Back for a Seeing Eye Dog, One Year Later
What’s it like to use a Seeing Eye dog? Think of it this way:
You close your eyes and take the elbow of a well-known person willing to guide you around tables, chairs, out the door, across the street, down the stairs and along a platform until you find the door to a train car where this traveling companion can be trusted to help you find an open seat. And your trust is absolute because between the ears of this human companion you know there is an intelligent brain capable of negotiating obstacles, anticipating danger and prioritizing safety.
But, that’s a human. Would you put the same level of trust in an animal? Even a highly trained canine?
The Decision Process
I first went to The Seeing Eye in the summer of 2004 to get my first dog, a two-year-old German shepherd named Gator. We worked together until the winter of 2012. He worked until I had to put him down, because the abdominal cancer had grown too large for anything to be done about it. Never mind that his health results had come back clean only six weeks prior.
It took more than three years for me to return to the school for a second dog. I want to tell you my delay was owed to grief, and yes, there was a part of me that was not ready to replace my first loyal companion. But the longer I waited, the more comfortable I became with the white cane, not that it required a huge adjustment. My experience with Gator toward the end was not ideal.
Gator suffered from exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. This meant a lot of accidents, and while I doubt anyone would have faulted me for retiring him, I could not bring myself to do it as long as he remained eager to jump in the harness. Yet, I confess that more often than not I would choose to leave him at home rather than run the risk of him relieving himself at inopportune moments.
And so I waited. There was a guilty relief in knowing I no longer had to worry about dispensing medicine with every meal. The other dogs in the house did not require constant outings to avoid messes in the house. I missed the ability to sail around obstacles, but I felt the convenience of being able to pick up a cane and go more than made up for the trouble of working with a sick dog.
What motivated me to explore the idea more in depth was a reminder that I would inevitably lose all my sight. I have glaucoma. For me it’s a stealthy kind of eye condition. In my case, it goes for years without noticeable change, and then one morning I wake up and realize I can see a lot less than the day before, or the week before that. I got to feeling a little paranoid that one morning I would wake up unable to see anything at all, and although obtaining another Seeing Eye dog would not change things, I felt a little anxious about relearning how to do certain things. No one likes to admit just how much they cling to their sight, no matter how minimal.
I went back and forth with myself. I spoke to other guide dog users and trainers. One well-loved trainer did not think I should return on account of my being too independent to rely on another dog. Their advice gave me pause, but my search continued. I wrote a provocative blog post elsewhere internally debating the pros and cons of returning for a second dog and was rewarded with a myriad of comments arguing both extremes of the spectrum.
There was also the matter of dog breed. A person genuinely interested in finding the best match would go with whatever the school assigns, and though I ultimately told the school I would take whatever they gave me, I think they knew my heart was set on a shepherd. Never mind that shepherds are generally more prone to illness, and never mind they can be a bit more vocal than Labradors and golden retrievers. Despite all that, shepherds are, in my opinion, serious-looking dogs. I am a serious-looking guy with a serious job. Haha.
After all the back and forth, I departed for Morristown on May 4 of last year to train with what would become my second Seeing Eye dog.
Conventional advice says transitioning from the first Seeing Eye dog to the second is the most difficult adjustment a lifelong guide dog user is likely to experience. I may've made it worse for myself by allowing more than three years to go by before returning to The Seeing Eye, but my return to using a guide dog has generally been a positive experience.
But, who are we kidding? You're already more interested in the dog than you are interested in my rants!
Matthew is also a German shepherd. He is 24 inches at the shoulder, 64 pounds, and was a mere 20 months old when I received him on May 6. He has a darker complexion than Gator but generally has the same medium coat length. There’s a small kink at the tip of his tail. His right ear droops at about an inch and a half from the tip, and while a classmate suggested ways to rectify this, where's the fun in handling a normal looking animal?
Comparisons are inevitable. Gator was apt to plunge his head into the harness and nearly drag me to the door, whereas Matthew thinks it funny to duck and roll to avoid suiting up.
Gator would cry if corrected too severely. I think the more people there were about, the louder he would cry to convey to people the depths of his despair. He was quite the dramatic performer. Matthew is rather stoic. He takes his corrections in stride to the point where I sometimes want to shake him to make sure he understands my displeasure with his bad choices.
Gator was rarely affectionate. Oh, he’d throw a paw over my lap if he thought it would earn him an early dinner. He would be quite pleased with himself if he managed to yank away the rope in a vehement game of tug of war. Matthew dutifully sits beside me and often nuzzles my leg or cocks his head for an ear scratch. Actually, he only seems to do this while we’re waiting on transportation. These gestures could be nothing more than a passive means of asking what the hell’s the hold up? I shall not reflect too hard on this point lest I discover a disappointing reality... But, at least Matthew pretends to care. Gator could have cared less!
For all the differences in disposition, they are both undoubtedly shepherds, very sure of their intelligence. Whatever their perceived setbacks, I’m glad I got another shepherd even if synchronization requires extra work.
I'm told that had I not been matched with Matthew, I would have gotten a male black lab. This promptly made me think of Jazz, my black lab at home. He's a people pleaser but is too goofy for me to see him walking himself across a busy intersection, let alone guiding someone else.
The Seeing Eye Today
Facility-wise, the school has seen much improvement. The main campus has undergone major renovations since I was last there in the summer of 2004. In the main house you don't realize how narrow the stairs used to be until you enjoy broad elbow room to move about the different levels. All guest rooms now feature wired and wireless Internet access at the expense of shrinking the tech center, but the essentials are there for anyone who need them. In the common lounge there is now a pretty awesome machine with several choices of coffee and hot chocolate. I was sad the deck gave way to a patio, but the leisure path was extended to a third of a mile and still features enough turns and hills to make for a great workout with your new puppy.
I honestly don't remember a whole lot about the downtown training center from a decade ago, maybe because we hardly spent time there, and even though our time in the DTC was still minimal, they had a good supply of beverages and wireless Internet access to keep students comfortable.
The hospitality was, as always, phenomenal! How they manage to maintain quality meals at an economical rate is perplexing but very much appreciated. The kitchen and housekeeping staff was outstanding. Two thumbs and four paws up to be sure!
Since I've never been to another guide dog school, I can't very well claim the training staff was unparalleled. Nevertheless, having participated in a variety of training scenarios in my professional career, the level of devotion to their craft is still palpable. I'm sure the salaries do not match the physical and mental demand to turn out top notch Seeing Eye dogs.
Former graduates are always curious about the instructors that led specific classes. My particular class was led by Doug, Sue, Barbara, Kristen, Leigh, Travis, Drew, and my own instructor, Chris Mattoon.
Chris is one of the guys, pretty chill but confident about his instruction. Leigh, Drew and Chris had both been a part of the training team in my first class when Pete Jackson was tasked with shaping Gator and me into something polished. I thought the whole team was great, but Sue cracks me up to no end. I could spend hours listening to her talk on just about any topic because she has a down-to-earth, no nonsense way about her, and you know you're going to laugh your ass off along the way no matter how difficult you thought your day had gone.
And that’s one thing that has not changed in the slightest. Perhaps I was more out of shape than I knew, but I appreciated the quick naps I was able to snag in between lessons. The guy I often partnered with was also an aggressive walker, so our lessons spanned what felt like many competitive miles.
Prior to departing for Morristown, I'd heard comments from other alumni suggesting the school had generally gotten softer about correction methods. I shrugged off these remarks. Everything evolves, right? Now that I'm on the other side of training and have had time to think on it, I don't know that "softer" is quite accurate. I think they've maybe gotten more strategic about how corrections are administered. Corrections were especially popular at lunchtime when the dining room was at its busiest, but I don't know that I heard any of my classmates speak of administering a high collar, which honestly could just mean they're turning out more attentive dogs.
Everyone agrees The Seeing Eye creates a bubble. That's probably true of most, if not all, guide dog programs. Even the freelance phase of the curriculum feels a little artificial because you know the instructor is following within earshot, so it's not until you return to your home environment that you get a true sense of the dog's capabilities, characteristics, and bad habits.
Matthew and I transitioned well to our version of real life. We landed on a Wednesday, went right back to work that Thursday, and life pretty much settled into a comfortable routine.
In fact, I often felt guilty at how well things were going with my new guy. Part of me waited for the other shoe to drop, because handling a guide dog should not be that straightforward. I was not used to a dog that waits patiently under my desk for us to move onto the next task. Matthew was overjoyed at coming within sniffing distance of other dogs, but I was not used to a guide dog that did not require a stern hand to keep him from lunging and growling. Perhaps the greatest source of guilt comes from something so mundane as relieving my new dog. With Gator I never knew when we would have a rough day, diarrhea or persistent urination. None of this was his fault, all part of his medical condition, so the feeling of counting on a dog that did not require special handling was strangely freeing.
I suppose I bought into the marketing bit about achieving a greater sense of independence. Well, maybe "greater" is not precisely accurate. There are a lot of responsibilities that come with handling a working animal. I would still advocate that prospective students think about it long and hard, but case in point, I move much faster through sidewalks congested with people, poles, café tables, and planters than I did with a cane. Part of it is logistics. A cane requires the person to literally feel their way around the world to capture a fairly accurate picture of it. A dog walks you around these obstacles, leaving you to rely on other senses to paint that mental landscape.
One Year Later
I wrote much of the above within a few weeks of getting back from Morristown. I never reached a sense of completion with it and so never published it. I don’t know that I’m any closer to feeling done, but it being a little over a year since my return, it seemed like the right time to spruce it up and send it off.
Do I regret having gone back for a second dog? No. Despite some setbacks, Matthew continues to be a positive experience. There are concrete improvements in my daily travel habits over a cane, and if nothing else, the constant companionship has been welcomed in a year fraught with personal challenges. Never underestimate the reassuring presence of a loyal canine in your life.
This is not to say things have gone swimmingly. A trainer is coming out to address a few irritations that have the potential to grow into serious concerns. Matthew has developed an aversion to walking on certain tile floors around my office building. He has no problem plowing into crowds if they do not move fast enough out of our way, and while these are quirks I could have the patience to remedy on my own, there is the matter of unreliable traffic checks which is an area well beyond my ability to fix.
Speaking of trainer visits, the matter of post graduate services bears mention. It used to be that one could request a trainer to come out when the situation warranted a personal visit. I don’t know that one could just whistle up a trainer at will, but it felt a lot easier to schedule appointments. Now, without regional representatives, students have to wait until there is a critical mass in an area before an instructor will be dispatched to work with a team. I was out of town the first time an instructor was available back in November. It’s been seven months, and I’m just now getting a shot at another visit. It’s entirely possible my request fell out of sight, only just now resurfacing after submitting a recent communication with the school. It’s also possible the post graduate visits are hampered by budgetary restrictions. Regardless, it’s one area where the school could use a measure of improvement, because in many ways, a team’s work does not actually start until they graduate.
The inconveniences I touched on in my controversial post are still present. Handling a working animal can be almost as demanding as raising a child. Your time is not always your own. Keeping the dog on a consistent relief schedule is essential. You have to factor in their food, toys and grooming supplies when you go to pack your bags, which is cumbersome for people like me who hate checking luggage at the airport. In short, Matthew has his moments, sometimes his days, but then, so do I. He's still very much a puppy, in age and in spirit, and sometimes in the middle of a hot afternoon I have to will myself not to pick him up and shake him, but I get the strong sense the feeling is mutual. I suppose we are well-matched.
Do such inconveniences outweigh the benefits? That’s ultimately up to you. So far for me Matthew has earned his keep. My threats to box him up and ship him out have grown less frequent. It makes me sad to learn a few of my friends who got their dogs from The Seeing Eye around the same time I did have returned their dogs for varying reasons, but again, you can’t base your path forward on the success or failures of others.
There are days when I still choose to leave Matthew behind. Part of my logic here is that one can never become completely dependent on an animal. The dog will inevitably become sick, but you still have to be able to get around, go to work, meet your obligations. Sometimes he would prove to be more of a hassle than a help. I have personally never felt comfortable using a guide dog at a reception where I’m expected to network. As much as some people would claim it makes little sense to have gotten a dog if you do not take them everywhere, it makes even less sense to treat the dog solely as a tool rather than a partner. Sometimes the partner needs a break too.
For someone with any sight, even someone with rapidly diminishing sight like myself, it's difficult to do the simplest thing of all, to let go and just follow the dog. As time goes by, I have no choice but to follow Matthew, because I cannot see as well to immediately correct what I perceive to be the wrong way, but in doing so, I feel us mutually relying on each other to learn new routes and become one well-oiled machine.
Make no mistake; handling a guide dog can be demanding work. Think of all the reasons why it’s a bad idea, and if after that you are still convinced it is right for you, you’ll know you’re ready to take the leap. No matter where you go, it’s bound to be an adventure.
If there are any questions I can ask of training, adjusting to or working with a Seeing Eye dog, go ahead and leave a comment. If you know of someone contemplating training with a Seeing Eye dog, please point them to my contact form. I'd be glad to share some experience, advice and thoughts on what I still consider to be the greatest guide dog school out there.
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