By: GDB graduate Nicole Schultz-Kass
For a number of reasons, I have waited to announce to all of you, that Picassa, my sweet girl, my first guide dog, will be retiring in the Fall. Many of you have been able to see and follow some of our experiences through posts on GDB's Alumni Chapter Mommies with Guides' Facebook page, so it seemed only appropriate, and perhaps helpful, that you could experience some of this process with us as well. I announce Picassa's retirement with sadness, but also with great respect for all she has done for me so willingly, and with excitement for the next phase of both of our lives.
In the earliest days of this conversation, I went looking online for others' experiences. I found a beautiful video about Cricket, Becky Andrews' retired guide dog, which you can see here:
But, there wasn't a great deal from other guide dog handlers' perspective on the process of retirement. Guide Dogs for the Blind provided information and resources, however there wasn't much out there by other people with guides. Next, I went to friends, and the women and men I've met through Mommies with Guides and they were such a huge help and comfort to me. They shared their experiences about retirement: the process, the decision, and the emotions. It was in those conversations that I realized opening up and sharing parts of this experience with you may be helpful, to even one guide dog user out there, and to those of you as puppy raisers, volunteers, and staff, as insight into the process of retirement with your first guide dog.
It was March 2011 on "Dog Day" during my training at GDB, I felt something akin to being on a blind date. I was about to meet a dog who would be my partner, my eyes, and my friend, for years to come. I didn't know her name, her personality, or whether she would like me! The last thing on your mind when you're about to begin the journey with your first guide dog, is what the end of that working partnership looks like. The last thing you want to think about is the “R” word. Of course, there were people in our class who were training with a successor dog (meaning they had retired their previous guide), so I knew...logically I knew retirement was inevitable. But, a couple of friends had guides who were eleven years-old and working like young sprouts, so I hoped that would be us and left the topic to wander far, far into the back of my mind – planning only to bring it out when I was forced to.
Fast forward to April 2015, and I felt my pulse speed up and my fingers tremble just a bit as I wrote, nervous even then, to Picassa's trainer. I was sitting in the Las Vegas airport with Picassa, having left my husband at his work conference to travel home, and I knew I needed to begin a conversation with GDB, a conversation I wasn't sure I wanted to begin....What if they couldn't help me fix this? What if they said.... the “R” word? They wouldn't dare. These trainers can do anything – they're miracle workers. They've got this – there will be no “R” word for us.
Picassa had been slowing down for some time, something we had been working on at each annual check-in, and an issue we were typically able to address with additional techniques, encouragement, and reward. In the last few months, however, she had been responding less regularly to my attempts and we traveled at a snail's pace together most of the time. The Vegas trip not only amplified what was happening in our work together, but our travel there made it evident that this would quickly become a safety issue. I found myself scared to cross streets because I couldn't rouse Picassa to cross the intersection within the allotted amount of time. I found myself growing frustrated as I realized....my world is speeding up, everything around me is speeding up, my children, my work, my activities, but we are slowing down. I realized as I walked through that airport, thankful I had given ample time because we were moving so very slowly, that I needed to write that email. It went a little something like this:
Help! Picassa's pace is becoming a huge issue – my grandma could run me off the sidewalk and lap me on any given route – and she has ceased responding to the techniques that previously would get us moving a little faster. Not even beef jerky could get this girl to go. Please help me fix it... and whatever you do, don't even mention the “R” word. She's my first guide, my girl, and we belong together like sprinkles belong with cupcakes.
I wrote when I did for a couple of reasons. One: the walk through the airport had made this issue so pronounced, so in my face, that I couldn't ignore it. I felt this knot in my gut that compelled me to send “the email.” I'm also a compulsive email checker when I'm dealing with something important like this... come on, you know what I'm talking about and I bet several of you do it too! You click “send” and within two minutes you're already refreshing your Inbox to see if you've heard back ridiculous – but true. I knew I wouldn't be able to check my email the duration of that flight, and I knew I had to give my trainer time to respond. When her response came, it was something like this:
It's been awhile since we've seen each other! I want to help in any way I can – what you describe with Picassa is really complex and could be many things – let's talk and see how I can help! I know you love your girl and she loves you – it will be ok.
Always kind and amazing,
*I should note, there was no mention of the “R” word – yet – I swear the trainers at GDB are skilled not only in their training, but also in the emotional and inner dynamics of these human-dog relationships.
This all sounds very cut and dry, especially with my abbreviated and somewhat silly versions of our email exchanges, but every email I sent to our trainer had me in tears. The “R” word was off limits, but it was implied. It sat there, just under the surface, and somehow when I wrote that first email, I knew. I wasn't sure, and I was hopeful that our trainer would have a miracle technique to address what was happening with Picassa and me, but there was just something as I wrote the first email, something as Picassa and I walked together that weekend and in that airport, that told me where this was going.
I will sing praises of GDB here. I sing their praises often, but throughout this process I desperately wished I had a gift for our trainer, just something to show her how genuinely appreciated and how truly adored she was for her work with us and her understanding and kindness as I took this in, with lots of tears, and gradually came to accept it and move to embrace it. Our trainer spoke with me on the phone extensively, and when an opportunity presented itself that made sense (which happened to be within a week of us beginning this conversation), she came and spent over five hours working with Picassa and me to determine not only what was going on, but also how we might address it.
During that visit we went on a route, a simple route within my neighborhood, which ended up taking two hours. We tried talking, and silence, and leading, and rewards, and break-offs, and all sorts of tricks she had up her trainer sleeve, and still, Picassa, much like a fifteen year old kid, was set in her pace and demonstrated with perfection that she is one strong-willed chick who would do what she wanted to do, and what she wants to do is take life at a perfectly lackadaisical pace, slower than a granny. During that visit, we talked about options, including the word “retirement.” We praised my girl for all she has done in the last four plus years, her impeccable skills, and recounted some of the great experiences we have shared as a team. We laughed and took joy in talking about her personality and the strong relationship Picassa and I have developed, not something everyone shares with their first guide, and something I am so grateful for. And we giggled, just enough, about how my grandma could have run circles around us on that walk around my neighborhood.
Ultimately, that evening came to an end with the decision to try a few additional things, but with the likelihood that we would retire Picassa. I began the application process for training with a successor dog the next day, and I kept in contact with Picassa's puppy raiser. I had contacted her earlier so that she was aware of the conversation that was taking place – I think we share a pretty great friendship and I'm so glad that we were connected through our sweet Picassa, and I wanted her to know and feel a part of this process as best we could while we are far apart geographically. Her responses were more than I could have asked for – she helped me to accept this change and to feel confident in these decisions and what was best for Picassa, and for me.
One thing I can tell you about retirement is this – the emotional process of it is different for everyone and there are many factors that play a part in how it will feel. My experience has been what it is because Picassa and I have shared a very close bond since early on in our relationship. I've always felt she was a perfect match for the time in my life that she worked in service to me. I have two children and a husband who are totally and endlessly in love with her and see her as an irreplaceable part of our family. And, I'm a pretty emotional chick, seriously, even my daughter's “graduation” from kindergarten had me through a quarter of a box of kleenex. Some people are less emotional. Some people have had huge challenges with their guides that have impacted their relationship. Some people are not as connected to the dog for one reason or another. So, for some this process may involve a lot of tears, some time to accept, and a process of transition and adjustment to go through. Time has been my friend in this. As we finalized the decision for Picassa to retire, and I began to let go of the questions and guilt I had been feeling, I came to recognize that these decisions were about respect for my girl and the gifts she has given me, and giving her the best and most enjoyable life in every possible way.
After working with us, our trainer made it clear that this was a preference for Picassa, not something I did or her saying she didn't want to work for me. This transition would mean respecting her and allowing her to move to the next adventure: retirement. My family and I began discussing Picassa's retirement and what it would mean for each of us – especially decisions we would need to make about what was next for Picassa. And, I began to make decisions about her work – traveling with her when pace was not an issue or we would not encounter major intersections or time sensitive situations, and using my cane for other travel. While some retirements are urgent and immediate, some can be gradual – Picassa's guide work is still very strong, so we are allowed to work until I return to GDB for a successor dog, but I have to take her pace and safety into consideration with any travel. This means that Picassa is also beginning the transition – from my constant worker and companion, toward being one retired, relaxed, chill pup who can play with her toys whenever she wants and lounge around as she sees fit.
What's next? Watch for another post soon as Picassa and I move from retirement to seeing the next adventure retirement is going to mean for my girl, and for me.