Here’s my husband Mike with a terrific guest post about how my Seeing Eye dogs look from his point of view.
by Mike Knezovich
Beth’s on her fourth Seeing Eye dog—and, in a very real way, so am I. Everyone easily grasps the difference a guide dog can make in its partner’s life. What they might not consider though, is the huge difference a guide dog can make to their partner’s partner’s life, too
After Beth lost her sight, life was a slog for both of us. She had to learn a lot of things, and many of them were only learnable the hard way. And I had to watch. It pushed me into something of a parental role—how much to protect? How much to let her (literally) take her hard knocks? Beth went to school to get orientation and mobility training—which taught her how to navigate with a cane. The instructors were great, the techniques are ingenious. But it’s hard as hell to learn. Like Braille.
And, as Beth will attest, she kinda’ sucked at the white-cane-mobility thing. So when she left to say, go to the mailbox, it was utter hell for me not to spring to my feet and say “I’ll go with you.” So, at first, I did spring to my feet. Or offer to drive her to wherever. Because the thought of her out there by herself with that cane just about killed me. But my being there with her all the time was not sustainable, from either of our points of view.
Enter Dora. She was easily the most classically beautiful of all Beth’s dogs. A sleek, athletic, jet-black Labrador, Dora could jump and reach toys I held wayyyy over my head. She could swim in heavy ocean surf. She lived until she was 17. But she didn’t much love her job. She led Beth around and kept them safe —but she was stubborn and balky at times. Beth and I have often wondered if it had to do with us as much as Dora. And some of it surely did.
The Seeing Eye trains the people every bit as much as they train the dogs—and dreary consistency is vital. Beth and I were probably taken a bit by the novelty of a new member of our family, and we surely weren’t as consistent with our dog-training habits as we are now. Still, Dora had a defiant streak that I think would have, well, defied us, whatever our behavior.
Then came Hanni of course, and I probably don’t need to say much about that, given that she has her own book. Except, as much as I still love her, even Hanni wasn’t perfect. (Pretty close, though!) Her most annoying trait: She hated rain. A freaking Lab-Golden mix behaved as if rain drops were hot, burning acid. She’d walk slowly, and edge too close to buildings to try to get cover, walking Beth into things in the process. She also didn’t much care for swimming. Who can figure?
Harper came next, and from the start, he seemed somewhat ill at ease. He had an incredibly fast gait, but we realized in retrospect that he’d been treating walks as something to get over with as quickly as possible. He was stressed by his enormous responsibility, and why not? Still, stressed and all, he did his job heroically and saved Beth from a catastrophic accident. His ensuing canine PTSD could have been heartbreaking—except that it landed him with two fantastic people and he lives a helluva good life now.
Which brings us to my new favorite, Whitney. Whit came home with every annoying dog behavior Beth’s previous mates didn’t have. When she’s off harness she licks. She sniffs too much. She always wants to play. And she never gets enough attention. God I love her.
On harness, especially during bustling weekdays downtown, Whitney’s head is on a swivel, constantly looking out for her and Beth. She walks at a great pace but slows when she should—threading Beth around construction zones, slowing down for ice, creeping gently around WPs (wobbly people). Walking right up to the curb at each crossing and waiting for Beth to command straight, left or right. God I love her.
People sometimes tell us that they saw Whitney—or Beth’s other dogs—screwing up. In some cases, the people actually have it wrong. For example, they simply don’t know that the dog is supposed to go straight all the way until they get to the curb—and wait for Beth’s command to go left or right. This looks wrong, because it means overshooting the point where a sighted person would make a right or left. But it’s absolutely necessary. The person has to be the navigator, and the dog can’t take shortcuts.
In other cases, the dog really is screwing up—weaving to sniff another dog (and our neighborhood is full of them). Responding to the whistle or petting of well-meaning but clueless passersby. Bumping into pedestrians who are texting. Beth is forced to correct her partner in those cases, which is no fun but absolutely necessary.
Without question, the dogs have flaws. All of them. But as the old adage goes, “If you come across a talking horse, you don’t complain about its grammar.” Beth’s dogs have probably added years to my life by relieving me of worry. So if they sniff or veer or bark occasionally, I’m OK with it. And I’ve loved them all.