15 Years (and Then Some) of Learning

Ideally, this would have been posted last June to coincide with the fifteenth anniversary of partnering with my first guide dog. In fact, it was my intention to submit it for the twelfth ADBC. Months later, Brooke even tried to “help” me finally write this in the hopes that I’d participate in the thirteenth ADBC.

Collage of three black-and-white images of Yara, Dolly and Uschi in harness

Even though it seems to have gone by faster than it should have, fifteen years is a long time. Nearly half my life, in fact.

A lot has changed over that decade-and-a-half. I’ve changed a lot over that decade-and-a-half, which seems cliché but is nevertheless the truth. I’ve written about this previously, of course, and later expanded on the profound differences. But one thing I’ve not really stressed before is just how much I’ve learned as a guide dog handler.

The key things are probably the most obvious: I’ve learned about how to work with a guide dog, what a lifestyle change it involves, and the incredible life-changing effect it can provide. My knowledge of dog training has grown in leaps and bounds and evolved along with the differences that dog training has undergone since my time at Guiding Eyes. And with fifteen years experience as a handler, I have a better understanding of my specific needs and desires in a partner.

Over the years I’ve amassed a wealth of information about public access and discrimination due mostly to personal experience. Nothing on a grand scale by any means,1 but I have been more-or-less thrown out of a few stores, had a few issues with some restaurants, and met with a fair amount of discrimination when hunting for an apartment. My favorite incident is a rather hilarious story involving a liquor store that ended with me arguing with a policeman about NYS access laws.

I wasn’t even aware of how self-conscious I was about being blind before I started working with a guide dog. I coped by trying to hide my limitations, which is practically impossible to do when you are accompanied by the most visible sign of blindness. A fact that was actually the argument more than a few family and friends used as to why I shouldn’t get and didn’t need a guide dog, which is amusing to me since that was basically the whole point for me. At the time I wasn’t quite able to explain it or maybe I was just too much of a stubborn teenager and didn’t want to.

What really stands out to me, though, is what I’ve been taught by my girls specifically. I’ve gained firsthand experience in how profound a bond there is between guide dog and handler and along the way gained more than a few insights on life: Dolly with her joie de vivre reminded me to not forget to enjoy myself, even when it was a simple and small thing. Yara’s serious attitude always makes me think of how I can better do the task at hand. And, in her own unique way, Uschi has shown me that it’s important to embrace who you are, quirks and all.

Sometimes it’s hard to separate out the specific things I’ve gained by working with a guide dog, so perhaps that’s why I feel I should have far more to say on the subject. Which only proves the point that all three of my guides have made me acutely aware of how much I have yet to learn and so the lessons continue on.

  1. Arguably, there has been cause for a lawsuit here and there, but none that have been worth it in my personal opinion.

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