Flashback Friday: Good-bye, Lady

Original Post Date; 6/1/2009

In today’s post:

  • Weekends at The Seeing Eye
  • The Leisure Path and Low-Vision Landscaping
  • Occlusion Glasses
  • A fond farewell

Weekends at The Seeing Eye

Both humans and dogs need rest from the grueling pace kept up at The Seeing Eye. Fortunately, this is taken into account. Weekends off an extra hour of sleep, fewer routes, the option to attend religious services shuttled in one of the school’s vans, and visiting hours. The dogs don’t get to go to services on the first weekend because they don’t adapt to change as easily without the human cognitive powers, but you can get your pup properly churched by week #2.

I had a friend from New York who came to visit me since it was just a short train ride from the city. It was great to catch up in person, for once, since most of our communication is online or over the phone.  Incidentally, this is how a lot of my friendships work. With the growing connectivity and accessibility of the internet I’m no longer restricted to just the people in my physical area. Nor do I need to attend a school for the blind to find other visually impaired peers who share my interests. It can be really isolating to be the only blind kid in your area. Thanks for fixing that, Internet!

The Leisure Path

This is a 1/3 mile paved path looping around the grounds of The Seeing Eye’s training facility. It’s a nice, calm location to practice or just get some exercise with your dog on a nice day. There are benches and gazebos along the path for outdoor resting or socializing, and fragrant shrubs and flowers to make the walk “scenic” for the blind.

This brings me to landscaping for the visually impaired.

I love flower gardens. I love flowers. I love water features, paths, benches, areas enclosed by secluding trees or shrubs, arbors and gazebos and little ceramic ducks peering out from behind azaleas. But there are some things that really make a garden atmosphere for me. One of those things is fragrance, a s mentioned above, but another element is the soundscape.

I love the sound of water over stones, splashing into water. I love the sound of birds, and wind in different types of leaves and grasses. But I particularly like the delicate music of windchimes. It turns out that The Seeing Eye has a practical use for windchimes! They hang these lovely little wind ornaments on trees near benches and gazebos to indicate through sound where a traveler along the Leisure Path might rest her feet and her puppy’s paws.

Occlusion Glasses

I applied to one other dog guide school before The Seeing Eye, sometime in high school. Naturally, I applied to one much closer to where I lived. Part of that application process was spending an afternoon walking around the community college campus where I was finishing high school with a representative of that school, who would evaluate my O&M skills, see if I was competent enough to handle a dog. It wouldn’t be fair to pair a dog with someone who would confuse it and not be able to give it good directions or guidance, so this is a reasonable and common step in most schools’ evaluation processes.

But the conclusion of that visit kind of stunned me. The lovely lady who had followed me around for the day told me I had too much vision to get a dog.

Wait – what?

Too much vision! I’d been the blindness non-totally-blind person I knew my entire life. Everyone I knew marveled at how LITTLE vision I had, and how well I kept up in a sight-oriented world. No one had EVER told me I had too much vision, or even good vision. But the rep was concerned that I would rely too much on my vision and not enough on the dog’s training. If I couldn’t trust the dog, I’d unintentionally train the dog to think it didn’t need to do its job, and then we’d be in trouble. I’d be lost or in danger, the dog would be confused, and its talents and the time and energy that went into training it would be wasted. It was a reasonable concern.

Upon reflection I realize that what the representative probably meant was that I made too good use of what little vision I had left. I sent them a report of how blind I was, which is why they sent the rep in the first place. I was blind enough, but so good at adapting that they were convinced they couldn’t train me to adapt to working with a dog. This is a frustratingly narrow belief about the ability of humans to learn and adapt. Adaptation is a way of life for every human, and we should depend on that more than on fixed perspectives.

The Seeing Eye had a solution for this adaptation confusion. It’s called “occlusion glasses.” They take a pair of sunglasses, cover them in black electrical tape, and even build out the edges of the glasses to essentially create light-weight, non-air-tight goggles that fully blind the wearer. This allows the wearer, a partially sighted person who is blind enough to need a canine partner’s assistance, to learn to transfer their trust from their own unreliable vision to the dog’s reliable training.

On a white background sits a pair of sunglasses. The insides of the lenses are painted black, and there are triangles of black felt attached to the frames and ear pieces to occlude peripheral vision.

Basically, I practiced being totally blind so that I would respond to Prada’s cues and signals identically in daylight, uncertain light, or night time. I learned to trust her. That’s what the other school didn’t know if they could teach me. Their loss.

I made a set of these for myself for practice purposes, and also to wear after getting my eyes dilated to the size of dinner plates every couple of years during routine eye appointments.

A Fond Farewell

Grab tissues, my friends…it’s a sad, sweet story.

I’d been worried for a while how my very shy, petite sheltie, Lady, would handle Prada. TSE trains their dogs to be submissive to other pets, but as an anxious young woman that really didn’t penetrate my churning stomach or whirling mind.  It turns out I had nothing to worry about, but not in a good way.

During finals of my freshman year my mother had called me to tell me she thought Lady might not make it until I came home. She’d been having health issues, and at 13 and eating cheap dry kibble and not getting regular exercise this seemed normal. I struggled through finals, forgot to turn in an entire essay (thank God for Dr. Sanders, who called me after I’d flown home to ask me about that!), and got to spend about a month with Lady before hopping off to train with Prada.

During that month Lady seemed to do very well. She’d gone to the vet, gotten medications, wasn’t having any more seizures, and we spent a lot of time playing and snuggling together. I thank God for that time together, getting to reunite and enjoy her company after spending a year away at college. Still, it was heartbreaking when my mom called to tell me that she’d had to put Lady down.

Anneliese and a small shelter peek out from a pile of autumn leaves so that only their faces are visible.

I don’t’ know the exact date. I got the call on June 2nd, but I don’t remember much of what Mom said that day. I know she did it to ease Lady’s suffering, that it was the right choice and there was nothing to be done about it. I remember throwing my arms around Prada and sobbing into her silky coat, and her nuzzling me and returning the hug, tucking her chin over my shoulder.

I’ve learned that I heal from loss when I have a “rebound relationship,” but that the rebound can develop into a fully loving relationship. I grieved Prada’s untimely end by submitting my application for a new dog that same night. Er, morning. It was like 4am. Having Prada to hug and repair my sense of loss while I grieved my childhood companion eased the sense of isolation a great deal.

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