I’ve always known my husband is a great writer. Now you all know that, too! A gargantuan thank you to Mike Knezovich for keeping the Safe & Sound blog going while I was away. He did such a tremendous job that now I have some big shoes to fill. Thank goodness for photos of cute dogs, if my writing is a little lacking no one will notice!
My 18 days training with Harper at the Seeing Eye were go, go, go. The highlights:
- Hearing his name for the first time. We weren’t told our dogs names until we were introduced. It was love at first sound. I love his name.
- Taking off on our first walk down a sidewalk together. My smile was so broad, and the temperatures so cold, I thought my face might crack. Moments later, walking through space so quickly and efficiently, I was warm. Inside and out.
- Manhattan. New York City is so stimulating, all the people rushing about, a wonderful energy in the air. Following Harper as he threaded his way through the sea of legs was a joy ride.
Days start early at the Seeing Eye. Every morning at 5:30 a.m. an instructor would play a song over the intercom, then make an announcement like this:
Good morning, everybody. Time to get up. Its 27 degrees outside, so bundle up. We’ll be coming around with bowls of food for your dog. Feed them, give them two cups of water and then head outside for park time.
In my twenties I might have rebelled against being told what to do every day, how to dress, what to do when and where. Decades later, I found it surprisingly seductive. Decisions were made for me. I was told when to have Harper guide me to the dining hall for meals, when to meet in the lobby for a ride to downtown Morristown, where to go on routes, how to hold the harness, what to say to my new dog. I didn’t have to think. And there was no time to keep up with the news.
Last Monday night I confessed to one of my captors, I mean, trainers, that I was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. I didn’t want to leave.
The very next day, 24 hours before Harper would be leading me to my seat on an airplane bound for Chicago, Harper and I were asked to do two surprise solo routes. Instructors took us to downtown Morristown, told me how many blocks they wanted me to go forward, then take a left, cross a street, go three blocks, take a right, cross a street. The instructor would stay silent, behind us. Harper followed my every command. We were a team. I was ready. I wanted to come home.
And now, here we are. I don’t think Harper has ever seen snow before! In addition to judging traffic at each intersection, he has to negotiate us safely around the pile of snow left by plows at each curb. At the first snowbank, I feel the harness dart just a little bit left and right in my hand. Harper is moving his head back and forth, figuring out the best option. Go left of the snow, or right? Then an aggressive pull. He found his opening. I follow.
It is absolutely thrilling to walk with Harper, and I catch myself laughing out loud during our trips. His exuberance is contagious. It’s not all fun and games, though. This is Chicago, after all.
Bounding down the sidewalk on our very first walk around the block, Harper stops suddenly. I do the same. A milli-second later I hear the “beep, beep, beep” of a truck backing into an alley. Harper saw it coming before I heard what was happening. “Good boy, Harper! Good boy!”
Seeing Eye trainers have to teach dogs how to judge when a car changes from a car that can be trusted to a car that cannot be trusted. When Harper is guiding me along a city sidewalk, he has to trust the traffic traveling on the streets around us. If he didn’t trust those cars, he’d be afraid of them And wouldn’t walk along the sidewalk.
The Seeing Eye asks dogs not to trust any vehicle moving towards them that is less than 20 feet away. They can’t ask dogs to be wary of anything farther away than 20 feet, because there are a lot of vehicles farther than 20 feet away that the dogs have to trust. A car pulling into a parking lot half a block ahead, for example. Harper has to trust that car. Otherwise we’d be stopping all the time!
Twenty feet is not very far. A car traveling 30 mph covers 20 feet in one-half of one second. In one-half a second, a dog that is paying attention (Harper), and a human who is paying attention (me), can avoid getting hit by a truck backing into an alley.
Harper brings me to the next corner, “Harper, right!” I command. We spin right. “Good boy, Harper,” I say. “We’re almost home!” We’re Clipping along at a good trot when Harper suddenly skids to a stop. Again. I stop, too, following his lead. Again. This time, it’s a car bolting out of a parking garage. “Attaboy, Harper! Good boy, Harper! Good boy!”
Seeing Eye dogs are taught traffic work right from the beginning of their training process. At first they’re taught to avoid cars just like they’re taught to avoid other obstacles – garbage cans, trees, light poles, stuff like that. Then staff drivers come after the dog. They teach the dogs to run away from a car or back away from a car. And they teach the dogs to stop at a variety of distances from a moving car. After enough practice, the dog’s fear and concern about moving vehicles turns into confidence and awareness.
And thanks to Harper, and all the many, many, many people who have put their hearts and minds together to train Seeing eye dogs like him for the past 80+ years, any fears or concerns I had about facing traffic with a new dog are also turning into awareness. And confidence. Attaboy, Harper.