Some students go home with dogs; others must try again –
The four weeks of Pilot Dogs training culminate in the day that students head home — with or without a guide dog.
For 12 hours a day, six days a week, students and dogs at the West Side school develop a relationship that can provide the mobility and the confidence to change a blind person’s life.
The dogs don’t become theirs, though, until the students prove their skills in a walking test Downtown. While critiqued by a silent observer, a handler and canine must board a bus, cross streets and enter a store without help.
In the days before the test, the pressure built for the school’s final class of 2008, including some students with health or abilities that seemed increasingly uncertain.
A sick, sore and tired Elaine Brittain, 83, thought of giving up — even if it meant returning home to Hillsboro without her dog, Dee Dee.
Phil Jackson, a 40-year-old pastor from Bristol, Va., feared that he and Corky lacked the discipline needed to pass the class.
And, though confident about the test, Randy Bailey, 43, of Greenville, Ill., had another one looming: that of a divorced dad trying to impress his four children.
The three — along with two other classmates — faced their fates on Dec. 17 and 18.
Elaine: against the odds
Freezing rain pounded on Elaine Brittain’s metallic-blue coat and soaked Dee Dee’s fur as the pair shuffled down High Street.
“How you doing?” trainer Mike Tessmer asked.
“I’m still with ya,” Elaine replied meekly.
Sore from a fall and from arthritis, and now weary from a bad cold, 83-year-old Elaine was growing more reluctant to walk — especially Downtown.
She mentioned repeatedly that her little hometown didn’t have buses and escalators. So what if Downtown Columbus did? She hadn’t been there since 1945.
Skipping the Downtown test wasn’t an option, though, if she wanted to go home with her black Lab. She had to practice, despite her fear of the icy conditions.
As she waited for a bus, Elaine asked Mike to catch her if she fell.
“Well, sure, but it’ll cost ya,” he joked, trying to brighten her mood.
Her worry — the one she’d had all along during the training — proved well-founded as she stepped off the bus, climbing down the last and biggest step.
“Ooh!” she cried in pain as her left knee buckled, launching her forward into Mike’s waiting arms.
Steadying her on the sidewalk beside him, Mike took Dee Dee’s leash as the bus drove away.
Elaine shriveled her face in despair, beginning to cry.
“You did great, Elaine,” Mike said softly.
As the test approached, Elaine became discouraged, so tired and sick that she began saying she didn’t care whether she passed. Going home was her only goal.
When the big day arrived — following a night of freezing rain — she was relieved to learn that the students would be spared the bus portion of the test.
A school van dropped Elaine off at Long and High streets so that she could head south toward the CVS store she would visit as part of the test.
Despite her fatigue and the slippery streets, she crossed four roadways and entered the store problem-free. She and Dee Dee had taken on the real world independently, just as they were supposed to.
Within 24 hours, Elaine learned that she passed the test (trainers considered previous bus experiences in deciding a student’s outcome).
Her confidence returning, she playfully announced to her classmates: “I’m going home, kids!”
Elaine looked forward to some rest after a demanding and draining four weeks. She’d cried from pain, both physical and emotional, but she didn’t resent the times that made her almost quit.
From the suffering came the joy of Dee Dee, a new best friend.
“It’s sure been an experience,” Elaine said just before leaving for Hillsboro. “But it’s one I’m real glad I took.”
Phil: too many obstacles
On a busy Downtown street corner, Phil made his final bid for a guide dog.
“Corky, forward!” he declared.
He stepped toward a “Don’t Walk” signal, his partial deafness muffling the sounds of oncoming traffic.
And failed the test — again.
Phil and Corky weren’t safe together. They’d proved as much during two tests — the first one and a next-day retake — by walking toward cars and wandering out of crosswalks.
After his four-week effort, then, Phil would return home without the dog he’d wanted for so many years.
Pilot Dogs trainers recommended that Phil spend three to six weeks at a rehabilitation center for the blind, a place where he’d already trained for much of 2005.
Then, with his improved walking and traffic skills, he could return to Pilot Dogs for a three- or four-week class and a different, more mature dog.
School officials recognized problems between Phil and Corky but hoped the pair would click in the final week — it has happened before. This time, though, the differences couldn’t be overcome.
“The dog basically got bored with the work,” said Jay Gray, executive director of Pilot Dogs. “It wasn’t (Phil’s) fault; it was the team’s fault.”
Corky, he said, might better serve someone with more skill and experience.
Phil had envisioned Corky lying at his side as he preached about healing and hope that first Sunday back at church.
As much as he’d loved and bonded with his black Lab, though, Phil wasn’t discouraged by returning to Virginia alone, only thankful that he had another chance.
“If you’ve been as blind as long as I have, for 40 years, there’s nothing more exhilarating than that first walk around the block,” he said.
“It’s like a whole new world.”
Randy: full speed ahead
When Randy Bailey’s children called him on his birthday in December, he revealed the secret he’d been keeping from them for three weeks: He was in Ohio, working to obtain a guide dog.
He was taking charge of his life for the first time since losing his sight five years earlier.
So instead of visiting him the day he turned 43, the four kids — ages 13 to 17 — planned to greet Randy at his apartment when he returned home to Illinois with Brice, a vizsla.
Now that Randy looked forward to walking — or doing anything, for that matter — their monthly visits could be more active.
Randy is considering a move to his hometown of Bloom- ington, Ill., where opportunities are greater than those in the one-stoplight town of Greenville. He might even return to school, become a teacher again.
The plans are certainly nothing like the future Randy imagined when his blindness set in. He and his wife had recently divorced, and, despite his introverted nature, he could do little by himself.
“I figured I’d sit in darkness until the Lord called me home,” he said. “I was scared to death.”
Now, with Brice, he won’t be sitting or waiting.
Nor will he be alone.
“It’s a new chapter,” he said. “Actually, it’s a whole new book.
“I know this will change my life tremendously.”