I got the call this afternoon from Lisa at Guiding Eyes for the Blind that starting next Monday (August 10) I’ll be united with my fourth guide dog, a yellow Labrador female named “Harmony”.
Timing is everything whether you’re talking of comedy or the calendar. I’ll have ten days to work with Miss Harmony before the start of a new semester at Syracuse University where I both teach and direct the Honors Program for outstanding undergraduates. Ten days are before me when I must study hard to understand the ways of my new canine companion. We say all the time that everyone is different. This is true of guide dogs. Each has his or her unique personality and though they come already trained, it’s the job of a blind handler to relearn dog handling techniques (for some things inevitably change in the land of dog training) and to learn what the new dog knows and expects. The training is a team activity. In my case, though I’m a veteran dog handler, I have lots of new things to learn. “Be curious every day,” I tell my students. “Be open,” I tell them. Well now it’s my turn. With Harmony and trainer Lisa I’ll be practicing what I preach.
My friends and colleagues will see me walking with Harmony and Lisa on the campus at SU. On day one, which will likely be next Tuesday, anyone chancing to see us will see me with a dog in harness and a young woman walking behind. I will be relearning how to be a good dog handler. Harmony’s life and my own will depend on this.
Timing is everything. I’ve just completed a new book (a memoir) recounting what it was like to discover freedom with a guide dog for the first time. In the next few weeks I will be revising the book for the last time before it goes into production at Simon & Schuster. As I’m preparing to revise the manuscript I’ll be walking richly in the open, with more than a little vulnerability, and with lots of trust.
Miss Harmony is coming. My current guide “Nira” will retire as our beloved house pet. Nira is sneaking up on 10. She’s more than a little tired. She loves me deeply as I love her. Now we will have to separate as hourly companions. I know this will be a bit hard for her, and it won’t be that easy for me.
Harmony will have her different ways. A different gait. She will be faster than Nira who has inevitably slowed. I expect Harmony and I will soon be moving fast.
And so for the sake of Nira and Harmony I’ll endeavor to be the best student I can be.
In the new memoir I describe meeting my first guide dog Corky for the first time:
She was brilliant and silly. I couldn’t believe my fortune. Back in our room Corky licked my eyes. She wanted me to invite her on the bed. I told her to remember the rules. Dogs on the floor, people on the beds. The trainers had been clear about guide dog etiquette and I was going to follow the regimen. Guide dogs aren’t encouraged to climb on the furniture. “You stay on the floor,” I said, and she nibbled my nose again as if to say, “I’ll wear you down brother.” I saw in our first moments we were having the manifold dance of relationship—we were joyous and communicating. I talked in a running wave. She bounced, literally bounced, cocked her head, backed up, ran in circles, and came back. All the while I kept talking. “Oh let’s go any place we choose,” I said, feeling I was on the verge of tears.
Our first hours unfolded. We began the lifelong art of learning to read each other.
Oh let’s go any place we choose, Harmony. I’m ready.