It was once said, and now often repeated, that “people come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.” Although the author of this quote is unknown, I believe that he would extend the meaning of this quote to service animals that come into our lives for a reason, a season, and a lifetime. For those of us who have gained the experience of working with a guide dog, there is certainly a special place in our hearts for their dedication and affection.
My personal experience with using a guide dog came in my early 50s. Although I had been visually impaired all of my life, I had not considered the help that could be provided from a guide dog. I was very proficient with my white cane and was able to get around rather well. But there was something missing. I missed the companionship of others. Of course, this could have been due to the fact that my youngest son had just graduated from school and was making plans to attend college. It could have been some sort of “empty nest” emotions that I was experiencing.
I began researching guide dog resources on the Internet and was amazed at what I found. There are many guide dog training facilities throughout the United States, each offering their own unique services. The Hadley Institute for the Blind (free distance education) offered a course entitled “Guide Dogs” that provided insight into ownership and all aspects of having a guide dog as part of the family. Could a guide dog provide me with more mobility and companionship as I was traveling around? After much consideration and discussion with my family, I made the decision to apply to a guide dog school and get my first guide dog. How could I have known how my beautiful golden retriever, Grant, would change my life forever.
Grant and I began training together on a rather cold day in February. He was strong willed and had a mind of his own about where we were to go and who we were going to meet. At the end of the first week of training, I felt as though my left arm, the arm that is used to hold the harness, was at least two or three inches longer than my right arm. All I could think was that I am too old to do this. As the training progressed, he learned to obey my commands more quickly. But we still had the problem with his wanting to socialize with anyone who made eye contact with him. Training finally ended, and I returned home.
We quickly developed a daily routine of grooming, obedience training, and navigating around in our community. I had no idea that there were so many neighbors who lived nearby in our neighborhood. But Grant took care of that for me. In less than a week, he had introduced me to most all of them. It would seem that he had the ability to “break the ice” for the neighbors who didn’t really know how to approach me as someone who was blind.
At around age three, he finally settled down and allowed me to first make the introductions. When company came for a visit to our home, the first thing he would do was to go and select a particular dog toy and come to sit beside me until I gave him permission to take it to our visitor. If I had accidentally dropped something onto the floor, he was right there pointing it out with his nose. When I was working at my computer late at night, he was right there at my feet curled up fast asleep. And yes, even the trips to the bathroom, he was right there beside the shower resting quietly waiting for me to get out of the shower.
Without even realizing it, he had become one of my children. I talked to him as I did the daily chores. During our quiet times, he would get up from his resting spot and come over and put his head onto my lap to let me know that he was still there just in case I forgot. If I tried to sleep in a bit later than he thought necessary, he would jump onto the bed and pull all of the covers off of me and then put his big paws onto my shoulders.
I learned as I was training with Grant that the official purpose of a guide dog is to assist their partners in safely navigating changes in elevation such as stairs and curbs as well as safely navigating around obstacles. They are trained to locate specific objects such as elevators or store counters and doors. And if they do not become distracted, they can even locate an empty chair for the handler. Grant did all of these tasks very well. But, he won my love through his constant companionship and affection. One of the obstacles for those who are blind is the inability to passively communicate with others through visual means. Grant seemed to make the decision to bridge the communication problem. He has introduced me to so many wonderful people as we have traveled.
Earlier this year, I noticed that Grant was having a bit of trouble walking and navigating up and down stairs. After a visit to our veterinarian’s office, I discovered that he was having issues with his joints. I didn’t want to hurt him by working him in his harness, but I wasn’t ready to end our partnership either. What a difficult decision I would have to make. I finally decided that it was time for him to just live a life of luxury after one particular incident; I was attempting to go up some stairs with him, and he simply sat down at the bottom of the stairs and would not try to go up them with me.
The decision to retire a service dog is very difficult because, even though he was trained to provide mobility assistance, Grant won a place in my heart from the first day that he was introduced to me. He has taken to retirement very well. We still go for long walks with him wearing his leash and me walking with a sighted companion. He has a wonderful new little dachshund playmate that keeps him very busy. Grant still gets me up early, and I believe that he has taught his new little companion a few tricks too.
Mobility Options for Individuals with Vision Loss
An Introduction to Orientation and Mobility Skills
Guide Dog or White Cane? Mobility Tools for Individuals with Vision Loss
Low Vision and the White Cane: A Tool for Fall Prevention
Leader Dogs for the Blind Offers Excellent Orientation and Mobility Training