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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Memories and Tribute

Today is a bitter sweet day for me. It is the birthday of my first guide dog. She is no longer with me, but I always remember her and the gifts she gave me on this day. Below is a piece I wrote for her a few years ago. I hope you will enjoy it.

Memories of Rae

When I was 19 years old, I decided it was time to get my first guide dog. My best friend, Kathryn, had been paired with a beautiful, black and red German Shepherd 4 months earlier, and she seemed so much more independent and confident. My parents, not wanting to admit that their first born child was growing up, were less than enthusiastic about the idea of me flying across the continent to attend the 4 week training program. I think they were also nervous about the idea that a short, furry creature would be responsible for my safety. Never the less, after filling out the
application forms, completing the in-home visits, and asking myself if I was really ready to care for another living thing, I finally received word that I had been accepted to a guide dog school in California, and that my training was to begin on March 28, 1993.

When I got off the plane in San Francisco, I had no idea what to expect. I was greeted by one of my guide dog instructors, who packed me and my luggage into a bus full of other students for the 30 minute ride to the school's San Rafael campus. The campus was beautiful, with manicured lawns, walking paths, and tall trees surrounding a student dormitory, administration building, and huge dog kennel.

As I looked around my room, the impending arrival of my new dog became very real. There was a tile area below my bathroom sink that contained a faucet and an empty water dish. A fleece mat rested on the floor beside my bed, and a brand new leather leash waited on my desk. I didn't know how I was going to contain my excitement until my meeting with my mystery companion.

After 3 days of pre-dog preparation that taught us how to issue commands to invisible animals, dole out praise, administer fair punishments, and work with leather dog harnesses, the magical day arrived. I remember how I felt as I sat in the lecture room with my classmates, and waited to hear the name, breed, and gender of my new companion. When my turn came, I was told that I would be receiving a female German Shepherd, named Rae. After we had learned the basics about our new dogs, we were sent back to our rooms to wait for our names to be called. I watched anxiously as my fellow students walked down the long, tiled hall, disappeared into the instructors' office, and emerged minutes later with their new partners at their sides. After what seemed like hours, my turn finally came. I was lead into the same office, and settled in an over-sized arm chair.

"Are you ready to meet Rae?" My instructor asked.

I nodded, as the door to the outside run flew open, and 65 pounds of fur and pointy ears flew across the room and landed at my feet. As my hands moved over her slim, athletic body, her sculpted face, her bushy tail, and her enormous ears, my instructor described her elaborate markings to me.

I left in a haze of joy—Rae plodding expectantly beside me. Like all first-time dog handlers, I was thinking that my dog was the most perfect dog that ever existed, and that we would be the best of friends from this moment on. To my dismay, it didn’t happen quite so easily.

When we returned to my room, I sat down on the floor with Rae—thinking we could get in some cuddle time before I had to feed her and take her out to relieve. Rae, however, only had eyes for her trainer. Every time he walked by our door, she would whale and strain at her leash in an attempt to reach him. I quickly revised my "best of friends" scenario, and decided I'd be happy with her liking me--even just a little. When it came time to feed her, she wouldn't eat. When I took her outside, she just looked at me, flattened her ears, and sat unmoving at my feet.

Again, like all first-time dog handlers whose dogs don't perform according to their expectations, I became convinced that my dog hated me. I said as much to my instructor, who reassured me, and told me to "give it time."

The next morning, after a night plagued with self-doubts and little sleep, Rae and I took our first walk together. I will never forget that moment, because until then, I had no idea that it was possible to move that quickly or gracefully through space. We virtually flew 2 blocks, before Rae even looked up at me.

My instructor laughed at the expression of surprise that came over her intelligent, little face—as though she was thinking "Oh! I didn't realize you were attached to me. Where's the person I usually walk with?”

It has been nearly 12 years since that California spring day. I have had the privilege of working other dogs since then, and though each has touched my heart, none will ever replace Rae. With Rae, I changed from a girl to a woman. With Rae, I got my bachelor of arts degree, and became a Dot-Com,er. With Rae, I road in a stretch limacine through Manhattan, and in a canoe over a set of white water rapids in Northern Canada. With Rae, I fell in love, fell out of it, and fell in love again.

The relationship that a person has with their guide is so difficult to explain. It's a combination of parent/child, partner, and friend. The gifts she gave me were immeasurable. She taught me about unconditional love, and what it feels like to literally owe your life to another living soul. She licked my tears away when I cried, and stood regally beside me when I succeeded. She was my light, my heart, my wings, and the key to my independence.

With my boundless gratitude, this is for her.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothing that I have read, heard or witnessed before about guide dogs have made me think so strongly about getting one for myself. Thank you Dena for telling your story. --Andres.

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trust doesn’t come easy to a blind person. We grow up fighting to be accepted as
“normal” human beings. Although I was cane-trained around age eight, I refused
to even use a cane in grammar school and high school because the cane made me
“different.” I associated canes with those “blind people” and I knew I wasn’t one
of them. Dogs were even worse in my mind. The whole image of blind people
being led around by some animal was repugnant to me. It made them seem so
different – so disabled – and I was damn sure I wasn’t going to be one of “those

I expect most teenagers fear being different but for a blind kid that fear is
even more acute. And so I made my choices based on what would make me seem
more normal – more like all those sighted people. I made some pretty limiting
choices as a result.

Strangely enough as I grew up, a lot of the blind people I knew and
admired had dogs, but I had lots of good reasons for why a dog wasn’t for me. I
didn’t want the responsibility of a dog. I couldn’t give up the time necessary to
train with a dog. I could get around just fine with my cane and I didn’t have to
feed it. I didn’t know how a dog would work with my family; etc. etc. What I
was really saying, of course, was that I was afraid to put my trust in a dog. So I
built my life around making do with my cane and soliciting the help of strangers.
I’ve traveled the world that way, taking trains, planes, and taxis. Those around
me thought of me as unrestricted – able to do most everything I wanted to do.
And while the cane worked I can remember many times where keeping my
concentration on the cane, my surroundings, and just trying to enjoy a walk were
impossible. Then I visited a blind couple in Minneapolis and my life changed.

I spent the weekend at my friends’ home and during dinner they suggested
we go to their church for Sunday service. I said, “Great,” thinking we would grab
a taxi and motor the two miles or so from their house to the church. But my
friends grabbed their coats and harnessed their dogs and headed out the door. We
were walking – almost running. I had to hustle to keep up.

That walk of about two miles through the suburbs, crossing busy streets,
taking all manner of turns, was exhilarating. I was out there in the world, going
some place I didn’t know, with two other blind folks and a couple of dogs. If
anything my cane slowed me down. But we got there. It was like being chained
and suddenly having the chains cast off. I was free.

Sitting there in church, I did some serious soul-searching, trusting that
God would show me the truth. I realized that my fear and arrogance were only
hurting me. I could open this door anytime I was ready. Freedom to go wherever
I wanted by myself was there if I could only put my trust in a guide dog.

As CEO of Serotek, the company that designed and markets System Access my natural course of action was to plug my Key into my friend’s
computer and do some instant research on guide dogs. The search
engine turned up a list of sixteen guide dog schools, fourteen of which had web
sites. I was in business.

My research showed them all to be top quality organizations. For a
variety of reasons I zeroed in on two: Pilot Dogs Incorporated of Columbus, Ohio
and Southeastern Guide Dogs, Incorporated in Palmetto, Florida. Finally I settled
on Southeastern Guide Dogs. I had met the trainers of Southeastern at ACB in
Las Vegas and liked them. And their proximity to my home in Orlando was also
a big factor. They also had a slot open up for me that fit my busy schedule. I’m
sure that any choice would have been a good choice, but Southeastern Guide
Dogs far exceeded my expectations.

I will let you see the details of the operation for yourself at
www.guidedogs.org, the school’s top notch, highly accessible and informative
web site. Let me say that the accommodations were superb and the staff was
excellent and extremely service oriented. The school’s trainers served us and they
couldn’t have been more solicitous of our needs. The most frequently heard
expression was, “What can I do for you?”

We were a class of ten from all walks of life. The twenty-six day program
was intense. We were busy from 5:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., with dogs leashed to us
the entire time; yet the school was also able to give me space and time to attend to
emergency business situations, if the need arose. The intense period is needed to
allow dog and owner to bond and, quite frankly, to train newbies like me in the art
of trusting our dogs to do some of our mobility thinking for us. It’s not as easy as
it sounds – especially for people like me who had long taken pride in our

Jacksan, was named after JACK and SANdy Walsh. For over 14 years,
they dedicated themselves to the raising of guide dogs for Southeastern. It is
people like this that make system work and make beautiful animals like Jacksan
available to people like me. Jacksan is a Vizla, a shorthaired Hungarian hunting
dog. He is a marvelous animal, extremely well bred, cared for, and trained in the
Southeastern system. My thanks to Libby Bagwell who loved Jacksan and raised
him from a puppy to training age and to Karen Lappi, Jacksan’s sponsor. He is
young and still learning, but so too am I still learning. For twenty-six days we
learned together and it is an experience so rich I won’t try to describe it to you.
You simply have to experience it for yourself. The day you suddenly realize that
you do indeed trust this animal with your life is an epiphany – an awakening to

Of course it is not just a learning experience for Jacksan and me.
Everyone around us has to learn as well. The first time home was a real
challenge. My beautiful and loving wife and children had a very difficult time not
treating Jacksan as a pet. But they did it and I’m proud of them. I’m still training
people I meet on business trips and come in contact with in stores. They always
want to talk to the dog; no one wants to talk to me any more. Jacksan’s downside
is that he doesn’t look fierce as a German shepherd might so people want to reach
out and pet him. And, puppy that he is, Jacksan isn’t entirely blameless either.
He does love to be loved. The solution is, of course, to give him lots of off-the-
harness love time with me and an occasional pat from others, while keeping him
fully on task when he’s in harness. It’s a discipline and once you establish your
routine, easy enough to follow.

I started this essay trying to say what the guide dog experience means to
me and I seem to have focused more on the how-to than the benefit. Let me tell
you about the change in my life. I’m totally blind and for the first time in my life
my first thought is no longer about appearing “normal.” I’m finding the blind
community that perhaps I thought of as simply customers are also now my
friends. With my guide dog there isn’t much a sighted person can do that I can’t
do, except maybe drive a car and that only because they haven’t designed the
controls so a guide animal can operate them. (I am joking of course.) However, I
can walk through the airport and find my gate simply asking directions now and
then or by following someone going my way instead of waiting for airline
personnel to walk me.

I could easily take the light rail when I’m in Minneapolis or the subway in
New York. When you’ve spent a lifetime plunking down twenties and fifties for
taxis, public transportation is a real freedom. I am not saying that a cane isn’t
handy and that I didn’t do these things before I got Jacksan, but, I can just go
where I want to go, not just the places I’ve learned. I no longer have to act
independent. I really am independent.

So I say to myself, “Why did you wait so long?” And there really isn’t a
good answer. I just let my prejudices and fear take charge. I was afraid not to be
in control – afraid to trust. Like so many fears, once faced, it vanished.

With Jacksan I’m discovering a world I didn’t believe in and I’m
discovering things about myself that I didn’t know. I am more comfortable with
myself because I am truly independent. I discovered that in a world full of
barriers for blind people, sometimes, some of the biggest barriers are the ones we
construct ourselves. Putting my faith in my little brown friend; trusting him to do
what the marvelous people in the Southeastern Guide Dogs organization raised
and trained him to do, has vanquished those barriers.

One of the very biggest challenges in this process is that Jacksan is just for
me. Most of my adult life I’ve oriented myself towards doing and caring for
others, like my family; but this I did for me. I had to come to grips with the fact
that doing this for myself wasn’t a selfish act, but like so many barrier
eliminators, it made life easier for everyone around me.

There is a certain irony here. My company, Serotek, states its mission as
“Accessibility Anywhere” and we deliver on that promise by providing tools like
the line of System Access Mobile products to make the Internet and digital information
systems accessible for blind people and people with motor skills difficulties. But
for me, it is my guide dog Jacksan that completes the promise of Accessibility
Anywhere. As a team we are virtually unstoppable.

If you are blind or know someone who is blind that has yet to discover the
freedom a guide dog brings, let me suggest that you contact Southeastern Guide
Dogs or any of the other fine organizations around the country that perform this
service. I guarantee it will change your life as it has mine.

7:18 PM  
Blogger Dean said...

Let me point out that I use a cane. I go to strange cities, take subways and busses, walk through airports to my gate without waiting for airport personnel. I have no vision. I am not suggesting that guide dogs are not wonderful for those who want them, but let it be stated loud and clear that they are not a mamdatory requirement for confident, independent travel.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Ginny said...

Hello, all. I will actually be returning to Leader Dogs for the Blind on July 29th, to get my second Leader Dog. I'd considered Southeatern Guide Dogs, as it is here in Florida where I'm living now. However, as I'd already had a Leader Dog, the reappliction process with them would be a lot quicker. So I decided to go with them again, as my first dog worked out really well, and it was just eaiser! I'm really excited and can't wait! I did not transition well back into cane use after retiring my dog! Now, she is at my parents house just being a dog! Anyway, I find these stories very touching. Thanks for sharing.

12:27 PM  

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