Thought Wheel

From the mind of Ann Chiappetta

The Search So Far

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The Search for a new Partner

The definition of intelligent disobedience, in guide dog terms, is when a dog acts to protect a handler by disobeying a direct command to avoid an obstacle. This action is the alpha and omega of guide work, the ultimate test for a service animal. It is a wonder to witness, and, I suppose, even more gratifying to experience as the human part of a guide dog team.

I’m hoping to be part of one of these teams, to be able to trust my dog implicitly and without reserve. My first attempt, however, was disappointing and it’s taken years to develop the courage to try again. The truth was that I didn’t agree with the reason behind the rejection, and it rankled me to such an extent, I gave up trying. According to the evaluator, I was still too “vision dependant; imagine hearing that, after experiencing two years of declining sight, including a second round of rehab services, not to mention coping with progressive vision loss for fifteen years.

The shock of it took months to overcome and I cried every time I thought about it. As difficult as it was to take no for an answer, to process that the school didn’t feel I was an appropriate candidate, eventually my resolve returned and I decided to try again. First, I got an examination by a retinal specialist/ophthalmologist. Who evaluated my remaining vision, informing me less than five percent of it was left? After hearing this, I made up my mind to take another shot at applying for a dog. The difference was that this time I wasn’t applying without preparation. Not wanting to repeat my earlier experience, I enrolled in a new correspondence course through the Hadley School for the Blind called “Guide Dogs”. The course consisted of five lessons; a course book and a supplemental book containing vignettes about folks and their dogs. The course promised that by the time I was done, I’d know for sure if a guide dog was for me. It also prepared me for the application process, encouraging a potential handler to apply to at least three schools simultaneously and research them before asking for an application. I learned many valuable things about being part of a guide dog team through corresponding with the course instructor. She informed me that based on my course work, not only am I ready to bond with a guide dog but also my remaining vision shouldn’t present a barrier to being accepted into a school. It was my remaining vision that caused the first school to pass me over. I told her about my experience and fear of another rejection. The instructor encouraged me to find schools that trained partially sighted handlers. She informed me that I would have to agree to be blindfolded in order to foster the trust between myself and a dog. Trust is paramount to a successful team. I’d experienced this in my first home assessment. The evaluator blindfolded me and led me a few blocks. I remember thinking how wonderful it felt to finally be free, to finally relax while walking. The instructor also encouraged me to reach out to other partially-sighted handlers and I had the perfect resource for connecting with these folks. Newsreel is a monthly audio newsletter serving the blind across the US and Canada. As a subscriber, I can record my comments, requests, and helpful hints to be included in the audio tape. I sent in my request asking to hear from other folks who trained while still having some vision. I wasn’t disappointed. I received calls from folks all over the United States, all of whom had guide dogs and trained with some remaining sight. In fact, when one woman found out I was close to the school in San Rafael California, she insisted I go visit it and apply. What the heck, I said, I was already on vacation. Why not?Mom and I arrived at the school and spent about a half-hour with the admissions counselor, then took the tour. It was wonderful. The best part was finding out that being partially sighted was not a barrier to working with a guide dog. The admissions counselor did say, however, that partially sighted trainees, for the most part, did have to work harder to elicit the trust between themselves and their dog. To counteract this, the trainer would advise me to train with dark glasses to occlude my remaining sight. This would eliminate the obstacle of my vision getting in the way of allowing a dog to work and trust to be established. I’m ready for that, I said, assuring her that even my remaining sight was no longer reliable and I was ready to give it a rest. She must have thought so, too, because she gave me an application. The next six months were the most challenging part of opting to apply for a dog guide. It’s a collaboration of my information being printed on applications, of asking friends, agencies, and doctors to fill out and return forms, of hoping that when I finally do send the application, there isn’t a snag to slow it down. Soon, I tell myself, I’ll have at least one school offering to take me. But I’m still anxious that the sight I have left will be a problem. Not all impaired folks can travel confidently with a cane. I’m one of those folks. When I go out to unfamiliar places, every inch of my being is on alert and when I’m done, I am exhausted. A dog guide would help dispel some of that hyper-vigilance. I could find the bus stop without fearing the path to it. I would be able to navigate the curved paths in the park without straying off course and twisting an ankle. I’d be able to weave in and out of crowds confidently and know I wouldn’t be tapping folks with my cane. Best of all, I’d have a partner committed to helping me live and work as I liked, tuned in to not only my needs but also my moods, I currently own a dog and I honor her devotion by caring for her as best I can. I brush her teeth and coat and try to keep her on the svelte side by reminding my husband and kids not to feed her people food. I know she would love to have another dog in the house, another warm body to share the space near my chair. I’m looking forward to making it happen, too.
Resources: The Hadley School for the Blind 700 Elm Street, Winnetka, IL 60093 800-323-4238
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