The First Year
Buy Ann Chiappetta
January 2009-january 2010
It is a brisk autumn day; rich aromas of wet leaves mixed with wood smoke greet us as we approach the corner south of our home. My guide dog, Verona, stops a few inches from the curb and turns toward me, indicating there is an obstacle other than the step down to the street. I put out my tow and hear the splash of water. I probe a bit more and realize it’s a large puddle, filled with debris from the rain from the previous night’s storm.
“Good girl. Forward. ” I say and give the hand signal.
She backs us up, then turns right, taking us on to the grass, avoiding the huge puddle. She stops at the edge of the opposite sidewalk.
“Good dog.” I say, praising her before moving on to our destination.
The above description is just a typical moment for us. We work well together, and after our first year of teamwork, our mistakes are few and minor. How do we do it? Well, I can’t read my dog’s mind, but I do read her body language. The movements are given to me through the harness handle, much like the reins of a horse. Suffice it to say that the stiff handle provides her with a way to tell me where to go. I, too, can get my point across through the handle. The use of a leash and voice and hand commands are also other means of communicating when working with a guide dog. When the dance is done well, the feeling of freedom is remarkable.
How I’ve learned the dance and made the transition from a cane user to a guide dog handler is an odyssey of sorts, beginning with some dark moments. I didn’t become profoundly visually impaired until after I graduated from a master’s program in the spring of 2007 at the age of 38. In 1993 I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa and declared legally blind. Then, in late 2007 the ophthalmologist discovered advanced macular degeneration in my right eye. I was now down to less then five degrees of vision. It was then that I finally put some serious thought into applying for a dog
Years ago, before I went to graduate school, someone asked me if I thought I’d ever give up my cane for a dog. I told them that, no, I didn’t have what it takes to work with a guide dog. Back then, my confidence was low and I wasn’t ready for blindness, let alone a guide dog and the responsibility that came with it. I was also under the impression that guide dog users had to be totally blind, or close to it, which at the time, I wasn’t. I was a low partial, using what sight I could when I could.
I’m not even sure when my perceptions changed but I know as my vision worsened, my curiosity about using a guide dog increased. One of the mitigating factors was that I struggled to maintain an active, independent lifestyle. I was raising a family and pursuing a master’s degree. I routinely struggled with many things, including losing more and more of my vision while studying and participating in campus life. It was at those times, when I felt the most frustration that I wished for a dog. Once, while navigating through a parking lot at night, I almost lost my cane down a sewer grate and stumbled, dropping my book bag into a puddle. Humiliated and wet from the rain, I picked up my wet bag and managed to extricate my cane from the grate without breaking the tip. I thought, if I had a dog, that wouldn’t have happened. another time I was tapping my way down the street to the college library and walked right into a saw horse. My cane slipped under it and I almost flipped right over it. It is moments like that which compelled me to apply for a dog.
Three years after the saw hoarse incident, I get the news: I’m going into the January 2009 class at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York. Practically in my own backyard and rated one of the best schools in the world, it is my first choice and I am excited and relieved to be accepted. The elation I feel is similar to that of being accepted into graduate school or winning the lottery. I know that once I make it through training, my life will change for the better. I’m ready for whatever lays ahead.
I begin packing right after Christmas. The only thing concerning me about is how my 13 year old daughter and pet dog will handle my month-long absence. The former is very attached to me and the latter pines for me whenever I’m gone for more than an hour. My husband and son have their work cut out for them, for sure. Somehow, phone calls and a few short visits must suffice. My husband and I both know I need to do this in order for my life and career to successfully progress; this was another sacrifice with its hidden merits. My family wanted to see me become more independent and in order for this to happen, I had to commit to the 26 day training away from home.
I report to the training residence program on January 2, 2009, not sure what to expect thankfully, the class supervisor finds me in the lobby and introduces me to one of our class instructors who shows me to my room. The orientation and friendly manner of the staff relaxes me and soon I am unpacked and ready to meet my other classmates.
Day one and two introduces us to the daily routine we will follow for the next twenty six days: a wake up call at six a.m., then breakfast. Mid-morning we ride to the actual location where we train in downtown White Plains, New York. It is here that we are given pre-dog evaluations, called Juno walks, and lunch. After the evaluations are completed, we drive back up to the main campus for dinner and lectures.
Day three is dog day. When lunch is over, we’re told to go to our rooms and wait for one of the trainers to bring us our new dog. The night before we find out the names of our dogs by playing a guessing game. One of my classmates gets a dog with the same name as his ex-wife. Another woman, who already has a penchant for shopping even while at guide dog school, finds out her new dog’s name is Visa. It seems to me that we each are given a dog with a name that suits us. My dog’s name is Verona. What a great name to go with my Italian surname. I can’t help smiling. It just sounds so good together.
Later, in my room, I fidget and pace; what color is she? How big is she? Will she like me? Will I be able to trust her? Part of me knows the questions are just the symptoms of nerves and waiting for that knock. What I didn’t know was that once my dog put her big, glossy head in my lap, my life would be forever changed and blessed by a loving, loyal, companion.
She quickly earns my respect; she is obedient, affectionate, and all business when in harness. On the second day of a training walk, she prevents me from being hit by a car backing into the crosswalk by pulling me out of the way. When I discover what she has just done, I want to cry. I take a breath and praise her, feeling more confident than just a few hours ago. She kept me safe, and now it is my turn to learn how to let her do her job.
That was the turning point for me. Verona proved her intelligence and soon we were learning how to work together. Some new students like me had similar experiences. New teams seem to need a situation like a traffic check to bond them and to increase the mutual trust. Verona and I were, for the most part, typical and for that I was grateful.
Our most challenging training experience was my clumsiness taking left turns. I’d stepped on her paws twice in one training walk and to avoid me, Verona would swing away from me. I got so frustrated that I started to cry right there on the street. The instructor comforted me and got me going again. That evening I went for extra training and eventually we overcame our turning snag.
I had to keep my steps small and go with her and the mantra, “baby steps” is always a reminder to not overstep my boundaries.
I’ve also discovered Verona loves to visit the children’s hospital. I volunteer once a month and make presentations to the school program for medically fragile children ages K-12. Ten minutes before we end the presentation, I take off her harness, do some obedience, then heel her around the room so the kids can pet and meet her. I even taught her to jump onto a bench so one child could pet her from his hospital bed.
She’s provided me with a much better sense of self-discipline, too. We have a rigid feeding, walking, and training/exercise schedule that only varies slightly when either on vacation or inclement weather. We are always traveling and I even find my anxiety about going to unfamiliar places has lessened. Her ability to instill confidence at times when I need it most is probably her best attribute. She takes charge in crowds, stores, and when we find ourselves faced with an obstacle that isn’t easily solved.
What I mean is that because of Verona, I have developed a routine which supports our relationship in many positive ways. The dark moments are far fewer now; I no longer fear unseen sewer grates, saw horses, holes, stairs, and low hanging branches and signs. With Verona at my side, my ability to do more is multiplied. I reflect back on that horrible night when I dropped my bag into the puddle and can now say with certainty that the situation was the first stumble to the path of obtaining a guide dog. People with disabilities are faced with independence challenges every day and having Verona avoids the stress and frustration of these challenges for me. She brings balance to my life that no inanimate object, like a white cane, ever could. From now until her retirement, the dark moments will be replaced by the bright light and companionship of my partner, Verona.