What a Dog Can Do

So I’m writing a book about my decade spent with “Corky” my first guide dog. When you live with a dog every day and travel everywhere with her you ask yourself questions.

I thought she was heroic. She thought I was hopeless. Question one: “what was Corky really thinking while guiding me?”

I could only surmise what was in her head. This would become a habit.

I imagined the exercise of man-to-canine dialogue was good for the mind. If you play the game properly it means you’re tough minded. For instance, a man thinks his dog is always looking out for him—she’s valiant, non-distractible. This isn’t entirely correct but he chooses to believe it. He needs to think it. After all he has his insecurities.

But he also knew his dog was a dog.

And so, walking in strange cities I thought about my investment in ideas about Corky versus Corky’s likely thoughts.

She watched cars. We were in Wichita, Kansas. I said “forward” and she didn’t budge.

A bus roared past and then a truck.

How had I not heard them?

She’d done her job—had stopped at a curb and had scanned all movement.

I was thinking about all the summers that might remain. How long might I live? What oceans had I yet to swim in?

Oh heroic dog! Who’d saved me! She was “Lassie” and “Rin Tin Tin” rolled into one.

We walked a few blocks and entered Wichita’s Botanical Garden and I asked Corky directly if she felt like Rin Tin Lassie. She wasn’t paying attention to me.

“She’s watching butterflies,” said a woman. “You’re talking to her, and she’s got butterflies on the brain!”

She had a smoker’s laugh, big and phlegmy.

“We have a lot of butterflies here,” she said. “This is the “Butterfly Garden”.”

“Ah,” I said. Smoker woman went away.

“Butterflies and trucks,” I thought, “are equally compelling in a dog’s eyes.”

A bright flash of color. Each appears at the margins of vision. Both warrant full attention. They create amplitude—both ends of the motion spectrum are the same.

“Dogs aren’t heroic,” I thought. “but they are alert, quick, and certain.”

Dogs say: “That’s motion and it’s mine.”

Sitting there amid the Wichita butterflies I saw that it takes some bravery to understand your dog’s view of things.

Once you understand this there’s a purity to it.

A dog sees all the dizzying, big eyed sparks of dailiness.

And doesn’t worry about it.

 

 

 

 

What a Dog Can Do: An excerpt

No one knows when the forerunner of today’s guide dogs first appeared. Drawings of blind people accompanied by dogs date back to the 17th century. Those early pairings were most likely memorization teams, one pictures the dog leading its partner through the village square.  It’s clear no substantial training was involved. But we can imagine the tremendous bond with dogs that developed between the uncharted and lonely blind people of prior ages. It is a safe bet that dogs solved the puzzle of solitude for blind travelers who lived in a time when sightlessness was a great calamity. (The idea that blind men and women could be taught to read was a late development in cultural history, as Diderot’s essay Lettre sur les aveugles published in 1749 offered the first speculation that raised letters might be possible.) The world of the blind has been a dismal place throughout much of history. It’s possible to say, along with the poet Pablo Neruda that pure faith cannot withstand the assaults of winter, but your survival is more likely with a dog. Sometimes when I think about the ancient blind with their lives of begging and fiddle playing, their relentless wandering, homelessness, sickness, I weep to imagine the righteous loyalty of those early dogs.

From: What a Dog Can Do: A Memoir of Life with Guide Dogs, by Stephen Kuusisto, forthcoming from Simon and Schuster

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Professor Stephen Kuusisto is the author of Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening” and the acclaimed memoir Planet of the Blind, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”. His second collection of poems from Copper Canyon Press, “Letters to Borges, is scheduled for release in October 2012.  As director of the Renee Crown University Honors Program and a University Professor at Syracuse University, Steve speaks widely on diversity, disability, education, and public policy. www.stephenkuusisto.com, www.planet-of-the-blind.com