a girl with a guide: week one at GDB

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Sitting with Romana outside. I’m on the left, wearing a light green top and jeans with holes. My little lady is in a sit on the right, on leash and looking at the camera. I’m smiling and have my arm around her chest.

Sometimes we fantasize something only to have our expectations crushed, but being at GDB has been far more than I imagined.

before coming here, I was nervous about lots of things, with reason, as this is a brand new adventure: I wasn’t sure I could take care of another living thing, that I had too much vision to properly use a guide dog, that she wouldn’t like me. For the first concern, I felt that my own health was high maintenance enough, or that I wouldn’t understand how important playtime is for emotional well being. Next, many people who have guides have very little or no vision. I’m considered a “high functioning partial,” or in other words, “I’m borderline blind and can get away with things such as not needing to read Braille.” As a person with albinism, though, we are extremely light sensitive, which makes outside travel (and occasionally inside) very difficult since our eyes can’t filter light. Many people with high functioning vision are asked to wear blindfolds in training if we begin to lead and not follow our dogs, which while an effective training method, I wasn’t too into trying since I like to enjoy the nature of what I can still see outside. Last, I wasn’t sure how to create a “bond” with a dog and was afraid he/she would so not be into me.

Though these were all common concerns, Monday rolled around nonetheless. The anticipation of Dog Day was high and all my wonderful classmates wondered what kind of a dog they might receive for the next 6+ years. After the longest lunch ever, we all sat down one of the trainers read, “Cassandra, you will have Romana, a female yellow lab.”

Initial thoughts: “wow, I love her name! It’s not something ridiculous!”, “oh yay, I secretly really wanted a yellow girl.”

we all headed back to our rooms and waited. After what felt like hours, my trainer knocked on my door and brought her in. At first, she looked at me briefly and continued sniffing the floor with great interest. “Romana is 58 pounds, 22 inches tall, and her birthday is September 15th.”

she was stunning, a yellow that was nearly white, with fantastically light, golden eyes.

and just like that, the trainer left to continue getting everyone else’s dogs, and Romana and I looked at each other wondering what to do. I started scratching her and her tail wagged furiously. In typical lab style, she didn’t smile, but her tail said it all: she was a happy girl.

little by little, we learned to brush fur and teeth, clean ears, play, feed, take them out to busy, and so much more. As we started our formal work together the next day in downtown San Rafael, I knew she was the perfect match. I got her going to a little trot and was learning the mechanics of guidework terms like “forward,” “hopup,” (go faster or urge them on), making turns, “halt,” and she executed effortlessly. It wasn’t flawless, but towards the end of the week, the trainer supervisor who peeded in on our route, said, “she looks like a trainer!” From following all their advice and being patient, we were already worlds away from where we started.

when we’re working outside, I remember why I applied for a guide dog: the sun was bright, and between the intermittent shadows of tree limbs, it was extremely difficult to see. With her, we flew down the street, and I had the confidence that she would take me around obstacles and stop at the curb so I knew where we were.

while outside work wasn’t as bad, we struggled when we first went to the mall. Due to the people milling around, Romana couldn’t go her “working pace,” and just wasn’t focused. When we finished, I sat around drinking my cold brew, trying to remind myself why I was doing this. Flickers of doubt poked in my brain, as they do to most people in training. I tried to give us a break, but I couldn’t help but be frustrated. Then, the words of a GDB graduate once told me recently sneaked in: “you’re an engineer, so you’ll want everything to be perfect, but remember that it won’t be, and that’s exactly what training is about: learning about each other and building a foundation of trust.”

the Lord has really orchestrated this, between the people in admissions to Romana’s puppy raisers, to the trainers, and has brought her to me. She’s a gem, uniquely awkward sometimes, just as I am, and very decisive about what she wants. I prayed for my little lady on and off since last December, and God brought this little yellow lab to me. I know that ultimately, He is the perfect handler, and I’m the silly puppy who makes mistakes in the route, sniffing around and wondering what our final destinations is. God is so good, and He will be with our partnership as long as we both shall live.

I’m so grateful for all the support from friends, family, and the GDB staff. It’s hard to believe that a week ago we’d never met. We still have another whole week of training, and I’m so excited to see where we go. One of the first things I said to her when we met was, “we have the whole world ahead of us,” and now I see it. We really do, and I’ll let God take me a happy twist and turn along the way.

until then, “forward.”

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blazing trails with waggy tails: frequently asked questions

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A photo of me at the airport. I’m wearing black leggings and a gray sweater with a daisy in my hair. I’m holding my cane and light green suitcase, looking off to the side.

I’m really, actually doing it: I’m taking a step for my independence and going on my first solo trip to Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) in San Rafael, Cali!

I thought I would make a short post answering some questions people have asked as I’ve talked about getting a guide dog. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments or contact me directly!

Why are you training for two weeks?

for a blind person, a guide dog is like a piece of medical equipment (like a wheelchair), except it’s alive. From an engineer’s view, both a dog and a person are independently functioning systems with ability to think and make decisions. However, if you combine two independent systems, they become co-dependent and have to learn about each other, like a relationship or marriage. Since we can each make decisions independently, we can make mistakes, and have to learn to function as a team. A guide dog handler (me) has to give their dog commands (like forward, left, right), so as a new handler, I have to learn these commands and how to utilize them.

Why doesn’t your dog wear a vest?

guide dogs do not wear vests for the primary reason that their handler is blind. The purpose of guide dogs is to essentially pull me around as I tell them where to go. A vest identifies a service dog (similar to a guide dog, but does different tasks like seizure alert, PTSD dogs, blood sugar alert, etc) to the general public, and is a symbol for the dog that it’s in “working mode.” However, a guide dog’s harness is a rigid, U-shaped handle that not only signals the dog to be working, but is necessary for traveler since the handler is blind.

How do they know when to cross the street?

the short answer is because I tell him to! Contrary to popular belief, dogs can’t read traffic signals, so I have to use both my auditory skills and sometimes remaining vision to know when it’s safe to cross. However, there are always crazy people running red lights and turning illegally. A guide dog is taught “intelligent disobedience,” meaning if he sees a car coming that is unknown to me, he will not go forward until it is safe and saves my life (a cane can’t do that!).

Will your dog live with you/go everywhere with you?

yes! The Americans With Disabilites Act defines a service/guide dog as a dog who is trained to perform specific tasks for a disabled handler. Service dogs are allowed access everywhere, including places that do not normally allow dogs. This excludes comfort animals/emotional support animals whose sole purpose is to be of comfort and not a specific task (like reminding a mentally ill handler to take medication, alerting of an oncoming seizure, or guiding a blind person). Therapy dogs, or dogs that go to hospitals/funeral homes and provide comfort to more than one person have a different set of laws attributed to them.

so yes, my dog will go everywhere I want it to go with me! I’ll use discretion of when would not be a good time or place to have him (like OSU football games, ayee). He can stay alone in high intensity situations where I wouldn’t need much guiding. But he would be allowed in university dorms and my sorority house.

Do you know anything about your dog prior to training?

no, and it kills me to have to wait! While other schools (places guide dogs get trained) might release information prematurely, GDB does a fantastic job at hiding any information from me until the day I receive my dog. This includes name, gender, breed or literally anything about my dog (those stinkers 😉).

Can I pet your dog? Can you pet your dog?

of course I can pet my dog! Physical affection during guide work (harness on) is motivating for my dog and reminds them they’re doing something right. It’s also necessary and healthy for the dog to be loved by its handler, especially when providing a service to me.

regarding others petting my dog, the answer is yes and no. Much has to do with the handler’s own discretion. If you ever see a guide or service dog, please ask of you want to pet the dog, especially if his harness or vest is on!! If you pet a dog while he’s working, or even make eye contact for that matter, you risk distracting the dog from his job and could risk the handler’s life. Even if a dog is laying by their handler and seems to be doing nothing, if the hardness is on, it’s work time. When harness is off, please still ask as this isn’t your dog, but there’s not a risk of distraction since the dog isn’t technically working.

How do they know what dog will suit you if they don’t really know you?

guide dog schools get to know you pretty well during the application process. They usually do some sort of interview and ask you in detail about your travel habits. For example, I explained during my interview that I’m a college student in a large campus and urban area. Often, they match you to a dog that can fit the required energy levels you need for your daily travels. They also match your temperament based on how they perceive you. There is also a small degree of personal preference for breed and gender that they incorporate, but overall it’s about having the best match.

Do you get to name your dog?

unfortunately, no. My dog will be at least a year old, so it has to be called something for its short life! The generous donors have the unique privilege of naming dogs, which causes for some interesting names.

Are you excited?

I’m so excited!! I feel that I would benefit from a guide because of how much walking I do on campus. My vision is very dependent on the correct lighting (i.e. I’m extremely light sensitive which impairs my vision further) and the sun isn’t disappearing any time soon. I especially feel that this will increase my autonomy and independence when traveling on my own as I do in college.

 

what other questions do you have? Stay posted on my journey as I meet my guide this upcoming week and begin to learn about this new phase in my life. you can follow my journey on Facebook for more up to the minute coverage (link below), and as always, thanks for reading and have a sunshiny day! ☀️

I’m no celebrity

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a photo of me, this past June, in Ketchikan, Alaska. I am standing near a central road in the small town, wearing a dark red skirt and white top with dream catchers and holding my white cane with a green grip. In the background, the sign “Welcome to Alaska’s First City: Ketchikan” is visible.

I was sitting, alone, in a glass room in Ohio State’s main library, drinking a frozen hot chocolate on a warm, April night.

Suddenly, someone I had not the pleasure of knowing quietly knocks on the glass and I, not knowing, wave him in.

“I feel like I’ve seen you before, have we met?”

(bear in mind, he’s asking a legally blind person).

“I don’t think we have,” I respond tentatively, “But I’m the girl with the stick around campus, if that helps.”

“Oh yes! I have seen you before!”

My unexpected guest turned out to be a very nice gentleman, who asked me curious yet respectful questions about my blindness, which led to a good conversation. However, this encounter left me realizing that I am more easily remembered than I know.

I’ve had many encounters of different natures, some with strangers and some with people I’d met briefly, over the course of my freshman year.

For example, I joined a sorority last February. On Bid Day (the day you meet a lot of your soon-to-be sisters once you’re asked to join the organization), I was thrilled to begin a new chapter in my life with women who shared similar values with me. However, throughout the next month, I had girls running up to me, squealing, and saying hello. For me, this was not only amusing, but also confusing… Did I actually know these girls? Which, of the many things I’m involved with on campus, organization are they from? Unless they were wearing our chapter’s letters or the sweater we received that day, I was just happy to be receiving free hugs.

A good friend once said, “You’re iconic, with your bright clothes and lipstick and a flower in your hair,” and I’ve come to believe it, but I’m no celebrity. I decided in high school that if people were going to stare, I would surely give them something to stare at, in a positive way. I want my presence to represent blindness, my Christian values, my sorority, and everything I want to stand for.

So, to all of you who say my name to greet me, thank you! If I’ve only met you once, please forgive me for forgetting where I know you from. I haven’t had enough time to know your voice and your lovely personality. But once I know you, you’ll never be forgotten.