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Harper the Hero

October 9, 201163 CommentsPosted in Beth Finke, blindness, Mike Knezovich, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized

Harper loves it at home! It's that crazy outside world that's become too much. Who can blame him?

Harper is not the only heroic guy in the family – my husband Mike Knezovich is a hero, too. When I told him I’d have a hard time writing about this, he generously offered to write a guest post about it for me.

Harper the hero

by Mike Knezovich

So I was going to steal a line from Beth and call this post Harper’s Bizarre, because, well, he’s exhibited some really strange behavior over the past several months.

The thing is, if you were to watch Harper and Beth work inside and in the vicinity of our condo building you’d say he was terrific. Because he is. He’s uncanny at finding elevators, weaving through pedestrian traffic, and unbelievably gentle and polite when approaching slow walkers or WPs—wobbly people as we say in the guide dog parlance.

But.

Harper has developed a boundary line—a line only he sees or understands—past which he will not go. Literally. For example, he’ll cross our street—Dearborn—at a very busy intersection and take Beth to the tree where he does his emptying, and he won’t miss a beat. But he won’t cross the next street—a quiet side lane. On a good day, he will follow Beth’s command to walk south, a long city block to Polk Street, then turn right on Beth’s command to head north and back home.

He will not, however, go any farther away from home than that route. He simply stops. He can be literally dragged, but that’s all that will move him. And it’d take a stronger man than me to drag him much more than a yard. He’s one muscular dog.

It’s like this in other locales, too. That is, if I drive Beth to the Chicago Cultural Center, where Beth teaches, he’ll pile out of the car, Beth will grab his harness, and he’ll be off like a rocket up the ramp to the front door, and lead her precisely to her spot in the classroom inside the building. No mean feat, as the Cultural Center is a hulking structure. He’ll take her out of the Cultural Center, too. But only as far as is necessary to be picked up by me or a taxi. He will not venture down the busy city sidewalk to lead her home. Beth traveled to Madison, Wis., recently, and it was the same. She got a ride from Chicago to the front door of her hotel. He brought her to the registration desk. They were led to their room, and he routinely got her out of the hotel and back to the room without help. But he would not travel away from the hotel.

Beth and I have concluded sardonically that we’ve become guide people, service people, our mission in life is to make sure that Harper is able to travel safely with our help. A little gallows humor never hurts when dealing with sad subjects.

But ultimately, this is really sad, not funny. Harper is not bizarre, he’s a hero. And like a good many other heroes, his heroic act has left a lasting—if invisible—scar.
Here’s what happened: about two or three weeks after Beth and Harper came home from training, they were headed north on State Street. Beth waited to hear that traffic on State was moving—indicating that the light was green and she could cross—and she commanded Harper to go forward. They stepped into the street to cross.

A northbound vehicle didn’t see Beth and Harper and made a right turn into their path. Beth doesn’t remember any detail except being dragged backward—by Harper—yanked so hard that she fell to the pavement and hit her head. So hard that it bent and split the metal fitting on Harper’s harness where the handle attaches. (Even back in December during training, Harper had excelled at traffic checks—disobeying the command to go forward in the face of traffic and pulling Beth back if a vehicle darted in front of them.)

The woman driving the car pulled over and came, panicked, to Beth’s aid. She didn’t realize that the reason Beth had fallen backwards was due to Harper’s strength and determination to pull her away from the oncoming car. The driver was sure she’d hit Beth and Harper. Beth, to this day, isn’t absolutely sure whether Harper was brushed by the vehicle or not.

A pedestrian also came to Beth’s aid and asked what he could do for her. Beth asked whether Harper was OK—fully expecting to hear that Harper had been hit.
The pedestrian told her Harper was fine, helped Beth get her bearings, walked her and Harper across the street, and Beth and Harper made it home to tell me the story.

As it happened, Harper was not fine. He behaved normally for at least a couple weeks after the incident. But then, one day, weeks afterward, Beth was on her way to a meeting at her Easter Seals job in Willis Tower. Out of the blue, as they were cruising along Jackson Street, Harper stopped on the sidewalk. It wasn’t at an intersection. A passerby came to Beth’s aid. Beth asked if there was anything unusual—construction or whatever—going on. There was not.

The stranger gave Beth his elbow and walked her and Harper “sighted guide.” As soon as Harper saw Willis Tower—a familiar sight—he picked it up. But later, he kept doing this type of thing: balking, crouching, cowering in the middle of a block—for no apparent reason. He just didn’t want to go any farther.

After a visit from a Seeing Eye instructor, Beth got some great tips using clicker training and treats and Harper started to improve. It looked like he was going to make it.

Then Beth broke her foot.

For weeks she could only take Harper out once a day on harness. And that was only as far as his favorite tree. I’d take him the rest of the time. And that’s when we knew the problem was getting worse, not better. When I took him—or tried to take him—on a walk, he cowered and froze any time we went past his usual spot and on into unknown territory. And he wasn’t even working. He didn’t have his harness on. He knew

I was leading. And he still didn’t go.

I held onto the hope that it was because he knew Beth was back at home, and he didn’t want to go any farther away from her than necessary. The last hope was lost after Beth’s foot healed and she got the doctor’s green light to start walking as far as she wanted to. Where before, a clicker and a treat would get him going, now Harper—a Yellow Labrador Retriever mind you—was not motivated by treats.

The Seeing Eye sent another instructor out our way. Chris spent a couple days with us and Harper. He tried the clicker/treat routine and witnessed what we had. He said he’d never ever seen a Lab who didn’t want a treat badly enough to obey a command.

We talked a lot with Chris, and he said that although the training at the Seeing Eye includes a trip or two to New York City with the trainer, then another with the person they are eventually matched with—there’s really no way to know for sure how a dog will react to city surroundings—or any surroundings, for that matter—in the long term.

He also explained that although Harper didn’t start balking right after the near-miss with the car, the stresses on the dogs can be cumulative.

The three of us talked and imagined what swirled around in Harper’s head. In the end, Chris made it clear that city life had just become too much for Harper. Beth would have to get matched with a new partner. We all agreed that Harper would stay with us at least until Beth could go to another class. He’s still good at what he is able to do, as long as we can provide door-to-door transportation. And we’re more attached to him than ever. As for Harper’s future, Chris said he’d talk with his colleagues when he got back to New Jersey about whether Harper could be retrained and perhaps work in a calmer environment.

We doubted he could, and silently hoped—for Harper’s sake—that he’d be able to spend his years as a plain old dog. But we also hated the idea that all that training, and all Harper’s gentle ways, would be wasted.

Well, we needn’t have worried. Last week John Keane—the Seeing Eye’s head of training—called Beth. He made clear that there was no intention to retrain Harper.
And John drove home that the Seeing Eye’s hard work and Harper’s training were hardly wasted.

“He took a bullet for you,” John said. “And for that he earned an early retirement.”

Friends of Harper

November 17, 201232 CommentsPosted in guest blog, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized

Loyal blog readers know that my third Seeing Eye dog Harper was traumatized after being clipped by a car in Chicago traffic last year. When it became clear that this heroic Yellow Labrador couldn’t work any more, our friends Chris and Larry agreed to give him a home with them in Wheaton, a quiet Chicago suburb. I’m sharing this update from Chris as a guest post in honor of Thanksgiving — Mike and I are so thankful to have Harper in such loving hands.

Looking forward to year two

by Chris Towles

Heroic Harper hangin’ in his new harness.

Has it been a year since Harper retired and came to live with us? I can’t imagine our house without him. When he came to us last year, he did fine in the house and loved playing in the backyard, but walking anywhere on a leash was tough. He would often refuse to budge, cowering at times, planting his paws so firmly that we could not get him to move, all the time with a look on his face that seemed so troubled and anxious it would just break your heart.

We started by taking small steps, going no further than one house away, then two houses. I would walk backwards most of the time, doing a lot of coaxing and no leash. We had tried treats, toys, other dogs, but nothing really worked until we hit on the “we walk backwards to get Harper to walk forward” technique.

Finally after a couple of months, we were able to get all the way around the block. That seemed like such a huge accomplishment. Building on this success, and after lots of trial and error with various collar and leash combinations, we found that a “Premier EasyWalk” harness and a retractable leash were key in convincing Harper that our walks were less about work, and more about fresh air and exercise.

Now when we walk, we get loads of compliments on how well behaved Harper is. People are always amazed to hear the heroic story of this lovable yellow lab who has become such a part of our life. We gladly acknowledge that our training is a small part of who he is, and that the credit really goes to the folks at The Seeing Eye who trained and cared for him so lovingly. These days we can walk over three miles on the bike paths and in the forest preserves without problems, and with all of us facing the same direction — yeah! .

Harper has a special knack for doing things that warm our harts. Every night he meets me at the back door, dancing and wagging his tail. Every morning he’s an alarm clock, laying his big ol’ Labrador head on the bed right next to Larry and breathing loudly – I love it! He’s great around kids and has managed to turn my dog fearing nieces and nephews into dog lovers. He’ll play catch, keep away and tug-o-war with them for hours, while being incredibly gentle with the little ones. Neighborhood kids also have great fun playing with our Harper.

Harper and neighbor Beau, caught in one of the rare instances in which they’re standing still.

Harper has made some dog friends too. He and Beau, the collie next door, wear themselves out running and chasing each other around the back yard. Harper also looks forward to playing with Wallace, another yellow lab who lives down the street.

Occasionally I take Harper to my office, where he has several FOH (Friend’s of Harper – Beth is president of the club). He helps to relieve workplace stress just by hanging out and letting people pet him.

We’re looking into getting certified as a therapy animal team and maybe spending some time with veterans at a VA facility. Larry and I were both in the Army, so the idea of sharing Harper’s special calming skills with veterans seems like a good fit. I can’t wait to find out what year two has in store for us.

Mondays with Mike: Walk a mile in her paws

January 1, 201820 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, Seeing Eye dogs, technology for people who are blind, travel


Click on the video to take a walk with Beth from Whitney’s point of view. There’s a lot of motion, so be careful if you’re prone to seasickness. I hope you’ll read the post, too–think of it as the director’s notes:)

Beth’s on her fourth Seeing Eye dog now, and I’ve marveled at and, really, admired each one of these incredible animals: in order, Dora, Hanni, Harper, and now Whitney.

Not that they’re perfect. Not by a long shot. They’ve each had their particular weaknesses and strengths. Whitney, for example, will stealthily guide Beth in a way that allows Whitney to catch a whiff of the fire hydrant or traffic light pole or an oncoming dog as it passes, all without slowing down or giving Beth so much as a twitch. (I bust Whitney every time we’re walking together and she forgets about the guy who can see. )

The dogs can get confused, and they make mistakes. People see the mistakes sometimes and my protective self is afraid they think less of these dogs than they should. Because, on the whole, the dogs are remarkable.

I’ve wished everyone could see Beth’s dog doing scads of tricky, nuanced things every single day. Like getting in just the right position to make it easy for Beth to put the harness on every time they get ready to go out. Or weaving through crowded sidewalks. Like finding elevator button panels. Like slowing down ever so gently when there’s a heave in the pavement to alert Beth that something irregular is coming up. Slowing down for ice. And on and on.

They’re trained to go right up to every curb at each street crossing and wait for a command from their partner—straight, left, or right. Sometimes, making a right or left means actually backtracking to get around obstacles or to stay on the sidewalk. They pivot on a dime to change direction and lead their partner with them.

When it’s time to cross the street, that call is up to the human. Dogs don’t read the stoplights—they trust that their partner will listen until certain that traffic is moving in their direction of travel. This is a skill people with visual impairments learn formally in orientation and mobility training, using a white cane. In fact, at the Seeing Eye, for example, one isn’t eligible to be matched with a dog without having completed O&M training.

But—as those of you who know the story of Harper know—the dogs are trained to keep an eye out and to disobey their partner if the team is in harm’s way. If, for example, the human just makes a bad call about crossing, the sidewalk has been ripped up for construction, or, as in Harper’s case, a car simply doesn’t stop when it should. It’s called intelligent disobedience, and it’s a pretty difficult thing to ask the dogs to do, when you think about it.

Anyway, about a year and a half ago, our friend John showed me his GoPro Hero camera. It’s a cool little thing that people mount on their heads when they do things like hang-glide, ride a motorcycle, whatever. They’re often mounted on drones, too. They make for some cool video.

It occurred to me that I might be able to mount the Hero on our hero dog to get a dog’s eye view of what it’s like to work with Beth. Sure enough, Hero sells a harness for exactly that purpose.

Beth and I took a couple walks with the camera mounted, but Whitney really didn’t like wearing it. And, there was no way to stabilize the camera—it rocked back and forth as Whitney walked. (John told me there are drones that can be programmed to follow at a set distance, and boy did I want to rationalize buying one, but it was a bridge too far.)

Well, the video we shot back in 2016 has just been sitting on my laptop, and when I bumped into it during a file purge, I popped it open.

And it was a lot better than I remembered.

So, I did some editing and added some explanatory captions. It covers a typical walk Beth and Whitney take around our neighborhood. Fair warning—it’s 14 minutes. I intended to shorten it more, but my intention is to give an idea of how Whitney and Beth work, and that often requires waiting when sighted people wouldn’t have to. So it’s true to that goal.

Otherwise, I hope you’ll give it—or some part of it—a watch. And I hope it gives you some idea of why I love and admire my two gals so much.

Happy New Year!

Guess who’s 88 years old today?

January 29, 201712 CommentsPosted in blindness, Blogroll, careers/jobs for people who are blind, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized, writing

Happy birthday, Seeing Eye! The oldest guide-dog school in America was incorporated this day in 1929 after co-founder Morris Frank returned from a pioneering guide dog program in Switzerland. He and his Seeing Eye dog Buddy are the pioneers of the guide dog movement in the United States, and I have him and everyone affiliated with the school to thank for Dora, Hanni, Harper and Whitney — the four heroic dogs the school trained especially for me. To celebrate, I’m reblogging a post I wrote five years ago for Bark magazine’s blog. The post is about my first weeks at home in Chicago with Whitney, and it demonstrates how the Seeing Eye’s work doesn’t end when we leave the school with our new dogs!

Consistency is the key.

Consistency is the key.

Beth Welcomes a New Seeing Eye Dog

January 23, 2012

You’d think having a new guide dog memorize routes and anticipate turns at corners would be the goal.

But it’s not.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: I have the route memorized. I know how many streets we have to go forward before we turn left, then how many streets until we turn right again to get to our destination.

Whitney, my new two-year-old Labrador/Golden Retriever cross, guides me through our apartment lobby, we get ourselves situated on the sidewalk in the direction I want us to go, I command, “forward!” and my spunky sprite guides me safely to the curb. When she stops, I stop. That’s how I know we’re at the intersection. That, and the sound of cars. Whitney waits as I listen for traffic, and when I deem it is safe, I command her to lead me right, left or forward.

Whitney has a smart bump. It shows. In our first week home in Chicago she had already started memorizing my route to the pool where I swim laps, the cultural center where I teach memoir-writing classes, and my cubicle at my part-time job in the Willis (formerly known as Sears) Tower.

These routes became so familiar to Whitney that she knew to make the turns without bothering to go all the way to the curb first or waiting for my command. A near-miss in traffic with my last Seeing Eye dog, Harper, left him so afraid of traffic that he had to retire early. Our brush with that car, the months of work to encourage Harper past his fear, and the subsequent decision to retire him from guide work—it all shook me up, too.

Whitney’s decision to keep us away from the edge of the intersections, to just go ahead and make turns on her own, well, it meant I didn’t have to face the rush of traffic in front of us. I felt safe.

Until Whitney started crossing intersections diagonally, that is. Dang that smart bump! The girl is so clever that when she knew we’d be turning right or left once we crossed the street, she figured hey, why not save time? We’ll just go kitty-corner. Whitney had also taken to veering right and left long before our approach to any and all intersections, leaving us discombobulated as she anticipated a turn.

And if there is one place you especially don’t want to feel discombobulated with a Seeing Eye dog, it’s the approach to an intersection.

As it so often goes with dog training, the problem was consistency. I expected Whitney to take me right to the edge of a curb if I wanted to keep going straight (or if we were on our way somewhere new and I needed to know we were at an intersection). But on a familiar route? I’d let her decide for herself.

The Seeing Eye to the rescue! A trainer flew to Chicago to give me tips on which commands to use to drive Whitney all the way to the edge of the curb—the way she’d been taught at The Seeing Eye school. He showed me how to use the leash to encourage her to the edge. “Heap on the praise when you get there,” he urged. “Then stay right there a little while before giving her the command. Make sure she knows that you want her to stop right there and wait for your command at every single intersection.”

And you know what? It’s working. It’s comforting to know exactly where we are before we cross a street. Since The Seeing Eye tune-up, we don’t veer right and left before intersections anymore. Whitney knows what I expect of her, and she’s determined to get us to the curb.

Things are much clearer when I’m in charge. Whitney seems to appreciate the consistency, too. The more we work together, the more we trust each other. And best of all? She doesn’t cross intersections diagonally anymore!

What to get for the 10-year-old who has everything: fake eye polish

December 18, 201519 CommentsPosted in blindness, guest blog, Uncategorized

December 21 is our great-niece Floey’s tenth birthday, and I’m giving her the gift of a lifetime: on Monday she’ll come along to watch an ocularist polish her Great Aunt Beth’s fake eye.

Eye surgeons did all they could to restore my vision when retinopathy set in thirty years ago. One of my eyes is still intact, but the other one shrunk so much from all the surgeries that I can’t hold that eyelid open.

I wear a prosthesis in that eye, every once in a while it needs a polish, and Floey is the lucky girl who gets to come along with me Monday and see how its done.

The best way I could think of to prepare Floey for what she’s in for on her birthday was to send her the link to a guest post our friend Charlie Gullett wrote four years ago when he accompanied me on a visit to the ocularist. I reread his post before sending it Floey’s way. It was so good that I thought it worth publishing here again. With any luck we can get Floey to write a guest post with her impressions once her birthday is over, but for now…here’s Charlie.

That’s a whole lotta eyeballs right there. (By Chuck Gullett.)

A trip to the ocularist

Between Harper’s retirement and Whitney’s training, I had the great opportunity to accompany Beth as her “Seeing Eye Chuck” for a visit to the ocularist. The ocularist, as I learned, is the place to go when you need a new glass eye or just a little glass eye maintenance. The ocularist’s office, on the 16th floor of the Garland Building in Chicago, has a spectacular view of Lake Michigan, Millennium Park and Navy Pier. Ironically, the hundreds of eyes in the office are all neatly arranged in drawers and never able to enjoy the view.

On this visit, Beth was going in for a routine cleaning. As an observer, the process is fairly straightforward…

1) Remove glass eye with a device that looks like a miniature Nerf suction cup dart.

2) Try not to make an immature sucking sound as the eye is being removed.

3) Sit back and chat until the eye returns from the onsite laboratory, which I pictured to be somewhat like Grandpa’s lab from the “Munsters.”

When the ocularist returned with the beautifully polished eye, I asked a few questions and Beth talked him into showing me the lab and explaining the cleaning process. What I got was an enthusiastic lesson in the history, making and care of the good ol’ ocular prosthesis, or what we commonly refer to as a glass eye. First off, the eye is not even made of glass. Modern glass eyes are actually made of acrylic, which is extremely durable and more cost effective to manufacture.

The guys in the lab area told me about the heroic GI’s returning from WWII having a large demand for glass eyes. The glass eyes would tend to break by accident or “accidentally” around the time a GI wanted to visit the big city. A shortage in high quality imported glass and the cost of replacement eyes prompted the government to find a better material to make artificial eyes. Now, we have the modern version in durable acrylic.

So, what’s your guess? (By Chuck Gullett)

To give you an idea of how durable the eyes are, Beth has had the same peeper for 25 years and the last time she had it polished was 4 years ago. Each eye is hand crafted for its owner and is a true piece of art. I looked through the drawers of sample eyes and the level of detail is really stunning. The blood vessels are recreated with silk threads while the pupil and iris take laborious hours to hand paint so they look realistic. The ocularist had notes from Beth’s last two visits where they recommended that she get fitted for a new eye, but Beth just smiled and said, “Yeah, I kinda like this one.” I like that one, too. I had no idea that Beth even had a glass eye. One eye is real and one is not. You can try to guess which is which, but good luck.

Anyway, I also learned that the cleaning/ polishing process is much like polishing jewelry. There is a buffing wheel and several different compounds to remove build-up and leave a nice smooth surface. The ocularist works the eye until it is just right, then rinses it off and you are ready to go. I associate the feeling of a freshly polished glass eye like the smoothness your teeth have after a visit to the dentist.

All in all, it was a great afternoon. I got to spend some quality time with a friend, feed my odd curiosity with something out of the ordinary and learn something new. Anytime Whitney needs a day off, I’ll be happy to help out.