Over the past few months I’ve become used to the strange things happening around me. I’m okay with mom wearing a face mask when we walk, even if the voice commands she gives me sound a bit muffled. I’m used to mom and me not going out to different places. I can accept that mom needs to spend most of the day working at the computer. I’m even used to dad being around all the time. But the one thing I just can’t figure out is social distancing.
Most of the reason I’m perplexed is that my guide dog training didn’t include a class on social distancing. Mom’s tried to explain it to me but I just don’t get it.
As a guide dog, I know I shouldn’t walk up to people and distract them. So that’s not the problem. But it doesn’t mean I’m trained to walk a specific distance away from them. Or that I’m comfortable walking far into the road if mom and I need to pass slower walkers – first and foremost I’m trained to keep mom out of danger, and I don’t think it’s safe walking into the road like that.
I’m really glad mom and I haven’t had to go to the shops, because I think it would be hard for me to remember to stop at the painted lines on the floor that keep people a safe distance from each other. But then, I’ve never been able to figure out why people stand in queues. Or how to do so – I’m trained to go straight to the counter. So shopping would be doubly stressful for me now.
At least mom is able to hear where other people are when we walk and take evasive action. Because it would be very confusing if my training told me to do one thing and social distancing told me to do something else. But, you know, even though I trust mom’s judgement, I’d still like to do something to help. Because I’m a guide dog. And that’s what I do.
If you have any clever suggestions on how I could help mom maintain social distancing when we’re out and about, I’d love to hear them.
After almost six weeks of being confined to home during the Level 5 lockdown, I wasn’t sure how my guide dog would react to once again wearing her harness and working with me. Okay, I knew she’d pull like crazy, because that’s what she does after a few days without working. So I had no illusions about how much pulling a six-week break was going to warrant!
After working together for over four years I was fairly certain that the break wouldn’t impact on her ability to work. Or her enthusiasm for guiding. By now Fiji and I know each other pretty well. What did concern me slightly was whether her excitement would override her excellent training – would she remember what she’d been trained to do?
I decided to have back-up with me the first time we walked, just in case. So my husband joined us for our first time out. As did our youngest dog, Allie, who walked with Craig. At least, that was the plan.
What a bad mistake it turned out to be!
Allie is used to running with Fiji. And I really mean with her – they run side by side flawlessly. So, poor Allie didn’t understand why she and dad were walking behind Fiji and mom. She whined, and she pulled, and she did doggy star-jumps to try and catch up with Fiji and me. Which totally put Fiji off her game.
Fiji kept trying to see what was bothering her sister. At first, she tried turning around to see what was going on. When that didn’t work, because I kept her moving forward, she tried to walk into the middle of the road to try and catch sight of Allie out of the corner of her eye. In desperation we tried allowing Craig and Allie to walk ahead. Only then Fiji was the one pulling like a steam train to get back out front.
So we figured we’d just have to deal with two slightly crazy dogs. But at least Fiji and I got to be out front.
Apart from that, Fiji did well on her walk.
The second time we walked, Craig hopped on his bicycle and cycled round the neighbourhood, checking in on us every now and then as we walked.
Which was fine. Except that every time he cycled past us, Fiji wanted to dash off after him. When he was going in the same direction as us it wasn’t so bad – we simply walked a little faster until he was out of sight. But whenever he appeared in front of us and rode past, Fiji immediately tried to turn round and run after him. I didn’t know whether to laugh at her enthusiasm, or growl at her naughtiness.
Since then Fiji and I have been going it alone. And she’s working brilliantly. Maybe she’s burned off the initial excitement and she’s once again used to walking her routes. Maybe she was just distracted by Craig’s presence… and Allie’s. Regardless, Fiji and I have slipped back into the easy rhythm of working as a team. And I totally love the experience.
I’m grateful that Craig was willing to help me manage my anxiety on our first two walks. But it is immensely liberating to be able to walk on my own with my beautiful Fiji.
I think I’m the happiest guide dog in the world right now… I might even be the happiest dog in the whole wide world. Even though I know there are lots and lots of happy dogs out there.
The reason I’m so ecstatic is that mom and dad have both got over their fear of the gate to outside! I’m overjoyed that everything is better. It looks like I won’t have to approach anyone to come and retrain them.
I don’t know what changed to make them less scared but, to be honest, I don’t need to know. All I need to know is that we can go outside and do what we love.
On Friday and Saturday, dad took me and my sister Allie for a run. And on Sunday he took Allie for a run and then took my other sister Emily for a walk. I could have gone with them, but was feeling a little stiff – two runs after forever of no exercise is tiring, you know. So I stayed behind and looked after mom.
I was a very happy dog by the end of the weekend.
And then, joy of all joys, mom picked up my harness and took me for a walk yesterday morning. It was such a wonderful experience! Okay, it wasn’t exactly my most proficient walk. But that was because dad and Allie were walking behind us, and Allie kept on whining. Mom had to keep reminding me to focus and walk straight, instead of walking into the middle of the road so I could catch sight of what was bothering Allie. It looked like she was really giving dad a hard time, pulling, and doing vertical lift-off jumps. Turns out that she was trying to catch up to me and mom. When I realized that was what was bothering her, I stopped worrying about it and just walked like I ought to.
So now I’m not only a very happy dog, I’m an incredibly happy guide dog. And that’s how it’s meant to be.
I know I should probably keep an eye on mom and dad to make sure they don’t slip back into their bad habit of avoiding the gate. But, for now, everything is just about perfect, and I’ll deal with that if it happens again.
Over the past month or so, it feels like every time I hop onto social media or download my e-mail, I’m overwhelmed by the most amazing offers, urging me to sign up for an online event (now discounted), a webinar (also discounted), or an online course (ditto).
And I’ll admit I’ve been sorely tempted to take advantage of more than one of these fantastic offers.
But here’s the thing. Even though, like much of the world, I’m working from home, I’m struggling to find all this free time that the mails and posts tell me I ought to have. Because I can’t seem to find it.
I’m spending as much time at my computer as I was before the lockdowns came into place. And regularly find myself standing up at the end of the day wondering where the time went.
Admittedly, I’ve been taking advantage of the time to finish things that have been languishing on my “to do list” forever – things I really want to get round to but never seem to have the time. I’ve also picked up playing music again and am having vast amounts of fun sharing songs with friends and family on Facebook Live every week or so. And I’m finally starting to catch up on all the podcasts that have slowly been accumulating on my feed. Apart from the French language tutorial podcasts, which seem to have fallen by the wayside a little since lockdown started.
And then, of course, there’s my usual work developing my writing and speaking businesses – radio interviews, my regular blog articles, the international magazine I write for every second month, the travel podcast I host, and the ongoing work to update my book and convert it into an audio format.
Not to mention housework. And being a captive slave to the whims of my dogs, who are overly full of vim and vigour because they aren’t able to go for walks and runs like they usually would. I know Fiji’s frustrated that we haven’t been out and about as usual, though she’s hiding it well.
So, I’m perplexed about where to find all this spare time I keep hearing about. Any idea where I should look? I’ve searched around the house, checked in case it’s hiding in the back of a little used closet, and even looked under the bed (much to the confusion of Fiji, who was sleeping there at the time, but to no avail.
But I’m going to keep hunting, because I’d really love to take up some of those (very discounted) offers that keep coming my way!
The past few weeks have been very strange for me and my doggy sisters. We’re all feeling a little uncertain and confused.
For one thing, mom and dad are around all the time. In many ways, that’s a good thing. Because they’re our people and we love having them with us at home. Especially since they’re always happy to pat us if we walk up to them such bliss!
On the other paw, mom and dad aren’t taking advantage of the time very well. I mean, I can’t even remember when mom and I last got to walk. And dad is only running up and down the wall in the garden, which isn’t half as much fun for us as going on longer runs. It almost seems like mom and dad have become scared of the gate out to the rest of the world, which is really weird.
Mom has even started giving me daily lessons on how to find the front door and a lounge chair, which she’s been able to find on her own for years. So I’ve no idea why she seems to have forgotten. She’s also started refreshing herself on some of my most basic commands like down and stay. And I’m pretty sure she mastered those ages ago.
I know it’s for a good reason. I mean, mom and dad usually have logical reasons for what they do… apart from when they go somewhere without me. And I’m not really complaining – life is still wonderful, and I have lots of fun playing with my sisters and running around the garden. It’s just not the same.
If mom and dad are actually scared of the gate, I might eventually have to ask the trainers from the South African Guide-Dog Association to come and retrain them. But I’ll wait a few weeks before taking that drastic step and maybe everything will go back to normal if me and my sisters are patient.
At least, I hope so. It’s just all a little confusing for us right now…
Pride comes before a fall. Or so the saying goes. And, of course, sometimes it’s all too true. Even when not taken literally – after all, I didn’t actually fall.
Let’s go back a bit and I’ll explain.
Fiji and I were attending the Love Your Guide Dog event in Fish Hoek. Love Your Guide Dog is an annual fundraiser for the South African Guide-Dog Association for the Blind organised by two wonderful ladies who are service dog owners – Janice Salthouse and Dawn Pilatowicz. It was our first time attending, and I’d been asked to propose the thanks at the end of the evening.
The event started with an introduction and walk-through of all the working dogs and puppies-in-training. And their respective humans, of course. And, with my typical stubbornness, I decided that Fiji and I would be introduced, and walk from the entrance to our table without sighted assistance. After all, Craig would be at the table and I was sure Fiji would walk straight to him without a problem. Which is where the term pride becomes relevant.
Because, you see, when we were about halfway to our table, my guide dog suddenly veered off towards another table to say hello to someone. And then proceeded to cause chaos by pulling me behind her through a forest of tables and chairs as she tried to reach Craig. All of which could have been avoided if I’d swallowed my pride and accepted sighted assistance.
What made it funny was that we’d been asked to provide a brief comment on something unique about our dogs for the introductions. And it was at the precise moment when Janice, who was reading the introductions, read that Fiji was easily distractable that Fiji veered so vastly off course… demonstrating exactly what I’d written.
When Fiji and I took part in a show at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival last year, our show’s producer told me I should consider trying stand-up comedy. Maybe Fiji was simply trying to show me how exquisite her sense of comedic timing is. Maybe she was just wanting to say hi to whomever was at that table. Or maybe she just got distracted. I’ll never know for sure.
Regardless of her rationale for doing what she did, Fiji landed up getting the first laugh of the evening.
And what a fun evening it turned out to be. But you’ll have to wait for next time to hear the details…
With thanks to Tania Robbertze Photography for the photo of Fiji and I at the event.
Today is a special day – Fiji and I met for the very first time exactly four years ago, on 28 February 2016. I can hardly believe my beautiful guide dog and I have been working for that long. In many ways it feels like it was only yesterday that we met. Yet I can’t deny that our bond has grown much stronger over that time.
I thought it might be fun for Fiji and I to reminisce on that meeting. Here’s a transcription of our conversation.
Lois: I wasn’t certain what to expect when we first met. And I was a little nervous because I could still remember how dismissive my previous guide dog, your sister, Eccles, had been when she and I met.
Fiji: Well, mom, I was also a bit nervous – at least you’d had a guide dog before so you kind of knew what to expect. For me it was all brand new. So, when Cheryl brought me into the room, I looked at you and didn’t know what to think. Especially when you sat on the floor and watched me sniff my way around the room. I really didn’t know what you expected of me. So I eventually wandered over, as if by accident, and sat down hear you. But not too near, just in case.
Lois: I remember that. I was curious to see what you’d do. And I was glad you decided to curl up close enough that I could reach out and pat you.
Fiji: Oh come on, did you really think I’d pass up the opportunity of getting patted? You know how much I love it!
Lois: Fair enough. But I didn’t know that back then. I also remember that the first time you made me laugh was later that night, when Cheryl and I came into the room and found you curled up on my bed, with your head on my pillow. It was just so cute! So completely naughty. But so cute!
Fiji: Would you believe me if I said I was actually just trying to warm the bed up for you, Mom? Besides, it’s not like you were using it right then.
Lois: True. I really shouldn’t have left you in the room when I went to chat to Cheryl. No wonder you decided to try your luck.
Fiji: Exactly (Fiji wags her tail)
Lois: After that we got on fairly well. And we seemed to work well together.
Fiji: Well, it didn’t take me long to realize that you were already quite well trained and that I’d just need to work on a few small things to get you back into top form. Even though you did seem a bit nervous at first. So I think I managed to train you quite fast, with the help of Cheryl and Joel.
Lois: Do you remember when I went home to visit your doggy sisters during training?
Fiji: Of course I remember. I was very cross with you… And very happy when you came back the next morning, though I didn’t want to let on. I leapt up and grabbed your arm to tell you I wasn’t going to let you get away with behaviour like that again – that you were my mom and that I was to be there to look after you. And then you hugged me and I forgave you.
Lois: I think we’ve had a pretty good last four years, don’t you?
Fiji: For the most part. We’ve had some fun adventures and have met some lovely dogs and people. We’ve gone to plenty interesting places. But I’ve also been worried about you a few times -like when you tripped over that step and hurt yourself. And when you went away for a week because you got sick. And when you left me with dad and went to do something in Ghana. I always miss you when you go away without me. Because I love working with you and want to be with you always.
Lois: I know sometimes I go places without you. I always want to take you, but sometimes it’s just not possible. But I always come home, don’t I?
Fiji: Yes, you do. And then I grab your arm again to remind you that your place is with me and my place is with you. And then you hug me and everything’s fine again.
Lois: So, Fiji, what’s going to happen in the next four years?
Fiji: I think you’re going to walk me three times a day every day. And you’re going to start feeding me lunch as well as breakfast and supper. And you’re going to actually let me chase the squirrels when we see them.
Lois: Umm, maybe not.
Fiji: Oh. Well, I had to ask…
Fiji and I also want to send out a huge thank you to those who have been part of her journey to this point – her puppy walkers, Jenny and Mike, Beata and Piotr, all the wonderful people at the South African Guide-Dog Association for the Blind, the hundreds of adults and children that Fiji and I have been privileged to talk to, and of course all our friends and family – human and canine!
Thinking about the first day I met Fiji makes me realize how much independence she’s given me and how much I’ve been able to accomplish in the time we’ve been working together. She is a generous-natured and loving dog with a number of unique quirks – some of them totally endearing… some not so much. As I write this, she’s lying curled up by my feet, enjoying the cool air from the ceiling fan. With one eye and ear open, just in case I need her to do something.
You’ll be able to read more about our adventures together when the updated version of A Different Way of Seeing 2.0 gets released shortly – as an ebook and as an audio book. There’s plenty of Fiji stories in the book, I promise!
Happy anniversary to us, Fiji – and many more wonderful years of working and playing together!
It’s no secret that I’m nervous when speaking to groups of young children. For one thing, I know I’m going to have to work hard to get them to focus on what I’m saying when all they really want to do is meet my guide dog, Fiji. But it’s also hard to know how well the youngsters grasp the concept of blindness and what it means in my life.
This nervousness probably explains why I actively seek the opportunity to talk to learners. After all, don’t they say the best way to work through your fears is to confront them? In reality, getting to spend some time explaining what life is like for me as a blind person always gives rise to a fascinating conversation between myself and the youngsters concerned. And a recent visit to the Adventure Kids Club in Cape Town was no exception.
My audience was a group of fifty youngsters and a few adult coordinators, who sat patiently as I spoke about my life and then asked a flood of questions, ranging from how I eat, right the way through to what techniques I use to ensure I’m not excluded when it comes to social activities with sighted friends. The Adventure Kids Club is a community organisation set up by Maria Strachan in Ysterplaat in Cape Town. Maria started the group as a way of inspiring and encouraging youngsters from the community, many of them coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. And, in case you’re wondering about the coincidence that Maria and I have the same surname, yes, our respective husbands are cousins.
As often happens when Fiji comes with me to speak at a children’s event, the youngsters had most fun when they got to come and say hello to her, and she loved the attention. It’s always so cute to see Fiji surrounded by a group of youngsters who want nothing more than to give her love and play with her. Only, maybe this time I gave my dog a run for her money on how to hold the kid’s attention – Maria asked me to bring my guitar and play a few songs for the group. Which I did – to an enthusiastic reception. Here’s a short clip of one of the songs I played:
Ultimately, I think both Fiji and I were lucky that we’d finished talking to the youngsters before the ice-cream arrived – I’m not sure that even a guide dog can capture a child’s attention when facing competition like that!
I love helping to raise funds so that more guide dogs can be placed with their human partners to help them live a normal life.
Mom, dad and I will be going to this great event organised by Love Your Guide Dog – I really hope to see you there so you can also help more blind or visually impaired people to get a guide dog like me.
I’ve always thought water was kind of fun. I don’t mean drinking water, though that’s also quite important when I’m thirsty or have just got back from a walk or a run. And I’m also not talking about bathing – that’s definitely not fun. But this Christmas break reminded me of how much fun playing in water can be.
First, when I went to spend Christmas Day with my doggy cousins Huey and Bailey, I was given a bone. I decided to hide away on the other side of the garden, so that neither the humans nor my doggy cousins would be tempted to steal it. Then it started pouring with rain. And I decided to stay there and eat my bone.
Boy, was I wet! Luckily, mom just shook her head and laughed when she saw me.
Then, on Boxing Day, I accidentally fell into a swimming pool. I know some of you may be thinking that I jumped in, but I really didn’t. I was running past the pool and suddenly the ground wasn’t there. Dad says he saw the look on my face as I disappeared into the pool and he could tell I was surprised. Luckily, there were humans around who came and fished me out. But, boy was I wet! Again.
Even though it was quite fun, I decided that discretion might be the better part of valour, and stayed a safe distance from the evil pool. Instead, I had lots of fun playing with all the humans who were there, and with my 8-week old doggy nephew – a Golden Retriever puppy named Bear.
Finally, when dad let me and my doggy sister Allie free-run on Zandvlei a few days ago, I dived into the estuary to cool off. I had great fun swimming and paddling, then getting out and running a bit before diving back into the vlei to cool off. It was such fun! And, boy, was I wet. Yet again.
If I were to tell you my resolutions for 2020, I’d have to include playing in water on the list. Along with lots of walks, runs, plays with my doggy sisters and family, lots of yummy food, and helping mom with everything I can. Then I’ll be a happy guide dog for sure