“I hope to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.” Anonymous
The season of Autumn has arrived and my present Guide Dog, Autumn, certainly inspires with her physical beauty. But my full appreciation stems from the vastly more meaningful aspects she brings to my life. You might leap to the obvious aspects of her guide work and those are tremendously important to me but, like her predecessors, it is for the entire array of dog immersion for which I count myself truly fortunate. Each is a unique individual, creating and enhancing a mutually dependent relationship in which we support each other at varying levels, physically, mentally and emotionally.
Autumn is by far the most affectionate and joyous of the dogs in my adult life. She is sensitive to my every physical hurt, mental frustration, or emotional pain. She needs her steady daily diet, yes of food (and plenty if she has her way) and of exercise and attention. As such she will constantly request or when necessary, petulantly demand, the attention to any of those needs. In so doing, she is quite often providing me the distraction I need from whatever she may be sensing of my own challenges, offering me the distraction for my benefit rather than her own. She is not the most patient of pups and distraction is her second favorite (“oh look! a squirrel”) word; but she brings a great delight to my life even before the guide work begins.
I’ve tapped my way through many journeys with the slow, deliberate, high mental focus required of my blind cane. I’ve taken the elbow or shoulder (I’m rather tall after all) of many a friend to reach a host of destinations. I’m grateful for these options and there are times when each of them might be right for me. None of them provide the freedom, relaxation, independence, joy, and speed of working in tandem with my guide dogs. I am humbled by their willingness to dive a head through the harness and put their focus–most of it anyhow–to the task of following rules which keep me safe.
Better still, each of my guides has taken a fair bit of joy in problem solving through the various challenges I provide as we get to share time together experiencing the world. All too often, they need to be patient with me as I sort through their communication attempt to understand the challenge and join them in the resolution. All the while we are devoting hours of… well, devotion, to building our bond to levels hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced putting such symbiotic trust on the line with such frequency. It’s all the love and appreciation we might have felt towards our parents for their tending our safety and direction while we were so very much in need as youngsters, and yet with the wisdom of a few more years to appreciate it fully. Certainly our parents are likely putting a lot more thought behind the crafting of our future success, but I’m not convinced my dogs give me any less love as they help me navigate the risks of the world.
One secret risk they manage is the often overlooked social risk. As mentioned earlier, trips with my cane are not only slow and requiring more of my mental focus, they also often create a barrier with people around me. Many struggle to understand how to react when confronted with something new or different and my blind cane is frequently a stark intrusion into people’s comfort. They go silent, step away and react with visible signs of pity, concern, fear, or occasionally worse. While I don’t see these reactions, I can feel the results of them and my sighted companions have all too often shared with some surprise and dismay the reality of their observations. I honestly understand the challenge and hope through advocacy and education to alter these reactions steadily, but the best cure for these reactions has always been my guide dogs. The exact opposite reaction takes place when I work a guide dog into the same scenario. People warm to us, say hello or otherwise engage in generally positive ways. Before long the advocacy and education is happening in a comfortable fashion, as for many I am their first or at least a rare interaction with someone totally blind. Hopefully their expectations and perspective are changed going forward.
So as I wrap up this seasonal tour, I want to share an observation I’ve had about how much my dogs have represented not just decades of my life but seasons of my life. Modi was not a guide dog but a rescue from a shelter. He was my first dog as an adult and I think of him as the dog for my most youthful times, my spring. He taught me so much and helped me blossom as a partner in the dog handler world.
Ostend was my Golden Retriever Guide Dog and definitely the boy of summer. I was in the strongest summer years when he was with me, fully comfortable with my blindness and making strides of freedom and travel I had once thought impossible until his arrival. He taught me how to work with a Guide Dog, how to manage my blindness, and as my summer came to an end with the challenges of my health growing, he eased me past them and propelled me forward with all of his heart.
Quinn came next and I apparently leaped past fall into the winter because that boy taught me how to climb peaks and particularly shined in the winter snows of the White Mountains. Many think of winter as the darkest of times but for me, winter is a magical time with a rebirth of the year. I need the other seasons to offset the cold but I love the snow and the change it brings to our landscape. I had a rebirth from out of the wheelchair and into a future beyond my imagining before Quinn.
Finally, I return to my girl Autumn for her season. “Autumn teaches us the value in letting go” suggests an unknown author and I agree. I let much of my past go to stride forward with where these later stages in my life might take me. We have plenty more adventure left in us; the colors are vibrant and the crisp morning air just reminds me how much I feel alive and relish this life I live, all the better for the companions who walk beside me. Actually beside and slightly ahead, to guide me!