Blind since the age of three, I’ve had to learn the various skills and techniques which have long proven to be successful in enabling persons who are blind to live with independence and dignity. One of the most critical skills is Orientation and Mobility, or O&M.
O&M covers the techniques needed to safely and effectively negotiate one’s environment, that is, moving from point A to point B independently and safely. For most people, this means using a tool such as a long white cane, which effectively alerts the user of obstacles in front of him/her, curbs and stairs, uneven terrain, etc. In addition, the white cane alerts others, such as drivers, to the presence of a blind person. The white cane also will, hopefully, lead them to obey the long-established white cane laws, which require drivers to yield to blind pedestrians. I am sharing this because for over 40 years of my life I was a proficient cane traveler, using this wonderful tool to confidently move all over the United States and abroad.
During my professional life, I occasionally ran into other blind adults who were using a guide dog as their main mobility tool. I recall marveling especially at the fact that they seemed to always move much faster than I, not worrying about obstacles in their way. The dog would gracefully walk them around those objects without touching them or even, at times, being aware of their presence. In addition, I often marveled at how guide dog users seemed to be able to quickly adapt to new unfamiliar environments, such as hotels, conference centers, etc. Somehow, with the assistance of their guide dogs, these folks seemed to be able to find the door to the room, the exit from the hotel or even their own hotel room much faster than I, using my long white cane. Lastly, I met many guide dog users who would talk about going for long walks everyday to keep their guide fresh and burn some of their excess energy.
With all these factors in mind, I began to entertain the idea of getting a guide dog. After considerable research, I applied to several guide dog schools. My main criteria was that the dog be as harmless as possible for persons with severe allergies to dogs, since my daughter does indeed have lots of those allergies.
After a long wait, I received the call from one of the schools announcing that a wonderful black male standard poodle had passed all their tests and had undergone all necessary training to be a guide and was now ready to be matched with a blind person. Well, that person to matched with could be me, as long as I was able to pack up my bags, take a leave from work and fly to New York to attend the one-month long training program. And so I did!
Moving the clock forward several months, I can report that I am now the proud owner of a black male standard poodle who amazes me each day with how smart he is. All the factors that led me to decide to get a guide dog have, to a great extent, proven true. I do walk much faster now, especially as I gradually gained more confidence in his abilities. I have traveled to conferences and meetings out of town and have discovered that he is able to orient himself to new environments quickly. He even knows exactly where our hotel room is after only being there once. Finally, in order to ensure he gets as much exercise as possible, we do go for long walks in my neighborhood. This in no doubt will ultimately prove to be beneficial for my own health too.
I would be lying if I didn’t include here some of the frustrations I have felt and some of the minor adjustments I have had to make to my life style, such as having to get up a bit earlier on Sundays than I was used to. I should add, however, that many of the frustrations I have felt stem from the fact that I never had a pet, let alone a dog, so I am often confronted with questions I don’t have answers for. Why is he not eating this morning? What play activities can we engage in? What are “normal” behaviors and those which need to be corrected? In some ways, this experience reminds me quite a bit of my first few months of parenthood with all its newness and more questions than answers.
In a future blog post, I will go into more detail about some of the quirks that may well be more related to my guide dog’s breed, which is certainly not the typical breed found in guide dogs all over this world.
September is National Guide Dog Awareness month. Are you interested in getting a guide dog? Would you like to learn more? Share your comments and check out the resources below.
Guide Dog Users, Inc.
The National Association of Guide Dog Users
International Guide Dog Federation