by Marlaina Lieberg
On March 16, 2015, I began to see downtown Burien through very different eyes.
That is the day my new Guide Dogs for the Blind guide, Nisha, arrived. Typically, the blind handler goes either to Boring, OR or San Rafiel, CA for a two-week training class. Due to health concerns, I requested and was granted in-home training. But before I discuss that, let me share a bit about Nisha, and her life before I met her. This is typical for most guide dog schools, and I hope this information will give you the reader a greater understanding for the bond and the relationship which must develop between a blind handler and guide dog.
Nisha is a small black Lab. She stands 19.5 inches high at the shoulder and weighs 51 pounds. When I first felt her head, I was amazed at how differently it is shaped from that of my now retired guide, Agnes. People tell me Nisha’s face looks like a teddybear!
Nisha was born on September 8, 2013. At nine weeks old, she left the campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind and was sent to live for the next 14 months of her life with a family who volunteers to raise and socialize pups born at Guide Dogs. These volunteers are truly the foundation for every pup. The love these families bestow upon the puppies is amazing. They house break them, take them out to public venues to socialize them, teach them to walk on a leash, attend bi-monthly mandatory meetings of the puppy club to which they belong, put their hands all over the dog’s body including in the mouth and touching the eyes and pads on the dog’s feet and so much more. All clubs are monitored by GDB field staff who work in conjunction with the puppy raising families to help ensure a good experience for all. Sometimes pups are raised by youngsters, sometimes they are raised by adults. In Nisha’s case, an 18 year-old boy wanted to make a difference in the world, and so he decided to try raising a guide dog pup. Nisha lived with Tegan and his family in Utah for 14 months.
Then she experienced the next big change: she was taken back to Guide Dogs for the Blind in Boring, OR, and there she began her “college” education. She met Dianne Webster, her trainer. By this time, Dianne represented the third major person in Nisha’s life. The first was the kennel person who cared for her daily for the first nine weeks of life; the second was Tegan, her boy whom she loved for 14 months, and now along comes Dianne.
Dianne taught Nisha the principles of guide work. Guide dogs respond to commands. Many sighted people believe I just say “go to Marlaina’s Mediterranean Kitchen” or “go to A Place for Pets” and off we go. Nothing is further from the truth! The blind handler must know in what direction to travel, issuing a series of commands such as “forward” “left” “right” “find inside” “find outside.” Dianne’s job with Nisha was to teach her how to respond to all those new words.
So every day for 3 months, Dianne took Nisha out and taught her, praised her when she did well, loved her, and gently corrected her when she did wrong. They formed a relationship together as Dianne molded Nisha to become a guide for someone.
During the training process, Dianne kept scrupulous records detailing Nisha’s personality, her sturdiness as far as accepting ambient sounds without getting distracted, her gait, her pace and her pull in the harness. All these factors are weighed when GDB staff begin to consider what dog will work best with each student.
Once Nisha completed the ten phases of guide dog training, Dianne reported that Nisha was ready to be a guide. At that point, GDB staff looked at my history, the sort of guides they’ve given me in the past, as well as what I was now requesting. I kept telling them I wanted a small, smart female; that’s exactly what I got!
So on March 16, Charles Nathan, the GDB Field Manager for the Pacific Northwest, brought Nisha to me and with his assistance for two weeks following, I began to learn how Nisha communicates. Charles and I worked together six days a week up to four hours a day. We crossed streets, took the bus to the Tukwila Light Rail, took the Link to Seattle, worked escalators and managed busy downtown Seattle traffic. I bank at Bank of America and there is absolutely no way for a blind person to know when to turn in from 152nd since the bank is set far back from the street. Charles taught me how to teach Nisha to always come to a stop directly across from the Bank’s door. He worked with us at Ambaum and 152nd, which is a weird intersection at best. Nisha crosses it like a champ.
But now I’m person number 4 in the life of an 18 month-old Lab. For the next year, Nisha and I will both be working hard to get to know each other. She will be trying to understand what I expect, and I will be trying to keep my confidence up in her and believe that indeed, she will stop at the top of a flight of stairs going down, and yes, she will jump out to push me back when a driver turns right on red without so much as a glance to see if there happens to be anybody, never mind a blind person, in the cross walk.
People often say “Oh, I could never raise a puppy to be a guide dog; I just couldn’t give it up.” On March 28, we drove down to the Boring, OR campus to participate in graduation. Nisha’s boy Tegan, his mom, sister and grandparents drove from Utah to be present. When Nisha saw her family, she was over joyed! There were lots of tears all around, and Nisha sat in her boy’s lap on the floor for a very long time. During the ceremony, the puppy raiser presents the new guide to the blind handler. When Tegan spoke, he said “People say they can’t give up the puppies. I could give Nisha up because I hoped and prayed this very day would come and I’d see my dog guiding a blind person. How can you not think that’s cool!”
Many people have asked me over the years who names the dogs. Guide Dogs for the Blind, like most other guide dog training centers, breed their own dogs. When a litter is born, it is assigned a letter of the alphabet. My retired guide is named Agnes; she had sisters named Ava, Avenue and Alexis. Nisha has a sister named Nayr that I know of; Nayr lives with her blind handler in Eastern Washington. So, when we get the dogs, they are already named.
Another question I am often asked is how much it costs to get a guide dog. At Guide Dogs for the Blind, every student is given a scholarship which includes the dog’s training, transportation for the blind handler to and from the training center, room and board for two weeks while in class, a harness, leash, grooming tools, toys, food and a year’s worth of flea and heart worm prevention. The actual cost for each trained guide from birth to death is estimated to be nearly $100,000. GDB offers veterinary stipends to all graduates and in the case when a dog requires major surgery and the graduate cannot afford that cost, GDB will work with the vet to ensure the dog’s needs are met. All funds are privately donated; there is no federal assistance provided.
As a guide dog handler of over 50 continuous years with Nisha being my ninth dog, I can honestly tell you that this next year will be equally challenging and rewarding. Every dog communicates differently. Agnes would stop a foot or so back from those stairs or a down curb; Nisha goes right to the edge and stops. Agnes loved to wag her tail and the more enthusiastic I became with her praise, the happier she would be. Nisha requires equal praise but with a little less enthusiasm. She is so happy all the time that too much enthusiasm can make her lose her focus.
If you see us on the street, please do not attempt to pat Nisha. While some blind handlers will allow their guides to be patted with permission, I feel strongly that the harness which Nisha wears when guiding must represent serious work. Even if she is lying down next to me in a restaurant, she is at work and should not be disturbed.
My husband Gary who uses a wheelchair, my retired guide Agnes who is now trying to learn to pick things up for Gary, Nisha and I live in Burien Town Square. Thanks to all the accessible (talking) pedestrian crossing signals in the downtown area, Nisha and I can travel with comfort. It is still a little frightening when drivers just do not take the time to look as they do their right on red turns, or when they come out of a parking lot entrance and suddenly Nisha comes to a screaming halt and I realize how close that car actually is to me. But, as a person who has been blind since birth, I just look at these things as challenges that I must meet and beat; I should have died at birth, as I weighed under two pounds; I did not, and I believe I’m here for a reason. I’m totally comfortable with who I am, I’ll answer any reasonable questions about blindness and how I live. I love going to the movies, watching TV, cooking, reading and drinking good wine! People say that they do not know how to talk to a blind person and I say with a smile on my face, “Oh, just use your voice.” I know it’s hard if I ask directions not to say “go straight down there.” Hmm, down where? So, I try to make it easier for folks by saying something like, “to my left?” “to my right?” We all have our individually special needs. I think of a light bulb as an accommodation for you who see! Get you guys in the dark and heavens, you need help! 🙂
It is my hope that this article will open your eyes to how another person sees life. Blindness is not a death sentence; I believe my blindness is a gift and because of that blindness, I have been able to reach out to many people over the course of my life I likely never would have met before. Please don’t fear me; just respect that I, like you, am a part of society; I have strong political opinions, I have likes and dislikes just as you do. The greatest difference is that I happen to be blind.
With Nisha at my side, there is little I will not attempt. We are learning to communicate with each other. Some days are diamonds, some days are dust, but every day is a success for us. So, indeed, I am now seeing downtown Burien through very different eyes.
For more info about Guide Dogs for the Blind or to make a contribution visit www.guidedogs.com
For information on the Paws 2 Guide puppy club which meets two evenings a month in Des Moines, email [email protected] .
For more information on blindness and how you can help right here in South King County, visit www.southkingcounciloftheblind.org .
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