This is part 5 of the series “Living in an Uncertain World” and I thought it would only be fitting to introduce a new character into the mix; My dog Retina (RET) is one of the most amazing and precious beings on this planet. Let me get this straight, Retina is not a Guide Dog, but a Service Dog. Many times it may look like he is an anxious mess, buthe truly does help in returning some of the sight that I have lost.
People always ask me, “Why don’t you just get a guide dog?” My response is normally an explanation stating that, “it’s not that easy.” From what I’ve been told, and I am sure someone that works in the Guide Dog selection process could correct me if I am wrong, is that in order to obtain a Guide Dog, you must demonstrate a mobility impairment substantial enough to qualify for one. I was told that I function at too high a level to qualify for getting a Guide Dog. Again, I am not sure if this is totally accurate, but I do know that Guide Dogs are very expensive if supplemental funding is not available. I don’t know if society knows how much Guide Dogs can provide to someone that’s blind.
My dog Retina serves as my eyes in many scenarios that many people may not even consider. One of the biggest and most obvious ways he helps is by letting me know of upcoming curbs, stairs, drops in pavement, or changes in terrain. By having him on the leash walking in front of me, I feel the change in the slack of the leash when he changes his gait to account for the changing surface. Drop offs and curb downs are by far the most difficult to recognize and Retina has helped me avoid many a disaster by giving me this proprioceptive input. Over time, I have also noticed that he helps me avoid many other obstacles. If there are puddles ahead, he always walks around them and if I follow him I will avoid the puddle as well. Also, when walking along the sidewalk while it’s raining RET will always head directly toward the overhead awning to avoid the rain. Retina hates the rain, so it was a great choice to live in Seattle where we count the number of days it doesn’t rain rather than the number of days it does.
Retina helps me via audible feedback as well. I know where he is by the sound of the jingling dog tags on his collar. How does this help me see other than knowing where my dog is? One of the most difficult things as blind/VI people is recognizing people. As mentioned in previous blogs, I see shapes and colors moving around but no detail. I recognize other people by their voice, not their look, a color of shirt they are wearing, the contextual situation, etc. Retina comes to work with me each day. Instead of having each patient introduce him or herself as they come into the clinic, Retina takes care of this. When they see him they always start talking to him and this gives me the audible recognition to know who just entered. In the same way, group settings are difficult. I never know exactly who is present, or where they are within the group, but people gravitate towards Ret. In group settings Ret will typically always walk towards either someone he knows, therefore someone I know, or he will go towards someone who also has dogs. Either option is good because he will either find people I know for me or find new friends because people that are dog lovers stick together and there is instantly a good conversation starter. If Retina really gets excited he has probably spotted my girlfriend and has no problem leading me right over to her. One of the greatest examples of this recognition is when I go to Brittney’s flag football games and I am standing on the sideline with Ret. Without him there the game is very hard to follow, especially if I want to know how Brittney is doing. When he is there though all I have to do is watch exactly where his head and eyes are moving because he watches her like a hawk. When her team is on offense and I see moving blobs rapidly converging on Brittney (where Retina is looking), then hear cheering I know Brittney probably made a great play and/or scored a touchdown. If it weren’t for my back up set of eyes Retina, then I would have never known that Brittney was the one that made a play.
Dogs also have a great sense of smell and this can help me in many ways as well. In the kitchen, if I drop something I could feel around forever looking for where it went, or I could use my second set of eyes, Retina, to find it for me in an instant. If it’s food I typically still pick it up, but if I don’t want to reach down, or if I want to be a nice guy, I just let my furry little garbage disposal clean up any of the crumbs. When you are blind/VI this can be extremely helpful as small food pieces can lead to ants or other creatures and small sharp objects could be harmful to you or children in the house. When something is dropped on the floor Retina will move towards it immediately, whether its food or not, and this instantly gives me the signal to pick it up. He also can find trashcans in the community, which informs me where I can throw away any trash I have. In addition to his eyes, he also uses his nose to recognize people and I have definitely seen a pattern on the types of people he tends to gravitate towards. If I ever need to find a lady friend, Retina tends to locate them much better than he does males (lol).
Some of the above things may seem insignificant or a stretch to many people, but in terms of the types of service and/or assistance that Retina helps me with, I will guarantee you that when you are blind/VI the thought of trying to find people or recognize someone in a crowd is stressful and makes you anxious. This stress can be eased by the comfort of knowing that your dog will find the person you are looking for. In the same way, if your dog can prevent even one fall down stairs or collision with a pole, then this could mean one less fractured bone or one less embarrassing and humbling incident that you have to experience. The types of input and cueing that Retina gives me are endless. Once you get to know your dog and how they react in different situations, you can utilize this feedback to inform yourself about the people and your environment. As I have mentioned many times; as blind /VI individuals we must find other tools to achieve the same result as the sighted community. Service animals such as Retina and guide dogs are powerful tools that inform us of surroundings and situations that are otherwise achieved through vision. They cannot assist us with everything, nor can we expect them to. They are like a tool in our toolbox that has one function. A hammer is great at hitting nails into the wall, but does not do so well at tightening screws. In the same way, Retina is excellent at locating people he knows or finding small objects that may have dropped on the floor, but he is not the tool that I use to cross streets or find a certain shirt I wish to wear to work.