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Seeing Eye: Breaking the Silence

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Jared Wright is a college student who is blind. He seeks greater independence through the use of a dog guide, and is currently attending The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey, to accomplish that. This feature details his experiences and reflections throughout his training, which concludes on August 17. His dog is a male cross between a yellow Labrador and a golden retriever named Kerry.

Firstly, my most sincere apologies for the lack of any report from The Seeing Eye in over a week. You'll just have to trust me when I say that the second half of training results in the most interesting subject matter as well as more time to write about it. As the training progresses, schedules become less rigid even if just as demanding, and thus I should have a better time putting down thoughts and beaming them out to you all. To be honest, downtime has been scarce and Internet access scarcer this past week. But here are the highlights of the week, along with the promise that entries should again pick up over the latter half of the training.

The heat. Oh, the heat. It was positively suffocating. In the interest of keeping training as complete as possible, instructors were hesitant to modify classes in any way. But Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons reached triple digits here in Morristown, so there was no choice but to start what is generally more complex work inside buildings a bit early. Kerry and I had been doing quite well with the outside routes, and while we still need practice, I don't think missing the two sessions of intersection analysis and route planning will kill us.

Certainly the most sobering experience of training came Tuesday afternoon. Kerry and I were working in the Headquarters Plaza, an office park that tries to pass itself off as a mall. We were navigating quite adequately when Kerry decided that one of the tile floors was as good a place as any to take care of personal business. Once I'd figured out what he was doing, I gave him a stern correction. He was not fazed, so I had to resort to the high collar correction, the most extreme form of correction that The Seeing Eye recognizes as acceptable and in rare circumstances necessary.

The correction was not only given because Kerry tinkled on the floor. I didn't intend for him to stop midstream and go on the rest of the afternoon as if nothing had happened. The correction was given more as a very clear warning for the future. Going to the bathroom inside any building just won't do, and so while I would rank constricting that collar as one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, its necessity is not lost on me. That doesn't mean it was easy. Some students never have to use the correction with any given dog. Let us hope Kerry's experience with it stops at one.

Even now, Kerry's body regulation is proving his biggest hurdle. Through a combination of his natural schedule being a little different and my inability to as of yet know exactly when he needs a break, we're running into him needing to go unpredictably. We've had no follow-ups to Headquarters Plaza (although my fellow students have had enough fun with that incident), but we have had a lot of stops en route to let Kerry answer nature's call. We sent a stool sample to the veterinary clinic at The Seeing Eye, and they've found traces of what could be giardia in his system. If this is true, irregular digestion is one of the results. He's been prescribed metronidazole twice a day for a week in the hopes that it helps. We will see if that clears anything up.

It's very frustrating for this to be the largest issue Kerry and I are having. It's so far out of my control. Some dogs in the class aren't stopping properly at intersections. Others are simply racing up stairs instead of telling their human handlers that the stairs are there. Others are easily distracted by food, other dogs, and the famous cat in residence at The Seeing Eye. These things are all to some extent common problems, and with the right praise and correction at the right time, all should be fixed very shortly. I'm confident that I'll figure out Kerry's digestive tract, but that doesn't make it any less irritating when it's something that you can't just correct him for, then praise when he fixes his mistake.

That said, from a working, obedience, and companionship standpoint, Kerry is proving to be absolutely fantastic. We've started to work in stores and other places where Kerry must focus constantly on avoiding moving objects, like people. He has done spectacularly. I'm probably playing favorites a bit, but I'd wager he's one of the smartest dogs in this group of dogs who are already smart beyond measurement. Time spent playing with him is almost more fun than it has any right to be. And I'm proud to say that very rarely is it Kerry who causes a disturbance during a meeting or mealtime. He listens to commands and follows them nearly all the time. If I figure out his biological clock, we will be well on our way to an excellent partnership. The formal training may be half over, but the fun and potential has really just begun.

A couple fun facts to send you on your way.

– Dogs are not truly colorblind. Their ratio of rods to cones is different from ours, and the result is their seeing muted pastels rather than vivid coloration, but a dog does have the ability to distinguish color.

– A dog's sense of smell is approximately 45 times more potent than ours. In one experiment, six men each threw a pebble. A dog was able to sniff one man's hand and pick out the pebble that he had thrown.

– A dog's vision is more reliable when dealing with motion but less so when dealing with detail. This is why some prey stays perfectly still when trying to avoid a wild dog.

Finally, for the curious, the puppy profiles were handed out this week. Kerry is 23 inches, 77 pounds, was born on May 17, 2004, and according to the family who raised him, his favorite forms of amusement are tennis balls and tug of war.

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About Jared Wright