My motivation for coming to Guide Dogs for the Blind was simple: all I wanted was to move about in my world more freely, with a greater sense of independence
My class consisted of a dozen men and women between the ages of 40 and 78, with varying degrees of blindness, and varying levels of independent travel experience. Most were there to replace dogs that had reached retirement age…a concept I couldn’t even imagine at the moment. My roommate Gina and I were among the first-timers.
We spent the first couple of days getting used to handling a leash. We practiced shortening and lengthening it over and over, and learned how to tug it just firmly enough to show we meant business.
Then we learned a few basic commands: Heel; Sit; Come. We practiced with invisible dogs. We practiced with a dog on wheels. Finally, we practiced with our trainers who did their best to imitate good and bad doggy behavior.
At last we met our dogs.
I remember waiting in the office as my trainer Caroleen went to get Ari. I didn’t know what to expect, of him, or of myself. I had heard all kinds of stories about this moment–how emotion-packed it was for students, how they imagined their entire futures as free and open and totally accessible, how travelling with a dog would free them at last.
My mind was absolutely blank.
At last a leather leash was placed in my hand, and Caroleen’s voice said, “This is your dog. His name is Arnell”
Once she left us alone, I reached out and stroked my dog’s big sturdy head. He did not lick me, but his tail was wagging. I had him sit. He did.
“Arnell…” I tried the name, and he seemed to be paying attention to everything I was saying to him. “Sorry big guy, but That sounds to me more like a little girl dog’s name. Maybe we can find a more fitting nickname, like Ari. Ooh, yes, you are a lion-dog, my Ari.”
From that moment on, Arnell, now secretly dubbed Ari, was solely my responsibility. Feeding, relieving, grooming were all up to me. He slept on a lambskin rug beside my bed, and suddenly became my first thought upon waking, and my last concern before closing my eyes for sleep at night. The hours in between we crammed with daily bus trips to Gresham or Portland, learned to handle rural and city traffic, stop signs and traffic lights, in daylight and darkness. We went to malls,and coffee houses, as a group and independently. We walked in rain and freezing rain, on pavement and through the woods.
It was the honest-to-God hardest thing I ever did in my life.
Training to become a Guide Dog teammate required me to push my body
Beyond exhaustion, and my concentration to the extreme. Ari knew just what to do. I was the dope making mistakes.
You should have heard the trainers cheer as I finally made the connection between where my right toe was pointed and Ari veering off in the wrong direction. I had held up the group for an additional forty minutes, and dragged Ari and myself back and forth a dozen extra times in freezing rain, when suddenly the lightbulb went off.
“You did it”, Caroleen congratulated me. All I could do was cry– as I hugged her, as I got down on my knees to hug Ari. His fur was coated in ice crystals, but his tail was wagging furiously.
“We did it,” I burrowed my wet face into his damp fur, “We can do anything.”
And so it was for over ten years. In all kinds of weather, Ari and I walked the half mile to the synagogue for my Hebrew classes. He attended High Holy Days services with me, went with me to the grocery store, a couple of concerts, and was welcomed into the homes of family and friends. He travelled with me by plane to St. Louis several times, and was there beside me in Cleveland when I graduated from Grad School.
Now we are both officially retired. But Life goes on, and learning goes on, and the love of a good dog–especially a Guide Dog– goess on and on. Happy Birthday, Ari!