A few months ago, my guide dog, Colbert, began to exhibit fear behaviors when we were about to get on a city bus. He had, over time, become increasingly less enthusiastic about boarding and sitting on the bus. After a while, I would have to be the one to get us to the door. His former confident stride up to and onto the bus disappeared. Without a cane, this left me, with very little tactile feedback trying to get us to the door, which sometimes went smoothly and sometimes didn’t.
The bus was clearly not his friend, but a few months ago, it finally became his enemy. At first he would refuse to get on, then, when the bus would pull up, he would turn and try to run away from it. I knew this was more than I could handle myself. I called the guide dog school that trained us and they said they would have someone come to help. I told them I could work with the no-bus situation for the next few weeks if it took that long to get someone out to see us. I could take the train most everywhere, and for those places I couldn’t, I could take a taxi. But this was expensive, so I decided one morning to leave Colbert at home and use my cane.
I did this for the next few weeks, and to my surprise, I didn’t hate it. In fact, I kind of enjoyed it. I was starting to learn, actually learn for myself, how to navigate the subway stations, the streets, the bus stops, and the parking lots. One day, like a switch being flipped, the thought popped into my head: Maybe, just maybe, I like this … better?
- What would it be like to go somewhere without waiting for my little furry travel companion to relieve first?
- What would it be like to go to a crowded pub and not worry that it was too loud or that someone would step on him?
- What would it be like to let time get away from me at a friend’s house, then decide to stay the night, without worrying that I didn’t bring any dog food?
But perhaps most of all, what would it be like to be the only one working to get myself from point A to point B, minus all the wonderful responsibilities of a partnership with a guide dog?
Upon the heels of all these fleeting thoughts came instant and intense guilt. I was horrified! It was like a door I had opened for a quick peek, but then, though intrigued, wanted to slam shut. I had been partnered with a guide dog since I was in my early twenties. For the past twelve years, I would tell anyone who would listen that getting a guide dog had been one of the best decisions I’d ever made. The freedom I felt when I first began to work with my first guide, Debbie, and then when we moved from small-town Wisconsin to Boston, was like nothing I’d ever experienced. And then when I met Colbert—spunky, silly, confident, strong, and sometimes naughty—Colbert, I was sure I’d found another perfect partner.
Suddenly I didn’t know what to think anymore, or even who I was. When our field manager from the guide dog school came to visit, I broke down and cried for two straight hours as we talked, reviewing old notes from his previous visits in the past year.
No, things had not been perfect for Colbert and me, and my love for him had caused me to be less than honest with myself and everyone else about how we were doing. But give up on a guide dog altogether? I felt like such a traitor to the cause! I believe so strongly in the work of these wonderful organizations that train guide dogs, and feel a special sense of loyalty and gratitude to the one that brought me Debbie and then Colbert. Who would I be without a guide dog?
I made the incredibly difficult decision to find out the answer to that question. Colbert will be going back into the capable hands of our guide dog school, who will reassess him and find him a loving home away from busy Boston, a home where he can run and play and, I hope, swim, his favorite thing! He won’t have to get on a city bus or the subway. This has, hands down, been the most difficult and emotional decision I have ever had to make. Twenty times a day I question myself. Every time we take a little walk and his work is good, I think, maybe I’m wrong. But I know I’m doing the right thing.
Words can’t even express my gratitude to everyone who has been a part of our incredible journey together: Colbert’s amazing puppy raisers, his trainers at the school, my trainers at the school, our field manager, and our friends. I love my furry little guy so much and I will miss him. I know, without a doubt, that it’s only because of the help of Colbert and Debbie that I feel I can take this next step and see what happens. Whether it turns out to be just a short break from having a guide dog or a permanent lifestyle change, I will always believe in the power of partnership. I will always be grateful to the amazing men, women, and dogs who made it all possible.