I hadn’t intended to write this out or post it, but since I’ve been writing so much about my experiences as a guide dog handler for my Nano I thought I’d finally share this with everyone. Especially since every new potential or current guide dog user who has come across this blog eventually asks the same question of me, “What happened that caused [me] to sever [my] relationship with Guiding Eyes?” Well, the short answer is that it was several different things over many years. Hardly an adequate explanation, I know, but at the time when all of this culminated in what I have dubbed “the fallout” I wasn’t in a position to be entirely forthcoming with all the details. In fact, sharing certain details was exactly what sparked the most volatile aspect of my past relationship with the school. As usual, I’m getting ahead of myself. So, let’s back up and start way back at the beginning.
First, let me emphasize that this is wholly my own experience and any opinions stated are completely my own. Also, it should be understood that I have no qualms with the school’s ability to train and turn out wonderful guide dogs — I was incredibly pleased with Dolly, she was a terrific guide all her working years.
Second, I have thought long and hard about all of this and looking all the way back on my decision to get a guide dog, I realize there were a lot holes in my knowledge. At 19 I thought I was as prepared as one could possibly be to get a guide dog. This is to say that much of my initial issues with the school may have stemmed from my own teenage naïveté and stubbornness. Sadly, this foundation only compounded the issues that would occur as time went by, but it does not excuse the entirety of it. (Possibly none of it.)
I’m shy, sort of. I get really nervous and uncomfortable when there’s a lot of people around, especially strangers or new acquaintances. There’s no set number, of course. At times I can shove the shyness into the background with a false sense of bravado and extroversion; more often it’s debilitating to me and I just stand around seeming anti-social.
With that understood, imagine my feelings when in a class with 15 others, two instructors, a supervisor, and various other staff milling about. The majority of my class were “retrains” and every single person was older than me, by a substantial margin. Suffice it to say I had a very difficult time fitting into the class. No doubt I contributed to it with my awkwardness, but I felt quite isolated. I didn’t fair much better with my instructors or the other staff. The nature of training at a school demands that no one can be singled out, which I did understand, but whenever I did approach someone about something I would come away with the distinct impression that I was inconveniencing them somehow. I was often jokingly teased by staff that I always had a question or “issue” — and it was a running gag to note any time I tripped or walked into something.
Things were copable, though, because I had my sweet Dolly as company. But all too soon we discovered the first wart on her foot. In a way the necessary care the vet recommended for her did allow me a bit more interaction with the instructors, but even still I would come off it feeling like they cared more about the dog than anything I had to say. Eventually Dolly developed warts on her other three feet and I was sent home until she could recuperate. Having to leave her behind after graduation remains one of the hardest, most painful things I’ve ever done. I can’t begin to explain it, but in a way it was like simultaneously severing my left arm off and ripping out a piece of my heart. I cried nearly the entire drive home.
When I came back to GEB, I was then in another class. This actually worked out much better for me as it was the last week of this particular class and most of the retrains had gone home. There were a good handful of “newbies” who were around my age. But I had a week to make up a lot of training that didn’t really occur because of Dolly’s feet, so I didn’t work with any of them really. Mostly I was off on my own with my instructor. That in itself made me incredibly uncomfortable, like I was getting special treatment. And I do know that there was a moderate level of jealousy that I had a trainer all to myself.
One of the reasons I’d chosen GEB was because I felt strongly that I “give back” to whatever school I chose as much as I could. Specifically, it was one of the few schools I could arrange my own transportation to and from. So I arrived there on my own without any assistance on GEB’s part. And then I presented them with a rather substantial donation considering I was a “broke college student.” And yet, I ended up feeling pressured by staff to purchase things from the gift store and buy extra equipment from the school. This wasn’t an overt pressure, but it was mentioned fairly often by different staff. In the end I spent an equal amount to my donation via these unnecessary purchases.
Some time after I had completed training I’d visited my grandmother and saw an envelope from GEB. I inquired about it and she nonchalantly stated they had sent her a few letters about donating — and so she had. I was furious. Not only had I arranged my transportation and given them quite a good amount of money, but I had not given them any addresses of my family members. I explicitly told my grandmother that as I was under the impression I had no obligation to give the school anything for my training, neither did she. We never broached the subject again, but I’m fairly sure she continued getting letters and sending them money which just infuriates me to no end.
Rather, the lack thereof. While the school had no problem soliciting me and my family for money, when my need was greatest there was hardly such generosity. On April 24, 2000, I was in a massive car accident with a friend of mine. Both Dolly and I were severely injured, but the insurance company would not pay anything towards her staggering vet bills. I called GEB with the understanding that they would help with the medical costs, which I could scarely afford as a college student. Their only offer was that rather than have the specialists at Cornell perform the surgery she required, we could drive two hours further and bring her to the campus for their vet to work on her. My own vet at the time was an animal surgeon and admitted that his own skills were not sufficent to work on her wound without potentially leaving her with a scar that would surely bother her when working in harness; his professional opinion was to take her to Cornell. I borrowed the money from my father and Dolly spent her 4th birthday being operated on at Cornell University. And considering once her fur grew back there was scarcely any sign of a scar, I don’t regret this decision one bit.
Above I touched briefly on this in the sense of how I felt. But I will say that the basic feeling I felt exuded by the staff at the school could be categorized as rude. This was never in a blunt manner, but if I were to be going through this exact experience today I would be highly insulted at the condescending manner in which I was treated. It seems plain to me that I was viewed as less than intelligent and capable because of my age. This seemed to permeate itself to my classmates and by the end of my training I really was loathe to be around anyone because I was so often mocked and ridiculed. I don’t think it was meant in that spirit, but I was too meek to assert myself and too stubborn to admit there was a need.
My father drove four hours to pick me up a week earlier than initially anticipated due to Dolly’s feet. Probably he would have come anyway, since it was Graduation Day, but I’ve never bothered to ask him because he remains to this day so vastly insulted by how he was treated at the school. He and Keith had gone in the wrong entrance and rather than find my room, they were by the administration offices. No staff would help them. One woman walked by three separate times and ignored them. My father, however, wasn’t bothered and merely assumed she was a blind student at the school. Only to later find out it was the very sighted supervisor of my class.
Frankly, the conclusion my family has come to is that the school does not and has not shown respect towards any of us.
All of that aside, I did my level best to be a responsible graduate. I filled out the yearly paperwork. I ordered my supplies properly. I even read the newsletter each quarter to keep up-to-date on things. So, I was very surprised by the nagging response I received when I alerted the school about my desire to retire Dolly. I’d initially planned to send Dolly back to her puppy raiser, but unbeknownst to me my family had decided long ago that they would take her if I couldn’t keep her. The call back to GEB to clarify this started ongoing telephone calls and letters to me about the status of “their” dog, even though she’s legally mine. In fact, they went so far as to send me and my father new paperwork so that I could sign over Dolly’s ownership to him. When I asked about this and why it was necessary, I was given some vague answer about it being how these things work. (Point of fact this whole thing continues to this day, we’ve been throwing the letters out.)
Later that year, I began preparations for getting a successor dog from GEB. When I contacted the school I was honest about the precarious status my life was at the moment due to the events at Lions World, but was firm in my desire to get a new dog before the onset of winter since this is the most difficult time for me to navigate. I was told the earliest date I could get was if I went into a full three week class, which was impossible since I had just started two new jobs. I was told that I could apply for an accelerated class and put my name on the home training list, but they would be far later dates. (Home training at that point had a two year wait list.) I requested to have that done, but made it clear I was looking at other schools.
Anyway, this application process was delayed a few times because of several upheavals in my life — quit one of my two jobs, moved, got another new job, and quit second of original two jobs — and the onset of a nasty winter. Suffice it to say GEB kept trying to schedule a home interview that I was incapable of having. Six months later I called GEB again to find out what was going on and we set a date for a home interview. This interview date was later rescheduled for a month or so later because I landed an interview with State Ed (for a different position than the one I currently hold). The rescheduled date I had was apparently a different date than the rep had and he showed up and I wasn’t home. We played telephone tag trying to schedule a third interview.
By this time I’d already been interviewed by Fidelco and would discover that my application was pending with them because GEB hadn’t forwarded the paperwork they needed to. A frantic call to GEB rectified this, and also continued my telephone tag about the home interview. Two weeks later I get a phone call from another rep while at work who was in town and wanted to do my home interview the next day — with so little advance notice, it shouldn’t surprise you that I wasn’t free. From my understanding, this action of not taking the interview put my application into some kind of holding pattern of which I was unaware.
Fast forward a few more months — by now I’m waiting on a dog with Fidelco and have a class date with GDB — and I call GEB to inquire what’s going on. I find out the above about the application and am told I should get a call from a rep for the necessary home interview. So, a week or so goes by and I am bedridden with the flu. During my fever-ridden haze a rep calls and we make an appointment of which I only know of because at the time I was in front of my computer and had made a short, random post to my blog to announce that I’d finally had some news on my potential guide dog. 36 hours later I wake up and realize what I’d agreed to; I call the person to explain I’m far too sick for an interview. The rep is disappointed but understanding of the situation (and probably didn’t want to risk catching the flu).
The next week another staff rep calls to make an appointment for a home interview and says to me, and I quote: “If you cannot make this appointment or for any reason have to reschedule; Guiding Eyes will be forced to sever our relationship with you.” The next day the rep from the week before calls and inquires about my “feelings” regarding the school. I’m dumbfounded, so he paraphrases my blog post about the whole home interview thing that I posted when I was sick. He was upset about the “bad publicity” I was spewing and specifically told me to take down the post . . . And then he yelled at me for posting something that makes it out that the school is “inconveniencing me.”
The yelling is the straw that broke me: I retorted back that the post was written (1.) when I was running a fever of almost 103, (2.) being taken completely out of context, and (3.) meant as a tongue-in-cheek response to more than a year of communication — or lack thereof — to get my successor dog. I went on to further say that had he called the day before, I probably would be more than apologetic about the incident. However, the other rep had called and given me an ultimatum and that absolutely made me feel inconvenienced and downright insulted. I ended the call saying some rather derogatory things about where he could place the school’s dogs. And have since never spoken to the school or its staff.