by Jim Price
Shelley Leman was in her early 30s when her vision began fading. She had inherited retinitis pigmentosa from her grandmother, but it wasn't that bad. She could get by. Her pride told her a cane was just not for her.
But when her two boys wanted to know why they couldn't go to the park anymore, the question bothered her. They obviously knew things had changed, and that wasn't good. A devoted and loving mother, she became fully committed to her new mobility and orientation training.
When her instructor told her about Guide Dogs for the Blind, she just knew a Guide Dog was for her. She spent a year sharply focused on getting skilled with a cane so she would qualify for training with a dog. "We're a real active family and we like hiking and camping together. I had been thinking I would have to give all that up because it would be just too hard to do with a cane. When I realized what a dog could do for me, it motivated me to work as hard as I could."
In 1999 she arrived for training at GDB's Oregon campus. There she met Julius, the black Lab that would change her life. "That very first route gave me my life back," she said, savoring the memory. "I felt I could breathe again. It was as though I had been holding my breath for months and I could finally take a deep breath. It was wonderful! I could go anywhere and do just about anything I wanted."
Julius was her perfect companion for more than four years at her home in North Bend on the Oregon Coast. Leman was working three hours a day as a cook at her son's school. Then one afternoon as she was leaving the school to head home, she and Julius were attacked by a neighborhood dog that had gotten loose from its yard. "Unfortunately," she said, the sadness palpable, "he wasn't able to guide again. Physically he was only scratched, but emotionally he was very damaged. GDB sent a trainer to help but after a week of work, we decided he needed to be retired." Julius is still with her, a faithful pet she dearly loves to this day.
Next came Yogi, another black Lab, who Leman credits with completely rehabilitating Julius. "Julius has come all the way back," she explained with a smile, "thanks to Yogi's patience and love." The two are best friends, and soon there will be three Labs in the Leman pack. Leman was back at the Oregon campus recently to meet and train with her newest dog, Moses, a handsome yellow Lab.
"I don't ever request any specific breed or qualities," she said. "They do such a good job of matching the dog with my lifestyle. Each one has been different, but perfect for me. And I'm careful to follow the guidelines when I get back home. They know what they are doing so, I figure I probably should do what they suggest. My guides don't have free reign at home, for example. And they are required to relieve on cement. That makes it so much easier when we travel."
Leman loves the new GDB curriculum which combines a shorter length of training (two instead of four weeks) with a higher ratio of instructors to students and smaller classes. "There is a lot less waiting, and they can tailor the curriculum to my specific needs. I love that."
She also loves the staff and volunteers. "Everyone associated with the organization, from puppy raisers to trainers, is so unselfish. Their standards are very high and it shows."
Waiting to go on another training route, Leman and Moses relaxed on one of the bean bags at the GDB Lounge. "The rules are that a dog can be on a bean bag but only with his handler," she explained. "I'm going to have to buy one. He just loves it. When he gets on the bag with me he melts like a snowman."