a girl with a guide: week one at GDB

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Sitting with Romana outside. I’m on the left, wearing a light green top and jeans with holes. My little lady is in a sit on the right, on leash and looking at the camera. I’m smiling and have my arm around her chest.

Sometimes we fantasize something only to have our expectations crushed, but being at GDB has been far more than I imagined.

before coming here, I was nervous about lots of things, with reason, as this is a brand new adventure: I wasn’t sure I could take care of another living thing, that I had too much vision to properly use a guide dog, that she wouldn’t like me. For the first concern, I felt that my own health was high maintenance enough, or that I wouldn’t understand how important playtime is for emotional well being. Next, many people who have guides have very little or no vision. I’m considered a “high functioning partial,” or in other words, “I’m borderline blind and can get away with things such as not needing to read Braille.” As a person with albinism, though, we are extremely light sensitive, which makes outside travel (and occasionally inside) very difficult since our eyes can’t filter light. Many people with high functioning vision are asked to wear blindfolds in training if we begin to lead and not follow our dogs, which while an effective training method, I wasn’t too into trying since I like to enjoy the nature of what I can still see outside. Last, I wasn’t sure how to create a “bond” with a dog and was afraid he/she would so not be into me.

Though these were all common concerns, Monday rolled around nonetheless. The anticipation of Dog Day was high and all my wonderful classmates wondered what kind of a dog they might receive for the next 6+ years. After the longest lunch ever, we all sat down one of the trainers read, “Cassandra, you will have Romana, a female yellow lab.”

Initial thoughts: “wow, I love her name! It’s not something ridiculous!”, “oh yay, I secretly really wanted a yellow girl.”

we all headed back to our rooms and waited. After what felt like hours, my trainer knocked on my door and brought her in. At first, she looked at me briefly and continued sniffing the floor with great interest. “Romana is 58 pounds, 22 inches tall, and her birthday is September 15th.”

she was stunning, a yellow that was nearly white, with fantastically light, golden eyes.

and just like that, the trainer left to continue getting everyone else’s dogs, and Romana and I looked at each other wondering what to do. I started scratching her and her tail wagged furiously. In typical lab style, she didn’t smile, but her tail said it all: she was a happy girl.

little by little, we learned to brush fur and teeth, clean ears, play, feed, take them out to busy, and so much more. As we started our formal work together the next day in downtown San Rafael, I knew she was the perfect match. I got her going to a little trot and was learning the mechanics of guidework terms like “forward,” “hopup,” (go faster or urge them on), making turns, “halt,” and she executed effortlessly. It wasn’t flawless, but towards the end of the week, the trainer supervisor who peeded in on our route, said, “she looks like a trainer!” From following all their advice and being patient, we were already worlds away from where we started.

when we’re working outside, I remember why I applied for a guide dog: the sun was bright, and between the intermittent shadows of tree limbs, it was extremely difficult to see. With her, we flew down the street, and I had the confidence that she would take me around obstacles and stop at the curb so I knew where we were.

while outside work wasn’t as bad, we struggled when we first went to the mall. Due to the people milling around, Romana couldn’t go her “working pace,” and just wasn’t focused. When we finished, I sat around drinking my cold brew, trying to remind myself why I was doing this. Flickers of doubt poked in my brain, as they do to most people in training. I tried to give us a break, but I couldn’t help but be frustrated. Then, the words of a GDB graduate once told me recently sneaked in: “you’re an engineer, so you’ll want everything to be perfect, but remember that it won’t be, and that’s exactly what training is about: learning about each other and building a foundation of trust.”

the Lord has really orchestrated this, between the people in admissions to Romana’s puppy raisers, to the trainers, and has brought her to me. She’s a gem, uniquely awkward sometimes, just as I am, and very decisive about what she wants. I prayed for my little lady on and off since last December, and God brought this little yellow lab to me. I know that ultimately, He is the perfect handler, and I’m the silly puppy who makes mistakes in the route, sniffing around and wondering what our final destinations is. God is so good, and He will be with our partnership as long as we both shall live.

I’m so grateful for all the support from friends, family, and the GDB staff. It’s hard to believe that a week ago we’d never met. We still have another whole week of training, and I’m so excited to see where we go. One of the first things I said to her when we met was, “we have the whole world ahead of us,” and now I see it. We really do, and I’ll let God take me a happy twist and turn along the way.

until then, “forward.”

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