Archives - March, 2014



14 Mar 14

By Randy Pierce

Daily Autumn Training Journal: A 10-Day Journey

March 15, 2014

The 2020 Vision Quest community is full of excitement and none more than me as Guiding Eyes is sending a trainer to my home in Nashua, NH along with my future Guide, a lovely female Black and Tan Labrador Retriever by the name of Autumn.

This intensive 10-day home training program is a limited availability program for experienced handlers to manage the training process. Autumn is fully trained and ready for the match, but I need a refresher including any new adjustments. We both will need to learn the subtle differences of working together and building the bond and trust necessary to be a safe and effective  working team. Until the trainer, Chrissie Vetrano, determines we have successfully completed this training, I am working under a sort of “learner’s permit.” We will work together only under the watchful guidance of the trainer and spend the rest of our time learning skills and building our all-important bond. I hope this daily journal allows our friends to follow along with us. I similarly hope it will provide an excellent resource for what is involved in a home training program. Mostly it is my opportunity to celebrate a wonderful new companion and the start of a promising journey.

Autumn arrives on 3/16/14 and we are more than ready for her! I hope these updates will entertain and educate until Autumn and I are ready to make our introductions personally with all of you.

March 16, 2014 — Autumn’s Arrival Day

Anticipation on East Glenwood Street was rather high leading into the arrival. The last dog-less breakfast at the City Room Restaurant included bumping into a fire alarm which jutted out a bit into the sidewalk. Returning home, the eagerness and some anxiety combined to slow the morning into a what seemed like a week.

The Guiding Eyes Van pulled into the driveway and a little “Juno” work commenced with Chrissie while the meeting with our pup was necessarily delayed a bit longer. Juno, the name for an imaginary dog or instructor-simulated dog in training, and I were reacquainted as I reviewed and polished my use of the basic commands. “Juno Sit” with the right voice inflection and hand movements as well as “heel,” “down,” and “stay” for good measure.

Autumn looks at Randy from the ground with playful expectation.

Randy and Autumn play!

Finally it was time for the greeting and exuberance was readily apparent. Autumn is a solid lady with an enormous amount of eager energy. Wrestling was one of the hobbies she hadn’t listed in her resume and that was clearly strategic as we quickly enjoyed a good tussle. She’s a lover and a fighter though, as kisses were not in short supply for the unwary cheek. Shortly after the initial introduction, we were left to our own quality time for a little bonding and the lovely lass showcased her snuggling prowess as she sidled against my leg and fell asleep. I’m not sure I can express the warmth this brought to my heart, but I played a little George Winston “Autumn” on my iPhone and just basked in the feeling.

This was a work day, so in the interest of a low-stress exploration we put on her work collar and harness, heading out to learn the dance we’ll use for many years to come. Speed indeed! This sporty B&T roadster has a tight suspension and darted in and out along the snowy intrusions on our journey up the street to the bus stop and on to the nearby market. Plenty of adjusting, including an XXLong harness handle, eventually led us to returning home satisfied with a quality first tour together. The rest of the night was for bonding time, which means a few treats for the rather food appreciative Lab and some very content sighs… from both of us!

March 17, 2014 — Great Strides On St. Patty’s Day

Randy and Autumn walk on the sidewalk.
Randy and Autumn cruise the sidewalks of Nashua.

There was no green beer involved, I’m proud to say. There was however a delightful Black and Tan nudging and nuzzling me first thing this morning. The excessive energy which highlighted day one had eased enough for her to settle well on Sunday evening and all through Monday’s work. To be fair, some good quality working probably had us both tired and ready to rest during our breaks.

First we practiced a little of the “obedience aerobics” which builds focus and some bonding. She was sharp through all of the drills and deservingly very proud of herself. Encouraged, we learned a little recall work with both an enhanced “Come” command off leash in the house and the powerful new “touch.” In the latter, my fist proffered and call for the touch leads to a muzzle doink with great enthusiasm and an immediate Charlee Bear reward. Hearing the clickety clack of a sprinting Autumn as she races to deliver the doink is rather fun!

Randy and Autumn cross the street.
Autumn leads Randy across the street.

Monday is trash day in Nashua and so her first full day with me had the added challenge of going around all those obstacles. This was compounded with a 2-mile walk on narrow sidewalks along a busy South Main Street. She had to step off the sidewalk several times and used good caution. When on one slightly delayed side step I was slower to respond to her shift, I hip-checked the “dumpster” and knocked it over. This made her a little more cautious and we had to ensure she knew she was doing great work and that it was ok. Sprinkle in a little clicker training to mark the various types of curb crossings and we moved along with ever improving strides.

“Bye-bye Chrissie” is the call as we shifted into a higher gear several times in the morning and afternoon workouts. We did of course make the obligatory corned beef Reuben stop at Killarney’s for some Irish music at the more docile lunch time. No “black-and-tans” while working but she was charming people already as we did our first public indoor work together. Good girl, Awesome Autumn!

P.S. I’m sparing you all the “Get Busy” bathroom details but suffice it to say we are learning all those key details together steadily!

March 18, 2014 — It’s fun to run at the YMCA?

Randy, Autumn, and the HLC Lions.

Randy, Autumn, and the HLC Lions.

A long day of training on St. Patrick’s included a stop to our Hudson NH Lions Club in the evening in part for an appreciative photo opportunity and some car training with Autumn. Guiding Eyes has several fantastic well needed and well used vans which are due to the Lions generosity and are deservedly decorated with the Lions Emblem and a “Powered by Lions Club International.”

Autumn wanted to start her marketing career with a little appreciation of a pair of fantastic organizations who really do much to make our teamwork possible! Thank you Guiding Eyes and Lions Clubs!

Many new adventures–such as the subtitle for the day–were on tap… but first we returned to the scene of yesterday’s work as the dreaded trash cans were gone and our cruising speed returned to the barely subsonic that is this fine little spitfire’s specialty! While the sidewalks of South Main Street are narrow and occasionally rough, she managed them with smoothness. Our gait and pace steadily grows more comfortable together. We decided on what type of curb approach worked best for us and she quickly learned to target the actual raised curb approach rather than the more subtle ramped approach which my peripheral neuropathy makes more challenging. It was wonderful work, enhanced by clicker training to build all of our confidence and comfort. After her great work, we are done with that route for a bit of time.

Autumn sacks out in the car after a training session.

Autumn sacks out in the car after a training session.

I did have an interesting epiphany regarding the process. While I’ve twice worked at school trainings, this is my first home training. I realized how much more difficult her challenge was in this situation–my former guides had walked the routes hundreds of times before having to work them with me. I was the only new challenge. Autumn is facing entirely new terrain, new distractions, and the ever variable challenge we all know me to be! Given that factor, she is really shining quite brightly already. The big advantage of this home training is that she’ll be custom-trained to understand all those routes important to me, whereas with school training I returned home with all the skills and a good team base from which to teach us to handle those routes, but not with the skills of a professional trainer with us. There are tradeoffs to each obviously, but I admit I think I’m partial to this home training opportunity.

Randy runs on a treadmill while Autumn waits and watches.

Randy runs on a treadmill at the YMCA while Autumn waits and watches.

One challenging place in my world is the Nashua YMCA where I do a lot of my run training (can you say miles4Quinn?). While Autumn seriously sacked out in the car ride from our morning and afternoon routes, she was quick to revive when work called. We worked to familiarize her with the lobby, the stairs to the locker room, and finally the challenging exploration for a safe and appropriate spot for her to remain while I run on the treadmill.

This introduced us to a new command called “Place” in which she can be encouraged to settle in a specific place. We brought along Quinn’s “Highlander bed” and laid it in front of the treadmills such that she could have her leash secured to a sturdy part of the treadmill, a comfortable bed, and the ability to watch me or the many more interesting folk parading around the indoor track. With Chrissie to observe and support, I was soon on the treadmill, though mentally not as present for the run as usual. Autumn watched me steadily and the occasional “Stay and Good Girl” reinforcements were enough for her to be worthy of all of them. While she did rise once early in the process she quickly understood the plan and only reasonably requested we bring her a Nylabone next time as watching me run on the treadmill barely surpasses the old adage about watching paint dry.

Mission accomplished with a 3-mile run and our trip home to groom the girl for her relaxing evening at the “Pierce Spa.” While this only occasionally had a breakout of playtime, she liked the grooming and was patient as we learned to appreciate our teamwork in this practice as well! Bring on Wednesday!

Randy and Autumn mug for the camera in the locker room. Bring on more training!

Randy and Autumn mug for the camera in the locker room. Bring on more training!

March 19, 2014 — The Darker Side of Dog Partnership

Autumn is lucky in that all of her life she has had wonderful people involved in ensuring she had the best life possible. I certainly count myself as even more lucky for having her. However, today included a sad reminder of irresponsible dog handlers.

While we were strolling down main street with Autumn working fantastically, I received a warning from Chrissie: “Serious dog distraction ahead; I may not warn  you in the future but as this is your first of those challenges I will.” That led into an unfortunate episode for while Autumn was a little distracted and would have worked around the distraction, the reality was darker. Someone had left their dog tied with an extending leash to a pole on the edge of the street. This little dog could reach entirely across the sidewalk and dangerously into the street as well. She was highly agitated and distressed. The cord of that extending leash actually put a friction burn on Chrissie’s leg as she was trying to ensure Autumn would not be impacted by a dog we ultimately couldn’t know anything about.

Having passed the challenge and both of us being concerned for the dog and the human who made such a poor choice, we agreed that Chrissie should check into the nearby stores to see if the dog owner was about. No luck, so we actually chose to call it into the non-emergency police line. Before they arrived an exceedingly inattentive and non-responsive person came out yelling at her pup and eventually dragging it away but without stopping it from running around all of us. That’s when I caught the leash to both stop the dog from reaching Autumn and stop the woman from walking off ignoring us. Hopefully the discussion will reach the owner for the future, though I’m skeptical. The consequences for that pup were significant as they were for every pedestrian or working dog trying to walk that stretch of sidewalk.

Most of the day involved some fantastic learning and work by both Autumn and I. We learned the confusing interactions of the Nashua bus terminal inside and out. On the inside, Chrissie highlighted for me the benefit of using the “touch” command (explained in a prior journal entry) to expand our vocabulary for key items.  Autumn delightedly charges to my closed hand to muzzle doink the hand. This technique can be used to place that fist against a significant item like a “chair” or ‘bus stop” as a means of clearly denoting to her what item is to be associated with the new word. “Chair touch” quickly leads her to knowing the word chair. It was amazing how quickly and enthusiastically she associated key locations and words for me as a result. She truly was “Awesome Autumn” all day today, but perhaps to her best credit was her settling under the table at the San Francisco Kitchen where we had lunch. She was so quiet, I mentioned to Chrissie my amusement at departing a restaurant and surprising folks around us who had previously not realized there was a Guide Dog under the table. Chrissie laughed and then confided that she had forgotten Autumn was there because she had settled so very well! Good girl Autumn, let’s go home and play!

Randy and Autumn play tug after a hard day's work.

Randy and Autumn play tug after a hard day’s work.

March 20, 2014 — Celebrating Success on the Vernal Equinox!

Happy Spring indeed as we put a spring in our step for a fantastic morning workout. We headed to downtown Nashua and Autumn quickly showed me the door to the bus terminal and then directly found a chair for me. Yes, she is choosing empty chairs which is something the white cane doesn’t manage very well!

Out the door and off we navigated the route with a precision and speed that had me well appreciating what a great job Guiding Eyes has done with this match. We passed the area we had travelled once before and ventured into new territory without missing a step. There’s a point in training when you really feel the magic of the connection and for me I think this may have been that route.

I’m sure we’ll still have some stumbles ahead. Training in fact never really ends for either of us. Routes like today on a beautiful spring day are what let you realize the true seamless freedom and independence to live, walk, and work in a world that might otherwise present significant challenges for someone without sight. While I could talk about each bit of that interaction or our training work at bus stops, the YMCA, and even in a pet store full of distractions, to me the video of one minute’s incredible work strolling down main street together highlights  how far we’ve come and how very far we are likely to go. This was a great day my Awesome Autumn – thank you Girl!

March 21, 2014 — Traffic Check Please!

Today we did ‘shoreline’ work in my neighborhood and eventually to a bike path leading us into Hudson, NH. Shoreline is the term for the side of the road when there is no sidewalk. The dogs are trained to follow along the left side of the road facing on-coming traffic. This enhances their comfort and ability to react if there is a problem and is the recommended approach for all walkers, not just the Dog Guide using variety! As that roadside turns in or out (frequently when it’s a snowbank version) the dog will adjust to follow the contour much like the shoreline of a lake. It’s probably worthwhile to note that a Dog Guide is trained a bit more for sidewalk than shoreline as it’s the more common and more desired approach when possible. A road might just look a lot like a very wide sidewalk and determining that difference helps a dog understand not to walk in the middle as they would for a sidewalk. This also requires a maneuver called ‘indenting’ when reaching a cross street. Since a totally blind user such as myself has few indicators (sound,  air flow and road crowning can help sometimes) the dogs help indicate this by turning the corner so that we feel them round it and know a street is available for us to either turn or cross. This is an even more impressive challenge as they learn to differentiate between driveways, alleys and actual streets. One other noteworthy challenge is a three way intersection in which  the road we travel runs straight but a single turn exists on the opposite side from where we are travelling. For the turns we had of this type the benefit of home training really stood out as with a trainer or sighted accompaniment

Randy and Autumn navigate the pole in the middle of the trail

Randy and Autumn navigate the pole in the middle of the trail

we can mark the turn so Autumn will remember it based on praise, Clicker work and treats. Autumn and I managed this very nicely in the morning and confirmed she had it during an afternoon repeat journey. This mission accomplished we soon traversed to a bike path where a narrow entrance to the bridge has a rather nasty metal post to prevent some vehicles from passing or to wreck the knee of unwary travelers. Autumn was no unwary traveler and you can see her manage this in photo and video with considerable attention to my clearance!

All of this fantastic travel doesn’t get us to our main topic, the infamous “Traffic Check.’ The reality is far too many drivers at one time or another undertake a rather inattentive approach to their responsibility. Whether turning right on red without a proper look, pushing a stop sign, crosswalk or even just pulling out of their own driveway or parking spot a bit too aggressively. In these situations the Dog Guide is trained to realize the threat and react swiftly to choose the fastest and best means of getting to safety. Sometimes a surge ahead or quick turn and sometimes even the push backwards to quickly get out of the way. Guiding Eyes trains their traffic checks so that in a low risk environment they indicate a dangerous situation to the dog and the result tends to cement a well working bond for a couple of reasons. There are few things more powerful to instill your trust in these dogs than to witness them taking immediate and urgent action to remove you from harm’s way. I’ll never forget Ostend clearly saving my life in New York City and Autumn gets full props for some great work today. We inadvertently setup a more challenging situation for her. Across the street from my home are two side by side driveways. With a large work van parallel to the street blocking one and our Guiding Eyes van in the other, hidden from sight by the work van, I started Autumn forward down the street. My own confusion to the van’s orientation had me asking Autumn to complete the passing of the van and return to curb. Because it was longer than I anticipated I thought she might be missing it but in truth she was correct. As she rounded it and we were both momentarily joyous for the success, that’s when Chrissie revved the engine and started to move the van forward! Autumn immediately snapped to awareness and took a lean forward to see if that would work but quickly pushed me backwards firmly and around the corner of the parked work van. It was masterful and I was so very proud of her! It certainly had given both of us a little surprise anxiety but it also made it clear that my girl is ready to protect our lives with fast and good decisions! While this doesn’t lend itself to being captured on our photos or videos, I can assure you all it’s captured in my mind and my enhanced trust for our partnership going forward!

March 22 — Graduation Day

Tracy, Randy and Autumn pose outside of their favorite breakfast place, The City Room.

Tracy, Randy and Autumn pose outside of their favorite breakfast place, The City Room.

Saturday morning we caught the first Nashua City Bus into town. It was our first public transit but you’d never have known by how smoothly she targeted the bus door and an empty seat. In fact I was touched to see she chose the same seat Mr. Quinn always selected for us to use. This brought us to our well practiced transit station where I misunderstood our location. She paused with either of the two correct options awaiting only my command. As I figured it out she surged to the curb and we were on our way to meet Tracy at the City Room Restaurant. This time we got to step inside and greet our friends for an actual breakfast.

Returning home we processed a lot of important paperwork for the official reports. This was boring for Autumn but fairly momentous for me as the finality of our impending transition began to settle over me. In respect for her energy and the opportunity of a nice day, we stepped out and did more shorelining work on some different streets. This time we practiced a leash technique for encouraging her closer to the shoreline and she responded very well to that approach. It still amazes me to observe how responsive she is to my shoulder position.

As our last task of the Saturday it was time to introduce her to boots. Having talked with Chrissie about our preference for using “PAWZ” it was time for the test. Autumn was curious but patient as I eased them onto her feet. Boot day is often stressful for Dog Guides but a reasonable necessity as salt for ice melting can be hard on their feet. Many dogs are not big fans of the boots since they don’t necessarily understand the reason. Often they react with springy pogo-stick feet to the amusement of observers and surprise of the handler. PAWZ minimize this and thus while Autumn looks tremendously cute in boots, her impact was vastly reduced and for a much cheaper boot as well!

Closing out the post we tuned into our graduation which streams live from Guiding Eyes. I hadn’t fully realized we are officially considered a part of the March class until today. Autumn and I were mentioned as was puppy raiser Joan and her impressive eleven dogs raised! (Thank you Joan!) It was an emotionally turbulent time and some well chosen words reflected similarly to me on the notion of the new directions and adventures ahead for all of us with our guides. Unsurprisingly, the most common theme involves appreciation for all the raisers, trainers, donors, volunteers and more who by giving in various ways deliver an unrivaled freedom and partnership to we handlers *and* our dogs. I particularly liked hearing a graduate speaker’s commit to his prior dog Linus. As they left graduation together he thought Linus was leaving everything previously known and embarking on a great adventure in which only his handler was known to him. “You never have to be alone again Linus. We never have to be alone again.” All the guiding gifts granted by these dogs are incredible but for me there is an even more impressive gift in their ability to connect us to a world which can too easily be lost without them. “My Dear Autumn, we never have to be alone again and we are soon to embark together on many wonderful journeys…and let’s take Tracy too!” In fact I believe we will be bringing many friends along on the adventure. Happy Graduation Day!

March 23, 2014 — Portraits, Malls and Escalators – Oh My!

Autumn sniffs her toothpaste.

Autumn sniffs her toothpaste.

A relaxing Sunday morning began with routines a full week old now. Food, water, relief, and grooming all start the day nicely. Grooming has even become more of a snuggle session than a wrestling match. Autumn’s favorite part, much like Quinn and Ostend before her, is the toothpaste licking finish.

Grooming is a daily activity and part of our responsibility in kind for the ability to take these wonderful Guides to all public places. We ensure they are properly clean and presentable for this and at the same time spend time getting to connect with our dog and understand their health and physiology more fully. Today was particularly important as we were scheduled for portraits in the Pheasant Lane Mall. The pictures were for our ID, our puppy raiser and of course our own appreciation. Autumn was very sharp in this indoor work, navigating the shopping aisles and people with speed and focus. We chose to get the photos first just in case the work ahead added stress and took away from the charm. And she certainly had plenty of charm for the formal photos!

Randy, Tracy, and Autumn pose for a family photo.

Randy, Tracy, and Autumn pose for a family photo.

We then set out to tour the mall and Autumn handled the twists and turns designed to make stores more prominent, which unfortunately also challenge us blind travelers. This layout does, however, provide landmarks for us on store locations. There was a very minor collision and Chrissie was quick to let me know it was neither my nor Autumn’s fault. A teenager on her cell phone texting backed out of a store into the main aisle and into me! While she did apologize, the level of inattentiveness is still impressive.

Undaunted, we continued a full circuit of the mall and at the far end undertook the escalator challenge. Guiding Eyes chooses to have escalator training optional but require that if you do not take and pass that training, you commit to not use an escalator. I passed with Quinn and then never took an escalator with him. Simply put, there are risks if broken “teeth” on the joint exist and the Guide Dog isn’t able to manage it properly. The risk is too significant for me to ever choose this option if there is another option. That said, I elect to take the training to ensure we both do know how to manage it just in case.

Autumn lies down at Randy's feet after a long day.

Autumn sacks out after a long day.

Once again Autumn was smooth and our biggest challenge was an inquisitive and talkative onlooker. There are simply times when handlers and Guides, especially in training, need their full focus and attention on a task. I won’t share the details on here because this process really is too vital for anyone to perceive this as any level of training. I would suggest you give handlers their focus throughout their time on an escalator.

Time in training is becoming preciously brief and Sunday night’s final work is a trip to a celebratory dinner. Two full days remain before we are ready to hopefully be approved to travel on our own with the skills and/or tools to manage any situation. As such it’s a great opportunity for me to thank Chrissie who joined us in the photo at our dinner and who has been a great trainer and friend throughout this process. Our safety comes first, and then a blend of training and coaching to help us build our bonds and learn the trade which will give us all this independence. She’s spending 10 days away from her own dogs and barely able to connect with Autumn to ensure our work will be successful. It’s a lot of caring sacrifice and for me, it’s a lot of appreciation. Thank you Chrissie!

Randy and trainer Chrissy pose with Autumn in front of the fireplace.

Randy and trainer Chrissy pose with Autumn in front of the fireplace.

March 24 — School is still in session

While Autumn and I are still in training, we took the young lady to her first school presentation as we attended Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, Mass. It was an early start but she loves morning. Her charming wags and prancing nature definitely captured the attention of the students and staff though we kept her role very limited for this trip. She spent most of the presentation pinning my left foot to the floor with her paw and eventually snoozing head. It was good to share our message in a school again and know that we’ve already reached more than 30,000 students with the 2020 Vision Quest message. Autumn is likely to witness double that number or more in her working time with me.

We returned home for still more shorelining practice and this time with Chrissie “Troublemaker” Vetrano tossing Charlee Bears on the ground (yes and picking them up afterwards) to try and distract Miss Autumn. Clever pup figured out quick this was a test and didn’t fall for any of those distractions. It was great work and she was rewarded appropriately.

We brought her vet paperwork to the vet and a chance to work her in a highly distracting environment. She was excellent again though while waiting with the harness handle down she definitely put her focus on the many sounds, sights and smells that were calling. She still behaved but it required a little more authority to get her attention. The scale was kind to the wriggly bottomed Autumn as 59.2 pounds was the official tally. Her target is 58 and we had her up a little to manage the stresses of training. I was proud of her for her behavior and glad for the chance to briefly introduce her to some of our friends at Mercy Vet in Merrimack NH.

The tough challenge was really for me as this was my first visit since the day Tracy and I bid our final farewell to Quinn. My emotions got the better of me  a bit more powerfully; as I let Autumn into the van and closed the door, I turned and let a few tears escape. The training nears an end and there’s a finality of transition to Autumn. She’s truly a delight and I am so happy to have her with me, but this did not change the somber reflections which have been so much a part of this day. Arriving home for some alone time with Autumn, I had myself a full-out cry and my sweet girl tenderly licked away my tears and then snuggled against me with her head on my lap.

Tracy and Chrissie caught up for their chance to say “so long” as tomorrow is our official final day. We took a quick picture of the three of us and shared some recollections of the last 9 days. Chrissie is my friend, our trainer and soon my friend again. She’s managed those different aspects very well and yet I’ve never had to miss any of the friendship. She clearly loves these amazing dogs and the training of a team onto a path towards their peak potential.

I won’t know if there are actual peaks in our future for some time still but I know that all the many things required for this match to become real is rather incredible and I’m so incredibly fortunate and grateful for them all. One more post tomorrow and then as a graduate speaker for our class mentioned: We’ll boldly go beyond… and hopefully bring many of you along for much of that journey!

March 25, 2014 — The Real Journey Begins

We awoke Tuesday morning with a very different schedule for our final day. After the early morning food, water, and relief process was finished, I sat on the floor with a cup of coffee and a lap of Lab while listening to the weather report. Even this little bonding time showcased how far we’ve come; it is so very clear that Autumn has claimed me as her person and the reverse is quite true as well.

It was cold, single digits cold, but I was enthused as we were undertaking our first solo route. Chrissie was still in Nashua and we would be working a more complicated route afterwards but this was just the two of us for the first time. As we set out on the walk, I was amused to note how many car-starters were sprinkled around the area as cars were warming up in an assortment of driveways. Autumn double-timed it whenever we walked past the driveway of such a car and I thought how good she was to take no extra risk. We did just a mile journey but it felt so free to be travelling and solving problems together.

One neighbor parks his tractor-trailer on the side of the road and going around that had a car pulling out, so we tucked back in for a curb check which is when I realized the reason we had to swing out a little further. She so clearly knows her job. Each and every time I checked the shoreline distance, she proudly showed me I was within a half step at most from the side.

While we are capable of handling almost every environment, that doesn’t mean every environment is wise for us to undertake. Especially early in our teamwork, keeping the stressors more limited is beneficial to healthy growth. We’ll still encounter times when one or both of us is confused or concerned. It is important to build our system for encouraging each other through those situations and relaxing ourselves right after the moment. For her, dropping the harness and just rubbing her up and down enthusiastically reminds her that although something was challenging for us, we are still a happy and loving team. The muzzle nuzzle and a lick is rather quick to put me at ease as well.

Tangle of obstacles near the Nashua YMCA.

Tangle of obstacles near the Nashua YMCA.

One example of a potentially challenging route is the eventual plan for me to travel independently to our Nashua YMCA. Stepping out the door has a series of partial sidewalks and undefined turn points necessary to avoid trying to randomly traverse a chaotic parking lot. Side streets lead to a boat launch, Stello’s Stadium, an ice hockey arena and the Department of Public works. All of these have to be traversed to get to Riverside Drive where a bus stop awaits. Even better is that the last section of the journey for no apparent reason has no sidewalk but rather a pothole-laden dirt path!

This isn’t a simple matter of someone telling me to turn left at the door, go to the end, cross, turn right, etc. We could easily be lost in the options and find ourselves heading in wrong directions, which is particularly tough on those cold mornings. Having progressed so well through our training, we opted to use Chrissie’s training presence to walk through this route with Autumn and ‘”landmark’” key points in our journey. With a clicker, treats, praise, and some repetition we make a single point on an otherwise straight sidewalk become the target for her to know to turn. I also backed it up with a little GPS footprint note on my I-Move application, but the key is teaching Autumn with some sighted assistance to take the stress out of these potentially very complicated routes. It added confidence, efficiency, and fun to the process. I may do similarly with friends help in the future as we evaluate the more intricate routes ahead for our team.

This is the final piece of the puzzle as we prepare ourselves for a future full of adventures, routines, freedom and independence. We not only bring our knowledge of how to work together through these many challenges but also ensure the emotional encouragement, support, and foundation remain as strong as we are today and more likely stronger each and every day ahead.

“Autumn, forward!”

Autumn and Randy pose in front of the YMCA, ready for anything!

Autumn and Randy, ready for anything!

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8 Mar 14

By Rick Stevenson

Access:  (n.) – the ability, right, or permission to approach, enter, speak with, or use; admittance. (www.dictionary.com)

For our friends all around us with various disabilities, it’s all about access. It can be about other factors too, of course, but access is often a huge issue. Access to some things can be relatively simple: a home or office… a database… a person’s attention… property. But how about a mountain trail… a pristine forest near your home… a wall at a climbing gym… a glassy-calm river in summer? Are these easy for all to gain access? Unfortunately, no, not yet. That’s not as simple as adding a new wheelchair ramp or railings, but people and organizations are out there making progress.

Front L to R: Tim and Dew, in sleeping bags and on “sit-skis,” on the way down the   Tuckerman Ravine Trail with the rest of the team (Rick, Jim, Joel, Dan, Julia, Adam).

Front L to R: Tim and Dew, in sleeping bags and on “sit-skis,” on the way down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail with the rest of the team (Rick, Jim, Joel, Dan, Julia, Adam).

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the privilege to be involved in two events offered by Waypoint Adventure, an eastern Massachusetts-based non-profit organization that provides life-transforming outdoor adventure programs for people with disabilities. One event was a weekend in February at Pinkham Notch, NH (at the base of Mount Washington) when eight of us ascended the Tuckerman Ravine trail toward the floor of the huge bowl. Two of the group had cerebral palsy and rode up in “sit-skis”—modified lightweight chairs mounted on pairs of cross-country skis, with ropes and bars for pulling and restraining. With an afternoon temperature of around 15 degrees F and the wind from the west howling down the trail at us, the trip up and down the famous trail was adrenaline-pumping, hard work, exhilarating and full of joy for all eight participants. Trust was critical, especially on the descent—when anything less than excellent execution would have meant too much risk—and teamwork and communication were superb.

Tim Kunzier tries out the adaptive climbing harness at the Central Rock Gym.

Tim Kunzier tries out the adaptive climbing harness at the Central Rock Gym.

The second event was a Volunteer Appreciation Night held at the Central Rock Climbing Gym in Watertown MA, at which Randy Pierce was guest speaker. About 50 current and/or future Waypoint volunteers packed a room at the gym for a great meal, brief presentations about Waypoint, and expressions of appreciation, as well as Randy’s keynote about ability awareness, goals, and how important an engaged, enthusiastic community is to a volunteer-based organization. Afterward, attendees had a chance to try out the walls of the gym and/or take a certification class in belaying.

Waypoint’s mission is to “…help youth and adults with disabilities discover their purpose, talents, and strengths through the transforming power of adventure.” They believe that all people, regardless of ability, should “…have opportunities for adventure and through them realize their personal value, strengths and abilities. These experiences will help people become stronger individuals and community members.”

Access is, almost literally, about leveling a playing field. It’s also, thankfully, about pushing the envelope of what was previously thought to be impossible, so that people of all ages with disabilities can keep having new, exciting, stimulating experiences. Problem-solving. Creative thinking. Often that’s all that stands between a person with a physical disability and a challenging, thrilling, life-changing adventure, and here’s where some of the similarities between Waypoint Adventure and 2020 Vision Quest become most obvious.

Randy Pierce, as an adventurer who happens to be blind, has a need and a strong desire for access. Access to mountain trails, road races, ski slopes, a martial arts gym, a tandem bike. He’s solving challenges every day of his life, either in teamwork with his guide dog or human guide or on his own; whether training for a road race, hiking a trail, getting around his house or around Nashua, or running 2020 Vision Quest. And in turn, one of 2020 Vision Quest’s many value-adds is helping other vision-impaired people gain access–to whatever is most special in their lives.

Then there’s Waypoint Adventure, the creator of the two events mentioned above and pictured here. Run by co-founders Adam Combs and Dan Minnich and program coordinator Julia Spruance, (one of whom, I’m proud to say, is my daughter, but I won’t reveal which one), they not only create adventure programs but also invent and fine-tune unique “access methods” that allow individuals with disabilities to enjoy many of the same adventures as others. Methods and tools like the “sit-ski” (photo above left), an off-road wheelchair, an adaptive kayak, or an adaptive rock-climbing harness. You could say they’re in the access-creation field.

A final story that helps define and illustrate access: at a 2013 indoor climbing gym event run by Waypoint for teenagers from the Perkins School for the Blind, one of the boys, after some training and a few exhilarating trips up and down the wall, asked a Waypoint volunteer if she worked at the gym.  Hearing that no, she was with Waypoint and this was a gym open to the public, he asked, “So is this a gym for blind people?” The volunteer explained that no, there were sighted people there too. Final question: “Then am I climbing on a special wall?” Upon hearing her final answer, that “…no, you’ve been climbing on the same walls as everyone else,” he lit up with a wide grin. His biggest thrill of the day—perhaps the week or month—was realizing that he had been climbing on the very same walls as everyone else.  There’s that access again. Behold and marvel at the difference it can make!

Learn more about Waypoint Adventure.

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3 Mar 14

By Randy Pierce

March comes in like a lion and this week we at 2020 Vision Quest are feeling that as much as anyone. We had submitted an application for Quinn to the American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards and our blog this week was to entice you to help us vote him to the top. Unfortunately, we found out today that for various reasons beyond our control, our application for Quinn was not eligible for the contest.

“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”
–Nelson Mandela

So this short blog is to remind all of our community that we too feel the challenge of setback and the frustrations of a long winter. Some of our more private moments are spent seeking the inspiration for getting back on our feet, pointed in the right direction and moving forward. No doubt the longest and hardest part of this is often finding the impetus to stand up after a good fall.

We hope in many ways we help you to find a little inspiration to get back up and pursue all of your dreams and goals. Thanks for sharing this unfortunate setback with us and we look forward to taking flight for many far more satisfying successes ahead!

Quinn memorial--Quinn with angel wings looking into the clouds.

The Mighty Quinn: Always a hero to us.

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Bad Behavior has blocked 321 access attempts in the last 7 days.