by Sue Wiygul Martin
I breathe deeply of the cool air as I step out of the door for an evening walk. I call Quoddy, who has slipped out of the door ahead of me, and she runs to my side. She gives her harness a shake of anticipation as I snap the leash on her collar. Picking up the harness handle, I command, "Quoddy, forward." She sets off across the yard, hesitating while I open the gate.
Out on the road, we stride forward at a brisk pace. The wind blows through the trees on both sides of the small road bringing the leaves down all around us. The cool air, the combined smell of fallen leaves, the fir trees, and something mossy all speak of the change of the seasons. Quoddy moves to the left and I move smoothly with her. Presuming she has taken me around one of the many potholes that dot the road I say, "That's a good girl." Her tail hits my leg as she wags it in response to my enthusiastic praise. We're both in high spirits as we move down the road in perfect harmony.
Quoddy is a three year old German Shepherd. She was trained at The Seeing Eye in Morristown, NJ. Quoddy has been my partner since January of 1989. Quoddy entered her training in October of 1988 and was matched with me the following January. Students are given their dogs a day and a half after arrival at the school in Morristown for the four weeks of training. The instructors spend the first day and a half assessing the needs and abilities of his or her six students and then match each with the dog most appropriate for them.
The next morning we harness up and head off to a quiet residential neighborhood to begin our adjustment to our new partners. Many people describe their first walk with their dog with phrases like, "I was being tugged along at a great speed" or "It seemed that I was pounding the pavement". For me, it was like flying. I thrilled to feel the pull on the harness and the movements of the animal as she guided me down the sidewalk.
During the training period, there are a number of prescribed routes which must be memorized and "soloed". After that, each student is asked to choose the kind of environment which they feel will most closely approximates the environment in which they will be working their dogs when they get home. Whenever possible, I chose to go on a trail in the woods. Along with guiding me on the busy streets of Bangor, Quoddy has guided me over many miles of rough trails during the hikes that my husband, Jim, and I take.
Jim says that with Quoddy guiding me it frees him from the stress of worrying about where I am going as well as where he's putting his own feet. On wide trails, Quoddy sometimes finds easier ways to go than Jim does. The best part, though, is that we can switch off leading the way. Jim leads sometimes, but with Quoddy, I can go ahead with confidence, even on the roughest trail. Quoddy walks pretty fast. When we really get going on a trail I find that I concentrate intently on the dog's movements. I can pick up even the smallest nuance of change in her stride. Reaching the top or bottom of some rough mountain trail gives me a tremendous feeling of confidence and freedom.
When Quoddy guides me in the woods it's a little different from her work in town. Many folks seem to think that I can tell Quoddy, "Go to the bank" and off we go to the bank. In reality I have to know where we're going and how to get there. Quoddy's job is simply to follow my commands and guide me around obstacles. She is trained to obey my commands of "Forward", "Left" and "Right". These verbal commands are accompanied by a hand signal. Quoddy stops at curbs, stairways, and obstacles which are too low for me to pass beneath. She does some pretty amazing things but it's not magic. It's a miracle of love and trust that is unlike anything else I've ever experienced. Quoddy works for me partly because she is trained to do so. She works for me mostly because she loves me and I love and trust her.
Perhaps the best way to describe what it's like to live and work with a guide dog is to describe several incidents which have occurred with Quoddy. I am a rehabilitation teacher. I work with folks who are blind or visually impaired teaching them the skills they need to live as independently as they like. I work with people in their homes so my work takes me to lots of new places. Today I met with a man who lives in an apartment building in which I had never been. The closest my driver could get was on the opposite side of the street from the building. She described the entrance for me and I set off. I positioned myself so that I would be prepared to cross the street when it was clear. Just then three large trucks were coming down the street towards us. Of course I wasn't going to move but Quoddy didn't know that. She crossed in front of me and leaned back against my legs so that I couldn't have moved forward if I had wanted to. Skeptics might say that she was just moving away from the big truck herself and that may be true. But there have been other times when she has crossed in front of me and forced me to back up when I misjudged traffic or a car unexpectedly turned in front of me.
When I completed my meeting with my client in his apartment I came back downstairs. Quoddy led me right to the door and we exited. There was a landing just outside the door and then a flight of steps down to the street. The flight of stairs was only half as wide as the landing but I didn't know that. As I exited the building I was on the side of the landing without the stairs. I thought I knew that the steps were right ahead of me but Quoddy obviously knew better. I briefly wondered what she was doing as she led me a little to the right. If there is one thing I learned in training it was to follow my dog. I did and we went smoothly down the stairs and over to the curb. Again, Quoddy stopped. After listening to make sure it was safe to cross I commanded, "Quoddy, forward" and she took me neatly to the car. After lots of praise and tail wagging and harness shaking Quoddy jumped in the car and we were off to the next appointment.
Last winter we were walking down a sidewalk and Quoddy stopped. I knew it couldn't be the end of the block and I puzzled over her action. I reached out with my right foot but felt no drop off or obstacle. I thought about it a minute and decided she must be goofing off. "Forward" I commanded. She stood where she was. Finally I reached out with my hand to see if I could discover what was in front of me. My hand encountered a wide strip of tape. It was a barricade. I knelt in the snow and hugged Quoddy telling her she was a very good girl. I stood then and gave her the "Hup up" command with a questioning tone in my voice. Usually "Hup up" means get going. When it is said with a questioning tone it means, "I don't know which way to go so you decide". Quoddy took me to the left around the blockaded area. I learned later that the sidewalk was blocked because of falling ice.
Quoddy's work out on a trail is a bit different from her work in town. She has gradually learned the objects she needs to stop for or guide me around. In town she stops for every drop off. On a trail this is impossible. She stops for fallen trees or sizeable ledges. Aside from that she just slows down for rough places or big rocks and waits for me to figure out what she's trying to show me. I wear sturdy boots which come well over my ankles. I also wear glasses to protect my face from branches. Although Quoddy stops for overhanging obstacles in town that would be impractical on most wooded trails. I think the biggest problem when I hike with Quoddy is that the environment is so distracting to her. There are lots of unusual things to be investigated and her nose goes a mile a minute. This would be a correctable offence when in town but I've learned that if I let her do a little sniffing when we first start out she soon settles into her work. Of course there are times when Quoddy goofs. For example, she might fail to stop at an up curb with the result that I kick the curb and stumble. When this happens I say "Phooey" while I give a short snap backward on the leash. The "Phooey" is said, not necessarily loudly, but with a great deal of venom. Quoddy is a very tractable dog and often all it takes is a verbal correction. Whatever the case, after the correction has been made, I always take her back to the scene of the crime and let her try it again. As soon as she does it correctly I praise her and we go on our way.
There are many off duty hours in which Quoddy endears herself to me just as much as she does when she is working. She is very devoted and wants to know where I am at all times. During the first summer after Quoddy joined the family Jim and I decided to go swimming in a nearby lake. As Quoddy is a shepherd, not a water dog, I assumed she wouldn't be interested in going swimming. Accordingly I asked her to rest in the shade of a tree. Jim and I waded out into the water. Everything was fine until I dove in. As soon as I disappeared Quoddy came to "save" me.
I've gotten Quoddy a lacrosse ball. It's quite heavy and seems to be the only indestructible ball on the market. It sounds like a small bomb when it hits the floor. When guests arrive at our home Quoddy immediately begins dropping her ball perilously close to their toes. Jim was away for a three-day conference last week. Evidently Quoddy felt he had been gone entirely too long and should be treated as a guest. As soon as he walked in the door "Thunk" went the ball on his toes. What a reception!
Last winter Jim and I started out for a leisurely walk in the woods. It was nothing strenuous, just a little stroll. About twenty feet down the trail Quoddy failed to stop for a fallen tree. My shin cracked painfully against it. I was shocked. It was the most glaring mistake Quoddy had ever made. Besides that it hurt. I "Phooied" her and took her back to show her the error of her ways. I put her at sit before the tree and leaned over to slap it with my hand and make sure she knew what she had done. She pinned back her ears, stretched out her neck and ran her tongue across my face from chin to ear. I collapsed to the ground in laughter. The little minx knew just what to do to distract me. It seemed she was saying, "Oh, it wasn't that bad; I'll do better next time".
I'm sure there must be some draw backs to having a guide dog but they escape me at the moment. I've never regretted getting a dog. She's become a part of me. I feel somehow incomplete if she is not at my side. Since I became blind I've had to learn adaptive ways to do many things. I write with this computer that talks to me and I do lots of things by touch that I used to do visually. Usually I use whatever device or technique works without making any value judgement about the device itself. But Quoddy is good. She is very good.
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