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!
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!