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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.

Image may contain: dogImage may contain: 1 person, dog, tree and outdoor


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.

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.


Sense the Wind

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

Thursday June 14th Some Wild Racing

Out racing in wind speeds 22-34MPH. It was wild and fantastic and all credit to Dave who never suggested he should helm the race instead of me.

 I could hear the wind and the rain hammering onto our sea facing windows. I looked quizzically at Dave and Liz when they came to pick me up, but they just shrugged and said “We’ll go and take a look, it will be good practice for us”.

 You know its rough when all you can hear is; white water around you, the noise of the boats rigging and mast trying to shake itself loose, and the noise of the wind howling.

 There was the odd moment when I suddenly realised me and the rudder were making no impact to wear the boat moved too, as a wave simply picked you up and ran with you, hurtling the boat on through the water.

 Yes we were blown over a couple of times, but the with reefs and a blade, the boat still felt balanced and in the main, under control. Maybe on the edge, but still handling it well.

 Only three boats started in our fleet and only us finished.  The other two fleets where similar, so we weren’t alone.

 Afterwards, we all looked like drowned rats but the boat looked unharmed and fairly chilled about it all. The next day I did start to identify some aching muscles. Who needs to find fairground rides when you sail with the fearless Dave and Liz.

Nick’s Story



Brixham Yacht Club

I had the honour of being asked to be the after dinner speaker at the Brixham Yacht Club annual dinner and dance. The more cynical of you-my husband included-will be asking yourselves “So who dropped out?”

 On the plus side. It was good to be able to share with the members my genuine thanks for the club giving me my first opportunity  out on the water and great support ever since then.  

 It was great to discover how interested and supportive everyone was to hear about Perth and the world Sailing Match racing Championships.

On the negative side. I have discovered several disadvantages to being an “After dinner” speaker:

 You have to wait three hours before you speak.  This gives you three hours in which you will have convinced yourself that you have forgotten the whole speech.

 You are invited to a free seven course meal. However you are too nervous to  eat more than a few mouthfuls of each course.

You are sat in a room with a bar, and at a table where people are offering you glasses of very nice wine. However you are unable to drink alcohol as you need to keep a clear head in order to remember the speech.

Not being able to read from a set of printed prompts has its disadvantages.  It is difficult to hold a microphone and read from Braille notes. Reading from in-depth Braille notes is not fluent therefore I always memorise my presentations and speeches.  Far more fluent and natural but far more high risk and nerve wracking.

 As it was a black tie event Zeke, unlike my husband,  did me proud and the boy managed to keep his bow tie on and in place all evening

 I therefore have a plea. Next time couldn’t I be the “Before dinner” speaker?

Just Sailing Thursday 2nd May


Blues too a 28 foot Hunter Impala took to the water to join the Brixham club racing for the first time in three years. Dave and Liz Mills the owners took a very brave step and asked me to helm her.  I think much to all of our surprise we won our first race

John and Sally who I normally crew for, have gone off sailing to the Med for six months. We were all gathered on the boat at their  leaving meal

Knowing I was boatless for the summer season I had wondered if I could ask Dave and Liz Mills who I did occasionally race with before they stopped racing three years ago, whether they had any sailing plans.  The truth was, I was planning to wait until far later in the evening once they had had enough to drink and might  feel mellow and reckless and agree to a suggestion from me.

 However early in the evening, not even prompted by alcohol, Dave suddenly announced “Blues Too is a lovely boat. It’s almost criminal that she is sat on the mareener  not sailing on a Thursday evening”.

“Ah” I said,  “I’d been meaning to ask you a favour”

“Why”  retorted Dave “Would you helm her?”.

 I am just so grateful. Not only have they made their boat available, but they are giving up their time to get the boat race fit and come out and race her with me. Then on top of all that, Dave provides me with the sighted information I need. Remember, these aren’t the windward leeward  courses used in Blind fleet or match racing. With  only white sailing, Instead, club racing includes,   flying the spinnaker  as well as reaches  as well as the beats and runs.

 Well, we now have a crew. Harley a Brixham junior sailor will be joining us and when Dave and Liz can’t make it then Ian Mills their son a sailing coach, will also put in a guest appearance.

 Well first race, first win and we won the beer leg so we could celebrate back at the yacht club. The club members made it clear they were glad to see Dave and Liz back again and Blues Too back out on the water on race night. But did suggest it would have been more polite not to win the race and the beer on your first time back in three years.

 I am not expecting our results to always be so good, but regardless it will be  great to be out on the water with such good company and great to have such an opportunity to develop my helming skills.

February 14th Salous Game Reserve Tanzania East Africa

The Salous Game reserve is amazing. Our camp is just outside the official boundaries of the park; however someone forgot to tell the animals, it is great they just wander through the camp. The Shower this morning was just a trickle of water, apparently this is because the baboons had turned on the outside tap beside our tent. Probably the same ones which woke us up by using the roof of our tent as a trampoline.

 The bush babies are really cute, but very noisy at night, so to is the hyena which wanders through the tents.

 We arrived at the game reserve in a single prop plane, landing on a grass\dirt air strip. Only structure was an opened sided thatch hut building around the trunk of a tree.  Its very like catching a bus. When the single prop plane lands, you wander up with your bag and ask the pilot if he is going in your direction.  

 We have met the lion pride twice now. Always at noon when they are at their most relaxed, well fed and hot and lazy. Good job really as our jeep pulled up within ten feet of a group of nine of them, females and youngsters.  I was even more perturbed the next day when Rama our guide found the pride again but this time pulled up between two trees under which they were seeking shade. I must confess I was twitching between my shoulder blades, sat in an open sided jeep watching four lions in front with five lions behind us.  Again they were just lazing in the mid day sun, I could even hear one of them panting in the heat.

 My favourite was the hippos. Lots of splashing grunting and calling to each other. As we left on our last day, we almost ran over a crocodile in order to pull into the edge of the water so I could get up close to the hippos. We did decide that retreat was best, when four of the hippos started moving in a line towards us. It turned out the jeep though tilted, wasn’t stuck in the mud and we made a hasty retreat. 

 We left Salous, taking off from the airstrip with giraffes munching in the tree tops alongside.

 Now in Zanzibar. This morning had my last dive. We found 7 turtles, I swapped the guiding hand of my dive buddy for the shell of a turtle, the turtle haply guided me around the reef it was Fantastic.

I have finally decided that 50th birthdays aren’t so bad after all.