The Most Trustworthy Dogs
Iris told me that Audie loves going to the theater. She lies under Iris's seat in the front row. "If she likes the performance, she watches it, my husband says. If she's bored, she sleeps." Which was a striking thing to hear, since one of my short stories begins with a married couple watching the guide dog in the row ahead of them watch a ballet (in the story, the guide dog whimpers, and the husband asks if he can hear sounds we can't; the wife says no, he was disappointed in the choreography).
Iris does not bring Audie to ceramics class—she doesn't want her exposed to the clay dust. A woman there fires Iris's pieces; then Iris paints them by covering the area she doesn't want colored with masking tape. "Though today I missed the jar and painted the table," she says with a laugh.
Before she had a guide dog, Iris had night terrors. She dreamed she was outside alone and lost. But after Pashley and Audie, Iris's night terrors subsided. "The fact is the dog is always with you, no questions asked, no reward necessary," Iris said. And as a friend pointed out to me, dogs have no ulterior motives! The trust goes both ways. When the vet cuts Audie's nails, "I massage a finger between her paw pads and sing 'Pretty girl' to her," Iris says.
One other place Iris could not bring Audie was to Dining in the Dark, a charity event for an organization for the blind in Florida that is held in a banquet room where sighted people dine with blind people in total darkness to better understand what it's like for them. Participants are shown to their seats by a blind person. Dogs are discouraged from attending because three hours of total darkness would be hard on their eyes.
Guiding Eyes for the Blind has a Whelping Kennel, part of its Canine Development Center in Patterson, New York. Here, the carefully monitored broods deliver their litters. Newborns are placed on a scale along with a 2-pound weight—otherwise the scale won't register so few ounces. The women who work there gently massage the puppies from the day they are born so the pups will be used to handling from the start. They are cared for and played with, instructed and loved. After eight weeks, they go to puppy raisers, volunteers who train them at home before giving them up for the important work they will learn to do. The dogs who pass a qualifying exam work for four months with trainers, developing advanced skills that include what Andrea Martine, an instructor with GEB's Special Needs Program, describes as "clearance work, targeting, and landmarking. The dogs have a natural 'veer' when they walk, but are trained to walk in the center of a sidewalk and continue in a straight line until there is an obstacle. They must learn to walk around an obstacle so that both they and their partner clear it. They're trained to stop at any change in elevation, such as a curb, or, more subtly, a ramp. They learn to target stairs, doors, escalators, even elevator buttons—a dog will stop with his head just beneath a door handle so his partner can find it easily."
Landmarking, she explains, is when a dog learns to recognize a spot that is not well marked, such as a bus stop in midblock. Another remarkable thing the dogs are taught, Andrea says, is "intelligent disobedience." For example, if their partner doesn't hear that hybrid car making a right on the red, the dog must be able to "override the command to move forward." During the fifth month, the men and women who will get the dogs come to live at the school and work every day with the dog and trainer. Day by day, they learn to handle and trust their dogs, just as the dogs learned to trust the devoted raisers and trainers who worked with them from birth.