guide dogs

Paws for Thought: Something I’ll Bet You Didn’t Know about Mom

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Last week I learned something about my mom that gave me paws for thought, and I’ll bet you don’t know this either – mom’s terrified of snakes!

Here’s how I discovered it. Someone posted on our local community watch WhatsApp group about seeing a snake where mom and I always walk. Mom got very, very quiet when she read it…

Later I heard mom and dad talking about the place where the snake was seen, and whether they thought it had moved on or had stayed there.

You must know I’m loyal to mom – always – but I did catch myself wondering why she was so scared. I mean, she’s walked that route hundreds, if not thousands of times with me, my older sister guide dog Eccles and my even older sister-aunt guide dog Leila. So surely she knows the routes safe. Not to mention that we’re always there to look out for her and we’d never do anything to put her in danger. Well, except for that one time I tried to cross the road when there was a car coming. But that was just one time, I promise.

Now, I know the weather plays a big part in determining whether or not mom and I are able to walk. It’s been very windy over the past week or two. When the wind blows it masks the sound of cars so it’s just not safe for mom and me to be out walking along the side of the road.

To be honest, most of our walk is okay, even when it is windy. Both mom and I know that cars can see us walking beside the pavement so we’re fairly sure we won’t be run down. But there are a few busy road crossings that are quite dangerous if we can’t hear approaching traffic. And there’s no way for us to avoid those road crossings. So I get it that we haven’t been able to walk much since the wind has been so strong.

But I wonder if there’s a tiny part of mom that’s been grateful for the wind because of the post about the snake…

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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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.

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?

Starting the Tour of Local Places Fiji and I Are Welcome

NewImageA little while back I said I wanted to start a series of articles recognizing places that were welcoming to my guide dog. Here’s the first of those articles.

I live in Lakeside, in Cape Town. Our closest shopping area is the Old Bakery Centre, so named because it used to be a bakery. When we first moved into the house I would regularly wake to the scent of freshly baking bread – Mmmm…

So I want to take you on a tour of some of the local shops and restaurants who not only accommodate, but go out of their way to welcome my guide dog and I – and the Old Bakery Woolworths is going to be our first stop.

Fiji has been trained to walk straight to the counter where the tills are located in Woolworths. Whenever we enter, the employees greet me and either offer assistance immediately or politely ask me to wait for a minute or two while they finish up with their current customer. Then they assist by collecting the items I need and bringing them so I can look at them before I pay. Admittedly it’s a small Woolworths and my needs aren’t overly complex – besides which, I keep my shopping list short since I’ll have to carry everything home in a backpack.

On occasion I accompany the assistant to select the items I need, especially if I’m buying fresh produce, but usually I stand out of the way and let the assistant manage the process. Yes, I am aware that there are several apps and other assistive technology devices that would let me shop pretty much on my own and maybe one day I’ll do so. For now I just find it easier to shop this way and the assistants are amazingly efficient in how they help me. And it makes a huge difference to me.

I’ve heard of so many cases where a visually impaired person has been refused entry into a shop because they have a working animal with them. We’ve even had a few instances where it’s happened to Fiji and me, even once in a different Woolworths. So I’m truly appreciative of the amazing service I receive at the Old Bakery Woolworths in Lakeside.

The next stop on our tour of local places where my guide dog is welcome isn’t far away. In fact, next time I want to tell you about the coffee shop/pizzeria right next to Woolworths, who also look after Fiji and me as if we’re royalty.

But that’ll have to wait for another day…

Paws for Thought – An Announcement from Fiji

Cds DSCF5922I’m wagging so hard right now that I think my tail might just fly off! You won’t believe what’s happening!

Mom and I are going to write a book together… In fact, I’m going to write the book and mom will just co-write it with me. Don’t you think that will be exciting?

We’re only in the planning stages right now but we often have long conversations about what we think should and shouldn’t go into the book. I still disagree with mom that we should include stories of me being naughty – she says it will make me more human (I think she means canine). But ultimately I’ve never written a book before and mom’s written five, so maybe I ought to listen to her.

What I really wanted to say is that if you have any ideas about what you’d like to see in the book, you must just let mom and I know… I promise we’ll consider them!

And we’ll most definitely let you know how we’re getting on as our plans develop and we start putting paw to paper.But no pre-orders yet, please – it’s a little early for that.

Wow… me, a published author… wag wag wag wag wag wag

A Lady of Leisure

Cds IMG 1394 2Yesterday was an extra special day in the Strachan household – my beautiful retired guide dog, Eccles, turned 14 years old… and that’s not 14 doggy years, it’s 14 human years.

Back when I decided to embark on a career as a writer and speaker working in the disability field Eccles took the opportunity of retiring herself. I think she secretly enjoyed the engineering talk that she was exposed to when we worked at the marine engineering firm. Maybe she just didn’t feel that an artistic career was the right one for her.

I’ve been highly amused to observe that Eccles has started being naughty over the past few months – it’s almost like she’s rediscovered her inner naughty puppy. it’s not unusual to find her sniffing around in the kitchen for any possible overlooked scraps of food (you know, the ones her eagle-eyed doggy sister Emily might somehow have missed). Eccles also seems to get a real kick out of pushing Fiji away from her water bowl and having a long, leisurely drink while poor Fiji has to stand around and wait. I’ve even found Eccles trying to scratch at the packet of dog crumbles that we keep under the shelf in the kitchen. I know I shouldn’t find it funny, but I do!

I also suspect Eccles had a temporary return to her engineering side – when Craig was installing our grey water system at home, Eccles could usually be found supervising his work.

I know Eccles is getting older and is almost entirely deaf. But she’s healthy, happy and remains a joy to us all in her own, newly-mischievous way.

Happy birthday, my Ecce-wekkie-waggy-woo – may we celebrate many more years with you.

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