The Second Year: a retrospective in dog guide land
I give the forward command and we begin to cross the street; I hear the car lurch from its place ahead just as Verona walks us out into the cross walk. She stops as the car makes an erratic right on red even though we have the right of way.
“Good dog, “I say, then give the forward command again, and we step out a second time.
The car behind the car that just lurched around the corner on the red decides to do the same and Verona not only stops but backs us up to the curb and does her little dance. I know this dance, it means, “mom, don’t go, we’re in trouble.”
A year ago I didn’t know this signal and felt the whap of a concrete bench on my knee even though she tried to tell me not to take another step. She did her dance then and after that incident, I pay attention to it.
“Okay, Ro, let’s wait a bit,” I tell her and line us up again at the curb. She tries to take me to the perpendicular curb but I tell her no, we need to go this way and she complies reluctantly.
This is where humans and dogs digress in terms of thinking; I know it will most likely be safe this time but she is thinking, wow, it’s going to happen again, and we better get out of here. This is when our mutual trust comes into play and although it seems like we’ll never get across this street, we do it together and do it safely. As we step onto the up- curb, I praise her for being such a great dog by giving her a doggie snack and petting, and we move on to go get lunch.
January 4, 2011 was our second anniversary, what guide dog users call ‘dog day’. I’ve written poems and short essays about this and other aspects of being a first-time guide dog user and this month means we’ve made it past the first two years and our bond is solid and reliable. Verona, whom I now call ro, is a four year old black Labrador retriever weighing in at 60 lbs and about 23” at the shoulder. She is a serious worker but she is also a very playful dog when not in harness. Her ears are too big for her long, wide head and her tail is a rudder like weapon when she’s wagging, which is just about all the time out of harness. She has happy pants syndrome, a constantly swishing rear-end and it hurts if you happen to be in the line of fire of her tail.
But, who, exactly is Verona – and perhaps more importantly, why is she, and other service dogs like her so special?
Her history is fairly typical for a program trained dog: she was a planned birth, her litter the result of Cooper, a black Labrador male, and Eileen, a yellow Labrador female. She is the second of five puppies born on November 24, 2006 at the Guiding Eyes breeding facility in Patterson, New York. At 10 weeks, she was given to her puppy raiser, Carol, who taught her good manners and social skills. At 18 months, she moved from New Hampshire to Yorktown Heights, New York to be proofed for advanced training. She and Carol said goodbye until graduation. Upon passing the test, Verona and her siblings began training for guide dog work.
She lived in the kennel with her buddy, Sawyer, another yellow Labrador until January 2009, when she and I met for the first time. The moment I touched her, it seemed as if the entire time of struggling with vision loss finally held meaning. For the first time, blindness held promise instead of limitations and let downs.
Fast forward a bit, and after years of avoiding events and independent travel, I’m no longer so limited, thanks to Ro and Guiding Eyes for the Blind. I now go wherever I need to with confidence and a safe way to accomplish it.
Ro is more than just a mobility tool, she’s a co-therapist. We’ve visited a local children’s hospital wherein we helped the social worker to ease a nervous teen who was having trouble adjusting to his new environment. She was often the reward for a group of unruly teens as incentive to settle down and work in a group. If they did well, I’d take off her harness and happy pants would take over and relax all of them. We visited our sick friends and recovering clients in hospitals and nursing homes, too. She is now my co-therapist at my new job helping Veterans with disabilities.
Happy Anniversary, Verona, and May your butt always wag so happily.
I love you.