Woo-hoo! After 13 long months, I’ve finally got a new guide dog. The wait has meant 410 days without running a single errand alone for my husband and family, without walking leisurely outside just to feel the elation of independence.

In addition to being blind, I have serious hearing loss. In most situations, if the path ahead is clear, my hearing aids allow me to judge traffic flows to determine whether a light is green or red. But pneumatic drills, idling trucks, blaring sirens, helicopters overhead — those interruptions challenge my safety as a cane traveler. A guide dog comes with one astounding advantage: It’s trained to disobey an unsafe command, like me saying “forward” when an electric car is speeding toward us. So, since January 2023, I haven’t felt safe to walk outside without a guide dog.

During the lockdowns of 2020, most of the residential guide dog schools were closed for several months, creating unprecedented backlogs of blind people needing guides and dogs needing to be trained. Some blind applicants had waits of only two months between dogs, while others, like me, had to hold on for more than a year as trainers worked to find the perfect dog-human match.

A woman sitting on a chair with a golden retriever.
Sally Hobart Alexander poses for a photo with her guide dog Ozzy in her home in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh on March 4. (Photo by Pamela Smith/Rtvsrece)

In early April 2023, I had the necessary evaluation to set things in motion. A trainer came to our home and did the so-called “Juno” walk, where I held the harness handle and he gripped its collar and pretended to be a dog. I gave him “left,” “right” or forward commands, as if I were directing my guide dog, then added leash corrections. Kind of embarrassing because I worried that passersby would think this blind lady who customarily seemed a little strange had finally gone round the bend!

Several times I had to “hup” the trainer up, meaning direct him to walk faster. This way, he assessed my speed, strength and stamina. He also evaluated my neighborhood — a city setting as opposed to a rural or suburban one. He checked out my home — no children, cats, other dogs or animals.

That done, he told me, “You’ll have a ‘home turnover.’ You won’t be going to the Seeing Eye school as before. This time, we’ll bring a dog to you and train you in Pittsburgh for 10 days.” 

This plan had a lot to recommend it. I’ve been totally blind since I was 26, just a few years after a retinal hemorrhage diagnosis, and I got my first guide dog nine years later. With my five prior dogs, I’d trained with them in New Jersey for up to a month before bringing them back to Pittsburgh. The dogs then had to transfer that training to my neighborhood, and I methodically practiced each route, working out the kinks. This time, I’d miss the socializing with other blind people in the class, but the home turnover concept did have an appealing efficiency.

“Sounds great,” I said.

With that, the man left, and my wait began — as did my worries.

First, not knowing when my training would begin was somewhat taxing. Trying to make long-term plans and appointments, for instance, was tricky.

Sunshine falls on Ozzy the guide dog’s fur in Sally Hobart Alexander’s home in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Pamela Smith/Rtvsrece)

More important, as extraordinarily well-trained as guide dogs are, at first they’re raw, green pups. In their first few weeks with a new person, in a new neighborhood, they goof. They may underestimate the coverage needed along a street and whack me into poles, tree branches, the sides of buildings. They may see another pooch across a four-laned street and lose all guide dog reason, dragging me diagonally into the traffic to meet the furry friend. They may want to leap at birds, squirrels, cats or other dogs along the way and forget their high stature and responsibility. They may cower or fight with an unleashed dog that tears off its porch, barking raucously. And they may find 6 inches of snow on the sidewalk too frigid and lead me into the street along the bare tracks made by the car tires.

All these things my guide dogs did in the early days of our life together, though their names will remain secret. I scolded them for each infraction, “pfui,” (pronounced “fwee”). Then, I made them do it over, and, if they corrected the mistake, I praised them like mad. 

Truth is that these remarkable, rookie dogs are scared, too, with us new owners. The Seeing Eye dogs go through three bondings in their young lives. Born in the training facility, they leave at seven or eight weeks and go to live with a puppy-raiser. They cannot enter formal training until they are full-grown and mature enough to learn the trade, so they don’t begin until they’re about 14 or 15 months old. And they definitely grieve the loss of their puppy-raisers. Then, in a kennel stall with another dog, they may wrestle and play, but they begin a four-month stint of daily education. Enter the dog trainer, and within days, the dog’s affection swings to this skilled person for the next four months.

With the arrival of the blind stranger, the trainer withdraws, makes less eye contact, keeps distance. Though the dog enjoys the friendliness and attention from the newcomer, he misses his trainer. The sad whining and barking through the dormitories and the dining hall makes for heartbreaking background music those first few days.

Ozzy the guide dog rests on the ground in Sally Hobart Alexander’s home in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Pamela Smith/Rtvsrece)

So the dogs are having a variety of emotions in this third transfer into their final stage of life. And for me and all the other blind people receiving the new guide, we’re full of emotions, too.

As happy as I am to have my new pup — a male golden retriever named Ozzy — I still want my former guide, Dave, back. Dave died on Jan. 5, 2023. During a routine check on arthritis in his right leg, the vet ordered an X-ray. The leg was fine, but Dave had a tumor in his spleen, and it was bleeding. Desperate, my husband Bob and I rushed Dave to veterinary cancer specialists in Ohio Township, who explained that chemotherapy would give him three more months at best. Three hours later, we made the excruciating decision to euthanize him. Dave had turned nine just three months before, and Bob and I were crushed.

So, as I write this in the playful company of my golden boy, I still have waves of sadness, along with laughter from Ozzy’s adorable antics.

I am also older now. I got Dave in 2015, so I have a few more arthritic joints than I did nine years ago.

And my skills are rusty. I can’t yet say, “Target, please,” and expect Ozzy to whisk me off there. The dog is the pilot, keeping me from bumping things; I’m the navigator. But my left arm has not had the strong pull of a 94-pound German Shepherd for over a year. Even during the evaluation with a man leading, I had an achy arm that night.

Sally Hobart Alexander and her guide dog Ozzy. (Photo by Pamela Smith/Rtvsrece)

Though I’ve been walking regularly for about an hour most days to keep in shape, I’ve been holding my husband’s or friends’ arms. I haven’t been listening to the traffic to determine if a light is green or red. That’s my job because dogs cannot distinguish those colors. And really, Bob or my friends may not have wanted me to give them guide dog commands. They may have said, “Pfui.” Still, I am upping my attention because soon I now have to give my new pup orders, and I need to be confident.

I also worry about the extra work. I’ll have to walk this pooch about three times a day, feed, groom and give him tons of play. I’ll have to vacuum more and spend more on vet bills.

Nevertheless, I say bring it on. To walk outside independently again, to pull my weight running errands at the drugstore, grocery store, library. To have the double-checking help of his intelligent disobedience, to move exhilaratingly along stretches of sidewalk. To bask in his mischief and play, and to have the adoration of a warm, loving beast — well, to me, all these qualities make a new guide not just worthwhile, but essential.

Sally Hobart Alexander is the author of many essays and eight books. Six books were Junior Library Guild selections, and one, “Taking Hold: My Journey into Blindness” won a Christopher Medal. Having taught in Chatham’s MFA program, she now leads a writing group. If you want to send a message to Sally, email firstperson@rtvsrece.com.

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