For the Love of . . . ?

I was a spoiled child. Really spoiled. I mean, spoiled to the point that my father has stated matter-of-factly that the only thing I ever asked for that I didn’t get was a horse. Horses certainly aren’t cheap and my parents weren’t rich by any means, but this wasn’t so much about the expense of purchasing and owning a horse. I never got a horse as a kid because they don’t exactly thrive in tiny third-floor apartments. Instead, I had a bedroom stuffed with Breyer models and My Little Ponies, I had riding lessons, and I was in a 4-H club dedicated to horses.

The 4-H club was a bizarre experience for me. Through it I learned that a passion for horses is all but expected of little girls. I say “passion” because it was clear to me that all the other girls in the club had absolutely no other interest in life except horses. It struck me as a bit odd, but I didn’t find it alienating even though for my part it often was like observing several highly excitable birds flitting about.

For some reason I may not have been privy to or just plainly don’t recall, one meeting was just me and another girl. She was my riding instructor’s niece and we were pretty good friends insomuch as convenient proximity and a shared interest in horses were our only commonalities. Our project that afternoon was building clay models from kits. The kits came with a plastic frame to help shape the body and little tubs of paint to transform the model into a specific breed. In front of my friend was a set to create a palomino and before me was a Labrador retriever.

I didn’t immediately register the difference and I probably wouldn’t even have cared, except as we wrestled the packaging to retrieve the kits. our group leader proclaimed, “Cyndy’s favorite animal is dogs.”

My friend’s head whipped around and she gaped at me in alarm as if it had been announced I would spontaneously sprout wings and dance a jig. I just shrugged my shoulders and pretended to listen as our leader gave us instructions about the models. My friend was placated at least and she busied herself with forming her clay around the spindly legs of the plastic frame. I, however, sat there mulling over the validity of the statement while I fiddled with my mound of clay.

I remember I was honestly a bit insulted to have my own favorite animal announced to other people. I didn’t recall ever stating that dogs were my favorite animal. I didn’t even have a memory of stating I had a favorite animal of any kind. I realized the statement itself was mostly baffling to me because it was actually news! Shouldn’t I of all people know that dogs were my favorite animal? That seemed to confirm they weren’t. Okay. so what was my favorite animal? Horses were definitely the animal I was the most interested in, but I was just as enamored with the white cat meandering her way between my legs as this internal debate raged inside my head. Certainly I wasn’t nearly as obsessed with horses as the other girls in the club, my friend in particular. At that moment she was gushing about the newest entry in a book series about horses that I’d found so below my reading level it might as well have been a cardboard picture book.

Years later I’d answer the question of favorite animal with an unequivocal “penguins,” emphasizing a particular fondness for emperor penguins, but at that precise moment I was utterly befuddled. My sticking point was that I did in fact really love dogs. I’ve had a dog of some sort my entire life. At the time we had three terrier mixes as pets who lived mostly to be de facto garbage disposals and create mischief.1 They weren’t the least bit playful, which was a bit of a letdown for me after having a Golden retriever. On the contrary, they were small enough that I could pick them up and they were awesome snugglers. Even then I couldn’t imagine a life that wasn’t shared in some part with a dog. I used to fantasize that as an adult I’d have a bunch of different dogs and though at that point I hadn’t figured out the logistics I was already certain I’d work with a guide dog.

I forget exactly how it happened exactly. It’s likely I just rudely interrupted my friend as she waxed poetical about bedspreads with horses galloping across them. Perhaps I interjected with one of my favorite stories about our dogs wherein they treated themselves to a frozen pizza feast by raiding the dumpster behind Pizza Hut and dragging it back to our front porch. In any case, what I do remember is that suddenly we were talking about dogs. The conversation took on a life of its own and we never did finish our models.2

The 4-H group eventually ran its course and I’ve long since lost touch with absolutely every person even remotely involved in it. But I’m often reminded of that particular day while out in public working with my guide dog, hearing the conversations bustling around me suddenly turn to the subject of dogs.

  1. One was named Trouble and yes she lived up to her name.
  2. Mine ended up drying into a shape that faintly resembled a lab, but never got painted.

What day is today?

Photo collage of six images of Uschi surrounding the text "Today Uschi is SIX!"

Why, it’s Uschi’s birthday!

Welcome Home, Dolly!

One of the main reasons I hate moving is because inevitably something always gets lost. Case in point, I’ve been trying to locate a box of pictures for something like ten years now. Among the photos in this box are the portraits taken during my training at Guiding Eyes.

Well, I still haven’t found the box, but Dolly’s puppy raiser did send me this:

Portrait of Dolly in harness

I’ve been rather persistently pestering her for either of the portraits she has copies of to make . . . well, you’ll find out when the intended recipient does. For now, I am ever so pleased to say this lovely lady is hanging in my dining room.

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.

Three Years!

Portrait of Uschi and me on a white background; Uschi standing on her head in front of me

Today marks three years partnered with Uschi and she still amuses and astounds on a daily basis!