A Story About Newcastle, His Extraordinary Abilities, And Our Partnership
My name is Andrea, and I have lost most of my sight in both eyes due to a rare orphan disease called MOG Antibody Disease. MOG stands for Myelin Oligodendrocyte Glycoprotein. It is a neuro-immune disorder that causes inflammation primarily in the optic nerves but can also affect the spinal cord and brain.
I have a guide dog named Newcastle. He helps me maintain some of my independence. I am writing this story to shed some light on what Newcastle does for me daily and would like to provide some background about him, and what it took for him to become the amazing guide dog he is today.
Newcastle is a beautiful seven-year-old, 73-pound, male, yellow Labrador Retriever. His fur has red tones and some white in his face from age. I call him Sugar-Face. He has gorgeous golden eyes that sparkle when the light catches them. He has a knot on top of his head that feels like a knuckle. It is called an occiput and protects his skull and brain. Newcastle is so intelligent, and he’s the envy to all of us girls, as he has the perfect hourglass figure. I received him from the Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) campus in San Rafael, California.
Newcastle was born on February 13, 2013, and his parents are Parson and Wanda. All of the puppies in his litter have names beginning with the letter N. A committee named him Newcastle after the beer, which is quite delicious.
Nancy and Len Joseph are from a beautiful beach community in Laguna Beach, California. They were his puppy raisers and I have grown quite close to Nancy and Len and consider them both family. We visit them every year and call them Grandma and Grandpa. They belong to the Laguna Beach puppy club. Puppy raisers attend club meetings to learn GDB development and training techniques, as well as the handling of puppies. It takes approximately three months of training before a new puppy raiser receives their first guide in training. The puppy clubs meet two to four times a month, so it’s a significant time commitment. The raisers also provide food, training, toys, sometimes crates, and a lot of love.
Nancy and Len have had eleven prospective guide dogs under their care. Because of the strict standards of GDB, only three of the eleven graduated and were matched with handlers. Azura, Norway, and Newcastle are the three dogs who succeeded in becoming guide dogs. One prospective GDB, Steven, was nipped by another dog and reacted to a dog during his final evaluation. He is now a therapy dog. Nancy and Steven passed tests to be able to visit Kaiser hospital and assisted living and memory care residences. Steven has been instrumental in training Newcastle and all future guide dogs in the family home. He is a very handsome yellow Labrador Retriever. Azura is a beautiful yellow Lab and is now back living with Nancy and Len after she retired from her job as a guide.
Newcastle was ten weeks and three days old when Nancy and Len received him at the San Diego Fun Day on April 28, 2013. Steven joined the family three days later, so they grew up together. They are brothers.
Newcastle learned basic commands like sit, down, stay, come, and to “do his business.” That is a professional way of saying to “go potty”. Guide dogs can’t go to the bathroom while working. They follow a schedule, must only go by command, and only in designated areas. They learn to go on concrete and grass. Handlers receive specific instructions on how to relieve them. Their harness comes off, so they don’t get into the habit of going to the bathroom while working.
Puppy raisers provide socialization, house manners, and identify if the dog can take direction. Nancy and Len took Newcastle on many outings around their neighborhood. They attended the Vision Walk Fundraiser For The Blind at the Los Angeles Angels ballpark and went to farmers’ markets. He also went to work with Len. Newcastle wore a green vest that said, “Guide Dogs for The Blind Puppy in Training.” The vest lets people know he is allowed in restaurants and other establishments where only guide dogs are permitted.
Hopefully, people resist the temptation to pet him. They are so adorable, but petting can lead to distraction. House behavior is critical as you don’t want destructive behaviors, such as jumping on forbidden areas and eating out of garbage cans. Newcastle got caught chewing up newspapers, and Steven told on him. He received a tie-down for 15 minutes and never did it again. A tie-down is a method used as a punishment, similar to a “time-out” that a parent would give to a toddler. The dog is told that he has misbehaved and is put alone in a room on a special leash that clips to his collar and can be wrapped around a stable object like a bed, forcing the dog without hurting him to stay in a relatively small area. There is just enough room to move around naturally, but the dog is isolated and no-one including other dogs can interact with him during that short time so that he knows that there are consequences for bad behavior. After the tie-down is over, I usually bring him over to sit by my side and talk to him and tell him how important being a good boy is to me. Once, he chewed up a pair of my socks and never did it again after a tie-down. Guide dogs can be given a career change if they chew on slippers, get distracted by dogs or people, or jump on forbidden places, so good behavior is extremely important.
Positive reinforcement when a puppy exhibits the desired behavior is an essential part of the training. Some of the words used are nice, good job, good boy, and words along those lines with a positive tone or voice. Food rewards like kibble work well, as dogs are food-motivated.
One of Nancy’s friends noticed one of Newcastle’s eyelashes was growing inward toward his eye. This condition is called Trichiasis and causes eye pain. He had to have surgery to correct this and has a scar on his left eye. Sometimes people comment it looks like his eye is uncomfortable while he is wearing his gentle leader. It just looks exaggerated, and he is not in pain from it. A gentle leader is a device used to keep dogs from becoming distracted. It works similarly to a horse bridle. It wraps around the head and fastens around the chin. Sometimes people mistake it for a muzzle. Newcastle started wearing his gentle leader while we were in training at GDB as he was sniffing some grass on one of our routes. I attach his leash to the gentle leader for full control.
Nancy and Len had Newcastle in their loving home from April 28, 2013, through June 22, 2014. He was 60lbs when he left them. I am sure that it was hard for them to give him up. A puppy truck transports the puppies to and from the GDB school. He was then taken back to the school for formal guide dog training.
Final evaluations and medical checkups precede formal training. Puppies are then socialized and allowed to play together and go through two to three months of training. They then advance to become trained professionals. Mobility instructors teach them to guide someone through the complexities of safe pedestrian travel . Positive reinforcement and science-based clicker training are then incorporated into their day.
Formal guide dog training begins with back up training, which ensures the puppy backs up if a car is coming into harm’s way. It is also helpful when positioning in restaurants. Training includes crossing streets, identifying curbs, stairs, and obstacles. They may even stop suddenly to alert their handler if something is in the way of their path.
Prospective guides learn how to hug the left side of the sidewalk and to target the front of vehicles when crossing the street. Puppy education includes exposure to buildings, escalators, and elevators. Depending on where they receive instruction, they may also learn about navigating public transportation.
I had intensive mobility training before receiving Newcastle. I learned how to cross streets independently and safely navigate, and map out my route. The Orientation Center for the Blind (OCB) helped me achieve these necessary skills. I wore a blindfold during most of my training sessions so I couldn’t rely upon my remaining eyesight. I needed to trust Newcastle fully. My instructor said I have enough remaining vision to be dangerous. I also took Juno training sessions. The instructor pretended to be the guide dog, and I gave her or him the commands as if I was working with Newcastle.
I applied for a guide dog through Guide Dogs for the Blind school and was thrilled to be accepted.
I started GDB training on November 16, 2014. It was about two months after I graduated from OCB, and it was also a residential program for two weeks. I was sad to be away from my husband James, but knew what was about to happen would forever change my life.
Six other people attended training at the same time as me. The campus was beautiful, and I remember hearing the puppies barking in the distance and thinking I would soon be meeting my new partner. Our rooms were similar to a motel room, containing a bed, coffee maker, refrigerator, desk, phone, crate, tie-down, dog bowls, and food. The patio door opened up to a common relieving area and playpen stations stocked with toys, and this was a great place to establish our bond and provide some stress relief after a long day of work.
The first day of training was filling out forms, touring the campus, meeting the puppies in their kennels, and learning the training schedule. It ended with us meeting our new partners. I will never forget how anxious and excited we all were. We had so many questions. What type of dog would it be? GDB uses yellow and black Labs and Golden Retrievers. Sometimes even a cross between the two breeds. Would it be a male or female? What type of personality would it have? The school is good at matching up every dog to compliment the personality and pace of their partners. It was a magical time to get my beautiful boy. My eyes must have been huge when I saw him. He was larger than I imagined. Everyone in my class was making comments on how big he was. I was a little intimidated at first because I had small dogs at home. Leo and Chloe are Pekingese and Shih Tzus. A staff member brought Newcastle to my room, and I quickly learned he was the most gentle giant there ever was. It was love at first sight. He was so happy to meet me and gave me so many kisses, I knew we had a lot of work ahead of us, but I had my perfect partner.
The next morning, we were assigned a trainer and ready to start our training. I had a sweet, intelligent, and lovely young instructor named Danielle. There was another lady in my training class but unfortunately didn’t make it through, as she was not following the training schedule, and her dog got loose one evening. It was sad to see her leave, but she may not have been ready to have a guide dog. She never had a pet, and there are a lot of responsibilities that come with having a guide. We were given a schedule and expected to follow it while training at the school, but were allowed to modify it once we returned home. I later found out Melissa, who was also in my class, has Newcastle’s half-brother. Her dog is named Knox and had the same father, Parson. Knox is a black Lab.
These are some of the commands we learned for guide dog work:
- Heel is a command used to have the dog position on your left side, which is the starting position;
- Forward is the instruction for a dog to go straight. You also use your arm to point in the direction you want them to go and must have your feet pointed in the desired direction;
- Left and right are exactly as they sound;
- Hop up is a command used when you want your dog to keep on moving forward if they stop or hesitate. If there is an obstacle in the way we use after the handler has recognized that it’s safe to continue on;
- The Halt command lets the guide know they need to stop.
- Leave it is a direct command to tell the guide dog to stop undesired behavior. For instance, if the dog is trying to sniff another dog, smell the grass, or possibly trying to visit a person while he’s supposed to be working. We practice this command often. I hold a kibble up to Newcastle’s nose and say leave it. He won’t take the treat until I tell him it’s ok. It takes a lot of will power. Obedience commands are essential for your guide dog to do good guide work.
- Sit, stand, stay, come, and down are basic commands guide dogs learn from their puppy trainers.
The two weeks of training had us walking the streets around the campus and downtown. We were taken by our instructor each morning in a van to the training center, where we hung out in the lounge until it was our turn to go out on our route.
It was such a blessing to have this training to become comfortable with Newcastle and mastering the commands. We pounded the pavement every day to lock in our skills and encounter as many obstacles and situations as possible. We tested our skills on streetlight crossings and making sure our posture was on point. Starbucks was one of our favorite spots to train.
It rained pretty much the entire time I was there, but we went out rain or shine. It was real-world training. We worked a route in the morning and afternoon and even had some night training. I was the only person in my class with my instructor, so I was fortunate to have some extra practice in navigating malls and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. I was also lucky to have some hometown training. We worked around my neighborhood and the places I enjoy visiting. I clicker-trained Newcastle to stop and alert me to overhanging tree branches as I am tall and have run into them when using my blind cane.
One of our favorite outings is going to Black Bear Diner. We don’t always eat there, but it’s an excellent route for us as it has a street light crossing. He likes to show me the bench and the button for the street lights in addition to a bridge we cross. It’s also a great cardio session.
Newcastle uses intelligent disobedience. If I give him an unsafe command, he knows to disobey it. He won’t go forward if I try to cross a street, and a car is in front of us on the road, or possibly backing up. He also has impeccable manners when it comes to restaurants or other businesses we frequent. We, as handlers, have to know where we are at all times, whether it be mapping a place out ahead of time or using technology such as a GPS apps. I have to pay attention to his cues and stop when he tells me to or else I can get into trouble. If we encounter a curb, Newcastle alerts me and stops immediately. He even warns me if I am getting to close to the platform of the BART station. One of our final tests was with traffic situations. It was scary, but I knew Newcastle had my back. GDB instructors perform this last test. As part of the trial, a car came straight at us while we were crossing a street light. He stopped and backed up, so I did not go into harm’s way. They also had a car back up toward us, and he aced it.
November 29,2014, was a special day as it was graduation. We both passed all of our tests, and it was such an emotional experience. I was finally able to meet the beautiful family that raised him. Nancy, Len, and son Jeffrey were all there to cheer us on. His puppy raisers gave me a photo album with puppy pictures of Newcastle and a six-pack of Newcastle beer. We all shared our stories, and I knew the Josephs’ were going to become part of our family.
It was time to pack up and go home with my husband and Newcastle, my guiding angel eyes.
It took some time for our dogs to adjust to our new family member. Chloe, our female Shih Tzu was the alpha dog and the jealous type. She was a little cold to him in the beginning. Thankfully there was no fighting amongst them. We introduced Newcastle to Chloe and Bubba outside of the home. That way, there were no territorial issues. Newcastle was even kind to my cats, Salem and Bandit.
I keep Newcastle on a strict diet of the same food he was eating at GDB. It’s lamb and brown rice by Natural Balance. I have to measure it out so he doesn’t gain weight. I also am the only one that feeds him, which keeps the strong bond between us.
Newcastle loves my husband so much, and my husband loves him in return. I occasionally need to have James distance himself if Newcastle starts getting distracted on his routes. It reminds Newcastle of the job he has to perform to keep me safe.
I made the mistake of giving him a Nylabone with a filling in the middle of it one day. That night I woke up to a horrendous smell. Chloe and Bubba were staring at Newcastle while he was sitting in the middle of the room, looking guilty. He had an accident and made a mess on our carpet. I take the blame for it in giving him such a rich treat his stomach couldn’t handle.
A friend painted a portrait of Newcastle, and a family painting of our fur babies on a beach. I still love to look at that picture even though we have lost Salem and Chloe. Bandit passed away before we had the painting made. Bubba and Newcastle have grown close to each other and often cuddle together. Newcastle also enjoys the occasional visit from our neighbor’s cat. I named her Fiona before I knew she had an owner. Her real name is Misty. I like to refer to her as my “rental cat.”
Newcastle is a morning dog and loves to wake me up with kisses every morning. What better way to wake up? I say, “Good morning, Sunshine, are you ready for our day?”
Newcastle and I take walks around the neighborhood every day to keep ourselves exercised and sharp on guide work. I have come up with ways to keep it fun, so we don’t get bored. I clicker trained him to stop and alert me to any newspapers in the middle of our path on the sidewalk. I refer to them as bonuses and have made a game out of it.
Like most guide dogs, Newcastle has some days where he isn’t perfect. He gets distracted by a person or dog. That’s when I have to be patient and correct the behavior. I usually say no or leave it. Newcastle has been curious about mailboxes lately. He has taken me into them, and I had an instructor guide me on how to resolve this, as I have scraped my hand because of it. If he starts wandering left, I take his leash and motion it forward with the forward command. It is essential to correct any undesired behavior as it happens. Consistency is key. The great thing is that dogs have a great memory and want to please their handler. GDB is also a phone call away and will send out an instructor to your home if you need help.
There are a few neighbors in our neighborhood who don’t follow the leash law and let their dogs roam freely. One day a dog was loose and charged at us, and Newcastle put his body in front of me to protect me. Thankfully the dog didn’t bite us, but it was a frightening experience. I have tried talking to the neighbor but have not much luck in resolving the situation.
Newcastle is seven years old, and I have had him for over five fabulous years. He has slowed down a little bit. He used to run laps in the backyard when he was a puppy. Now, he likes to play tug with me and chew on his Nylabones. He the best partner I could ever imagine having. We also enjoy walking the trail that we have near our house.
Over the last few years, we lost Salem, Bandit, and Chloe to cancer. Now, Bubba, Newcastle, and I take a small nap every day and cuddle on the bed. We all look forward to this time together. Newcastle has this grumble he sometimes makes in disagreement and when he settles in for a nap. He loves to dance with me. He goes through my legs and wags his tail the whole time. I think he learned this from Grandma and watching Dancing with the Stars. He has a fun and silly personality. James and I use a goofy voice to describe what he may be trying to say.
Newcastle has some adorable nicknames. Newkey, Castle, Naughty New New, New, Sunshine, Newscaster, and Honey Bear. He is an affectionate dog and loves kisses. There isn’t a mean bone in his body. I also sing a song to him, and it’s called Windy by The Association. I replace the word Windy with Newkey.
He is my guardian angel, and I love him so dearly.
I have encountered some challenging times where businesses aren’t happy about me having a guide dog with me. I used to go to a local nail salon until one day when I went in with him, and the owner asked me to tie him up outside. I left and only returned to provide her with some information on Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) law. I let her know refusing to allow my service animal into the establishment was illegal and I never returned. We took a trip to Las Vegas, and Virgin airlines seated us in the back of the plane. Poor Newcastle ended up stuffed under my seat, and he is a large dog. I asked why we were sitting all the way in the back, and the flight attendant said it was so I could be closer to the bathroom. It was only an hour-long flight, so not likely I’d need to use the restroom.
I use Lyft for transportation around my local area and have come across some not-so-nice drivers. Some of the drivers commented about not being thrilled to have a dog in their car. I take the time to educate them on what he does for me and ADA law. I keep him clean and brush him and his teeth regularly. Newcastle has been a wonderful companion when I was getting monthly infusions at the infusion center. Just having him with me brings me so much comfort, joy, and love, especially when my husband has to work.
Newcastle has attended a Sammy Hagar concert, but he doesn’t enjoy loud noise. He goes to the movie theatre but isn’t a fan of action movies because of the loud sound. He loves taking walks on the beach most likely because that’s where he grew up. Once, he made a young lady’s day as we were at San Juan Capistrano beach and came across her getting ready to do some physical therapy. Her eyes lit up when she saw him. I took off his harness so she could pet him. She was recovering from a brain injury. I don’t mind sharing him with people when it’s appropriate. He must have his harness off. There have been times when people have tried to pet him while he is working. This can be quite dangerous if we are walking, as he may get distracted. Newcastle knows when he is in his harness, he is working.
Even though he has webbed feet, Newcastle doesn’t like water. It is a challenge at bath time. However, he does love having his teeth brushed. He doesn’t like heat, and I’m also heat-sensitive, so we keep the temperature cool in the house. He has little dog shoes for all four paws to use for heat, escalators, and snow.
Newcastle has been an ambassador at guide dog events such as Pixar movie premieres and fundraising events such as High on the Hog hosted by Epic Steaks in San Francisco. He also loves attending medical conferences at the Guthy Jackson Charitable Foundation, where he gets to visit with all of the patients. He also was one of the service dogs represented in Sumaira Foundations’ 2020 calendar and is a Champion for The MOG Project, and the official Guide MOGDog.
Newcastle and I hope this helps others understand what it takes to become a guide dog and create the life-long bond between handler and guide dog team. Here’s to many more adventures with Newcastle, my guiding angel eyes.
By Andrea Mitchell, with special contributions from Newcastle