April 26th is International Guide Dog Day. This year I thought I’d give a little of my own history with guide dogs.
This is James.
James was my first guide dog, though he didn’t start out as such. When I was 18 I moved to Pittsburgh, PA to attend college. I rented an apartment, and Regal (my first flat coat) and I moved in. To find the apartment, I had connected with some dog people in the area, who after I moved in invited me to attend an agility fun day to get to know folks.
At that fun day, a young family with a puppy was spectating. I went over to pet the cute puppy and long story short thanks to a forgiving landlord within 2 hours said puppy was now my James. He was probably around 12wks or so, a black retriever type dog, as he grew he resembled more and more a flat coated retriever in build and type, though I have no idea if he actually was. Regardless, it was either life with me or a trip to the local animal shelter, and I think his life with me over the years was a pretty good gig for him.
James grew up in downtown Pittsburgh, and I raised him as I do my puppies with the idea of doing competition agility, obedience and the like. We went to the park every day before I headed to school. On the weekends we often went to a dog training class, or walking with friends.
When James was about 10months old, my health concerns became such that I withdrew from university and returned back home to New England. James and Regal it tow of course. In a unfamiliar city with the pressures of college (and a bus system, oh dear lord the bus system was really the final straw, can I tell you how lost I got on that damn bus system? How many miles I walked after I took the wrong one, got off at the wrong stop? How many classes I missed trying to get to school on the bus? How terrifyingly lost I found myself over and over? How I used to I’d wait at the bus stop until someone I knew lived near me happened to also be taking the bus so I could unknown to them simply follow them? I still stress at the idea of riding the bus even here at home). I could no longer hide the problems I’d been having increasingly throughout high school, it was time to figure out what was wrong and what to do about it.
A few months into trying to figure out my health stuff, it was suggested by my medical team I might benefit from a service dog. I’d been training dogs for most of my life, and James showed various aptitudes that he might be suitable. Hence his career path shift at that point.
He was originally trained in various supportive tasks primarily for my panic attacks, migraines and what we later figured out was actually sensory overload shut down. As my challenges with visual processing became glaringly apparent as they increased over time, James was trained more and more in guide tasks. By the time I had to stop driving completely, he was 5 or so and working as a guide dog.
James was a huge part of my life and having him helped me gain the confidence to get out and live my life. With James, I had the confidence to travel both across the country, and across the world (we went to Japan together). To get out shopping on my own. To further attend college classes. To explore opportunities with my business. To eventually move out of my parent’s house into my own place. With James I felt safe in a way that I never had before in my life. He took care of the details, bringing to my attention what I needed to process and gave my nervous system a break from the constant influx of data that our world throws out.
When James was 7 he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in a front leg and immediately retired. We then had a further fantastic 6 months before his leg ultimately shattered and I made the difficult decision to let him go.
A few months prior to James’ cancer diagnosis, he had begun to slow down and show me signs that I should start planning for the future. I had originally intended to owner train my next guide dog, same as I had James. But, I found the statistic that less than 1% of the general dog population has the aptitude, health, structure, temperament and the like for public access service work to be true. After a couple of failed potential prospect puppies, I decided to go the formal guide dog program route. A path that lead to further independent travel skills and eventually to Tom. But I think that’s a story for another day. One I will likely tell in a couple of days on May 1st for Tom and my 6 years of partnership anniversary.
To say that James changed my life is an understatement. I had no idea when I took that little black ball of fur into my life, completely unplanned, that he would play such an important role. I count 3 positives (and a super long list of negatives) that came out of my attempts at college life in Pittsburgh, James hands down tops the list. He was a wonderful dog, and I will miss him and be grateful to him always for the life he helped enable me to live. Thanks J, you were one of a kind.