Today is not just your birthday but our anniversary. It’s been three years. Three short years since we first met. Working with you has been freedom; I am not grounded when walking with you, I am soaring, I am untouchable, in flight – and the only thing that connects me to Earth is the smell and sound of the environment…and you: the pull of your harness, the turn and direction of your body; informing me to slow down, speed up, turn left, turn right, there is a door, a curb, a bench, the Publix bakery, a hallway, my favorite chair at the university library, home.
This is not to say walking with a cane is not freedom. Having complete control over your movements, knowing as much of your surroundings, making sure to stay in contact with landmarks that will inform you to turn soon, turn now, wrong area – turn around…this is freedom too.
However, with you I am in constant flight. The skills I use with my cane take me to the next level with you. I do not trip, my feet are in constant motion, never stumbling. My hand is steady, they do not tremble with second guessing (did I miss that landmark?). I am just as confident with you than with my cane; head held high, back straight, body direction forward.
There is also a quickness and a sense of security with you. If there is a crowd that I need to walk through, a flick of the wrist and a command, you will lead me through it – and not once will I bump into bodies, trip over feet and other objects. I am turned around and need to find my way back, the turn of my body, a flick of the wrist, a command, and you will take me there. The buildings are too far apart and there is a wide-open space separating them, there is no landmarks that I can find to tell me that my body direction is correct but with a flick of the wrist and a command, you will take me there.
It hasn’t always been easy. Our bodies haven’t always walked as partners: I didn’t trust you at first, always second guessing your direction, instruction, and feedback of the environment; you, who can be playful and compliant out of harness, refused to listen to me, to follow my commands, you knew where you were going, so there was no need for me to tell you anything.
I cried during training. I thought it was a mistake to give up my cane and pick up a harness. I was so nervous that you would do something un-service animal like that would cause people around me to judge me, judge you, judge the Seeing Eye. I imagined running into doors, walls, tripping over things, I imagined you taking food off of plates and out of trash cans, I imagined you jumping on people, barking when in classrooms, chasing after squirrels and birds. I doubted myself, would I have the strength to correct you in public when you did something wrong?
Things, of course, did get better. While in training, you started to listen to me more. I became more comfortable with you – and with the harness. I made mistakes and so did you – luckily, I was in good company, people who were in training for the first time, telling me the same fears and doubts I had, and there were people there for the second, third, eighth time, telling me about the times they felt as if they weren’t going to be good handlers, telling me the different ways they made mistakes.
We graduated from training. And some of my fears did come to pass.
At the university, I learned quickly not to let you use the bathroom on thick grass because you would eat it. It was Florida and September and the second week of school – so hot and busy and loud – and since I had my hands full of things, I decided to put you on long leash and let you do your thing. Standing there, sweating and weighted down with books, a laptop, your bowls and bag of food and a few bottles of water – for me and you – I wondered what was taking so long. “Park time,” I repeated. The leash didn’t move. “Park time.” Nothing. Then, from behind me, a man asks his friend, “Dude, why is she telling her dog to eat grass?” I was embarrassed. I am able to laugh about it now but back then I felt as if I didn’t know what I was doing.
You don’t grab food from plates or trashcans, but you do love napkins and wadded bits of paper – receipts, notebook paper, essays. I learned this because in one of my psychology courses, there was a young woman who loved to look at you. She would coo at you and make kissing noises. To my pride, not once did you look her way, you did not return any of her kisses. But she had a half of a hamburger that she wanted to give to you. Without knowing it at the time, she placed the hamburger on a napkin and placed it in front you. I didn’t know she did it until I heard you chomping a way. Napkin in your mouth and burger ignored on the floor.
There were quite a few service animals on campus and you ignored every single one of them, until they licked your paws, rubbed against your side and sniffed you. You would say a quick hello back; you were working and didn’t have time for playing or conversing.
I was noticed more. Being a blind woman, I am used to the glances and comments from people, but with you, their glances were longer and their comments were louder. With the cane, people would usually get out of the way – no one wants to get their ankles hit – but with you, a small, fluffy, golden retriever, there was no hesitation in blocking the way so they can have that quick pat, a conversation – with you – about you. People love the way you look and watching you work; without asking, they take pictures and videos of you. You are on Instagram and SnapChat – despite me not having an account, you are a photo on Facebook posts – despite me not knowing them.
It took a while to move fluidly. There were quite a few times in the beginning where my body direction and my commands were in complete opposites. You would choose one and we would trip over each other’s legs. You would choose another and I would correct you. And there were times you wouldn’t move at all. Our walk is better too; we do not walk head to head – my body is behind your ribs. We do not race one another, you are the guide.
I am comfortable with you now. I am quick to repeat a command if you need a reminder. I am also quick with a correction if you need it. When you stop and refuse to go any further, I fix my body direction, if that doesn’t work, then there is something in the way.
You and I are more in tandem now. I move with your body and you move with mine. You follow my commands and I trust you will get me there, even if it feels as if you are going the wrong way. We are perfect together. I am extremely light sensitive, and you will always choose to walk in the shade rather than the sun. You are up for a cuddle just as much as a quick nap or a few hours of play.