Nov 21, 2019 | essay
The Emotional Beats of Becoming a Guide Dog Handler
by Elsa Sjunneson
Edited by Julia Rios
Copyedited by Chelle Parker
On February 22nd, I made the decision to drop everything in my life and make the biggest change I’d made since getting married.
I was going to guide dog school.
For three weeks, I’d live on campus and train with the dog who had been selected for me. I would eat, sleep, breathe, and even use the bathroom with a dog not more than 3 feet from me at all times.
This is the emotional arc of that experience, from day one to day twenty.
Day One: As my classmates trickle in, my lifelong belief that there is no one kind of blindness is reinforced. No one is the same.
Day Two: “These are young, foolish Labradors,” one instructor says, as she addresses twelve eager humans. We range from first-time guide dog handlers (like me) to someone who has worked a guide dog for forty years, but we all have one thing in common: we’re excited to find out which one of the dogs we worked with today will be ours.
Day Three: Dog Day. There is a dog in my room. Juno1. He is big, and has black fur that is long and shaggy and goes everywhere. He sits on my lap and cuddles and my heart grows about sixteen sizes.
Day Four: Did I mention that I came into class with the tail end of bronchitis? It is bitterly cold and my lungs burn with each breath. I cough, my entire torso seizing as the cold air releases inside of my chest, but being outside with Juno is like nothing else. It’s hard to explain, but it feels a bit like skating on fresh ice, or skiing down fresh powder. My steps are smooth and rapid and, even though my lungs protest, it feels amazing. This short walk my instructor allows tells me that I’ve made the right decision.
Day Five: It is 6 a.m. and we’re doing obedience training. All the dogs snap to our sides when we call “heel”, but mine slides diagonally in front of my feet when I put him into a down, snoot pointing to the treat pouch on my hip. We aren’t supposed to compare the dogs to each other, but I can tell some of the other dogs lie straight ahead, waiting for the next command, their black and yellow bodies like smears of ink, the head-shaped blob pointed in the right direction.
Day Six: It is 11:30 a.m. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is setting up behind me. I am crying, with a Labrador in my lap trying to lick up my tears. Every block has been filled with frustration. Every snowbank is a sniffing distraction, every doorway a temptation to veer off our course down the center of the sidewalk. How will I ever get where I need to with this dog at my side? Is it me? Am I just bad at this? Or is it him?
Day Seven: Sunday, we don’t have assigned tasks. We groom our dogs. I heel mine up and down the hallways of the school, practicing the technique we’ve been taught. There’s nowhere to go and nothing to do but to sit in my room and cuddle this dog who I already love so much, or be in the student lounge playing endless rounds of Uno.
At 7 p.m., the instructors disappear. Their hurried footsteps echo down the halls. After a while, my classmates and I figure out one of our number hasn’t been seen in a while. Their dog is sick. Will he be able to continue?
Day Eight: Lunchtime. Do you ever have all these feelings that you didn’t know were there until, like a surge flood, they all burst out of you in one single moment? That’s lunchtime. The tears are endless. They come from somewhere I didn’t even know was there, like a flash flood. I can barely breathe through the fear that this won’t work. What if I can’t get him to focus consistently? What if I have to wait for another dog, another year with a cane? I can’t go back. I won’t go back. This has to work.
Day Nine: Escalators are terrifying. One mistake and the dog’s paw can be damaged for months. But we do it. Juno and I get up and down the escalators safely. More crying as we successfully make a route back to the lounge. Maybe this will work out after all.
Day Ten: I am almost swept off my feet by the current of my Labrador surging forward in a harness. My heart thuds in my chest, my breath catches in my throat, but I stay upright, fighting against the undertow.
Day Eleven: There is another dog in my room. Juno is gone. He’s been replaced by Astra. Astra is smaller. He licks my face and bounces a foot in the air to reach it when we’re not on the floor together. Our first route is so smooth it feels like I’m walking on air.
Day Twelve: Tonight is supposed to be the night walk. My instructor and I teach Astra our route. He sits at each downcurb, and we do treats often and consistently to show him where we will go at night. When we’re finished, we sit in a Starbucks while everyone else practices their routes – and I feel normal. I feel secure. I feel ready. Ish. When the time comes to load into the vans, our instructor plays “pump you up” music to get us ready for the darkness, but instead we are prevented from the walk by a glorious thunderstorm that washes the windows clean and brightens the world with a white light. Astra sleeps at my feet through the whole thing.
Day Thirteen: I am grieving. One dog, a dog who isn’t with me anymore, who wasn’t quite suited to work with me, is somewhere else. Another dog, one who seems well-suited to me, is here. I worry about Juno, though. What will he do next? I hope he has a great future ahead of him, but it aches that the future isn’t with me. On our route by the lounge, I have to remember that I must follow my dog. My eye, though it has residual vision, cannot be trusted. I can become distracted by a flash of a light. Astra may still be a foolish Labrador, but on duty his eyes focus on the obstacles ahead. I must follow my dog until the end of days, even if the trust hasn’t been fully earned yet.
Day Fourteen: Another quiet Sunday. We take all the dogs out into the outdoor pen, where they prance and play. Astra (an instructor tells me it’s him, because I can’t tell the dog blurs apart) uses the other dogs like an agility course. With a bright orange ball in his mouth, he leaps over a yellow Labrador, then slides past another dog, skidding to a stop inches from the chain link fence. They’re just really, really good dogs.
Day Fifteen: This is the week that everything changes. This is the week we graduate. Will we be ready by Sunday to go home? Will we succeed? Doubt churns in my stomach. The tension in the handle of the harness is my anchor.
Day Sixteen: It’s traffic check day. A traffic check is when your dog stops you from getting hit by a car. It’s very serious, and most of us deal with it via nervous jokes and hysterical laughter. The car (from the school) pulls into a parking lot as we are crossing the entrance. Astra stops me. He backs me up. We are safe. We are solid. When we go on our country road exercise later that day, there is a surprise traffic check just for me. A car I’ve never seen before drives towards us. My heart pounds in my chest but Astra stops me in my tracks and backs me up a few paces. His eyes translate what he sees much faster than mine do. He keeps me safe. We pass the traffic check.
Day Seventeen: Manhattan. The sky is so blue and so bright that it provides contrast to the church spires we pass on the Upper East Side. We swerve down sidewalks and navigate through revolving doors. We ride subways and enter office buildings. For the first time in years, I’m not afraid of Manhattan. I feel like I’m flying, like I’m free. Like no one can ever stop me with Astra at my side.
Day Eighteen: Movie day. Astra sleeps through a superhero film, his head heavy on my feet in a darkened movie theater. It’s amazing to me how this dog - at once full of energy, sproinging a foot in the air to lick my face as a morning greeting - can also sleep through a film in public.
Day Nineteen: Feedback day. I’m nervous, even though I know exactly what the feedback will be. I’m nervous because, as an inherent perfectionist, I want to get this right, even though right isn’t possible because this is about a lifelong practice and not a single test. The feedback is what I expected. It leaves me feeling calm, like I can do this with him. He and I have work to do, but it’s reasonable. We’re still learning together, like every other guide dog handling team on the planet.
Day Twenty: Graduation day. We work2 down the aisle, leather harness in my hand, dog happily guiding me along. When I speak for graduation, I speak of the truth that this dog will take me where I need to go – and beyond. He’ll take me where I’ve always wanted to go but never thought I could. My heart feels open. I feel strong. I’ve grown beyond the borders of who I was. I know more assuredly that I can do the things I choose. Hike, walk, work, socialize. Doors are open and the world is ours.
I didn’t expect to feel the way that I do with Astra at my side. I didn’t expect to feel powerful. There wasn’t a way to predict how secure I’d feel holding that harness until I’d made it through Grand Central Station. Until I knew that he’d steer me safely through places both known and unknown. With a cane, I always felt a sense of urgency, a sense that if I weren’t aware of everyone around me, all the objects ahead, and where my body was in space, that I was unsafe. With Astra, all I have to worry about is what direction I’m sending him in, and he leads the way.
I didn’t expect to experience the range of emotions that I felt at guide dog school. I did not think that guide dog school would be full of tears, that I would feel helplessness, sadness, and frustration. I also didn’t know that I would feel the depth of joy and freedom that I did.
Astra has changed me.
He has changed the way I see myself as a blind woman.
He has changed the way my shoulders sit. I can’t remember the last time I stood like this.
It might have been never.
I am forever changed. By Astra. By school. By the fellow blind people who taught me braille at night, who joked about dog farts, and who held my hand when the dog switch came.
So the next time you see a guide dog team on the street, I want you to give them the respect they’ve earned. Don’t pet the dog. Don’t talk to them. Compliment the handler, if you must. Compliment the team.
But know that from beginning to end, from nose to tail, that team has fought hard to be on that street. They’ve earned their freedom.
Juno is the name used for the walk which guide dog handlers in training take where an instructor guides them using an empty harness. Since many users like to keep their dog’s name relatively private for safety reasons, I use it here for this dog. ↩
“Working” is the term for whenever a guide dog is in action while wearing their harness. Guide dogs aren’t pets, and the language of obedience shifts for working dogs. ↩