I have counted on time to restore my equilibrium when trust has been betrayed. And I have also relied on dogs, creatures that have never been the source of misplaced trust. I often think of the people who rely on dogs for a lot more than I do. Among the photographs on my desk is a framed drawing of a dog's face, a young Labrador retriever, and it was done by a blind woman, drawn by stroking the dog's face and ears and translating: hand to mind to paper. The dog in the drawing is one of my dog's puppies. I held her in my hands when she was 1 day old. Now this puppy is Iris Grant's guide dog.
Iris lost her sight 15 years ago at the age of 50 because of human error. She went into the hospital for back surgery, a fusion of the C1 and C2 vertebrae. During the surgery she was moved, and her head slipped off the neck rest; she lay with her face pressed into the operating table. After the operation she did not feel "right." What she was feeling was the death of her optic nerves.
Iris was an artist before she lost her sight. She is still a working artist, making jewelry, ceramics, beadwork. I met her when she graduated with her dog, Audie, from the Guiding Eyes for the Blind training school in Yorktown Heights, New York. I have volunteered at GEB—as a puppy raiser, pre-trainer, home socializer, and brood foster—for 12 years. I went to many graduations where I observed the profound relationship between the dogs and the men and women who received them, the blind people whose lives would be changed by them in a partnership founded on trust of the first order. Not long ago, I tracked down four people who were given my dog Wanita's "A-litter" puppies—they all got names that begin with the letter A. I named Audie after a dog I adored who disappeared from my yard years ago.
"I was used to a dog checking up on me," Iris told me, "but not a Velcro dog. She sticks to me, she is with me all the time. The only place she doesn't go is in the shower, though she's mesmerized by water—the shower, fountains, and she loves to sit poolside and watch geckos and geese."
Right after Iris got Audie, she and her husband moved from Michigan to West Palm Beach, Florida, just in time for Tropical Storm Fay. "Audie got drenched for three days—we took her to a shopping mall so she could exercise in a dry place," said Iris.
The second thing that happened was that Iris's first guide dog, Pashley, partially paralyzed and going blind, had to be put down. "When Pashley was dying, Audie licked my tears," Iris said. "If I hadn't had Audie..." she said, not needing to say more.
Iris said she trusted her new guide dog almost immediately. "I took her outside at night to 'get busy,' and suddenly she did a quarter-turn and gave a bark to alert me that someone was there. It was only my neighbor," Iris said, "but Audie had done what she was supposed to do."
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.
"I have what is called Usher Syndrome," Darran Zenger told me via e-mail from his home outside Salt Lake City. "It's retinitis pigmentosa and deafness. RP is progressive. I was born with night blindness, but I had some hearing. The RP remained stable for much of my childhood growing up in Oregon. I was able to drive up until eight years ago—during the day only. It was just in the past several years, when the RP advanced, that I decided it was time for a guide dog. Archer is my very first guide."
Darran currently plays Mr. Mom to his three children (ages 9, 7, and 2) while his wife of 11 years completes pharmacy school. Then he plans to take his degree in psychology and begin graduate work either in education or counseling psychology. His ability to use a CCTV (closed-circuit TV) will let him keep up with his reading, and he is also relearning Braille.
"The city has a lot of trails throughout the area where I take Archer on walks—or where Archer takes me on walks. I am able to move at a decent pace now without worrying about my cane hitting a crack in the sidewalk and jabbing me. He is quite an intelligent animal and takes a lot of stress off my wife and children too."
Darran spoke of the day matches were announced at Guiding Eyes. "The wait in our rooms while the trainers went to hand out the dogs seemed like eternity. When Archer showed up, he was very excited and gave me a wet bath! We played for several hours to get to know each other. Later that evening, I was just overwhelmed with joy. Absolute trust came when we did the night walk a week later. I'm nearly completely blind at night. I have been used to looking down at where I walk instead of looking straight ahead, so it took a few days to break that habit and let Archer guide me."
Sandra Furtado and Avalon work in the radiology department of a hospital in Fall River, Massachusetts. Sandra was a darkroom technician for 20 years, until the hospital went to daylight processing, which knocked her out of the job. Now she answers phones for eight radiologists and does errands with the beautiful yellow Lab I named for the haunting song by Bryan Ferry.
Sandra was born without tear ducts; as a result glaucoma set in. After surgery, she was able to read and go to public school. In her sophomore year of high school, she started to lose her sight; she lost it all at 23. She learned how to cook by trial and error, developed a system of folding money to identify denominations, and taught herself how to wash a floor, gauging by the feel of it which parts were done and which were not.
In 1978, Sandra stepped off a bus on her way to work. She gave her guide dog the command "Forward," and they started across the street seconds before a teacher late for work came speeding through the pedestrian crosswalk and cut them off. The car hit Sandra. The first things she told me about this accident that kept her out of work for three months? "It wasn't the dog's fault," and "Thank God I let go of the dog."
Sandra feels it takes her longer to trust a dog because of the accident, even though she knows it was not the dog's fault. Today she applauds Avalon's guide work and "excellent memory"—"the second time, she's got it." She says that Avalon is very sound, a good match. "I can also trust her when I leave her—I can come home to a house that is not torn apart."
When there is an obstacle in Sandra's path, the dog stops her. She then tells Avalon to "hup up" and the dog brings her slowly toward the object so she can identify it. This, too, helps her feel secure. "I don't worry going to an unfamiliar area with her." Which is clear in Sandra's practice of taking different routes home from work. "I take the bus halfway and walk the rest of it. One day I got off the bus and heard jackhammers up ahead. But I went up to the intersection; I stayed there until a supervisor told them to stop and said, 'You can cross.' I didn't know if there were holes in the street, but I knew Avalon would do her job."
Brian Moore, who works for a computer company in Toronto, also got one of the A-litter. Five months after he received his guide, Arizona, the dog walked him down the aisle of a church at his wedding. Brian's fiancée's guide dog, Rory, walked her down the aisle. Living with two guide dogs requires one accommodation, Brian told me—he and his wife, Melanie, need to let the dogs take turns guiding. "They're a bit competitive," Brian said. "Arizona wants to lead all the time." The 70-pound guide dog often flies with Brian on business, sleeping at his feet on the plane. And he accompanied Brian to the musical We Will Rock You. "Had I known it would be that loud, I wouldn't have brought him," Brian said. "But he was fine." In October, Brian and Arizona will participate in the annual Guiding Eyes Walkathon in New York to raise money for the guide dog training school. It will be Arizona's first time, Brian's seventh.
I asked Sandra Furtado how she and Avalon unwind after a day at the hospital. "At the beginning, I'd find one of her toys and say, 'You performed an autopsy on this one too.' Now she actually plays with them. I bought her a toy with legs and red horns. I say, 'Go get the devil!' and when she brings it, I tap her on the nose and sing 'Devil with a Red Dress On.'"
I was happy to hear that these noble dogs get time to be silly. Their mother, my Wanita, is deeply silly. For Halloween, she went trick-or-treating as a slice of pizza (made of foam, acquired on eBay). She reveled in it. I asked her how she could be such a good mother when she was so very silly.
"You'll just have to trust me on this," she seemed to say.
The cost of preparing a dog for guide work is about $45,000, yet there is no charge to the people who receive them. Donations may be made at GuidingEyes.org.