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Meeting My Match: A Leader Dog Diary

A man in jeans and a dark jacket and gray knit hat walks down a leaf-covered sidewalk with a yellow lab in harness

By Joey J., Guide Dog Client

Day 1

Interior of client room on campus with bed on left, desk on right, outside door in the background next to a window.
My humble abode. The door heads out to the courtyard.

If anyone is interested and wants to see my daily activities or training I am going to try and update every evening and post any pics I am able to take. Each pic will have a description. So, after breakfast we had a meeting to introduce ourselves and the trainers. We are the very first class to welcome some students from the UK. We have four students plus an instructor being taught by Leader Dog. They have a massive waitlist in England for people who need a guide dog. America stepped up to help. After the meeting we were taught how to harness the dog and use the special made leash. Then we had our first “Juno” walk, which is a human holding the harness while I give her the directions. Kind of “practice” before handling my actual dog. Then we broke for lunch and had some free time. After lunch we loaded up in buses, or what our British friends called carriages. Lol. We headed downtown for another “Juno” walk, this time a couple city blocks around the other [Leader Dog] facility. Once back we had a fire drill and GPS training, as they give you GPS units that help with traveling by yourself. It’s a $900 device that they provide for free. Pretty cool stuff. Then we had dinner and the rest of the evening off.

Day 2

Today will be the last day we start the day without our dogs. So it started with coffee as usual and breakfast. Afterwards we all loaded up again and headed downtown. Once there we did our 3rd and final “Juno” walk. This time we did a larger route and worked on crossing a busier street and correcting the dog when it has distractions. He/she IS a dog and sometimes needs to be reminded that it has a job to do. After lunch we FINALLY got to work with a real dog. Just not OUR dog. So we practiced the feeding and watering process, how to “park*” our dog and just the overall rules for the dog while in the room with me. For example, always on tie-down or leash for at least the first week, not allowed on the bed, etc.

A yellow lab lies on a wood floor with a tether connected to her leash from the nearby wall
My training buddy for the day, the beautiful Shaylen.

After that lesson, I practiced the commands of sit and down and “heeling” the dog while walking and keeping the dog from getting distracted. Super fun and it didn’t last long enough. My training dog for the day was a career changed yellow lab named Shaylen and she was beautiful and brilliant. For the final activity of the day we had a lesson about the dogs’ “point of view.” These guide dogs were born in someone’s home, then moved back to Leader Dogs for the Blind for a few weeks, then given to their puppy raiser for a year or so, then taken from them and sent back to Leader Dogs for the Blind for at least four months of intense training. And finally now, they will transition to me and the other clients. Lots of change for these dogs and just to be patient with them. So tomorrow is the day!!! Tomorrow we all get to meet him/her. Stay tuned!

* “Park” is the command word taught to Leader Dogs to relieve themselves.

Day 3

Well, to state the obvious, today was issue day. Man, is Tucker full of energy! After I received Tucker, we spent a little time together in the room and then practiced “heeling” in the hallway. He is EXTREMELY attached to Mary, his trainer, but he’s starting to figure out that I’m his master. Just takes time. Then, we had our very first walk in harness, and let me tell y’all, this is where he shined. Very fast walker, stopped at every curb like a champ, maneuvered around a tree branch for me. Just spectacular!

A reddish yellow lab lies on a blue mat on top of a wood floor. The dog is looking straight at the cameraThen, Tucker was taken to the cafeteria with me and I ate lunch while “trying” lol to keep him from being too excited every time he saw Mary. Then we “parked” and that was successful. He’s VERY good at the park command. Then we had a seminar on using T-Touch, which is a form of doggie massage. It helps calm them down in stressful situations like this owner transition. Then we had dinner, and Tucker was already waaaay better at laying at my feet while I ate. ( Fish and chips, yummy.) Then, he “parked” again, lol. Then we have one more “heeling” session tonight, one more chance to “park” at 8 p.m. and then Tucker is done for the night and I will be “tuckered” out. Been a fun day and also a little stressful. But I know he’s gonna be a success.

Day 4

Joey, in dark shorts, red polo and khaki cap, stands on a grass-lined sidewalk with a yellow lab in Leader Dog harness slightly in front of him on his left.
Me and Tucker on our first city walk together.

Today me and Tucker had two more “test sessions” around the practice track [at Leader Dog] first thing after breakfast. This consists of him working in harness and guiding me as I direct him. He also has to stop at every curb before we can proceed. Trust me when I say it, he knows what he’s doing. Even veered me left when I was getting too close to the edge of the sidewalk. Truly amazing dogs they are. After lunch we loaded up for the very first time in buses and made our way downtown to walk a few city blocks and encounter distractions and light traffic. Once again, Tucker showed his stuff. While we waited on the other students to finish their routes, Mary tried to distract him and the other dogs by walking up to us unannounced and also with food in her open hand. They were rewarded with treats if they remained in a sit-stay. Do I have to tell you that Tucker even ignored his beloved trainer? He did! And got his treat.

Once back at the residence hall, we “parked and watered.” Following that was a grooming lesson on the importance of grooming daily as this keeps the dog from being denied access in public places. They must be clean and well kept. It also allows you to check their bodies for any irregularities. Sadly I left my phone and didn’t get grooming pics. After me and Tucker ate dinner we had a few more distraction lessons walking down the hallways. I think he did swell and after a couple days together we are slowly becoming a better team. Poor guy just wants to go and go and go! Kinda feel bad keeping him on tie-down or leash 24/7 but you can’t argue with their process.

Day 5

Yellow lab Tucker lies across a pair of legs in jeans while looking over his shoulder at the camera
Tucker says, “Can I play now?”

Well, just like in all areas of life and learning, there are ups and downs. Today started on a down. And honestly I blame myself more than Tucker. Park time isn’t until 6:30 a.m. I wanted to go get a cup of coffee at about 5:50 and didn’t want to leave him behind. So off we went, and… he decided to “park” in the front office. It’s happened with other dogs I’m sure, just hate that it happened. So going forward, as soon as we both wake up, we don’t have to wait until scheduled park time anymore.

But, as with all lows, there are the ups. This morning we had three scheduled “traffic checks” where [Leader Dog instructors] pulled out in front of us while Tucker was guiding me. He nailed it every time. This pup isn’t gonna let me walk out in front of a car. Then the afternoon session was just a regular route downtown, but this time, unbeknownst to me, Mary unhitched from us, and me and Tucker did our first solo walk. Also, his love affair with Mary is slowly fading. But he still keeps an eye on her. Then we had one-on-one obedience lessons. We practiced sit, down, stay, come… He’s a rockstar. So, with that being said, since his behavior and loyalty towards me are growing, he no longer has to wear his Gentle Leader [head harness] and Tucker gets free playtime off leash in the room with me. This budding partnership is getting better, even if we fall a couple times.

Day 6

Tucker lies on a tiled floor looking up at the camera
Tucker says, “Thanks for the long walk.”

Today was a FUN day. We started out the day with some “patterning” exercises. This is where I train Tucker to “find my chair” or “find my door.” Whatever you want him to take you to, I learned how to train him to remember these things. He caught on very quick. We also practiced off-leash “come” commands while Tucker was in the play area. Fun stuff. And he is so good.

After lunch we went back downtown and went on our longest walk yet. Untethered from Mary, we walked about a mile. Tucker loved it. He REALLY likes to work and constantly wants something to do. Then the evening consisted of some off-leash play on the room, which was pretty much playing fetch and watching the good boy get the zoomies and chase his tail. Tomorrow the instructors are off, so we have the entire day to ourselves.

Day 7

Joey's legs are crossed on the floor with an iPad playing a football game. Tucker is curled up in front of Joey's legs.
When you are in Detroit and have a Velcro dog, this is how you watch the Cowboys game. 😂

Sunday. Today brings a close to one full week at Leader Dogs for the Blind and five days with Tucker. With the instructors off, we were left to make the day alone. Full of bonding time and some practice. We practiced some basic obedience, a patterning exercise (he shows me to my assigned bench outside), and just did some walking (not guide work) on the track for exercise.

Other than that, we played together in the room, played bingo with the other students, and he watched football with me. Well, sorta. Tomorrow starts the next week of training as we branch out to other locations and many other exciting skills. So much still to learn.

Day 8

Today started with a week “touch-up” meeting with the instructors. This consisted of my thoughts so far on the program and what I want to work on more in the next coming week. We will be branching out into stores, malls, other cities, and of course downtown Detroit soon. I need some sidewalkless travel practice as we have many neighborhoods [at home] that don’t have any. So that is my focus and I requested a night walk as my night vision is pathetic to say the least. Then we had another “Juno” walk. This time on working around obstacles like cones or construction barriers on the sidewalk, people in the way, etc. After that we had a fascinating presentation from the puppy development coordinator. She explained the process from birth, to puppy raiser, to being chosen as a guide dog, or getting career changed (i.e. drug sniffing dog, explosives, maybe diabetes dog, etc.). Then we learned about our own dog… Tucker Johnson was born April 3rd, 2021 and was raised in Michigan. His dad is Whiskey and his mom is Tasha. And they must have good genes, because that litter of pups has four dogs that are going to be guide dogs. Tucker comes from some great lineage.

Joey and Tucker stand in front of a Cartier store in a mall.After lunch we made our way downtown and practiced our obstacle avoidance with our dogs. Once again, Tucker was better than me. He’s practiced this way more than I have. But I’ll get there. Gonna have to work at it though. Then back at the facility we had a presentation from the on-site veterinarian. She explained some dos and don’ts and stuff like that. We will have one-on-one visits with her on Thursday. We also were informed that we may get to meet our puppy raisers on Saturday. I’d love to meet the family that helped train and raise my Tucker for a year. I know it has to be hard to love a dog like that and know that you have to say good-bye. That takes special people to do that and I am extremely thankful for their love, devotion, and dedication to Leader Dogs for the Blind. Without them, it would not be possible.

Day 9

Tucker lies at Joey's feet on a bus behind a seat
“Dad, can we go for another walk”? 😂

Tuesday. This day brought another step forward in our training and another small adventure. We started out by loading the buses through an obstacle course and headed to the downtown location. Once there, we were told we would be “routing,” which basically is walking a route alone without the trainers. However, they were stationed periodically throughout the route to watch over us “blind folk” and distract the dogs a little. We went first as they all know how fast Tucker likes to walk. We did very well as a team, it wasn’t perfect, but mistakes are expected, no worries. Took us 13 minutes, which I’m sure is a new Leader Dog record. Then we loaded back up and headed back for a lesson on heartworm prevention and flea and tick medicine. Thrilling, I know! I gave Tucker his medicine and the generosity of Leader Dogs for the Blind provided us with a year’s supply of heartworm medicine and four months of flea and tick.

After lunch, we loaded up AGAIN! This time we headed to Birmingham, Michigan, which has an area with a much busier street and lots of distractions by people walking pet dogs. Tucker didn’t flinch, he doesn’t care about those “untrained dogs.” Bad thing was it was more sitting on the bus waiting for everyone to get a turn than anything else. We both want to walk and practice more. But that’s not how it works. Still enjoying talking to all the people here. We all get along very well. It’s like the United Nations. Five from the UK, two Canadians, and us Americans. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow holds.

Day 10

Two yellow labs and a golden retriever in harness stand or lie down on a tile floor next to a display of travel mugs
All the dogs waiting in Starbucks to take their turn in Target.

As I am posting this, Tucker is at my feet, as usual. It seems like he’s always been there. No matter what room I am in, Tucker is there. Hard to believe we are officially halfway through training. Today started out with our first trip in a store. We went to Target and it was quite educational. I learned the proper techniques to handle Tucker whether I am pushing the buggy, pulling the buggy, or just carrying a basket. Also, how to “follow” someone in the store, like my wife, relative, store employee, etc. I will have to teach whoever Tucker is supposed to follow the right way to do it. It’s neat to watch Tucker and the other dogs obediently follow someone in the store.

After lunch we went to a new neighborhood and did a walk with our trainer, and then did another solo walk without. And they threw in a random “traffic check” to test Tucker to see if he’d stop for traffic. (He did.) Once back at the residence center, we got a lesson on brushing the dogs’ teeth and how to train them to allow us. Newsflash, they don’t like your fingers in their mouth. We also had a meeting with client services. They explained our exit interview and contract, how our trainer will touch base with us 30, 60, 90 days and 11 months after we leave. Oh, and after one year… Tucker is legally ALL MINE. All in all, today was a fun and fascinating day at Leader Dogs for the Blind.

Day 11

Mixed Emotions. That’s the best way to describe today. I noticed that Tucker’s left ear was REALLY bothering him this morning. Luckily today is vet day. We loaded up after breakfast and went to do a downtown route again. This time consisting of a couple really busy street crossings, maneuvering through lots of sidewalk traffic (crews installing Christmas lights) and encountering an overhead obstacle, which is a difficult discipline for a dog as they don’t naturally worry about obstacles above their head. Tucker did great. He never ceases to amaze me.

After lunch, we had interviews with the marketing dept. as they wanted to know more about us, our stories, thoughts on Leader Dogs for the Blind, etc., then me and Tucker had our pictures taken and we also took group photos. Then we had our visit with the vet. Tucker is very healthy EXCEPT for his ear. He in fact does have an infection. They thought they would just administer a “one and done” antibiotic into his ear. Unfortunately it hurts him too bad and he will now go under anesthesia in the morning. So me and Tucker will lose a day of training. I’m not so much worried about the training, more concerned about the ear. Please keep him in your thoughts as I will be worried sick until they bring him back tomorrow afternoon. Going under anesthesia worries me.

Day 12

Tucker sits on the floor with one of his paws on Joey's leg.
But Dad! Do I have to go to the vet? 😂

So today’s post is earlier than usual as of course me and Tucker didn’t get a full day of training. But… we did get to train in the morning as his procedure was delayed until after lunch. We loaded up and went to a neighborhood that didn’t have sidewalks and learned the techniques of travel in these situations. This was a good lesson to get as most of the neighborhoods around [my] house don’t have sidewalks. Then we came back to the residence center and had a seminar (believe it or not) on dog toys and treats. There are toys and treats that they deem acceptable and ones to avoid. And with a $50,000 dog I can see their utmost caution. They just want the dog to stay safe and heathy as he is my way of independently traveling. Also, don’t want any harm to come to Tucker. It was at this time they came and got Tucker. He was away for roughly 3 1/2 hours. The only thing we missed was some harness work on the practice track. No big deal. Glad to report that he is back with me and has a clean bill of health. Can’t wait until tomorrow for a full day of training. Thanks everyone for thinking of him. He’s a tough young man.

Day 13

Tucker sits on a wood floor in front of a TV staring at the camera
It wasn’t time to eat yet. He was trying to intimidate me. 😂

End of the second week! Hard to believe. Only five official training days left. This morning we went to the mall and practiced stairs, elevators, and general navigation in congested areas. Funny thing happened: we were in Eddie Bauer and unbeknownst to me, Tucker picked up a pack of socks off the lower rack and was walking with them! Luckily Mary saw it or Tucker could have been charged with shoplifting!

After lunch we went to a park and did a route on the bike/walking path. There are actually different techniques for different environments. Fun walk! It is also “wine down the week” day, which consisted of pizza and beer or wine. Yes!! It’s also puppy raiser day. Unfortunately I won’t be able to meet the family that raised Tucker, they declined or couldn’t make it. I can understand if it’s too hard to see him and say bye again. Had to be hard. But… the day isn’t over as later tonight we will do our first night walk. This is what I really need as my night vision is almost nonexistent. Will be good experience. Very fun and exciting day! Final week, here we come!!!

Day 14

The last Sunday. Today was of course an off day for the trainers. But we had plenty of things we could do on our own. I have to work on Tucker’s “pace and pull.” He could pull a sled. So today (with tips from Mary) I worked on heeling him and working in harness at a slower pace and ways to encourage him to not pull so hard. We also practiced stair and elevator travel on site and of course he played in the play area a few times. Really a laid back day as we prepare for the home stretch. This time next week—we will be home!

Day 15

Joey sits on a train seat with Tucker sitting at his feet in Leader Dog harness.
Me and Tucker on the train. He’s wearing his Gentle Leader, which is good for these stressful moments.

This morning we had our one-on-one “touch base” meeting with Mary. This consisted of a discussion on what she thinks we should work on, what I think we need to work on, what environments I’d still like to try before we leave, and any issues that I want to address. We also practiced alone while the other students had their meetings. We hit the practice track, worked the stairs and elevator, and then we all learned how to go through a revolving door. And I will tell you, we ARE NOT gonna use a revolving door! It’s too awkward and can be avoided most of the time. Then after lunch, we loaded up and went to downtown Detroit! There, we went to the casino (no gambling), used their “facilities” and then proceeded to board and ride the elevated train. Also learned how to navigate through the turnstiles. Once off the train, we walked several city blocks and crossed many busy streets. Very fun watching Tucker work. Mary asked me this morning if I felt safe with him. That’s a resounding Yes! After our long day in Detroit, we were rewarded with a steak and shrimp dinner with cheesecake. I’d say it’s been a pretty good day!

Day 16

Close up photo of Tucker's face
Selfie time!

Exceptional would be the word to describe today. We went to a park this morning and walked (with trainer) on a walking path that included a boardwalk. I requested this because it is similar to Reed Creek Park down the street from home. After that we “routed,” which is walk without trainer on the walking path. ALL the dogs did excellent today. Seems it’s all coming together for everyone. After lunch we rode to Birmingham again and “routed” around a city park and two city blocks. Me and Tucker volunteered to go twice. It was completely without incident and felt so dang good. Once back we had a short seminar on dog crates and boots. Tucker will need to wear boots in the summertime on the asphalt. Only two days of official training are left!

Day 17

The home stretch. Today was pretty much just “routing” alone a couple times and a walk through downtown with instructor NOT directing us where to go. Testing my knowledge of getting back to the facility on my own. We encountered LOTS of distractions on the walk as utility trucks were installing lights. At one point, there was only a narrow passage for us to get through AND a string of lights on the ground. So, Tucker did “intelligent disobedience,” which is where the dog decides it’s unsafe to go this way even though you tell him to. But, it was the only way to pass and I assessed the situation so I just had to do some leash correction and get us through. He is so smart, he just didn’t want us to get hurt. Tucker did EXACTLY what he’s been trained to do. After lunch was just a couple alone routes in a quiet neighborhood, but professional photographers were stationed around the route taking pics of all of us in action. I REALLY hope we get access to those pics. I would love to see how they turned out. Well folks, only one more day of actual training with our instructors.

Day 18

Several people stand near dogs in a room with airplane-style seats off to one side.
Our pretend TSA agents. 😂

End of Training. So today we “patterned” Tucker to the door of a local bakery. What this does, is when I get close to the bakery, or ANY location I decide to pattern to, I just have to say “Tucker, find the door!” and he will get me to there. Or say if I want to pattern the mailbox, etc.. Then we went practiced getting through TSA (they had a mock security team). It was hilarious actually. We also learned the proper way to enter and exit a vehicle with a guide dog. After that, we solo walked on our own back to that bakery. Of course he found the door, so we went inside and bought some donuts. After lunch we did a tandem walk, which is two guide dog teams walking together. That was interesting, not sure how often that situation will arise. But nice to know the proper technique. Once back at the residence center, we had some fun and played Leader Dog Family Feud. It was silly and just an overall good time. Well, that’s it! Tomorrow we sign our contracts and graduate. Trust me, I’m gonna try and not be emotional. Because this has been one heckuva experience.

Day 19

Joey and Tucker stand by two women with their Leader Dogs in harnessCelebration and Contract Day. First thing in the morning we went through all the paperwork, signed our contracts, and were given a “go-home” lecture. Then it was “graduation” time! We had a wonderful catered lunch, a few speeches with some tears mixed in. Then we took some great pics. Afterwards it was time for our “exit interview” and our final “touch-up” meeting with Mary. To say this has been the experience of a lifetime is an understatement. All that is left is to pack our suitcases and try and get some sleep tonight. Because me and Tucker… are going home tomorrow! Officially a Leader Dog Guide Team.

Day 20

Tucker lies on a white dog bed on a tan carpet
Tucker’s new bed! Welcome home buddy. ❤️

Final Tucker post (maybe). We woke up and got coffee and cereal. Tucker could only have a cup of water and no breakfast (can’t risk airport/plane accidents). We left Leader Dogs for the Blind for the last time and headed to the airport. Tucker was a rockstar through TSA and every step of the way in both airports and both flights. We are finally home where we belong. To say I’ve missed [my wife, Sidney] is an understatement. My time at Leader Dog was life changing and very special to me. Met many amazing people along the way. Thank you to everyone for following along and sharing this amazing journey with me. I love each and every one of you. As great of a time I had there, there’s no place like home.

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