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.
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.