Lessons My Dog Guides Have Taught Me: Part One

Editor’s Note: We continue to celebrate National Service Dog Guide Month. This post is Part One of Deanna’s tribute to her nine dog guides and the lessons they have taught her.

Deanna Noriega and her dog guide

Author’s note: I am currently working with my ninth dog guide from The Seeing Eye Inc. Each of my lovely dogs has taught me lessons I could apply to other aspects of my life. Excuse me if I have gotten carried away writing about my journey through the world accompanied by nine beautiful intelligent guide dogs. It was hard to write just a little so I have broken my post into three! Stay tuned for Part Two and Part Three

Image of person with guide dog, suggesting forward movement.

Tammy: Learning To Live For Today and Fearlessly Greet Each New Experience

Tammy, my first dog guide, was a beautiful ninety pound German shepherd, black Labrador cross breed dog with amber eyes. She became my best friend, confidant, and guardian as I set off for college over forty years ago. Little did I know how unique she would prove to be.

As a small child, I vowed never to let the world make me cry. When other children hurt my feelings, snatched my lunch and held it out of my reach or excluded me from their games, I retreated into books or found something else to do. I knew if they succeeded in making me cry, then things just escalated into more teasing and cruelty. Until the night I cried into Tammy’s coat after fighting with my best friend Sandy, I hadn’t cried over anything that others said or did to me in years. When frightened or hurt, I pictured myself as a turtle. I projected my shiny brightly colored shell and hid my emotions behind a smile, a joke or a laugh. There was no fooling Tammy. She saw right through my armor to the true state of my hidden heart.

Tammy greeted each day with joyful enthusiasm. She taught me to do the same. Yesterday’s sorrows are past and we can only deal with what is going on at this moment. It is a waste of energy to trap oneself in a tangle of what ifs. Much of whom I am today, I owe to the lessons I learned from my loving free spirited Tammy and her eight successors in harness.

Teddy: Knowing When to Quit

Many factors go into the matching process when a blind person and a guide dog are brought together to form a team. The temperament, walking speed, strength and the life style demands of the handler are all weighed against the potential guides available in the pool of dogs that have completed training. It is easy to lose your heart to these beautiful, intelligent canines.

Teddy was a huge golden retriever, with a gentle spirit. He came to live with us and be my guide dog; when my eldest daughter was seventeen months old. It broke my heart to watch this wonderful dog begin to lose confidence. He started getting car sick each time we drove into town. He began trembling at sight of his harness. Sometimes it took ten minutes for us to cross the street because he became afraid to leave the curb unless the cross walk was completely empty. He stopped to show me each sidewalk grate or crack in the concrete. If my shoulder brushed a door frame as we passed through, he threw himself down and rolled over to expose his belly whining in distress. His desire to be perfect made him so cautious that it was nerve wracking as my need to get places warred with his fear of making a mistake.

Sometimes, it isn’t how smart the dog is or how willing to please but whether they have the courage and stamina to deal with a world full of challenges and surprises. It takes a lot of heart to be a guide dog. Despite all the care taken by the training staff, the love and time given by the puppy raiser, the hard work of the handler to learn to read the dog’s signals and the hours of training to bring them to the point of completing forming a bond, the match doesn’t work out. When I had to send this lovely sensitive dog back to his school for evaluation, I couldn’t help feeling I had failed him. The school decided he should be placed as a pet with one of the loving homes on their adoption waiting list.

It is hard to retire a dog when they become too ill to work. It is a time of sorrow when a loved companion becomes too old and tired to guide. When a match doesn’t grow into that flawless working team, it is just as heartbreaking. I will never forget the three months of my life I shared with the gentle giant who was better suited to be a baby’s guardian and teddy bear than a guide dog. He taught me that I didn’t have to be perfect at everything I did. Sometimes my talents would lead me in a different direction than the one I had planned.

Phoebe: Put Your Whole Heart into What You Do

Phoebe was dog three. She was a large black lab. She took her work very seriously. She refused to engage in anything so undignified as play. If I threw a ball for her, she looked down her nose in disgust. Her expression clearly stating “I don’t do balls! I’m a guide dog!” No matter when we started a route in training, she was determined to finish first. Hence being designated the flash by my classmates. Her work style was to weave in and out without pausing. Once we seemed to be doing a lot of that swivel motion as we went down a block in Morristown, NJ. When we reached the corner, she stopped at the down curb and then began rearing up and down joyously. My trainer caught up and I asked what she was doing! He laughed and said, “I think she is saying yahoo yahoo yahoo!” He continued, “She just worked a phenomenal block. She skirted a painter on a ladder, an open man hole and a drunk on crutches and she is so proud of herself.” I was four months pregnant with my younger daughter at the time. It was March and the Morristown streets were icy. As I stepped off a curb, my feet went out from under me and I landed face first and slid out into the street and almost under a city bus! As I scrambled up my horrified instructor rushed to assist. Are you hurt he gasped? No, I replied, but the light is about to change and we’d better run for it or we risk being flattened by that bus. Phoebe was probably unique because after being leash corrected for sniffing a pigeon, she did traffic checks to allow those famous Morristown pigeons, unsniffed of course to pass by, before proceeding.

Five months later, Phoebe rose from her rug to touch my cheek with a concerned cold nose each time I felt a labor pain. She learned to guide me while I towed a stroller behind me and carried an infant in a front pack. The tougher the assignment, the faster she wagged her tail. When her foreleg had to be amputated to save her from the ravages of bone cancer, I felt there was no choice. It meant retiring her at age six. She had been a wonderful courageous friend, walking on her painful paw whenever she was in harness. So I threw myself into finding Phoebe a good retirement home. Phoebe taught me that any task undertaken and accomplished well is a thing to celebrate.

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