reflecting on Ro: the pros and cons of having a guide dog

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description: Carlos, Ro, and I, pictured from behind, walking on a sidewalk in Arkansas. I’m grabbing on to Ro’s harness and we’re all side by side.

If you’ve seen me in person, it’s nothing short from obvious that I do indeed have a guide dog. I’ve had Romana for about a year and a half now, which is baffling to me since I feel like it’s been both a day and a lifetime. Ro is my pal, my leader, my baby, and my sassy queen, and I’m still so grateful to have on my left side for what I hope will be a long time.

Recently, a friend who is considering the guide life messaged me asking if I would share my own personal pros and cons to having a guide. While answering her, I really reflected on what having Ro has done for and meant to me, and I figured I’d share my response.

Pros: obviously, I have so many good things to share about my pal! this list isn’t comprehensive, just some of the many things I’ve particularly loved from the past year and a half.

  1. my dog is wonderful, first of all. the school I got her from did an excellent job at matching our personalities, so she’s nearly an extension of me!
  2. yes, it’s true: you can take your dog anywhere! unless it’s somewhere super sanitary like a piercing parlor or an operating room, your dog has as much right to be there as any human person. I say this pro reluctantly because it’s a double-edged sword as most of the cons to having a guide are. nonetheless, it is a pro, and sometimes it’s just comforting to know you’re not alone because your pal is with you
  3. major pro: if you’re used to using a cane (or nothing at all), the concept of “intelligent disobedience” is fascinating and unlike anything. Romana has prevented me from walking when a car was backing out of a driveway last summer, and I had no idea.
  4. from an engineering standpoint, when you have two independent systems working in tandem, you generally have much higher efficiency. I’ve definitely seen that to be the case when working with Ro as opposed to using a cane or nothing since I can walk much faster and more effortlessly, just following her and gliding along. it really is a freeing feeling to be able to trust your dog and not have to worry about being almost hyper-aware of your surroundings like when you’re using nothing
  5. she remembers routes, so it adds to that whole “effortlessness” thing. there’s a route we would take a lot for the past year on campus, and I know that when Ro is on it, she’ll take me exactly where I want to go
  6. I can train her to find things that are important to me. normally, a guide will avoid all obstacles unless otherwise directed. however, if I wanted to find, say, an empty chair, I’ve trained her how to locate them with something called clicker training which the school taught me when training with her. through the clicker and positive reinforcement, Ro knows how to find doors, trashcans, stairs, water fountains, chairs, poles, curbs, and yes, even Starbucks (“find coffee!”)
  7. I find the “follow” technique to be super useful. say you’re in an airport and someone is leading you somewhere. rather than going sighted guide and grabbing a random stranger, you can tell your dog to “follow” accompanied by a hand gesture, and your dog will “torpedo” them
  8. she also can locate humans! this wasn’t something I trained her to do and honestly they don’t encourage it in training, but she’s smart enough that she picked up “who’s who” in my life. she knows all three other members of my family as well as my boyfriend, and can find the right person fairly accurately. this actually came in super useful at Disney over Christmas break because there were so many people that “follow” became confusing. yet, when I told her to “find mama” and she followed my mom at her heels!
  9. (shameless and biased plug) I’ve found the school I got her from (Guide Dogs for the Blind) has been an amazing resource. they offer veterinary financial assistance, which not a lot of schools have, to help offset medical costs, and will reimburse you for medications including flea and heartworm. I’ve also been able to call them in cases of behavioral issues and have received great advice, as well as guidance for access issues. also, GDB doesn’t let you own your dog until after the first year to make sure you both are getting on well, but now I can say that romana is officially my dog ❤ I also learn quickly, so I appreciated the two week training period as opposed to some three or four week programs.
    • also, a shoutout to all the puppy raisers (especially Janet!), donors, trainers, admissions staff, advocates, and everyone who helps support independence for people like me! thank you so much for investing of yourselves to enhance our quality of life; you are so valued!
  10. bonding with your dog is an experience unlike any other. it’s very (very) hard at first, but after the first 8 months to a year, you’re both inseparable. I sometimes feel as if I can read her mind, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that because I truthfully was never an animal lover before I got my dog. she still never ceases to surprise me, but that’s all part of the fun!
  11. these dogs are highly trained and quite frankly the cream of the crop, pick of the litter. behaviorally, they’re on point in harness (assuming you’re doing your part as a handler); physically, they’re well bred and chosen (although things can come along the way). these dogs love to work and they will love you.

Cons: Although I love my pup, there are always times when it’s difficult for one reason or another. Many of these cons are a reversed pro, as it goes, but these negative things are what make the positive things that much sweeter.

  1. my dog is wonderful, but she’s still a dog and makes mistakes. your dog will never be perfect, and you have to learn to forgive them and forgive yourself. I remember the first several months being devastated when Ro would get into the trash, my food, or things around her because I wasn’t watching and felt like a horrible handler. the fact is, as well trained as they are, those things will happen, and they’ll wreck you every time if you don’t forgive yourself.
  2. the nature of agreeing to have a service dog comes with the obvious notion that you are willingly signing up to have a living thing be dependent on you. no one ever forces you to get a service dog; on the contrary, agencies and schools have to ensure that you are in good enough health and in a reasonable financial situation to care for your dog. it’s by definition going to require work on your part. when you’re a cane-user (or a nothing-user?), you can get home and throw your cane on the floor and forget about it until the next time you leave. with a dog, you obviously have to care for its needs, including feeding, grooming, relieving, and loving on your pal. it’s super important to consider if your lifestyle would allow for caring for a dog when considering one
  3. not only is there work on your part to take care of your dog, but your dog’s training is never really “over” until he/she retires. you have to constantly be reinforcing good behaviors and discouraging bad ones. otherwise, you can theoretically “undo” all the training your dog received, rendering them useless from a work perspective and ill-behaved in the general public. you both are always learning things, so you’ve gotta have your head in the game too
  4. people have “off-days,” and likewise, dogs have them too. they could happen with reason, like she hasn’t been working much for a while like on a break or I’ve been pretty lenient lately and she begins to take liberties, or without reason. you might get irritated on days your dog isn’t “in the game” and distracted, but it goes back to being able to forgive them, and potentially having food rewards for them to get their motivation back up
  5. interaction with the general public was the hardest thing for me to deal with when first having my dog. people will take an invested interest in your dog, especially, it seems, at times you would prefer to be incognito. you will be subject to people’s ignorance with:
    1. asking direct, improper questions (“what’s your disability?”)
    2. making passive-aggressive comments (“I REALLY want to pet your dog and I know I can’t, but it’s so hard to resist!”)
    3. stating blatant denials (“you can’t have dogs here”)
    4. exciting the children around you (“doggy! doggy!”)
    5. being therapy (“she looks like my dog who died”)
    6. inciting many, many dog-related questions (“what’s that thing on her face?” about her gentle leader, or any number of “how old is she?” and “how long have you had her?”)
    7. breaking self-control (with people touching or distracting your dog; kissy noises are a personal *favorite* of mine — sarcasm intended)
    8. attracting many more stares than normal (and “normal” is many stares, so it exponentially increases)
    9. having interest in only your dog, and not you
    10. and for me since I have some vision, asking if you’re training her and not readily believing she really works for you
  6. I’ll say this as frankly as possible: access denials suck. it’s so painful to be rejected for using a tool that ultimately improves your quality of life. I was denied a sublease last summer (which I fought back); a Lyft driver once drove past and cancelled my ride; I’ve had countless questioning on the legitimacy of my dog and demanding certification (not legal, btw); and much more. truthfully for as many Ubers/Lyfts as I’ve taken while having her, I haven’t been denied nearly as much as some people I know, but it’s a lifelong thing. part of the expectation when you get a dog is that you have to educate the world around you, and it gets exhausting sometimes, but it’s good to keep in mind that you might be making a future handler’s life a bit easier by making yours a bit harder
  7. the likelihood is that you will outlive your dog in their working life as well as their life in general. this might be obvious since this happens when you have even a pet, but losing a guide (can’t say from personal experience) is extremely painful since you’re with them all the time and have such a strong bond. of course, you can get a successor dog, but each dog is different and there will never be any dog like yours

All in all, my experience with Ro has been challenging and positive. I’m so proud of us for both growing together over fifteen months, and am thrilled to keep doing life with her. as always, if you have any questions, feel free to send them my way! keep your tails moving and eyes fixed “forward,” and have a sunshiny day ☀️

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what do you want to do with your life?

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A Snapchat of me taken  by a friend during finals week last spring. The caption reads, “Studying Calc 1172 Whoo! “and shows me bent over my computer and iPad, both of which are very zoomed in.  I am working out a problem on my iPad which can be seen slightly on my computer screen.

“What’s your major?”

computer science and engineering.

“wow, you must be super smart! I could never do that!”

 

let me be clear: I am not a genius. I am not acing my classes with ease. Being “smart” is very relative to the environment you’re in, but aptitude is absolute. Every major is difficult in some way —  for instance, I could never ever draft a marketing plan — but we are created to do different things.

I chose to study engineering and technology because I love how tech works. When I got my first computer, I was fascinated how one setting could impact the entire system’s performance. I taught myself a lot, including what not to do to a computer (I nearly broke it, whoops), but I knew I wanted to do something with computers.

as a freshman in high school, I took a course in HTML programming. HTML is the language of the internet, and almost every web page uses HTML in it. Although most computer scientists will tell you that HTML is “cheater code,” meaning it requires almost no skill in programming logic and computer decision making and is based in English, the entire concept of code thrilled me. I could type some symbols in my computer and after some hard work catching errors I could make something that other people could use!

before going to college, I tried as much as I could. I learned basic programming logic through Microsoft’s Visual Basic (now called “obsolete”), MATLAB (which I now refer to as a “glorified calculator”), and learning IT basics, such as computer hardware and general troubleshooting strategies. On my college search, I loved Ohio State’s program since it combined computer science (software based) with the problem solving skills required in engineering without so much emphasis on hardware.

did I ever consider any other major before going to college? Sure! I thought about dietetics once I was diagnosed with bowel disease, but it would’ve required a lot more chemistry classes than I was thinking. I briefly thought about nursing, seeing as how nurses have often saved my life with the simplest things, but I would’ve had to work against my vision daily to stick an IV or read the blood pressure monitor. However, in computer science, I can use technology to enhance my view of things so I can read my own code. Brilliant!

I started college, and as most firsts year students quickly realize, I was now average. there will always be someone in your class that takes a perfect midterm, answers every question, is a quadruple major, and has a crazy side project of developing the next greatest app. While I could use assistive technology, professors write on chalkboards, give lots of handouts paper, and aren’t aware of students with disabilities unless they themselves choose to disclose. I’ve run into many challenges, including failing my first calculus quiz because I couldn’t read the graph, stumbling my way through engineering drawings with no depth perception, and a combative professor who was reluctant to handle my accommodations.

on a different note, I’ve also learned that professors are people too. Most do care and will help you if you are open and honest with them. I never use my disability as an excuse for not doing work and as soon as my professors see that, they can even relate to you on a more personal level. My first semester, I selectively disclosed to professors and rarely used my cane. However, after an initial phone interview with Guide Dogs for the Blind, I used my cane everywhere. I never stopped to think until it was much too late that the professor I was seeing for office hours knew nothing about my vision and panicked when I walked in with my cane, even though she did nothing wrong. We later discussed it and she was extremely helpful, but she still felt unnecessarily guilty, which I felt bad for.

But why do I suffer through difficult classes, dense theories, and hours upon hours of rectifying my code so it actually works? Until last April, I couldn’t have accurately said. Yet seeing as assistive technology, like the use of my iPad or zoom feautes on my MacBook were essential to my success (not to mention good friends, study buddies, and the Lord so I didn’t go insane), I realized I wanted to provide a similar experience to others.

there are extremely few persons with disabilities in STEM fields, namely because they aren’t easy or easily accessible. Disabled people have struggles that most able-bodied people take for granted, but we learn to adapt and make lemonade out of limes. However it’s 2016, at the dawn of what some might argue is a technological revolution, and we have the right to make our already complicated lives a bit easier. Engineering can be for everyone, or even going up stairs without a ramp for people with mobility disorders.

all this to define what I want to do with my life, yes, but more importantly to share why I’m passionate about code that prints out stars in a pattern. The seemingly silly things I’m learning now could very well be the building blocks of my future. The theories and logic I have jumbled in my brain is not just to regurgitate on an exam, but as an active part of the learning process. The often over-quoted Scripture “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” has merit in that He will strengthen you for the difficult tasks ahead that fall according to His purpose for you. I may not know what exactly I’ll do or where I’ll do it, but for now, I’ll do my math proofs and suck up whatever I can on this bumpy ride called college: it only comes once most of the time, so seize it.

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.”

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.