Thursday, December 24, 2009

They're Not Rin-Tin-Tin: debunking the guide dog myth

They’re Not Rin-Tin-Tin: debunking the guide dog myth
By Ann Chiappetta
I’m a first-time dog guide handler, and, as such, I haven’t attained the broken-in status of the seasoned handlers, who can somehow avoid impromptu conversations about their dogs while in public. Truth be told, I envy handlers who have attained the ability to go unnoticed. For some reason, I’m not one of them, and most likely will never attain the quiet dignity they’ve acquired when working their dogs.

I’ve concluded that my role is that of the informant, the guide dog ambassador. For now, at least, it suits me and my dog, as we’re both social creatures, thriving on interactions with both humans and canines.

There are, of course, inaccuracies and mis-information not just about blind people but also guide dog users and their dogs. I refer to the unrealistic assumptions of the un-indoctrinated general public as the Rin-Tin-Tin Myth, reflecting the fictional, super dog named in the 1950s adventure series. For those who do remember the show, is it any wonder the first successful guide dog team was comprised of a blinded Veteran and a German Sheppard dog? Aside from the coincident, for many years the German Sheppard Dog was the poster dog for the blind. The introduction of other working breeds, such as the now popular Labrador retriever, has both helped and hindered handlers. For the most part, Shepards look intense and dignified. They are ever watchful, work hard, and can be protective. On the other paw, Labradors are better able to relax, cop a snooze, and love anyone with food. Both breeds are great guides due to their work drive and desire to please their handler. Let’s not forget the many other breeds of dogs that are also successfully trained for guide work. Golden Retrievers, Dobermans, Collies, and Boxers are only a few I’ve met that are part of a successful working team.

Keeping all this in mind, I do my best to debunk the mythology of working a guide dog. Sure, breeds differ in some respects, and I don’t just refer to the physical differences. For example, most Labradors can be easily trained with food rewards whereas many a Shepard cannot be convinced with even the most enticing treat. Does it mean one is better than the other? No. Fortuneately, Training methods have evolved with us and our dogs, making it much easier to train both breeds effectively.

I think the general public needs to know what’s appropriate and what isn’t if and when one should come into contact with a working team. So far, I’ve had some strange interactions, like a baby in a carriage pulling my dog’s tail. When I turned to ask what was going on, the adult acted like I wasn’t even there. Once I crossed the street, a Good Samaritan caught up to me and told me what happened. I laughed and thanked him. My dog was tested that time, that’s for sure. She passed with flying colors.
I don’t, of course, have to take the time to educate folks; many handlers choose not to engage in these conversations because it becomes repetitive and burdensome when you just want to go about your business. There are times, however, when a comment from someone is so off-base, I am compelled to take on the role of guide dog debunker.

The most amusing questions are:
1. How does your dog know how to cross the street? I thought dogs were color blind.

This one always makes me laugh; I tell them I have to know when it’s safe and give my dog the command to go with the traffic flow. If a car blocks our path or puts us in danger, my dog will act accordingly and get us out of harms’ way.

The second most frequent comment:
2. Is he/she training?

I always answer, she’s working now, and her training is over.

The third most frequently asked question:
3. Can I pet your dog?

My reply: Please don’t pet her, she’s working. Thanks for asking first.

The next one:
How do you get a guide dog? I want to say, “You got to be blind, you dummy”, but I just smile and say there are at least ten training schools in the United States and Canada and they can all be found via the Internet.

So, going out in public really puts my people skills to the test, just as it puts Verona’s guiding skills to the test. But it’s certainly better than sitting at home.
Incidentally, Verona will be three years old on 11/24. Our one year anniversary is on January 5, 2010. Writing about our trips illustrates how much my life has changed and has been enriched since meeting and training with her. I have a better sense of belonging, a feeling of freedom I never thought I could ever regain after losing my sight.

Due to the intense on-campus training I underwent at guiding Eyes for the Blind, I’ve found other folks who live like me, and that is comforting whenever I feel overwhelmed by my disability. I am part of another family who will follow and support me as long as I am part of a guide dog team and willing to take part in the mission to stay active, independent, and live life to the fullest.

Some folks have asked me what other roles my new dog assumes when she isn’t working. My dog helps me gain control of my life. She quells the anxiety I often feel when traveling to unfamiliar places by guiding me and keeping me safe. She is my constant companion, sharing my life at home, work, and vacation. That alone is worth taking the time out to help someone else understand what it’s like to work with a guide dog.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Season's Greetings

The year was full of good and bad things, but what bummed me out the most was not being chosen for a service dog anthology. I sent high quality work but it was not good enough. I'm fighting the doubts that I'll never be more than just an amateur and no one will want to remember what I've written.

I'm hoping the New Year is better.
How to Deal with Rejection
Rreading the letter
Tears at my fiber
Cramps the gut
Punctures resolve.

The shock, disbelief, anger, and deal making
Obliterate the Hope of acceptance
And when ready,
In mere moments after receiving the news,
Fingers will grasp the wickedly pointed D shaped pin
(For Disappointment (
And stick it resignedly into the tenderness within.

Pain is proof of progress.

December 2009

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Dogs of Selas Manor

The dogs of Selas Manor

As most of you already know, I am a first-time dog guide handler. My immersion into the dog guide sub- culture has been both interesting and satisfying, and my most current foray in attending a local dog guide association was my first experience with an organized group for handlers and their dogs.

My good friend, Mike and his dog, Kaiser, a large yellowLabbie, met Ro and I and showed us how to take the bus into New York City. I hadn’t been in the city with Ro since last January and it was great knowing that once we stepped off the bus, Ro would keep me safe. I’m still amazed with the freedom she provides; she seems to know when I need her to be more assertive. She understands that when I’m in unfamiliar places, I’m not as confident and she takes charge.

We set off down Fifth Avenue, Mike and Kaiser setting a quick pace. Too fast for a short-legged woman and dog, but we do our best.We catch up to them at every corner and ro quickens her pace as we go. By the time we are on the long block leading to our destination, we’re not too far behind.

All goes well and we arrive at Selas Manor, an apartment building for people with disabilities and folks over 55. We sign in and go up to the fifth floor to meet Z and her dog guide, Margo, a black Labbie. We unharness and the three dogs play, sniff, and settle down after about ten minutes. There is not one instance of bad manners and this proves our guide dogs are bred and trained with superb results. Ro just falls right into the doggie group and our visit is uneventful.

Z, short for Zurline, is a wonderful hostess, and we talk until it’s time for our meeting. Her apartment smells like sweet potato pie, which she is heating up for the dessert after our meeting concludes. It reminds me of the upcoming holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas being around the corner.

The meeting is focused and our ballots for a new executive board concludes within an hour. I’m impressed by the fact that there are over 20 handlers and dogs present and no one seems to have trouble settling down for the discussions and voting in the new board members.
This shows that well bred and trained dogs demonstrate their merit at times like this. Verona and her doggie friends take a break, snoozing under our feet as we talk and complete the meeting.

Mike and I leave a few hours later and catch the bus back to Westchester, Kaiser and Verona leading the way. We manage not to lag behind too much as we walk the city blocks back to the bus stop.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Winter Greetings

Hello. Just got back from Greenwood Lake in Ulster County, NY. We found a great little motel/B & B right on the lake and it's so quiet and Ro loves that she can run free. We visited Applewood Winery and tasted the hard ciders. The winery is one of only a few local establishments that grow the apples for hard cider. The apples are different than the ones used for eating/baking. We purchased a great Macantosh wine, blueberry and blackberry hard ciders and a few bottles of spiced wine. When served warm, it's like drinking apple pie. Yum.

Last Thursday Ro and I took part in a video taping to benefit Guiding Eyes. It was great to be chosen for it and be involved in such a great project. I'll post more about it once it's "official". :) Ro was great, sitting pretty for the camera. I also got to hang out with another blind woman whom I love to talk to and finally got to meet. As usual, the GEB staff was great and made my participation seem effortless even though I know darn well how hark they work to promote GEB and make it a school reflecting integrity for both the students and the dogs guiding them.

Well, work is very busy and home is busy, so since it's Sunday, I'll finish this up and get ready for another busy week.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Mist and Maple Leaves

Mist and Maple Leaves
By Ann Chiappetta
August 17 – 24, 2009

We’re on the bridge poised between the flagpoles separating the United States and Canada.
“Hey Mom, we’re in two countries at once.” Says my daughter.
I don’t think crossing into Mexico would feel the same. For one thing, we’re surrounded by water not desert; the other reason is The Canadian border patrol officer is brisk and efficient, dismissing us once my husband casually adds that he is a Customs and Border Protection officer back in the United States. Somehow I don’t believe that a border crossing in or out of Mexico would be as simple. In any case, it pays to have perks. In fifteen minutes we’re over the bridge and heading to our hotel overlooking the Falls.

The hotel lobby is busy and full of obstacles, and my guide dog expertly whisks me around them all and into the elevator. Luckily our room is at the end of the hall and easy for me to find.
The daughter, husband, and mother-in-law, ooh and aah over the view from the 36th floor facing the falls.
“It’s beautiful, Mom.” My daughter says.
I look out the window and realize that it’s all lost to me. For her sake, I try to smile. I manage a horrible sounding sigh instead.
“I wish I could see it.” My words are choked and I fight back tears. The hope of being able to sear the visual loveliness of Niagara Falls past my damaged eyes and into my memory flies away with the mist. For a few minutes I’m overcome with grief. What a bittersweet way to take the final plunge into blindness, facing the daunting and unforgiving power of Niagara.

My guide dog, Verona, steps up TO the glass and looks down. I can tell by the way she holds her ears that she is thinking. It’s at a time like this that I would willingly give away the rest of my sight to know what’s going on inside her doggie brain. I stand beside her, knowing that she will make my time here less stressful. I can’t wait to work with her while we tour Niagara and downtown Ontario.

Rather than obsessing on what I can’t experience visually, I unpack, the busy work is calming. When I’m done, the grief is gone, replaced by anticipation of the pleasant sort mixed with resolve. I came here to learn how to vacation with my new guide dog and prove to myself and to family that I don’t need my vision to do it. I just hope I didn’t set the bar too high.

Our suite is spacious and well appointed a whirlpool tub and fireplace completing the amenities. Verona loves the plush, sculpted carpeting and inspects every inch at her leisure.

Day three we take the deluxe bus tour, ending with the ride beside the Falls on The Maid of the Mist. But first we are driven to other key points in and around the Lake District. Verona and I get the front seat behind the driver. The tour bus driver, Dave, is like a cross between a big brother and walking history book. As we drive through the Niagara region, Dave tells us The parkland and the falls are leased for tourism and maintained by the parks department. The Canadian government has control of the entire area.Even the casinos are leased out, adding that the hotels and tourism by the falls have developed due to the government finally legalizing gambling.

During the tour, Verona has to work hard to keep me safe. In one park she is asked to keep up with our group. As the crowd parts to surge around a low stone bench, she stops short but I keep moving and hit my knee against it. Before I can even react, my husband is urging us around it
“Hurry up or we’ll loose our group.”
We hup up and when I finally feel my knee, I find a scrape and it’s already hot and swollen. I pop two ibuprofen and choose to ignore the pain.

On our way back to the bus I go past the bench and Verona guides me around it. I’m not quite sure what happened on our way in but our little error makes her pay even closer attention now. I relax my doubt that she can’t keep me safe and remind myself that new teams will have moments like this. Our instructor at guide dog school was always reminding us to trust our dog. She also reminded us that younger dogs will make mistakes and we need to pay attention to avoid potential errors. Perhaps if I’d paid closer attention to what Verona was trying to tell me I wouldn’t have stepped forward and hit my knee.

It’s two p.m when we finally get on line to board the boat for the falls. We’re herded cattle-style into a small plaza outside the quay. It’s hot and I’m shoulder-to-shoulder with the other tourists. Verona stands with me, patient ands stoic. It takes an hour for us to finally get on the boat and I don the blue plastic poncho; the hood barely covers my head but it fits easily over my bag and body. The boat is shaped like a small ferry. The ride to the Falls is only three minutes and I hear the roar and feel the wind rushing under my thin, plastic poncho. We ride along the horseshoe curve of the Falls and it is awesome; we’re pelted with water and wind gusts so strong that our ponchos are being ripped off as we try to stuff them back in place. I’m yelling, laughing, and loving the feeling of the water and wind on my face and body. For a few moments I forget I’m holding onto Verona’s leash and a stab of concern pulls me from my adrenaline rush. I look down, feeling her huddled under my husband’s legs, trying to avoid the water. I pet her and tell her its okay. I get the feeling that she can’t wait until it’s over.

Then, as fast as it begins, it is over and we’re back at the quay, wet, excited, and glad to have done it. I have just enough time on the way out to let Verona shake off the water and I dry her, knowing she truly is a great dog. Unflappable. I’m so proud of her, and I tell her she’s done a good job. The flub into the bench is forgotten.

That evening we order pizza and have it delivered to our room. We’re all wiped out from the tour and even
Verona takes a long nap on the king sized bed, belly-up, her snores making me smile. It sounds so satisfying and less annoying coming from her than coming from my husband. Before long, I’m lulled to sleep by her soft sounds, foot sore and ready to take on what ever comes our way.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

I'll try this again since I've been having trouble navigating this site. Not sure where the summer went but I know it has something to do with the weather being so cold and rainy. I think the worst part is the tomato blight; I love fresh tomatoes and it's just not the dog days of summer without them.

Canada was great and I want to go back so I can visit the wine country and maybe even get to Toronto. I found the folks very nice and great about Verona and not one public place gave me trouble.

I'm working on an essay about our trip and will post it soon.
In two weeks we're going back to the Rennasance Fair, the first time this season Ro did great and it was a nice day. I hope the weather is nice this time, too. I finally broke down a bought a parasol and it really helps whenever I stop to watch the performances. Ro scoots under the bench to stay out of the sun and sleeps while we're watching. The only bad thing is she snarks food off the ground so next time I'll have to put on her head halter to prevent it. I'm sure she will get the idea after an hour and I'll be able to remove it. She's great that way -- a few corrections and she's good.

Be well until next time.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

First Poem for Ro

By Ann Chiappetta

I wait for the knock
Once it comes my life will change forever

Since I arrived
For two days and nights

For my entire life until now –

I’ve waited

I sit on the bed
Wondering how it will feel an hour from now
And go numb with nerves

Question scroll across the marquee of my mind
What will she be like?
Will she like me, learn to love me?

The hot red letters of doubt scroll past
Can she guide me?
Will I be able to trust her?

Then the knock comes and my heart jumps
“Come in.” I say and stay seated
Hoping I can open my heart with as much ease as the door.

I hear her nails click on the floor
I put out a hand, touch her head
She licks me, tail wagging
“Ann, this is Verona.” the trainer says

I don’t really know what to say or how to feel
But her presence soothes me

“Aren’t you a beautiful girl?” I coo as the trainer leaves
We sit on the floor together

The marquee of doubts vanishes
The blocky, red letters fade
Replaced by a message of calm, canine acceptance
Dressed in ebony

She settles her head in my lap
Each stroke of my hand
Strengthens the hope, quiets the fear
The questions dissipate with the knowledge
-- Stroke by stroke --
That she is the one who will lead me

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Summer is Here

Family update: My daughter made it into the alternative school for high school, something we're both happy and releived about. My son is being a bum. My Mom is visiting and soon we'll be traveling to and from upstate Ny for fairs and festivals.

Life with a guide dog has certainly changed things for all of us, thankfully, all for the better. My family feels less stressed out whenever we go places because Ro guides me and they don't have to do it.

I now know that she is sensitive to antibiotics; she was very sick after a round of them for an infection on her foot. I'm pretty sure her liver was temporarily compromised from them. But now she's fine and back to her old self. I didn't sleep much that week and even Jerry was worried about her and helped as much as he could. In fact, she charms everyone she meets.

Let's see ...what else? I entered some of my non-fiction for consideration in a service animal anthology. The editor says at least one will be included. I figure if and when I see any earnings from it, I will donate it to Pet Rescue and GEB. I also got my first person who mentioned reading one of my articles in DIALOGUE Magazine. That was a great feeling. She recognized my name and told the other person who knew me that she thought my writing was wonderful. Gush, Gush.

Work is going well. I'm working full time until the end of August, when one grant ends and I will only be coordinating the remaining grant. Keep all your pudgies crossed that the funder in the remaining grant renews it so I can keep working. I really love working with people and hope we can continue finding and I can keep on running youth groups. I'm not sure I'd like to continue full time, though. But for now it's great expereince even if the money isn't so great.

I am also working on running a blindness support group for those who want group therapy. I'm hoping to run two groups: one in Yonkers and one in White Plains or New Rochelle. It's time I start it and I hope my contacts will help me get it going by finding members.

All in all, life is good and even though I hate the hot, humid weather, I'm glad the cold months are behind us.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Life With Dogs

So, it's been months since I've entered a posting but I have a few good reasons, the first and foremost being LIFE. It's been wonderful living with my guide dog, Verona (Ro for short), and Neeka, our pet dog.

It wasn't all peaches and cream when we got back from training, though, but since then we've all adjusted quite well. If I knew how hard it would be to manage both my dogs after guide dog school, I might have prepared better for it. As it happened, I had a hard time seperating from Neeka. I missed her while I was away and even after bonding with Ro in school, I worried if she was pining for me. She was, after all, a rescue and I was her primary caregiver. Mommy was away and she didn't know why.

My husband told me that Neeka slept by the front door waiting for me. That broke my heart when I heard it I wished there was some way I could tell her why I was gone and that she wasn't being abandoned. But I couldn't and just had to let it go.

I had to let go of many thingsduring my journey into blindness and have since learned to try to do my best to know when to release whatever was out of my control. Giving up my role as primary caregiver of Neeka was just another role I had to find a way to revamp. Luckily my daughter took over while I was gone and she and Neeka have since bonded.

My fear of the dark has relaxed, too, One day I went out to a meeting and returned after 8 p.m. We got off the bus and I realized this was the first night trip Ro and I were going on since the one we did in training. Ugh, I thought, this will be interesting. But I stepped out with her and we did great. My confidence is slowly being restored, thanks to Ro and her excellent guide work. She keeps me safe and every day she does something that causes me to feel grateful I have her.

One night last week we were walking down our apartment hallway and a man came out the stairway just as we were passing. He swung the door open so fast I didn't have time to react. But Ro heard him and pushed us out of the way just in time. The man barely missed us with the door and his own momentum. It was like a traffic check and I praised her as we resumed our way out of the building. If she hadn't done that, we would have both been hurt, perhaps seriously.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Left Foot Forward

LEFT FOOT FORWARDTwo years ago, I made the decision to apply for a guide dog. Up until that point, I was considered a high partial, i.e., having some residual vision but not enough to be reliable. Inevitably I made the transition from high partial to low partial and the decline prompted me to take an active role in applying for a dog guide. I applied to three schools and made the choice to go to Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York. Arrival
I am in the January 2009 class. It is cold, but training in the snow has its advantages. For instance, the natural barriers of snow mounds and sheets of ice provide us with excellent training obstacles. The freezing temperatures make it easier for the dogs to get used to the booties needed to protect their feet from ground salt. The elements helped us do better due to the challenges the weather provided. What can I say, I’m an optimist. Last night after dinner we got our leashes. The bridle leather was stiff and we were encouraged to break in the leash by bending and stretching it. I used nervous energy to do it; I didn’t have a dog on the other end yet and the expectation of the following day motivated my hands all night. The next day we were evaluated for our walking and pacing preferences. We did awkward Juno pirouettes and I even called the female trainer GOOD BOY. Thankfully she laughed.
Tomorrow we get our dogs and I am so stoked I just can’t wait.
Our class is small, only nine people total. Four women and five men. Most are retrains; one woman will be getting her seventh dog. Four of us are first-time handlers and find everything new and a little bit daunting. We have lots of information to absorb in just a month and at times it can be overwhelming. The transition from a white cane to a dog is interesting; one must first remember putting the left foot forward until it becomes ingrained in one’s muscle memory. The reason is that the left foot replaces the probing of the cane once the dog leads you to the curb. The dog interprets your body movement from its place at your left side. It reminds me of the Hokey Pokey, guide dog style. Put the left foot out, take the harness and turn it about. Anyway, I find it challenging and the more I’m holding on to the harness, the more relaxed I get.
What else so far? Overall, without exception, Guiding Eyes is a wonderful place to train; the staff is courteous and accommodating, which gives us the chance to relax and concentrate on our training so we can make our stay here as successful as possible.
Dog Day
Her name is Verona and I love her already. She is a black lab. Did I say that I love her already? She’s a bit of a soft touch. She is gentle, goofy, and has big, velvety ears that flop like Dumbo’s when she trots around during play time. When she gets really excited, she snorts like a pony. She loves to have something in her mouth and her tail wags incessantly.
She is obedient. The most amazing part of this is she forgives me when I make a mistake, like when I accidentally step on a paw. Once, I left the room for two minutes to get a drink and when I came back she was standing there, a bone in her mouth, wagging and I think I actually got a brief glimpse of her soft brown eyes and we clicked. . But that could just be my imagination; In any case, I swear it was then that our bond became firm, the mutual trust solidifying. It was the next day after a scary traffic check that I realized I would lie down and die for her, if necessary. She keeps me out of harm’s way and that deserves my complete dedication to her well being.
The First Week
6 a.m.: walk/feed/walk. Breakfast is at seven-thirty. Then we get in the vans and drive to White Plains and train until three p.m. Dinner is at Five and after our last walk at 10 p.m., I shower and fall into bed, whereupon we begin the routine at six a.m. the following day. Today is the second week and Verona and I walked our route alone. She got me safely across seven streets and wove me through pedestrian traffic, parking meters, scaffolds and snow mounds. Tomorrow we start a new route.
Week Three: Graduation
We have learned how to walk on country roads, traverse escalators, revolving doors, elevators, and stairs. We have trained in Manhattan and have taken a trip into the subway system as well as above ground trains and buses. We’ve all had the benefit of being lead successfully and safely by our dogs in shopping malls and on city streets. The freedom I experience when Verona is guiding me defies adequate words. The best I can do is say it’s exhilarating, perhaps as good as seeing again. Nothing can replace the loss of vision but the partnership and trust Verona and I share compensates for it. By having a dog guide, I’ve gained back much of my mobility lost as a cane user. For me, the dog is the way. I was never really very good with my cane. It’s an object, not a companion. I suppose it comes down to feeling better about my disability and a dog guide provides me with the companionship to help me when I need it most.