Firstly, an apology... I have been so busy with work over the past few months that I've not had time to complete a number of posts that have been languishing since I last posted. So much has happened and there's so much to tell... So, several months late, here's the lowdown on my visit to the Hearing Dogs centre for my Assessment back in September.
A few weeks ago I spent, what were probably, the two most positive days out I have had in years at the Hearing Dogs for Deaf People's Princes Risborough site. The two days were for me to learn more about the way that the Hearing Dogs are trained, what it's like living with a Hearing Dog and an opportunity for the Hearing Dogs trainers to learn more about myself, my interests and my lifestyle to help assess the best Dog and training requirements for my needs.
Several weeks on I still find myself cheering up hugely when I remember those two days and this is down to the welcome I received, the assistance and advice given by the excellent team there.
So, less of the 'whoop whoop' and more of the 'what the heck happened?' I suppose.
We travelled up on the Wednesday afternoon from a misty and overcast Cambridge and made good time negotiating the combined evils of the M11, rush hour A1 at Stevenage and the M25 arriving, via the A41, Tring and Wendover, in plenty of time at 10.30am.
On arrival we announced ourselves (sounds like a Downton Abbey thing to do) at reception and were met by my Partnership Adviser Lynn (the lady formerly known as Freda in previous blog articles) and Trainer Sarah.
After a brief chat we were then shown to our room in the Recipients' Stables where we were to stay the night. The Stables, we stayed in Stable 5, are spacious and nicely decorated with an en-suite Shower and 'throne'. Interestingly we spotted a couple of vibrating pads on the bedside tables. After some investigation we confirmed our initial suspicion that they were indeed Fire Alarm alerters.
After settling in we wandered across to the Restaurant to join our Trainer for the two days, Sarah, and a fellow recipient Tony who, either by design or weird co-incidence, comes from a village not too far from where we live in Cambridge.
Our first 'proper' session after lunch was spent in one of the training houses with Trainer Sarah and fellow recipient Tony. We would all spend the next two days together in each session.
This first session was with a lovely red working Cocker Spaniel called Brock and during this session we first learnt about how dogs learn and some of the training that they go through to become a Hearing Dog. While Sarah explained some of the training and thinking behind it Brock entertained himself by mauling a, rather large, teddy bear! It was fun to watch a Dog being relaxed and managing to entertain himself although I suspect, at this point, some readers are having flashbacks to their own dogs and their Conan the Destroyer type antics!
After learning about the training process we were then shown the care regime for each dog. Dog care has changed immensely in the years since I had regular contact with my Grandparents' wonderful Jack Russell and my Uncle and Aunt's fast but quiet greyhound style mongrel. The Dog was asked to sit on, what is called, a Vet Mat. The mat is made so that there are no stray fibres or chance of the dog swallowing any part of the mat or fibres when they, as they inevitably will, chew the edge of the mat.
We were first shown how to give the dog a check over and then we were given a chance to have a go for ourselves. The check involved checking the Dog's coat and skin for any unusual lumps or bumps or thorns etc, to check the teeth and gums and to also check the eyes and ears for clarity and cleanliness etc. In the old days it was just a case of checking the dog was happy and that was it pretty much in good shape (mind you I was much younger so I may not have seen everything that was done or remembered it either!)
We were then shown the grooming process and also had an opportunity to have a go as well. By this time Brock had been checked over three or four times and groomed as much again and yet put up with it admirably!
After short break, we went across to the Farmhouse and Brock was returned to his owner and we met another dog called Robyn who was an absolutely gorgeous chocolate brown Labrador. Robyn is a demonstration Dog and has shown her talents and skills at Crufts in recent years.
During this second session we learnt a little more about the daily routine and learnt about the various leads and collars and harnesses that the dogs use and what each is for. After a brief demo by Sarah we were each given a chance to try putting on the lead, the face harness and the burgundy Hearing Dogs coat on Robyn. This proved to be a challenge as, being reward oriented and, as a Labrador, rather greedy, Robyn tended to lunge for the treat before us beginners had a chance to line the harnesses up. The face harness was a particular challenge as it's that much smaller than, for example, the coat but we all succeeded in the end.
Following this it seemed logical to take Robyn out to see what she was like on and off the lead. For this we went across the back lawn and out to a large walking/play field where Robyn was let off the lead and we then learnt the art of the sit, recall and stay commands. We also had a chance for some fun by throwing a ball for Robyn to fetch which she enjoyed immensely and, I must confess, so did I!
After returning Robyn to her own Trainer we then met Woody, a young and rather boisterous, apricot coloured show Cocker Spaniel. We took Woody out to the walking field as well to see what the differences were between the differently sized dogs. My partner, Michelle, was rather taken by Woody and found him to be her favourite over the two days mainly, I suspect, due to his constant boisterousness :) We also tried, with Woody, the plastic throwing gadget used to propel Tennis balls to even greater distances but with less effort than the conventional throwing style. A more serious application for this gadget is that it allows people who have difficulty picking things off the floor to retrieve the Tennis ball with less effort than otherwise would be required.
During the evening, after all the day's activities, I decided to go for a wander. The evening was pleasant, if a little hazy so I decided to turn the wander into a leisurely walk under the railway bridge and up the road towards Bledlow Ridge.
The walk took me up a rather long and steep hill but I was rewarded at the top with views of a lovely valley and landscape that epitomised the Chilterns.
The next day after breakfast we went on a trip out to the local Garden Centre with Amber, a wonderful Chocolate Flat Coat Retriever. The aim of this was to demonstrate how the Dogs behave out and about and also to get us used to managing the dogs in a public place. Amber was generally very well behaved and settled down under the table while we having coffee stirring only a couple of times. We were also told about the wait, sit and down commands and had the chance to practice these along with the important leave it command for when the dog shows interest in something it shouldn't such as discarded take away food or other temptations that they may come across... This is probably vital for anyone with a Labrador!
After returning from our morning out we took a break for lunch which we spent outside in glorious sunshine and had the added bonus of seeing a Red Kite soaring above us.
After lunch we retired to the Farmhouse lounge for some soundwork and the chance to meet some more dogs. Firstly we caught up with Robyn again and then we met Nia an Apricot coloured Show Cocker.
We practised soundwork with both dogs alerting us to the sound of the telephone and then we attempted to work with the doorbell except the batteries ran out at one point... Fun! :)
As ever the dogs were brilliant and very relaxed and friendly almost to the point of being just plain attention seeking tarts! (In the nicest possible way!)
Following the soundwork we then went our separate ways and had our final assessment chat with the trainer, individually, about how we felt about the training, and covering any questions or concerns we had the process.
After a wonderful couple of days, probably the best two days I had had in a very long time we headed off home to await the next stage of the process.