Thirteen years and one month ago I remember walking into the doors of Southeastern Guide Dogs. I had just turned 17, the minimum age to get a guide dog. I had about 12 degrees of vision and what was left was pretty darn perfect. I could see street lights, my reflection, and the 30 or so dogs running through the kennel fields. I watched, eyes wide, as my fellow classmates began to arrive. They used canes and sighted guides. They were mostly totals with no vision left. Several had been born blind due to complications of prematurity. One lost her sight in a suicide attempt. One man had my eye disease but seemed to have less vision than me.
What was I doing there?!
A few days in we were matched with our dogs and instantly I knew that Shay-Bay was supposed to be in my life. Even if she never guided me, her mere presence next to me gave me independence. Still. I wondered, am I blind enough for this?
Then the words I so desperately needed to hear were shared by the head of the school. “If your dog guides you across the street safely even just one time, we have done our jobs.”
They worked extra hard with Shay and I, mostly to stop me from compensating for her with the vision I had. We all knew that I was at my worst at night and that it was only a matter of time before I would have to rely on her skills all of the time. It was challenging to shift from straining to see every last little thing I could to trusting her to see for me.
Shay was my guide dog for 5 incredible years. During that time she helped me cross countless streets safely and she is one of the main reasons I was able to accept my vision loss and embrace the role that disability would play in my life.
The day Shay retired was horrible. We were walking across an intersection and she just stopped. She refused to go any further with her harness on and after I took it off the only direction she would go was home. She never worked again.
When it first happened I couldn’t deal with the thought of having another dog by my side. Doubts about if I was truly blind enough began to resurface.
I went a month or so facing the world on my own and little by little I lost the independence she had given me. My shoulders started to slump as I stared at the ground searching for obstacles. I stayed home where I felt safe instead of venturing out. I began to realize that I may not be blind enough, but I may not be sighted enough to go it alone.
A couple of months later O’Malley became my boy. He was totally different from Shay and we took a long time to connect. When we finally did, it was a crazy, beautiful bond. He didn’t love to work as much as Shay did but he was so good at his job and loved being a goofball out of harness.
He’s 8 now and is a silly puppy stuck inside an old man’s body and that old man body is starting to not want to work. For many months he’s hesitated getting into harness but has seemed ok once we got going. I think just getting to go with me was incentive enough to deal with working.
This week though, when I grab his harness he walks the other direction. My excited praise and bribery with treats has been completely ineffective in convincing him to work.
I’ve been reassured that while most guide dogs will work until they are 10 or 11, it’s not unusual for dogs that work in environments like ours to retire earlier. My hope is that our journey together is far from over and that this is just a hurdle we need to overcome… but I can’t help my mind from drifting to those very same questions I had 13 years ago.
I can still see stop lights, my reflection, and the gray taking over my old boy’s face. I can cross a street, navigate stairs, and find a friend in a crowd of strangers. There are many times when I leave O’Man at home or at my desk and enjoy the total independence I can still manage in certain environments. Those are the times that I feel like a fraud and wonder if I am blind enough.
Just because I can do these things without my guide dog doesn’t mean I should. There is always an incredible amount of risk and a healthy dose of anxiety. If a car doesn’t see me, or a friend loses track of me, if a tree limb is hanging down or a sidewalk is cracked, or If I venture too far out of my comfort zone I could easily get hurt. There are a lot of things that I can’t do alone… Like cross a major road in traffic, navigate a large airport, or walk the streets of a big city. I trip over wet floor signs on a weekly basis.
So if my boy is done with guiding, will I get another dog?
I can’t imagine that he’d be happy staying home all day every day like Shay is. I can’t imagine 2 retired guide dogs and one working dog in my house…or sharing my bed! I wonder what it would be like to not be stared at all of the time or to have the use of both hands at all times. I wonder if I will start to withdraw, to shrink. I wonder if I am blind enough.