Fiji

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Paws for Thought: You Can’t Choose Your Family.

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Whoever said you can’t choose your family was so right. Yet my sister Emily and I totally fell for it when mom and dad told us we’d be able to choose our new sibling from TEARS animal rescue. Because, if that were the case, how did we land up with the dog whose first act was to snap at me?

Let’s just say that our first few weeks with Allie were a little tense. I mean, how would you react if someone just dropped a brand new person into your fairly ordered life and said, “Hey, here’s your new sister – now everyone play nicely!” I’d bet you’d also be a little unsettled. So it took me and Allie a bit of circling round each other and muttering before we settled down to some serious play.

I’ll admit that everything became a lot less stressful when mom convinced me that Allie wasn’t going to take over my guide dog duties. And having an Allie-sister actually became fun when dad started running with both of us.

For those who want the details, Allie’s an 18 month old Labrador crossed with an alligator. At least, that’s how it seems since she loves to play-bite me on the legs. She’s full of energy and is intensely curious about absolutely everything. She’s somehow convinced dad that she’s allowed to sleep on the couch, which none of us other dogs have ever been allowed to do.

Allie used to cry when mom and I went for a walk, until dad bought her a toy that spits out pellets of food as she bats it around the house. Don’t tell mom, but sometimes I’m tempted to stay home to play with the toy instead of going for a walk. But I really love walking so I’m not too tempted. But maybe just once … just till I get one of those pellets!

Allie’s now so much part of our family that I’ll even let her drink out of my water bowl when I’m drinking, which I never let other dogs do. And it’s so much fun when Allie and me gang up on our oldest sister, Emily!

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After a somewhat rocky start, I’m glad Allie has become my sister. Though there are times she can be a bit of a handful. Which is why I snapped at her last week – but just a little bit, I promise. And maybe that was just payback for her snapping at me the first time we met…

When it comes down to it, even though it’s true you can’t choose your family, I’m pretty sure I’d have chosen Allie to be my sister even if I had been allowed to choose.

Welcome to the family and lots of wags, little sister, Allie!

Paws for Thought on My Life So Far

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I can’t believe I turned four years old last week. And that mom and I have been partnered for 2.5 years already. As I lie here snuggled up against the cold, I’ve been reflecting on all that’s happened in my life so far.

I’ll admit I was a little worried when mom and I first met. I mean, she seemed a nice lady and I was sure I could train her easily enough. Then, one day on class, she burst into tears and nothing I did seemed to calm her down. Nowadays when we give talks, mom explains that she’d become dependent on family and friends since her previous guide dog (my sister Eccles) had retired and that she’d stopped using her other senses and instincts to guide her. And she was terrified that she might do something to harm me or her.

Of course, I already knew that. I’d noticed my new mom was slightly hesitant when we walked. And that she wanted me to walk a lot slower than I like. And that she was always extra careful about stepping off and onto pavements. I tried to tell her that I trusted her and knew I could help her get over her anxiety about walking with me. But she didn’t seem to understand. So I realized I’d just have to show her.

It’s been wonderful to see how far mom’s come in the last 2.5 years – she’s far more confident, and is totally fine walking at my preferred pace. She’s also happy to go places and do things that she wouldn’t have done in those first few weeks. And mom trusts me and knows I’ll always be there to help her, no matter what. Unless she ever wants to try bungee jumping – then she’s on her own!

When I was training to be a guide dog we often used to wonder about the people we’d be partnered with. And, the day I met mom, I discovered it wasn’t going to be just her and me – that I’d have a whole human and doggy family! I love having doggy siblings to play with when I’m not on duty and me and my sisters Emily and Allie spend lots of time having mock fights and pulling rope.

The other really great thing about my family is that I’m allowed to take dad running. I wrote about that last time, so you can go back and read my previous article if you want to know more. Since I wrote the article, Allie’s started joining us on our runs which is also fun – especially when she accidentally slips off the rocks when we’re free-running on Muizenburg beach.

Finally, I’m really happy I still get to see some of the important people from before mom and I started working together. I see my puppy-walkers, Jenny and Mike, at events quite often and they even came to visit me at my home once. Mom and I sometimes do talks for the SA Guide-Dogs Association so I get to see Avril, Teagan, Cheryl and Charne as well, though I always try to remember to show them how well mom’s doing now.

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Sometimes when I meet young trainee guide dogs, I laugh at how young, naughty and puppyish they still are. But then I remember how mischievous I was as a puppy, and some of the antics I and my guide dog class got up to and I realize that even the naughtiest dog has the potential to become a wonderful guide dog one day.

I’ve added a few photos from my carefree puppy days with Jenny and Mike, one of the official photos from when mom graduated from guide dog school with me, and one of me and mom working together.

As I lie curled up at mom’s feet reflecting on my four years on this earth and the time I’ve spent as a working guide dog with my wonderful family, all I can say is wag, wag, wag, wag, wag, wag, wag!
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Come and Join Us – Women’s Day Lunch for SA Guide-Dogs Association

I’ve lost count of the organisations, schools, community groups, and events that Fiji and I have spoken at on behalf of the South African Guide-Dogs Association since we started working together. Each event is special in its own way – from the pre-schoolers who will make a semblance of listening politely while desperately curbing their excitement till they can play with Fiji, to the recent 60th birthday party where the guests were asked to make a contribution to Guide-Dogs in lieu of birthday gifts. But I think the most memorable Guide-Dogs Association event I’ve been asked to speak at has to be the annual World Sight Day fundraising dinner in October last year. It was a glittering event and Fiji and I were proud that we were able to play a small role in helping to raise R800 000 for this amazing cause.

I suspect the Women’s Day lunch on 18 August will be another such glittering event. And, since Fiji and I will be sharing the stage with a woman whose work I really admire – Abigail K, The Confidence Crusader – I can only imagine what a fun and inspiring day it’s going to be. Avril, who’s organizing the event tells me there will be some exciting raffle and spot prizes and, from the few she’s mentioned, I agree they’re pretty awesome!

Details for the event are in the attached flyer.

I really hope you’ll be able to take a break from your busy schedules and join us for a relaxed and uplifting ladies luncheon for an amazing cause.

And, if that’s not reason enough, I’m sure there will be plenty guide dogs and guide dogs in training in attendance to make the whole experience just that little bit more special – I know for sure that Fiji will be there!

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Farewell, Faithful Friend

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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.
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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…
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Falling Back into the Habit

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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…

Louis on the Block – Another Great Place for Guide Dogs

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It’s really not hard to find an enticing restaurant in Cape Town, no matter what type of food you’re looking for. I’ve already written a number of reviews of places that welcome Fiji and this is another of those. But this restaurant, Louis on the Block, in Bergvliet, has an added bonus – they’ve made their venue accessible to people who are mobility impaired as well.

Craig, Fiji and I have eaten at Louis on the Block in Children’s Way, Bergvliet a number of times. Not only do we enjoy their delicious, reasonably priced food and good service, but I’m always impressed by how disability-aware they are.

My guide dog, Fiji, is always warmly welcomed into the restaurant. On one momentous previous visit Fiji was offered not just a bowl of water but a snack as well, which she was most put out when I declined. I know some of you may be thinking it was unfair of me to deprive her of her snack when Craig and I got to eat. Here’s the thing: if Fiji learns to look for food at restaurants she’s slipped over the line into begging – and a begging dog is downright unpleasant for everyone!

What really impresses me about Louis on the Block is that the restaurant is also accessible to those with physical disabilities. Though there are steps up to the main entrance, they have a second stepless entrance that’ll easily accommodate wheelchairs. The tables aren’t crammed together so the space is fairly easily navigable, and the restrooms are also spacious enough to allow access to a wheelchair.

Over the years I’ve been to a large number of restaurants that are happy to accommodate my visual impairment and my guide dog. Sadly I doubt the same is true for a person with a mobility impairment. So it’s really great to experience a restaurant that is so aware of the needs of all their customers, no matter what!

If you’ve never been to Louis on the Block in Bergvliet, Fiji and I would definitely recommend you give them a try –with apologies from Fiji for not being able to vouch for the food herself.

Paws for Thought – But not When I’m Running!

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I’m really missing mom right now. I miss having her around… and I definitely miss working with her and guiding her to where she needs to go. I’m sure she’s having a wonderful time in Germany – wherever that is – and that she’ll be home soon.

But I miss her and can’t wait for her to come home.

I also really miss dad… and being able to take him on a run every now and then. So that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

There are huge differences in working with mom and running with dad. When I work with mom I watch out for her every step, checking what’s happening in front, beside and above me as well as what’s happening right at my paws. With mom I know to stop at steps and how to tell her if we need to step off the pavement to avoid an obstacle. I also have special techniques for helping mom cross roads, go up and down flights of stairs, find strategic route markers so she knows where we are and go round cars that are parked by the side of the road (we often have to walk on the side of the road where we live). And I know how to find escalators, which might just be my favourite part of my job. And mom rewards my good behavior by giving me small treats – which I definitely deserve.

With dad we mostly just run. Sure, there are places we stop (like at the train crossing and main road) but generally we don’t stop running for other things. It does mean I have to be super-aware of looking to see if any evil squirrels are around, but we’re usually running too fast for me to pay them much attention anyway. With dad I don’t stop for steps or find strategic poles since he doesn’t seem to use his sense of touch to help him discover where we are. And when I’m running with dad I can simply be a dog, rather than a guide dog.

The only problem is that dad doesn’t give me treats…. Which I’m sure I could teach him to do if I really tried hard.

Oh, I wanted to tell you that the photograph shows me proudly wearing the race medal I got for completing the 5 km Day of Races with mom last year, which is the only medal I’ve been given despite all the running I do…and I got it for walking with mom, rather than running with dad.

Which only goes to show that humans really don’t make sense.

Pro’s and Con’s of Travel: My Personal Perspective

Cds 2016 11 26 08 38 08As I sit considering what clothing to pack for my imminent adventure in Germany and Poland I find myself idly constructing a list of the pro’s and con’s of travel from my own particular perspective.

the pro’s are fairly easy. I love experiencing new places and using my remaining senses to build a picture of the place we’re visiting. I know it’s a very different way to see the world. People often say they don’t understand why I travel, let alone how. For me there’s something special about experiencing a place using my senses of hearing, taste, scent and touch. And, of course, discovering the stories that surround the cities and sites we visit so I can use my (rather over-active) imagination to imagine myself into the lives of the people living there.

I also learn more about my own life and skills when I travel. Somehow, leaving my usual routine gives me new insight into what I’m able to do and often gives me a more objective way of seeing my own life.

Travel also teaches me about different cultures. While I’m privileged to live in a wonderfully diverse country, travelling makes it easier to observe diversity since we’re actively trying to experience the reality of a different place and people.

For me, those are a few of the pro’s of travel. So what are the con’s?

Let’s be honest, most of us love our home comforts – knowing where everything is in our kitchen, being able to arrange our clothing the way we like, and especially the comfort of our own bed. We don’t have any of those familiar comforts when we travel. For many that’s a decided disadvantage. And I’m no different – I like my own space and the way I’ve adapted it to serve my needs.

For me there’s also the challenge of leaving my beloved guide dog behind and being dependent on a sighted guide. Okay, I know that sighted guide is my husband and that he really doesn’t mind assisting me and describing what’s around me. But still, its hard to leave behind the glorious sense of independence that working with Fiji gives me. Besides, she’s so attentive and loving (and occasionally demanding) that it’s hard knowing I can’t simply reach down and feel her curled up next to me. I miss that when we travel.

These are the thoughts buzzing round my head as I prepare for my trip. And, while I can’t wait to head off on my latest adventure, there’s a small part of me that’s already looking forward to coming home.

Bluebird Market: A Great Place for Dogs – and for Humans, Too!

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Another place Fiji and I go on a regular basis is the Bluebird Market, in Muizenberg. It’s a great place for the Lakeside and Muizenberg communities to spend a few enjoyable hours with good food, local wines and craft beers, diverse people… and a whole lot of dogs!

As a fussy vegetarian I especially enjoy the range of vegetarian food on offer – from scrumptious Falafel wraps to the most amazing cheese/chilli spring rolls. But don’t be worried you’ll go hungry if you enjoy meat – my husband has never complained about the numerous meat options on offer.

Since the market is welcoming to dogs Fiji loves going there as well. Interestingly I’ve observed that she seldom gets overly excited about the other dogs running around and, in fact, will sometimes do little more than lift her head to observe a passing dog and then go back to sleep. It would be a lie to say she always behaves like a perfect guide dog – with so many people and so much food it’s hardly surprising she’s tempted to sniff around to see what snacks she can find for herself. We try to discourage her but well, I’m sure you know what Labradors are like when it comes to the possibility of food!

I’m not sure the Bluebird Market would be easy for someone with a mobility impairment to navigate their way round. There are simply too many people and too little space. Having said that, the market building is equipped with ramps with a gentle gradient with the only exception being the step up into the book shop on the premises.

From my perspective as a blind person, the only problem I have is that the market is generally full and loud, which can make it hard for me to orientate myself in the building. But then I don’t think it would be much fun on my own so I always have a sighted guide there to assist me if I need to get around. Having said that, I regularly have total strangers offering me assistance there so Fiji and I could probably manage on our own should we ever need to.

Overall, both Fiji and I really enjoy the Bluebird Market and would recommend it to any friends – human and canine!

Paws for Thought: What Do You Mean We’re Up in the Clouds?

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I want to talk about something that really confuses me – air travel. And if you don’t understand why I find it confusing, think about it from my perspective.

We drive to this really big building, where we walk from one counter to another, sometimes stopping so mom can get a cup of tea, and then go to a place with lots of people all sitting and waiting. We join them sit and wait… and wait.

Then we go to yet another counter and then either walk through a tunnel or catch a bus. If we go by bus we eventually get out and approach something that looks like a giant metal sausage with wheels glued underneath. Then we climb some stairs and get swallowed by the sausage, which is really odd because usually I’m the one eating the sausage, not the other way around.

There are rows and rows of seats inside the giant metal sausage, which is actually called a plane. It looks a bit like the theatre mom took me to once, except the plane has fewer seats and there doesn’t appear to be as much for people to watch.

Then the strangest thing happens – the sausage starts to move and grumble in the most unpleasant way, exactly like it has indigestion. This continues for a time and then suddenly my ears pop – which is quite a thing for a dog!

Finally, after lots and lots and lots of time… and a whole lot more of that nasty indigestion… they open the door of the giant metal sausage and mom puts me back on harness and we walk out.

Amazingly we emerge into a different big building with lots of new scents and people. Sometimes we go and wait by this long moving table with suitcases of all shapes and sizes on it. We seem to watch it for a long time, then dad randomly reaches out and chooses one or two of the suitcases… only sometimes we don’t bother and simply walk out.

I know I’m just a dog and I don’t always understand human stuff, but even I know that mom was only joking when she told me the giant metal sausages can fly from one place to another above the clouds – I mean, how naïve does she think I am?

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