By Jim Price
At 88 years old, Mariella Dibble figures one of the reasons she's lived so long is her dogs. Since childhood she's had 17 pet dogs and three Guide Dogs, and she can name every one. "They keep me busy – I get my exercise! And they make me happy! This one," she says, affectionately patting her Guide Dog, Silky, "is wonderful. I'm hardly out of bed in the morning and she has done something to put a smile on my face."
A birth defect dramatically reduced Mariella's vision. She's been legally blind since 1960, but she can see some shapes and colors, mostly with her peripheral vision. "For years I didn't think I would be able to get a Guide Dog since I have some vision." She was thrilled to find out she was wrong.
"I felt like it would be very beneficial to me to have a guide. I can see some things but if it's in my blind spot I can walk right into a wall. Having a dog would help. I would have her eyes to help me negotiate the world safely and not have to rely just on my own."
Her first awareness of the concept of guide dogs came when she heard a talk given by Morris Frank. Frank, with help from a wealthy American woman living in Switzerland, opened the first guide dog training school in America. It was modeled after a school in Germany. Later, he and his guide dog, Buddy, traveled the country promoting the concept. "He spoke at an assembly at our junior high," she said. "I never forgot that day."
When she went to Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California, to train with her first dog, she had three Doberman pincers and her son's mixed breed at home. In 1983, she graduated with her first guide, Sprout, a beautiful female Golden Retriever. Sprout worked for eight years and then retired as Mariella's pet for two more years. "When I would take her out to the back yard to brush her, sometimes I would get a flash of sunlight off of her golden hair. She was beautiful." Her next Guide Dog was Chicory, another Golden who worked with her for nine years and then retired with the family as a pet.
When her husband Bob casually mentioned he might like to have a puppy, they adopted a career changed dog from Guide Dogs for the Blind. Eight-month-old Webster became part of their family. "He was a long-haired German Shepherd and we took him out to the car to meet Sprout. They touched noses and were instant friends." Her husband has passed away and the couple's three children are grown now with kids of their own. She has nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. She and Silky have a busy social calendar visiting them all.
In addition, the duo enjoys going to community concerts. She's active in her church and is involved with a group that makes comforters for people who are homeless.
She also belongs to the Willamette Chapter of the Oregon Council of the Blind, and is committed to a support group that helps people who are newly experiencing blindness. "One thing I tell people who are considering a guide dog is there are some responsibilities. You have to keep them groomed, and you can't just go off and leave them. At times I've had to change my plans to accommodate the dog. On the other hand, guide dogs are real ice breakers. When you travel with a cane, many people just don't know how to relate to you. But people love to talk to you about your dog." She's seen many changes at Guide Dogs for the Blind through the years, mostly in the training techniques. "The food reward is new," she noted. "In fact, I chuckled when I read about Guide Dogs for the Blind's recent advancements in using clicker training to train Guide Dogs. We raised Dobermans for years, and were clicker-training our pet Dobermans back in 1970."
"The new Swiss harness that is more comfortable for the dog and for me. And I really appreciate having financial assistance with veterinary bills -- $250 per year really helps."
Another exciting change was the opening of a second campus in Boring, Oregon. Mariella graduated with Silky there in 2000.
"Having a Guide Dog is a lot like being in a marriage. You never arrive. You have to keep working on it all the time to maintain your dog's training as well as your own," she concluded. "With a dog I travel more freely, safely and at a faster pace.
She said she could not have been happier with the support she has received from Guide Dogs. "All my Guide Dogs were healthy and happy. Sprout, Chicory and Silky received excellent training," she smiled. "And so did I.