Guiding Eyes for the Blind
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What a Difference a Dog Makes…

When did it change? My life, that is. There are predictable examples from marriage to childbirth, but there was a more recent change, less expected and even more surprising.

It started with a news story we did at Channel 4 some years earlier on service dogs. I was fascinated with the change a well-trained dog could make in the life of a blind person, and felt like this was something I really wanted to get involved in.

It remained a strong interest, but the time clearly was not right. A fulltime career in broadcasting and two small children left little time for anything, much less dog training.

But motivation by passion is hard to ignore. So, I did my research in earnest, asked my kids to consider it (that took about 20 seconds) and sent in our application to be puppy raisers for Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

Alex

Dogs were part of the landscape in my life as far back as I could remember. In fact, “love me, love my dog” is a well-worn mantra in our family.

My dad was rarely in his chair on a Sunday afternoon without a sleeping dog peacefully draped across his feet near the fire. This was also a time that pre-dated leash laws, crates and neutering (OK, so I’m older than I look). It was a time when the family dog might roam off for days, showing up on the porch, hungry and dirty, looking like he might have encountered an unexpected hazard and thinking better of home and a full bowl of food. The explanation would come a few days later: “’Saw ole ‘Boy’out in my peach orchard a few nights ago…looked like he was on a mission.”

And then there were the lovable dogs that would show up at school sleeping next to a familiar bike, waiting for the 3:00 bell. (ok, so I’m really old)

Dogs came and went. Some had no respect for traffic, others died noble deaths, but all were loved and laid to rest in the back yard with crude stick crosses and tears all around. Soon the dog we thought was “the best” was remembered fondly while his replacement found the same warm hearth and big boots so comfortable to sleep on.

Needless to say, formal training was not part of my experience, but I was willing to learn. I was cautioned that this was hard work but rewarding. Our first pup, Alex, looked innocent enough. The Raisers Manual was very clear, the videotapes were instructive, and the classes were essential, but nothing really prepared me for—and I mean this literally—the blood, sweat, and tears that followed. To say Alex was a challenge is an understatement.

And that’s when I noticed it…the not-so-subtle changes that came while bonding with this big gollute named Alex who burst into our lives bringing me to my knees in more ways than one, testing me both mentally and physically.

My friends humored me and looked a little sideways at my efforts, not quite understanding my growing passion. Alex could be such a big baby, but he was also unmistakably tough, strong, difficult, and, I’m told, looked menacing when straining at his leash. Baby gates made a come-back, and no longer could I blame the dryer for missing socks. In fact, a missing sock became an immediate source of concern until it turned up--one way or another-- taxing our Vet consultant’s last nerve..

My neat little Ann Taylor suit was finding room near the back of the closet and Eddie Bauer became my new best friend. My favorite scent, that lingered somewhere near Alex’s soft black muzzle, could not be bottled. With early morning visits to get outside (quickly!), the alarm clock became obsolete.

I discovered that I had exchanged my neat leather briefcase for sturdy leather leashes, my pantyhose and well polished Nine Wests for thick socks and Timberlanes. No longer was I worried about lint on my lapel. It was all we could do to keep the dog hair to a minimum. I regularly left puppy classes envious of my fellow raisers who moved effortlessly through their paces, while Alex and I worked up a sweat just standing in place. But there was comfort: veteran raisers gave me new hope with nightmare stories of the legendary, but ultimately successful, working dogs. Our trainers demonstrated infinite patience and a gift for couching the negative in a very encouraging positive.

We were beginning to wonder how this goliath of a dog would ever achieve coveted guide dog status. One particularly difficult day brought me to a critical crossroad – somebody had to win and I was not going to let a dog--especially THIS dog--defeat me.

I’d lived through far greater struggles; I could certainly survive this. Besides, by this time, I was hopelessly in love. So, survive we did, all the way to a successful final training test (which continues to be a staggering surprise) but not without some intervention.

Up the ladder of command it was decided that Alex was one worth pulling out all the stops for. He still needed work and it appeared that I had done everything I could.

The suggested alternative was the Prison Program, a unique and creative arrangement at Fishkill Correctional Institute in New York, designed to give pups intense one-on-one training while giving select prisoners an opportunity, a focus, and a purpose that is clearly a win-win situation.

Though I still felt like Alex was mine until that long awaited final evaluation, he was moved to Fishkill for 3 months of training that eventually turned into 6 months. The prisoner and I were able to exchange a few letters, but anonymity on both sides meant that letters went through several hands before they were finally exchanged. In spite of the multiple edits, one thing came through loud and clear: Alex had distinguished himself early on as “unusually strong.”

The prison program did help, but we quickly realized that we weren’t going to be sitting at graduation, proudly watching as Alex and his new owner stepped out to begin their new lives together. Instead, Alex was a clear candidate for a career change. The trainers at Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, took one look at him and decided to take him on as their newest trainee in the Bomb Detection Unit.

We weren’t completely disappointed. A career change is a good thing. So off he went to learn the finer points of ferreting out bombs. Finally, we did indeed get to graduation, this time at the ATF Training Center in Front Royal, Virginia. It was an amazing experience and --though it took a few minutes-- the icing on the cake was that Alex actually recognized me! That was a sweet but fleeting moment. His new assignment would be with a security organization in South Africa. I was not able to meet his handler but I was so proud of what he had become under the demanding and rigorous training of ATF.

In the mean time, did I say first pup somewhere earlier in the story? A first anything implies a second, and maybe a third…but who’s counting. As much as we still miss Alex, our newest trainee, has taken over the crate and the big pillow on the floor by my bed. We will continue to do our job of training and loving with every hope that he will be successful, but as for his future…we won’t think about that just yet.

By Julia Mitchell (9/99)

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