by Jim Price
Kim Kilpatrick smiles knowingly when she reads stories about how wonderful it was for others on their first walk with their new Guide Dogs. Her first dog was gentle and calm so she was ready for a repeat of that great experience when she returned for training with a new dog. This dog was, however, much different. "As soon as I picked up the handle and said 'Forward!' it felt like we were shot out of a cannon!" she exclaimed.
Although she's enthusiastic about her dogs, she is careful to not be pushy when talking to people who are in the process of making such an important decision. "People would say to me, 'If you had a dog, you wouldn't have run into that.' Well, when I was ready, I was ready. So I'm happy to answer questions if people ask, but I don't push it."
Blind since birth, Kilpatrick made the decision to get her first dog while working at an Alzheimer's unit shortly after graduating from college. "I kept bumping into my patients and they couldn't remember that I was blind and they would say, 'What are you doing?' I knew it was time."
Kilpatrick, 43, lives in Ottawa, Ontario, where she is a contract music therapist and storyteller. She typically visits area schools for half or full-day sessions. She also does disability awareness education for various agencies and companies. She lives with her husband, Richard, and her retired Guide Dog, Gia. Recently she was at the Oregon campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind to train with her fourth dog, Tulia, a black Lab.
"Tulia is a real sweetheart," she cooed, rubbing Tulia's tummy as the dog sprawled on her back during a break in training at the Guide Dog Lounge in Gresham, Oregon. "She is very petite -- the smallest dog I've had -- but very happy. She just kind of bounces along." She recognizes that it takes time to bond and become a good working team. "These dogs aren't robots. They make mistakes and so do I. We just have to work through the challenges."
She was anxious to get Tulia home to meet Gia and see how they got along. "Gia is almost 11 years old now but she has been a great guide and she has lots of friends." Once Kilpatrick knew the dates for her class she sent a blanket email to friends looking for a dog-sitter. "Within three hours I had more than 20 responses from people who would love to take her."
One of her favorite memories with Gia happened the day Kilpatrick wrenched her knee. As she limped from the doctor's office to the pharmacy, dreading the flight of stairs she would have to negotiate while in pain, Gia stopped her. "I didn't know where we were, but a man asked if I was trying to get to the pharmacy. He said my dog had stopped me at a ramp instead of leading me to the stairs. I didn't even know there was a ramp. The whole time I was recuperating she knew to slow down and take special care. She was terrific."
Recently Kilpatrick had to use a cane and she was reminded of the difference. "Using a cane is mentally exhausting. You find every little thing and you have to figure out what it is and how to get around it. With a dog you are just going along, listening to the birds, thinking about the big picture. And you walk a lot more. With a cane I only walked where I had to. With a dog, I will take a walk just to get a coffee or enjoy the neighborhood. They are also a great icebreaker. People are much more natural around you if you have a dog."
Through the years Kilpatrick has kept in close contact with all of her puppy raisers. "I really enjoy that. It's a fun to stay in touch and Gia's raisers, Scott and Debbie Gordon, came to visit us in Ottawa. It was so funny watching her. She was saying, with her tail wagging, 'I love you, and I love you, and I love that man over there, too.' I let her decide which room she would sleep in and she stayed with me, but first thing in the morning she jumped up and ran down the hall to see them."
Contacted back home in Ottawa, Kilpatrick said, "Tulia travelled like a pro. We had to stop once and change planes but she settled down each time and was totally relaxed during the take offs and landings. It's great having her home."