By Jim Price
Having a Guide Dog by her side opened up a world of possibilities for Asia Salat. She was introduced to the freedom and independence of working with a Guide Dog some 22 years ago, and she's never turned back.
She traveled to Egypt to climb a pyramid with Chrissy, her first guide. Nardo, her second, was a big guy, "Like a football player," she said, "But he was a wonderful Guide Dog." His solid strength was a comfort to her after her daughter Shasta was born four months prematurely. Nardo was the one who took her to the hospital every day until her daughter was released. Next came Jana, who was recently retired with arthritis.
"Birdy is a great dog," said Asia, of her newest guide. "We bonded immediately and I already trust her completely after less than two weeks of training." Guide Dogs for the Blind is known for creating "the perfect match," and this duo is no exception.
Birdy is a happy-go-lucky, well-mannered yellow Lab. She was born at the California campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, and raised by a puppy raising family in Washington State until she was 16 months old, before coming to Guide Dogs' Oregon campus. After several months of extensive training, she was matched with Asia.
Asia's vision loss began in 1985 with night and color blindness and got steadily worse over the years. Both she and her sister have retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration. Today, with virtually no vision left, she has learned to adjust. "Hey, life goes on," she said, breaking into one of her easy smiles. "What are you going to do?"
"The two months between dogs was awful," she said. "By the end of the day, getting by with just a cane totally stressed me. My confidence level dropped, and I just didn't feel as safe. I remember one day yelling at the ceiling, 'I need a dog!'"
The class at Guide Dogs wasn't easy. "We're up at 5:30 every morning until 8:30 each night. The training is very structured, with not a lot of free time. There are usually lectures after dinner, so they are very long days. Very intense, but I can't say enough about the staff. Everybody is exceptional and so dedicated to helping us succeed."
Back home she has her challenges. "It's a beach community with no sidewalks anywhere. That makes it harder to get around, but we get it done. We live near the Pacific Coast Highway, which is very busy, and I haven't done a crossing for a long time. But I'm going to do it with Birdy. I'm determined to accomplish that for sure when I get home."
A life-long California girl from Laguna Beach, at 50 Asia has a diverse list of accomplishments. She choreographs and leads a group of young girls who perform Middle-Eastern dances around California, and is a licensed massage therapist. And she's raising her daughter Shasta who is now 14.
Asia first heard about Guide Dogs from a mobility instructor at the Braille Institute in Anaheim, who also happened to also be one of Asia's dance students. "I've always had animals, so getting a dog seemed pretty natural. I was getting by okay with a cane, but once I got a dog my mobility greatly improved. Frankly, I don't understand why everyone who needs one doesn't have a Guide Dog."