People ask: “what’s it like walking with a dog who’s trained to keep you from harm’s way?” Or they say: “I don’t think I could do that.”
Truthfully it’s like nothing else. There’s no true equivalent for the experience.
My wife is an equestrian. Years ago she was a guide dog trainer. “On a horse,” she says, “you’re hyper vigilant, aiming to avoid accidents by controlling your animal. Sometimes you and your horse will have a meditative rhythm. But you can’t count on horses to look out for you.”
A guide dog is not like a horse. She looks out for you. Always.
I can only offer hints of what a guide dog feels like.
Say you’re in Italy in a swirl of motor bikes. It’s Milan with thin sidewalks, ugly street crossings and barbaric drivers. Montenapoleone street is crowded with what seems like all the people in the world.
Let’s say you’re walking at night to the Duomo with Guiding Eyes “Corky” #2cc92. Corky does her thing and relishes her job. She pulls and the pull is strong and steady and you feel like you’re floating. Her mind and body transmit through a harness an omni-directional confidence.
Why are you going to the cathedral with a dog? One of your favorite books is Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad which contains passages so beautiful you sometimes recite them aloud. Of the Duomo Twain says it has a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!… The central one of its five great doors is bordered with a bas-relief of birds and fruits and beasts and insects, which have been so ingeniously carved out of the marble that they seem like living creatures– and the figures are so numerous and the design so complex, that one might study it a week without exhausting its interest…
Now it’s just the two of you. You’re determined to touch birds and fruits and beasts and insects carved from marble.
There are skateboarders. Judging by the sound there must be a half dozen of them. Your Labrador eases gracefully to the left. You hear clattering wheels. You think Milan must be dangerous for skateboarding what with its jagged paving bricks, broken sidewalks, and Vespas like runaway donkeys. Pedestrians surely dance with death every twenty feet. Milan is a fantastic, ghastly place.
In the midst of this your dog is unflappable. Trained to estimate your combined width she looks for advantages in the throng and sometimes she surges because the way is clear or she suddenly slows because an elderly woman has drifted into your path. Occasionally she stops on a dime, refusing to move.
There’s a hole in the pavement. It’s unmarked–there are no pylons or signs. A stranger says it’s remarkable there aren’t a dozen people at the bottom of the thing. Corky has saved you from breaking your neck. She backs away, turns, pushes ahead.
Yes, this is sort of what it’s like but there’s something else too—a deep affection between you, a mutual discernment. Each of you knows you’ve got the other’s back.