by Richard Rueda
(Editor’s Note: Richard Rueda is the Program Coordinator with CareersPLUS, a transition program for blind and low-vision teens with the Society for the Blind in Sacramento, Calif.)
It was February 5, 2014 when I fell in love all over again. I somehow made it through a flight delay, a flight cancellation and a snowstorm en route to Morristown, N.J., where I soon would be paired with my second guide. In the mid-2000s, my already limited vision was beginning to diminish, and it was about that time when I had been thinking about my lifestyle, travel and mobility.
I am nearly 6 feet tall and a little over 200 pounds. As one who doesn’t like being stationary and home for extended periods of time, I started closely observing the partnerships of friends working their guides. Soon I found myself asking lots of questions and, before I could stop myself, I was putting in my application at The Seeing Eye in Morristown, N.J. From the time I hit the “submit” button on their online application to when I first set foot on campus in May 2008, I had done a lot of soul searching and fiercely debating internally what it would mean to work a dog with low vision and part with my cane.
Some of the thoughts racing through my head included wondering whether I had too much vision, would I actually work my dog, would this dog listen to me, follow trained upon and agreed upon cues? Would I be able to afford food, toys and medical check-ups for this new partner in my life?
Next came the opportunity to meet and interview with a representative of the school. We then took a simulated walk called a Juno walk, where I would work an empty harness with a representative at the other end. Needless to say, I passed the vetting test and on day one when Handy man and I were paired, I almost jumped on the next flight home, thinking I made the worst decision of my life. Here was this 80-pound Labrador sniffing, whimpering and bewildered as to why he was removed from a perfectly good kennel with dozens of his pals just to meet this strange dude in a strange room, absent of his friends.
Over the course of the next 12 years, I worked Handy. After his retirement six years later, I immediately knew that I would always be a guide dog handler. In the 12 years since I first worked Handy man and now going on year 7 with Odif, I am forever converted to the guide dog lifestyle.
What has stood out the most and is critical about working guides with low vision include that you can never take your guide’s initiative away. Additionally, growing and learning to trust their intuition is more than a safe bet. When he/she suggests a path up ahead is obstructed and/or that there is a hole in the ground or a quiet car creeping along under the radar of human ears, pay attention. Often their cues are subtle, and you can learn a lot from the end of the harness. Fortunately, I have only encountered small consequences with my dogs where they stopped, and I didn’t. Often these were curbside moments and thankfully no knees were injured, just my ego.
Both my dogs have been big flirts, have bumped me up to business class on flights, gotten me a phone number or two from a lady, as well as gotten themselves into some human food unbeknownst to me. For someone who loves to fly literally and figuratively, from coast to coast and down the street with dog in tow, the sight of a tall guy like me and the 80 pounds of fast-moving fireball with four legs is a sight to be seen and reckoned with.
Although I am a confident cane traveler and have a general good sense of direction, working a dog is an addiction like no other. I know that if I want to get out and roam a new path, I am not alone and that with my dog’s eagerness to work and to find a new route along with my curiosity, this partnership would work and work well. Gone are the days of wondering about how vulnerable or safe I would be traveling after dark in unfamiliar environments.
Recently while on a visit to Starbucks I lined up behind what appeared to be someone wearing bright yellow pants and when my dog started walking around this person instead of queueing me up, I wondered why. Then upon closer look, the yellow pants turned out to be a yellow “wet floor” sign. What appeared to be a human with his arms folded just inside a store turned out to be a mannequin. What appeared to be a hole in the ground was just a big shady tree shadow that didn’t stop my dog’s stride. What appears one thing to me is not what it turns out to be and ultimately your dog may not be your brain; however, their ability to keep you safe and able to identify obstacles safely is chiefly among their job duties. Working with a guide dog with low vision is definitely doable. While in training, I opted to wear eye shades that further allowed me to build upon trusting my dog’s guidance. It is a work in progress; however, the sooner you listen and follow your dog’s lead, the quicker the trust and bond will be solidified.
In 2014, shortly after Handy’s retirement, Odif and I paired up and have traveled across the USA east to west and north to south. We have explored parks, neighborhoods, hotel lobbies, seedy alleys and deep snow in northern Minnesota.