Recently I came back from training with my ninth Seeing Eye dog. She’s a beautiful little yellow Lab named Luna. Since I’ve had Seeing Eye dogs for 39 years, you might think it would be old hat to train with a new one, but it isn’t. The journey is an intense one, full of heartache and miracles. And it continues as we adjust to each other and to my home environs.
St. John of the Cross wrote, “If a man wants to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.” This journey began when my Seeing Eye dog Fran was diagnosed with a vision problem this spring that was unfixable and meant she could not safely guide me. The fact that she was only five, in the prime of her working life made it especially hard to take. I thought and prayed long and hard about whether to keep her as a pet because I so enjoyed her company or find a good home for her. Finally I decided on the latter because a family or individual with a car could take her out in public as a pet which would be difficult for me as a single blind person to do. My network of friends of friends was not coming up with exactly what I wanted in a home for her, so after some more prayer time I went on local television and the stations’ websites with my situation. The first email I got was from an animal rights person across the country who reamed me out for abandoning my dog in her hour of need. More prayer time to be able to kindly respond to her that actually I was considering my dog’s needs ahead of my own desires to keep her. Luckily the first miracle on the journey happened and a couple dozen caring individuals around here emailed their contact info. After many phone calls and email exchanges I interviewed three families and settled on a gal in town similar to me in age and lifestyle. A couple exploratory visits made it clear this was the right place for Fran.
So I packed her bag of food treats, toys and medicines and delivered her and her stuff to her new home. I said “bye” without breaking into tears until I got out the door. The next day I flew to the Seeing Eye in New Jersey. It is the oldest guide dog school in the U.S. and I’ve been going there for almost half of its existence. It used to have mostly ex military dog handlers as instructors and was much more formal and hierarchal than it is now. Core values of respect for the individual and humane training of dogs for guide work have not changed. My class ranged in age from twenty-something to seventy-something and were from all over the U.S. and Canada. Each individual pays a nominal fee although the actual dog-human team costs $65,000 to produce. Initially students walk with their instructor and discuss any preferences of breed or special life circumstances that might influence a good match. I’m a bit slower than when younger but still need a dog good in public from meetings to visiting nursing homes to guest lecturing elementary and college students. A day and a half after arrival, I was matched with Luna.
Luna was raised by a couple with a 21 year-old daughter who had raised several other Seeing Eye dogs. To me this is always a miracle that caring individuals will pour enormous amounts of care and love into a dog for a year and then say “goodbye and good luck” to the dog, so it can go into the months of training it takes to turn it into a guide dog.
Luna’s first placement was a home training for a blind gal with a young child. Unfortunately the gal had medical issues and had to stop training within a week. So Luna went back to Seeing Eye for more training with a new instructor and was picked for me. During my eighteen days at Seeing Eye, I had comprehensive training from walking on roads with no sidewalks to riding trains, buses and escalators (if we have to). For me to trust my life to Luna takes a lot of hard work on the working relationship. We’re learning to dance together, but the learning has just begun.
I’ve been home a few days now and things are going extremely well. Luna was a calm flier on her flight from NJ, and has been to Mass and on several walks to learn routes. She’s eating, eliminating, sleeping and showing great house manners. All the hard work of the puppy-raising family and her trainers is paying off. I’ve had 39 years of being a Seeing Eye dog user and hope to make the fifty year club at Seeing Eye. Luna and I plan many fine years together. The report from Fran’s retirement home is that she’s loving sunning herself in the backyard, sleeping on a cushion by her new owner’s bed and has even been to a blues concert; another happy ending and beginning.
If you’re fascinated by assistance dogs, consider some of the following:
Read books like Kathy Nimmer’s “Two Plus Four Equals One” about all stages of the partnership between assistance dogs and their people; Commit to raising a dog or caring for a retired assistance dog; Tend and befriend assistance dogs in your community by encouraging people to keep their pet dogs on leashes and obey traffic laws to stop when a blind person is crossing a street with a cane or dog; Contribute to an assistance dog school—the miracle of a working dog team like what I have with Luna does not come cheap.