More than a Guide

     I have been fortunate to have three wonderful Seeing eye Dogs®. It is often said that it's the first one who changes a life so dramatically, and that was very true for me.
     When I was young, I had some awful experiences with dogs. Nips that may have seemed playful to the experienced dog lover scared me, and I never understood the connections my two sisters had with their dogs. A dog was something I tripped and fell over. If I tried to touch the soft fur, inevitably I'd find the sharp toenail which made me draw away. I was especially scared by dogs' jumping on me, as that involved both paws and having their mouths close to my face.
     I also had another fear. I grew up at a school for the blind and then on a farm. I did not travel by myself because there were very few destinations within walking distance. I did college and graduate school using my cane on relatively small campuses with little traffic. But then there were the days when the snow covered many of my land marks, and I would get lost.
     From the time I was young through college and grad school, I dreaded the time in my life when I would have to travel by myself on city streets. I knew the chances of finding a good job and good transportation in a small town were practically nonexistent and that I'd have to move to a city to increase my opportunities.
     I met my husband Phil on the internet. As we wrote and talked, I heard his stories about traveling in a city alone with his Seeing Eye Dog®, a German Shepherd named Andy. When we met in person, I was impressed by how smoothly Phil and Andy traveled together. Still, Andy was big, black, and very active all of which frightened me a great deal.
     When we became engaged, Phil asked me to apply to the Seeing eye®. I didn't think it was possible for me to work with a dog due to not one but two huge fears. I knew that in order for the dog to work for his/her partner, the person had to love the dog. How could I possibly love a dog if I was afraid of dogs? I doubted my dog handling abilities as I listened to the taped brochures, filled out the application, and even as I boarded the plane to Morristown, New jersey where the school is located.
     It seemed that every dog lover was happy to talk about their dogs. I really tried to understand the attachment they felt and couldn't. Why would one connect with an animal that required so much responsibility? Everyone said I'd know when I experienced it.
     After arriving at The Seeing eye®, I spent the first couple of days taking "Juno Walks" with my instructor. Walt taught me the basic working commands as he role-played the part of Juno, the dog, and tested different walking speeds and levels of pull in the harness. He also asked me what kind of dog I wanted, and I was honest about my fears. I told him the dog had to be gentle and the very opposite of Andy. I said licking scared me a little. He asked if I had a breed preference. I said I didn't know very much about breeds, but I was told almost unanimously by dog lovers that a Golden Retriever would be good for me.
     On "dog day", I was a mess! I could barely eat. Everyone else was excited, but I was just plain scared. I remember being called down to the lounge, and Walt asked me if I was ready. He told me that my new dog's name is Tanner, and that he is a Golden Retriever. Walt told me to say "Tanner come" and in my quivery voice I did. I heard the panting and reached out to feel a soft, wagging tail. Walt said he is a little licky, but that we could work on it. Then we walked back to my dorm room with Tanner on leash.
     I did something that I'll always be glad I did. I got back to the room and turned on a tape recorder to record our first interactions. We spent a good hour on the floor, and I just had to improvise what to do. I used "good boy" a lot, petted and patted, and tried to be brave when he licked me. He was hard not to look at and touch with his Golden color and silky fur. "I think I could stand to pick up your crap," I said toward the end of that first hour. I could hardly believe I was connecting already. Tanner was helpful by being calm and not doing a lot of mouthing at first.
     We worked together and improved day by day. I knew he was mine after the trip to New York City. Everyone was given the option to go or not go to New York. But Walt firmly told me I really needed to go if I was going to work in the city. I resisted, but in the end, I was glad I did. Tanner helped me survive the subway, but it was the city streets that buoyed my confidence in the golden boy. Tanner had done many of the routes in Morristown multiple times but New York only once or twice. The crowds were intense! He guided me just as confidently, and I think that was a major turning point. That was the day when I knew I would take him home.
     Tanner and I traveled from the Seeing Eye® to my parents farm. We spent three weeks walking up and down the same stretch of highway to keep in practice. We also had the occasional drive into town with my mother and to the church where Phil and I would be married. Tanner and Andy were by our sides during the wedding. I believe that the dogs' first meeting on rehearsal day was just as momentous as our ceremony.
     After the wedding, it was time for Tanner and me to face the other fear. I moved to Minneapolis, a city I barely knew. It was one thing to take direction from a trainer in new York city, but to be responsible for giving Tanner directions to the bus stop and other destinations I was learning myself was big stuff. With the help of Phil and Andy plus an orientation and Mobility instructor, we steadily made progress.
     I remember what a great feeling it was when coming home, Tanner started to automatically turn onto the sidewalk leading to our apartment building. As he became familiar with places I liked to frequent, he began showing me other doors and steps which led to them. I felt so much more dignified as Tanner helped me to follow sales clerks in stores and hostesses in restaurants. It was a far cry from having to take people's arms or accidentally hitting them with my cane. I didn't have to invest as much energy in street crossings, because I trusted Tanner to get me safely to the other curb. I also trusted him to stop should a driver turn in front of us in the street or unexpectedly come out of a parking lot.
     Our first winter was full of snow and ice mountains, and I knew that I wouldn't have been able to make it through all of that with my cane. By then Tanner knew the routes well enough to assertively take the lead.
     Tanner helped me to face the last vestiges of my fear of dogs. As dogs barked on our routes, I tensed up, and Tanner learned it was something I didn't like. Then he'd start barking and lunging back, and I feared him in that situation. A trainer came out and showed me how to get the upper hand. The trainer assured me that even at his worst, I had Tanner's loyalty and he wouldn't hurt me.
     Working with Tanner came with other benefits that I never considered. I didn't realize how differently I would be treated by the public. With a cane, I was avoided and ignored. With Tanner, people casually made conversation on the bus and in public places. They'd start by complimenting Tanner or our work, and often the conversation drifted to other topics. Several friendships began that way. I felt more attractive because of Tanner's handsome, regal  demeanor. But when I felt the worst about myself, there was a lovable Golden Retriever who let me know he thought I was the best.
     Tanner and I had four wonderful years together. I still got nervous when I had to travel somewhere new or when I got lost. However, I knew I could depend on Tanner to do everything he could to help keep me safe and to find my destination. Tragically, Tanner had to be euthanized do to a sudden, irreversible kidney disease at the young age of six, but he passed on some very important lessons to me about love and trust which I still remember today. Because of his patience and persistence, I have continued to grow as a city traveler and dog handler. There have been two periods when I have had to go back to a cane, and even then, I was more confident with it than before I worked with Tanner. He was my guide, but he was more. He helped me over two major phobias, and for that and much more, I will always love him.

Entry written by Rebecca Kragnes of Minneapolis, MN
* Fourth Place Award Recipient

Your choice — turn off music or keep on.