The Symbiosis of the Guide Dog Team

I am often asked questions about the nature of my relationship with my guide dog.  A topic we frequently touch on is the interdependence of it.  I like to point this out to people, because no one is surprised that I depend on my guide dog.  After all, she is my eyes, in a sense… but they usually don’t think  about the fact that my dog depends on me, too.

My guide dog does have a lot of responsibility, especially for a dog.  Prim protects me.  She keeps me from walking into traffic, or stepping off the edge of a platform or stage.  She navigates me smoothly around things in our path, and shows me when there is an obstacle like a parked car or construction barrier obstructing our way entirely.  Prim provides for me.  She helps me find landmarks like doors, steps, trashcans, and chairs, and is a source of ever-present laughter and comfort besides.

But like with any other dog, I have a great deal of responsibility as Prim’s partner and handler.  I protect Prim.  I make intelligent decisions about when to cross the street, and think about Prim’s physical and emotional safety in any given environment.  There are some places I simply do not take my guide dog due to risk of injury or discomfort.  Crowded bars and loud concerts are just two examples of places where paws could be too easily trampled and ears too easily overwhelmed.  There have also been situations where I had to physically protect my guide dog when she was in danger of being attacked by another canine.  I provide for Prim.  I feed her, groom her, take her outside, take her to the vet for medical care, and of course have the enormous pleasure of being her primary playmate and cuddle buddy.

It’s a relationship of giving, not 50/50, but 100/100.  Of course, we both fail, but the beauty is that not only do we both provide and protect, but we also persevere.  There are days I am convinced I have a two-year-old child on a leash, and there are days that Prim is convinced she will starve to death because we get home late and I forgot to throw her dinner in my backpack, but I keep loving her even after she throws tantrums about not being able to eat the cat, and she keeps loving me after I feed her an hour or two later than our schedule dictates.  In that way, it is undoubtedly a symbiosis of sorts, but not a symbiosis of chance, rather one of choice.  Primie, I’m so glad I get to choose you.

Seven Things I Have Missed About Having a Guide Dog

I have been a guide dog user for six years now, and it’s become a way of life.  My guide dog is a mobility aid, and so affects the way I travel, but she also affects my schedule, personal interactions, thought processes, financial decisions, clothing choices, etc.  For the last while, a lot of those things have been absent from my life.  These are some of the things I’ve missed most since retiring my first guide.

1. That Glidey, Free Feeling of Working a Guide Dog

If you have never worked a guide dog, you may not understand what I mean here.  When you pick up the harness handle and tell your dog forward, your dog leans into the harness, you lean back, and you take off.  It’s a smooth, exhilarating sensation that I can only describe as a sort of flight.  Having worked with a guide that has not really pulled into the harness for years, I have not experienced this feeling properly in a good long while, and I cannot wait to experience it again.

2. Excessorizing My Guide Dog

Oleta’s drawer in my apartment is full of brightly colored flowers, bows, ribbons, bandanas, and collars that coordinated with my outfits.  My guide dog is, in a way, an extension of my body, and therefore, also fashion, and right now, I’m missing my canine fashion extender!

3. Interacting Regularly with a Dog

I love the nitty gritty mechanics of the guide dog team.  I am a dog person, and I love being near them.  Learning to communicate with my dog, improving obedience and work-related skills, and watching my dog put those skills into action are all things that give me joy, and that I miss having as part of my everyday life.

4. Interacting with the Public

When you take a dog everwhere with you, you get noticed.  Suddenly everyone wants to shower you with compliments, pester you with questions, and tell you long detailed stories about their childhood labrador Rex who was their best friend, could open doors, slept with them every night, saved their sister’s pet rabbit from a fire, etc etc.  Sometimes it can become overwhelming, but in general I enjoy those conversations.  I love sharing about my guide dog, the amazing work that she does, and the organization that bred, raised, and trained her.  More even than that, I love how the presence of a dog seems to normalize my interactions with others.  Instead of viewing me as “that blind girl”, they think of me as “that girl with the dog”, which honestly I prefer.

5. Going Out Early Every Morning

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually kind of like being awoken at the crack of dawn to park and feed my starving canine.  I am an early riser anyway, but there’s no staying in bed with a hungry labrador in need of a potty break bouncing all over you.  I love having that motivation to roll out of bed, no matter how groggy, and go out to greet the new day, whether that be freezing wind and rain or sunshine and birdsong.

6. Always Having a Good Excuse to Talk to Myself

Sometimes verbalizing my thoughts helps me process things, okay?  With Oleta, people assume I am talking to her… which I may very well be.  Right now, with no dog, I just appear unstable.

7. Spacing Out On The Walk Home Because My Dog Knows Exactly Where Home Is

Guide dogs are not GPSs.  I  can’t just say, “Juno, take me to Walmart.” and then find myself magically at Walmart 20 minutes later.  Still, after directing my guide dog home over and over again, day after day, my guide dog starts to understand that when I say, “Let’s go home.”, I am about to tell her forward, left, to the curb, forward, right, etc.”  Basically, she becomes a bit of a GPS.  Of course I can’t totally space out.  I still need to keep track of where I am, and make safe traffic decisions, but I can, for example, work on memorizing music for my voice lesson the next morning the whole walk and still do it completely safely (I can do that with my cane too but I usually miss more turns).

What I’m trying to say is my dog knows where dinner is.  My cane, on the other hand, doesn’t care.

Today marks one day before Dog Day, and one day before I get to reclaim these and other elements of the guide dog lifestyle, and I can’t wait!

A Second Journey: Congressmen, Consulates, and Changing Plans

Alert: This is quite a long post.  Also, Please forgive my rather scattered writing style… especially near the end.  I can’t seem to properly communicate exactly what I would like to, but hopefully my feeble words will do some justice to the concept of what I’m trying to say, if not every detail.

No, unfortunately I am not writing to tell you that I have arrived safely in the land of the Scots.  Despite the email I received Tuesday morning informing me that my visa would be sent out within 24 hours (which would mean that I should have received it Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday at the very latest), it never showed up, and I spent all of Friday afternoon trying to figure out where on Earth it was and how I could get it.  Thanks to the advice of my clever aunt, I was able to get in contact with the consulate through my congressman, or rather through my congressman’s case manager that deals with this sort of situation.  (I know, isn’t my aunt awesome?  How did she even know that was a thing?)

So, we chatted, I explained the circumstances, he sent me a form to sign, I replied with the signed document and further explanation, and he passed it along to the consulate.  Their first response, which he forwarded to me, was extremely disheartening.  My visa had not yet even been dispatched, and they could not be certain when it might be—probably sometime in the next week.  Alarmed, I sent two more emails of a rather more urgent nature.  By this time, it was getting quite late and we had been forced to call US Airways and reschedule my flight.  Unsure when my visa would come, we chose the latest departure date possible within the confines of Oleta’s valid paperwork, Wednesday the 27th.  With two day priority shipping, my visa would need to be sent out THAT FRIDAY to arrive on time, since Monday was memorial day.  I couldn’t help imagining a repeat of the last three days, checking the mail over and over only to discover Wednesday that it hadn’t arrived, and be forced to cancel the trip all together.

To my great relief though, shortly before 7 Pm that night, my congressman’s case manager replied saying my visa had now been placed in the mail, and Saturday, I got a text from my Dad saying we’d received it already!  Praise God!

Needless to say, Friday was a bit emotionally taxing.  I spent most of it worrying, and the rest of it praying.  I was frustrated with myself—if only I had done something different, surely I could have avoided this situation.  For much of the day, I was utterly uncertain what to do, and it made absolutely no sense to me that not getting my visa and missing my flight could possibly be part of God’s plan.  I knew that I should have faith, but suddenly I wasn’t so sure I knew what that meant.  I don’t mean faith in Christ’s salvation, or in the person of God, but small scale faith, the every day sort of faith.

Was having faith being positive of a certain desirable outcome based on belief in God, or was it trusting that any outcome was under God’s control, whether seemingly desirable or not?  I searched for an answer in God’s word, and found these verses.

Romans 10:17 – So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

Okay, I thought, so I’m doing the right thing by reading the Bible at least.

Hebrews 11:6 – And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

If it was impossible to please God without faith, that must mean He desires his  servants to have faith in Him in all situations, no matter what the outcome.

Proverbs 3:5-6 – Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

And the outcome isn’t always what I might expect.  If I am not to “lean on my own understanding”, then my idea of an ideal situation won’t always match with God’s.  If I am to acknowledge Him in all my ways, trust, not resignation, is what is required for every happenstance, whether apparently positive or negative.  No matter what the outcome, He will make straight my path, which means that I must have faith that He has a plan, and that His plan is good.

It sounds trivial and ridiculous now.  Of course I knew these things, and yet, in that moment, I didn’t, and that’s all that seemed to matter.  I realize now that however many times I have come into contact with the meaning of everyday faith, however many times God has revealed to me His faithfulness, it has often been after the fact.  Maybe it’s because I haven’t been a Christian a very long time, but I was so used to looking at situations in retrospect.  Of course, God had a plan for my blindness, for every family drama, for every one of my sins and mess ups.  With years or months or weeks to separate me from any such event, it’s easy to see his hand at work.  It’s harder to recognize in the midst of it all.  I’ve always known that, but now I think I’m starting to truly understand.

so of course, He has a plan  now, and maybe part of it is teaching me to rely more on Him.  Whatever it is, I’m thankful.  I will be leaving for Scotland tomorrow, and can’t wait to discover what other things He has in store for me to learn there.