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!