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.

Please be aware that 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 do not earn a commission from promoting these products; these are merely my personal opinions.

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 one of these collapsible, 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!

I HAVEN’T WRITTEN IN TEN WEEKS, AND THIS IS WHY

For better or worse—and mark my words, it’s most often for worse—I am an all-or-nothing, idealistic pessimist. Just ask my therapist: I’m either a success or an utter failure. I either eat healthy, or one cookie deems me a lost cause. I either write consistently, or I am not worthy of the title.

When I started this blog, I had dreams of writing posts twice a week, growing a community of readers and allies, and bringing awareness to the realities of life with a disability. I still have those dreams. But sometimes, life wakes you up with a freaking loud alarm, and those dreams are put on pause.

So many times in the last ten weeks, I have sat down to write a post and nothing has come. I stare at a blank page, then wait for the tears. I slam the laptop shut, debate throwing it out the window, decide against it, and go take a burning hot shower and wonder why I thought I could do this. How could I call myself a blogger if I let my darling sit untouched for ten weeks? It deserves better, and so do those that honour me by reading it.

But in the past two and a half months, words have eluded me. I’ve cried, and when there are no more tears, I’ve just sat in the silence, wondering what I’m supposed to do now. It reminds me of the book of Job, when, after he lost his children, livestock, his home and his health, his friends “sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights, but no one spoke a word to him because they saw how intense his suffering was. Sure, I haven’t endured loss on that scale and I’m thankful for that. But I also want to acknowledge the grief that I am experiencing.

The Goodbye

On May 17, my guide dog, Cricket officially retired from his life as my working Leader Dog. In reality, he had not guided me for weeks and in my heart, I knew it was over. But now it was official and I couldn’t deny it any longer.

I put myself full throttle into “get it done” mode so that I wouldn’t stay in “cry all the time” mode. I applied to CNIB Guide Dogs, Guide Dogs for the Blind, and re-applied to Leader Dogs for the Blind for a successor guide.

And knowing that I didn’t have the physical space or the financial capability to care for Cricket in retirement as well as a new, working guide dog, I had to make the decision of where Cricket would live. I decided, together with Cricket’s puppy raiser, that giving him back to her was the best thing for him. God had affirmed that in both our hearts, but this decision brought its own challenges, namely how to get Cricket back home to Michigan.

Due to Covid-19 and the travel restrictions that both the United States and Canada set in place, getting Cricket to his new home proved much more challenging than expected:

• His puppy raiser could travel to Canada to pick him up as she was fully vaccinated, but she could not take him back on the plane as she was not his handler.
• I could not travel to Michigan as I was not fully vaccinated and could not go through a two-week quarantine upon return.
• We didn’t feel comfortable putting Cricket in cargo, as he needs to be medicated on flights to mitigate anxiety, so sending him alone was not an option.
• We applied with Puppies in Flight, a program through American Airlines to transport service dogs with an employee, but nothing came of it.
• We tried to get permission for his raiser to become his temporary handler for the duration of the flights, but that was not possible.
• We asked if a LDB trainer could transport Cricket, but again, due to restrictions, that was not feasible.

Once I knew that I would be fully vaccinated and able to travel without the need to quarantine by August 8, the plan was for me and Cricket to fly to Michigan, get him acclimated to his new home and come home… alone.

It was frustrating practically, but it was even harder emotionally. I had come to terms with Cricket retiring as my guide, but I was not able to grieve the loss of his companionship until he was gone, and not knowing when that would happen became almost unbearable. By July, I was having trouble sleeping. The feelings of guilt over leaving him home for hours at a time since I couldn’t legally bring him into shops, restaurants or on public transit made me feel like a failure as a handler. I wasn’t giving him the life that he deserved.

I returned home from Michigan on August 13. Cricket is now in his new home and I am able to grieve. But dear Lord… it breaks my heart.

The Other Goodbyes

Out of respect for the privacy of those that I am referring to, I will not go into detail here. But as I’m sure others have experienced throughout the last year and a half, differing views on the Covid-19 pandemic have caused significant conflict in relationships. The decision to get vaccinated or not, to wear masks and physically distance, among others, have divided families, friends, partners and communities.

And now, it’s happening to me in some of my close friendships. I still love and care for these people, but when our opposing views propel our lives in different directions, it is hard to know how to maintain a respectful, mutual, loving relationship. When the conflict is something as significant as the pandemic, how do you go forward when those closest to you do not agree?

I don’t have the answers. All I know is how it feels to be in the middle of it. I’m questioning how easily I trust others, if I have even been a friend if I can consider ending it, what it looks like to love like Jesus, and whether it is “christian” to let these differences influence the relationship. I cry myself to sleep because I feel, once again, that I can’t do friendships the right way.

The pandemic has caused so much grief in countless ways in our world. Is it a test from God? Am I loving those around me with His love? Am I doing enough?

Am I failing the test?

I’ve Had Enough of Saying Goodbye

We were walking to the lake yesterday afternoon when I stopped, threw my arms around my boyfriend and with tears in my eyes, said, “it’s starting again.”

“It” is my depression. As I’ve struggled with my mental health for years now, I’m very aware of my personal indicators of a depressive episode—I’m not enjoying activities that I love in the same capacity that I was even a few weeks ago, I’m not initiating get-togethers with friends, I’m sleeping late.

I’ve had enough of saying goodbye. To Cricket, to close friends.. what’s next? I’m exhausted. My brain is exhausted.

Is it starting again? Can I work to stave it off, even just a little bit? Maybe my medication will help this time, seeing as I wasn’t taking it the last time an episode came. I will have to work hard to eat. I will have to drag myself out of bed in the mornings and tell myself out loud that yes, there is a reason to get up today even though I don’t have to take Cricket out to pee or go for a walk.

And I will also have to give myself grace. And that will be harder than any of the others. But with the love of my family, my partner, Jesus and my medication, I will make it through.

But I am scared.

So, What Now?

Things feel very fragile right now. I feel like I’m about to break, and it must be by God’s grace, that I’m holding on. He’s here, and He’s blessed me with a support system and people who love me and hold me up when I can’t do it by myself. But as I’ve been learning to do in therapy, I’ve been trying to hold all of my opposite emotions. I imagine that in my left hand, I’m holding the love, the support and the faith that gets me through the tough times. And in my right hand are the tears, the grief, the pain and the sadness.

I want to write, and I’m hoping that this post will help break through the wall that’s built up over the past ten weeks. This blog, and you, my readers, are too important to me to let you go again. But there’s no telling if life’s alarm clock will sound again. But be assured that even if I am silent, I’m still here, and I’m doing my best.

That’s all anyone can do.