It’s Zero Hour on Monday, the first full day of our two week training stint at Guide Dogs for the Blind in Boring, Oregon. Like my five classmates, I am in my room after lunch and waiting for the knock on the door that will introduce me to the dog the school has chosen for me. While waiting in suspense, I managed to spill a bunch of kibble on the floor and have to clean it all up quickly because any smart dog would completely ignore me and go right for the grub; definitely a bad way to start. I get that done and then there’s a knock. I draw in a breath and let it out and open the door – and find Janet, an administrator, with a clipboard and a form to sign. I sign it, close the door and wait again. I hear an excited exclamation from down the hall as someone else meets their new partner. Then there’s another knock – and something small and powerful and smooth and furry dashes in and jumps into my arms and starts licking my face, pawing and scrabbling all over me and then rolls over for a belly rub, which I gleefully provide. “This is Inga,” says an instructor, and I am hugging and petting moving ball of energy masquerading as a 49-pound yellow Labrador retriever. She’s beautiful, she’s smart, she’s sharp and she’s full of love. The instructor hands me Inga’s leash, closes the door and walks away, leaving us to marvel at each other. We have about two hours before we are all to meet up and introduce our dogs to the group and start our learning in earnest.
I am ecstatic. My previous guide, Roya, had been with me for eight wonderful years and had died eight months earlier. She was a 65-pound all black German shepherd, a calm, mildly playful and sweet-tempered dog who had come to me when she was 26 months old. We had trained on my home turf, in Manhattan, from a school called Fidelco. Fidelco only breeds and trains German shepherds and only does what’s called home placement, or training with the new handler at their home. I had decided to come to Oregon to train in an unfamiliar environment to help sharpen my guiding skills, and I wanted a dog that was emphatically different from Roya. And now I had one. The only thing left was to find out how well Inga and I would work together. Feeling her youthful energy – she was just 20 months old – and her alert, attentive and loving essence made me sure that all would be well. From that instant on, we had these two weeks to really get a good start on the learning and bonding process that would really take another six to nine months to cement. But before GDB let us go home on our own, the instructors needed to feel secure that we would be safe on the streets of New York and anywhere else we went. Would I listen to the dog and move with her when she made an abrupt shift to one side or the other? Would she listen to me when I needed her to stop or turn, slow down or speed up, wait or go forward? Could she walk me safely on stairs, escalators and elevators, past other dogs or ignore food on the ground, step on and off trains and buses, walk through busy crowds and past obstacles? Was she smart enough not to take on a moving vehicle? Would she recognize and pause at curbs, even when they had curb cuts or were almost flat with the street? What about at night? What about in stores and restaurants and airports? What about all those humans who would exclaim about how beautiful she is and try to grope (I mean pet) or feed or simply distract her?
Meeting each of these challenges is critical to our success as a team. The six of us train several hours a day for the next twelve days, with one break on the Sunday. We spend the first days walking brief routes near a small building the school owns in a nearby town, practicing turns, street crossings, passing obstacles in our paths for crumbling sidewalks to people with strollers or other dogs. Sometimes the most difficult part is just making sure you’re walking in a straight line from Point A to B. We get used to the gait of our dogs. Inga has a springy bounce that is quite different from Roya’s smooth roll, and she is much faster. I’m all tense after eight months of cane travel – okay, I’m tense anyway and I do my best to relax my shoulders so that tension doesn’t travel through the harness handle to Inga. “Put that shoulder down,” says my patient instructor. “Don’t suitcase,” says another, referring to my habit of picking the harness handle up too high as if I were pulling luggage. She points out how this isn’t fun for the dog, and it’s not fun for me, either.
As we improve, we head to a mall and try escalators and moving turns and store counters. And then we hit the big time: we spend days in downtown Portland traveling crowded streets (yes, they have those in Portland) and blocks packed with food trucks and people jockeying for position at their windows. We get on and off buses. We take the light rail and in an underground station I order Inga to go the wrong way; thankfully, she refuses and digs in her paws. We go into crowded restaurants. We loll about too, and I learn that Inga can hang with the best of them – a hipster dog.
Through all of this, our instructors are ubiquitous, watchful and intense, observing and correcting our form with the same sense of purpose as if we were in a ballet class or a boxing gym. We learn to be mindful of every misstep we make and every cue our dogs miss, and we learn to correct ourselves and help them to stay attuned and on track without panicking. We are all doing well, except for our youngest classmate. He struggles increasingly to find the right rhythm with his dog, Alaska, but it doesn’t come. We know it will crush him to have to leave early, but the teachers huddle and find a more suitable guide for him. Her name is Rhonda, and though he is too young to know the song, “Help Me Rhonda,” it quickly becomes his theme.
Back on campus, we play tug of war with our dogs, and we can sometimes hear our neighbors’ dogs growling as they wrestle. We have lectures most mornings and evenings about care and feeding, dog health, dog grooming, dog massage, flea and tick prevention, air travel, dog-human and dog-dog interaction. Dinner is early – would you believe 5:15? It’s always delicious, and we are always ravenous. And we always go to bed exhausted after giving the dogs a final potty break at around 8:30 or 9 p.m. It’s not enforced lights out, but none of us has any energy left. We’re all up early and breakfast is at 7:15, followed by a morning lecture and then back on the road.
And then it’s the night before graduation. There’s a reunion – each dog’s puppy raisers, the family or individuals who fostered them from eight weeks until about 12 or 14 months, arrive at the school to spend an hour or two with us all. Inga’s family drives ten hours from central California. Inga goes wild with joy when she sees them. I feel a twinge of jealousy, but I know she is saving the last dance for me.
Since arriving back in Manhattan on June 2, Inga has taken the subway, flown to Orlando and been on stage with me for a convention presentation at InfoComm 2019, ridden the subway and walked through Rockefeller center, been to a jazz club, walked in Riverside Park and impressed the neighbors. Two evenings ago, as we waited to cross Broadway near my home, a man whose voice I didn’t recognize spoke to me from over my shoulder. “The light is green now,” he said.
As Inga and I started to cross, he called softly, “Is that a new service dog?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“What happened to your other one,” he asked. “Did she pass?”
“Yes,” I answered again.
“I’m sorry,” he responded.
I thanked him, and we reached the other side of the street. I had never met him before, and we didn’t introduce ourselves. This also wasn’t the first such interaction with a stranger we’d had since returning home. I reached down and give Inga a hug, receiving a quick lick in return. “They’re looking out for us,” I told her. “We’re going to be fine.”