A Safety-Conscious Canine

A little story I wrote for a blog I contributed to. The blog is no longer running so I decided to republish it here. Enjoy.

Prim has consistently been rather stubborn about going to church. When I asked my trainer about it, she suggested that perhaps Prim simply wasn’t religious. I laughed at that, but it wasn’t a sufficient explanation, especially when I realized that Prim was somewhat unwilling to walk the route from church, as well as to church. Today I figured out why. 

Our walk to church includes traversing several sets of steps, the top level of a parking garage, and a long, side-walkless driveway, one that is consistently populated by church-goers’ vehicles leaving and entering our parking lot. Because there is no sidewalk, we are forced to stick as close as we can to the edge of the road. Prim is trained to do this. It’s a technique called “shore-lining”, but she is still not satisfied. She often stops in the parking lot or veers to the grass when she sees an idoling car, as I think she recognizes it as a threat. Well, one day on our way out of church, Prim decided to take matters into her own paws. Despite my direction to walk straight, across the parking lot and along the driveway, Prim insisted upon turning left. Curious, I trusted her and followed.

“Let’s go home.” 

I said, hopefully, even though I didn’t actually know whether we could get back to our appartment this way. She led me along a brief strip of parkinglot, then pulled me strongly to the right to step onto a sidewalk. I couldn’t help but laugh. We stuck to the sidewalk, made a right, then walked another good distance, until Prim pulled right again and I recognized the slant of our leasing office parking lot beneath my feet, and a minute later reached out to feel the gate that would take us into our complex. 

We had never walked that route before, but somehow Prim knew we could get home that way, and knew it was safer with side walks. She won’t let us walk any other way now. I love my safety conscious canine.

The Symbiosis of the Guide Dog Team

I am often asked questions about the nature of my relationship with my guide dog.  A topic we frequently touch on is the interdependence of it.  I like to point this out to people, because no one is surprised that I depend on my guide dog.  After all, she is my eyes, in a sense… but they usually don’t think  about the fact that my dog depends on me, too.

My guide dog does have a lot of responsibility, especially for a dog.  Prim protects me.  She keeps me from walking into traffic, or stepping off the edge of a platform or stage.  She navigates me smoothly around things in our path, and shows me when there is an obstacle like a parked car or construction barrier obstructing our way entirely.  Prim provides for me.  She helps me find landmarks like doors, steps, trashcans, and chairs, and is a source of ever-present laughter and comfort besides.

But like with any other dog, I have a great deal of responsibility as Prim’s partner and handler.  I protect Prim.  I make intelligent decisions about when to cross the street, and think about Prim’s physical and emotional safety in any given environment.  There are some places I simply do not take my guide dog due to risk of injury or discomfort.  Crowded bars and loud concerts are just two examples of places where paws could be too easily trampled and ears too easily overwhelmed.  There have also been situations where I had to physically protect my guide dog when she was in danger of being attacked by another canine.  I provide for Prim.  I feed her, groom her, take her outside, take her to the vet for medical care, and of course have the enormous pleasure of being her primary playmate and cuddle buddy.

It’s a relationship of giving, not 50/50, but 100/100.  Of course, we both fail, but the beauty is that not only do we both provide and protect, but we also persevere.  There are days I am convinced I have a two-year-old child on a leash, and there are days that Prim is convinced she will starve to death because we get home late and I forgot to throw her dinner in my backpack, but I keep loving her even after she throws tantrums about not being able to eat the cat, and she keeps loving me after I feed her an hour or two later than our schedule dictates.  In that way, it is undoubtedly a symbiosis of sorts, but not a symbiosis of chance, rather one of choice.  Primie, I’m so glad I get to choose you.

Thankful for Accessible Technology

Sometimes, it’s fun to envision what life would have been like a hundred or more years ago.  Imagine a life without digital media, for example, or consider how different transportation was when cars had only just been invented.  What interests me, though, is how life must have been different for the blind.

Some blind people did live independently, had children, and held jobs, like the famous hymn writer Fanny Crosby.  But what was it like?

On the one hand, I’m a bit jealous.  Any society before the invention of cars must have been a great deal more pedestrian friendly, and therefore, blind-friendly, even in the absence of modern infrastructure.  On the other hand, I wonder how blind people managed without ways to independently access printed materials around them, or easily produce them on their own.

I’ve written a few songs in my time—it’s hard to avoid when you live in music city—but Fanny Crosby had over 8000 hymns published!  Then, she would have had to memorize all of her texts and music, written it down in braille and had it transcribed, dictated it to a sighted person to pen them, or penned them herself.  Of course, the only way she could have accessed them again would be through her memory, braille, or a sighted reader.  Evidently, her memory was impeccable.  According to the website I referenced earlier, she memorized five chapters of the Bible a week.

I definitely do not exercise my memory quite that often or to that extent, so perhaps that’s another advantage that antiquity has over modernity for blind folk.  Otherwise, I’m thankful that now a days, accessible technology means that I can easily record music (even as I write it) on my phone, type the lyrics into my computer, review what I have written, and share them with sighted friends, all independently and with very little extra effort on my part.

I am especially thankful for the way assistive tech has made the bible available to the blind in a way it never has been before.  I don’t have to carry volumes and volumes of braille bibles around with me to have constant access to the word of God, nor do I have to have it read to me and memorize five chapters a week, though there’s no doubt that would be a profitable exercise.  But no.  All I have to do is have a charged iPhone with a wifi connection, safari or a bible app, and voila.  The whole word of God is at my fingertips…

“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Psalm 119:18)

He has made his word known to us, and not only known, but accessible for study, teaching, comfort, evangelism, truth.  Accessible technology means I, along with other blind people, get to behold the wondrous things of his law by myself, on my own time, in essentially whatever format I choose, and whichever book or verse I prefer to study.  I do not think there is any more valuable gift.

And I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them. (Isaiah 42:16)

Eight Things I Will Miss About Being A Full-Time White Cane User

I admit it. Me and the white stick have a bit of a rough history. Stories of losing them in rivers and storm drains aside, the canes of my youth were mostly abused in the fact that they were neglected.  I did not often use it as a child and teenager, and when I did it was only in preparation for getting a guide dog as soon as I turned 16. I hated the cane in those days… in fact, I can honestly say I had a healthy disdain for it until quite recently. Throughout my college years, I grew to accept my cane as a useful piece of equipment, but it was still one that I preferred never to use unless forced by circumstance.

Over the last several months though, since I essentially hung up the harness in the spring, my grudging respect for my cane has developed into an all out appreciation, even love.  Yes, I know. People who know me will be falling on the floor in shock at this, but there are things I will actually miss about being a full time white cane user.  Here are a few of them.

1. Sprinting everywhere I go

As a cane user, I get to choose exactly how fast I walk and the fashion in which I walk. I don’t need to worry about paws being stepped on or convince my guide dog that it is more fun to run everywhere. I love being able to grab my cane and take off at high speeds, all while hopping, skipping, dancing, and generally doing something relatively” productive with my sometimes excessive amounts of energy. If you are concerned that this is not safe you are probably correct and will be happy to know that I am picking up the harness handle again in one day’s time. (although when I get that urge to burn off some Shea craziness, the cane is coming out)

2. My Cane Doesn’t Get Distracted

Guide dogs are amazing creatures, but at the end of the day, they are dogs, and they sometimes get sidetracked on the job (squirrel!). My cane, on the other hand, never barks at dogs, lunges after a cat, or goes for food on the ground, and I’ve gotta say, that makes a walk in the park much more like a walk in the park, and less like a rollercoaster ride.

3. My Cane is A Cheap Date

I don’t have to feed, groom, pick-up after, buy toys for, or pay the medical expenses of my cane.  Of course, I am absolutely willing and love to do those things for my guide dog, because it is the least I can do to repay her for the work and affection she gives me, but it *has* been an inexpensive several weeks.  Thanks cane.

4. No dog hair

Man I love having a guide dog, and I love having a dog in general, but it is awfully nice not to have to constantly lint roll and swiffer every inch of my existence to keep myself and my living space looking presentable… my clothes will be covered in yellow or black hair again in a matter of days though, so I obviously don’t care all *THAT* much.

5. No Muddy Paws

My dog goes everywhere with me in all sorts of weather and all sorts of environments… that means muddy paws in wet weather, and paws full of cement dust when we walk through construction sites… neither of which I love when tracked into my apartment.  Easily solved with a damp towel at the door, but not something I have to fool with at all with my cane.

6. Not having to worry about being denied from restaurants and ubers because of my guide dog

Our society has made a great deal of progress with public access for guide and service dog users, but it is still not uncommon for me to experience discrimination because of the presence of my guide dog. That, for me, is not something that outweighs the benefits of having a guide, but it is nice to travel without that worry in the back of my mind. No one is going to stop me from entering a business or Lyft with the proclamation that “no white canes” are allowed, or that they are “deathly afraid” of white canes… at least, it hasn’t happened to me yet.

7. If My Cane Get’s Stepped On, It’s Okay

Public transit, restaurants, concerts, church services, crowded, narrow spaces often mean that paws, tail, and nose are in danger of being stepped on.  Fortunately this only happened a couple of times to Oleta, mostly her paws, but the only reason it didn’t happen more often than that was because I was always hovering over her with my feet and sometimes hands strategically placed to guard her from harm.  My cane doesn’t have nerve endings, so as long as it doesn’t get actually snapped in half, we’re good.

8. Hitting things

Honestly, it’s kind of satisfying to hit things with a 58 inch pole all day.  The tapping and occasional clanging of a cane used to bother me a great deal, but I’ve learned to embrace the aggression and the noise, and sometimes be a bit more noisy and aggressive than strictly necessary, just because:

A. it’s fun,

B. I was a music major and find different sounds interesting, and

C. It makes a particular person in my life really mad, which is hilarious. 🙂

Good news is I don’t have to kiss every one of these things goodbye forever on Wednesday.  The cane, like the dog guide, is a tool in a tool box, and if I feel the need to hang up the harness for a few hours and pick up the cane, I get to do that, and I am glad I appreciate that option now.

Celebrating Five Years

With the cool evening air wafting in through the screen door, along with golden birdsong and the smoke of summer fires, I am swept into years past, happy childhood years, filled with summer evenings of s’mores and sparklers. Today has been a day of reflecting on memories. That’s because today marks 15 states, 4 countries, 5 languages, five years, and countless memories since Oleta, my beautiful guide dog, and I became a team.
Contrary to many people’s assumptions, I don’t NEED a guide dog to travel independently. I can (and do upon occasion) use a white cane to travel just as effectively. I don’t NEED a guide dog to pursue my professional goals. I know lots of blind professionals who are strictly white cane users. I chose to work with a guide dog because I loved dogs, I imagined working a guide dog to be infinitely more pleasurable than using a cane, and it was, after all, my dream to have a guide dog from the age of eight.
Those reasons still stand. Working a guide dog is, in my opinion, infinitely more pleasurable than using a cane. A guide dog allows one to walk much more fluidly and quickly without having to stop every 20 feet to unstick one’s stubborn cane from the side walk, or the grass, or some unidentifiable metal thing in the middle of the path, or, heaven forbid, someone’s legs, or to recover from getting one’s cane stuck in one of these various and sundry obstacles, not stopping fast enough, and promptly being rewarded with a sharp jab to the stomach. Yep, don’t miss those days. Having a guide dog also means that I didn’t get hit by that one insane bus driver who suddenly decided to drive on the side walk right where I was standing, it’s a heck of a lot easier to find doors, stairs, curbs, escalators (Oleta LOVES escalators), benches, etc, and sometimes even one of my best friends. Yes, these, among others, are all awesome benefits of having a guide dog, but now a days, the reason I work a guide dog is because of Oleta.
Oleta, who loves unconditionally as easily as she licks, who takes work breaks to wriggle on her back in the grass and the snow and the sand just for the pure joy of it, who actually whines when she sees children on playgrounds because she wants to play with them, who lives out the meaning of her name “Little one with wings” every time we find ourselves flying alone along some sidewalk or other.
Dear Oleta, I love how you love life, and I love living life with you. Happy five years of memories made! I look forward to many more together.

6 Ways PETA Got It Wrong About Guide Dogs

The following is an actual quote from PETA’s one-time VP from an article in LA Unleashed…

“There will never be a perfect world, but in the world we’re in now, we support some working dog situations and decry others.  Hearing dog programs that pull dogs from animal shelters and ensure that they are in safe and loving homes have our stamp of approval; they live with the family for their entire life, they learn interesting things, enjoy life, and love helping.  On the other hand, we oppose most seeing-eye-dog programs because the dogs are bred as if there are no equally intelligent dogs literally dying for homes in shelters, they are kept in harnesses almost 24/7, people are prohibited from petting or playing with them and they cannot romp and run and interact with other dogs; and their lives are repeatedly disrupted (they are trained for months in one home and bond, then sent to a second, and after years of bonding with the person they have “served,” they are whisked away again because they are old and no longer “useful”). We have a member who is blind who actually moved states to avoid “returning” her beloved dog. We feel that the human community should do more to support blind people, and give dogs a break.  A deaf person can see if a dog has a medical issue such as blood in her urine, a blind person living alone cannot, and so on.”

As a real live, everyday guide dog user, I can testify that:

  • 1. Hearing dog work is VERY, VERY different from guide work. In general, it is a much less stressful job to do. Guide dog work requires a confident, sound dog that can work through any number of unpredictable and potentially dangerous situations in any number of environments. From working through large crowds in stores or train platforms, to intelligent disobedience (refusing to obey a command when it might put the team in danger, AKA, blind person tells dog to go forward when there is a car coming), to riding cars, buses, trains, and planes without incident, to staying cool in emergency situations (AKA fire alarms, hurricanes, tornadoes, I mention those three because Oleta and I have experienced all three together), to resisting the temptation to chase squirrels, pigeons, or food while in harness, not any dog can deal with that sort of stress, and no one wants to force a dog who is easily frightened and unhappy in a position that he does not want to be in, especially when that places the life of the blind person he is paired to in danger as well. Guide dog puppies are bred specifically for this work, spend their entire puppyhood preparing for it through socialization and positive experiences, and those who pass the test and are partnered as guides are in the absolute happiest place they could be. As much as all of us would like to be adopting dogs out of shelters to use as guides, most shelter dogs are not bred or conditioned to handle such high demands of their energy, intelligence, resilience, and skill, and would not be happy or successful in harness.
  • 2. Guide dogs are NOT in harness 24 hours a day!!! Aleta is in harness when we are on route, but she is off harness full time while at home, and many times I remove her harness in class, studying at the library, practicing in the practice rooms, etc. While in harness, she is not allowed to associate with other people or dogs, but she is absolutely allowed to associate with me, and I give her plenty of love and interaction. When off harness, Oleta gets tons of attention from me, my roommate, my family, friends, and classmates… many say they couldn’t imagine a more well-loved dog.
  • 3. When off harness, Oleta gets tuns of time to run and play by herself, with humans, and when we can arrange it, with other dogs too. She loves to play with another guide dog on campus, and they get along great. She has all sorts of toys, but her favorite thing to do is sprint laps in our dorm hallway. I bet most pet dogs don’t get as much room to run in the house as she does in our dorm.
  • 4. When Oleta makes the decision to retire (and it is the dog’s decision), she will not be “whisked away because she is too old and no longer useful”. The dog will let you know when they need to retire, through any number of factors, and when that day comes, the handler has the choice to keep the dog as a pet, give them to a trusted family member or friend to be cared for in their retirement, return them to their puppy raiser, or get help from the agency to adopt them out to a loving home. My first choice would absolutely be to keep Oleta forever, but it might not be possible or in her best interest to do so based on my living situation and schedule. After a guide dog retires, they are no longer considered service animals, and public entities are no longer required to accommodate them. If I were living in a dorm or an apartment building that did not allow pets, Oleta could not stay with me in her retirement. It breaks my heart to think about, but in that case Oleta will spend her days of retirement with my family, whom she is familiar with and would be comfortable living with. My third choice would be her puppy raiser, whom she would also remember. Whatever happens, Guiding Eyes will support me in whatever decision I make. It would take serious accusations of abuse or breach of contract for Guiding Eyes to take Oleta from me, especially since the client can sign for ownership of the dog after a number of months of ownership. Guide dog schools do not take dogs away from clients willy nilly without their permission.
  • 5. Humans cannot replace the work that guide dogs do every day. The entire point of a guide dog is to provide greater independence to we blindies without human assistance, because no, I do not want to be led around by some human guide. It would be demeaning and far beyond inconvenient, not to mention unnecessary. I can get around perfectly fine without either human or dog using my cane. I would much prefer a cane to a human guide, but I would much prefer a dog to a cane.
  • 6. Blind people are extremely in tune with their guide’s bodies and can detect a health issue just as easily, sometimes more accurately, as a sighted person. It is possible that we may miss some visual symptoms, which is why we take preemptive measures to keep our guides healthy through good nutrition, exercise, teeth brushing, ear cleaning, preemptive medications/vaccines, etc, and by making regular visits to our vet. Oleta has had one serious health issue in the nearly five years we have been together, and I recognized it before my sighted roommate. Sure, I can’t see, but I know my dog, and I know when she’s sick.
  • Even more than that, my relationship with Oleta is one that goes far beyond that of person and pet. We have weathered storms and traffic stops and sophomore slump together, attended thousands of lessons and lectures, traveled nationally and internationally, gone to disney World and Busch Gardens and Hershey Park, participated in two graduations, spent nearly every day and night of these last four and a half years watching and wishing and wandering together. When Oleta isn’t at my side, I feel two dimensional, like part of me is missing, and it’s true, because Oleta is part of me.
    I think PETA’s arguments here PETAred (hahaha, get it?) out a long time ago, but I thought we might as well tackle the issue, just in case. Consider yourself educated.

    Aside

    Hi! I’m… Who am I exactly? (By Oleta Renee)

    So here’s the thing… in trying to introduce myself, I realized I’m in a bit of an identity crisis.

    I am originally from New York, Patterson, New York to be exact, and I grew up with my AWESOME puppy raiser around there, but I’ve heard through the grapevine (that is to say Shea and the people we meet on a day to day basis) that labrador retrievers as a race (breed is so demeaning) began in Newfoundland, whereas Newfoundland dogs claim they are routed in Labrador… weird!  So, really, should I even be calling myself a labrador, if we came from Newfoundland, and am I Canadian, or American?  But then, people don’t talk about American or Canadian labs, they talk about American or British labs, which makes no sense at all!  So, am I American, Canadian, or British?  And shouldn’t they be talking about American, Canadian, and British Newfoundlands, not labs? 

    People tell me I’m an American Lab (Newfoundland?), which basically means I’m stunningly gorgeous in comparison to those stocky, blocky, British labs.  I am inclined to agree with them.  THere’s no doubt I’m slim, trim, and looking American, right down to the stars and stripes pin on my harness.  Besides, no offense to Canada or England, but America is the best.  I’ll have to expand on that in a future post.

    So, with that decided…

    Hello, my name is Oleta Renee, and I am a black, American labrador retriever, except I’m actually a labrador guide dog.  Shea is my person/Mom/best friend/partner in…er…completely legal activities.  I have earned my doctoral degree in guide work (attained at the acclaimed University of Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, NY), and went back to receive a human high school diploma with Shea.  I am now currently studying music, with a minor in squirrel management and dog therapy at Shea’s university in Nashville.  By the way, fellow educated canines, if you are thinking about getting a degree in squirrel management, my university is a great place to do it… a lot of practical experience.

    Anyway, you will come to know me and more about my work as I post along with Shea on our blog.  I look forward to getting to know y’all as well!  Guide dog friends, make sure you drop in so we can swap guiding tails (see what I did there?).  

    Off for a frappuccino on the patio with Mom.  (What? You don’t think she’ll give me a sip?)Image