I felt a passionate calling during my last year of graduate school to get a guide dog. I called my neighbor, who is blind, and she invited me over for a talk. For three hours, we cried as stories were recounted by my neighbor and her son. I even got to hold Sparkle’s harness. As she let me hold the empty harness. I did not comprehend the significance of the series of confusing straps of leather. Now I understand.
Guide dogs are branded like shoes, sodas, and cars. Seeing Eye Dogs are based in New Jersey. Guide Dogs for the Blind and Guide Dogs of America are out of California. Leader Dogs for the Blind is in Rochester, Michigan. Each school has benefits and training styles that will appeal to certain personalities.
Leader Dogs is the only accredited guide dog school that trains guide dogs for people who are blind and deaf. Any organization with proactive programs has my loyalty. Another pivotal factor in determining which school would be the best was my neighbor’s experience with Leader Dogs.
The stud came from a bloodline of hunting Labradors. Two veterinarians controlled certain characteristics and Paradox-Obsidian was born. From a linage of show dogs, the mother is named Knickers.
The litters of future Leader Dogs were assessed for the right temperaments & trainability benchmarks. The dogs with the “Right Stuff” were given to certified puppy raisers. The other dogs got adopted. Puppy raisers are volunteers who dedicate a year to raise the dog, train the dog on obedience, socialize the dog to other animals & people, and get to pick the name. “Amy” who lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan had raised sixteen Leader Dogs. Only allowed to have one dog at a time, Amy sacrificed time & energy so others may enjoy the independence & companionship a guide dog provides.
On June 3rd 2012, I met my guide dog for the first time. It was after a morning of Orientation with the trainer. As the trainer controlled an empty harness, I learned the correct commands to use. “Your dog’s name is Perry,” she said as she left the room to bring him to me.
Puppy raisers often associate the dog’s name with the number of years correlated with the alphabet. Since he was Amy’s seventeenth dog to raise and “P” is the seventeenth letter of the alphabet, she searched for a “P” name. A fan of the cartoon Phineas & Ferb, there is a black platypus known as Perry (Special Agent P). Perry is her favorite character. Also adding to a thoughtful tribute, one of her Commanding Officers while she was in the military was named Perry so the name was signed, sealed, and delivered. After a year with Perry, Amy handed him over to Leader Dogs for six months of guide dog training.
Upon meeting Perry, I video-conferenced with my wife in order for her to share the moment. I got on the floor as a year & a half old puppy with huge paws was brought to me on a leash. Vapor locked, I could only feel Perry’s features as Jennifer described Perry to me.
Leader Dog uses a positive reinforcement model. Verbal praise, comforting touch, and treats round out the strategies to encourage desired behaviors. Managing the dog’s weight is, also, a component of the program. Perry’s eatable rewards are baby carrots. Low in calories, Any carrot is usually devoured quickly by Perry for stopping at curbs or stairs, navigating us around branches hanging over or an object on the ground, and riding an escalator.
The physical setup of the Leader Dogs campus is designed for people who are blind. Each person with their dog has a private room. Outside of each person’s door is a common area where the dogs “park”. Park is the term for relief either liquid or solid. Perry & I met in the afternoon. The following morning at 6:30am sharp, each person and their dog are expected to meet outside with their dog on leash. Guide dogs are trained not to park if the harness is on. Perry hurriedly spun in circles and I heard that unmistakable sound off urine hitting the gravel. Trainers monitored the client’s reaction and made suggestions to encourage the dogs to relieve themselves.
Overwhelmed by all of the voices and Perry’s enthusiasm, I was caught off guard as a trainer handed me a baggie. “Perry just parked. Reach down to your right about three feet to your side.”
I was so confused. What had I signed up for by getting a guide dog? To spare you some of the details, it took three large sandwich baggies to get it all. I wondered if everyone else had to do this or was I on some obscure reality show. “Stay tuned as we convince the blind man to find and pick up dung.”
Perry has always had one speed – “GO!” As we practiced in door travel, The PearBear walked incredibly fast. I wondered if Perry was the right dog for me since I could barely keep up with him.
Each of the guide dogs were matched to the dog handler’s personality. The veteran had the controlled, stoic dog. The girl fresh out of high school got the dog who wanted to explore the world. The lady who was meek & mild received a precious & polite dog. The young woman who came off as brash was bestowed the mischievous dog. Perry has proven to be intensely fierce and an enigma to figure out.
Perry is like the Swiss Army Knife of guide dogs. Perry, in harness, blends in with his surroundings. While attending a gala of affluent people, Perry laid low and never garnered any negative attention. On our daily routes, Perry scans back and forth like a Roman sentry. As I counseled clients during my Social Work internship, Perry slept under my desk and would let out a sigh during a needed moment of levity. The Gentle Giant, Perry is a reserved hospital visitor or the focus of a presentation about guide dog etiquette. On our daily route, his fierce determination navigates us through obstacles and unrelenting commuters.
Perry has three distinctive modes. While in harness, Perry is all business and is considered “working”. Out of harness and on leash, Perry knows certain behaviors are expected but he has more freedom to seek affection and investigate the environment. Off both harness & leash, Perry is a normal dog.
Perry has brought the world back into a three dimensional realm for me. Isolated due to a lack of options, mobility, and emotions, I sheltered in place to shield me from a sighted world. Having Perry, I am responsible for his daily exercise and training. As stated previously, Perry loves to work and will prod me until I submit to the pressure. In the beginning, we would walk for thirty minutes at a time which was both of our limits. After an hour to recover, Perry pounced, barked, and nosed me for a second route. After the second thirty minutes of “work”, the exercise satiated his desire to work and sedated the beast. Perry is my accountability buddy and does not care about excuses. He wants to “work”!
Perry has picked up my routine before going on our several mile walks. If he notices I’ve started to stretch or clip on the pepper gel spray, Perry nudges, pounces, and barks until he is put in harness. He stands at the door with his harness strapped around him. Staring out the window, Perry is like a horse at the starting gate. He waits as I close and lock the door. His guidance and thrust show restraint until we clear the driveway and then it is full throttle, redline until he is spent. At the beginning of our journey, Perry’s Full Tilt towards the windmills of adventure was too fast for me. As our trust & bond have grown, my ability to keep up with him has accelerated. His nature is determined and focused. Perry cannot be forced to do something he does not want to do. The Force is strong in him.
Some will assume that Perry is my best friend. I understand the implication. Jennifer is my soulmate and best friend. Now, Perry & I are intertwined and he is a thoughtful companion. He is a solid reminder to be resilient, stay focused, and be joyful. As I hurried into a job interview, my mind raced through statistics and appropriate stories for the interviewer. I could feel the stress course through my veins as Perry suddenly stopped and pulled to the left. I knew we were next to the building lined with planters. Two workers standing out front remarked that my dog was sniffing the flowers. Perry has had an affinity for sweet smelling blooms. It was a good lesson that we should remember to stop and sniff the flowers.
One Facebook friend observed that Perry is the Dog of a thousand hashtags. From our first day together, Perry had numerous names such as: Special Agent P, The Bear, Pawed Prince of Burleson, AutoPerry, iPerry, PerryPrecision, His Perryness, Perry Manilow, Moose, Monster, Hoover, Perry The Prancer, Pierre, my Perrysympathetic Nervous System, and the most recognizable moniker “PearBear.
Very much like me, Perry knows how to work a crowd; however, it is obvious there becomes a saturation point. Most people do not recognize certain quirks or signs that we need breathing room. Maybe he isn’t like me. It could be that his perception reads that I am the one who needs space.
Having a guide dog is like being a celebrity of sorts. One cannot walk into a store without turning heads or unleash a gaggle of whispers. Often approached, curious questions are posed by admirers. As soon as someone finds out his name, the baby talk begins and a bit of distraction ensues. When Perry is working, he won’t even look people in the eye.
The harness I snap around Perry is a lot more than straps of leather I cling to as we traverse the environment. The feedback running up my fingers and arm alerts my senses to what Perry notices, where he wants me to go, and when I need to stop. The harness signifies to people that Perry is not just a pet. Perry is a service dog.
Perry’s harness represents freedom, accessibility, and openness to whatever opportunity may materialize for us. Over the course of two years, Perry has tugged me around the streets, brought huge belly laughs to our family, invigorated our other black lab’s playtime, allowed me to focus my energy towards positivity, comforted Jennifer while she grieved her father, and helps me charge through Life’s barricades I never knew were there. Together, Perry & I have an agreement to take care of each other. I get the best deal out of our arrangement as I gain independence for the price of a handful of baby carrots.
One day, I will have an empty harness. A worn sequence of leather straps will sit perched on a door knob. Someone may come to my house and want to know what it was like to have a guide dog. I will let the person hold the harness. There is no way to fully represent what that harness has seen with Perry wearing it. To the average person, they may be unaware the harness is not the only thing that will be empty inside.
Several times throughout my career I have been asked “ Why do you teach? What inspired you to teach?” I know what people are assuming my response will be, expecting to hear about my passion for education and desire to inspire young minds. A teacher is often the gatekeeper of knowledge, but hopefully even more so, the catalyst for developing the habit of learning. But I don’t teach for that reason, really. I am not overly concerned about algebra, endoskeletons, grammatical mastery, or even academic advancement. I am invested all because of a deck of cards and a seed planted, along with a series of events that at the time seemed like an albatross searching for truth within broken mirrors and Nevermores.
I should probably interject at this time that I spent several years dancing in old poetry as a teenager. When I was approximately two years old, the most likely place you would have found me was attached to my mother in some way or at least in close proximity. As I grew older, the ultimate torture for me was to be placed in social situations which forced me to interact with other children my age. Now mind you, I was fine with my extended family,…as long as my mother remained in my range of vision. But when it was time to venture off to the world of Academia, and the initiation into autonomy, I still remember the panic and misery that quickly developed. I wanted to remain at home, always, in my room that became first my refuge and then later an asylum for the dysfunctional …but that is another story.
So the reason I now teach can be traced back to a scheduled Show and Tell Day, my kindergarten year. I don’t remember much about that classroom, or details about the teacher. I do recall my offering for that day, though. It was a tiny deck of cards, small even for my five year old hands. These had been purchased from a gumball machine, and were of supreme quality. The morning of the event, my teacher, to remain nameless, collected our items and placed them in a wicker basket behind her desk. The anticipation of showing my prized possession hung in the air around me throughout the early part of the day, making the time seem stagnant. Then it was announced we would break for recess and upon returning the treasures would be revealed. The excitement was almost too much to bare.
And then, came the moment- We reentered the building and moved toward our assigned seating. But in the process of doing so, an outbreak of upset occurred. The scene of the upcoming tragedy had been laid out. On the floor behind the teachers desk was scattered all the little offerings for time of Show and Tell. The basket had mysteriously dumped over. My tiny deck of cards had been thrown about and several items were broken. And then began the most horrible unfolding of all. The teacher, to remain nameless, and from that moment heartless and irredeemable to me, grabbed her broom and dust pan. She quickly begin to contain and dispose of the debris, the messy cheap trash she would now be spared from hearing boring tales about.
The event, in my memory wasn’t discussed and quickly dismissed. I now suspect the teacher was O.C.D.. So, of course, my deck of cards were gone forever and sadder yet, pure innocent trust. I truly don’t remember that teacher’s name. And now as an adult, I accept she wasn’t really Satan. Actually, I might still think she is Satan, but don’t want to have to undergo therapy so I will deny it. As an adult, I realize she had no idea how much damage she did that day. Obviously, I now realize what a silly, insignificant loss it was compared with real, inconceivably unbearable issues faced by so many children in the world. But, for me a seed was planted. That seed remained cold and undeveloped at the age of eleven.
To note, life had been mostly smooth in those formative years, especially compared to what I know of the average homelife of students today. But that year initiated me into an abyss of alienation that still reserves a corner of my mind, even to this day. I didn’t fit. Nothing fit. The world then was like what I can now compare to the Matrix, and I felt lost and alone. I lived in books and daydreams. At school I found ways to assimilate on the surface, however, it was miserable, and I hid behind layers of masks and fabrications. No one saw me, really. And eventually I preferred it. And then one day I was okay. Well, sure, that is how the story ends.
Not really, of course, but this isn’t about endings, really. This story is about inspirations and beginnings. So, the seed did bloom one day, and with it came the desire to grow and to make that barren place healthy again. But, ironically, it wasn’t a desire to grow myself. The need had been planted to help children. It was ingrained in me to find those children whose cards had been scattered and tossed; that were lost in books and shadows. I returned to the classroom to be that teacher who cares. The one who truly listens to the Show and Tell and watches and tunes in for the Unseen and Not Told. So, even though I bear the title of ‘teacher’, I am actually in the classroom to insure children don’t end up in dustpans. So there is my story, but in closing don’t forget: It isn’t my fault I am not dealing with a full deck. ( I teach Middle School, of course).
Cheryl Essex is an award winning teacher at a middle school near Fort Worth. Her unique perspective and outstanding work ethic triggered the request for her to write a guest post.Please comment and hopefully she will be open to writing more articles.Cheryl, thank you for sharing an insight for all of us to benefit.—Chad
I had an Abbott & Costello moment as I volunteered at a food pantry. As I was unloading boxes and stacking the contents into sorted groups, the confusion began.
I stop the person and explain that open term like “these” or “there” do not detail what is expected.
Hard Reality #3 There are not a lot of blind people in public life. People with disabilities are like unicorns or mythical creatures. Crazy comparison? I’ll prove my point. An average person finds out I’m blind, 98% of the time they tell me about a blind person they saw once. How many times do you see a blind person shopping at a retail store. Thank you. I proved my argument. Rainbows are more frequent than blind people in public. Spotting a blind person is like seeing a rainbow. If the person is deaf AND blind, you got yourself a double rainbow there! Given the status of public transportation in certain geographic areas, getting around in the community has its challenges. Going to the store, work, doctor, or to volunteer can be problematic. Jennifer took off work so I could volunteer.