Today is a bitter sweet day for me. It is the birthday of my first guide dog. She is no longer with me, but I always remember her and the gifts she gave me on this day. Below is a piece I wrote for her a few years ago. I hope you will enjoy it.
Memories of Rae
When I was 19 years old, I decided it was time to get my first guide dog. My best friend, Kathryn, had been paired with a beautiful, black and red German Shepherd 4 months earlier, and she seemed so much more independent and confident. My parents, not wanting to admit that their first born child was growing up, were less than enthusiastic about the idea of me flying across the continent to attend the 4 week training program. I think they were also nervous about the idea that a short, furry creature would be responsible for my safety. Never the less, after filling out the
application forms, completing the in-home visits, and asking myself if I was really ready to care for another living thing, I finally received word that I had been accepted to a guide dog school in California, and that my training was to begin on March 28, 1993.
When I got off the plane in San Francisco, I had no idea what to expect. I was greeted by one of my guide dog instructors, who packed me and my luggage into a bus full of other students for the 30 minute ride to the school’s San Rafael campus. The campus was beautiful, with manicured lawns, walking paths, and tall trees surrounding a student dormitory, administration building, and huge dog kennel.
As I looked around my room, the impending arrival of my new dog became very real. There was a tile area below my bathroom sink that contained a faucet and an empty water dish. A fleece mat rested on the floor beside my bed, and a brand new leather leash waited on my desk. I didn’t know how I was going to contain my excitement until my meeting with my mystery companion.
After 3 days of pre-dog preparation that taught us how to issue commands to invisible animals, dole out praise, administer fair punishments, and work with leather dog harnesses, the magical day arrived. I remember how I felt as I sat in the lecture room with my classmates, and waited to hear the name, breed, and gender of my new companion. When my turn came, I was told that I would be receiving a female German Shepherd, named Rae. After we had learned the basics about our new dogs, we were sent back to our rooms to wait for our names to be called. I watched anxiously as my fellow students walked down the long, tiled hall, disappeared into the instructors’ office, and emerged minutes later with their new partners at their sides. After what seemed like hours, my turn finally came. I was lead into the same office, and settled in an over-sized arm chair.
“Are you ready to meet Rae?” My instructor asked.
I nodded, as the door to the outside run flew open, and 65 pounds of fur and pointy ears flew across the room and landed at my feet. As my hands moved over her slim, athletic body, her sculpted face, her bushy tail, and her enormous ears, my instructor described her elaborate markings to me.
I left in a haze of joy—Rae plodding expectantly beside me. Like all first-time dog handlers, I was thinking that my dog was the most perfect dog that ever existed, and that we would be the best of friends from this moment on. To my dismay, it didn’t happen quite so easily.
When we returned to my room, I sat down on the floor with Rae—thinking we could get in some cuddle time before I had to feed her and take her out to relieve. Rae, however, only had eyes for her trainer. Every time he walked by our door, she would whale and strain at her leash in an attempt to reach him. I quickly revised my “best of friends” scenario, and decided I’d be happy with her liking me–even just a little. When it came time to feed her, she wouldn’t eat. When I took her outside, she just looked at me, flattened her ears, and sat unmoving at my feet.
Again, like all first-time dog handlers whose dogs don’t perform according to their expectations, I became convinced that my dog hated me. I said as much to my instructor, who reassured me, and told me to “give it time.”
The next morning, after a night plagued with self-doubts and little sleep, Rae and I took our first walk together. I will never forget that moment, because until then, I had no idea that it was possible to move that quickly or gracefully through space. We virtually flew 2 blocks, before Rae even looked up at me.
My instructor laughed at the expression of surprise that came over her intelligent, little face—as though she was thinking “Oh! I didn’t realize you were attached to me. Where’s the person I usually walk with?”
It has been nearly 12 years since that California spring day. I have had the privilege of working other dogs since then, and though each has touched my heart, none will ever replace Rae. With Rae, I changed from a girl to a woman. With Rae, I got my bachelor of arts degree, and became a Dot-Com,er. With Rae, I road in a stretch limacine through Manhattan, and in a canoe over a set of white water rapids in Northern Canada. With Rae, I fell in love, fell out of it, and fell in love again.
The relationship that a person has with their guide is so difficult to explain. It’s a combination of parent/child, partner, and friend. The gifts she gave me were immeasurable. She taught me about unconditional love, and what it feels like to literally owe your life to another living soul. She licked my tears away when I cried, and stood regally beside me when I succeeded. She was my light, my heart, my wings, and the key to my independence.
With my boundless gratitude, this is for her.