By Jim Price
Rusty Perez, a college English teacher from Riverside, California, remembers the exact moment he finally decided to get a guide dog. "A friend of mine and I were out for a walk. He was in front with his guide dog and I followed behind with my cane. Suddenly, I ran right into a truck that was parked in our way. 'What happened?' he shouted back to me. 'You okay?' 'I ran into a truck,' I replied, pretty perturbed. 'Oh,' he said. 'My dog led me around that truck.' Right then and there, I decided I had to get me one of those!"
Within months, Rusty was at the San Rafael, California, campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind, enrolled in a four-week training course and learning how to take care of a beautiful black Lab named Relish. He was amazed that both the course and the dog were offered to him for free. Guide Dogs for the Blind, supported solely by donations, even provided the airfare to the campus. "They were great!" he said. "They went all out and everything they did was first class!"
"The training was a challenge for me, however," he continued. "I had to learn to speak dog. These dogs are amazing; they're taught to take you to a curb, and get you across the street safely. But once they get used to their new environment, they can do so much more. One time I was tutoring on a college campus and was in a strange building a long way from where I usually taught. I had to meet a friend but I wasn't sure how to get there. I said to Relish, 'Go find Aunt Wendy.' She took a moment to reconnoiter, then took off and got me clear across campus back to the area I was familiar with. Unlike a cane, these dogs can think."
Perez taught high school English for seven years: "When I first introduced Relish to them, I teased that she was a retired drug dog," he smiled. "Of course, that's not true, but we had a lot of fun and the kids really loved her."
Perez approaches life was a positive attitude. At 39, he's still single but "I'm taking applications and scheduling interviews. All joking aside, I feel I've been blessed," he said. "I grew up in a great home with great parents who supported me. They let me get myself in trouble; let me take a fall like a regular kid. They allowed me to experience life on my own terms and that's made all the difference." He enjoys music and is a regular on stage at his church, strumming his guitar and singing while his Guide Dog sits at his side. "Truth is, Relish usually falls asleep." After nine years of faithful guiding, Relish recently retired to live out the rest of her life as a pet.
Perez returned to Guide Dogs for the Blind, this time to the Oregon campus, for a two-week accelerated course with a new dog, Peggy. "Peggy is a great dog," he said. "I love her initiative."
"Before I got my first dog, I spent years worrying that I would look 'more blind' with a dog than with a cane. I didn't want to be known as the blind guy with the dog. Funny thing is, I've made a lot more friends since I got a Guide Dog. And walking with a Guide Dog is an elegant way to travel!"