Three days after Clarice, my 14-year-old retired guide dog, died last year, an acquaintance, glancing at the young and lovely golden retriever at my side, asked, "Oh, so did you go pick this one up yesterday?"
I suppose that if you don't know anything about the process of obtaining a guide dog, this was a reasonable leap. For those of us who do, it's absurd. When your Mercedes dies, maybe you just zip out and buy a replacement next day, but it's not so easy with a trained guide dog.
Knowing that Clarice was slowing her pace, experiencing age-related health problems, I had flown to California's Guide Dogs for the Blind a year earlier to train for two weeks with Joni, my newest canine guide. It took the hard work of a puppy-raiser, who raised Joni and taught her obedience and manners for one year; an expert guide dog instructor, who taught her left from right and other vital sequences for another five months; and then my own focused, 24/7 effort while living at the school's San Rafael campus for two intense weeks to complete our partnership.
I have been reminded of this gap in understanding this past week or two, primarily because it seems to be the "dog days of summer" for a few good friends and me.
First, let's clarify a few generally held misconceptions about people who are blind and dogs who guide them.
· The dogs are not biological global positioning systems. Once a team has been formed — with a highly trained dog and, it is hoped, an equally trained human — it is the responsibility of the human to know where the team is headed. I make a map in my head, just as a driver does before setting out in the car, and instruct my dog to execute turns and other moves accordingly.
These dogs work primarily for food and love, so I also squander abundant quantities of hugs and praise for every command she executes properly.
· It is estimated that about 10 percent of all blind people use dog guides. This is not due to some mysterious merit badge system. It is, rather, the result of a mix of various abilities and personal choice. Generally (although there are exceptions) a person must be able to care for the dog and have the physical stamina to walk at a reasonable pace.
· It is not required that a person be completely blind in order to receive a guide dog. In fact, when I trained with Joni in 2001, 21 of the 24 students in training at the time had some useful vision.
Now, to get back to what prompted my mental reference to "dog days." Many analogies can be drawn between driving a car and directing a guide dog — i.e., the human in charge needs to know the route that will lead to the desired destiny and properly operate "controls" to get there safely. But the analogies pretty much fall apart when there's an illness, behavior problem or other interruption to routine. The partnerships between humans and dogs are successful largely due to good old-fashioned love, so changes affect not only the freedom of mobility but the heart as well.
My friend Michael, a clinical psychologist who happens to be blind and who has used dogs as guidance devices for 30 years, noticed that his dog, Nash, was behaving oddly a few weeks ago. When Nash started vomiting, it was time to ask the vet to X-ray. Dogs will be dogs — and this one had swallowed a piece of metal that needed to be surgically removed. During what seemed a routine recovery, the dog suddenly died of cardiac arrest.
The trauma for Michael is threefold: Grief for the loss of a loved and trusted animal, the interruption to routine brought about by the loss of independence and the difficulty of scheduling two weeks away from the office to train at the Seeing Eye in New Jersey with a replacement.
My friend Chuck has a different sort of problem. Just two months ago he finally trained with the German shepherd he wanted. All of the training schools have fewer German shepherds than other breeds at this time. Elron was rapidly becoming Chuck's perfect partner — fast, intelligent, tuned in to his handler's expectations.
When Elron snapped at a toddler, Chuck made the heart-wrenching decision of flying him back to California for additional training. If, after additional training, Guide Dogs' staff feels the dog still might resort to aggressive behavior, Chuck will have to go for training with a new guide.
Meanwhile, Chuck has pulled out a set of skills untapped for 13 years — his use of the long white cane for mobility. Again, no car-and-driver analogy works here. He can't just borrow some other blind person's dog. And, although the white cane is an excellent tool for independent mobility, you don't just pick it up and issue commands. It requires specific techniques, techniques that get rusty after 13 years.
Still, he has to take the bus to and from his downtown job in personnel, as well as routine errands to the bank and drugstore. With characteristic humor, he writes in an e-mail: "I could hear the ghost of Howard Cosell in the back of my mind giving commentary as I struggled to find the door. 'This reporter has never seen such a flagrant abuse of the white cane in decades. Chuck is bumbling his way through a parking lot and all one can say is what a shame. His technique is nothing short of deplorable. ... Bring back the dogs!' "
Obtaining and continuing training with a guide dog, in other words, is more complex than meets the eye. The choice to get one is a thoughtful one, and the life of using one a joyful one — but the emotional connection of a working partnership is probably one with no precise equivalent in the life of a sighted person.
Basics of operation? We command and praise; they guide and please. The love and trust flow abundantly in both directions — and, somehow, miraculously, it works again and again.