As in everyone’s life, there comes a time for change. Some changes are exciting. Some are bittersweet. In the last few months, I have had to accept the bittersweet reality that my ever faithful, still active, but slowing guide and companion dog is nearing retirement. We met a year ago with the graduate supervisor of Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc. (SEGDI). After spending time with Little Joe and me, and watching us work together and talking about our routine, it was decided that Little Joe could continue for another year or two because he was healthy, moving comfortably, and happy at work still. But, after that, it would be time to start beginning the transitioning process for us both.
In early summer, I began that process. I have written in the past here and in other mediums of our beginnings and our working adventures. It is now fitting to finish his tale as a working guide dog as he moves into retirement as a pet, my pet. This month, I will begin by telling you a little about the school, its process, and our feelings as we begin this new chapter in our lives.
Southeastern Guide Dogs, Bradenton, FL, established in 1982, is situated on multiple acres in a rural area outside of the city limits, alongside I-75. The trained staff uses nothing but donations to carefully breed, socialize, train, and match puppies with legally blind partners to form working guide dog teams. The entire process with all its checks and balances costs approximately $70,000 per dog. Over the years, they have developed one of the finest schools and methods anywhere in the country. If you want to know more, you can find out on their web site http://www.guidedogs.org. Recently, a wonderful article was published that goes a long way explaining the excellence of SEGDI.
Once I finally made the decision that it was time to begin, I started the application process. All applicants, even returning applicants, must go through a screening process. First timers have to go through a little more documentation and testing to provide the required and recent proof that they are legally blind, as described by legal l terms. Legally blind means having visual acuity of 20/200 or less or a peripheral field 20 degrees or less. Once you apply and show eligibility for a guide, you must then be interviewed to discuss and be evaluated on whether you understand and can provide care, proper housing, and food for a dog, as well as being physically able to undergo the training and working of a guide dog team. The process isn’t simple or taken lightly. Both the human and the canine’s safety and welfare depend on everyone clearly understanding the needs and ramifications of a team.
The decision to even apply is usually a difficult one to make. Most people report that, though they wanted a dog, they had doubts about if they could work with a dog independently, care for one being blind, or even if they needed one badly enough to take one of the few and expensively trained dogs from another more deserving candidate. I know I had all of those thoughts go through my mind in the years before I finally applied for my first dog. I realize that, if I am legally blind, I deserve a dog if it will help me improve independence; but the human psyche doesn’t always follow rational logic. As we grapple with our handicaps, we move through a process of denial to acceptance. We want to believe that we don’t necessarily need something and that we are normal. It is never a simple process, though the description and speed vary from one person to another. Once made, most everyone agrees that getting a dog was the best decision they could ever make, but we have to get there in our own way and time.
Getting the second dog is different in the decision to be made, but it isn’t simple or easy either. We now know that a dog is both a companion and a good tool toward independence, so we usually know we are going to get another dog. The decision becomes when. Unless injury or illness or other health problems arise, we are working so well with our guides, and life is going fine, so we don’t want that to change and even fear that we will never get to this same comfortable place with another dog.
For me, I worry about my Little Joe who is 11, but he is still very determined to not let me ever leave him. Little Joe still gets excited and runs happily when he hears me say, “Work Time” or even if I just sign it. Still, for others, it is even more difficult to decide when because their situation such as housing policies or financial concerns demands that they give their current guide up for new adoptive families when that guide retires. Little Joe will stay with me in retirement, so I am blessed not to have to add that factor in the emotionally charged decision process.
As I said, the graduate representative has already met with Joey and I and evaluated us through interview and work observation. She agrees that Joey is healthy and happy at this time. She also agrees that he and I may need a transitional time to work our way through a guide change and to Joey’s full retirement phase. With that information, I decided last June 2014 to fill out the application, submit the medical forms regarding vision, hearing, and physical status, and submit them to Southeastern Guide Dogs for approval.
In August 2014, the training department’s assistant director drove to my home from Florida for the evaluation interview. She looked at Joey and even our other pet, our home, and our yard. Joey and our other pet are healthy, correct weight, and obviously happy and well-loved. That is very important. A new guide does not belong where they won’t be happy and safe. Our home is large enough for another guide, my soon-to-retire guide, and our pet dog. That is important for the guide’s well-being and safety, too. A visual look at me to verify that I am capable and knowledgeable to care for a dog and work a guide was also still needed even though paperwork by doctors and references supported that in the application. She even had Joey and I work a bit -walking down the street – to evaluate our working process to see how much we have relaxed on proper procedures over time by getting used to each other. That gives the trainer an idea of how much I will have to be re-taught to best work with a new guide who will also be much younger.
Our discussions include neighborhood hazards such as uncontrolled neighbor dogs, wildlife, and possible corrective measures that might be needed prior to a new guide’s arrival. We discussed breed of dog desired, pace, pull amounts (some want strong pulls for guiding. I desire very light, since being DeafBlind, I am very tactilely-aware), sex, color. I jokingly said that I want another dog just like Joey. You can probably sense my problem, can’t you? Truthfully, color and sex matter none. Goldador, which is a mix of golden retriever and labrador retriever, is a good all-around guide dog choice due to the benefits of both breeds. In reality, I will take any of the breeds SEGDI uses because their training and matching processes are tops, in my opinion. The interview ended with us waiting to find out the approval of the evaluation committee sometime in the future.
That approval came in early October. I was also scheduled for in-home training due to my situation of being DeafBlind requiring tactile interpreting which might slow down a regular class for both me and my classmates. I totally understand and agree with that. This means that a trainer, who also knows ASL, will come to my home in Georgia from Florida for the training period of probably two to three weeks. The usual class time with a class of about ten students is 26 days after which the successful completion will result in the blind partner signing a contract to transfer ownership of the guide dog to the blind partner, only to be relinquished under extreme terms of hardship or if danger to the guide is found. With only one student in a one on one setting, the training time may be shorter, but nothing will be changed, modified, or left out of the process. Now I wait.
Wait for what? I am waiting for the trainers to use their knowledge and experience to find the match for me. With God’s blessing on their process and SEGDI experience, I received a match made in Heaven the first time. Is it possible to get a second match made in Heaven? I am praying that it is, though it seems impossible when you see Joey and I work together. With God and Southeastern Guide Dogs working on finding that match, I am banking that a second match made in Heaven is coming my way.