Peaks and Valleys
Training intensity leaves guide-dog students on an emotional roller coaster
Eventually, they travel to stores, ride buses and cross busy Downtown streets like anyone else.
To start, though, guide dogs and their new handlers learn to find doors, to turn left or right, to stop at the end of sidewalks — all in an effort to develop walking skills that the sighted take for granted.
Working up to street crossings takes repetition and patience during a four-week stay at Pilot Dogs, a West Side training school for guide dogs and blind or visually impaired people who would own them.
At 7 a.m. six days a week, students gather for breakfast before starting 12 hours of obedience classes, lectures and walks lasting 30 minutes to 2 hours.
Students venture out one or two at a time, with their dogs leading the way and a trainer giving instructions and monitoring their progress.
Before accepting about 150 students a year, the nonprofit school reviews applications as well as medical and personal references, hoping to select those with the health and personality to withstand the commitment.
Most applicants are accepted to Pilot Dogs or another school, but the physical and emotional demands of the training inevitably prove too much for a few students, who quit or fail the class each year.
For the five enrolled in the final class of 2008, the second and third weeks proved increasingly challenging.
Fatigued from walking and aching from arthritis, Elaine Brittain, an 83-year-old widow from Hillsboro, worried that her age matters more than her efforts during the program.
Randy Bailey, on the other hand, felt as if he were coming back to life — taking long walks for the first time since illness and misfortune five years ago left the 43-year-old blind and alone in Greenville, Ill.
And for Phil Jackson, 40, partial deafness along with complete blindness severely hindered his abilities to walk and control the dog he wanted for his life as a pastor in Bristol, Va.
This story tells of the trio’s training experiences in the two weeks starting Nov. 27.
Elaine: proceeding with caution
The homeless man wanted money from her, of all people — the little, 83-year-old hunched over in jeans a couple of inches too short, walking down the street with her guide dog.
Both Elaine Brittain and Dee Dee brushed past him, silent and unfazed.
During training, a handler’s focus must remain on the walk — distractions, after all, are everywhere.
“Find the curb,” Elaine instructed the black Labrador retriever, who led her to the sidewalk’s end.
Elaine slid her right foot over the brink to determine the crossing’s identity: Is it a street? An alley? A parking lot? Or a dangerous piece of uneven pavement?
Determining her whereabouts, she directed Dee Dee to turn right as the two continued through the West Side neighborhood near Pilot Dogs.
Unknowing, Elaine headed toward a second obstruction: two cars on a sidewalk, parked nonchalantly outside an auto-repair shop.
It was up to Dee Dee to steer her master around the vehicles — and up to Elaine to follow the dog’s chosen route: muddy, uneven ground between the cars and a concrete wall of the shop.
“She’s so good; Dee Dee, you’re such a good dog,” Elaine said — not that she usually tells the dog otherwise.
A week after Elaine and Dee Dee met, their work together was turning from frightening to fruitful.
Less often was Dee Dee bolting toward other dogs or students, to the terror of her elderly caretaker. And on occasions when Dee Dee still acted like a puppy, Elaine was quicker to correct her with a sharp “No!” and a jerk on her leash.
Still, Elaine constantly reminded herself that she thought — no, she knew — that she is too old for four weeks of such intense training.
“The stress is bad; I’m just nervous,” she said. “When I’m tired, I have trouble because I’m weak and I’m not used to all this exercise.”
With some classmates now covering up to 2 miles, Elaine often noted how much slower she was on simple trips around the block. No matter that most of the other students were half Elaine’s age; she was bothered by her lack of progress.
At the end of the second week, Elaine’s physical condition became more unstable. Tangled in Dee Dee’s leash, she fell in the school lobby and smacked her head so hard that she was unsure what had happened.
The rest of the day, she wasn’t her usual, feisty self.
Rather than bantering with her classmates during lunch, she ate mostly in silence, speaking up only to complain of soreness from the fall and stiffness from arthritis.
The next week, Elaine still spoke of the spill as something of historical significance — how it made her wary, even more than she already was, to walk Dee Dee in the slippery December conditions.
“I’m still afraid, and I’m counting the days till I go home,” she said. “It seems like we’ve been here a long time.”
Elaine and her classmates had 11 days to go.
Randy: on cruise control
A dog’s responsibilities end here, at the tangling of highways where the sounds of speeding cars overwhelm all other noise.
Now that Brice had guided her handler to this place — a West Side entrance ramp to I-70 and I-71 on Town Street — Randy Bailey listened for the traffic he could not see.
A rush of cars heard to one side of the pedestrian suggests nothing in front — signaling an opportunity to cross the street.
Discovering that moment can be nerve-racking and time-consuming — especially at this crossing, marred by the noisy Rt. 315 overpass above.
As Randy and Brice, a vizsla, waited for their chance, a truck breezed by them and caused the collar of Randy’s jacket to flutter open.
“Whoa, that was close,” he said, stepping back in recognition of the danger.
Several minutes passed before Randy could make the call, cross the street and continue the walk back to Pilot Dogs.
Before long, though, he regained a quick pace that had, at times, put him more than 50 yards ahead of classmate Kevin Dickson.
Near the end of the walk, trainer Wayne Mathys quizzed his two students on their location.
“Are we at State and ?” Kevin began, describing an intersection a few blocks away.
“Town and Grubb,” Randy interrupted, providing the correct answer.
In his second week, Randy — blind for four years, fewer years than any of his classmates — was proving himself a confident walker with a keen, natural sense of direction.
Adjusting to blindness, caused by a stroke at age 39, has taken much longer.
A therapist taught him to walk with a cane and provided him with devices that detect the color of a shirt and the denomination of currency. A personal assistant helps him with errands and finances.
Still, Randy bloodies and burns his fingers when trying to cook, as he did during his 20 years as a fine-dining chef. He isn’t yet proficient at reading Braille.
And despite his walking abilities, he had tripped and fallen several times at Pilot Dogs, twisting both ankles.
Yet Randy was determined to excel with Brice. He’d always been a perfectionist, and this time he needed these skills to impress others, too.
His four children — ages 13 to 17 — didn’t know that their father had left Illinois to enroll in guide-dog school.
The dog was to be a surprise for the kids, who’ve struggled watching the toll that blindness has taken on him.
“I can tell it in their voices — this intimidates them,” he said, pointing to the dark sunglasses that never leave his face. “This is not what they’re used to.”
Phil: a bumpy ride
Literally out of the school gate, Phil Jackson started making mistakes.
He turned the wrong direction, dropped his dog’s harness and spun in circles as he tried to recover.
Trainer Mike Tessmer offered corrections as loud as his voice would let him. But illness had reduced his shouting that day to a hoarse whisper — and Phil, partially deaf since birth, strained to hear him under normal circumstances.
At the first two curbs on the walk, Phil aimlessly continued into the street instead of stopping and turning to remain on the sidewalk.
He stepped on Corky’s feet, making the black Lab yelp, and tripped badly enough that Mike had to grab and steady him.
The blindness and deafness impairing his balance, Phil then veered into the street while crossing an alley — unable to sense his own direction.
“Stop! You’re in the street!” Mike said. “Phil, you’re a little unsafe, OK?”
During the second week of class, Phil was frequently disoriented inside and outside the building — becoming lost on the way to his room, crashing into chairs, prompting classmates and dogs to scramble out of his way.
And with Phil focusing so much on his own travel, Corky’s movements often became an afterthought.
Without daily reminders of the rules, guide dogs can revert to typical-dog behavior, ignoring duties and commands in favor of inspecting smells and surroundings.
Returning from the walk, Corky darted toward another student’s dog while Phil trailed silently behind her. Mike, watching the lack of control, threw his hands up in frustration.
“We blundered a couple of times this morning,” Phil casually acknowledged after the walk. “But I’m not upset with that; it’s my own stupid fault.”
The next week, though, Phil started to recognize that his problems might be unfixable.
At times, he couldn’t hear the quiet engines of late-model cars or judge the distance between him and oncoming traffic.
And although his “Corkster” was sweet and kind, willing to let Phil nap on her, she nonetheless was a spunky, young dog with her own agenda.
So Phil began speaking of not passing the class — of the possibility that he might return to Virginia and his church without the dog he’d wanted for so long.
“If it’s meant to be, if Corky is meant to be a part of my future life and my ministry,” he said, “it will happen. If not, it won’t.
“But I know right now I’d love to take this puppy home, I really would, because we have bonded so well.”t