Jones

JonesThe cute German shepherd puppy you see to the right is Jones. He’s from The Royal Dutch Guide Dog Foundation and a BookCrossing member adopted him in my honor. Apparently, I inspired her (or rather a photo of me and Yara) and she wrote: “I love dogs and admire the work they do for the people that need them. And I want to give my share to the foundation to be sure that their good work is continued.”

What I find most interesting about this is that Jones is actually from New York State. His information page is a bit vague (and my Dutch is pretty much nonexistent), but I think he may have been bred at Guiding Eyes. [EDIT: Confirmed by the school.] He and his sister Jody were being fostered by a GEB volunteer until just a few months ago when they flew off to the Netherlands. Now this little pup has been placed with a foster family and I’ve been promised updates on his journey to one day becoming a guide dog.

Many thanks to Grada for the gift and Uschi and I wish Jones the very best of luck!

Charlie Kaman

Charlie Kaman kneeling next to two German shepherds

Early this morning Fidelco co-founder, Charles Kaman, passed away.

As Charlie’s health was failing for several years prior to my involvement with Fidelco, I never had the privilege of meeting him. I do know that he was a great inventor and entrepreneur and given his, and his late wife’s, impact on my life through their work, I will forever be indebted to his selflessness. I’m truly bereft of words at this news. All I can say is that I am entirely certain he will be greatly missed.

EDIT: Statement from Kaman Cooporation and Charlie’s obituary.

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.

Robbie Kaman

Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation‘s president and co-founder, Roberta Kaman, passed away yesterday. Her death has truly rocked all of us affiliated with the school. In fact, while I’d already heard the news from a puppy raiser friend, I was very surprised to have the director of training call about half an hour ago to inform me. We didn’t speak for long as he is calling each graduate individually and had a long list yet to get through. But such was Robbie’s contribution to the school that there really isn’t anyone familiar with Fidelco who isn’t impacted by her passing.

Robbie holding a GSD pupOne thing anyone involved with Fidelco learns very quickly is how much the Kamans mean to the school and vice versa. Not only did they co-found the school, but they both worked very hard to build it up and maintain it. Even in her retirement Robbie was a constant fixture at the school: attending puppy classes, aiding with breeding, helping in the kennel, being a resource for pretty much anything Fidelco or German shepherd related, and so very much more.

I may not have had the longstanding relationship with Robbie as many others, but even in the few short years I’d been acquainted with her she has shown her deep commitment to every aspect of Fidelco. When calling in to report on Yara’s health before and after her diagnosis of EPI, Robbie was the one I most often spoke with. She was always eager to offer suggestions and words of support, even if it was through another staff member. I was also always deeply impressed at her powers of recall and genuine interest in all of the dogs that passed through Fidelco. The few times I was around her in person, at lunch after the Walk in 2008 and the 2009 graduate dinner, she made it a point to inquire with all of us present about our dogs, including foster pups both past and present. Factoring in that she was also involved with all the pups at the school and a constant stream of new fosters, I am truly amazed at her ability to keep everyone straight and her enthusiasm about each individual. Her absence at this past Banquet and Walk did not go unnoticed, but knowing she won’t be around at any future events — or at the school for her daily visits — is currently beyond my ability to fully process.

I think there were a lot of people who didn’t quite understand her, even amongst friends of Fidelco. And certainly we all didn’t agree with her all the time. But no one can deny that she was a wealth of information and always eager to pitch in when it came to the shepherds. I don’t have adequate words to express my heartfelt gratitude for what she and Charlie have done to aid blind persons like myself.

She will be greatly missed.

EDIT: Robbie’s obituary.

Birthday Loot

I’m still getting used to the fact that I’m 31. I don’t think I ever really got used to being 30 even, but this just feels surreal. Anyway, I’m not one to lament growing old nor am I big on boasting about the things people gave me. But I haven’t posted in awhile — even though I do have a bunch of things to blog about — because I’ve felt like crap for the last week or so. And I have wanted to share this one gift from Zach:

Plush black-and-tan German shepherd wearing a brown leather guide dog harness

GDUI used to have a catalog of merchandise, including plush guide dogs in harness like this. But awhile back they stopped selling most everything. Raechel was actually the one that alerted me to this when her husband had tried to get one for her. So after a bit of sleuthing I got the information for the toys and harnesses and bought her one. (And one for Kimberly, who is currently in training with her new guide dog at GDF.) In doing so I sort of fell in love with this divine plush GSD from Douglas Cuddle Toy and Zach being the awesome guy he is snatched it up for me.

Thanks again to everyone for all the wonderful birthday wishes and thoughtful gifts and cards! Yara and I both truly appreciate them. Well, probably Yara only cares about the things for her but she hasn’t said so specifically.