ARTICLES

THE SEEING EYES

Travel can be for short distances or long ones, alone or with company.  I saw a special side of travel recently.  I was on a shuttle bus with my wife, during a four-hour ride to a resort vacation.  It was a small bus with a convivial group of passengers.  The friendliness and cheerfulness were led by a delightful elderly lady traveling with her dog.  Half way through the ride the bus driver pulled to the side of the highway to let the lady off.  As she left, she wished us all a great vacation, smiling happily.  The driver said, “I’ll pick you up on Saturday.”  She had told us she was spending the weekend with relatives in this picturesque little town in the mountains. 

I watched out the window as she was walked safely across the highway against a throng of fast-moving cars.  They all stopped for her, and her beautiful tan lab, guide dog.  It was a sight to see and one to remember.  This wonderful little lady could not see with her eyes but her dog could with his. And they could both see with their hearts as they crossed the road together. Travel comes in many forms!

But before he could join his lady, her remarkable dog had to make a difficult journey himself.

Maybe the ultimate gift a dog can give his human friends, is to spend his or her life being the eyes for someone who has lost theirs.  Seeing Eye Dogs (properly known as Guide Dogs) are not only a testimony to canine intelligence, they are a witness to their enduring commitment, to someone they know needs help.  The bond of love and trust that is forged between the dog and its blind master is something to behold.  The sightless person has complete confidence in his or her Guide Dog’s ability to take them across a busy street when it’s safe to go, and to protect them from danger whenever it’s near.  That’s the dog’s job.  They know it and they never falter.  Man is rarely able to match that selflessness.

It seems that dogs have been helping blind people for eons.  But it was only after World War I that they began to be trained for the role.  German Shepherds were put into service as guides for blinded German soldiers.  From there the calling spread across the world and across breeds. German Shepherds were joined mainly by Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and a cross between the two. Today, just in the United States alone, we have literally thousands of dedicated Guide Dogs, sharing their sight with their sightless owners.

These amazing dogs have to possess a list of military grade qualifications to make it into the program, including intelligence, obedience, being capable of working long hours in all climates, and enduring lots of stress.  Right now, the Labrador Retriever is winning the popularity contest.

Their training has grown increasingly more sophisticated and demanding. Not all the dogs that enter the program make the cut.  Only the best can be given the awesome responsibility to serve and protect their new master.  It takes around two years of the dog’s life to get its wings so to speak.  They begin as puppies, only weeks old.  They spend the next year and a half in foster homes with loving families, trained to train them as they mature. It isn’t just basic command training.  It includes exercises like placing the trainee in situations, your pet might never have to face. 

Then comes the moment of wrenching emotion for both family and dog when they have to say goodbye to each other. It’s time for our canine cadet to move on to advanced training with a professional instructor.  In the next half-year or so the candidate guide dog will move from fundamental behavioral training, to the specifics of the job of guiding the blind.  Even learning when to disobey its master’s command if it senses trouble.

Finally, it’s the real thing.  The Guide Dog and its new owner meet face to face, and begin the home stretch.  Over four weeks they get to know each other, learn how to work together, and virtually merge into one.  At last, it’s graduation day, and the beginning of a new and super rewarding life for each.

We have explained how all that preparation is accomplished.  But the real story is the love that makes it work.  If you want to learn something about commitment, about caring, about life, learn something about Guide Dogs.  They will make you see things with your heart, the way they do.

Submitted by Larry Vanderveen