Puppy Raisers

Recently I was informed of a number of changes taking place at my guide dog school, including “no longer facilitating contact between graduates and fosters.” I’ll reserve judgment on all the changes for now, but it’s hard to ignore this new policy given I’m currently in the middle of training with my third guide dog.

Each of the guide dog programs here in the U.S. have their own specific policy regarding how contact between handlers and volunteer puppy raisers works. My personal experience with my previous guides has been that the ultimate decision has rested with me.1 And given that this blog was created initially to inform Dolly’s family of her working life with me, I’m sure you can hazard a guess as to what my decision was.

Dolly sitting on the kitchen floorIn general, volunteers are the unsung heroes of any organization. And while I have great respect for the work that the guide dog schools do, puppy raisers are sadly no exception to this. What you might find more surprising is that a large portion of guide dog handlers want nothing to do with these volunteer families. Not that there is anything specifically wrong with that, of course. As I’m not one of those handlers I’m sure I don’t know specifically why they choose to forgo contact. Though, I speculate that ignorance is at least partly the reason.

I certainly am no expert on the specifics of what goes into raising a guide dog puppy, which says a lot about how much work it is since rearing a puppy is plenty of work onto itself. Aside from the basics, though, puppy raisers have many added responsibilities. They attend mandatory puppy classes and are required to socialize the puppy to all manner of experiences out in the “real world.” Often the families are required to cover at least some of the expenses, such as food and/or medical care. All this, and so much more, given to a dog that is very pointedly not their own. A dog that no doubt has become a member of the family and ultimately must be given up to a higher purpose.

This isn’t anything you couldn’t find right on a school’s website, though, so it surprises me how little most people familiar with guide dogs don’t dwell on these facts. Even more puzzling is that no one seems to take into account what happens after the puppy goes into training or is placed with a blind person. After years of working together it is incredibly difficult to part ways with your guide dog. Recently I was faced with the possibility of having no part in finding my previous guide’s home and potentially having no knowledge of her future life. Often, this is exactly what happens to a puppy raiser’s charge.

Yara asleep in her crateAll of that certainly contributes to why I felt it was necessary to stay in contact with the puppy raisers of my previous guides. It’s a very small way to give back. But why I actually decided to do so was more out of curiosity. While the schools themselves provide a lot of technical information about their dogs, it’s through the puppy raisers that I’ve learned the most about who my dogs are. Not to mention there’s always amusing anecdotes and interesting stories to share. And, as you can see displayed in this post, some rather adorable photos!

I’d like to think that all of my friends respect the depth and complexity of the partnership I have with my guide dogs. The wonderfully generous families who have raised my guide dogs may not fully empathize, but they are certainly understanding. Both in good times and the more stressful they’ve proven to be an invaluable source of support. In turn I’ve learned how appreciative the puppy raisers are to have the opportunity to learn about their puppy’s grown up life and that sometimes the simple reassurance that the dog they raised has ended up in a good home is enough to ease their hearts and minds.

I’m not about to dictate what choice another handler should make in any situation, but I do hope this provided some insight for those who still have the option to contact their guide dog’s puppy raiser. Privacy, especially in this digital age, is important to all of us. Still it is worth noting that contact can take many different forms. I’m truly sad that this particular policy change has taken place. Obviously, I’d have wanted to have some type of association with Uschi’s fosters — even if to just let them know where she ended up. The certainty of the school not aiding in letting that happen leaves me with this strange void that I’m not entirely sure I’ll be able to fill.


This post was written as part of the second Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, This edition’s theme is “Decisions” and further information can be found here on the founder’s blog.

  1. I actually met my first guide dog’s puppy raiser at the graduation ceremony during my training class at Guiding Eyes, but contact beyond that initial meeting was left up to me.

Seeing Blind

[EDIT: Since originally posting this, I have updated the photo examples to better showcase my vision. I’ve edited the descriptions to reflect these changes.]

One of the hardest things as a blind person with limited vision to explain to sighted people is how we see. Most people assume blind means totally blind and even those that do understand that differentiation often have trouble grasping what our vision is like. Even amongst other blind persons, I find it hard because I have always seen the way I do so I don’t know how it specifically differs from anyone else’s, let alone perfect vision.

That isn’t to say, however, that I don’t enjoy hearing how things are supposed to look. One of my favorite things is listening to someone describe a sunset to me — my dad in particular has a very vivid way of explaining the colors and how the sky looks. I don’t really get it since I have no perception of color, but it sounds pretty cool. I also have fond memories of listening to another friend of mine who lost her sight at 13 explain things to me that she remembers, like the colors of fireworks.

Anyway, I’ve long since wished there was a way to show others how I see. Achromatopsia is such a strange disorder because in a lot of ways what I do see is quite vivid and what I don’t see is indistinct and generally ignorable. But the difference between those two really depends on how much light there is and what kind of light, too. For instance, a lamp can cause me to loose detail but being outdoors even with the sun behind a cloud will completely blind me because the sky itself is a source of light.

Awhile back a few internet pals of mine posted about this topic and used some fancy photography to trick their cameras into being nearsighted to sort of show how their vision works. (See here and here if you’re so inclined.) I tried to emulate the saturation that light causes my vision by fiddling with exposure levels but couldn’t really get the results I wanted from my camera and so instead I decided to play with Photoshop and the results aren’t so very bad.

Above are three versions of the same image. On the left is the original without any manipulation. On the top right a greyscaled version, which is pretty much how I perceive the world visually. For the most part, I generally can’t tell the difference between a color and a black-and-white version because while there is an absence of color there is still a very present definition of contrast. However, while it’s accurate to say that I see in shades of grey, I personally find this a poor description because I don’t have any better understanding of what grey is than I do what green is. And I do have the ability, inconsistent as it might be, to detect the presence or absence of color. Anyway, on the bottom right is a very overexposed version, which is about as close an example as I can give as to how I see. Light causes me great difficulty because it washes out my vision, much like how you are dazzled when turning on the light during your late night trips through your home. In this case, since these were taken outside, the combination of the bright sunlit sky and snow-covered ground basically destroys most all the details. Frankly, it’s painful to try and make out even that because of the extreme sensitivity my eyes have to light.

Again, on the left is the original and on the top right the greyscaled version. The bottom right is overexposed to illustrate my vision on the sunny afternoon this was taken. I was standing about six inches away from the blossoms, which was literally how close I needed to be to be able to distinguish that there were flowers on the bush to photograph. An interesting note, there’s a bug on one of the blossoms that I only discovered when viewing the photo at home, blown up on my computer.

This last trio is from an overcast afternoon on Empire State Plaza. You may notice the photo on the bottom right is just slightly less overexposed than the previous examples. Even though there was a massive cloud cover, there is still ample light to degrade my vision. I enjoy days like this because (a.) I find it is less painful on my eyes due to the lower exposure of bright light and (b.) I can often make out more of my surroundings albeit as shapeless blobs.

I didn’t bother manipulating any photos taken indoors or at night because for the most part they’re much like the greyscaled images above. Generally if the light levels are to a point that I’m having trouble seeing things I turn off lights or close blinds or stop doing whatever it is I’m using my vision for, like reading. If I can, of course. But for the most part, if I’m close enough to something indoors, I don’t have much loss of detail in what I see. Though, my distance vision is pretty much nonexistent, so things generally need to be fairly close for me to make them out at all.

In low-light situations, such as nighttime, my vision is fairly good. Provided there isn’t one single source of very bright light to wash out my vision, it is pretty much on par with a normally sighted person.  This is partially due to the fact that the functioning part of my retina, the rods, are meant to be working in these exact situations and as I am so used to seeing minus distinct detail and all I probably could get around even better than most sighted people. I don’t have any distance vision or depth perception, though, so it’s not like I’d be driving a car. But I can safely walk around without Yara guiding me and make out buildings and other landmarks usually absent to me. I still can’t make out steps or curbs, though, which are one of my biggest obstacles in navigating independently.

Anyway, it isn’t a perfect representation. But I hope it helped to show you all a bit of what it’s like to see through my poor eyes. ;-)

Yara

While I don’t feel the need to share every last detail of my life with the whole of the intarwebs, I’m not exactly a private person. So, the fact that this announcement is not news to a mere five people is saying a lot.

On June 17th I started the process to retire Yara and obtain a successor guide dog from Fidelco. It still feels incredibly surreal to me. Many of you who know me off the web and probably a good portion of you who do not but are familiar with service animals and our particular health struggles are most probably not surprised that this has been a decision I’ve mulled over for quite some time. Actually making the final decision and going forward from there was hardly easy. Not that retiring a guide dog is ever easy.

Aside from her health issues, I sincerely have no complaints about her as a guide. I won’t say that she never has a moment of distraction or doesn’t make a mistake now and again, but from that very first day in frigid downtown Schenectady when we took our initial steps together she has always been my partner. I don’t think I can adequately express it in words without sounding like I’m exaggerating or being boastful so you can believe me or not. So far as I’m concerned, she is without a doubt a wonderful match for me and constantly proves that she’s practically precision in harness and it is because of these things that retiring her nearly breaks my heart.

One thing that I have mostly kept to myself was how rough that first year was while we tried to diagnosis her weight-loss and assorted health issues. There were days that I would just break down and cry because here I had this amazing working dog and for whatever reason she was having accidents all over my apartment on a daily basis. I felt like a failure as a guide dog user because I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong that was affecting her so adversely. Worst of all, I felt I was being selfish for wanting to keep her as a guide and cruel for doing so when the reality of it could have been that she just wasn’t cut out to be a guide dog. At least not for me. I was so very near calling Fidelco and begging them to take her back at several points that I remain to this day shocked it didn’t happen. Especially when as I explained once before how she is when she’s being particularly stubborn about not eating.

In fact, it was only a few short weeks before she was ultimately diagnosed with EPI that my paranoia over being the cause of her issues was set to rest. I won’t say that the circumstances were especially ideal, but it was such a relief to voice the fear that Yara was possibly too stressed by the job and have a guide dog instructor calmly reply, “She doesn’t look stressed to me,” without missing a beat. And if my own inner-battle as a competent handler wasn’t enough to drive me towards the idea of giving up on our working relationship, there was also the months of going between Fidelco’s suggestions and my vet’s as to Yara’s health.1

Somehow, though, I muddled through it because I just kept coming back to the fact that she’s such an awesome guide dog. And, perhaps naively, I felt that things would get better. She would always have EPI, but once she was recovered and was back to a healthy weight it would no longer rule my life. Except, it totally does. The fact is I have taken off twice as much sick time from work because of Yara than I have for myself. Rather than call in sick, I went to work all five weeks I suffered from a horrendous viral cold last year because of the pressure from my superiors to not use my paid leave. I’ve gone to work with migraines because I have practically exhausted all of my accruals, which only serves to make the headaches worse through strain and stress. I don’t blame Yara in the least for this; she can’t help being sick. But that fact doesn’t make it less frustrating when she stubbornly refuses to eat for days on end and then is sick from not eating and not getting the proper dosage of enzymes in her system.

On top of this she’s also developed some severe allergy issue. My best assumption is that she’s reacting to something at my grandparents’ house, since both of her major attacks have manifested after we’ve spent extended time there. I realized after our most recent trip to the vet that I can no longer risk her health and can’t bring her to my grandparents’ any longer. And the moment that thought passed through my mind, I quite literally had to catch my breath. Many times through the years I have come across two major situations with my guides in terms of taking them places: I didn’t feel comfortable bringing them with me; or, I’ve been told that I can’t bring my dog to such-and-such place. With the first, it’s always been my own initiative to determine this and has more to do with my willingness to subject them to an uncomfortable environment for them (e.g., a loud concert) or me (e.g., a job interview) or a situation where I wouldn’t feel safe working them (e.g., Friday nights during college wherein I’d most assuredly get drunk while clubbing). On the second, I usually find myself responding that I most certainly can and am eagerly waiting for someone to try and argue differently. But never have I been limited by my dog itself in where I could take her. It was with this realization that I came to the conclusion that this partnership isn’t working.

There’s a lot of good, but the few negatives that exist are far too much to handle. If she were a pet, I think I’d feel differently, but because she is a working dog her health issues greatly impact my own ability to use her as a guide dog. I certainly can’t work a dog that is displaying signs of being ill, but as I live alone I have no one else to step in to care for her and I definitely can’t leave her alone for a day while she’s sick. Frankly, I don’t want to not work her and use a cane instead or leave her in someone else’s care since as her handler that really is my responsibility. Still, the fact is that when I made the decision to work with a guide dog I signed on for a healthy animal. The expectation is that the dog will be as dependable as a white cane. And while it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a guide dog will become ill anymore than a white cane being unbreakable, the reality here is that I have gone above and beyond a bit of give-and-take in this respect. I don’t regret any of that; not the money spent or the time off work or the endless hours stressing myself sick. But it has gotten to a point where I have given as much as I can and it’s time to admit there is no more left. And so, the best alternative is for both of us to move on.

This is a bittersweet event, though, because there are many things I am truly happy about. One, I will be working Yara until Fidelco finds a match for me and as it stands currently the earliest they will call is December.2 So, while her retirement is pending, it is still quite a ways off. I plan to soak up as much enjoyment from this fleeting time we have as I can. Two, while there is no firm answer as to where she will go once retired beyond the fact that I am not keeping her3 there are two very viable options for a superb post-retirement home. Either of which will allow for us to remain connected! I’ll natter on that later. Most probably when there is solid news to share. And, third, as difficult as it is to let go of a guide dog, it’s hard to not be excited about getting a new dog. Even if that is still a ways off, I’m still a bit giddy about the prospects of my next guide and making a new friend.

I was going to get into the specifics on the retirement/reapplication process, but this post has gotten a might long, so I’ll save that for a subsequent post. Instead, I want to end this with a very heartfelt thank you to the handful of people who have been “in the know” about this entire situation. I was hardly in the best frame of mind before this became official. I had many qualms about this and a list as long as my arm of questions that I wasn’t sure I’d ever get answered. And without those few ears and shoulders I probably would have shattered into pieces. But just as important was that these same glorious people were around after the decision was made to listen intently to my play-by-play of the most finite details and reassure me. Everyone should be so fortunate to have such a great support system as you. <3

  1. I won’t even get into the aftermath of her diagnosis here because just thinking about it sets my teeth on edge.
  2. I am not entirely happy about the very real possibility of training during the winter again.
  3. Much as I would love to, keeping her as a pet wouldn’t alleviate the issues of her health impacting my life. Also, as spacious as my apartment is, it’s not an ideal home for two big dogs.

Blind Reading

By the very nature of being a handler, my life is intimately intertwined with that of my guide dog. And so, by extension, is my blog. But clearly based on the variety of tags and such in the sidebar, I have many other interests. In fact, I often think of something randomly to post while doing something completely unrelated — most times even to the thing I think of to post. As such, I’ve amassed a great deal of draft posts with notes to write a post about such-and-such when I have the time. Though, more accurately that could be described as inclination because while the idea might be an interesting thing to blog and I may have had tons of things to say when it popped into my head, letting it sit for even a few hours seems to rob me of the desire to write it out. But I’m working on that and trying to whittle these draft posts down — or at least determine what my random notes to myself mean so I can write the post someday!

So, what’s all that have to do with reading? Well, the lesser reason is that much like I am wishing to whittle down these draft posts of mine, I’ve also been diligently working at decreasing the mass of books that I’ve been meaning to read. I started the year with 154 books in my queue. I was very appalled at this staggering number because I’ve always been a voracious reader and yet this pile had just grown and grown. In fact, much of the reason it grew was because I was so intimidated by the size that for a long time I avoided even attempting to read any of those books because I felt it was such an impossible task. And then, earlier this year I decided that was just stupid and there were far too many good books amongst those many tomes that I just had to start working at reading them and getting that pile down. Since joining Goodreads I’ve been more able to be organized about this endeavor and it seems that while I’ve read, as of today, 74 books this year I still have 105 books in that pile. This is mostly because of my obsession with acquiring books and I don’t regret it at all. But I have realized, much like getting all these draft posts actually written, that this will be a long, possibly never-ending task.

However, the more accurate reasoning for this post came about because of two things. One is that while I have wanted to blog more about my visual impairment I tend to forget to really sit down and do just that and even when I have something related to the subject I somehow gloss over it without even realizing. I think this is mostly because I don’t sit around and think of myself as solely a blind person, anymore than I think of myself solely as a guide dog handler or a writer or half-Asian. All these things just are facets of me as a person and so I tend to be rather unconscious of anything specific unless it is there as a true focus of what I’m currently thinking. The second reason came about at work yesterday when I was reminded of another incident from a few months back.

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PLEASE READ! — Eye Dog Foundation’s Shepherds

[EDIT: For information on how you can contribute help, please click here.]

UPDATE: Volunteer puppy raisers win in court! More information to come.

Last updated: April 6, 2010 @ 9:21 AM EDT

For more than a year the volunteer puppy raisers for the Eye Dog Foundation have been fighting with the school. Even though they have taken back nearly every guide dog puppy, the school has not placed a guide dog in over two-and-a-half years and the conditions in the kennels are quite unsettling.

The school has had a bad reputation for quite some time now for inexperienced and unqualified training staff and for continuing to take in MILLIONS of dollars without working towards their core mission. The dogs currently at the school have been without formal training for over 14 months. (“Formal training” here meaning guide dog training from a qualified instructor.) These are dogs that were raised in loving homes by puppy raisers and their families and now are being left in their cages, barking incessantly, while the school’s gates remain padlocked.

It should be noted that the school still maintains that these dogs will become guide dogs, even though they do not currently employ an “industry standard” instructor. As the school is headquartered in CA, it also falls under that state’s guide dog regulations put in place by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Board; regulations that EDF has historically not been following. In fact, the school has even bred another string of puppies since recalling back all their dogs — these puppies have lived their entire lives at the kennel. All of these GSDs have been without any real human interaction, certainly not the environment to maintain the high standard to which a future guide dog requires.

Don’t just take my word, though; please read the various news regarding the situation for yourself.

Yesterday, I received an email from one of the puppy raisers who has been diligently working towards helping these dogs. The problem, it would seem, is that no one is listening. And my best guess is because they are fighting this battle almost completely alone. Word has spread, albeit slowly, but no real action has been taken. As stated in the email: “You name the governing body, we have contacted them all.”

My hope is the same as this puppy raiser’s, that we can do something for these dogs and raise awareness of the horrific situation going on with EDF. I am urging you, whatever your interest level, to please spread the word about this situation. Please feel free to link this post if you would like. If you have any suggestion in a way to help the puppy raisers and the German shepherds, you can leave a comment on this post or email me. I will edit this post as necessary with whatever information I receive.

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