Guess who’s 88 years old today?

January 29, 2017 • Posted in blindness, Blogroll, careers/jobs for people who are blind, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized, Whitney, writing by

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!

Hank On January 29, 2017 at 3:46 pm

Mazel tov! I thought of you when I saw the piece on the anniversary on TV on Sunday Morning this morning.

bethfinke On January 29, 2017 at 3:51 pm

I didn’t know Seeing Eye made it onto Sunday Morning. Cool! Thanks for letting me know. And thanks for donating to hem on our behalf, too, Hank. Very much appreciated.


bethfinke On January 29, 2017 at 10:46 pm

How thoughtful –it wasn’t my intention to solicit donations, but hey, I’m not going to stop you. Seeing Eye doesn’t take in any fedral funding (perhaps a good thing in these times? I dunno) so contributions from lovely people like you are always welcome.


Pat Miller On January 30, 2017 at 7:31 am

Beth, I think you know that I lived in Morristown, NJ for 8 years and it was always inspiring to see the Seeing Eye dogs – and then the dogs with their human partners – being trained on the streets and in the square downtown, and in places like the Post Office, the dry cleaners, etc. What a great organization!

bethfinke On January 30, 2017 at 7:37 am

Pat, if i knew you’d lived in Morristown, I’d forgotten! Thanks for telling me this again, I really do love hearing how people in Morristown regarded us when we were training there, I often marveled at how they managed to ignore us when we were in tight spots, working around construction and such. I always felt respected by the community there, and now so fun to hear you were one of them. And for eight long years –wow!.


Pat Miller On January 30, 2017 at 7:41 am

Yep – 1989 – 1997.

bethfinke On January 30, 2017 at 7:46 am

Wow! Who knows? You might have seen me out there training with Pandora, my first Seeing Eye dog. From all accounts, a beautifulBlack Lab who I nicnamed Dora (for Freud’s wife, of course!) .


Sheila A. Donovan On January 30, 2017 at 10:54 am

I saw a report on the anniversary on CBS Sunday Morning, yesterday.

bethfinke On January 30, 2017 at 11:02 am

Yes, see above, I guess Hank saw that, too. I’ll hav to check it out online….


Annelore Chapin On February 7, 2017 at 2:02 pm

Like raising children….success is in consistency. I really enjoyed your detailed explanation, thanks Beth.

bethfinke On February 7, 2017 at 2:45 pm

Yes, and it can be so difficult to be consistent sometimes, can’t it?!


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