Guide Dog Equipment and Upkeep

Did you know there are three parts to a harness?


At the top of the picture is the harness handle, followed by on the left is the body of the harness and in the bottom right there is the small belly strap.

There is the harness handle: 


There is the body of the harness:

There is the belly strap:

Other common pieces of equipment for guide dog teams are the leash (of course), the collar (different collars are used but many from GDB use martingale collars), and many guide dog teams often use gentle leaders as well. (No, they aren’t muzzles). A martingale collar is where it has a few chain links (not prongs), so that if you need to do a correction, you can, but the rest of the collar is fabric so it is comfortable for the dog. A gentle leader is a piece that goes across the dog’s nose and behind their neck and is very useful to a blind handler to feeling where the dog’s head is moving so that they can make necessary corrections if needed, but also many guide dogs are on their “tip top behavior” when wearing this.
A few months ago, I started to notice a few different things about Makiko’s equipment:

1) It was looking pretty beat up/used. I noticed it needed to be cleaned and spruced up a little bit. Why does this matter? Makiko and I are constantly in many different professional environments for work, but every single guide dog team is also an ambassador for their school and also the guide dog community as a whole. Makiko is an extension of me. I care about my appearance and care about hers, but I also care about the equipment’s appearance.

2) I also have been noticing over the past year or so that there has been more of a gap between Makiko’s body and the harness. At a recent guide dog event, I heard a few other handlers say that they have also had this problem.

3) Makiko’s collar was getting pretty worn out and pretty quickly after adjusting it to be tighter, it would go back to being loose. So, our field rep also sent us a new martingale collar.

So here is what I decided to do about it:

My boyfriend and I stopped at Home Depot when we were out running errands. We got “Leather Cleaner and Conditioner.” This stuff did WONDERS. We had purchased some leather polisher a few months ago but read on “Guide Dog Handlers Network,” a group I admin on Facebook, that really it should be washed first with something that works well with leather. It took me all of 15 minutes with this leather cleaner and a shop towel to really get her harness looking better. (Why didn’t I do this a few years ago?)

When our field rep, Michelle, was out a few months ago, I showed her the concern I had with the gap in the harness. We discussed a few different reasons it could be there, such as the leather just slightly changing shape. She suggested that she send us a body piece that is one size smaller and see how it fits. She sent this to us awhile ago but we hadn’t gotten around to trying it until just now. Since we were working on her equipment, we figured that it would be a good time to do it. So far, we are pleased. Why does this gap matter? Most importantly, having less of a gap can increase the amount of feedback the guide dog handler can get from the harness. It could also potentially make her a little more comfortable (although I don’t think she was really uncomfortable at all in the first place).

The harness body on the left is the one that Makiko has worn for 4 years. It has a pretty distinct shape and has been thoroughly worn. The harness body on the right appears to be brand new. It looks “squished” because it hasn’t been worn and the leather is quite stiff. 
In this picture, you can see the gap between her body and her chest strap, right above her shoulder. This is with the old harness body. 
This is a picture of her with the new harness body. You can see barely any gap. It does need to be worn in a little bit but looks significantly better fitting. 
My view looking down at Makiko in harness. (Note: There is no leash because we are simply just trying on the harness)

She also gave us a new martingale collar to try out. I didn’t take a picture of it because it looks exactly the same as the old one but if you’d like to see it, let me know.

So now we will put it all to the test tomorrow as we go to work and about our day and see how she seems to feel it in and how it feels to me as we work. I’ll bring the other piece along just in case something does go wrong or bothers her.

Did you know that a full harness can cost as much as $500 for this specific type from GDB? That’s pretty wild, huh? Thanks to the generous donations of donors to GDB, we don’t have to pay when we have equipment problems like this. If we lose it once, we do get it replaced at no charge to us but if we lose it again, we do have to pay for it. I know weird things happen, but to me it’d be pretty hard to lose something like this. 🙂

GDB is so incredible in supporting the guide dog team throughout the whole process and I have been nothing but pleased. They are very innovative and receptive and want to find what makes the most sense and works the best for each guide dog team. They also recognize that what works best and is necessary might change over time and they are totally cool with working through each team as they go through any changes.

Day 1 at GDB

Oh man, today was a LONG travel day but well worth it. I was out of town for a wedding so I had to fly out of the other city, which then happened to fly into my home town, and then to Portland. I had to be at the airport at 5:20 or so this morning. THAT was early. And of course I didn’t get the greatest night sleep last night because of the excitement of the wedding and worried that I was forgetting something. Turns out I was.. I had forgotten to get cash, but we took care of that easily in the morning.

We arrived at the airport, Mom was able to come through security with me because I have a disability. She stayed with me until I preboarded. American Airlines at the Austin airport had a little vibrating buzzer thing that let you know when it was time to go up. I was the only one pre-boarding though and I just stayed in the “Special Needs” seating with Mom so they motioned to her when it was ready for me. Still, I thought this device was pretty cool and high tech for an airline/pre-boarding. (Pictured below)

American Airlines Pre-boarding Pager

The first leg of the flight went by without a hitch. I was asleep before take-off even. I wasn’t told that I had to transfer planes for the second leg but then I soon figured that out when EVERYBODY was getting off. So I went out and there was somebody to assist me to the next gate. That is when the crazy stuff started happening. So all of a sudden, there is this lady in front of me with a wheelchair, taking my cane, my bag, my boarding pass, etc. She hadn’t introduced herself to me, said not a word, just started grabbing things. So I said, “what’s going on?” and she said she was going to put me in the wheelchair. That is when somebody that was working the desk said, “The wheelchair is for somebody else. She is blind and just needs your arm.” So then I asked her for all my belongings back. So then she like grabbed me in this really awkward position and practically started dragging me. She wasn’t angry or anything, she just legitmateily thought that was the way to guide me. I really think that may have been her first experience with a person with a visual impairment. Then I told her I would prefer to just grab her arm so she let me but then she tried to do this awkward thing about grabbing my arm too. I just wasn’t going to win with this one. So then when we got onto the passageway between the airport and the plane, she started manually guiding my cane back and forth. Well, that practically makes the cane useless for me because I am no longer able to detect anything by using the cane. So then she started telling all the flight attendants. “She’s blind. She’s blind. She’s blind.” Oi. She stressed me out. So then once I got on the plane, I found my seat and I put my cane over to the left side since I was at a window seat. That is where the previous flight’s flight attendants told me to put it. Well, this flight attendant said that wasn’t allowed so she took it from me. See, I was in the bulkhead so I had to store everything overhead but apparently this time that included the cane. Okay, now I’m settled and I try and get some sleep. I fall asleep and then all of a sudden I wake up FREEZING! Apparently they turned on all the air blower things overhead. I tried to turn mine off several times without any luck. The passenger next to me was asleep. Since I was short, it was difficult to even reach and try to turn it off and then once it didn’t work I needed to call the flight attendant. Well, I managed to press the button and she came immediately. She couldn’t even turn the thing off. So then I asked for a blanket, and of course they didn’t have any. So there I am freezing for another hour or more on the plane. I was so ready to get off.

Plane landed. I didn’t wait like the flight attendant’s prefer for everybody to get off. I instead got off close to the start and there was somebody waiting to guide me. He was a good guide. I think he’s had experience because he automatically guessed that I was here for the Guide Dog school and he was very good about guiding me. I appreciated that. I told him I was supposed to this certain place in baggage claim. He was leading me there when suddenly I heard, “Jessica?” It was a married couple who are volunteers for Guide Dogs for the Blind. So they helped me get my luggage and then we waited around for another student. She was about an hour later. Meanwhile, I got Starbucks. I was so ready for it! This other student, “R”, has been blind since birth and is on her like 9th guide dog or something. It’s incredible. I hadn’t met any of the other students yet and we headed to campus.

Once we got there, the volunteers brought in our luggage and showed us around our room. It’s very nice. It’s a converted double room but it’s now private. We have this super long desk and several chests of drawers, two sinks, two areas to fill and dump the dog’s water, a tie down and a mat for the dog, a patio for relieving, two closets, another super long desk on the other side of the room, and a really nice bathroom. Oh, we also have a really nice TV. These rooms are really nice. Also in the room is a nice recliner and a bean bag area. I’ll talk more about that later.

So as soon as we got our stuff in the room, the nurse came by and discussed our medical needs with us and then she took me down to lunch. “R” and I ate lunch, they had turkey sandwiches for us, and then I went back to the room to unpack. I met Laura who helped me learn a few more things about my room and then told me I needed to in a certain room at 4:30pm for our first meeting. I skyped with my family, took a shower, and then headed down there. That is where we learned about basic rules and how things work. We also did introductions. I’m the youngest here. There are 5 other people, two older individuals, one male and one female, a middle-aged man, a middle-aged woman who is a mother and then another mother who looks younger. They all seem like a cool group of classmates for these 2 weeks. We are sure a chatty bunch though.

So after that, we took a tour around the facilities so that we would know what’s where. It’s very nice. We have a library, nurse’s area, music room, public restrooms, dining hall, grooming room, several lounges, etc. After the tour, we went to eat. I had ordered Chicken Marsala. It was delicious. We placed our order for Monday and Tuesday meals as well. I’ll tell you about them as they come though. After dinner, I had Laura, the Resident Adviser who has been helping us all evening and leading the meetings, help me with my key because it was being stubborn. Then we went to another meeting where we learned more about the equipment we will be using. We were all issued a leash and a food pouch. The food pouch is for treats. We take a portion of the dog’s daily food rations and put it into the pouch and we use that for treats throughout the day. It’s a way to regulate the dog’s caloric intake and therefore their weight. The leash is very nice leather.


The above picture is of equipment we have here to use or we are issued. The top left picture is what we had in our rooms upon arrival. It’s a medium-sized bin of kibble, a cup, and a Guide Dogs for the Blind fanny pack. I think it has grooming equipment inside. The top right picture is the tie-down and doggy mat. When we are sleeping, we tie-down our dog so we make sure they are well-behaved and they learn that we are in control, etc. The middle picture on the left is something I thought was really cool. It’s a HUGE bean bag and a recliner. I’m told that the huge bean bag is so that we can cuddle up and lay with the dog. And then the recliner is just a really nice area to sit. The middle right picture is the food pouch which I described above. The bottom left picture is the nice leather leash, which we can make into a short leash or a long leash depending on what we need to do and then the bottom right picture is where we fill up and dump out the dog’s water bowl. Pretty cool, huh?

So after the second meeting, we were dismissed. I called a few friends and then sat down to write this blog. I think I’m going to pass out soon. This time is 2 hours earlier than my normal time zone so that will work out to my favor right now. I just can’t believe how early it is and how tired I am, but then I think about the long day I had and it makes sense. Tomorrow my day starts at 7:30am with breakfast.

GDB (Guide Dogs for the Blind) does this every two weeks so they have thinks worked out so well. I will tell you little things that they do that I think that are neat as I think about them. But one of them is we have phones in our room. We can call a certain extension and it tells us our schedule for tomorrow and the discussion questions we should be ready to discuss tomorrow. Isn’t that neat? As everyone probably knows, I am very schedule oriented and I like to have all the details. So, I am very excited about this feature. The Resident Advisor, Laura, also said she is going to email us the schedule and a map of Portland, where we do a lot of the training. I appreciate that because I am also a very visual person (ironic?) and so I like to have everything in writing. I haven’t listened to it yet but all I do know is that 7:30 is breakfast, we have lunch in the afternoon and then right after lunch around 1:30pm we get to meet our dogs. Oh man oh man! I’m excited/nervous!

Everything is really nice. The people are amazing, facilities fantastic, food wonderful, it is just a great atmosphere. I was a little hesitant about being away for two weeks because of all the emotional stuff that has gone on the past two months but I don’t think it will be that big of an issue. I hope not, at least. 🙂 I had heard all these things about GDB and that is why I chose to come here. I think everything I heard will prove to be true. I mean, the nurse manager came by and said she was going to the store and is there anything she could pick up for us. What did I ask for? Some Dr. Pepper of course! We even have our own mini-fridge in our room. (Forgot to mention that earlier). I’m just so impressed by this place so far and I’ve only been here like 6 hours!

I think that’s all for tonight. I’m exhausted. I’m really hoping the weather doesn’t get too bad this week because I am very much a Texas gal and Oregon weather just doesn’t sound like it would be too pleasant most of the time.

Hope you enjoyed my first post and I hope you continue reading!

My Psychosocial Battle with the Cane

For people with RP, I have heard and experienced there are two major things (along with a few others) that take a lot of adjusting, coping, grieving, etc. They are: driving and using a cane. When is it time to hang up the keys and not drive anymore? When is it time to start using your cane for both your safety and others? These are both two questions that I’ve dealt with a lot lately.I’d like to discuss the cane in this post.

For those without RP or another progressive visual impairment, it’s kind of hard to explain what it’s like. With that being said, I think my experience was a little different than most, because I have been in school studying the rehabilitation of individuals with disabilities and how amazing assistive technology is.

Transitioning to using a cane is a lot to deal with psychologically and social (hence the title of this post). Psychologically you are putting yourself out there with a clear identification that you are disabled. With RP, it is practically impossible,  in normal day to day interactions, for a stranger or peer to label you as having a visual impairment or disability. However, once you start using that cane, it becomes completely obvious. With that, many of your peers will be confused. If you wear glasses, like I do, some may not believe you and think you are faking it. Some may not really know what to think about it and stare. Most people don’t understand that you can be low vision… they think that there is either sighted or no vision, not anything in between. (Saving this more for another post).

There are some people that for some reason or another, can’t handle having others stare at your group when you’re walking and can’t stand that attention. Therefore, I know many people lose friends when they transition to using a cane.

It is also a note to yourself, when you feel that you need to start using a cane, that yes.. your vision is progressing. You always know that in the back of your head but things like this just make it that much more real for you and you have to go through another coping and adjustment period. That’s one thing about progressive vision impairments that make me wish sometimes that I just went completely blind all at once. There are so many different periods of adjustment. I just wish I could get it over all at once.

Imagine using your cane to get to your classroom. Sit down, fold it up, and then start taking notes on either a notebook or on a computer.  If your classmates aren’t well educated about low vision or aren’t really aware of your situation, there may be a lot of whispers and stares.

I have been very lucky to have the support of my family in almost everything I do. They are amazing. I think RP has been an adjustment period for us all, so I don’t blame them. But I’ve always felt uneasy using my cane around them. One time when I did start using it recently (after not using it or training with it at all for several years), I had it folded up as my Dad drove up. I hopped in the car with it folded up in my hand and he asked me if I carried it around everywhere. I replied that I had it with me a lot. He didn’t seem pleased. I asked him what’s up and he told me that it “makes me look more disabled than I am.” After he said that, a bunch of red flags started going off in my head. First of all, we really shouldn’t care what others think.. but I know I do. I’m the one that gets all the stares and questions and has to deal with it anyway. Second, I do have a disability and my vision is pretty darn bad. There’s no way around it. Even though this took me a while to reach, I would rather be safe than sorry.

I didn’t think Mom was comfortable with me using it either but recently we got into a discussion about it and she told me I could use it whenever I wanted around her and that if my Dad had problems, just tell him I do really need it. That was so comforting. I tried this out recently.. I was going to travel with a co-worker who I’m not used to and therefore was not entirely comfortable, in regards to mobility. I decided to bring my cane along and use it. I’m so glad I did. I was able to navigate things independently and not have to worry. It was really nice. However, when we were headed to the airport my Dad asked why I was going to use it because airports are so brightly lit. Well, that’s not necessarily a good thing and it’s mostly the peripheral vision (or lack thereof) in this scenario that’s a problem. After I explained a little and my Mom stuck up for me too, Dad understood… I think. He supports me so much with helping me with rides and so much more.. I know it’s just because he doesn’t understand and wants the best for me.

Most everybody has known me as a fully sighted individual so making the transition to using a cane more was tough. After I ordered it, I started using it more and more. I did get a lot of stares (especially when I wore glasses) along with questions from people. But I felt more comfortable. I didn’t have to constantly scan looking for obstacles, and I felt more relaxed. It also helped navigate through crowds because people knew that I didn’t see very well, signaled by the cane, and they moved out of the way.. making it just a little bit easier.

Equipment, regardless of what disability you are using it for, is often hard to start using.. especially if its something for mobility like a cane or wheelchair. However, I think that it really is a matter of “better safe than sorry,” and if it makes more at ease, comfortable, and feel safer.. I don’t see why not. 🙂 I’m getting used to using the cane more, and so is my family and friends. It’s working out! 🙂