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by Jim Price

Kate Pavlacka hugs her yellow Lab Janette

Kate Pavlacka liked her cane. She was good with it, confident, fast. She didn’t see any reason to change, but friends and family pushed her to get a dog. Six years ago, she decided on a New York guide dog school and got five half-days of training to go with her new black Lab named Emma, but things didn’t go as planned.

"Emma was very friendly and in our small town (Oneonta, in Upstate New York), soon everybody got to know her," Pavlacka explained. "Everyone was petting her, greeting her. She was so happy to see people and then one day, she pulled me right down a flight of stairs." That was the end of that, and Emma was returned.

This time, she said, she is doing it right. She was accepted for two weeks of intensive training at the Oregon campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind. Her new Guide Dog is a yellow Lab named Janette. "She is something," said Pavlacka, as she and her dog walked along a sidewalk in downtown Gresham. "I’m a fast walker but the first time we went out, it felt like I was almost running.It was several days before I realized I could get her to go at my pace, not hers. Now we are in sync."

Resting later to tell her story at the school’s lounge, Pavlacka described Janette: "She loves to work. She’s very smart, focused and intense when she is working." A slight smile flashed across her face, "A lot like me."

She started losing her sight early, about the time she began reading. "They still aren’t sure exactly what I have," she said. "I’ve been checked by all kinds of specialists, even a doctor from Russia, and they think it’s a problem with my autoimmune system attacking my retinal cells." By the time she was 13, her vision was completely gone, "but my brain still interprets input visually." If she is walking down a street where she knows there are houses and trees, she actually "sees" houses and trees in her mind. Or, if she is sitting talking to someone, she "sees" the shadow of a person sitting in front of her. "I think the shadows are because the last thing my brain remembers seeing were shadows." She thought she was the only person "seeing" in this manner, but talking with a staff member at GDB, she discovered it’s a common phenomenon.

Pavlacka is a learner. She loves to read and admitted the collection of books on her computer is diverse. "I’m pretty scattered and I love to do research -- everything from technical manuals, to nature stuff, to how to do Tai Chi." That penchant for learning helped her breeze through the anatomy portion of massage therapy school last year. And now she has her own business, set up in a martial arts studio. She even added cranial-sacral massage to her tool kit to incorporate when applicable.

When she isn’t working on someone’s sore muscles, she’s usually with long-time boyfriend Josh and his golden retriever Aurora. "Living with Aurora has been great, and I think that is one of the reasons I decided it was time to try again with a guide dog. I love the companionship of a dog. Janette and I are starting to bond and I love that. The other night we were visiting a classmate in her room and Janette started acting a little nervous. I got down on the floor with her and she curled up in my lap for a few minutes, then sat up and put her head on my shoulder. I think she’s beginning to understand that I’m the person she is going to be with now. I never did bond very well with Emma but it’s already happening with Janette."

The class is intense and she said she has learned a lot. "Having a Guide Dog is a huge responsibility," she said. "Not just taking care of one, but you have to know how to problem solve and know your surroundings. You have to be very aware. A dog is like a computer, it’s only as smart as the person sitting behind it."

She reached down to give Janette a scratch then looked up to say, "I do very well with a cane but you know what? You can’t play with a cane."

Back home in New York, Pavlacka said things were going well. "Janette is really awesome. I’m very happy with her."