Reflections on my First Guiding Eyes Journey – Meeting my Little One with Wings

I found a seat in the circle of chairs in Alumni hall along with my classmates. I was full of lunch and laughter and bursting with the excitement of it all. I had dreamt of getting a guide dog for years, and this was the moment. I was about to discover the identity of my long-awaited companion. I sat on the edge of my seat as our meeting commenced.  A few people spoke first — my class supervisor, the president of the organization, saying a few special words about the journey we were about to undertake.  Until, finally, it was time.  We all waited with bated breath as our class supervisor read the first name.

“Miss W, It’s your birthday so we’ll start with you.  Your dog is named Paulson, P-A-U-L-S-O-N, and he’s a yellow lab male.”

She continued from Paulson, a yellow lab male, to Lynn, a yellow lab female, to Pacer, Orlando, and Butch, all yellow lab males, among others.

As the names and breeds passed, I evaluated each one.  Did that dog’s name match with the name of their handler?  Would I like having a dog named that?  Oh dear, what would my dog’s name be anyway?! What if I hated it?  Would I get a boy or a girl?  It seemed like we had a lot of yellow lab males… maybe that’s what I would have too… but then it was my turn.

“Shea,” A pause that seemed like eternity.  “Your dog’s name is Oleta, O-L-E-T—A, and she is a black lab female.”

A sound that was half laughter half sob escaped me at hearing her name.  It was so beautiful I thought I was going to cry right there.  My classmates laughed at my reaction and encouraged me to breath.  I tried, but couldn’t.  Oleta!  I was already in love with her!

After the rest of the class received their match information, we all went back to our rooms to wait… and wait… and wait.  I curled up on my bed trying to distract myself with Facebook and reading my bible, but nothing was working.  All I could think about was Oleta.  Would she like me?  Would we be able to work together?  What was I going to do for the next two hours of bonding time?  What if I did something wrong and ruined all her training?  Could I really stay calm and collected when she arrived like our instructors told us we should be?

I perked up every time I heard a sound in the hallway.  Footsteps?  It must be my trainer coming to my room! But no.  They continued past, probably headed to a fellow students room to deliver their pup.  The jingle of a collar or a leash?  That had to be Oleta! I thought, but no.  It was someone else’s dog.  Voices!  I was sure it was my trainer with Oleta! But no… it was my neighbor receiving her dog.  I must have started toward my door to open it three or four times, before I finally surrendered to the agonizing wait.

At long last, an hour or so on, a gentle knock sounded, and I slid quickly from my bed to go get it.  Leash in hand and treat pouch appropriately placed, I reached for the door handle.

“Hi Shea.” My instructor greeted me, calmly. “Here is Miss Oleta for you.”

Wet nose, velvety fur, thwacking lab tail, and kisses galore.

“Hi Oleta!” I crooned, giving her a greeting scratch and welcoming both she and my trainer into my room.  I reached into my treat pouch and offered her the three, high-value food rewards our trainers had given us to make a good first impression on our new partners.  My hand was shaking, and thoroughly washed, as she gobbled up each treat in turn, and then made absolutely sure there weren’t any remaining morsels in my palm.  At discovering there weren’t, she turned her attention to the floor.

“Okay.” My trainer said.  “I’m gonna take my leash off and you can clip yours to her collar.”

I did, and just like that, Oleta was mine.

“She’s all yours.” My trainer confirmed, as she moved to the door. “Enjoy her.”

Puppy Poll!!! — You Tell Me, Who will It Be?

Getting a new guide dog is rather like having a baby… there is a long period of waiting, and then that exciting moment you realize it’s actually happening, and then more waiting, and all the time, you are wondering… will it be a girl or a boy? What will she look like? What will her name be? Will he be calm or energetic? Clingy or independent? Focused or playful?

In this case, I can’t help thinking about whether he will be like Oleta, my retired guide.  Will he knock me over with kisses the first time he meets me like Oleta did, or be a bit more reserved? When we go out for training, will she step daintily into the van like Oleta did, or leap enthusiastically after me, like some of my classmates dogs did in 2011?

At the moment, I can’t answer any of these questions… but what I can do is have some fun with it.  So, let’s speculate.

What’s your vote?

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.

    Breaking Booties (By Oleta Renee)

    You’ve seen me in them multiple times this week, and yes, it’ll keep happening… It’s the same comment every time. “Aw, that dog has little shoes!”

    There are two problems with this… no, three.

  • 1. They are called booties, not “little shoes’. I make this distinction because
  • 2. ‘Little shoes’ sounds cute. They are not cute. It’s easy to become confused, I’m sure, considering my high level of fashionality, but they are part of the job. They protect my paws in extreme temperatures (both hot and cold), and from salt and chemicals on the road in freezing conditions.
  • 3. Also, they are highly uncomfortable. We dogs are built much sturdier than you humans, and while getting salt stuck between your paw pads or dancing on street corners because of the heat is definitely unpleasant, I almost prefer it to wearing such a ridiculous form of attire. During booty season, Shea is fond of telling me, “Oleta, it’s really not that bad. I wear shoes every day!” But here’s the thing… I don’t!
  • Admittedly, there is one slight benefit to wearing booties. They give me all kinds of traction… which means wherever I want Shea to go, she goes. Now, I don’t take advantage of this very often. Usually, it’s helpful to keep both of us from sliding on ice, and so much more fun than slipping around on the slick tile in those college buildings of ours… at dinner time though… we’re goin’ home, and with my four-paw drive, there’s not much Shea can do about it. Hey, don’t judge me… this is a give and give relationship. Shea gives me booties, I give her attitude. Fair is fair.

    That said, booties are part of guide work, and I love my job, so as much as I detest them, I will keep wearing them for the sake of keeping Shea safe… don’t tell Shea I said that though.

    P.S.
    The title of this post is, yes, a play on the show title “Breaking Bad’, because my chosen career is so bachelor of arts (BA) in general, but it’s really more about my sincere desire to actually break my booties. Just thought I should clarify. Until next time, over and out.

    Are We Holy, or Just HOLEy?

    Philippians 4:11-12

    Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.

    I had a lovely, long conversation with my wonderful hostess yesterday about satisfaction, and how we can only find true fulfillment in Christ.  We, as human beings, are like a puzzle, or a ragged patchwork quilt, full of wholes–they are wants, fears, hopes, missing loved ones, etc–but there is one whole that is much larger and much differently shaped than any of the others, that can be filldd only by God himself.  Are you filling your God-shaped hole with God?  Take a moment to consider, are you Holy, or HOLEy?

    My Historical Romance, Mount Vernon, and the Key that Unlocks Liberty

    Today, I visited the home of one of my biggest crushes of all time.  The man is everything and more a girl could ask for: tall, dashing, kind, talented, incredibly intelligent, down to earth (quite literally), and God-fearing.  The only problem is he’s 263 years my senior, and he’s already happily and beautifully married.  I shall concede to love and admire him from a distance then.

    No, I am NOT talking about Edward from Twilight.  Perish the thought!  If you know anything about me at all, you should know that vampirism is NOT on my list of ideal characteristics for my future husband.

    I am speaking of the honorable General George Washington, who led America to victory in the revolutionary war, oversaw the creation of the U.S. constitution, and served as our first (and undoubtedly best) president.

    Washington’s Mount Vernon estate was purchased and restored by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association in the mid 1800’s, and they have been sustaining it ever since.  The remaining 500 acres of his once 8000 acre property are still furnished with the gardens, forest, fields, flowers, and livestock that Washington managed as a farmer during his lifetime.  It also features the plantation’s many buildings, including the slave quarters, carriage house, black smith, shoe shop, stables, corn crib, treading barn (for threshing wheat), mill and distillery, and of course the gorgeously restored mansion.  Washington is remembered for his incredible service and leadership for our country, but he considered himself a farmer above all other things.  He was a fantastic farmer, always employing new techniques to increase the plantation’s prosperity and productivity.  He utilized crop rotation, in order to use and reuse the fields he had already designated for crop growth, used different types of fencing in revolutionary ways, and created the ingenious treading barn, a building designed for threshing, which used the power of horses to thresh wheat in a much more efficient manner.

    And then there is the mansion.

    A long, symmetrical building with three sections, with covered porticos connecting them in between, the over 200 year old building is painted with a mixture of sand and paint, which gives the outside of the house the appearance of stone.  Indoors, the rooms come to vibrant life with shades of yellow, green, and red.  Much of the home is original, including paintings, furniture (Washington’s bed, and fancy rolly swivel chair), harpsichord, and china.

    Another original hanging in the first floor passageway caught my attention in particular.  It is the key to the French political prison, Bastille, which Washington’s friend Marquis de Lafayette gave to George as a gift, with the words, “It is a tribute, which I owe, as a son to my adoptive father, as an Aide-de-Camp to my General, as a Missionary of liberty to its Patriarch.” – Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington, March 17, 1790 

    The key to liberty given to the Father of liberty.

    George Washington dedicated his entire life to the service of his country, to protecting and preserving liberty, but even more than that, he dedicated his soul to Christ.  Washington was a Godly man, and found the idea of freedom first in being freed from sin.  That is what inspired him to be the magnificent leader, farmer, husband, human he became.  George Washington reflected well the sort of CHrist-like love, courage, and humility that we all strive for in our walk with GOd.  God, Washington’s leader, is the ultimate father of all life and liberty, and Christ is the key.  Knowing that, I am inspired indeed, and have fallen in love with two marvelous men all over again—George Washington, and more even than him, the true key to liberty, our Savior Jesus Christ.

     

    Thank you to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association for the information on the website, and the wonderful tour at the Mount Vernon estate.

    (By the way, fun fact: Washington set his slaves free shortly before his death.  He truly did value freedom for all people.)

    Mommies, SHeep, and The Good Shepherd

    Guess what!  It’s Mother’s day!  I know, it’s a surprise, right?

    Today’s the day we thank our awesome Mommies for being there when we needed them, for teaching us how to navigate this big, scary world, for making us meals and taking us to countless practices and events, for being so much more kind, gentle, gracious, humble, selfless, and loving than we ever deserved, and sometimes, even for giving us a taste of what exactly we did deserve.  At least, that’s what I have to thank my Mommy for. 🙂

    Today, the sermon, and many of the songs we sang in church, were about Jesus as our good shepherd.  He leads them to green pastures, beside still waters, and sleeps in front of the gate at night to ensure their safety from wolves and thieves in the night.  In everything, His flock is his first priority.  As one of our songs says, “I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and they know me.  I lay down my life for my sheep.” 

    Like our awesome Mommies, Jesus loves us so much more than we deserve.  Wee complain, argue, throw temper tantrums, even attack him, but he still loves us.  He too is always, always there for us.  He too shows us the grace, mercy, selflessness, and loving kindness that we all need, but could never earn, and He has shown it to us in the greatest sacrifice of all, in giving His very life.

    So maybe we owe God a happy mother’s day too, because isn’t He really the ultimate Mr. Mom?

     

    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

    A Word (actually a bunch of words) on Opportunity

    Welcome to my blog!  Here, you will find, in the short term, details concerning my trip to Scotland as a missionary, and in the long term, my ramblings about life as a Christian, American, blind person, guide dog user, writer, and musician (I am a vocal performance major).

    In an attempt to briefly explain the first word in my blog title, I present to you a Short, relatively unedited Treatis on Opportunity.

    Life is, ultimately, a collection of opportunities: opportunities to learn more, work harder, and love greater.  A trial is merely a chance  to triumph; a race is simply another shot to win.  Of course, sometimes we fail, but the wonderful thing about Christ is that he is the key to opportunity, and whenever a door slams shut, He opens a window somewhere else.  I know it sounds cliche (it is cliche), but who ever said cliches are necessarily untrue?  Even when we do lose the race, He’s waiting at the finish line cheering us on, and waving a flyer advertising the next marathon.  Our job is only to grab the flyer from Him and mark the date on our calendars.

    Okay, so maybe the analogy didn’t work quite as well as I had hoped, but the point is that in a life lived with Christ, God presents us with countless opportunities (I promise not to use that word again) to grow closer in our relationship with him and to serve him in unimaginably incredible ways.  We have only to walk through those doors, and find what He has waiting for us on the other side.

    That, essentially, is what I am striving to do in my life, and what we all aim to do in our journey with GOd.  In my experience in this confounding maze we call life, no matter what you think God is doing, what He’s really doing is taking all those dead ends and locked gates and turning them into new passages to explore.  When I lost my sight as a child, a very large, very heavy door slammed in my face (I didn’t see it, though I definitely heard it), but God led me through other portals, and I discovered piles of hidden treasure that I may never have found otherwise: independence, determination, and daring.  I thought I was trapped when my parents divorced, but God cleared the way for me, when I finally made him the Lord of my life.  And of course, he led me to my sweet guide dog, Oleta, who serves as my eyes, both physically and, sometimes, spiritually.  She often goes after opportunities (oops) much faster than I ever would, which is where I will continue in my next post.  Until “Unleashed”, this is Shea, signing off.