The Leader Dog school's dorm consists of a long straight hallway with rooms and laundry and lounge and vending machines off the sides. Very simple -- nobody could get lost -- perfect for the newly blind. My room is spacious, with more than enough closets and drawers and desks. I explore my surroundings and find them surprisingly accommodating. The laundry facilities have braille labels, and they are free. The lounge contains a piano, a guitar, a stereo, a TV, various braille games (such as chess), talking book machines, and lots of reading material, mostly religious. Twenty students do not require two complete copies of the Bible, dozens of tracks, scores of copies of Lift Me Up Lord, and so on. The school accepts whatever is donated, and religious groups are always willing to donate braille books and tapes to save poor lost blind souls. Other items are overrepresented as well. There must be 50 copies of Reader's digest, Ladies Home Journal, and Better Homes and Gardens. Nothing on science or current affairs, though there is some science fiction by Isaac Asimov that I intend to read. For reasons unknown, a map of the campus hangs upsidedown on the wall, while a map of the city of Rochester is oriented sideways.
I am concerned about the apparent lack of security. Anybody can come off the street, walk into this building, stroll into my room, and partake of a $3,000 computer. I guess they figure nobody will bother the blinks (who have nothing of value), and the blinks won't bother each other. I'm willing to believe the latter, and I learn (later) that it is very hard for someone to simply walk in off the street. There is no deadbolt lock, but opening the front door at night generates a loud alarm. In fact they are much more concerned about us leaving than an unauthorized person entering. I heard a rumor about an itinerant student who was killed several years ago, so roaming about unattended is strictly forbidden. We do not travel anywhere until dog and human are a proven team.
The lack of phones causes much confusion and frustration. Two for incoming calls and three for outgoing if you have a credit card. The cardless or those wishing to make a local call must line up at the only payphone. On a peak day, such as the first day or the day of the dogs' arrival, many intend to place or receive several calls, and each telephone sports a conspicuous ill-defined waving line. Since the only guaranteed free time is between 8:30 and 10:30, everybody establishes 9:00 as the appointed time to make or receive calls, which increases congestion and frustration. Since it is cheaper for me to call Wendy from the payphone than for her to call me (don't ask me why) I will call her daily near 9, as the traffic patterns permit.
As I wander around the vending machines an instructor walks down the hall and calls everybody to dinner. We sit in almost random places and the food is already there, chili and carrots and jello with fruit. We just come and eat and leave, and they do everything else. I feel a bit guilty, I should at least help with the dishes or something.
I do a bit more exploring and return to my room, happy to see that my computer is undisturbed. I feel lonely though, too lonely to work on my projects. I'm really going to miss Wendy this month. She always knows how much she loves me, but I don't always realize how much I love her until we are pulled apart by circumstance. I really need to lie in her arms about now.
My roommate is David, a nice quiet snack bar manager from Tennessee with an impending divorce and trouble with his son. He is trying to deal with serious family problems, and I'm worried about him. If the divorce is inevitable, a dog would probably be the best thing for him. He snores a little, which I like, since I can easily determine when he is asleep and whether my late night computing disturbs him.
I take one last desperate scan for interesting reading material and discover All Things Wise And Wonderful by James Herriot, a marvelous book that I read as a child. I take the first of 9 bulky braille volumes back to my room and devour the first 40 pages. How that man can write! Reading braille is didactic as well as entertaining. I learn the correct spelling of several words and the appropriate use of punctuation, information that is lost when books are read on tape.
There are five diabetics in the group who require modified diets, and in some cases insulin injections and blood glucose readings. Expressing no legitimate health concerns, several other students are vociferously picky: "I don't want that soup." -- "Don't give me any pork. Well pork chops are ok, but no bacon." -- "Where's the coffee? I need more coffee!" -- "No breakfast for me. Well maybe some coffee, and eggs if you're serving them, but otherwise no breakfast." And they really expect the staff to remember every little request and desire in detail. The only thing that makes these "children" tolerable is the few mature students, who are always kind and courteous to the staff. I try to number myself among these, which is not difficult since the food is excellent and the staff is friendly and attentive. For instance, assigned seating enables the staff to set drinks out ahead of time, commensurate with the person and the meal. I ask if I can help with the dishes or something, but the board of health mandates only employees in the kitchen.
After lunch I begin Juno training, so called because the instructor holds the harness and acts like an imaginary leader dog named Juno. I follow him around the grounds, giving the appropriate commands. This lasts about 15 minutes, with the remainder of the afternoon spent on my computer. Don't come to doggy school without something to do! A dedicated tutor could probably train me in a week, but the 7/1 student-instructor ratio turns the class into a month long endeavor. Factor in the opportunity cost of lost wages, and it might be cheaper to hire more instructors and reduce the length of the course. Then again, some students require four full weeks to learn the basic moves, and the dog-person bond certainly can't be built in a day, so perhaps I should stop questioning the experts and let them do their jobs. I am relieved to find the course is only three weeks for the 9 students who are here for replacements.
In celebration of our one month anniversary, Wendy sends me a huge basket of big beautiful flowers, which elicits feelings of love and longing that send the needles off the scale. It's going to be a long month.
After dinner I listen in rapture as Marian, here for her seventh dog, plays the Moonlight Sonata on the out-of-tune piano. I am always moved by the divine beauty of Beethoven, especially when the performance is live.
Since tomorrow is D-day, Randy gives a two hour talk on the logistics of dog care and expectations verses reality. The dog is on a rigid schedule: when to go, when to drink and how much, when to eat and how much, when to work; and he's flat on the floor at our feet for the remainder of the day. He is never loose, never sitting or standing around, never jumping or playing. When I ask whether this isn't a bit cruel Randy says the dog accepts this lifestyle and likes it. I hope many of these restrictions ease after the bonding period. At some point far in the future I will inflict a long journal entry upon you, pontificating on the morality of forcing a dog to spend his life a slave to a human.
When describing typical false expectations, Randy paints a picture of optimism consistent with the images I have unconsciously built over the past few days. The dog will see me, accept me, love me, obey my commands, play with me happily, and everything will be rosy. So often trivial disappointments are converted into devastating setbacks when we allow false expectations to stretch the limits of reality beyond reason. The dog has been living here for several months, building a strong bond with his trainer. Tomorrow he will be torn from his loving master and passed to me, stripped of his familiar environment and placed in a new building, and given a new set of activities and a different lifestyle. The dog will want nothing to do with me, and he may even resent me. I am reminded of the first couple of years with Tony. He was as good a father as anyone has a right to ask for, yet the relationship was rocky to say the least, and he and Alice fought openly for many years. Armed with a more realistic picture, everyone is a little more nervous, and after the lecture the lines form at the phones as people seek the comfort and advice of the best psychologists in the world, their closest friends. But legitimate concerns about the initial adjustment period cannot dampen our excitement, nor should they. We are like children on Christmas Eve. What will I get, what breed, what sex, what size, and what will his disposition be? Will my dog bring me as much freedom and joy as I anticipate?
These trainers are masters of human/dog psychology. Consider the issue of bedtime, which I railed against (internally) only a couple days ago. I'm 30 years old, I know how much sleep I need! Why should they tell me when to go to bed and when to get up? As Randy explains tonight, nocturnal activity excites the dog and causes him to digest more quickly. So he needs to go at 5 A.M., and we don't yet know how to take him outside, so we wake the instructor and break the dog's pattern, or the dog goes in the room, or something else unpleasant happens. To avoid this and other complications we carefully control the water and food intake, keep the dog on a strict schedule, go to bed when they say, get up when they say, treat the dog as they direct, and all should be well. Every restriction has a reason, every action a purpose. Why is the dog with us during every waking moment? To build the bidirectional bond. Why do the instructors call all dogs Juno even though they know their names better than we? Because it helps if the dog hears his name only from his new master. Why does the dog come to our room and greet us as we sit passively on our beds? Because a dog sometimes perceives the advance of a stranger as a threat, and that's no way to start a relationship. Why do we never touch our roommate's dog? Because the roommate's dog might start bonding with us. Why do we never visit other people in their rooms? Because dogs become very territorial in a short time, and fights could easily insue. Why must we hold the leash while the dog does his business? So we correlate their gyrations with their goings. Eventually we will be able to tell exactly when and where they are unloading. Why do they give absolutely no information about the dogs until we first meet them? So we don't create any false expectations. My respect for these instructors grows with each passing day.
The instructors carefully assign dogs to students based on the personalities and temperments of both parties, and I am happy to leave this important task in their capable hands. I state no preference for breed or sex because I don't wish to tie Randy's hands in any way. For the first two days the instructors do most of the work. We learn a command or two while they assess our personalities and make dog assignments.
All students and dogs move out to park, a portion of the school grounds dedicated to doggy doings. I stand in my assigned spot motionless as Remmy circles and gyrates and jumps and investigates, and does absolutely everything for 20 minutes except what she is suppose to do. Finally we head back in; maybe next time.
Everyone takes their dog to supper, an interesting and crowded experience. Each dog lies to the left of the student's chair, and they are surprisingly well behaved throughout the meal. Adjacent dogs almost touch under the separating chair, yet there is never a border dispute. My exhaustion impels me to have seconds on everything and gulp several glasses of water. Each stroll with Remmy exacts a physical and emotional toll. Whenever Remmy strays from my path (about every four steps) I must jerk the leash swiftly, a process called leash correction. She is easily as strong as my left arm, so course corrections demand more than a gentle tug. My wimpy left hand, accustomed to the awesome task of hitting the control key and a letter simultaneously, quickly develops sores in several places. It is also an emotional strain since I dislike inflicting pain on an animal, especially one as beautiful as Remmy, but since she speaks no English there is little choice.
After supper she displays her impressive prowess at mass engulfing. We are allotted 15 minutes for feeding, and Remmy requires almost 1, plus another 30 seconds to slurp up her water. She eats so fast and is so wound up that she makes noises suggesting the food might return any moment. In an effort to calm her down I sit quietly at my desk while she rests under my chair as I type this journal entry. She jumps up every now and then, but responds very well when I ask her to resume her prone position. I don't know if she feels anything for me yet, but I'm starting to feel something for her.
Another visit to park with the same negative results. This animal is going to explode before tomorrow. But Randy tells me it is common, a result of the new environment and stress. "I get paid to worry, so let me do the worrying." We go to bed early, but Remmy is not particularly sleepy. She whines, then pauses, waiting for my brain to emit alpha waves, then she whines again. Another pause, then she licks and whines and makes lots of noise with her chain. All the while her tail wags, thump thump thump against the wall, which keeps me awake, and probably my annoyed neighbors as well. Some time after 2 Remmy falls asleep, and I do the same shortly thereafter.
Twice today I harness Remmy up and we walk along the practice paths on the school grounds. Despite being hyper she performs very well, especially in the afternoon, and her keen intellect and sound training are readily apparent. As Randy walks along side us he releases his guiding hold on Remmy from time to time, and Remmy and I run solo for a few meters at a stretch. Like the reigns of a horse, Her harness conveys her every move. Randy tells me in confidence that Remmy is his favorite, the "teacher's pet." He jokes, "If you weren't in this class I'd take Remmy home myself." At least I think he's joking.
Remmy lies at my feet as I write this entry, except for an occasional burst of anxiety. Suddenly she whines as though she realizes anew that her master has abandoned her, then she throws her head and chest onto my lap, desperately searching for affection and security. Having a 78 pound dog suddenly barrel into your abdomen is certainly distracting, but I rather enjoy it. I wish I could win her devotion and trust instantly, but there is no substitute for time.
The next parktime is much more successful, beginning with a number 1 born of desperation. After waiting 20 minutes Randy reluctantly intervenes. He wisely tries to minimize contact with Remmy, but she needs to do a 2, and learn that it is ok to go on outdoor surfaces other than the highly maintainable concrete slab of her kennel. By some miracle which he modestly refers to as a magic touch Randy coerces Remmy into performing, whereupon Randy and I praise her liberally. After dinner Remmy continues to crawl up into my lap. Standing on her hind legs, Remmy is exactly as tall as I am when I sit in this chair. She throws her body against my chest and wraps her front legs around my neck, a hug by anybody's definition. I can't help but love her in return.
Day by day I am learning a new mindset from the trainers. Since dogs cannot imagine what they have never experienced it is not particularly cruel to deprive Remmy of luxuries. Of course she has a genetic need for food and water and shelter and health and love, but she does not require the freedom to roam around all night or a soft cushiony bed to lie in. It is not cruel to chain her to the corner of a tiled room every night, provided she has never experienced better. Every time I offer her a new freedom I must consider the consequences, because it is very hard to retract such an offer later. Perhaps I don't care if Remmy hops up on my livingroom couch, but if I let her start it becomes very difficult to retrain her later. And since she is a public leader dog I probably don't want her on my couch, because I don't want her on my neighbor's couch or the couch in the furniture store. There are many things I would let my pet dog do that I cannot sanction in my public leader dog. I have been encouraging Remmy's wild displays of affection, but I must redirect them before it is too late. A pet can jump up and give me a hug any time, but I don't want Remmy's affection in the middle of an important business meeting. To this end I now prohibit play and overt affection except when I am on the floor, consistent with Randy's advice.
Everybody agrees (save the three or four whiners who grow more tiresome each day), the food here is very good. Tonight we have coal slaw, fish, potatos, a roll, and jello. When I talk to Wendy I remember how much I miss her. I can't wait to hold her on Sunday.
Parktime now means something new to Remmy and several other dogs, time to become territorial. Nobody is quite sure which dog came up with the idea but it has spread like the plague, and it's a little difficult to get into the bathroom going mood when your neighbor is sparring in your direction.
The morning and afternoon trips to the L building now form a daily pattern, and the dogs are starting to calm down. Remmy no longer catapults up the bus steps in a burst of uncontrollable energy, dragging me helplessly up behind her, nor does she collapse into 78 pounds of obstinate dead weight. My left arm aches. The primary activity in the L building is waiting, as the radio plays country music in the background. Clearly I did not select the station. Since I am now able to control Remmy with one hand I bring the Herriot book to the afternoon session and read 40 pages. When we're out walking Remmy is very good, avoiding obstacles and stopping at almost every curb. She is well trained, and I'm sure we will make a good team.
Since the previous lecture was on dog grooming, Dave and I carefully brush our respective dogs. Then I work quietly at my computer and Dave does some paperwork while the dogs lie contentedly on the floor. After a while Dave decides to show his dog to the trainers, anxious to impress. He collects Thatch and walks smartly down the hall to the trainers' office and boasts, "I've given him a good brushing. Isn't he beautiful?" A trainer responds, "Yes she is, be sure to compliment Karl." That's the problem with partials, they relie on an unreliable sense. If he had touched her back just once he would have noticed the smooth full coat or the broad back with the spine barely visible. The dogs feel completely different, but they both look like big black blurs, so just grab one and go.
It doesn't take long for grape vines to grow, and it is interesting to watch rumors travel throughout the various networks. As usual I am on the periphery, one of the last to hear the gossip. Finally the details of Cheryl's departure filter down the hall to my ears, and I am not surprised. She was having trouble adjusting to the dorm environment; simply not mature enough to go through the training. This is the first extended living experience away from home for many, and Cheryl just wasn't ready. She was having a lot of trouble with her dog and it is probably just as well that she dropped out. However, Laura's departure is sad indeed. Laura is an intelligent mature woman who was doing very well with her dog when serious trouble at home required her immediate attention. We don't know what the problem was and it really isn't any of our business, I only hope she returns some day to try again. I often wonder how the dogs fair when their partially bonded master leaves the program, and they must return to the kennel to bond with another student at a later date.
There are other people that the school should kick out tomorrow. Pat and Art can't find their way out of a closet, and I'm not too sure about a couple others. This is not a figure of speech, I mean it literally. After two weeks Art still cannot leave the dining room and find his own room without help. Perhaps it is mean, but I can't help snickering to myself as he bumbles about. It reminds me of a macabre pinball game. Crash into a table, ding 10 points; bang into a chair, ding 5 points; plow into a wall, ding 3 points; trip over a student's dog, ding 25 points. I ask one of the trainers if our class is typical, with 1/3 of the students displaying serious problems of one kind or another, and he responds in the affirmative. Perhaps these students think a dog will make independent travel possible, but this is a myth. A dog makes travel easier, but the master makes it possible. If you cannot negotiate a city with a cane, forget about getting a dog.
Sometimes Paul, another trainer, bothers me a little, though I can sympathize. All these trainers have difficult jobs, and they work very hard. I would go through the ceiling in frustration, not because of the dogs but because of the students. Since 1/3 of the students must be treated like children, Paul sometimes takes the easy way out and treats everybody like children. He yells when he should explain, and he assumes we are not listening or thinking, instead of investigating the situation first. He is very rigid and demands that procedures be followed to the letter, permitting no independent thought or intelligent deviations. This is appropriate when working with Pat, but most of us deserve better. This is a small annoyance however, and Paul and all the other trainers are good people doing a hard job very well.
The daily schedule: wake up, park, dog biscuit, water, breakfast, L building, park, water, lunch, water, L building, park, water, supper, feed, water, park, call Wendy, bedtime. To start this morning's walk, I go to the now familiar drugstore and buy Remmy a Nylabone, a huge bone-shaped hunk of hard plastic that doesn't look at all appetizing to me, but a dog will chew on it for hours. As we continue down Main Street I am startled as my right arm makes contact with a telephone pole. Although a dog produces much fewer collisions than a cane, I realize that these collisions can be much more serious. I walk much faster with Remmy, and there is absolutely no warning, just bang. I'd love to correct her, but Randy says it was partially my fault, because I unintentionally drive Remmy to the left, and this forced us to weave amongst parking meters and various obstacles. We try this path again and again we drift over to the left. I must figure out how I am directing her and stop doing it. Unfortunately this episode has eroded my confidence in us as a team, and I think Remmy detects this. She is slow and distracted and I must correct her several times.
The morning and afternoon are devoted to obstacle training. We travel a six block course replete with devilish but realistic barriers: a car parked across the sidewalk, traffic cones, construction horses, a bicycle, etc. Remmy's admirable performance restores my faith in her abilities. In fact all the dogs do well, though some of the students become disoriented as they circumnavigate the larger obstacles.
Over the past few weeks the language has degenerated from polite, almost sappy requests down to threats peppered liberally with profanity. Two weeks ago one might have heard, "Juno sit. -- Come on Junikins, sit for Daddy." The same command, if persistently disobeyed, is now couched in more colorful terms. "Juno sit. -- Juno sit down, now! -- Juno, plant your butt on the ground! -- Juno, drop your fat ass or I'll rip your God Damn head off!" We often share our dog frustrations, a form of group therapy. I tell Betsy about dragging Remmy up the bus steps and she can empathize, having physically dragged Buster up an entire flight of stairs in a local store.
Most dogs are black labs, with a few goldens sprinkled in, and Max the only German Shepard. It may be coincidence, but Max is the only dog I don't like. He is very aggressive towards other dogs and other people, and he doesn't seem terribly responsible. Every dog has made mistakes, but Max has lead his owner into objects on several occasions. Every parktime is an opportunity for Max to harass Remmy.
In the afternoon we experience a very pleasant form of country travel. Remmy and I follow a bike path for over an hour. Though the path curves, one cannot get lost because there is always grass on either side. I feel very free walking with Remmy.
Though Paul constantly reminds us to praise our dogs lavishly, he rarely praises us, except for today. He said we are all doing very well, one of the finest classes he has ever had. Even Art seems to be doing well with his dog. He still can't make it out of the diningroom on his own, but he and Gardener make a good team, and perhaps these are the people who need the dogs the most. I feel some remorse about writing him off earlier, for I think he will do just fine, and since he sacrificed his sight in Germany fighting for a decent world the least we can do is provide a leader dog.
After the last parktime we have a pizza party in the dining room, since the replacements are leaving tomorrow. As I and a couple of Randy's students sit and munch, we concoct a rather silly departing thank you gift for him, a leader fish. (He loves fishing, and talks about it constantly.) I call Wendy to order the plastic fish, a thank-you card, a lure, and some pipecleaners to fashion the harness.
Throughout the day several people busily plan a series of practical jokes to play on Mike, which must be perpetrated tomorrow before the replacements leave. Of course they admonished "No practical jokes" in the first lecture, but it is so boring here that one has to do something for amusement. Mike has been the primary instigator. He began with a few snide remarks and tickling attacks, and then moved on to biting Betsy's leg. The Betsy Mike biting fewd continues as I write. The funniest occurred when Olive was scooping up dogfood for Gavin. The industrial sized bag was almost empty, and her short arm proved woefully inadequate. Mike saw head and shoulders leaning into the bag and decided to help. He grabbed Olive's legs and flipped her neatly over into the dog food. Pretty funny eh? Many others have been doing smaller pranks, such as poking a neighbor's dog after its owner has spent ten minutes getting the animal quiescent and prone on the dining room floor. The dogs are particularly unruely near feeding time, and one evening I couldn't control Remmy to save my soul. I jerked and scolded, but she lunged and bolted as though she were demon possessed. Turns out my sneaky roommate was holding a bowl of food just ahead of her, all the way down the hall. Not very funny eh? So the dorm is busily papering Mike's door, and tying his underware in knots, and putting strange substances on the floor of his shower, and so on. Pretty funny eh?
Since the Seeing Eye Dog School was established first, decades before the others, most people come up with this common name and donate to them. Thus they have no trouble raising funds, and it's a good thing, since it costs a great deal more to provide a Seeing Eye Dog than a Leader Dog. Apparently they have a great deal of administrative overhead and many more employees.
Morning and afternoon in Rochester again, but I don't do much walking because this cold has me feeling a bit weak. Too bad, cuz it is a beautiful day, mid fifties.
Guess Betsy doesn't have to worry about adopting; she is pregnant. This is great news at a suboptimal time. The school serves prebuttered toast and rolls, salad with oily dressing, fried potatos, eggs, bacon, sausage, and so forth. She says the smell at breakfast is almost enough to make her ill. She keeps the orange juice near her nose. Yet she never complains to the staff. Fortunately she feels great when she is out walking.
After parktime Wendy and I have a nice conversation with Betsy and David. Unbeknownst to us, Buster happily chews through his leash during our social visit.
A few possibly interesting stats. Assuming this class is representative, and the system has reached equilibrium, the average dog user possesses only two dogs in his life, since half the students here are replacements. I think many have trouble and stop after one dog, while others find the animal a great asset and enjoy 3 or 4 throughout their lives. This school turns out 300 dogs per year, the largest facility of its kind. Perhaps 1,000 dogs are released a year in the U.S., while 40,000 people lose their sight per year, hence 1/40 blind people have dogs. About 1/3 of these symbiotic teams are relatively ineffective.
By the way, somewhere in the course of the last month I accepted the job at Rush and started the house search. Normally I would write more about such a momentous decision but the dog training has kept me preoccupied to say the least. Perhaps I have known since last summer that I would return to Rush, so the decision was almost preordained.
Dave, Betsy, Mike, and I have become good friends, and I'm going to miss them after we leave. It's a shame it took us so long to form this little group. The month would have been much more enjoyable if I had gotten to know these people during the first few days.