Leadership Lessons from My Guide Dog
It’s always heartbreaking to lose a beloved fur-child. It’s even harder when it’s a retired guide dog who has given so much of her life and energy helping you live the independent life you want. And harder still if you happen to be on another continent at the time.
Sitting in our Airbnb apartment in Wroclaw, Poland on the evening my retired guide dog, Eccles, passed away, I found myself reflecting on the 12 ½ years she and I had spent together.
I smiled when I remembered our very first meeting when Eccles refused to acknowledge my existence, waiting patiently for her beloved trainer to rescue her from the total stranger she’d been lumped with. And at how quickly the bond of trust and love developed between us despite that inauspicious beginning. I thought of how many hundreds of times she and I must have traipsed from home, to the train station, down to the office in Simon’s Town, and back again at the end of the day. And how she would grab her squeaky toy and bounce round the office with it, squeaking joyfully to let us know it was time to stop working and head home. I laughed, remembering how she had hidden under the bed for the first three months we had Emily – desperately trying to avoid the savage paws and jaws of the young pup – until she rediscovered her ability to play.
I recalled how Eccles in essence retired herself when she was 11 years old, preferring to stay snoozing on her blanket rather than accompanying me to events. And I remembered her last final months when she seemed to find her inner naughty puppy –testing boundaries that had been out of bounds to her as a guide dog – and most often getting away with her naughtiness because her love of life was simply to infectious for me to chastise her.
Eccles was by far the gentlest of my 3 guide dogs. Where Leila tended to barge through people like an armoured tank (a trait shared by Fiji), Eccles would politely manoeuvre her way round people with a diffident but determined manner. She could also be a little scatter-brained – on one occasion she was so busy thinking about something else that she started walking in the opposite direction until I laughingly stopped her and turned her round.
Where Leila and Fiji would be quite likely to wander off and amuse themselves when they were off-duty, Eccles would prefer to sit at my feet until she was needed. Mind you, it was Eccles who pulled her leash out of my dad’s hand and wandered from one side of an auditorium to the other to find me when I was giving a presentation at a Toastmasters conference (you’ll need to get a copy of my book “A Different Way of Seeing” to read the whole story).
Though I have absolutely no doubt we took the right decision in letting Eccles go, I have to live with the feeling that I let her down because I wasn’t there with her at the end. I can’t express how grateful I am for the technology that made it possible for us to have a half hour WhatsApp conversation with our vet to really understand the options we faced. And I’m even more grateful for the strength and courage of our friend, Claire van Zyl, who was looking after our home and dogs while we were away – at least I know Eccles was with someone she knew and adored as she slipped into her final sleep. But it was inexpressibly hard not to be there and be able to say goodbye, and that pain will remain with me for a very long time.
Farewell, my beautiful Eccles, and thank you for the very many wonderful memories of our time together – I’ll treasure them always…
I know, I know, it’s been ages since I published an article. It’s certainly not for lack of anything to write about. After all, I recently got back from an amazing trip to Germany and Poland about which I have lots to share. I also need to gather my courage and write a final post honouring my retired guide dog, Eccles, who passed away after a short illness. Then I want to tell you about some of the exciting blind travel work I’m starting on, and a media interview I did recently.
So yes, I have plenty to share with you.
But somehow I’ve just fallen out of the habit of settling down to write…
Today I took the decision that it was time to fall back into that habit. so here’s just a short note to let you know that I’m back – back home, back writing, and back willing and eager to share more of my experiences living my ordinary life without sight.
I was startled to see that Fiji also neglected to write an article while I was away – clearly she was just having too much fun on her holiday from guide dogging. Maybe I’ll wake her up just now and ask her if she actually plans on writing a post this month. But you know what they say about letting sleeping dogs lie?
All I’m saying is watch this space…
A few weeks ago Fiji and I were walking to the Lakeside station when a Rottweiler got out of her yard and made as if to attack us. In hindsight I can see that she had every opportunity to attack and didn’t do so. But at the time I was terrified for Fiji’s safety and that terror petrified me.
Thankfully members of the community rushed to our assistance and managed to get the Rottweiler back into her yard and then contacted her owners who fixed their broken gate. Ultimately, no harm was done – at least not to Fiji.
The truth is that now when I walk past and hear the snarling Rottweiler leaping up at the gate I wonder if … just maybe… she’s going to get out again. And now I find myself rushing away as fast as I can which could be dangerous since it’s on a busy corner where we’re forced to walk in the road since the pavement is blocked by rocks to prevent cars parking there. So far we’ve been lucky… but I admit it’s not something I’m comfortable doing.
The Rottweiler incident has affected me in other ways as well – when we walk past other houses with dogs I find myself wondering if they’ll get out… and yesterday, when one of the dogs in my street did manage to get out I overreacted and yelled at him… despite the fact his owner leapt to the rescue and grabbed the dog before he could get anywhere near us.
I know the only way for me to work through this fear is to keep walking with Fiji and prove to myself that nothing is going to happen. And that’s what I’m doing – as often as I can.
But I do find myself smiling wryly when people tell me how brave they think I am to be out walking in the neighbourhood since the streets aren’t safe… because I doubt they’re referring to dogs!
I guess you’re probably wondering how Fiji reacted to this traumatic experience. She hasn’t shown a sign of concern – she’s perfectly relaxed about the whole thing – it’s just her mom whose currently a nervous wreck!
Today it is one year since I started working with my guide dog, Fiji. To mark the occasion I wanted to share with you the greatest gift that Fiji has given me over the past year.
I had a meltdown towards the end of my first week of training with Fiji at the SA Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind in Cape Town, bursting into tears at the lunch table and running from the room, with a very concerned young guide dog trailing me.
I felt like I wasn’t coping with my new dog. I found it hard trusting Fiji not to place us in danger. Every single step we took was frightening for me.
In hindsight it’s so obvious to me what was happening, but at the time I had no idea where this fear came from. Since stopping work in February 2013 I had spent most of my time at home. That was also pretty much when my previous guide dog, Eccles retired. As a result I’d got out of the habit of taking initiative. I’d got out of the habit of independent action. Without realizing it I had become like a robot – waiting for instructions before taking any action. I had stopped using my own abilities to interpret the world around me and let others do so on my behalf.
And the worst thing was that I had no idea it was happening.
To give you just a few examples: when travelling by train from Prague in the Czech Republic to Krakow in Poland in September 2013 I was so scared that I couldn’t climb onto the train without help. In fact, I couldn’t even walk down the platform without support. Over the years my sense of balance had deteriorated – when we were travelling Craig couldn’t leave me standing on my own to go and take photos since I was convinced I would fall. He had to find me somewhere to sit or something to lean against. In so many little ways I had yielded control and allowed other people to interpret the world around me.
Training with Fiji was the first time in years I had to start depending entirely on myself and my brand new guide dog to interpret what was happening around us.
In many ways getting Fiji forced me to confront my own dependence and relearn the skills of thinking and acting for myself. Thankfully the SA Guide-Dog trainers helped me confront that fear and start building the trust that is the foundation of a successful partnership with a guide dog. In doing that I regained my sense of my own independence.
In the last year the changes to my level of independence have been profound. Fiji and I regularly walk to the nearest shops to buy groceries, or head to our local coffee shop to meet with friends or colleagues. When we need to go further afield we think nothing of Ubering to do the things we want to do. And on holiday in Poland a few months ago not only did I climb on and off trains on my own (yes, even without Fiji, who was back home in Cape Town) but I also felt no qualms about standing on my own while Craig wandered around taking photos. I’m more willing to try new things on my own and to find new ways to do what I want. Even Craig has admitted it’s taken him a while to get accustomed to my new independence.
I’m often told that my positivity and drive make it seem like life is always easy for me. I prefer not to focus on the tough times. So it’s not easy for me to admit –to myself and especially not to others – how dependent I had become until I got Fiji.
So today, on our first anniversary, I want to acknowledge the profound change that working with this beautiful, mischievous, friendly and tireless white Labrador cross Golden Retriever has brought about in my life.
Fiji’s retaught me the courage to trust in my own abilities, the strength to use my senses to interpret the world around me and the initiative to become independent once more… and that is a priceless gift!
Hmm… and if that’s what we’ve achieved in the first year, can you imagine what’s in store for us in the years to come?
I’ve noticed a change at home over the past few months. It was fairly subtle at first, but it’s suddenly become a whole lot more obvious to me – I think Eccles is jealous of Fiji!
Eccles is my retired guide dog. She’s now almost 13 years old and, while still in very good health, is definitely feeling her age a little. So, I don’t think it’s that she wants to come and walk with me in Fiji’s place, I think she’s just jealous of the attention that Fiji gets.
I didn’t even really notice the first signs. When Fiji and I got ready for a walk Eccles would come and hang around us. Honestly, I thought she was just being a Labrador and wanting to get her share of the treats that Fiji receives for good behaviour.
Then it became obvious that Eccles was feeling a bit left out. She would push her way between Fiji and me when we were playing, forcing Fiji away from me. Yes, I know that sounds crazy – a gentle 13 year old dog pushing an energetic 2.5 year old out of the way… but that’s what happened.
Then yesterday the green-eyed monster rose to new heights? depths?
As Fiji leaned down to drink from her water bowl, Eccles shoved her out the way and began to drink Fiji’s water.
This probably begs a word of explanation to understand why it’s such an issue. For some inexplicable reason Fiji WILL NOT drink if another dog has already had water from the bowl. I know it’s weird, but it’s just the way she is. So I tipped the remaining water into the other dog bowl, refilled it and… Eccles went for it again! Only this time I grabbed her and held her back until Fiji had finished.
I know I’m probably humanising the way Eccles is feeling more than is warranted… but Well… if it looks like the green-eyed monster and it acts like the green-eyed monster, then… But I wonder if it’s the Black Labrador half that’s turning green, or the Golden Retriever. Hmm… A Green Labrador? A Green Retriever?
Maybe I should just make sure I give Eccles lots of love, a few dog treats every now and then – and an occasional bowl of water all of her own.
I love living in Cape Town. But I have to admit this isn’t my favourite time of year – yes, the summer weather is warm and everything… but it’s also the time that we are plagued with heavy winds. For many people, the heavy wind is something of an inconvenience. But for those of us without sight, it’s a significantly bigger problem!
As a blind person I rely heavily on my sense of hearing, especially when crossing roads – I need to listen to what the traffic is doing so Fiji and I can cross safely. Heavy wind distorts or masks the sound of cars and that makes it significantly harder for Fiji and me to navigate our immediate environment. Do you know what it’s like having a car appear as if by magic right behind you?
I’ve been trying to find a sighted equivalent and came up with the concept that it’s probably a little like a sighted person trying to find their way through a heavy snowfall, or perhaps a dense fog. The point is that to all intents and purposes you’re deprived of a sense that you generally use to find your way round. That’s what walking in heavy wind is like for me.
Not much fun, is it?
I admit that I was very pleasantly surprised on one occasion when we were waiting to cross Main road in heavy wind. A traffic policewoman approached and offered to stop traffic so we could cross. Of course, that happened to be the day I had someone walking with me so I didn’t really need her help. But it just goes to show that the saying that there’s never a policeman around when you need one isn’t always true!
So, the next time the wind starts howling, try to visualise yourself peering desperately through a snowfall or impenetrable fog… and spare a thought for Fiji and me standing on the side of a road straining to hear the growl of car engines between the gusts of wind.
When I was young someone told me that if a dog was sitting half way between two bowls of dog food they would starve because they wouldn’t be able to decide which bowl to go to first.
I’ve always had problems with that story – I simply couldn’t believe that a dog wouldn’t just go and eat one bowl and then rush over and eat the other. But a few days ago I was astounded to see that story play out in reality – and, well, let’s just say I was startled by what happened!
On this particular day Craig was getting ready to take Fiji for a run. He takes her running at least once a week and she absolutely loves it! I usually try to feed the dogs early on the evening Fiji is to run because the trainers at the SA Guide-Dogs Association for the Blind warned us a dog shouldn’t be active for 30 minutes after they eat.
When I realized how late it had become I decided to simply feed Fiji when she got back from her run, feeding the other dogs while she was away. It seemed like the perfect solution!
As usual, Fiji ran to Craig so he could attach her leash prior to the run. Then she ran full speed back to me, whining for her food. She reached me, immediately turned round and ran back to Craig, now whining because she wanted to run. She ran back and forth several times again, all the time whining desperately. It was as if she couldn’t make up her mind which to sacrifice –her run, or her supper!
Craig finally called her and told her they were leaving. With a final glance and heart-breaking whine in my direction, Fiji dashed off for her run. Of course, Fiji’s supper was waiting for her when she returned so she got to have her cake and eat it, as the old saying goes.
The point is, I’m no longer certain about the story I was told when I was young – if it were Fiji she might just starve from her inability to choose. And before anyone yells at me, I promise I’m not going to put it to the test – I’d never be that cruel to Fiji!
Watch the video to see and hear how excited Fiji gets when she knows she’s about to be taken for a run…
I met my guide dog, Fiji, just less than 11 months ago. You know, I can hardly believe it – in some ways it seems like such a brief span of time … And in some ways it feels like she has been an integral part of my life forever!
Here’s a few of the things that have changed since I got Fiji:
- I’m going places and doing things I’ve never done on my own before – like walking to the local Woolworths, catching Ubers, and getting out and meeting people from our community as we walk around in our neighbourhood. I can now even arrange to meet friends and colleagues at our local coffee shop… without having to ask them to come and fetch me. It’s great!
- We’re getting more exercise – having a young, energetic, and somewhat demanding, guide dog means Fiji and I are out walking at least 3 or 4 times a week. She also joins Craig on a run once or twice a week, and due to Fiji’s boundless capacity for play, our Golden Retriever Emily also gets a lot more exercise. Maybe Fiji’s secretly in cahoots with Discovery Health!
- My levels of self-confidence have grown hugely – this has had such a profound impact on my life that I’m going to write an entire post on it in the next while, but let’s just say that the self-confidence I’ve developed through working with Fiji has touched virtually all aspects of my life and leave it at that for now.
- My dress sense has changed – I know this may be hard to believe. I mean, how on earth could a dog impact on the clothes I wear? It’s actually fairly simple – before I got Fiji my only requirement was that clothing had to be comfortable. Well, that’s not strictly true –the clothing also had to fit me and look okay, but I don’t think those should count as criteria as they are pretty obvious. However, since working with Fiji, I’ve also had to ensure that I can attach a treat-bag to my clothing, and that means either wearing a belt, having a defined waistband, or accessories that I can clip the treat-bag to. Sometimes I’ve even had to clip the treat-bag to the shoulder strap of a handbag, which isn’t ideal, but at least it works. So this has become another of the criteria I use when shopping for clothing.
It seems crazy to think how much my life has been changed by a 2 ½ year old blond Golden Retriever cross Labrador who weighs in at less than 30 kg, but it’s true… and I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world!
The first time it happened I was waiting to cross a road.
A car pulled over to the side of the road and the window was lowered. A lady leaned across from the driver’s seat and asked how long I’d been training guide dogs.
Last weekend it happened again.
In conversation with my husband, Craig, someone else said they hadn’t realized that I was blind and was working with Fiji – they thought I was a guide dog trainer teaching a prospective guide dog.
Now, I don’t know if it’s because Fiji is still so young and people don’t believe she could have been working for almost a year, or whether we are just working so seamlessly that people can’t believe that I’m blind, but whatever the reason, I can’t imagine a better case of mistaken identity!
Recently my guide dog, Fiji, has shown me in no uncertain terms that micromanagement does not work. I’ve always known I preferred being able to control what was happening around me, but had never thought of myself as a control freak… till now.
My first lesson in micromanagement happened 5 months ago when we introduced Fiji to the other dogs at home – a process that we had been thoroughly briefed on by the guide dog trainers. Remember that we needed to introduce a new member into a team that had long since sorted out their personalities (dog-alities? Canine-alities?) and their processes. Potentially it could have been a difficult time for everyone concerned.
On the drive home I gave my husband, Craig, long and detailed instructions on how we were going to proceed. Yet when it came down to it, all those instructions went straight out the window – which is where Fiji tried to go as soon as she saw the rest of her new doggy family. And very soon Fiji was playing happily as an integral part of the pack.
So much for my trying to micromanage the situation!
My second lesson on micromanagement took place a few weeks later. Though I had no issues with Fiji while we were walking our routes, she had a tendency to become highly excited when around people, which I felt I needed to manage as some people do not like dogs. I sought advice from the guide dog trainers and it helped… a bit.
Then it dawned on me that the times I was most stressed about the issue and tried hardest to keep her under tight control were the times my highly sensitive guide dog reacted to people most strongly. So I took a conscious decision to relax and only react if it was warranted… and the situation eased almost immediately. Once again it appeared that my trying to micromanage the situation was not the most effective response.
Since then I have tried to incorporate this learning into my leadership activities, and my life has become less complicated, less stressful and less busy. I’m trying to resist double checking that every task that the team needs to accomplish is being done. I’m trying to let people resolve their own minor conflicts while being available if I am needed. I’m also trying to let go control and trust in the process rather than planning every minute detail of every possible eventuality that might possibly occur.
I’m definitely not perfect and there are times I don’t get it right – either with the teams with whom I’m working, or with Fiji – but I’m finding there is less conflict and more collaboration since I’ve started trying to let go of control by micromanaging the team.