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 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!
It’s been a while since I posted a lesson from my new-ish guide dog, Fiji. So here is another one.
Learning a new route with Fiji is a lot like learning a new skill. In both cases I experience a similar feeling of anxiety – perhaps I’m not doing it right, perhaps something might go wrong and I’ll land up making an irretrievable error(have you ever felt that way?). As a result of that anxiety I find myself working slowly and methodically through the brand new process/skill/route because it is unfamiliar to me.
Once that new process becomes more familiar I start to speed up and move more confidently through the task.
Recently one of the houses in our neighbourhood paved over a very uneven patch of the grass sidewalk. For several weeks we had to skirt round the obstacle by walking in the road, often with the assistance of the guys doing the work as it is a busy intersection. A few days ago we got to walk on the paving for the first time.
In the long run I’m sure we will be grateful for that wonderful flat paved walkway. However, our first few experiences have been just like learning that new skill – we’ve walked very slowly and carefully over the unfamiliar route… just in case.
And it was a good thing that we did, because on our second trip over the paving my foot slipped off the sidewalk onto the road. I was somewhat startled because Fiji is usually very good at keeping me safely on the sidewalk. It turns out that there is only a narrow strip of paving and beyond that is a hole where the home owners are presumably planning on planting a garden. Fiji was trying to navigate between the two edges and, if I’d been walking closer to her, I would have been fine.
We now know how to navigate that sidewalk safely and have experienced not more problems… and as the route has become familiar we have started walking faster and with more confidence – and the initial anxiety I felt when walking on the paving has gone.
For me the lesson is that it pays to take the time to be cautious when learning something new, be it a process, a skill, or a route – by playing it safe you can discover the pitfalls and figure out how to navigate them. Then, once you are more comfortable, you can speed up.
Here are two photos of my recent workshop at Hope Cape Town. You may remember I was booked to go and speak to the community health workers from Hope CT a few months ago and really enjoyed the energy and passion of these incredible women and men who work mainly with children living with HIV+ and AIDS.
The NGO invited me back to run my half-day session Ready, Steady, Speak! On strategies to organise your thinking when answering questions.
It was wonderful to see the delegates stepping up to the challenge of answering some difficult questions as they worked through the programme – using the techniques I offered them to manage their anxiety, and the strategies I shared to help organise their thoughts when speaking. I was impressed at how effectively the delegates expressed their thoughts and opinions in the exercises.
Thanks to sue and Ana of Hope Cape Town for making it possible for me to run the workshop – and to the community health workers who are doing such an amazing job out there in the community.
If you’d like to find out more about the Ready, Steady, speak! Programme please contact me
A few weeks ago I wrote about how my levels of self-confidence had grown over the short time I had been working with my guide dog, Fiji. And that is still true. What I’ve realized is that the confidence has transferred to other areas in my life.
Whether it is having the confidence to apply to be considered as a speaker for PechaKucha Cape Town, when I usually avoid using PowerPoint slides (for those who don’t know, PechaKucha is a presentation format of 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide); or whether it is having the courage to walk over to a neighbour’s home on my own – no guide dog, no sighted guide – I have started doing things that I would have avoided several months ago, because my confidence has grown.
So, how could this be useful to a manager or team leader in the workplace?
Let’s say you have a member of your team who lacks confidence –someone with potential, a productive member of the organisation, but who simply lacks confidence. Imagine if you could help that team member grow in confidence in one single aspect of their work, or their life. That confidence could transfer back into other areas and could have a benefit to the overall performance of the team, not just the individual team member.
Expert on building self-confidence, James Hurford, has this to say, “When you ‘do what you cannot do’, you gain self-confidence. Even if you fail, you gain self-confidence because you were brave enough to look your fear in the eye and act anyway.”
Helping your team to develop self-confidence could have a positive impact on your team and your organisation. Why not give it a try?
Find out more about James Hurford on www.facebook.com/TheConfidenceDoctor/