Reclaiming Independent Travel with a Leader Dog

Today, I want to cover a very different (and very personal) kind of liberty, freedom, and independence than my readers are used to seeing here ont he blog.  I won’t be writing about the usual topics you’ve come to expect here like budgets, politics, food, business, and homesteading.  I’ll be writing about dogs.

Back in 1994, I went to Leader Dogs for the Blind up in Rochester, Michigan, to train with my first dog guide, Gradi.  The experience was life changing, and even now, more than 21 years later, I remember the anticipation of that first meeting.  I remember all our firsts — first trip home, first trip to school, first walk THROUGH a fountain instead of AROUND it — and I cherish them all.

I did so much with Gradi.  He was by my side during my senior year in high school.  We even starred in an educational video about dog guides that still airs occasionally on the Muncie PBS affiliate, WIPB.  And of course, Gradi guided me across the stage for graduation!

Fred, Sarah, and Leader Dog GradiHe was by my side for so many important events in my life.  We were a team at college.  We were a team when I met my husband.  And of course, we were a team when I got married,

I retired Gradi in 2002 when I went back to Leader Dogs to train with my second dog guide, Dream.  He lived happily with my parents until his passing on January 13, 2004, and even now, I have to fight back tears as I think about that sad, sad day.

The good memories far outweigh the bad ones though.  I was so blessed to work with both Gradi and Dream.  It’s something that I can try to put into words, but unless you’ve experienced first hand the independence that a dog guide helps to facilitate, it’s a concept that’s tough to grasp.

Some of you might wonder though.  If a dog guide is so amazing, why is it that there isn’t a Leader Dog at my side today? Well, an interesting set of circumstances led to that situation for me.  Now I’ve found myself entirely rethinking the choices I made regarding the pursuit of a third Leader Dog.

I went back to Leader Dogs to train with Dream in January of 2002.  It was particularly challenging for me because not only was it winter in Michigan, but I was pregnant with our daughter, and the first trimester hadn’t been treating me well.  I was a hot mess! See, under the best of circumstances, training with a dog guide is stressful, but I found that training unusually tough.  Not only was I wrapping my head around the fact that I’d retired Gradi, but I was an emotional wreck because of hormones.  To this day, I still remember all the times that I cried during training.  And I’ll never forget the hurried early morning trips outside to relieve my dog so that I could get back inside in time to deal with the morning sickness.  It was challenging to say the least.

My time with Dream was pretty unremarkable though.  She was well-trained and all, but I didn’t feel like we were as solid a team as we could have been.  Combine that with the fact that I couldn’t predict how my life and travel needs would change once my daughter was born, and you get a bored Leader Dog and an isolated mother and wife.

By the time I became pregnant with our first son, the writing was on the wall.  I guess if it’d been in Braille, I might have been able to read it then, but it didn’t turn out that way.  See, I started suffering terribly with arthritis in my back during that pregnancy, so I wasn’t working Dream like she needed.  I couldn’t keep up with her, and I was feeling pretty defeated.

Given our situation, I felt that it was only fair to Dream and to Leader Dogs to reach out to them.  I thought that since Dream was only 5 at the time, they might be able to send her out with another person who needed a dog guide.  And in hindsight, it’s good that I decided to send her back because our son ended up requiring a great deal of our attention.  He had developmental delays, so that combined with my issues made my decision the right one.

In time, I ended up working through my back issues (mostly).  I had our third child, we worked through our middle kiddo’s therapy needs, and then we started house hunting.  When we bought our homestead back in October of 2009, I still felt like life without a dog guide was the right choice for me and our family.  After all, I had a cane, I could travel sighted guide with my husband, and we’d moved out into the country where my traveling off the property realistically needed to involve a car.

Even last year, I remember explaining my choice.  “I don’t feel like I’d benefit enough from a dog guide to take that resource away from another blind person whose life would be more impacted by such a partnership.” The fact of the matter was though, I still missed the independence that comes with traveling as a guide dog/handler team.  I still felt like it didn’t make sense for me though.

Over the past couple months though, I’ve found myself significantly reconsidering my position.  So many things are different now, and my perspective has also changed.  Now I find myself compiling a list of reasons in support of getting Leader Dog number three that’s pretty compelling.

  1. My opportunities for independent travel are significantly different now that I don’t have babies to manage.  Imagine how quickly you’d run out of hands if you used them to experience your environment AND use a dog guide AND tote babies with all the stuff that involves AND do stuff like push a cart, open doors, carry items, etc.  Now that my kids can walk and carry their own stuff, I don’t have to worry so much about juggling.
  2. In urban environments, I don’t question my cane skills.  I don’t live in the city anymore though.  For instance, if I wanted to walk to the hardware store that isn’t even a quarter of a mile away, I’d have to navigate a busy highway that doesn’t have a shoulder north of my driveway.  That wouldn’t be a problem if I could simply walk in the grass alongside the highway, but there’s a spot where the highway crosses a small creek.  One wrong step and I’d end up in the drink with some decent injuries to accompany my wet clothes.  I’d feel so much more confident doing that with a dog.  I haven’t trusted myself to do it with a cane even once though.
  3. Even though I’m still a stay-at-home mom, I’ve become an active volunteer in my community.  I’m active in our Cub Scout pack and my church community, and if that weren’t enough, I’m joining the Civil Air Patrol as a senior member.  All these activities require independent travel, and while I’ve done it with a cane or a sighted guide all this time, I’d be much more confident with a dog guide.  I’ve discovered that as I get older, I’m just not as bold and fearless as I used to be.
  4. I’m planning some business ventures for the near future.  I’m traveling more and I’m finding myself in more unfamiliar situations than I used to when I was more of a home body.  It’s so convenient to not have to worry about where the door to a building you’ve never been to is located.  When traveling with a cane, there’s a lot more guess-work.  That’s not how it goes with a dog guide though.
  5. I’ve fallen victim to many bumps and bruises as a result of cane and sighted guide travel.  When I’m traveling with a cane, there’s always going to be that tree branch that I didn’t hear or that uneven spot in the grass that I didn’t detect.  And there’s always a learning curve for those who’re guiding me.  Even as practiced as my husband is, we still have issues.  For instance, I have a shoulder injury that’s not wanting to heal because of the way I have to hold my right arm when I’m taking someone’s elbow.  What I wouldn’t give to walk around in unfamiliar places without having to hold my arm up all the time.  It’s not something you really think about until you experience it, but it’s definitely becoming a problem for me.

And to be fair, I understand that there’d be challenges to address if I got another Leader Dog.  Right now, there are three dogs living in my house — two belong to my family and one belongs to our house mate.  I’m not concerned about our ability to care for a fourth dog.  After all, we had four dogs and a cat living here not too long ago.  (And then there are the chickens too!) The dogs that live here now would have to adjust to a new dog though, and the whole family would have to support the process as I develop my relationship with my working partner.

It won’t be easy, but I’ve come to the point now where I know that the benefits far outweigh the problems.  I feel like getting another dog guide is the first step toward a new phase in my life.  Call it a “midlife crisis” if you must.  I’m fine with that.  I am not, however, fine with the feeling of being so dependent, so limited, and even isolated because of my blindness.  Folks who know me know I’m used to just going out there without limitation, and I’m ready to do that again in all aspects of my life.  It’s definitely time!

Related Links

  • Walk a Mile in My Shoes — This amazing video does a beautiful job illustrating the differences between cane travel and travel with a dog guide.  Those of us who’re blind absolutely get it, but the gentleman in this video does an excellent job of articulating the differences, the challenges, and the triumphs!
  • Leader Dogs for the Blind Prison Puppy Raising Program — a brief look at just one of the many ways that Leader Dogs for the Blind is changing lives through its important work
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