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May 2024
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Navigating Obstacles with New Eyes

How my service dog and I became competent communicators.

By Maribel Steel

Blind woman with guide dogMaribel Steel and Dindi

Two years ago, I joined Glen Waverly Toastmasters in Melbourne, Australia, to improve my speaking style. By using the traditional program’s Competent Communication manual, I quickly learned that if I followed the objectives given for each speech, my presentations would likely have all the elements required to keep the audience engaged. I could step with confidence to each new point in the speech.

I recently took on a new challenge to improve another aspect of my life. I am legally blind and was paired with a guide dog to act as my seeing eyes. Dindi, a two-year-old black Labrador retriever, and I are learning the many skills needed to become an effective guide dog team. Together, we are learning how to work as “competent communicators.”

Through this process, I discovered that Toastmasters and guide dog handlers share similar communication principles. Both endeavors require clear objectives and the application of a tried-and-true system. Like all Toastmasters strive to do, Dindi and I are continually working to improve our mutual understanding.

Toastmasters appreciate organization and structure in speeches. We learn that to capture the audience’s attention, it helps to start with a catchy opening. As a guide dog handler, I must be sure Dindi is listening; getting her attention is like giving her a catchy opening. Using vocal variety, I may say her name or give a command in a certain tone so that she stays alert. Like humans, guide dogs listen and respond best when they are engaged and inspired by the task at hand.

A Toastmasters speech includes main points and sub-points to present the speaker’s ideas. When the thread of the story is presented in logical order, audiences can follow the presentation points to a conclusion.

Like humans, guide dogs listen and respond best when they are engaged and inspired by the task at hand.

In a guide dog team, both partners learn specific commands, presented in logical order, to safely navigate through the environment. These commands function something like the main points in a speech. They keep Dindi’s attention and reassure her she’s on the right track. She stays alert to my word prompts, moving us smoothly from point A to point B, from a seat to a door, or from a bus stop to a curb. Every step requires clear, logical, and mutually understood directions.

In a Toastmasters speech, we use transitions—a subtle shift of tone or ideas that seamlessly lead to the next point, so we can continue our story with self-assurance. Likewise, Dindi has learned to make subtle physical shifts to gently guide me away from an obstacle and back to the safe path. These small adjustments allow us as a team to shift positions without awkward movements, so we both walk forward with confidence.

When a Toastmaster nears the end of a speech, they incorporate a clear conclusion, reinforcing key points and leaving the audience with a call to action or a memorable ending. The evaluation wraps up the process; feedback is constructive and delivered with care.

The guide dog team works to achieve a similar, satisfying outcome. Dindi guides me where I need to go, laying out my path and ensuring my safety. I offer gentle corrections to help her improve and am constantly reinforcing her good behavior with praise.

When Dindi and I reach a curb, sit at a café table, or find the correct door, our successful navigation signals a triumphant moment. We understood one another perfectly and achieved a shared goal with certainty and trust. Our connection grows even stronger.

The result is a stream of memorable moments on our shared pathway, demonstrating the same clarity, growth, and rewarding outcomes that we strive to reach as Toastmasters.

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