From Guide Dog News, 2001
We often speak in generalities about our students, dogs and training. But each person's situation is unique and the training we provide must be individualized to meet their changing needs—through graduation and beyond.
True Story #1: Beyond Vision Loss
Jim McDaniel lives in the small rural town of Springtown, Texas, northwest of Fort Worth. Jim had always led a typical suburban life—he was the coach of his sons' baseball, football and basketball teams; their family included a dog and five cats. But there was one important difference: Jim had diabetes, and at the young age of 43, his vision began to deteriorate. After a dozen laser surgeries, he lost all of his sight due to diabetic retinopathy. A month later he started dialysis treatments.
Jim didn't want his physical problems to diminish his love of life. Even after losing his sight, he continued to attend the games and keep track of the kids that he coached in the past. After learning to adjust to his blindness, he decided to get a Guide Dog.
"When you go blind and you get that dog," Jim said, "it's as close to freedom as you can get."
Despite his enthusiasm during class, his training was modified to allow for rest periods whenever necessary. He successfully completed his training and graduated with a yellow Lab named Louden in March of 2000.
But Jim's story doesn't end there. Diabetes continued to take its toll on Jim's physical health.
A year after getting his Guide Dog, his right foot was amputated 12 inches below the knee. A few months later, he had to have a finger removed, and further complications from that and four subsequent operations resulted in the complete amputation of his left hand. He received prosthetic devices for each limb; a specific prosthesis was designed by his doctor to attach to his Guide Dog's harness, the handle of which was also modified. Jim merely slides the prosthetic neoprene/silicone sleeve onto his arm which attaches into the end of the harness with a button for quick release.
"Knowing my dog was waiting there for me helped motivate me toward a speedy recovery," Jim said. After only seven days of rehabilitation, and two and a half weeks of walking with his new foot prosthesis, Jim was up and working his dog, albeit at a slower pace.
Louden had not been worked regularly during the months Jim was undergoing the surgeries. The duo needed to readjust to the new realities of his disabilities. In addition, he and his family had moved to a new home and environment.
Louden was returned to Guide Dogs for evaluation and additional training; he was also pattern-trained in his home environment by trainer Julie Schmitt. The dog learned to stop at landmarks, including a divot in the road that would signal to Jim that his driveway was nearby.
Julie also helped customize Jim's leash by adding a belly strap and modified clips to enhance his ability to harness and control his dog with one hand.
Although Jim tires easily, his dog is very patient. The two often attend Jim's son's basketball games. With his continued determination, positive attitude and high level of motivation to work his dog, we expect Jim and "Louden" to remain a successful team.
True Story #2: "I've Never Been a Quitter"
Ruth Dean has taught Braille at the Foundation for the Junior Blind in Los Angeles for 16 years. She'd been using Guide Dogs since 1988. She and her black Lab Pecan (affectionately known as Peekie) carved out an interesting and rewarding life together—until last year. Ruth suddenly began experiencing terrible headaches that were worse than the migraines she sometimes endured. Her balance was affected, and after a few scary falls, she was taken to the emergency room.
A spinal tap, an MRI and other tests were administered. When her heart and breathing stopped, she was put on a respirator in the intensive care unit. She would remain there for two weeks. The doctors discovered that listeria bacteria had attacked her brain and brain lining. Although they didn't tell her at the time, they expected her to be semi-comatose for the rest of her life. She had developed meningitis, encephalitis and double pneumonia.
Breathing tubes kept the former singer from even talking for a month. When the tubes were removed, she had to learn how to swallow again. She slowly regained her strength, and graduated from using a wheelchair to learning to walk with a walker.
"I've never been a quitter," Ruth said. "I have a lot of beautiful friends who kept my morale boosted. And I wanted to use Peekie again. Although I was terrified of falling, I was encouraged to face my fears and get over them."
When Ruth had been released from the hospital for a month and she had regained some of her strength, she and her dog began re-training with Southern California Field Representative Keith Tomlinson to adapt to her new needs. They went for short, slow walks until she was able to regain her independence. When Keith was not around, she'd find anyone she could convince to go with her and practice—she wanted to surprise Keith with her progress when he returned.
Peekie, who had been cared for by close friends, returned to Ruth's full-time care. Three months later, she was able to return to work and her recovery continues.
"My dog has adapted to me beautifully," she said. "We walk slower now—my balance and coordination are not as good, especially on stairs, steps or uneven ground. Peekie is very protective of me and wants to be sure I have my balance before we move on. She even picks up on my moods—if I'm sad, she'll know it and she'll come over and comfort me with kisses."
True Story #3: The Challenges of Low Vision
Vickie Kennedy is the president of the Northern California affiliate of The Foundation Fighting Blindness, but it's not only through her work that she has come into contact with vision loss. She has retinitis pigmentosa.
This degenerative disease can progress gradually or quickly and can change from day to day. Sometimes, small degrees of remaining vision can be more of a hindrance than a help where mobility is concerned. It can provide inaccurate information that may make unsafe situations appear safe, and vice versa.
"You naturally try to use your eyes as much as you can as long as you still have some sight," Vickie said. "You can become almost desperate about it, and deny your need for some form of mobility assistance. I had problems with glare and a lack of depth perception. I had lost my peripheral vision and could not distinguish between colors. I might see a building, but I couldn't bring it into focus. I was concentrating so hard on what I could still see, that I would get disoriented—forgetting where I was and where I wanted to go."
Once, she misjudged a street crossing and ended up walking down the street instead of on the sidewalk. She became concerned for her safety and decided it was time to get a dog. Ironically, she lost most of her remaining vision during the third week of her class training at Guide Dogs.
"It was actually good that it happened that way," she said. "I never thought much about it because I had my dog Freida. I feel it was meant to be. I didn't have time to think about it because I was so busy."
Her partial vision was reduced to little more than light perception. She had no night vision. All she could see was a disorienting glare from the street lights.
Due to the tricks her remaining sight was playing on her judgment, her instructors kept reminding her to make sure to heed her dog's movements. If the dog stopped, she needed to stop and determine by touch what her eyes did not tell her—that she was approaching a curb or a step, for example. She had to allow the dog to take her to the curb rather than take a shortcut, even though she could sometimes "see" a quicker route. This was important so that the dog would not lose her training and become sloppy in her work.
During her class training, Vickie occasionally wore a blindfold.
"With the blindfold on, I really had to trust my dog," she said. "When you have some sight, you may tend to anticipate where you're going and ride up on the dog without allowing her to lead. Concentrating on my remaining sight caused me to not pay enough attention to my other senses that were perfectly capable of giving me information. With the blindfold on, I was able to really listen and not get distracted by the light."
The duo recently accompanied Vickie's husband, Jim, on a trip to her native Hawaii. "Freida is an absolute godsend," Vickie said. "She has given me so much more confidence and independence than I could ever have hoped for!"