8 Sep 2010, 11:26am

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My Eyes Have Four Legs

Guide Dog Chronicles:
My Eyes Have Four Legs
By Kate Chamberlin

Trust my life to a dog? Here I was in my prime (that’s 40, you know) and had just begun to trust my husband as a sighted guide. Due to a rare eye disease, I went from 20/20 to legally Blind within a few months. During the next year, I went to a little light perception in one eye and nothing in the other.
it was a whole new way of living. I didn’t want my new handicap to also handicap my family. We discussed what it would mean to have a “working dog” rather than a “pet dog” in the family. The decision to go with a guide dog was unanimous.
With my family’s support, I pushed through my nervousness and went to train at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York. I was paired with Future Grace, an 18 month old Golden Retriever.
The trainers spent several days interviewing each of the students. They had been training numerous dogs for the previous three to four months and wanted to match the personality with the “dogality” for maximum team efficiency. I think they did a good job with Future and me. We’re both well educated, beautiful, and love children.
It was hard for me to trust her, at first. She was such a fast walker that I didn’t feel comfortable. Future really had her work cut out for her. She had to prove how dependable she could be.
The turning point came during a training walk in White Plains, New York. We were standing on the corner waiting for the traffic light to change. A big delivery truck turned the corner a bit too sharply. His rear wheels jumped up over the sidewalk. If Future hadn’t Pulled back, and pulled back really hard so I had to go with her, I would have been part of the pavement! She’d earned my trust.

As I learned to relax, being part of a guide dog team became less awkward. After graduation, I brought her home with me. She quickly bonded with my husband and three children as litter-mates. I’m the alpha dog.
I take care of her and she takes care of me. We go everywhere together – to school, to church, into town, and even grocery shopping. We go grocery shopping once a week. The three children rotate coming with us.
After Dave parks the van in the market parking lot, Future guides me into the store and straight to the Bottle Return. Dave gets a cart and meets us there. Sometimes he’ll let us out at the far end of the mall and we walk from there to the Bottle Return inside the store.
After we get our bottle money slip, Future is at heel, I hold onto the cart handle, and Dave pulls the cart from the front, so we can discuss what to put into the cart without getting separated or bumping into anything.
When there aren’t a lot of people in the store, I pick up Future’s harness handle and work her. She knows that from the Bottle Return we go to the Deli number dispenser and wait in line. When we have our package of great smelling ham and cheese or roast beef, we head over to the doughnuts. We wait out of the way while Dave chooses a dozen doughnuts. It’s important for Future to get me to a safe spot because people have to serve themselves in the bakery department. They have a tendency to rudely jostle each other to get to the freshest doughnuts. Most of them still have their carts with them and neither Future nor I wants to get bumped.
From the bakery, it’s simple enough to follow the outer wall cases. We stop at vegetables here and there, then go to the meat section, bacon, soda, milk, and eggs. I can tell if we’re in the right area because it’s cold along here. As Future stops at each place, I feel and choose which item I want. Walking through the flower section is always pleasant for both of us. The dirt smells fresh if they’ve just watered the plants. The fragrant lilies are my favorite; roses seem to be Future’s.
The bulk food section smells pretty good, too; lots of cinnamon cookies, popcorn, and granola. The frozen food cases are too cold and a bit boring, except that the workers’ wheeled dollies make it like broken field running to get around them. It takes a lot of concentration to maneuver along safely.
Sometimes people will stop and pet Future and she’ll quickly put her nose into my hand. It’s her way of tattling on them. I explain that when she’s in harness she may not socialize. She’s on duty; working to keep me safe. It isn’t really all their fault, though. Future likes to look pleadingly at people with her big, soft, brown eyes and they instinctively reach out to touch her. It’s at that point that she puts her nose in my hand.
Going up and down the aisles is the dangerous part. Future walks slowly as Dave tells us what we’re passing. If we need something, we stop and pick it up. One time, we were stopped in front of the cappuccino and a fellow banged right into Future! I quickly said, “Future, Tuck,” but she already had me as close to the right-hand side as we could get. She was okay, but it was a pure case of hit and run. The guy never even said he was sorry! After that, Future was careful to check behind us, as well as in front.
Future must be most vigilant at the end of each aisle. That’s where other people come rushing around the corner. Where their minds are, I don’t know, but we’ve almost been hit
several times. Usually it’s safest to let Dave push the cart first. He can use it as a protective shield. Future tracks him while staying close in his wake to keep us safe. I don’t remember having to do such planning when I was sighted!
When we’ve worked the whole store, Future tries to find the extra-wide handicapped check-out line. For some reason, this one is cleaner than the others and she’s not tempted to scavenge. As Dave unloads the front of the Cart, I unload the back section. Future always watches this procedure closely – she doesn’t want the cart to roll back on her! I keep my foot on the wheel to make sure it stays put. The time Future was hit by a car in the parking lot was really scary. We usually need two carts to get the bagged groceries to the van. We had loaded them up as usual: the first cart being pushed by Dave, the second cart being steered by Dave with me pushing it. Future was at proper heel position. We stopped just outside the door at the crosswalk. A car stopped at the stop sign. We proceeded into the crosswalk toward our van in the handicapped parking slot. As we were walking, I heard a man yell very loudly. At the same moment I realized that the man was Dave, I heard a thump and a yelp. Future was hit hard on her left flank and thrown to my far right. As Dave continued to yell at the woman through her closed window, I immediately took off Future’s harness and made her lay down.
I checked her over pretty thoroughly, and felt that she was okay. A stranger guided us to the van. Future was able to ‘walk there on her own and hop inside by herself. We were rather upset, to say the least.
It’s very upsetting to go blind, period. I won’t see my sons as they graduate from college or begin to go bald like their father. I won’t be able to design and sew my daughter’s wedding gown, as I had planned. I’ll never see my grandchild’s little face. But I do look forward to the independent mobility my Guiding Eyes guide dog provides me. She’ll get me to my sons’ graduations and march this mother-of-the-bride down the wedding aisle. And, I dare say, we’ll even take that grandchild for walks in the park, though, perhaps, not grocery shopping!
NOTE: This article appeared in “Good Dog! Magazine” November/December, 1993
Copyright © 1993, 2009, 2010 by Kate Chamberlin

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