Wednesday, November 12, 2008, 7:11 AM
The day has finally come. This is the day I receive Africa, my new guide dog. Africa is the seventh guide I have had the pleasure of working. All seven guide dogs were trained at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael California. I received my first guide dog on June 28, 1964 when I was but 14 years of age. That day is still as fresh in my mind as if it happened only this year.
My fifth guide dog, “Roselle”, is by far the most famous one of them all as she was with me when I worked and escaped from the 78th floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. You can learn more of Roselle’s life elsewhere on my web site.
In March of 2007 Roselle retired and I was joined by my sixth guide dog, Meryl. Unfortunately, Meryl only worked for about a year and a half before the stressful job of guiding became too much for her and she had to retire. Guiding is not an easy job. Only about 50% of the Labrador Retrievers who enter the program a guide dogs for the blind actually succeed and go home with blind people as part of a person-guide dog team. Some guides go home only to discover that guiding isn’t their thing. Meryl retired officially on September 18, 2008.
As an aside, I should explain that the reason the success rate for labs is only about 50% comes not from the fact that the other 50% are not as bright or is good. Dogs are just like people. Each one has its own personality. Some dogs work well as guides while others do not. Some people are very successful and seem to adapt well to some jobs but not to others. We learned a long time ago not to say that the dogs that do not make it as guides are failures, but rather they are “career change”. Some of the career changed dogs leave GDB in order to perform other jobs such as cancer detection and to do work with the military in drug and explosives investigation. Some career change guide dog puppies have gone on to work with persons with diabetes. These “Dogs for Diabetics” are taught how to warn their handlers of drastic changes in their blood sugar levels and thus prevent the onset of hypoglycemic or insulin reactions.
Back to Africa. Immediately upon Meryl’s retirement the search began for a successor guide dog for me. The process of matching a blind person with a guide dog is a very complex one. It is important to find a dog that can match its blind handler’s pace, walking patterns, temperament, as well as having a personality which will fit into its handler’s daily way of life. There is a good reason why Guide Dogs for the Blind calls the decision to use a guide dog a “lifestyle choice”. Part of the process which every team goes through is the forming and building of the relationship which will dictate how human and dog will interact with each other during their time together.
For me when preparing for Africa it helps that I have had six previous guidedogs all from the same school. Even though Guide Dogs for the Blind has amassed quite a bit of information about my needs and desires concerning a guide dog match I still went through a home interview and a brief walk with the local GDB field rep, Marc Gillard. We did the interview at the same time he came to fetch Meryl back in September.
The next event was an e-mail from Charles Nathan, the Guide Dogs Director of Training in San Rafael. Charles e-mailed me around the 20th of October to tell me that he believed that a match had been found for me. He wanted me to take a test walk with the dog to seeif I felt we might have a match. Charles informed me that the dog’s name was Africa and that she was a small yellow Labrador. As soon as I saw the name I realized that there was another reason why GDB may in fact have found a good match. Africa is one of the puppies from the second litter of our GDB breeder, Fantasia. Fantasia has lived with us for a little more than two years. One of our close family friends, Linda Lewis, had suggested the name Africa when we learned that Fantasia’s second litter would all have names beginning with the letter A. I knew that if Africa was anything like her mom we had the potential for a great match. Fantasia’s personality was more suited to what I desired and felt would be best for my lifestyle. If Africa’s personality and demeanor were anything like her mother she was certainly worth a look.
On October 27 Todd Jurek brought Africa to our home for our test walk. We spent three hours traveling around our neighborhood as well as through downtown Novato. We also went to a restaurant, and spent some time at the local Peet’s coffee just so I could observe Africa in a variety of settings. Afterward I told Todd that I thought Africa was a good match and that we should go ahead. Todd was Roselle’s trainer and as I learned that day he trained Africa as well. I didn’t have Todd as an instructor when I was matched with Roselle. I asked that if at all possible I would like to work with him to do my training with Africa. I learned later that week that we could start training the week of November 10 and that Todd indeed would be my instructor. It doesn’t get better than that.