Thought Wheel

Ann Chiappetta

Thank You Verona

| Filed under blindness Guide dogs Poem Relationships writing Writing Life

I got on the bus last week and took out my cell to pass the time. I opened Face Book and fingered through my status and read that it has been 9 years since I met Verona. I shared the milestone like a good little FB user but the nostalgia stayed with me all day. I wasn’t able to reach out and pet her to say thanks for a wonderful first guide dog experience. It was like not saying “I love you,” to my human family upon leaving for a day’s work.

There are so many reasons for writing this post, from appreciating the people involved in bringing Verona and I together to those who helped me make the decision to retire her and supporting our family so we could keep her and let her live out her retirement with regal dignity.

It’s a little overkill, perhaps, to keep writing about this dog, but, hey, I write about relationships and the most meaningful ones have been with dogs, so, you know, write what you know, right?

Verona continues to provide unconditional love dressed in ebony, a constantly wagging tail, and a gentle nature. She is the only dog in our lives that has generated a fan club and a long list of possible retirement homes when folks heard she was hanging up the harness. All the paratransit bus drivers talked about her, how intelligent she looked, that she “has smart eyes,”. We are featured in the para transit taxi program brochure; when she retired, the local newspaper wrote an article about how much the veterans would miss her. She saw her trainer the other day and actually jumped up to lick her face, prancing around like she was two years old. It is in these moments for which I feel grateful. I am appreciative of the dedication and expert attention to her training and breeding. Our family has benefitted from such a phenomenal dog, she is a true Labrador retriever and the kind of guide dog who became an ambassador because of her character. This is why I write about her so much, have written a book, two poems and dozens of articles about her. She is exceptional. It is this piece of canine personality which grabs our attention and stays with us. It is this type, this definition that sticks to our hearts like Velcro and owns a part of our hearts making us grieve when the animal passes.

People talk about soul mates, and a great guide dog match is similar. Some folks refer to it as a spirit dog, or a heart dog. I felt her unique energy the first time we met and don’t ever want to forget it. The energy still keeps me grounded, gives me confidence.

Here’s to you, Verona, sweet girl, whose ability to trust me and to have been able to take us places and lead us into adventures is the most powerful partnerships I’ve known. Happy ninth anniversary. I love you.

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Introducing The Handler’s Corner

| Filed under writing

Reprinted and brought to you from The Consumer Vision email newsletter published by Bob Branco

The Handler’s Corner: Living and working with guide dogs
By Ann Chiappetta

Happy New Year to all of you and your two and four-footed family members. Since this is the first article I am writing for Consumer Vision, I am excited and about being here and want to thank Bob for agreeing to give me a byline.
A little bit about me: In 2009 I was matched with my first guide dog, Verona, a black Labrador retriever from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Back then, my vision was deteriorating from retinitis pigmentosa and I began feeling less and less confident using a white cane. This was a life-changing experience for me.

I retired Verona in late 2014 and resumed traveling with the white cane until March 2015, whereupon I met Bailey, my second dog, a large yellow Labrador retriever also from Guiding Eyes. Additionally, Verona has just earned her animal assisted therapy dog certificate from The Good Dog Foundation and we will soon be visiting folks in hospitals, nursing homes, and other pet assisted therapy programs. I plan to share these events with you all as they come.

During the first five years of being a guide dog handler, or guide dog user, as some folks might say, I also became more involved in advocating for the rights of guide dog teams. Discrimination and ignorance towards people who are blind and guide dog handlers is still common; I’m sure any guide dog handler can tell stories about being refused access or feeling a bit tired of answering questions from strangers regarding his or her disability or dog. When I experienced the ignorance and access refusals, after dealing with the situation, I remained so upset, I made it a personal goal to learn how to advocate and do my part to change things to benefit access rights for guide dog users in the U.S. and internationally, if possible. Over the years, I worked with a few advocacy groups, volunteered on a National guide dog organization board of directors for five years, made presentations, and helped out other guide dog handlers who graduated from Guiding Eyes while being a member of the graduate council.
I also continue to serve on the board of our local guide dog users group focused on upholding the rights of guide dog handlers in my home State of New York. I participate in monthly presentations at elementary schools among other activities focused on educating the public about blindness and guide dogs.

Moreover, Verona opened up a world of independence I did not experience with my cane and as I became more confident my friends and family realized how much a guide dog could enhance my life. When she retired, our family felt it, not just me — this is proof that our four-footed partners are just as valued as any human family member. Now that Bailey is guiding me, we have opened our hearts to another dog and the unconditional regard he provides us, and I feel extremely fortunate to have his dogginess and canine loyalty as a partner while working and traveling.

I hope to share the journey of this path of independence with all of you, our readers, and welcome comments and questions. Being able to share this journey is an honor and I hope you enjoy it. As we say in guide dog land, “forward!”

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