Dash and Me

by Andrew Potok
(Reprinted from Life magazine, July 1988)

An intense relationship has its ups and downs, as the author learned when he entrusted his blindness to a dog.

The good news is that you can fly along as fast as you ever did, as fast or faster than anyone else and you don't have to worry much about bumping into things. The bad news is, when you occasionally DO hit something you hit it really hard.

I am right-handed, right everything. That side of my body -- hand, arm, leg, even ear is better developed than the other. But it's all changing. My left hand, clutching a leash and harness, now is sensitive to every movement, every distraction, every thought that passes through the amazing mind of a dog. My body has been extended by some 36 sleek inches, terminating, at our very tip, with Dash's long, handsome black nose.

Once I relied on steel-toed boots to protect me from obstacles, and I was never surprised by a new test of my threshold of pain. Now my dog leads the way. My head is held high, my chest is thrust forward, and my old bruises are healing. But there are new aches and pains: shinsplints, a pulled groin muscle, something that feels like a shoulder separation, all because of our breakneck speed, as Dash and I fly through the world together.
Aerodynamically, we are the Concorde of the blind travelers' world.

Just as I have been extended in the formulation of a new, longer body, so has my dog's spatial awareness been extended to include the space that I fill, an extra two and a half feet of width to his right and some four feet above his head. For Dash is trained not only to take me around parking meters and fire hydrants, but also to arc around overhanging tree branches. I nearly wept the first time we moved together through a line at an airline ticket counter. A dog has no reason not to proceed straight under the velvet cordons, but Dash knew that now he carried extra baggage and that I, with all my human height, would have to follow the prescribed path.

When I first considered training with a guide dog, my wife, Charlotte, said that she was jealous.

"Jealous? Jealous of what?" I asked, amazed.

"That damn dog is going to take my place," she said. Well, one year later, I can't deny that there are grounds for jealousy. If you entered the privacy of my bedroom, you would see that Charlotte sleeps on my left, Dash on my right, though he is some two feet below us on his rug. There he is, present and listening to every whispered sweetness, perhaps watching everything too. At times during the night, when I haven't felt the nudge of his wet nose for a while, I will fish around for the feel of him, just to keep in touch.

But, alas, jealousy can run both ways. Dash is absolutely mad about Charlotte. Recently, when I caught him lying on the bed next to her, I yanked him off, then got down on all fours to lecture him, to point things out, to help him distinguish between our two worlds. "Hey," I said, "this rug is yours, the bed is mine. I won't sleep on your rug, you keep off the bed. I do tend to anthropomorphize, but I swear he accepted my words with a sigh. Repentant, he went to sleep on his imitation Navaho rug. The next day, after his early feeding, I was making two cups of coffee to take upstairs. Dash, as usual, bolted ahead of me to plant his morning kiss on Charlotte's sleeping face. By the time I arrived, I encountered an unbelievable scene: Dash, understanding very well that the rug was his domain, had dragged the thing up on the bed and was happily asleep next to Charlotte. Cause for jealousy? You bet. But what comfort to entrust one's life to a beast with a scheming mind like that.

My visual problem is retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited blight of the retina, the flimsy screen at the back of the eye that receives visual images from the world outside. The disease is relentlessly progressive, taking away vision in unpredictable increments. Just when I think I've finally adjusted to certain losses, back it comes again, bringing with it an even more diminished world and the nearly forgotten depressions and rages.

Last summer, when I began to crash into door jambs inside my house in Vermont and when the dirt road down to my office blurred into fragments of gray field on either side, I knew that the time to ask for help had come again. Like a fungus, I was becoming too accustomed to a lethargic dependence. I needed to shake things up, to start taking risks again. A bit frightened, I called The Seeing Eye, Inc., in Morristown, N.J.

Until then, I'd been an expert at denial. White canes were easy. They could be folded into briefcases, hidden inside long raincoats. If discovered, I could swear that they belonged to someone else. But a dog? My blind friend is sick. I am walking his dog." In harness? Now there could be no turning back. I was finally going public with my blindness.

On the plane to Newark I realize that the purpose of this journey is to meet, to bond with, a dog. I recall our sweet, departed mutt Charlie, and terror fills my heart. Am I really going to entrust my life to a beast from the same genus as Charlie? For 20,000 years of domestication, these pets, these mere pets, have slobbered and growled, snored and scratched by the heat of fireplaces, hardly fit to lead, to make decisions, to make no mistakes. In despair, I order a noontime martini from the flight attendants.

I unpack to the sound of howling, barking dogs outside my window. This mansion is spacious, even elegant, and scrubbed so clean that I can't imagine the presence of dogs here. The Seeing Eye was founded in 1929 and is supported today by an endowment of more than $60 million. On a manicured 55 acres in northwestern New Jersey, the institute operates a breeding station for Labrador retrievers and shepherds, kennels that house some 160 dogs in training or awaiting training, a converted mansion serving as a residence for 20 students and trainers, and offices for a staff of 90. About 230 blind people pass through here annually, each making a token payment of $150 for the first dog and $50 for each subsequent one. The Seeing Eye pays the students' round-trip fare from anywhere in the U.S. or Canada and covers the cost of the training, the dog and the students' room and board for a month.

By late afternoon all 16 of us are here -- six for our first dog; the rest, calling themselves retreads, are replacing retired or deceased dogs with new ones. Davis Duty, a judge from Arkansas, is here for his seventh! We novices listen breathlessly to the veterans' stories of total devotion in the face of flood, blizzard or locusts, stories of unbearable cuteness, uncanny intelligence.

Kris Verdi, small and wiry, is my instructor. "This morning, I will be your dog," she announces, handing me a leash, the other end of which, I suppose at first, she puts around her neck. "You're going to walk Juno, Mr. Potok," she tells me. We are all Miss, Mrs. and Mr. here, the formality a tradition since the early days of The Seeing Eye when, we are told, blind people often felt like worthless outcasts.

"Juno, heel," I tell Verdi tentatively, then, "Good dog," hoping that no one is watching.

We climb into a van and drive into the streets of Morristown. Verdi teaches me to correct her errant behavior with a sharp yank of the leash. I do it, hoping that I have not decapitated her. (Later I learn she is holding the leash and harness in her hand.) "Harder, Mr. Potok," she says, I hardly felt that." As she stops at curbs I offer the prescribed "attagirls" and "good dogs." On a long straightaway on Maple Street, we are both running.

"Can you take this pace?"

"Easy," I tell her. This walk and a long questionnaire, answered some months before, will determine the match of individual dog to individual student.

The day's wait for a dog seems interminable. My new friend Jo Taliaferro, a Presbyterian minister nicknamed The Rev and here for her third dog, whispers that she will die if she doesn't get a shepherd. "You can take a shepherd out to a good restaurant," she says. "I love those stand-up ears, that sleek nose. A Lab is a leisure dog."

The room where we are all gathered feels electric. Kris Verdi jokes about a cane-burning ceremony, then begins to read from a list. "Miss Taliaferro, your dog's name is Cocoa, a female chocolate Labrador retriever." Jo holds back her tears. "Mr. Duty, your dog is Eddie, a male shepherd, black and tan. Mr. Potok," she continues, "your dog's name is Dash, a black male shepherd with a little bit of tan."

Each of us is called in separately to meet his dog. I shake as I take the leash of my new partner. "Dash," I say, patting his broad head. He turns toward Kris as if to ask: "What do you want me to do with this idiot?"

As I tell my new dog what an interesting person I am, I am paralyzed by the realization that he and I will be together, inseparable, for some 10 years. I am overcome by the desire to call it all off, to run.

Later at dinner, the 16 of us, our knives and forks clattering politely on porcelain plates, carry on a genteel, yet cheerful conversation, while under the tables lie 16 very quiet, confused dogs.

Seeing Eye dogs do not urinate or defecate. They "park." After the dogs eat, and also at 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m., our instructors shout down the hallways, "Park time." We rush to give our dogs bowls of water and go down the stairs to the broad asphalt terrace known as The Park. Here each of us stands in an appointed spot with our dogs circling on long leashes around us, sniffing the ground, getting into the mood to park.

"Mr. Potok, Dash is doing a two," Verdi shouts from the sidelines. Our three instructors have shovels at the ready.

"Cocoa did a one," cries Jo proudly, already beginning to love her Lab.

With the possible exception of when my children were babies, I have never been so intimately in touch with every morsel that enters and exits a body. Whatever Dash's extraordinary exploits of body or mind, they are fueled by four cups daily of Purina Field 'n Farm, plus several bowls of water. I feel guilty about his meager daily fare. No more deserving than he, I require herring fillets and chilled Stolichnaya, just for starters. When my partner licks my fingers for the pungent trace of Camembert which, unless he has even more resources than I can imagine, he will never snack on I am a little embarrassed. At the age of two months, the Labrador and German shepherd puppies bred here are given to 4-H families in the area. Over the course of a year the dogs are housebroken and loved, and learn basic obedience. They are returned to The Seeing Eye for four months of intensive training, including three to four weeks with their new masters. The crucial activity of stopping at every up curb and down curb is repeated over and over again -- the basis of the dog's function, the fundamental safety procedure. The animals learn the "left," "right" and "forward" commands and are praised for everything done correctly. The dog must also have the intelligence to disobey the master's mistaken command. "Even sighted people can be distracted and cross a street into traffic," we are told.

On the busy sidewalks of Morristown, I gape through my mud-splattered bits of vision, unable to see enough to check on Dash as he races toward the curb. I want desperately to trust him, but my inclination is to put my free hand in front of my face in case we walk into a tree. Kris Verdi, always a few steps behind me, says, "Relax, Mr. Potok. You're tight as a drum." Exercising all my will, I give myself up to my dog. It's like jumping from an airplane, praying the parachute will open.

Dash and I fly down the sidewalk. My hand still darts to my face as I feel trees breeze by us. And then, like cartoon characters, we come to a screeching halt at the curb. "Lots of praise, Mr. Potok," Kris advises. "Dash is doing a terrific job." I want to get on my hands and knees, to kiss him all over, but instead I give him a dignified, "Attaboy, Dash." I listen hard for the direction of the traffic. "Dash, forward," I tell my partner tentatively, and we speed across the street without incident.

"It's a Zen experience," says Don Steelman, a Texas attorney who is here for his fourth dog. Zen it may sometimes be, but there are also moments of panic and pain. When Dash smacks me head-on into a parking meter, I am furious, indignant, as well as bloodied. As hard as it has been for most of us to exercise leash corrections properly, not wanting to hurt our precious dogs, I now wish that my left arm were made of steel. I want to hurt him. "How could you do this to me?" I scream. "Do you call this bonding, you miserable cur?"

"Good correction, Mr. Potok," Kris says quietly.

Five blocks later, as Dash stops neatly at a curb, my praise sounds thin and phony. I am still furious. "Dash has no idea why you're still angry, Mr. Potok," Verdi tells me. "You must learn to forget your anger right after you correct." I think of the misery she might have prevented in my life among humans if she had always been around to instruct me.

Hurtling along South Street, Dash comes to a stop at a car blocking the sidewalk. "Hup, up," I tell him, in this case meaning, "Find your way carefully past this obstacle." Slowly, he begins to take me around the rear of the car. Suddenly he jerks me backward, his body taut and watchful. Behind me, Verdi, like a proud mother, tells me what had just happened. Apparently a plume of exhaust in his face warned my wonderful dog that the car was about to back up.

Kris Verdi parks the van, and we're off into the streets of New York City, her idea of hell. "Go anywhere you like, Mr. Potok," she says with apparent distaste. "It's your city."

Having grown up in New York, I know my way around. Especially since I've become blind, I take a certain pride in my awareness of place. Perversely, Dash and I lead Kris east on 42nd Street, trash blowing in our faces. We turn up Sixth Avenue, and on the comer of 49th, as we wait for the light to change, a voice from across the street shouts at me: "Hey, fella, you can cross now." Unsuspecting, I say, "Forward." But Dash doesn't respond. "Hup, up," I say uncertainly. With his large pointed ears moving like radar, my dog stands motionless. Finally I realize that the unsolicited advice comes from a maniac whose satisfaction would have been complete had we been flattened by a truck. Trembling, I turn to Verdi. She too is shaken. "No big surprise to me," she stammers.

Dash threads our way through crowds, through the dark labyrinths of scaffolding, through two floors of Bloomingdale's, alongside the horses and pigeons of Central Park South. Twice on Seventh Avenue we are yelled at, called every name in the book. I'm not sure why some people react so angrily. Perhaps Dash looks too much like a police dog, or perhaps blind people are a safe repository of uncontrolled hatred. Still, it takes my breath away.

Our month, as tough and disciplined as basic training, is over. It's time to get on with it, to see if all this works in the real world, the world without instructors trailing us, the world of crowded subways, territorial dogs and drunk drivers.

The trainers take their charges back to Newark Airport. Kris calls me Andy for the first time. We hug in saying goodbye, and I feel a tear on her cheek. As much as we have liked each other, the tears are for Dash, once her dog, now mine.

The Seeing Eye has sent a letter to my family advising on proper homecoming behavior: Keep emotions down on arrival, greet the dog quietly, do not follow the team down the street to see how man and dog work. This is enough to arouse the curiosity of three of my children and several friends. The first night home, we are 14 at dinner. I try to manage Dash's confusion, taking him upstairs from time to time where the two of us can be alone. Charlotte says it's as if I were the mom bringing the baby home from the hospital and she the father, more observer than participant, allowed to smile from a distance. If so, I'm like a first-time mom, anxious about making a wrong move.

We begin to establish our daily routine, down the hill to my office in the morning, back home at night. I have not walked alone in the dark since I was a child. But then this doesn't feel like walking -- it's flying, flying through space, the winter stars breezing by.

Problems arise. I find I tend to let Dash get away with minor infractions, such as a semiprotective growl or two, or a turning of his head to check whether Charlotte is still walking with us. At a small local restaurant, I'm having too nice a time to notice that my guide dog has wandered over to the next table, just to be friendly. After three months my permissiveness has created an intractable situation. Dash is now easily distracted, restless, on edge. In two weeks I am supposed to fly to the West Coast to lecture on writing. I'm not sure I want to go.

We make a trial run to Cambridge, Mass., where the sidewalks are piled high with snow or slick with ice. On the stretches of clear pavement, Dash is frenetic and runs curbs, putting us both at great risk. In a coffee shop, he barks from under the table, and as I try to correct him, shaking his head by the scruff, clamping my hands around his muzzle, Charlotte says that everyone in the place is glaring at me. To complete the unpleasantness of these few days, someone smashes our car windows during the night.

"He's still a puppy," Charlotte says as we are driving back to Vermont early the next morning. "Be patient."

My anger won't go away. "He's useless," I snarl, though Kris Verdi's words -- "Dash doesn't know why you're still angry" -- resound in my ears. But I don't know where to put all this feeling. I can't bear the fact that Dash and I are not a perfect team, amazing to watch, the envy of all.

I call The Seeing Eye and they, in their wisdom and goodness, propose sending a trainer to fix things before my Oregon trip. I am relieved but then gripped with fear that they will take Dash away. The deus ex machina from Morristown is named Peggy Gibbon. We go out to eat, restaurants being the scene of some of Dash's more egregious offenses: barking, growling, pulling me into tables. But in the streets of Montpelier and Burlington, with Peggy shadowing our every move, he performs faultlessly. Dash and I do best when we are watched and graded, soothed by instruction. Perceiving my dog through Gibbon's eyes, I realize that Dash is taking on my nervousness, my anxieties. Though I do the worrying, we both pace about, too impatient and overwrought to take things one step at a time. "He's a terrific dog," she informs me, "but he's still a puppy. Keep working hard with him. Be consistent and patient."

Her reinforcement is like an elixir, though I am close to losing my determination to struggle, to keep it all together. "I'm so tired," I tell Charlotte after Gibbon's departure. "Just managing my blindness, keeping oriented, aware, upright, saps all my energy."

We have a perfect flight to the West Coast. Dash is neatly tucked away in front of me. Not only is no one near us allergic to dogs, but his cuteness gets me free drinks.

In Portland we are asked to appear on a morning TV show. To my horror, the studio is full of cats -- cats and the trainers who cleverly teach them to eat their Friskies on camera. It's a soap opera version of the Peaceable Kingdom. Yet in the midst of this idiocy, Dash somehow keeps his cool. I am told that he looks beautiful on the screen, but I know that he's thinking what I'm thinking: "If this is the real world, I want out."

At the city library, my first lecture goes well, though Dash is not thrilled to share the stage with me. He is unable to resist his impulse to pace or grumble his displeasure. To him, the applause that follows my talk must be like a rising cloud of pigeons, for he stiffens, glares, seems ready to pounce.

The next day at Reed College, our partnership becomes unglued. The campus is a bouillabaisse of dogs into which Dash pulls me, barking as he goes. Inside the chapel, our audience includes not only students and faculty but also a contingent of blind people with dogs. Dash is inconsolable. During my entire lecture, this member of the dog elite paces behind me, moaning and groaning steadily. I try to cover up for my unruly beast, though I feel like a mother at the end of her rope, clothes splattered with food, the glint of madness in her eyes, excusing her screaming brat on grounds of exhaustion.

Recuperating in Vermont, I get a phone call from Debbie Purtee, a fellow student from The Seeing Eye. She too is feeling desperate. Brownie, her Lab, cannot stop sniffing. "It's not only garbage cans, Andy," Debbie says, "its everything. We're walking down the street, and she goes after strangers. She pulls me to lampposts, you name it."  I begin to tell her of my woes with Dash. "I haven't told you half of it," Debbie continues. "Brownie can't control her bowels either. I'm so embarrassed." She sounds close to tears.

What a relief to my aching soul to know that I am not alone. Every one of us must be having problems, I conclude. After all, they did tell us that it would take months, maybe more, to form a good working unit. I call the Arkansas law offices of Davis Duty, the dog veteran who was the envy of us all. "Listen to this, Andy," Davis says. "The other day Eddie and I did our 'shoot the dog trick before a class of sixth graders, and let me tell you, he died with real verve."

In the spring our friend Noma gives Charlotte and me her elegant New York apartment for a month, "You and Dash can practice working in the city," Noma suggests. We drive to the city, my computer equipment, with its huge screen, its enlarging components, speech synthesizer, all taking up most of the car space. Dash barely fits between the printer and a box of books.

"Aren't you worried about Dash wrecking the place?" I had asked Noma.

"It's all right," she had assured me, "there's nothing to wreck."

One evening I decide to leave Dash at home while we visit friends, but the moment Charlotte and I are on the sidewalk, I begin to worry.

"What can happen?" Charlotte says. "Relax."

"Relax? Are you crazy? We should go back," I snap as a taxi stops in front of us. I'm angry for a thousand reasons, one of them being that, without my dog, I am totally dependent on my wife.

At our friends' house, I am preoccupied, fretting about my dog's undeserved abandonment, his undoubted vengeful fury. My mind's eye begins to focus on the precious objects in the apartment: the archaic Greek warrior's mask on the mantel, the Magritte bottle, the Egyptian funerary barge on the dining table, the Giacometti lamp. As soon after dinner as we can extricate ourselves, I whisk Charlotte away. In the cab, I begin to assess the possible damage, adding up my debt by increments of tens of thousands of dollars. But inside the apartment, as Dash pirouettes around us with the sheer joy of seeing us again, everything seems to be intact, everything except the guest room, which is piled high with heaps of a fibrous material. It turns out to be the underpad of the beautiful silk rug on its floor. Interpreter of my dog's language, I understand his message clearly: "This time it's this worthless old rag, but leave me alone again and the Spanish Renaissance bedstead is toothpicks."

It is time to try the subway. I walk out of the building, head a few blocks east. Dash stops at every curb. "How does he know when to cross? Can he see the lights?" I am asked by strangers. "I have to listen to traffic," I tell them. "I determine when it's safe to go."

Dash stops at the top of the stairs leading down into the station. I instruct him to proceed. We make our way in the direction of the token booth, needing help to locate the window, though I can make out the pattern of the shiny tops of the turnstiles. I feel around for the slot, drop my token in and cajole my dog through the barrier. Once on the platform, I have Dash sit while we await our train. I feel good to have made it this far, but I am also in a sweat, knowing I can't make any wrong moves, nothing in the direction of the tracks.

When the train rumbles into the station, Dash takes me to the opening door, pulls me inside, brushing me against a sea of exiting passengers. As we begin to move, a young woman helps me to a seat. Dash takes the opportunity to sprawl on the gritty floor, occupying, it seems to me, all the available space end to end. I try to pull him up but, totally relaxed, he won't budge. I stand, pulling him upright, but with a weary sigh he falls to the floor like a bag of potatoes.

At Astor Place, I'm thrilled to get off and be led toward daylight.

I ask directions to Tower Records. A man with a heavy New York accent points this way and that. "I'm blind," I tell him. "Hey, fella, I'm sorry," he says and continues giving me directions with his hands.

Inside the store, we are escorted to the chamber music section; the items on my list are plucked from the shelves. We leave with tapes in a shopping bag, the simplest of occurrences in the normal world but to me a glorious victory.

Dash and I meander uptown. In Union Square Park, a toddler stands in his path, and Dash, a sucker for kids, goes straight for him and licks his face. "Leash correct him now," I hear Kris Verdi warn inside my head, but I can't do it. I delight in the knowledge that my beast, terrifying to some on the street, is recognized by the children of the world as a pushover. We walk to 34th Street, get back on the subway uptown. Near home I find a wine shop, where I buy a bottle of Taittinger to commemorate this triumph with Charlotte.

All three of us are happy to return to Vermont. Dash goes around the house smelling everything. He tears through the upstairs rooms, bouncing off the walls like a maniac. Out of breath, he settles down on his rug, where I offer him the rawhide bone I have saved for his homecoming. Late that night I sit in the living room, listening to a Mozart trio, Dash sprawled across my feet.

Because of him I have tasted real freedom. I bend to touch him, loving the feel of his elegant long nose. He takes my hand in his mouth, chewing on it playfully, making singing puppy noises. I strain to see his eyes. I want to communicate my love in words, not just through inflection and play. Why can't he understand words if he's so damn smart? I want to talk of my gratitude for what he's already given me, all he has yet to give. I want to tell him how sorry I am that he won't ever be allowed to play with the dogs in the park, chase cats or sniff lampposts. Neutered, he won't woo bitches, nor will I let him exercise his territorial aggressiveness, all a distraction from his work, our safety. Because he is so precious and essential to my life, I can never let him run free.

Dash changes his position at my feet. "Enough of this," he seems to say, and I realize that I even love his aloofness. Every day we seem to know more and more about each other, more ways to make each other happy. We will keep learning, for we have a whole life ahead of us and a lot of work to get done.

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