HAPPY BIRTHDAY SAINT, FROM EVERYONE WHO HAS EVER LOVED YOU

My husband and I were greeted in the early morning light today as we’re greeted every morning: As soon as my guide dog, Saint, realized that we were not asleep [notice that I don’t say awake, just not asleep], up he hopped onto the bed, wiggling so hard that he almost fell off. This morning however, was different. The wiggles, the kisses and the pure joy and excitement at [for me, a NOT morning person] just another 6 AM was as it always is.

Except …

It is Saint’s third birthday! *Wags, wiggles, and woohoos all around*

We showered him with pets and kisses and cuddles [not unlike every morning] but we bounced out of bed faster than normal to give him his birthday present, which we’d hidden in his toy box ever since he picked it out himself at the pet store a few days ago.

And the incessant squeaking of the new, stuffy whale, was a welcome and joy-filled sound that echoed throughout the house … all day …

And all throughout the day, I’ve been reflecting on the gift that Saint is to me. But as with all blessings so big, I don’t believe I’ll be able to fully appreciate it as much as I ought; the gift that he is in my life is simply too great. But I will always try.

But more than a simple “Saint is wonderful” post, I want to acknowledge and thank the people that made it possible for me to celebrate these milestones with my happy boy.


I received a touching email this evening from one of Saint’s puppy raisers, wishing him a happy third birthday, and it filled me with such a thankfulness, but also an unexpected bittersweetness that it’s hard to put into words. On the one hand, I’m incredibly grateful for these two women who, during their university years, dedicated months to raising a yellow lab puppy with boundless energy in the hopes that he’d one day be someone’s four-legged tool for independence, safety, and freedom. And I’m beyond thankful that that someone is me.

But on the other hand, I can’t imagine the mix of emotions puppy raisers must experience with each pup that enters their homes for a year, and then returns for training and eventually, to a forever home that is not the one who got them to that point. What kind of emotions swirl about in their hearts as they write an email to their baby boy’s new mom, knowing that it’s where he belongs and what he was meant for, all the while feeling the sadness of not having him close as they once did?

Guide dogs wouldn’t be possible without puppy raisers. My Saint wouldn’t be possible, wouldn’t be the wiggling, energetic, hard-working, blessing that he is, without his puppy raisers. He wouldn’t even be in my life without them, and so many more people that I can’t begin to list them here.

So, even though Saint jumps up on my bed, guides me to all the local coffee shops, keeps me safe in the world and gives me the unconditional love that only a dog can, he is not just mine. He is forever in the hearts of his puppy raisers. He is always in the memories of his trainers, the volunteers, and all those who have loved him, taken care of him, and prepared him for his life as a guide dog. He will always be a part of the Guide Dogs for the Blind family.

I may be his handler and forever mom, but I am the last in a long line to love him. And he wouldn’t be here without all those who came before me. So while Saint is the best boy ever [and I could write that post if you need], this is one moment that I want to say thank you to everyone who brought him here to me.

And there is no way I can say thank you enough.

If you’d like to donate or volunteer with GDB and make a difference in the lives of people with sight loss, as well as life-changing dogs like Saint, please check out GDB’s website to find out more.

MY GUIDE DOG ESSENTIALS LIST

Having the proper equipment for any job makes a world of difference, and I’ve found this to be especially true when working with my guide dog, Saint.

Because Saint is a fully certified, trained working guide dog with a special job, the equipment I choose to carry with me may be different from that of a typical pet parent. I want to be prepared to face any number of situations, so, I thought it would be fun and educational to share with you the equipment that I use as a guide dog handler.

I will insert links to the products that I personally use, but I may be unable to find links to every item. Also note that I may earn a commission from purchases made through the Amazon links on this page, but be reassured that I use and love each product listed.

Guidework Essentials

• The Harness and Leash

The harness is the most essential tool for a guide dog team since the harness is the means by which the dog actually guides its handler. When working with my first guide, my instructor explained the function of the harness as the dog’s mechanism of communicating with me, and the leash being my way to communicate with my dog.

The harness that Guide Dogs for the Blind issues to their clients is a leather item, consisting of a chest strap that crosses over the dog’s front, as well as a girth strap that passes beneath the dog’s belly and is secured behind the front legs with a buckle. The handle is u-shaped, with leather padding on the end that the handler holds during guidework.

The leather leash is a simple leash and can be adjusted to two different lengths—three and five feet, and attaches to a ring in the collar.

Both the harness and leash are the cornerstone for any guide dog team, and I love the quality and functionality of the ones GDB issues its clients.

• Gentle Leader

Also called a head collar, a gentle leader is a piece of equipment that fastens securely behind the dog’s ears, around the muzzle and attaches to the collar by a small strap for extra security. When in use, rather than attach my leash to the regular collar, I clip it to the ring beneath the muzzle which gives me more control of his head movement. This isn’t something that I use regularly, but it is good to have on hand; for high-distraction environments like pet stores, crowds, food courts etc, the gentle leader allows me greater insight into the position of my dog’s head and thus, greater control.

• Reward Pouch

The reward pouch is one of our team’s necessary items to keep within reach at all times. The pouch GDB issues is worn around the waist, with a magnetic clasp for quick and easy access.

Food rewards are a necessary part of maintaining a high standard of guidework. “Would you work for no paycheck?” my instructor asked. “You shouldn’t expect your dog to, either.”

The system GDB teaches is to fill the pouch with half a cup of the dog’s daily allotment of kibble, then whatever is left over at the day’s end is added into their evening meal. This way, the dog isn’t taking in extra calories from treats, and keeping the dog at a healthy weight is more manageable.

• Clicker

A clicker is a small device with a central button which, when pressed, produces a precise click sound. Clicker training is an effective method of training by positive reinforcement. When the dog exhibits the desired behaviour, the trainer clicks and the dog is rewarded.

I keep a clicker on hand for situations where I either need to train a new behaviour or reinforce one that my dog may need some reminders about. It isn’t to be used consistently, but as the dogs find it enjoyable [since they receive food reward after every click] and it’s beneficial for maintaining training, it’s great to keep within reach.

Health and Safety Essentials

Keeping both my guide dog and I healthy and safe is vital to a long, effective working life together. Here are some of the ways I do that:

• Poop Bags

Everyone’s favourite part of having a dog… picking up poop. It has the potential to be messy and a bit stinky [or a lot, in our case]. But the task becomes easier and cleaner with these poop bags that I buy on Amazon. They come in a box of 900 bags, with a dispenser that’s easy to carry with you on the go.

I’ve used these bags since day one of doggy-momhood, and I haven’t had a bag break or tear yet. High-quality and affordable, these are my go-to bags, and I ALWAYS, ALWAYS keep one, if not two, rolls in my bag at all times.

• Travel Bowl

Proper hydration is important not only for us, but also for our dogs. To always have a means of offering water to Saint while out working, I carry on eof these collapsable, travel bowls It’s also convenient for outings over mealtime, as I can both feed and water Saint using this one bowl, which expands to accommodate a large meal and then collapses to tuck discreetly inside my bag.

• Audible Beacon Safety Light

The audible beacon safety light that GDB provides to its clients is small, easy to use, and very effective. It attaches to the harness handle so I never forget it and can simply turn it on whenever Saint and I need to be a bit more visible to those around us. What I love about this beacon in particular is that it’s audible; a musical tone sounds when turned on and off, and every 10 minutes while on, another tone sounds as a reminder that the light is still on. As someone with no light perception, this is incredibly helpful as I can often leave lights on long after they ought to have been turned off simply because… I can’t see it, so I forgot! No need to worry about that with this light. And another bonus? It’s USB-rechargeable, and I keep the cord in my bag for on-the-go charging if the need arises.

• LED Collar

To add an extra measure of visibility, I purchased this USB-rechargeable, LED dog collar. To use, I simply fit it around Saint’s neck beneath his regular collar, fasten the buckle, and press the button to turn on the light. Simple, effective, and easy to keep in my bag for easy access should I need it.

• Reflective Jacket

Although I don’t always carry this with me, I have a reflective jacket which I wear in dimly-lit conditions to keep me visible to drivers and other pedestrians. This jacket has zippered pockets, a hood, and several strips of reflective tape sewn on for extra visibility.

• Boots

GDB guide dog teams are issued a set of boots from Ruffwear, an excellent source for all manner of high-quality dog gear and equipment. These boots have incredible tread on the bottom and a Velcro strap which tightens securely around the ankle.

Certain environments can be very harmful to the pads of dogs’ paws such as hot pavement, the salt that’s spread on icy sidewalks, and rough terrain. These areas require me to keep Saint’s paws protected, so I keep these boots in my bag at all times, just in case.

Saint’s right to enter public establishments as a working dog comes with a certain level of responsibility. One of my primary responsibilities is to keep him groomed and respectable. To do this, I have a few items that I keep on hand for when we’re out and about but just a tad on the dirty side:

• Microfiber Towels

If it’s raining out, I always like to wipe off Saint’s paws and belly before entering a public building so as not to leave behind a trail of wet paw prints. A pack of small microfiber towels is my solution; easy to slip into the pocket of my backpack, reusable and quick to remove the worst of the grit and grime, I keep these on hand at all times.

• Lint Roller

While I’m not bothered by the omnipresence of Saint’s light, golden fur making a home on every piece of clothing I own, there are rare occasions when being fur-free is appropriate, like job interviews , church, or a friend’s house where leaving a pile of hair behind isn’t always appreciated. To this end, I keep a lint roller in my backpack to quickly and efficiently remove the majority of fur off clothes and furniture.

The Backpack

While training with Saint, I visited the gift shop to pick up a few extra supplies. My best purchase, undoubtedly, was this backpack. As someone with chronic upper back and shoulder pain, finding a backpack that wouldn’t cause any extra stress was vital. This one is small, lightweight and when filled with Saint’s equipment, doesn’t overwhelm or add unnecessary weight. It’s perfect.

It’s Saint’s personal backpack, and at any given time, you can find the majority of the above items inside:

  • Gentle leader
  • Clicker
  • Travel bowl
  • Boots
  • Microfiber towels
  • Lint roller
  • The charging cable for the audible beacon
  • Lots and lots of poop bags

I didn’t carry very much equipment when working with my first guide dog, and whenever we headed out the door, I was scrambling to gather what we needed. I wanted to be as hands-free as I could, but that always left me feeling unprepared and panicky.

I wanted to do better this time. Now, whenever Saint and I head out of the house, I simply grab his backpack from the hook by the door and we’re off, prepared and ready for the adventure ahead. I can’t describe the difference it makes knowing I have what I need to help Saint and I succeed in our relationship together.

If you’re a service dog handler, I’d love to know what gear and equipment you find helpful. Let me know in the comments!

THE WAY WE ALMOST WEREN’T

It would be easier to tell you the story of how my guide dog, Saint, and I met and became a team. Spoiler, it involves a lot of cuddles, kisses, wags, wiggles, and lots and lots of love. It’s straightforward and predictable: I arrived at GDB for training, I was given the leash of my dream match, and two weeks later, we flew home to begin our life together.

But that’s not the story I’m telling today. Rather, this is the story of how we almost weren’t.

Tears on Tuesday

It was the Tuesday of the second week and we had only three days until our flight home. By this time in the program, we were scheduled to be working on training in environments specific to our home life. For me, that entailed walking along some trails, rough terrain and navigating through chairs, tables and the crowds in coffee shops.

But Tuesday afternoon, while my fellow clients and their dogs headed out to work on various routes, my instructor, team supervisor and I headed to a local park to walk a long, looping path. It was half concrete and half gravel, nothing complex or difficult to navigate. We were there to work on pace.

Pace is a crucial aspect of matching the right dog to the right handler. If the speed at which the handler walks is faster than the dog, a myriad of issues can arise. The dog may begin slowing down because of forward pressure on the harness handle. The dog may also feel defeated and wonder, “if my handler is going to walk ahead of me anyway, then what am I guiding for?” Additionally, with a slower dog, the handler is often “hopping-up” the dog—hopp-up being the command to go faster. Alternatively, if the handler walks slower than their guide dog, the handler is continually asking their dog to “steady” or slow down. While this may seem less problematic than having a slow dog with a fast handler, neither are ideal and the pace needs to be matched appropriately.

My first guide dog and I were matched primarily for my mental and emotional health. I was struggling significantly with anxiety and wasn’t terribly active. Therefore, they matched me with Cricket who was very chill, laid-back and cool with lazy days in. But as time went on, I noticed that our pace wasn’t cohesive.

I was walking faster than Cricket was and consistently asking him to hopp-up. In response, Cricket would slow, and when I slowed to try and match, he would slow to a stop. Pushing the harness handle forward and simply walking at my preferred pace yielded only a moment of catch up before he would slow again. It was a source of constant frustration in our teamwork and a mishandling of the situation on my part.

But after Cricket’s retirement, my lifestyle changed and so did what I needed in a guide dog. When asked what I was looking for, I said simply that I wanted a dog with lots of energy and a fast pace.

Fast forward to week one of training and Saint was all that I had hoped for and then some. He had a good pace that matched mine and lots of energy and enthusiasm for the job. At our mid-training meeting, my instructor said that she was confident Saint would be going home with me.

But by Tuesday, we knew something wasn’t working.

Saint had slowed down, even from his recorded pace during his training, and my instructor noted how often I was hopping him up on our routes. I was befuddled; our first week had gone off perfectly. But it was now a problem.

The pattern was all too familiar. I hopped him up, he slowed, and we both got frustrated. It was happening again.

So on Tuesday afternoon, we were at the park, hoping that on a straight and easy-to-navigate path, Saint would get into his groove. We called it “the wiggle,” and feeling that dance in the harness was what I so desperately wanted.

He didn’t. And when we walked an in-town route afterwards, the result was the same.

My heart was sinking. My stomach was in knots, and the only sound on the drive back to the school was the slight gasping of my breath as I tried not to completely break down. No one said it out loud, but the question hung over us like a dense fog:

Did I have to give Saint up?

In the fireplace room, my instructor and supervisor sat me down and laid out my options. There were three:

  • I could keep Saint, so long as I accepted his slower pace and was content to work with him this way.
  • I could go home without a dog and come back to training when they had a dog who walked my preferred pace.
  • Or, I could try out a new dog, because they just happened to have one in the kennel who had just graduated and walked that fast pace.

Tuesday night was one of the hardest nights of my life. Every time I ran my fingers over Saint’s silky fur, or got a surprise kiss on the face, I started sobbing. I called my fiancé and my parents, trying to process what was happening, but I couldn’t. My heart was breaking and I could do nothing but cry and whimper a prayer of “help me, God.”

Was this really my last night with Saint?

Whirlwind on Wednesday

On Wednesday morning, I put Saint into a crate at the downtown training lounge and picked up the harness handle of a dog with tufty, yellow fur and boundless energy. When we set out on our route, it was obvious from the get-go that he had the pace I was searching for.

Maybe even a bit too fast. But then, it was easier to slow a dog down than to speed them up. This dog had the energy and the pace I wanted… but Saint was my baby. Already, we’d bonded on such a deep, emotional level and I couldn’t imagine my life without him. Saint was everything I’d dreamed about but hadn’t dared to say out loud; he was a boy, a yellow lab, an enthusiastic worker and a snuggler. But working with a guide dog wasn’t about snuggles, but being guided safely and independently through the world.

I was torn. Seeing the struggle, my team supervisor offered to have me walk one last route with Saint before making my final decision. But before we took off, I took a minute to talk to God. I said, “God, I need an answer on this walk. I’m so confused and I don’t know which dog to choose. But you know. If it’s going to be Saint, you need to make it clear on this walk.” Then I picked up the handle and said, “Saint, forward.”

It couldn’t have been clearer. And I couldn’t stop the smile from taking over my whole face. My supervisor, observing from across the way, said that this walk either made my decision so much harder or so easy.

“Easy,” I said. “God gave me my answer. I want Saint.”

Love for a Lifetime

It feels impossible to think that I may have come home with a different dog, or no dog at all. Both were very real possibilities. My instructor told me that dog switches happen almost every class, so I wouldn’t have been the first.

But I was among the minority to keep the dog that I was originally issued. And in the month since we came home, I’m so thankful I did.

Saint is my baby. Once I took the pressure off of us to keep up a faster pace, his pace naturally increased and is now exactly what I wanted. We fly down the sidewalk like a well-oiled machine. We snuggle in bed at night, and while I groom him, he licks me clean. He loves playing with his squeaky dinosaur and chewing on one of his many Nylabones. His favourite place to be is on my lap, tummy up and getting endless belly rubs.

He has my heart so fully and completely.

Guide dogs aren’t just dogs, nor are they just mobility tools. Guide dogs are so much more than that. They’re dogs who are part of who we are, who give us things this world can’t, and who help us become the people we desire to be. Because of Saint, I feel independent, free, safe, a little more equal, and so, so loved.

This was the story of how Saint and I almost weren’t. But I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude that we were, and are, and will be forever together—the dream team. Nothing in life is ever guaranteed, and once you come close to losing something you love, it changes your perspective. It helps you stay thankful and not take anything for granted. And that’s my prayer, to never take Saint for granted and to stay thankful for the amazing blessing that he is in my life. He gives me so much—independence, freedom, unconditional love—and all I want is to give him the best life I can in return.