Cosplay Canes Conquer Anxiety

Did you know cosplaying can be good for your mental health?

Half a dozen people in fantasy-style medieval costumes sit around a wooden table. Anneliese, in a long blue vest and faun antlers, is on the right, facing the camera.

As a fantasy writer I feel I finally have a legitimate excuse to spend time and money on grown-up dress-up. It’s a new hobby I’m just beginning to explore, but one that I’ve appreciated from afar for quite some time. This past summer I had the chance to meet up with a regular group of cosplayers for a themed tea party at my favorite café. It wasn’t just fun to stroll around in a jerkin and horns and make new friends, it unexpectedly provided me an unlooked-for opportunity to tackle some blindness-related insecurities.

Part of my experience as a blind person has been wondering how people perceive my physical shortcomings, like my inability to navigate around furniture without ping-ponging off the edges or my tendency to slam my shoulder into door frames on my way through. I run into people, have a hard time determining what is and isn’t a line waiting at a register, or determining if there’s space to go around a group of people in my way, or if I should just try to slip through them as subtly as anyone with a long white cane can.

I wonder if people’s frantic attempts to clear paths for me, constant apologizing when I’m the one who bumped into them, and inordinate praise for successfully performing daily tasks is compassion or condescension. Do we as a society perceive coordination as courtesy, unless provided with mitigating circumstances? What would these people think if I didn’t proclaim my excuse card by walking into every room with a reflective cane or a harnessed German shepherd?

I wasn’t thinking about any of that, though, when I decided that a leather-wrapped bamboo pole felt more period-appropriate for my costume than the graphite stick wrapped in reflective material I normally carried. I donned my jerkin, horns, leggings, and un-authentic flats (I’m on a budget), grabbed the bamboo, and headed out to the car. And literally ran into two problems right away.

#1        Wearing extra appendages such as horns, tails, or wings can render my finely tuned proprioception irrelevant. The doorframe of the car nearly took my horns off as I slid into the passenger seat.

#2        Bamboo doesn’t fold up as conveniently as my normal cane. The car was bigger than a shoebox, so we were able to fit the pole in the back seat just fine, but I began to realize this might be more complicated than I’d imagined. Would I be able to find somewhere to stow it at the coffee shop where it would be easy to grab but not trip anyone else moving around the table?

The Dragons Forge café is exactly what it sounds like, except when it comes to size. As cozy as the name might sound, it actually occupies a large, airy space in the Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment building, a historic factory converted into an arts community. I had no trouble finding somewhere to put my make-shift cane during the event. But before we even made it to the café’s 2nd-floor location I ran into another problem (figuratively his time).

As my co-author and best friend Galadriel (yes, that’s her real name, check out her book here) rode the old freight elevator and walked through the wide, high-ceilinged hallways I found myself growing more and more tense. I was listening harder than normal, trying to perceive quiet conversations around me over the noisy fans trying to keep the Alabama heat at bay..

Were people cursing at me for tripping over their feet? Was that guy offended that I grazed his shoulder turning that corner? Are those ladies wondering why I apparently can’t walk in a straight line without my friend grabbing my arm every few seconds/ I realized I was just holding the bamboo stick loosely in my hand like a staff, not using it like a cane. It didn’t feel like one, so my brain hadn’t automatically put it to use. I made a conscious effort, and had to keep doing that to maintain the rhythm and angle I’d learned so well more than fifteen years ago.

We reached the café, found our group, and settled in for a fun couple of hours. We spent most of the time in character, and I learned I wasn’t the only first-timer there.  I started to relax and have a good time. It was exactly how I’d wanted to spend the day, with people who shared my interests and enjoyed new experiences and new friends. The background music made its inevitable journey from atmospheric fantasy tracks to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, and it was about time I got myself a White Dragon.

I retraced the by-now familiar path to the counter, performed my usual trick of asking the air in the cashier’s general direction if there was a line, and discovered there wasn’t. By the time I finished ordering my White Dragon, a vanilla latte with almond milk, and a bowl of tavern stew, though, several people had decided I had the right idea and were loosely clustered behind me, ready to witness and judge the dreaded cash-register Exchange.

This interaction has made me anxious since my mom first physically pushed me toward a counter, sometime in middle school. She’d already tried encouragement and firm words, but recognizing that my body was locked up in fear and not wanting me to let that limit my future, she gently shoved me forward until I stood at the register. I got through handing the cashier my cash with shaking hands and a voice barely above a whisper. Though the purchase of…whatever it was back then…went smoothly, the anxiety didn’t ease for years.

But I had a cane, people could recognize why it might take me longer to fumble my way through this every-day activity. Id’ be fine. So I ordered my stew and latte, pulled out my credit card, and felt along the counter for where I knew the little card reader usually rested. I got the card in the slot, it began its usual mysterious series of beeps, and I gave the cashier a chagrined smile. “Sorry, I’m blind. I’ll need help with the touch screen.”

“oh, yeah, I can’t see anything without my glasses, either,” the cashier said. Nothing happened.

“No, seriously, I’m blind, ‘ I finally realized she hadn’t understood. “I can’t see the screen.” I went to gesture with my cane, the top of which ought to be very visible over the counter – and suddenly realized why the cashier was confused. I didn’t have my cane. I had a leather-wrapped bamboo staff that went great with my medieval Tiefling costume.

The lovely cashier and I had a good laugh over the incident, and the people behind me chuckled a little, too. But you know what? I didn’t remember that detail of the story, our communal amusement, until I sat down to write this post.

I rewrote this post three, maybe four times, trying to appropriately capture the anxiety of not having my excuse for clumsiness recognized. Let’s ignore, for just a moment, how much that need for an excuse says about my inner perfectionism, though. Instead, I’d like to show you another aspect of anxiety, how it can actually change our long-term memories.

Studies have demonstrated for decades that engaging in visualizations and daydreams stimulate the sensory processing function of the brain in the same way that actually walking on a beach or going down an endless flight of stairs would. The brain can’t tell the difference between a good daydream and a real experience. This is one of the reasons that visualizing a positive outcome to a future stressful experience can make you feel more confident. The brain thinks it’s already succeeded, so what’s left to worry about?

But it also works the other way around. If you spend a lot of time meditating on what could go wrong, on your worst fears, your brain will consider that part of reality, process it like a real experience, and attach it to other relevant stored data. So when I combined the awkward credit-card exchange with my lack of cane and my fear of others not understanding why I couldn’t function the way they did, my brain inserted mutters and whispers behind my back that never actually happened!

Something felt off when drafting this post. That’s why I kept writing it. I’ve learned to trust that instinct; it’s what’s going to give you guys a fantastic character-driven nautical fantasy novel in a few weeks. When I feel that “wrongness” I know something in my writing needs work. So I took my hands off my keyboard, went upstairs to make a fresh cup of coffee, and meditated on the experience I was trying to describe.

I found I had two conflicting reflections on my experience. I could remember the tension, the stress, the embarrassment. And I could remember laughing at myself, enjoying a communal joke with people who had their own cosplay mishaps, and being vaguely surprised that things had gone as pleasantly as they had. Knowing that I had a history of assuming the worst I could pretty easily determine that the mutterings were the false memory.

But that meant that the moment of humorous fellowship was reality.

No one had muttered or cursed or shifted impatiently or let out long sighs of frustration while I navigated the mundane obstacle course of the cash register. Not a single condescending “oh bless your heart” came out of anyone’s mouth. Instead there was friendly laughter that I initiated because I had genuinely been amused by my own forgetfulness of the familiar symbol of my cane and how much I thoughtlessly depended on it. I’d learned something interesting about myself, and others, and we’d all appreciated the uniqueness of the experience.

A lot of freshly blind people struggle with the publicity of the cane. It declares your disability for all to see, plasters “I need help” on your front and back. It can feel humiliating, especially if you’ve lived forty years with the illusion of independence that being able-bodied provides. But if you never pick up that cane you’ll never give yourself the chance to disprove all of your dreaded assumptions, all the fears fermenting in the back of your mind and actively changing how you see the world.

I don’t want to imprint false memories of rude, patronizing people into my brain when reality has the potential to be so much more fun and interesting.

I also don’t want to spend my fun cosplay outings apologizing for bumping into people, so for the sheer practicality of recognition I probably won’t try costume canes again. And being able to fold my cane makes traveling with other inconveniences like broadswords and longbows a little less frustrating. But I am grateful for both the experience I had, and the way that writing this blog post allowed me to process it. It changed me, even four months after the fact.

If you enjoyed this post then there are a couple more you should look forward to. Next month I’ll be writing more about my experience as a blind fantasy author, and the month after that I’ll be officially announcing the publication of my book. But I also have a guest post planned about disability representation in tabletop roleplaying games. And sometime in the new year I’m going to tackle the topic of long reflective canes for the blind that come in more colors than just white and red.

But for now I’d like to leave you with one final thought. If you could choose to create pleasant, or unpleasant memories, I assume you’d choose the former. So take five minutes today, pick a low-stress experience you’re not looking forward to, and try to imagine every detail of the most positive outcome possible. Like I explained in last week’s post, you can survive disappointment if the best doesn’t happen. But how it changes your anxiety into anticipation, and your perception of the real event, will be worth the time you take now to prepare.

Until next time, I am your favorite blindfluencer reminding you to always look on the dark side.

The Right to Hope

We sat in chairs arranged in a circle in a room about the size of a high school classroom. A man presided over the ring of high school students, designating the “head” of the group, with other facilitators and staff ranged around the outside of the room. I was jet-lagged, hadn’t yet converted to the way of coffee, and underwhelmed by the hype surrounding this conference. It was about to get worse.

“I’m going to ask you all a question,” said the lead facilitator. “You’ll each get a chance to answer, we’ll go ahead and start on my left and go around the circle. Ready? Ok, here goes.”

“if you could take a pill today to have your sight fully restored, would you do it?”

I was a little surprised at the number of kids who enthusiastically said “no,” they loved their blindness, their lives were pretty awesome the way they were. But I was intrigued. I didn’t hate being disabled, and it was nice to be around people who didn’t see it as unusual or pitiable. But when we got around the circle I was the only one who said “yes, I’d take that pill.”

For the next ten minutes both staff and students alike proceeded to shame me for having a bitter, unaccepting attitude toward my disability. I didn’t recognize what they were doing at the time; I argued back, and was really annoyed and disappointed that all their arguments were based on emotion, not logic. Not one of them actually disproved my points, they just kept telling me I’d be bitter someday if I didn’t change my mind.

It took me years to recognize the bullying and peer pressure that went on in that room, and others like it over the next two years. It wasn’t until this past year that I finally learned the term “toxic positivity,” where parts of reality are suppressed because, instead of empathizing with troubles, people will encourage you to death thinking positivity is the cure for pain.

So is it really any surprise that, though I became a Christian in 1993, attended church my entire life, witnessed to unbelievers, went on mission trips, taught Sunday school, lead prayer and youth ministries, and memorized over 800 separate Scriptures before I graduated high school, it never occurred to me to pray to have my sight restored?

Never once did I ask God to heal my blindness, to open my eyes. Not until 2015. It took another 3 years for me to ask someone else to pray for my sight, too.

I was taught by well-intentioned leaders in the blind community that hope for a cure ruled out the possibility of accepting one’s disability. They were presented as mutually exclusive options. They were also presented as feelings. If one felt hope, one couldn’t feel peace, contentment, acceptance. And hope would inevitably lead to disappointment, and disappointment to despair, and despair bitterness.

No wonder I joined the Dark Side

I didn’t want to be bitter. It’s a passive-aggressive attitude that harms others until they learn to distance themselves. You can’t show God’s love to others like that, and that’s what I wanted to do. So I chose acceptance and buried hope. After all, the eye specialist I saw regularly at the Oregon Health Sciences University had been telling me “we’ll have a cure in 5-20 years” for…about 20 years. There wasn’t anything concrete to set my hopes on, so I didn’t.

But one evening in July of 2015 my husband and I found ourselves having dinner with a couple who were definitely on the more charismatic side of the Catholic spectrum than I’d had any idea existed. My husband and I are Protestant, more or less evangelical in nature, and so this led to a fascinating after-dinner conversation about the nature of the Holy Spirit, faith-healing, and modern miracles.

Then these lovely people told us that they’d received a vision claiming God would begin to heal my sight soon, and they wanted to be part of that process, so would I mind if they prayed over my eyes?

What could it hurt? I thought. I said yes.

They did the whole show, laying hands over my eyes (with my permission), speaking in an unknown language (without translation), for a solid 2 minutes of intensely focused prayer. It was moving to see people so committed, so unrestrained in their hope and absolutely dedicated to wanting me to see clearly, wanting to be part of that experience.

For the record, I am actually slightly more blind now than I was on that date. No miracle happened, my condition progresses normally. I’m vaguely disappointed, but not too much so. It would have been nice, but if they’d actually performed a miracle today you might not have ever learned the term “blindfluencer,” because I made it up to describe myself. So, you’re welcome?

My husband and I talked over the experience on the drive home. At one point we pulled over and I called my parents to ask them if anyone in our family history had ever prayed over my eyes, either like that or less dramatically. They said some people had offered, early on, but that nothing came of it.

When my husband suggested we try it I dismissed the suggestion and changed the subject. It was reflexive, so smooth and instinctive that I didn’t really think about it until the next day. And then the next, and the next. I started asking myself why I’d never prayed for my sight to be restored, and the answer I kept coming to was “if it doesn’t work I’ll just be disappointed.”

So, what was so bad about disappointment? I asked my journal.

Disappointment leads to despair, despair to bitterness.

Hope and Acceptance aren’t feelings. They’re lifestyles.

Acceptance happens when I choose not to let tripping on a coffee table or embarrassing myself playing keep-away with my credit card at a cash register ruin my day or change how I view my disability. Acceptance is acknowledging when my disability is inconvenient, painful or limiting, and then choosing daily, sometimes hourly to put it in its proper place, a fraction of my life that fits into an incredibly beautiful, powerful whole. I can be frustrated with needing friends to pick me up if we’re going to hang out but still not hate my life or see myself as a burden because I’m more than blind, and blindness is more than inconvenience.

And hope? Hope isn’t a feeling either. It can be felt, but the absence of that feeling does not constitute hopelessness. I realize that I have hoped for a cure my whole life, whether I thought about it or not. I go to regular eye screenings at OHSU, I keep abreast of scientific advances that might benefit me. And in 30 years that has included mild disappointment, but not despair, and certainly not bitterness.

The equation is wrong. The path from Disappointment to bitterness isn’t inevitable. It’s just one path of many. I can survive disappointment. I know because I’ve been doing it every day of my life. Disappointment is a normal part of life, and to avoid it diminishes our capacity to accept it when it comes along. So, I learned to pray for a cure.

The first time I did it, I did it silently in my head. My heart pounded, my body coursed with adrenaline. And then I went on with my day. It happened the same way the first time I wrote a prayer for my sight in my journal. Years of fearing what change might happen to me if I gave in, physically absorbed memories of dire warnings and brow-beatings shook through my hands let out in little trickles as I took baby steps toward fully realizing my right to hope.

I have the right to hope for a cure.

I want to see 20/20 someday.

I cried the first time I asked other people to pray that prayer for me. I was wired like I’d had three cups of coffee in one sitting for the rest of that day. Nothing terrible happened that day, or in the four years since then. I live with more joy now than I could have imagined four years ago.

I have daydreams of what my life might be like in a future – or even a present – where I can see. I have an Amazon Wishlist of journals, study Bibles, and telescopes, and I’ve even allowed myself to write down some of these sight-dreams (always to be instantly erased, because eradicating fear of being shamed takes years).

Three things I want to do if – when – my sight is restored.

  • 1. I want to create and organize photo albums that tell the interwoven narratives of my life.
  • 2. I want to take a solo road trip across the US
  • 3. I want to be able to sight-read from a hymnal so playing piano for church doesn’t required hours of practice and memorization.

I’ve got a list longer than that hidden in a complex file tree in Google Drive. I hope you can appreciate how hard it is for me to share this with you, even now. For as many advantages as it’s given me, the peculiar adulation and the unique introductions, getting to bring my dog with me everywhere, I wish I weren’t blind. But that wish doesn’t dominate more than a fraction of a percent of my thoughts in any given moment.

I don’t pray for healing every day, or even every week. I did for a while, partially as a ritual to cleanse myself of the fear of it. But now I only pray for it when it crosses my mind, which isn’t every day. How much of that is just because I have a lot going on, and how much is a lingering avoidance instinct I couldn’t venture to say. But if someone offered to pray over my eyes again I would say yes.

Three Reasons I wish I weren’t Blind

  • 1. I want to be able to set my own work schedule independently of others’ schedule.
  • I’d love to be able to run errands without taking up others’ time.
  • I want to be able to read my own mail, a hymnal, informed consent at a doctor’s office, a menu at a restaurant.

I’ve found work-arounds, solutions, and consolations for each of these, and thousands of other problems. But each work-around takes time, and not just mine. I have the right to wish, to pray, that I could function as independently as anyone else.

I live hope with acceptance.

I pray for a cure with unceasing gratitude.

I acknowledge my pain, because denying it exists would never allow me to heal.

Flashback Friday: The Scoop

Original Post Dates: May 28-29

I’ve combined a couple of posts that were rather short and scattered into one (hopefully) more coherent narrative. Today I’m going to cover more bonding with Prada, preparing for the Solo Run, and “the astronaut’s question.”

Prada continues to change her eating habits, but at least I’ve figured out her play-style. What do those things have to do with each other/ Well, she’s stills tressed, but she’s giving me the time of day. She’s trying to form a relationship, even though the world is unsatisfactory at the moment.

Prada likes to wrestle. My hands have tiny little marks over them because, as gentle as she is, she still has teeth. She’s never broken the skin, and she is absolutely adorable when she pounces at me or tries to hold my hand down with one of her paws. It’s a good way to spend a few minutes while we wait for kibble to arrive.

We’re having fewer Shannon-attacks, though she still gets excited whenever the head trainer is around. I feel like I’ve utterly failed to convince her that I’m a good person, then she asks for belly scratches and I begin to hope again. Every trainer I’ve talked toa assures me this is very typical and I’m not doing anything wrong and that everything’ll be much easier once we’re away from the distracting influence. I just need to focus on the fact that, as intensely as Prada bonded with Shannon, someday it’ll be me she can’t seem to live without.

We’re preparing for our Solo Run, which isn’t a run at all. It’s an evaluation that allows trainers to determine our strengths and weaknesses. Each dog and handler team picks up different concepts more quickly than others, so the training curricula have to be personalized, and the Solo Run is one of the tools by which that’s accomplished.

Prada and I, and another working team, will travel a route through downtown Morrison without the guidance of a trainer. There will be one within sight of us at all times to help with emergencies because safety always comes first. But we’ll receive no hints, or. Even directions. We’ll be responsible for memorizing the routes and directing, correcting, and encouraging the dogs just like we’ll have to once we graduate.

Today was like a practice-test. We worked our route with a trainer alongside, but the trainer provided no assistance – except running interference between the other working team and an overly-enthusiastic rottweiler cross on a leash. Handling encounters with other dogs is something service dogs need to be able to do, but it’s covered later in the training because it’s a real challenge for them.

Seeing Eye dogs come into handler-training knowing everything they’re supposed to know, but just like we students aren’t given full responsibilities while we get used to our dogs, their loads are lightened (i.e. not needing to handle dog distractions independently) at first because of the shocking amount of changes going on in their lives.

We completed this practice run with flying colors. Prada has routinely showed me a pizza shop along the way, which I take to be a good sign. She made one significant traffic error on our way home, though. As we turned a corner and prepared to cross the street Prada dove into the crosswalk without stopping at the curb like she’s supposed to.

Guide dogs are supposed to stop at street corners to indicate the proximity to a street. The handler then signals a turn, continue down the street, or determines when it’s safe to begin crossing and gives the “forward” command. If it truly is safe, the dog proceeds to lead across the street. If not, the dog refuses to obey (intelligent disobedience, remember this post).

Prada didn’t wait for that “forward” command. We were on the way home, it was the end of the day, and she decided we were going whether I told her or not. I corrected her, we worked back a few feet and approached the curb again, and she stopped this time, and got lots of praise.

Traffic errors are some of the most serious a dog can make. It warrants a full two-handed leash correction, along with a harsh verbal “pfui” to enforce how serious the mistake was. But when dogs make mistakes they’re almost always given the opportunity to re-work the situation and do better. It’s more important to re-enforce a successful maneuver than to emphasize the failure.

Confident dogs behave more consistently, live longer, and are happier in general. That’s why TSE, and any dog trainer worth their salt, focuses on positive reinforcement, with correction being an unfortunate and secondary necessity. Incidentally, this is true of people, too. Encouragement actually helps the human brain to store lessons in long-term memory

All right, “the astronaut’s question.”

“how do you go to the bathroom in space?”

Whenever they show a Q&A of an astronaut on tv someone always asks that question. Well, it’s also the most frequent question I’ve gotten about training with a Seeing Eye dog. Yes, I’ve covered this in a previous post, but it keeps coming up so here are some more details.

“What do blind people do when their service dogs have to go?”

First, a little history lesson.

The Seeing Eye used to be based out of a hotel in Nashville. There was a park across the street where students would go to relieve their dogs. This gave rise to the term “park time.” Spell it backwards and you get…you’ll figure it out.

So, from now on you’ll be hearing me refer to “park time,” if I haven’t been already. Now, how does park time work?

Seeing Eye dogs are kept on a pretty strict feeding and watering schedule. This allows us to predict, even to some degree control, when food and water comes back out. This makes it easier to ensure I’ll be near a convenient location when it’s park time. So when it’s time, I proceed to the designated location, remove the harness, and rearrange the leash so Prada’s got the most room.

Prada circles me, an action I facilitate by some simple footwork. Motion tends to encourage parking, so it speeds up the process. But it also ensures that I have a straight line (the leash) leading me directly to the pile I’ll need to clean up. When Prada stops, I lean forward and touch her back to see what shape she’s making. If it’s a slope (because she’s female) she’s going #1, no pile. If she’s hunched up, with a rounded back, it’s #2. Time to get out a bag.

I invert the bag over my hand like a glove, and point my foot along her body to give myself another landmark for when she inevitably finishes and moves again. Then, using my own body to orient me, I use the bag to pick up. Now, if I’m in a familiar place or have had time to scout in advance, I simply locate the nearest trashcan and dispose of the bag.

If I haven’t had time to scout, there are some basic logical assumptions I can use to locate a trash can. They tend to be near, but not right at, doors leading into buildings (a holdover from the old smoking days). If I’m at a park, I can guess there’ll be one near, but not next to, a bench (for picnic disposal). Worst case scenarios someone notices me looking super blind and lost and holding a tied-off bag of dog poop and points me in the right direction.

It’s a reasonable question, I suppose, given that it’s a significant part of the logistics of having dogs in public places like office buildings, civic locations, libraries, restaurants, et cetera. But, I mean, do people not have anything more interesting on their minds toa ask about service dogs? Of all the questions you COULD ask, that’s the one that comes out of your mouth?

Ah, well. I guess I became a counselor because I just really don’t understand people sometimes. Seriously, ask me something more interesting.

Guest Post: From First Pet to Last Snuggle

I’ve had the privilege of meeting and collaborating with some great bloggers recently, and today I have another guest post to share with you. This brilliant writer is a woman much like myself; she’s blind, works with a service dog, and has stories to tell. I’ve found a lot of my own experiences echoed in her words, which you should definitely check out here.

And if you just really miss my words, you can see what I posted on her blog here. It’s all part of my sneaky plan to lure you into reading more of Rhianna’s articles.

Today Rhianna has a sad story to tell, yet another one that will someday be my story, too. She’s had to retire her service dog. But when she went online in search of others who’d had this experience who could support her through this painful process, she found silence. People with disabilities are often isolated by sheer numbers; there just aren’t that many of us per capita in any given location. And when you narrow down the field to “blind with service dogs,” the available support pool shrinks to scattered raindrops.

But Rhianna’s a blogger, and responded in kind. Since she couldn’t find the support, she chose to create it for others. Here is her story.

P.S. Grab tissues.

Mid morning light was streaming in through the open living room windows and my 70-pound golden lab cross was curled up on my lap. Tears rolled down my cheeks and landed on his silky head. He didn’t seem to mind though.

He knew I needed him. We needed each other. We knew the moment had come.

John Green said: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep—slowly, then all at once.” This is how I fell in love with Cricket. I’d been falling for him for the six months before I met him, waiting for him to finish training and be matched with me—the dream team. And when he sauntered into my room, licked my hand and lay down at my feet, my heart was truly his.

In reflecting on our two-year relationship from first pet to last snuggle, I’ve realized that it’s the same way with grief. If you’ll allow me a moment, I’d like to share with you the story of Cricket’s retirement.

Rhianna McGreggor walks with her golden lab cross guide dog, Cricket, on a snowy path.

It was midsummer 2020, and Cricket and I were out for our usual half-hour walk around the neighbourhood. We were five minutes from home, just headed down the hill when, in the middle of the sidewalk, Cricket stopped.

And wouldn’t move.

“Cricket, forward,” I said, giving the leash an encouraging snap.

But he just stood there like a dog statue. “Cricket, forward,” I urged again. No response.

I ran through my mental checklist, trying to figure out what might be wrong. Is he distracted? What is he looking at? Does he need to relieve himself? Is he in pain? I checked the harness, inspected his paws, and found everything as it should be.

“Cricket, forward,” I said again. But there was still no response. Not wanting to frustrate either of us further, I turned around, picked up the harness handle and without a command, Cricket guided me flawlessly (and speedily) back home.

This was not normal, so I reached out to my trainer for help. His suggestions did helped… sometimes. It was hit and miss for the next nine months, and all the while, the question I was trying to keep down kept pushing itself to the forefront of my mind.

Did Cricket want to retire?

No, he couldn’t, I thought. He’s only three. Guide dogs are supposed to work for six to eight years, not two.

In the spring of 2021, the whispers of Cricket’s retirement were growing louder and louder. Cricket wouldn’t work two days in a row, preferring to take a luxurious nap rather than run errands with me. He avoided me when I brought down the harness from the hook by the door. On our walks, he would stop at the intersections and refuse to cross the street. He stalled at the top of staircases and deliberately took me off sidewalks into driveways and onto lawns. It was very unsafe.

And very obvious. Cricket was telling me every way he knew how:

“Mom, I don’t want to be a guide dog anymore.”

The final straw came on April 23. I got up that morning and said to God: “If Cricket wants to retire, I need you to make it clear to me today. I can’t keep doing this.”

Cricket guided me all 15 minutes to the coffee shop with only a couple hiccups. I was feeling optimistic. I drank my iced latte, picked up the harness handle, but rather than a quick 15 minute trip home, we stopped and started every 30 seconds. We made it home 45 minutes later, and I knew God had given me my answer.

Remember that moment in my living room? When we got home, I held Cricket tight and told him, “You don’t have to work anymore if you don’t want to, baby. I want you to be happy, and if retiring is what’ll make you happy, that’s okay.”

This is how it happened with me and Cricket. But every service dog handler’s story is different. In retirement, some handlers choose to have their dogs remain with them at home. Some choose to rehome them to close friends or family, and still others send their dogs back to their training school and have the staff find them loving homes. I knew that in making Cricket’s retirement official, the next question was where he would live.

He couldn’t live with me. I didn’t have the physical space or the financial means to care for him, particularly as I would be applying for a successor guide. After much deliberation and prayer, it was decided that Cricket would return to his puppy raiser, back in his native Michigan.

It’s been almost two months now since I said goodbye to my baby boy. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful and close relationship with his puppy raiser (now mom), and receive frequent updates. Cricket is living the life out in the country, with his doggy sister, Willow and fields to run in.

But me? I’m still waking up every morning, thinking that he’ll be in the bed next to mine. I still do the hand gestures for “forward,” “right” and “left” as I walk with friends. And when my partner guided me to the curb and stopped, I said “good boy” instead of “thank you.” Thankfully, he and I both laughed.

But the grief is still very raw. It will be for a long time.

The grief of retiring a service dog begins on that very first day. You’re overwhelmed with joy and hope and love for this dog that has already changed your life, but you know deep down that eventually, it will end. And when it does, I need you to know a few things.

I know you’re hurting right now. Your heart is broken and you don’t know how or when it will be put back together. After all, the only thing that could heal it has just been taken from you.

I know you’re angry. Why does it have to end this way? Why does it have to end at all? It’s not fair—to love someone so much and have to let go.

I know you wonder if you did enough to make it work. Countless pieces of advice have come your way, from trainers, fellow handlers and complete strangers, and yet, the only thing you want to hear is that yes, you did enough, and you are good enough.

I know you miss him. You think you hear him snoring in his bed but when you reach down to check, the bed is empty. You add dog food to the grocery list, realize you don’t have to buy it, but you do anyway. You cry yourself to sleep because the blankets still smell like her, and you laugh through your tears, remembering how she took up the whole bed.

I know you wonder if you could ever love another dog the way you loved him.

I know you’re not okay right now.

Neither am I.

And we won’t be for a long time. And that’s okay, too.

Writing this post broke my heart all over again. I cried my way through draft after draft, trying to find a way to express the depth of my grief and the grief for the handlers going through it that would do justice to the bond we share with our dogs. Whether I’ve accomplished that, I’ll leave up to you.

But let me leave you with one final thought: During my therapy sessions during and after Cricket’s retirement, I so often tried to minimize my pain, saying that every handler goes through it, that we all know it’s coming someday, and it’s already been two months since he moved.

But my therapist is helping me to reframe that. Rather than set a timeline for healing my broken heart and invalidating my emotions, just feel it. It’s okay to hurt. It’s good to grieve. It’s okay to not be okay. The loss is as real as any other despite what we may think or be told. And there’s no one-size-fits-all for grief. It’s a journey.

So feel every emotion, hug his favourite toy, curl up in his bed, and remember every day what he did for you. He still loves you, just as you will always love him.

Dear Cricket, thank you for everything. You are forever in my heart.

Love, Mom

Guest Post: Challenge Accepted!

As promised, I’ve got a special post for you lovely people, a guest post!

A friend of mine recently suggested we do a blog swap, where we post on each other’s blogs. You can check my article on how trust can improve productivity here. And here on the dark side I’d like to introduce to you Austen Jeans, creator of Focus Weekly. This is where Austen shares productivity and self-improvement tips and tricks.

I challenged Austen to pick a familiar task and do it while blindfolded, then write about his experiences. My one stipulation was that it had to be something he could do SAFELY, and he chose a great one. Read all about his experiment below.


Being fully sighted, I am unfamiliar with articles on the subject of visual impairment. However, your usual host has kindly lent me this space and challenged me to discuss my brief experience without sight. For this challenge, I decided to try a task I was familiar with, playing the guitar. I’ve been playing the guitar for some years now, some might even say I’ve become fairly good at it. However, to make this interesting I tried playing fully blindfolded. And although a blindfold doesn’t even come close to the reality of living without the full use of sight, here’s my experience and what I learned about the perspective of those who are visually impaired:

Relying on Muscle Memory:

I’m sure this comes as no surprise, but during this challenge, I discovered how big of a role muscle memory plays in our ability to navigate our daily lives.

I’m pretty sure everyone knows what muscle memory is but just in case, here’s a quick definition: When searched on Google, the official meaning of muscle memory is: 

“The ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement.”

Many attribute the ability to retain the knowledge of certain movements to the muscles themselves. However, a study conducted by Malene Lindholm of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm proved that our muscle tissue does not retain the “memory” of our previous repetitive actions. In fact, according to biopsies taken during this study both the “trained” and “untrained” muscles appeared to have the same physiology. Instead, the information we retain about activities we do is stored in our brain, not our muscles.

Naturally, over many years we build up a large number of neural pathways that help us take “mental shortcuts”. So then, how does muscle memory affect our day to day lives? When I took away my sight I found myself trying to find notes on the fretboard using the feel of my guitar’s neck. I relied on determining where my fingers were based on my familiarity with the guitar. You can find examples of muscle memory everywhere. It’s the reason we can walk without thinking about it and is a huge factor for navigating the world.

The Importance of Sound:

The other sense I heavily relied on was sound. Using my Echoic memory (the sensory memory bank that registers specifics to auditory information/sounds), I found that I could relate my position on the fretboard based on the pitch of the notes I played. For example, if I was aiming for the middle of the fretboard and played a note with a higher pitch I would know where I was and in the same way, where I had to go.

This got me thinking, not only could sound be related to place but also time and character. For example, when we hear crickets chirping we know that it’s starting to get late. And when we listen to the tone of someone’s voice we can immediately judge their character. If someone was talking to you in a normal and calming way you probably wouldn’t think anything of it. But when someone yells at you in an angry and thunderous fashion, you immediately acknowledge that they are mad and potentially start to feel that way yourself.

My Reflections on How the World Changed For Me Without Sight:

Although I could never hope to talk about what it’s really like to live without the full use of sight, I am hoping to convey what I thought about how it feels. Certainly, a lack of sight would make a lot of common tasks seem impossible which is why I commend each and every person who lives without it. The main thing I picked up on during this challenge was how important the use of other senses become. I found myself relying on muscle memory, touch, and sound far more than usual. 

Thanks to this experience I now realise how much I take mindfulness of my senses for granted. Anyone who lives with a disability of any kind is 100 times stronger than anyone else. I hope I can encourage each and every one of you to go after your dreams no matter where you come from, how old you are, and how wild your dreams may seem now. Just know you can achieve absolutely anything you set your mind to.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post, I hope you enjoyed it.

I also hope you enjoyed reading about Austen’s trip to the dark side. What I loved most about his post is how he focused on what he could still do, and do very well, rather than on how worrying, frightening, or restricting it was to temporarily lose his sight. He really highlighted competence, rather than isolating awe or amazed pity.

I’d like to issue the same challenge to each one of you. Find something you enjoy doing, feel pretty confident about, and can do SAFELY with a blindfold on. Write about your experience and send it to me and you can try your hand at being a blindfluencer, too!

Weird Wednesday!

Original Post Date: May 28, 2021

You may have noticed I’m breaking with my pattern. Due to some scheduling changes you get a Flashback post today. And this Friday I’ve got something really special to share with you all! So I hope you enjoy this Weird Wednesday, and make sure you check in on us in a couple of days…

The Down-town Training Center

The January 2009 class at The Seeing Eye was the first to use the shiny new Downtown Training Center (DTC). As I described in a previous post, the House where we live and train is outside Morristown so groups of students and dogs often get driven into town for city work. But that takes up a lot of time, energy, and gas so TSE constructed a gorgeous new in-town training facility in 2008. It won several awards for eco-friendly construction and such-like, I’m told.

Now when students load up into the vans for the drive into down we disembark in an underground parking garage, which also houses a kennel and a trainers’ lounge. Upstairs we trek to the student lounge, which has a kitchenette, seating area with comfortable chairs and couches, restrooms, and vending machines. There students and dogs can relax in a climate-controlled, quiet place with access to water and treats while they take turns going out in pairs with trainers.

Prada and I worked on a new route today. We dealt with lighted intersections, dog distractions, and street-level orientation (me making sure we don’t get lost). She excelled, and even showed me a couple of shop doors in case I wanted to go into them. Dogs do this by nosing the door handle, a motion which I can feel through the handle of the harness. 

The dogs are used to one training route per day. The twice-a-day routine we’re putting them through now is exhausting yet satisfying to them. Prada sleeps all night, even with the crate door open, and takes naps whenever she can get them. Like right now, she’s curled up in her crate snoring. Normally, I’d join her in the napping (not in the crate), but my attempt to sleep today was thwarted by a PA announcement.

“Will the following dogs please bring their handlers down to the vet’s office, please? Sam, Nytra, Prada, and Gabby.”

Prada needed a vaccine update. Shepherds, it turns out, are total wusses at the vet. Little drama queens who cry and fuss at any given opportunity. When Prada got stuck she sprang into my arms crying louder than I’ve ever head a dog cry. Neither of the three labs that preceded us made a single peep!

The vet gave us a cookie, and that made life a little better.

Prada never got over her veterinary dislike. But now I wonder if it really is breed-related. While greta is a total baby at the vet, she has become more and more confident and comfortable at this new holistic vet that we’ve been seeing for the past year. This last visit she got a vaccine update and, with her mouth full of cookies, she didn’t even seem to notice when the vet stuck her.

I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions lately about whether or not there are better ways of implementing veterinary care, both from a medicinal and a behavioral approach. TSE dogs love vets when they leave the school, even though they all fuss at treatment. But it didn’t take long for either of my dogs to decide they didn’t like the offices I took them to in Huntsville.

I’ll share more reflections on this in future posts. I’ve got a lot running around in my head right now. But even though this is a short post, it’s been a busy week and I’d rather leave you wanting more than ramble. Remember to check in on Friday, though, for a surprise post!

Flashback Friday: Feeding and Fear

In the original blog readers may remember noticing that the spelling of Prada’s name fluctuated somewhat in the first few posts. That’s because I’d never heard the word “Prada” before I met the dog. My grandmother suggested it might be “Pravda,” a Russian word meaning “truth” and also a prominent Russian newspaper. But it turns out the name originates a little closer to home.

It comes from the book, movie, band, and design label all with that same name in it. Prada was named after the purse. But I’d never heard of the brand until someone in class pointed that out to me. It took me until after college to finally see the movie, and the book’s still on my Wishlist.

Original Post Date: May 27, 2021

We did it! We ate half our kibble today! Well, half of one meal, anyway. Apparently I’m taking credit for this like it’s an accomplishment, even though it probably has nothing to do with me whether or not she eats. And, it also seems that puppy parenthood has severely impaired my pronoun skills and sense of self-differentiation.

Our trainer tells us that Prada is picky, even for a shepherd. As I’ve said before, shepherds are known for skipping meals, and it’s best to just lean on the old maternal axiom “If you’re not eating, then you’re not hungry.” Makes her hunger strikes seem less personal. Other tricks I’ve tried are uncovering part of the bottom father bowl, and only presenting half a meal at a time. This can also help me monitor just precisely how much she is, and isn’t eating.

The original annotation of this post included a discussion about how Prada lost almost 5 pounds within the first few months after I brought her home. I was concerned, I took her to a vet who suggested an incredibly expensive high-calorie joint supplement food. That wasn’t sustainable, and when I switched vets for other reasons the new vet informed me that it took 2 techs to restrain Prada to give her a vaccine shot, her coat was gorgeous, teach were healthy, and her eyes were clear. She wasn’t under-nourished in any way.

Apparently all of the following count as legitimate reasons for Prada, or any shepherd, not to eat:

  • “I haven’t worked enough so I don’t want the calories.”
  • I’m bored with this food.
  • “there’s something exciting going on nearby that I need to monitor.”
  • “The stars aren’t aligned properly.”
  • “I’m stressed about something.”
  • “it’s a Tuesday.”

I’d like to add to this “I’m vaguely allergic to this and it makes me feel a little wonky inside.” Purebred dogs in particular are more prone to allergies or sensitivities to the grain-based and legume-based fillers used in most commercial dog foods. It’s worth the one-time fee to get your dog allergy-tested to see if their food is adding to gastro-intestinal discomfort, inflammation, and emotional stress within their bodies.

Training Update

At this stage of our training we’re not yet responsible for every aspect of our dogs’ care. With the amount that we the handlers have to internalize and put into practice on the technical side of working service dog, the staff here want us to concentrate on bonding and practice, not the finer details of feeding and parking.

Each couple of days we get another piece of our jobs handed off to us. For example, right now the trainers bring kibble to our rooms, and pick up the piles left at park time. We do the feeding and the circling part of parking, but very soon we’ll be doing it all.  I expect another grooming lecture in a few days, as well. Frankly, I’m glad for this piece-meal approach. It is a bit overwhelming, and I constantly worry I’ll never be able to keep all the balls in the air.

Daily care includes feeding, parking, grooming, exercise, and play. On top of everything else I do on a daily basis, that’s a lot of time and energy. And then I need to keep track of our training performance, distractions, remember how to properly direct and re-direct Prada, how to respond when she intelligently disobeys, and help her manage the bizarre fears dogs encounter in a very human world.

Honestly, it feels like if I forget one thing at any given time I’ll compromise her training irreparably. I’m sure it’s not that serious, but it feels that way sometimes.

Let’s talk about doggy fears

There is very little about our urbanized life that makes sense to dogs. The ground might feel like rock but it smells like oil and old food. They’re not allowed to scavenge out of those enormous bins. Crazy loud metal beasts roll on by and screech without letting off any warning pheromones at all…it’s a hot mess, and there’s a lot a dog can legitimately label a potential threat.

Things Dogs Might Fear:

  • A plastic bag rattling along the street
  • Floating objects like balloons
  • An empty trashcan rolling behind them
  • People in uniforms – the lack of color contrast can make it hard for dog eyes to identify them as “human” if they’re not talking

This, I think, is where I began seeing potential threats on every street corner. It took a while to manifest, but I began to become hyper-aware of all the ways in which my dog may be scared or become anxious about something. It was something I’d never considered before, and it felt like pulling a veil away from my eyes to reveal an alien world full of unknown terrors.

I’d also like to add something I just learned yesterday. Since dogs’ vision is very different than ours, they can often have difficulty discerning human shapes at a distance of about 30-40 feet. The nose says ‘human,” the eyes say “being moving toward me.” But the eyes also say “being moving toward me is STARING at me.” 30-40 feet is when humans naturally make eye contact with one another as they prepare to pass each other on the street or in stores.

But dogs view eye contact very differently. And if they’ve got any sensory confusion going on, or any pre-existing underlying anxiety, they may feel the need to announce their doggy-ness in some way in order to provoke an identifying response from the oncoming human. Shepherds, apparently, are particularly prone to this because of their engineered protective instincts.

So what do we do about doggy fears?

Dogs’ pack mentality means they often look to humans for cues on how to respond to potential threats. Therefore, the best response to your dog spooking is to remain calm and confident, treat the scary plastic bag fluttering in the wind as totally normal – because it is normal, to you. Encourage the dog past the scary object without offering too much reassurance.

Too much reassurance can actually confirm the dog’s belief that there’s something wrong. “Mom’s comforting me, therefore it must be scary!” In this way, dogs are an awful lot like babies and toddlers. If a toddler falls on his butt he’ll look to the nearest adult to see whether or not it’s worth crying over. If a parent scoops him up giggling over his adorable face, the baby will most likely giggle back.

But if Mom swoops down on him with coos and concern the baby will realize something terrible has happened and cry accordingly. Or, in the case of a dog, become more timid, shy away from things, or yell – bark – at the scary thing. The takeaway here? Take everything in stride. You spook at a spider, then laugh it off and move on. Let your dog do the same by modeling how it’s ok to get occasionally startled.

No life exists without occasional startlement. To try and avoid all fear-causing events or objects is an exercise in futility. The Seeing Eye does a lot through their training program and their puppy-raising program to expose the dogs early on to as many unusual phenomena as possible so they become normalized in the dog’s early puppy-hood experience.

But of course no program can expose dogs to everything in the 18 months to 2 years’ worth of training. Learning how to recognize signs of stress in your dog can help guide you into making decisions about how many new experiences you want to throw at your dog at any given moment. Some non-visual signs of stress you can use are:

Huffing. When your dog blows out a huffing breath it can be an indication of stress. It might be time to take a break, stop and do some obedience exercises to help them re-focus, give them a little rub-down, help them physically transfer their stress to you so they can focus on their work.

Thick, stringy saliva: You’re more likely to notice this one if you use clicker-training because you’ll be feeding a lot of treats along the way. If your hand comes away a little damp, no big deal. You got a little tongue action, wipe it off and move on. But if your hand comes away from treat-dispensing kind of slimy, with a layer of saliva over your fingertips, your dog is stressed about something. See above, or see if there’s a way to remove yourself and the dog from that situation to calm down before trying again with more treats.

These non-visual stress indicators aren’t ones I learned from TSE. Back then, really before this past year, I only knew how to recognize stress from growling, barking, or whining. At this point the dog is past feeling stress and onto acting on stress. The previously described indicators, however, allow me to notice when stress begins so I can intervene earlier.

Weapon of Choice

For those of you who saw my sneak-peak on Twitter and Facebook, let me just state for the record that my new hobby is NOT axe-murder.

It is, however, axe-throwing. Like, throwing an axe at a target. A plywood target, not a human target.

No humans were harmed in the making of this post.

I’m no stranger to recreational violence. I write great fight-scenes in my novels (first one to be published this December!), I’m a martial artist, and I’ve even dabbled a bit with different kinds of swordsmanship. I shot BB guns and compound bows at summer camps, and I wasn’t half bad at either.

On the left stands a hispanic-looking man in a green 1700s style naval uniform, with blue magic glowing in his upraised hand. Beside him stands a blonde woman wearing a blue chinese-style shirt and holding two short swords. They stand on a rocky shore with a ship visible in the twilight behind them. The cover is bordered with knotted rope and green geometric waves. The title and authors' names are written in bright blue block letters that match the glow of the magic.

But axe-throwing never really held much appeal for me. I avoided it as a weapon option in D&D most of the time because it just seemed like an inelegant, oafish kind of weapon. And, let’s be real here; it seems fairly obvious that I have a disadvantage when it comes to ranged weapons. I’m much better in melee.

Or am I?

Anneliese, wearing a grey v-neck t-shirt, jeans, and sunglasses, stands holding her cane next to a 2x2 layered plywood target mounted on a concrete wall. An axe sticks out from the central ring painted on the target.

Full disclosure: this great shot was actually thrown by a friend of mine. I had a couple that were almost as good, but it didn’t occur to us to take this photo until near the end of our hour-long session, so she graciously lent me her victory for the sake of dramatic photography. Thanks!

But despite my inability to distinguish the target from the wall it was mounted on from 12 feet away, I am actually not a bad shot with an axe. Let’s talk about low vision, blindness, and the ability to aim.

Anneliese, in the same outfit as above, sans shades and cane, stands with an axe gripped in both hands and cocked over her head as she prepares to throw it at a target not visible in the photo.

Here you see me winding up for a throw. This is far, far more important than being able to see the target. See, your vision might help you align with the target, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual physics of throwing things. So, if you get yourself pointed in the right direction, or can hear the target, then absolutely no vision is required for good aim.

That fact, btw, is why my cousins and friends stopped playing hide-and-seek and Marco Polo with me by age 10.

I started studying various martial arts when I was about 15. I couldn’t see the instructor modeling moves, nor could I see the wall-length mirrors other students used to make micro-adjustments to their postures. But because I started practicing at a community college I discovered I could request an employee of the Disabled Student Services department to come to class and help me out.

A beautiful-souled French exchange student who did work-study through the DSS office met me at the classroom in the college gym twice a week and practiced alongside me. It turns out her brother was a champion martial artist and she herself had a background in the arts, so she was a perfect match for this class. She would describe the instructor’s movements and postures, and even gently manipulate my limbs into the right position if she couldn’t’ describe it well enough. And, once I’d felt it correctly, I could usually reproduce it pretty accurately, so I could practice at home without learning too many mistakes in the process.

Like most things, martial arts has its own language. There’s some variation between types of arts – I know probably five different versions of a double knife-hand block – but overall, once I’d learned the basics of the postures and the vocabulary, it became easy to jump into any class and start learning, with or without an assistant. Learning how to advocate for myself in a class full of strangers helped, too.

This same concept applies to axe-throwing. I did some reading in advance to learn the language, so once my friends and I showed up to the venue it was a lot easier for me to follow the combined visual-verbal instructions.

I did not use my cane or dog when I entered the facility. I linked arms with a friend and just let her guide me.

Places like Civil Axe Throwing that advertise  cool adventures and experiences come in two varieties when dealing with disabled patrons:

The Cool Type:

“Oh, you’re blind? Cool. Ok, so if we do it this other way then you should be able to jump right in and do things. This is so cool, can we get a picture for our website? Man, you’re amazing!”

They can get a little gushy and patronizing sometimes, but usually what comes through is enthusiasm for finding creative ways to make their passion- accessible to everyone. I’ve encountered a lot of companies like this.

The Un-Cool Kind

“oh, uh, let me get my manager…cause there’s liability and we’d want you to be safe…yeah, id don’t know if we can…I mean, it’s not really designed for…”

This kind of reaction is usually born out of a well-meant but hyper-vigilant concern for my safety, and trying to cover their own butts. They’re probably fearful in other parts of their lives, too. Fear doesn’t exist in a vacuum, unfortunately. But while I have a lot of sympathy for the underlying anxiety these people deal with, it’s both illogical when applied to disabled patrons and very inconvenient – and insulting.

One can argue that the host of the activity knows the activity inside and out, and is very familiar with the risks and weak-points in their infrastructure. But as familiar as they are with their job, I am far more intimately familiar with my disability. It’s something I live day in and day out, something I both make use of, enjoy, and overcome every hour of every day.

My knowledge of my disability is more often than not more thorough than someone’s knowledge of their job that they work 20-40 hours a week, and have only been working a few years. So when I say “I think we can figure this out” I’m not just being confident, or naïve. I’m not just brushing aside others’ concerns. I have 3 decades of experience figuring things out.

Making accommodations, or determining if accommodations are even possible, should be a collaborative effort. Like most humans I have a sense of self-preservation and I don’t want to get hurt. So, like everyone else, I’m very willing to accept my limitations when I reach them. 

Is there some stereotype out there that depicts disabled people so fanatically opposed to acknowledging their own limits that they’re willing to put themselves at risk just to prove they can do things? I mean, I’ve known a couple people with disabilities like that, but I’ve known far more able-bodied people like that so why pick on us?

Could it be because the able-bodied idiots are harder to identify, and also harder to control?

Denying a person with a disability the opportunity to explore their limitations the same way other people explore them means refusing to acknowledge our autonomy as individual human beings. It violates our sovereignty over our own bodies. It is patronizing, de-personalizing, and wrong, and your good intentions do not make up for that.

So, I went to Civil Axe Throwing pretending to be sighted because on that day I just didn’t feel like having this fight. I’d like to make it clear I had no reason to believe Civil axe Throwing employees would be either the Cool Kind or the Un-Cool Kind. I just didn’t want to roll the dice that day.

We lined up, got our instructions, and started taking turns throwing sharpened axes at 2×2 foot plywood targets. And let me tell you, when you hear that thunk of the axe-head burying itself in the target it is VERY satisfying. We had a great time watching and coaching each other, experimenting with angles and speed, one- and two-handed throwing techniques, and taking pictures.

Turns out that I throw with enough power I don’t need the acceleration step most throwers use. I also had a better feel for two-handed throwing than one-handed, but I’m willing to bet that with practice I could be pretty good at both.

Anneliese stands next to another axe protruding from the target. This one is not quite so near the bull’s eye as in the previous photo.

Through the martial arts I’d learned how to notice tension and slack in different muscle groups throughout my body. I learned how to sense and correct alignment issues by feeling which muscles worked harder than others, the heat of my own skin near different parts of my body, how a raised arm at different angles changes the feeling of air pressure in my ear. This is how I landed a couple good hits.

I think every blind and visually impaired person should spend a year studying a martial art, yoga, or other physical activity or sport. There are a lot that can be made accessible, and some that are even designed for the blind. But investing in learning how to sense your body and its different parts, their relationship to each other, and gaining control over them is an invaluable skillset.

If you can’t see good posture, you can feel it. If you can’t see bruises, redness or swelling, you should know what feels out-of-place in your body. Cultivating a mind-body connection will improve your self-awareness, self-confidence, knowledge of your own strengths and limitations, and generally improve your life.

Personally, I think you get the best internal education from martial arts or yoga, but swimming, dance, ice skating, biking, hiking, and other sports are great options. There’s something out there that’ll feed your interest and improve your mind-body connection, too.

We had a blast, and I’m already planning to take a couple more friends next time I go. And there will be a next time because, not only have I found new confidence in my ranged attack skills and a greater appreciation for axes in general, it turns out that the guy manning the front desk that day was one of the Cool Kind.

Anneliese stands with 3 other women all holding axes. They are positioned between two targets, and smiling at the camera. One of the women, wearing a low-effort viking costume, is her co-author, Galadriel Coffeen.

After we took the cane-and-shades photo it was time to leave. I kept my “blind person” getup on because I did want to know if I was going to have problems at this place in the future. But this way, at least I got my fun in before having to argue over my participation.

We lined up to pay, me with my cane out and everything, and the guy didn’t react at all. It was as if seeing someone with a cane in his workplace was the most natural thing in the world. Curious, I asked him about it and he said they’d had another low-vision participant, and even a one-handed thrower, and someone with no hands! The phone rang at that moment so I didn’t get a chance to ask about that last one, but at least I know now that I will probably never have to fight for common decency at Civil Axe Throwing of Huntsville.

Now, some bleeding heart is going to read this and think “wow, that was really manipulative of you, not giving him a chance to prove he was a. decent person! Shouldn’t you give everyone the benefit of the doubt?”

No. No I shouldn’t, and neither should you.

If we gave EVERYONE the benefit of the doubt we’d have to ignore our past experiences and other common-sense warnings that tell us some people are harmful. Taking this example to the extreme, it’d be ridiculous to give the benefit of the doubt to that shadowy figure who just darted behind your car in the dark parking lot. Get a store security guard to walk you out, just in case.

Having had enough bad experiences with businesses like this one I’m entitled to view them with some suspicion. It’s reasonable for me to expect to have to defend my personhood to them since I’ve had to do it repeatedly before. I can do so in a way that gives people the opportunity to prove their innocence, of course, and that’s exactly what I did.

Some days I have the energy to fight that battle up front. I walk in proudly with my cane or dog displayed and challenge peoples’ fearful responses head-on. But I’ve also learned I don’t need to tilt at every windmill. Some days I’m just tired. Some days I know I’m short-fused and wont’ be gracious as I’d like. And some days I just want to have fun!

That’s what happened this past weekend. I just wanted to have fun, so I passed on the proffered battle until I’d worked up some endorphins hurling sharp objects at a relentlessly forgiving target.

And in doing so I not only discovered a positive attitude toward people with disabilities as patrons of this business, but a total acceptance of us. No patronization, no condescension, no drooling over a PR moment. Just business as usual. This is possibly the best response I could have hoped for, and one I truly never imagined I’d receive.

I honestly can’t think of many times I’ve received this response in any context.

To be treated as totally normal, neither as a fantastic opportunity, a curiosity, or a liability, is a novel experience to me. And this, in itself, should say a lot about what life is like with a visible disability like mine.

Dress for Success

This week’s post is going to be a bit technical, but to make up for it I’ve got lots of cute puppy pics.

This year Greta suffered a minor shoulder injury. I’m not precisely certain when it happened, but I suspect it was the result of racing across uneven ground at a dog park. Kids play hard, right? Fortunately, the dog trainer I’d hired to help me with Greta’s behavioral problems also has an interest in canine kinesiology and physical rehabilitation. She taught us some exercises to help strengthen at-risk muscle groups, but also took a lifestyle approach to treatment. She wanted to look at Greta’s harness.

The Seeing Eye issues a beautiful, understated leather harness with reflective strips and the school name stamped into it. It looks professional on any dog, and it’s easy to care for. But this harness, sans the reflective strips, is pretty much identical to the one that Morris Frank, first blind American to use a service dog, designed back in the 1920’s. it’s based on a cart-horse harness.

Greta is in the old harness and standing at Anneliese’s left side. Anneliese is wearing jeans and sneakers and the two of them are standing on a large pebbled concrete pad. The image is looking down from Anneliese’s point of “view” onto Greta’s back. The strap of the old harness rests behind Greta’s shoulder blades.

Horses and dogs may look similar, but their kinesiology is very different. A horse’s foreleg bends like a human knee-joint, with the shoulder only sliding a little and the hoof pointing backward. The joint bends forward.

A woman in a red riding jacket, grey riding pants, and black riding boots sands in front of a speckled and grey horse with a thick winter coat. They are standing in about 2 inches of snow near a forest. The woman is using her left hand to hold the reins near the horses mouth and is using her right hand to encourage the horse to raise its right forward leg in a fancy show pose. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

A dog’s foreleg more closely resembles a human arm, with the shoulder rotating back farther, the paw extending forward, and the joint angling backward.

Anneliese is on he knees in front of her service dog Greta, who is sitting and facing Anneliese. Anneliese is using her left hand to hold training treats which Greta is focusing on. While Greta looks at the treat hand, Anneliese is using her right hand to gently lift Greta’s paw into the air, causing the dog’s front left should to flex and rotate in a therapeutic stretch. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

What the trainer noticed, however, was that the slenderness of the back-strap put pressure directly onto Greta’s spine, and the angle of the back-straps connection to the chest strap didn’t allow for much range of motion for Greta’s shoulder.

So that 90-degree angle between the back and chest strap on TSE’s harness restricts a dog’s natural shoulder motion. The trainer asked me if there were other styles of harness we could use. That thought, however, had never once crossed my mind even after more than 10 years working a service dog!

We did some googling, and it turns out that other people had begun to ask this question in recent years, too. Are there better ways to design harnesses that still transmit information from the dog’s neck and shoulders to a blind person’s hand but better support a dog’s natural range of motion? The answer, fortunately, is yes.

Here you can see that the back-strap attaches higher on Greta’s side, and at an angle that allows her shoulder to move more freely in its natural direction. That back-strap is also half again as wide as the one on the old harness, and has a cushioned underside to help better distribute the weight of the harness across her spine.

The little brown patches you see there are strips of moleskin I applied to areas where the nylon rubbed on Greta’s stomach. Those areas are a little more tender than normal because of her recently healed infection. By the time the moleskin falls off, that area will be healed and she won’t need it anymore. Just another DIY trick for supporting your service dog’s workplace comfort.

This harness looks pretty good in theory, doesn’t it? Support’s the dog’s natural range of motion, each piece is custom-fitted for the individual dog, still nice and professional-looking, with maybe a slightly sportier flare….but do these two changes really make a difference in a dog’s working comfort?

Yes, they do. After several chiropractic visits and a new treadmill routine (yes, dogs can go on treadmills) we tried out the new harness on a walk around the neighborhood. Greta held her head a little higher, picked up her paws a little more, and generally felt more relaxed and confident in her stride.

I could feel the change in her head posture and gait through the harness, and the trainer confirmed my observations as she walked alongside us. Taking the pressure off her spine and freeing up that shoulder made the unnatural business of wearing a harness that much more natural-feeling and comfortable. Just like people, dogs perform better when they’re physically and emotionally comfortable, so it was definitely worth what I paid for this custom piece of equipment.

So it works for the dog, but how about for the handler?

Dog guide harnesses are designed with a very specific function in mind. Information about a dog’s speed, direction, and attitude can be inferred from head and shoulder angle, and that information needs to be relayed through touch to the blind handler. This is done by attaching a stiff handle to flexible joints on the harness. When Greta stops, turns, or leans, her motion is translated through the joint, into the handle, and then into my hand.

The old and new working harness’ are side by side on pebblestone concrete. The old harness is in the top of the image and the new one is in the bottom of the image. You can see that while they both have the same idea of design, it is executed very differently. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

The new harness incorporates this concept, but at a different angle. The connection point between handle and shoulder strap is higher, up on Greta’s side. I was a little concerned I wouldn’t receive as much information if her shoulder didn’t move the handle joint in the same way it had previously.

We look down from Anneliese’s point of “view” at Greta in her new harness. Greta looks over to her right with her ears forward toward whatever has her attention. You can see how the new harness sits more on Greta’s back than her sides and transmits information up the handle to Anneliese. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

I’ve been using the new harness almost daily for the past two months now, so I’ve had time to get used to the new arrangement, and I can confidently say that while the motion does feel a little different, it is the same amount of information. Think of it like hearing the same sentence spoken in two different accents but the same language. Different, yet equivalent, still comprehensible.

The differences are subtle enough I’m not sure I could put them into words. But there are a couple of other adjustments I’ve had to make that are easier to articulate. For one thing, the buckle on the old harness was on Greta’s left side, whereas the buckle on the new harness is on the right. 10 years of muscle memory is hard to overwrite!

The softer nylon material is, of course, not as stiff as the hardened leather. This means that getting the new harness over Greta’s head is more challenging. With the old harness I’d slip the leash over my left wrist to keep it out of the way, then use my left hand to gather the girth straps, fold them up over the back-strap so they wouldn’t hit Greta in the face, and just slip the opening between the back and chest strap over her head. Once the harness settled onto her back I could release the girth straps, thread them through eh martingale, and buckle them.

Anneliese demonstrates her previous description of the one-handed hold on the old harness as it would be if she were putting it on Greta to work. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

But nylon doesn’t hold its shape the way leather does. When I tried this with the new harness the opening for Greta’s head collapsed in on itself, and Greta backed away. Very reasonably, she had no desire to squish her face and ears through such a narrow gap. A little trial and error and lots of dog treats to ensure a positive experience produced a working solution.

Now I slip the leash over my right wrist to keep it out of the way and give me a tangible tether so I can sense Greta’s body orientation without touching her. I gather up the long girth strap and fold it over the back-strap like before, but I use both hands to grasp that back-strap and force the sides of the chest strap open, widening the loop. Essentially, I use my hands to create the stiffness that the leather harness naturally possessed.

Anneliese demonstrates the two-handed hold she uses with the new harness to place it on Greta to begin work. Photo courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen.

It’s taking some time for Greta and me to get used to this new arrangement, but we’re both eager for it to work. It’ll be muscle-memory in a few more weeks, I expect.

I also didn’t know how to account for how the changed height of the handle joint when sending in measurements for this new harness. The two handles are exactly the same length, but the new one joins the harness higher up on Greta’s side, which has the effect of adding about two inches to the distance between me and Greta’s shoulder. At first this concerned me; I thought neither of us would be happy with this increased distance between us. But we’ve adapted very quickly and don’t even notice it anymore.

Overall, TSEs harness design is a good, solid choice. It looks good, it does the job well, it’s easy to care for. But I like the new ergonomic harness better. Its updated structure better supports us as a working team without losing any of the benefits from the original model. I will definitely be ordering harnesses like this new one for all future dogs.

Official Product Rating:

If you’re working a dog guide and reading this post I strongly recommend you consider updating your harness, too. Our working dogs put a lot of physical wear and tear on their bodies, and deserve the same ergonomic supports that we do in our own working environments. You can custom-order this harness from On the Go here.

In the meantime, if you’ve seen other handle-oriented dog guide harness designs, please share them in the comments below. I’d love to know what other options are out there to support our beloved canine partners. Until next time, I remain your favorite friendly blindfluencer challenging you to appreciate life on the dark side!

All original photographs are courtesy of Galadriel Coffeen

Flashback Friday: Grooming

Original Post Date: 2May 26, 2009

The first night is always the hardest.

Wrenched from their warm, cozy kennels where they slept curled up in a pile of fluffy friends, thrust into a strange room with only one other being nearby who sleeps separately from them, it’s no wonder that most new Seeing Eye dogs cry throughout their first night with their new human partners.

Prada rather graciously kept her unhappiness to herself until the early morning so I didn’t fall much farther behind on my sleep-debt. She still tries to take my arm with her whenever she gets her former trainer in her sights, but I know that’s a temporary distraction. Knowing that circumstances will favor her bonding to me once we’re back home helps me handle my own feelings of anxiety.

I tried to remember my first night with Greta, but ironically I’m sleep-deprived at the moment The memory won’t come. If I had to place bets, though, I’d guess neither of us slept well the first two or three nights together.

While The Seeing Eye teaches a basic routine for dog care, every dog is different and trainers encourage us to observe and experiment within certain limits to find out what works best for us. For instance, most dogs want to eat, then go outside and park. Prada insists on parking first.

This isn’t the only thing she prioritizes over food. You’d think shepherds would eat like horses, since they’re such big dogs. Prada stands to my waist, and I’m a rather tall woman. But apparently they are notoriously picky eaters. Prada, for example, finds food uninteresting unless I move the kibble around enough so she can see the bottom of the bowl.

I remember how worried I was by her disinterest in kibble. It had never occurred to me that a dog would be indifferent to food. My sheltie growing up was a grazer, so I knew not all of them hoovered up their meals but I was convinced for the first week that Prada’s refusal to eat was an omen that our bond was doomed to fail. I was incapable of calming her enough to eat, therefore I’d fail at convincing her to bond with me.

This was a persistent theme throughout her life, however. I used to joke that if the stars weren’t aligned properly,, she wouldn’t eat. Unfortunately, I had a boyfriend in college who once proposed the theory that Prada took her cue for me. He was convinced I didn’t eat enough, that I needed someone to remind me to eat, and that Prada took her cues from me. It didn’t occur to me until years later just how toxic that theory was.

The only drawback I foresee in our training is the heat. Even my room on the second floor is too warm for my new “Walking Carpet.” Naturally, Prada’s solution is to share her fur coat with me.

Ironically, at this point I didn’t know what “Prada” was. I spent a while confusing it with a Russian Newspaper, Pravda, until someone finally enlightened me. But I didn’t see the movie until after I graduated college, and I still haven’t read the book. It’s on my ever-growing list, though…

Posted Later that Day

We received a hands-on grooming lesson today. Beyond the very practical reasons for grooming such as managing dog hair and keeping your dog looking neat and professional, grooming serves a wide variety of essential functions in a dog-human relationship, and one or two particularly important for service dog teams. But since Prada is a long-haired, or coated, shepherd, those practical reasons would be more than enough to motivate me to add it into our future routine together.

When brushing a dog you end up running your hands over the entirety of the dog’s body. From head to neck to back to sides, legs, tail, chest, you’ll be able to feel for lumps, bumps, scrapes, skin irritations like hot-spots, or other evidence of injury or illness. It’s a completely tactile wellness check. It’s also a great time to bond with your dog. Dogs both speak and receive love through physical touch. Brushing just might be a great way for both of you to wind down, concentrate on each other, and let the rest of the world take care of itself for ffteen minutes.

This should mean that Prada loves grooming, right?

Wrong. Our first grooming session was a bit of a wrestling match. It’s likely due to my inexperience combined with her anxiety, so I think we’ll get used to each other. But for now it’s going to be a challenge. I can feel my motivation draining away already…

Regular grooming is also important for your dog’s health. Just like brushing your own hair and exfoliating your own skin, brushing helps to regulate the dog’s oil production and overall skin and coat health.  And, finally, it gives your dog a sleek appearance, helping to promote the image of a professional, capable team navigating all areas of the public. You don’t want to take a dog that looks like Hank the Farm Dog into your board meeting, do you?

What about bathing?

Like everything else, TSE has recommendations on that, too. Too-frequent bathing can dry out the skin and coat. TSE suggests baths every 2-3 months, 4 if possible. It turns out that a lot of that “dog smell” people complain about comes from an imbalance of skin and coat chemistry, so keeping it regulated is more important than frequent baths. It seems a general assumption around here is that we’ll take our dogs to professional groomers. But I’m a country girl; I grew up bathing my own dogs outside with a water hose and inside in the bath tub. I don’t see a reason to change that now.

The previous version of this post included a step-by-step explanation of how to brush a dog. I’ll leave you to find more professional grooming instruction from better sources. What I’d like to emphasize again is the personalization – dog-ization? – of a grooming routine. No two people have the same skin and hair chemistry, and so it is with dogs. Some respond better to moisturizing shampoos, others need limited ingredients. Some need more or less frequent baths than the recommendation above. All I’m willing to put my foot down on is the need for daily – or as near daily as you can get – brushing. It’ll help you stay in touch – pun intended – with your dog’s grooming needs.

Prada never did learn to love grooming, and it was frustrating for both of us. Knowing what I do now, I think I could have made the experience more enjoyable for both of us. It’s a lesson I’ll definitely keep in mind for future dogs. Fortunately, Miss Greta loves a good, thorough brushing. She comes running when I pull out the brush, and returns the favor with extreme vigor. Grooming in dog packs is a group activity; I receive a loving bath in return for my efforts.