 

Barking Mad!

My amazing two for one Guide dog Guard dog, made his presence suddenly known in a meeting today unexpectedly barking from under the table as two people entered the room. The chairman quizzically said “I have never heard Zeek bark before”. He was a little chagrined to discover that during two meetings, three hours, he had not noticed I had changed guide dogs. A real endorsement of how well Houston is doing.
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Racing Timers and Watches:

The GBR Blind match racing team was emailed, to let us know that Optemum had sponsored us with a watch each.  As the totally blind member of the team I assumed they couldn’t mean me as however large or clear the dial or numbers, I could not read it.

Imagine my excitement when I was handed my  first ever racing watch which I, not only could;  hear increasing countdown bleeps, feel a vibration at each bleep, but due to the easy button layout and acknowledging bleeps when pressed,  I could  also set up the watch myself, and be confident I had correctly started it.

 At the Blind world match racing championships Sheboygan USA , I can confirm, despite sometimes not being able to properly feel my fingers due to the cold,  I never missed getting the start sequence. For the first time ever, I had a reliable countdown, which didn’t let me down through any of my ten races.

Optimum Time OS series 14

Bright future for blind match racing

When the 2014 IFDS Disabled Sailing Worlds Match Racing Championship was held September 10-14 in Sheboygan, WI, it was the first world championship sail with no sighted observers on board.

At the seven minute count down, the team coaches left the racing boats, leaving the visually impaired sailors alone on board to race the boats using only the feel of the wind, feedback through the hull and tiller, pressure in the sails, and using audio buoys to make decisions on layline strategy and tactics.

Each mark of the course emitted a different tone, with race managers communicating to teams by radio. With teams circling each other and battling for pre start dominance, often only a few feet between boats, the umpire’s role, communicating over the radio, information and penalties, was key.

Vicki Sheen, who won the Category 2 title (sailors have limited sight), explains “As a blind helm it is essential to be able to feel the wind on your face and the back of your neck, therefore, despite the cold temperature, I tied up my warm covering of shoulder length hair, and pushed down my fleecy collar to expose as much skin as possible. Not a warm way to sail but, needs must, when trying to win races.”

Sheen’s team of Lucy Hodges on jib with Liam Cattermole on main have all successfully helmed and won medals at previous international sailing events. This understanding of each other’s roles assisted them to develop great team work through excellent communication on the boat. “We can’t see what each other are doing, so we need to keep the information flowing back and forth all the time,” explained Hodges.

“It is an amazing and exhilarating way to sail,” shared Sheen. “Blind and partially sighted sailors, completely reliant on their own skills to sail the boat”. Blind match racing is a newly developing sport. Sheen, who is also President of Blind Sailing International, came away from the event, not only with a gold medal, but excited for the bright future of Blind match racing.

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Why Is Britain So Good At Blind Sailing? 

Fleet Racing Worlds success this year, Match Racing Worlds next. Team member Vicki Sheen explains.

“When people want to wind me up they say I’ve got extra-sensitive hearing!”

Vicki Sheen laughs as she reflects on another golden year for Britain’s blind sailing team and looks ahead to what they hope will be more World glory in 2014.

Winning touch

Vicki and her 11 GB teammates returned triumphant from the IFDS Blind Sailing World and International Championships 2013 in Japan in June.

They claimed victory in the B1 and B2 classes, plus silver in the B3 class, to take the overall Squadron Cup for the top nation, while Vicki and her B1 crewmates were awarded The Colin Spanhake Trophy for their win.

But the sailors have already turned their attention to making it back-to-back World crowns, and replicating the success they had in Perth, Australia in 2011, at the IFDS World Match Racing Championship in Boston, USA in 2014.

Born with 10 per cent vision, which she gradually lost by her late twenties, Vicki discovered sailing on a standard RYA learn to sail course in Salcombe, Devon in 1996. Within three years she had joined a committed group of visually impaired and sighted sailors to set up the British Blind Sailing Racing Association, which became Blind Sailing UK, of which Vicki was the Commodore for six years.

So why have the Brits been so successful in both fleet and match racing in recent years.

Vicki explains.“The two disciplines are very different. In fleet racing there is a team of two visually impaired sailors and two sighted sailors in a boat, while in match racing the whole three-strong crew is visually impaired. Each requires a different focus.

“For example in the BI class in fleet racing the mainsheet hand must be a VI, with a sighted tactician who can’t handle any controls at any time while racing and a sighted crew who can handle all controls with the exception of the helm, mainsheet, and the mainsheet traveller. There can be seven or more boats on the racecourse so start lines and mark roundings would be chaos without a sighted element aboard.

“The teamwork and communication required to make this work as effectively as possible doesn’t happen by accident. For the Japan Worlds we had a really intense training period through the whole winter mainly out of UKSA on the Isle of Wight and Castle Coombe SC in Weymouth. We competed in the RYA Spring Series events and trained with some of the British Paralympic Sonar team, so it was very professional.

“We had a bigger squad, which was well-trained and experienced in terms of both the VI and sighted sailors. This meant it was actually a tough selection, only the best sailors and strongest teams went. All that work definitely paid off.”

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The match racing the Brits will experience in Boston next year, however, will be quite different again.

With three VI sailors in one boat, but only two boats going head-to-head at any one time the sailors rely on audio buoys, radio countdowns and on boat audio-tone to let them know where the other boat is, how close it is and whether the other boat is on port or starboard. Vicki admits especially the pre-starts are very, very intense, but it is an amazing adrenaline buzz.

Vicki will be presenting a talk on ‘Sailing With Your Senses’ at the RYA Suzuki Dinghy Show at Alexandra Palace on 1-2 March, revealing the secrets that make her and her teammates World beaters, and how these can help sighted sailors expand their skills by using all their senses. She will also offer tips on getting into blind sailing.

“For me as a blind sailor, how I log sensory information is critical,” she added. “Sight takes over as the dominant sense for most people but VI people have to take their cues from other sources and make sense of that information in order to paint a picture in our minds. 

“We don’t have extra-sensitive hearing! We are just able to focus on the information we are receiving and log and register that to make well-rounded decisions. The more you can train that on the water the better a sailor you will be regardless of sight.”

Britain’s 2013 World Fleet Racing Champions:

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Class B1: from no perception of light in either eye up to perception of light but inability to recognize the shape of a hand at any distance in any direction

  • VI Helm: Sharon Grennan
  • VI Mainsheet: Vicki Sheen
  • Sighted Tactician: Martin Moody
  • Sighted Crew: Ian Shirra


Class B2:
from the ability to recognize the shape of a hand up to a visual acuity of 2/60 and/or a field of 5 degrees or less

  • VI Helm: Lucy Hodges
  • VI Mainsheet: Martin Phillips
  • Sighted Tactician: Adam McGovern
  • Sighted Crew: Gary Butler

Class B3: from a visual acuity above 2/60 up to 6/60 and/or a visual field of more than 5 degrees and less than 20 degrees.

  • VI Helm: Liam Cattermole
  • VI Mainsheet: Toby Davey
  • Sighted Tactician: Jonny Cormack
  • Sighted Crew: Jonny Stevenson

IN 2013 BRITAIN’S BLIND SAILORS ONCE AGAIN PROVED THEMSELVES TO BE THE BEST IN THE WORLD, CLAIMING TEAM IFDS BLIND WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP GLORY IN JAPAN.

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Vicki Sheen was part of that team and is now a double World Blind Sailing champion. Born with 10 per cent vision, which she gradually lost by her late twenties, Vicky discovered sailing on a standard RYA Learn to Sail course in Salcombe, Devon in 1996 and now sails with both sighted and visually impaired crews.

Vicki draws on her experience as a physiotherapist to demonstrate just what sighted people miss when using only their eyes: ‘If a colleague and I are working behind adjoining curtains, the next patient can come in and I will know if that person is male or female, whether they are anxious or agitated and potentially what they are having treated just from the way they walk or from the sound of them taking off their coat. ‘For example males always jangle their keys in their pockets. The curtain is not a barrier to me in the same way it is to my colleague. My colleague will be hearing the same as me but won’t register and log that information in the same way.

‘Sight takes over as the dominant sense for most people; you can be hearing and feeling but what you register is what you see. It is a question of focus and how you register and log all the information around to make the most rounded decisions.’

Complete trust

Vicki insists the key to a visually impaired sailor sailing successfully with either sighted or other visually impaired crews is trust, and it works both ways. Sighted crews have to trust the skills of the visually impaired sailors, normally the helm and the mainsail trimmer. But the visually impaired sailor also has to completely trust the sighted crews. Such close partnerships between the sighted and unsighted crew can on occasion – especially while carrying out an emergency repair or checking the rig – allow them to forget there is someone who cannot see steering the boat! Vicki says this interdependency forges connections on a boat very quickly, and through sailing she has had the opportunity – in her words a ‘privilege’ – to meet people and develop friendships that she believes she never would have had if she had not had the chance to sail in this way. ‘Walking through someone’s front door is a massive challenge, I don’t know where the doors are, if there are steps or anything to bump into,’ she added. ‘But I can step on to any boat, and once I know which end is the bow and which is the stern, I can sort myself out within a minute and sail with complete strangers because my other senses come into play.’

Use your senses

How can Vicki’s expertise open your eyes to a whole new level of sailing? Here is a taster of some of the secrets she will reveal in her RYA Suzuki Dinghy Show talk, ‘Sailing With Your Senses’.

Filtering down

For a sighted person the brain filters out about 99 per cent of the information it is receiving so things like touch, temperature and body position don’t have the same importance unless they are needed. A visually impaired person logs more of that peripheral information and registers it so awareness and knowledge of what is going on around you all the time comes from different sources.

It’s all about the hairline

One of the key places for me to feel the wind is the back of my neck. I sail with my hair up and I have been known to cut hoods and collars off bulky wet weather gear, even offshore, so I can feel the breeze on my neck.

Drop in pressure

Cold, heavier air is easier to detect against the skin than a light breeze on a warm summer’s day as the air is less dense and the temperature is more like body temperature.

Audio clues

Do you notice cleats on boats nearby being released, or do you see their sails and manoeuvres? When you are used to registering sounds like that, and the variant sounds of different sail tensions, your ability to anticipate their next move improves.

Direction differences

Sensory indicators vary on a run and a beat and whether you are feeling true or apparent wind. It is possible to steer an almost perfect course unsighted when you learn what the wind feels like on your neck and face.

Feel your way

How much notice do you take of how the boat feels under your thighs or feet, or the changing angle of the boat or what you can sense through the tiller? Getting a true feel of the hull in the water makes you and the boat much closer and you more receptive to changes in the way it is sailing.

Let’s talk

What you say and how you say it are equally important. Instructions must be clear, calm and concise for a visually impaired sailor. Would that not make for a less frantic, more efficient sighted crew too?

– See more at: http://www.yachtsandyachting.co.uk/sailing-techniques/sailing-senses-tips-from-a-blind-winner/#sthash.yBmpWFRh.dpuf

Sense the Wind

Sense the Wind Blind Sailing Documentary – you can see it here, with the Audio Description:

http://www.sensethewind.com

Sunday May 26th 2013 – Japan World Blind Sailing Championships

Japan is amazing.  You really do get a sense of being in a different country and culture. Not least because of the changes of footwear from; shoes, to slippers, to slippers within bathrooms. There is such an attention to small details, pleasant fragrances, different fruit designs in the pavements, bird song on the railway platforms.

The opening ceremony was the first chance for all the teams to get together. a chance to catch up with old friends; from New Zealand, Japan, USA, and a chance to take right back up where we left off joking and teasing with our good friends from Australia and Canada. A traditional Lion dance and a few rum cocktails later and we’re back to reminiscing over previous races and old battles won and lost.

Good first day’s racing: winds progressed through the four races, from moderately light to moderately windy. With  the B1 team finishing the day in joint first place with Japan, and the B2 team finishing first  with the B3 team second.

In the light winds the Japanese appear bolistic, while in the stronger  winds all our winter heavy weather training seams to have paid off (or is it just our heavier weight?).  Keep your fingers crossed it’s only the first day and there is  a lot of competition and races to go.

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