That I can move about independently in my rural Walla Walla County neighborhood with the help of my guide dog is owed to horrors of a long ago war and a young Tennessean who, like me, had been frustrated with his limited mobility due to blindness.
A Vanderbilt University student and son of a well-to-do family, Morris Frank in 1927 read an article in The Saturday Evening Post about a school in Switzerland where German shepherds were being trained to guide soldiers blinded during World War I.
In 1928 Frank boarded a ship and went to the school where, according to historical accounts, he trained for five weeks with Buddy, a female shepherd he would bring back with him to the United States.
Somewhat of a sensation as people watched Buddy guide Frank safely across noisy, busy city streets, the young man in his 20s would co-found The Seeing Eye, the first guide dog school in the United States.
Exactly what is it that a guide dog does for his owner?
Frank wrote about his first experiences with Buddy years later, saying: "(Buddy) moved forward into the ear-splitting clangor, stopped, backed up and started again. I lost all sense of direction and surrendered myself entirely to the dog. I shall never forget the next three minutes, ten-ton trucks rocketing past, cabs blowing their horns in our ears, drivers shouting at us ... When we finally got to the other side and I realized what a really magnificent job she had done, I leaned over and gave Buddy a great big hug and told her what a good, good girl she was."
Not only Frank's safety a major benefit, Buddy also served as a way he could meet people.
"Now strangers spoke freely to me," Frank wrote, in a history posted at www.tnhistoryforkids.org. "In the old days, at a streetcar stop, for
instance, I often envied two sighted persons, who obviously did not know each other, their ease in striking up a conversation ... They did not wish to be rude, leaving me out, but they just did not know how to go about bringing me in without referring to my blindness. With Buddy there, however, it was the easiest and most natural thing in the world for them to say, 'What a lovely dog you have!' "
Today there are a dozen guide dog training schools across the country, with Guide Dogs for the Blind among the best known. Its the school in Boring, Ore., where I got my first guide dog, Melita, a yellow Lab, and then my second and current guide, Randy, a black Lab. I know of two other people in Walla Walla who because of their guide dogs, freely walk the streets of our community.
German shepherds were the first dogs used to assist the blind, and though they are still used, Labrador and golden retrievers are now more common. Occasionally one will even find a poodle guiding a blind person because its coat doesn't trigger hair allergies as other dogs can.
Actually, I had wanted a shepherd because they have a look about them that demands respect from strangers. But due to their being prone to hip problems, plus being a little more likely to show some aggression towards strangers, the shepherd is no longer trained at Guide Dogs for the Blind.
Conversely, I think the main drawback with Labs is their large chocolate-drop eyes, like Randy's, that beg for attention. They seem to say,
"Look at me, aren't I beautiful; aren't you going to pet me?"
Guide dogs are trained for four to six months, during which time they are closely observed for physical or emotional problems. They are subjected to situations where they must know how to keep their partner safe. They are taught to alert the blind person of intersections, curbs, obstacles in their path, cracks in the cement or other such items that pose hazards for the blind.
The dogs are also taught to be ready for any emergency and to refuse to follow a command -- called "intelligent disobedience" --when the command unwittingly may place them in harm's way.
Only after the dog proves worthy will it be placed with a blind person. The pair will train for two to four weeks. Field trainers from the school also check up on the pair and give further training or help when needed.
People on the street can also help by remembering to not speak to or reach out to pet a guide dog; it is working to keep his partner safe and does not need distraction.
Many blind travel the world with the help of the long white cane and revel in the freedom the cane gives them. But the cane was not what I wanted. Still, before one can get a guide dog he must be able to travel safely using the cane. I used the cane for several years before making the decision to get a guide dog.
Although I really wanted a shepherd so fewer people might be tempted to distract her, I got my beautiful yellow Labrador, Melita, in May 2002. The working guide may vary greatly from dog to dog, and Melita was considered one of the best.
Almost from the beginning upon arriving home with her came freedom for me.
Before long I was walking three or more miles daily and never worrying about getting hurt.
Then came the morning when Melita was attacked by an aggressive, loose-running neighbor's dog as we walked down the road near my home west of College Place. The dog struck Melita and rolled her over, then stood snarling. I tore rib muscles as I held onto Melita's leash and spun around.
It was a blow to my independence; it took me several months to regain confidence to be free to once again walk alone with Melita. In all, I had Melita for only five years when she died from a sudden heart attack on Easter Sunday 2007 as she ran toward me.
My loss of eyesight occurred over several years, finally leaving me 12 years ago. But the day Melita died, her absence was like being struck again by blindness; suddenly I was alone in the dark.
When you get one of the top guide dogs to start with, it's hard to get another one to stand up to that mark. And I just didn't want to go through
it again emotionally. Like losing a very dear loved one, it took time for me to grieve Melita's passing.
People who didn't understand just said, "Get another dog; they are all the same." But these words were like a slap in the face, and only after months could I consider getting another guide dog. Thus, when I realized I needed another dog and got Randy I really had to remind myself that he was a different dog and one day might be every bit as great of a dog.
He's been a really good dog. On sidewalks he is very good, but he tends to treat the more rural roads where we walk as big sidewalks. I have to keep him on the side of the road, but he is super, very obedient.
And without him my enjoyment of life and the world around me would not be the same.
Ernie Jones, a registered nurse who retired due to vision loss, can be reached at 529-9252 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.