Feature Writer Ann Chiappetta – Reflections on Becoming a First Time Handler

I just heard from a friend via email about how her guide dog kept her out of harm’s way. The emotions it provoked as I read the message were the kind the Yiddish word “verklempt” describe. My throat tightened and my eyes stung. How awesome, I thought, that this yellow Labrador retriever named Renny pulled her handler back from a potential catastrophe.

“Renny and I had are biggest traffic check we have ever had,” writes Amanda, a young woman who trained the same time as me and is also a new handler. “We were about two blocks from home at a completely controlled traffic light…we were about a quarter of the way across.  Renny stopped and started to back up and in that split second there was a squealing of tires and a black car in front of us, if we had moved any farther across the street the car would have hit us. I was so stunned that I just stood there until I could get my bearings.  I told her “forward,” by the time I got to the curb I was in tears because I was realizing what just happened. I kind of slipped to my knees and praised her and of course gave her a food reward.  So if it were not for Renny I would be pretty messed up, in the hospital, or worse right now. I am so thankful for my guide; she is the best dog ever.”

Renny saved her handler from serious injury because of two things: it’s what she is trained to do, and it’s what she wanted to do to keep both of them safe. Amanda and Renny are a prime example of a successful team, a partnership built on love, trust, practice, and discipline. It is a relationship, and like any other, it takes time and hard work to foster it.  

Although the general public remains largely unaware of the rewarding partnership a dog and handler share, there isn’t an adequate way of expressing the intricacies of it. Admittedly, I knew very little about it until I experienced it personally.

Since graduating from training six months ago, my own guide dog has proven her mettle and intelligence almost every day. She’s kept me from falling down stairs, in holes, and being struck in the head by a low-hanging sign.

It is because of Verona and dogs like her that we can retain our independence and, in some instances, improve it. As a late-onset vision loss survivor, I experienced not only a progressive loss of sight but also a progressive loss of mobility. As my vision decreased, my ability and willingness to go out on my own decreased. It was this deficit that prompted me to apply for a guide dog.

I wasn’t thinking that I wanted to climb any mountains, but I was missing not being able to walk a few miles independently and safely without great effort or anxiety.  I was a long time white cane user but it just wasn’t suitable for me in certain situations. I wanted more freedom.

Research and interviewing other handlers convinced me that I was destined to obtain a dog and finally regain not only my independence but also rebuild my lost confidence.  Each day I trained at guide dog school, my confidence grew. To me, the build up of my eroding self-confidence was the inspiration to become the best handler possible. The transformation that occurred at training tested my ability to meet the challenges of taking on new skills and responsibilities.

I can recall my first major training dilemma; Verona wasn’t turning left.  I’d stepped on her so many times before that she refused to do it. The trainer had me retry our left turn three times and each time Verona jumped off to the side when I turned and stepped. After the third try I put down the harness handle and cried. I thought, “I can’t do this, what was I thinking? My dog is afraid of me and I’m going to fail.”

It was below freezing out and my tears burned my cheeks. The trainer took my hand and said, “I know this is frustrating but don’t give up. We’ll work it out as long as you don’t give up.” Then she gave me a big hug and I kept going.

Later that night I realized that I almost did give up. What stopped me was the trainer’s support and my desire to do my best for my dog because she was doing her best for me. She knew how to turn; it was me who didn’t know how to do it. Not only was I unable to grasp the dexterity needed to properly manage the leash and harness, I wasn’t ready for the demands of learning how to follow my dog.

What a humbling thought: my dog knew more than I did.

The next day and the days following it, I practiced my turns; in my room while watching TV. I practiced every night with the harness, the trainer supervising my sessions. I worked hard to do whatever the training staff instructed me to do and soon our turns were beautiful. Verona was still a bit shy but she no longer jumped away whenever I moved left.

My friend Amanda went through similar challenges while we were in class, too. Now, however, she and Renny are a great team. Her close call also accurately describes the emotional intensity provoked by such a situation. When our dog keeps us from catastrophe, it is overwhelming, and not just at traffic checks. Our dogs become part of us and the partnership is akin to a symbiosis.  They share our hearts and expertly interpret our every need, and in turn, we learn to provide for them and love them unconditionally. We are interdependent in order to maintain independence.

If I could focus on expressing just one aspect of the meaning behind a dog guide team, for the benefit of first-time handlers, it would be the necessity of fostering the interdependent relationship that makes a guide so worthwhile.

It takes patience, perseverance, and practice to perform the dance. One has to put away the white cane in both a symbolic and physical sense in order to develop mutual trust.

For example, the first time I went on a training route alone with Verona she took me out of harm’s way and I didn’t even know it, but I went with her, backing away as a car crept up onto the ramp leading to the street.  When I realized she prevented me from being hit, I cried.  I followed her and she kept me safe. This is what the other handlers were talking about.  

Now that I’ve had the opportunity to work with Verona, my desire to take travel related chances, like going to new locations, is far less hampered by anxiety and self doubt. Maybe it’s just me, but I still get an immense sense of satisfaction whenever I grab Verona’s harness and say, “Let’s Go.”

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