An Open Letter to the Donors of Southeastern Guide Dogs

I am excited to begin the new year in a spirit of gratitude. Your gift to Southeastern Guide Dogs blesses all future guides and graduates—but it also touches every member of the Southeastern community.

I graduated with my first guide dog from Southeastern Guide Dogs in July 2014. I had been matched with York, an 18-month-old black Lab whose large brown eyes shone with intelligence and determination. After a month of training in Palmetto, FL, I was ready to take my pup home, but I had only a faint understanding of how he would change my life.

The training process was not easy. Before York, I had used a white cane for safe and independent travel: independent being the key word. I knew how to trust myself, but I had to learn to trust York. On our third day of training, we paused at the edge of a curb, ready to step down. With my cane, I could have judged the depth easily—using the cane to touch the step and the sidewalk below. But with York, I wouldn’t feel the change in elevation until we stepped off the curb. I knew it was only one step, but I stood there for several minutes, afraid to trust another creature with my safety. I thought I could do it better. I thought we would stumble. I thought I would step down wrong and twist an ankle.

My trainer stood quietly beside me. She repeated, “Whenever you’re ready, tell him to go forward.”

When I finally gave York the command to step down, we moved so fluidly that my moments of worry dissolved in an instant. I was already several feet along the path before I could process what had held me back. Once I decided to trust, the obstacles disappeared. Steps up and down, crowded sidewalks, random signposts—these are now just arbitrary pieces of a world that York and I travel smoothly and confidently together.

York and I are an inseparable team in the most mundane and extraordinary places. From our favorite coffeeshops to the university campus where I teach, from the symphony and art museum to the regional stage at an a cappella singing competition, York is my constant companion. This year, we made our debut on the TEDx stage, giving a talk on disability and collaboration—and as far as I can tell, he is the first guide dog to grace this famous venue.

I knew that York would bring me a greater sense of independence and adventure, but I had no idea how his presence would transform my heart. It is not just that York helps me or that he has given me a way to express deep love and affection. York, like any partner worth having, challenges me to be the best version of myself.

When I would rather choose a quiet well-known path, York demands a crowded sidewalk full of obstacles. When I would rather stay on the sidelines, York demands attention. People stop to ask about his training or tell me how beautiful he is. On one memorable occasion, a woman sprinted across a hotel restaurant to meet us: she turned out to be a former puppy raiser for Southeastern and she was thrilled to see a guide dog team in action!

Perhaps what is most exciting for me is the picture York and I present when we work together. York and I are often the first blind woman-guide dog duo to appear on the conference panel, at the competition stage, in the coffeeshop. Though it seems like service dogs are everywhere, disabled people are still woefully underrepresented in professional and social settings. York and I get to show people that inclusion isn’t “special” or “exceptional”: we get to set a new norm, raise the bar for disabled people everywhere. With the simple act of walking up to a counter and ordering coffee, we teach the world that blind people can be just as competent and worthy of respect as anyone else.

But with York, it never stops at respect. He works so hard with me because he loves me, and this is a love that completely overwhelms me. It is as powerful as a symphony, as beautiful as a night full of stars. It’s a love I can never hope to measure or comprehend. But it’s a love I will spend my whole life trying to return.

Every time I grab my purse or put on my shoes, York runs to his special rug and waits for his harness, tail wagging. Every time we step out of the car, his nose sniffs the air, exploring. He sees the harness, and he turns from a wiggly explorer into a serious, focused companion. The harness slips on, and his body language says, “I’m ready for this.”

If you’ve never wrapped your fingers around the square end of a guide dog’s harness, if you’ve never needed to place your trust in a furry four-legged genius, it can be difficult to fathom the impact a guide dog has on the life of a blind or visually impaired person. Our dogs help us find independence, confidence, and self-worth. By extending an incredible network of dedicated humans, they teach us that our lives have value.

Your gift does not just help us be more independent. It helps blind people reclaim their dignity and their self-determination. Your generosity reminds us that people believe in us and that we should believe in ourselves—that our greatest joys and successes derive from profound collaboration. None of us is meant to strive alone: we all need to hold onto someone. I am honored to be working with York—and with the community of trainers, sponsors, and puppy raisers that made this brilliant partnership possible.

Sincerely,

Emily K. Michael, with York

10-14-16-em-york

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A Good Boy for Emily [Guest Perspective]

I am lucky to enjoy regular correspondence with York’s puppy raiser, a dynamic and intelligent woman named Melissa. A few weeks ago, she sent me an essay she wrote about the emotions of Puppy Raiser Day – the day when a student meets the family who raised their dog for a year. With Melissa’s permission, I am sharing her piece here.

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Guide Dog Puppy Raisers are given a fantastic opportunity, one not readily available to the average Joe. For a short time we are allowed to possess an elite dog. A dog of extraordinary intelligence and unparalleled breeding. Dogs with “guide” level acumen are special and I was blessed to have the companionship of just such a dog for eleven amazing months.

A puppy raiser picks up a nine or ten week old puppy from the kennel and returns a one year old dog for guide training. In between you feed, you housebreak, you practice obedience, you attend meetings, you expose the pup to all kinds of environments…sounds…people, you try not to fall in love and fail miserably. You fail because it is impossible to raise such a dog correctly and not love, if you can raise without love you’re doing it wrong.

Being a puppy raiser is a yo-yo thing. You want so much for your pup to be successful but at the same time it is so hard to think of giving him up. Only a percentage of the dogs bred for guide work actually make it as working guides. The best of the best, the elite puppy corps. When the news comes that your puppy has matched, and you know he will be a guide, there is a moment of incomprehension. The puppy that ran “zoomies” around my house is trustworthy enough to guide someone? My goofy puppy is to be depended upon for someone’s safety? There is an arc to puppy raising. You start with a goofy pup and just about the time you think, “I could live with this dog”, you’re asked to bring them back for training. The dog you bring back is not the puppy you picked up so you know in your heart the dog you raised is ready.

Puppy Raiser Day is a yo-yo day. You’re so happy your former pup is one of the elite few. You did it! Everything you worked for has come to pass. You’ve accomplished what you originally set out to do which was to give someone a gift they couldn’t give themselves. You want so much to be selfless and useful and kind. The cost of the gift you give is the loss of the companionship of a being with which you have spent nearly every moment for almost a year. It leaves a void. It is hard to be a puppy raiser, it’s not for cowards. Some raisers believe it is wise to get another pup the same day their old one goes in for training. That works for many people but for me there was the fear I’d look at the new pup and think, “Who are you and where is my dog?” I couldn’t do that to an innocent pup. It seemed to me reasonable to allow myself time to grieve and accept the loss of this close companionship. Reasonable, acceptable, sensible. My sorrow made my gift more meaningful to me. A gift that comes at no cost has no value. But in the end I was given more than I gave. Upon reflection it is hard to conceive of an entirely selfless act, that would be a rare thing I think.

The person who is matched with a raiser’s former pup is called a “student” for the duration of their time in training with their new dog. For four weeks the student and dog reside together at the Southeastern Guide Dog campus living and working as a team. If we are to be truthful then we must admit that students are given a dog who is still in no small part puppy. A dog who will require patience and diligent attention to training methods for some time before they reach maturity. While this dog comes to the student at no monetary cost there is still a price to pay. This price is paid in constancy, in patience, in commitment, and in love.

Puppy Raiser Day is the day a class of students and their dogs’ raisers meet for the first time. It falls at the end of the on-campus training of the new guide dog team. On Puppy Raiser Day students are asked to walk a short route with their new guide dog for the puppy raiser before everyone meets. Puppy raisers are asked to wait quietly a short distance away so as not to distract their former puppy. It is an anxious time for student, puppy and raiser. My former puppy, York, lifts his nose into the air, sniffs, pauses and makes direct eye contact with me as he arrives at the first curb of his route with his new forever person. He is, as always, too clever and observant for his own good. With every fiber of my being I will York not to break, not to run to me. With everything in my heart I silently ask him to stay with his forever person. You see, I had taken my job as a raiser very seriously. York went almost everywhere with me consequently anytime it became necessary for me to leave him home, either in his crate or with my husband, York was very unhappy. He simply couldn’t conceive of any reason he should be separated from me. At the end of these short partings York’s joy at our reunion was unbounded. No one, nothing would have kept him from me in these moments.

I will treasure forever the zoom lens photo I have of that exact moment York made eye contact with me on Puppy Raiser Day. He saw me, he knew me but he stayed with his new forever person…guiding. I was so proud, my bright boy did his job. Clever boy, good boy.

Emily & York PRD

Melissa’s zoom lens photo: York looks straight at the camera as he helps Emily negotiate a turn.

After the route, polite introduction is made, small talk and the shaking of hands. York thrums with energy, trying with all his being to get my attention. I am delighted with my initial impression of York’s forever person Emily. We were read a short biography before the route. Emily’s bio makes it evident that she is smart and energetic and funny but she is obviously also captivated by York. I like her already. It is custom and courtesy to wait to be invited to visit with your old pup so I politely ask, “May I pet your dog?”, while York spins circles around me. Emily’s answering smile lights the day. She assents and removes York’s leather guide harness. Guide dogs are not to visit or play in harness, the wearing of it is meant to represent serious work time in their mind. York is a wiggling, happy mess. I leave my thoughtful husband to carry the brunt of the conversation with Emily because I’m having trouble taking my eyes away from York. I am riveted by the story York is telling with his ears, his tail, his eyes, the entire movement of his body.  I still hear the puppy heart that always spoke to me, it beats a language I understand.

York lavishes me with kisses then turns to Emily as if to say to me, “Do you see her, do you see my Emily?!”
While turned York says to Emily with his doggy tongue smile, “Look! Look! My old people are here!” We are old to York not in years for dogs do not see their people that way. Dogs do not see age or infirmity or disability or race, they see us only through the eyes of love. We are York’s old people. Old and dear and loved like a cherished childhood teddy bear now outgrown.

With a touch of his nose York tells me he has missed me, but he turns quickly to check on Emily. He lets me know how wonderful he thinks she is.

York noses the leather harness Emily has handed off to a trainer to take back to her room. He urges me to see this brilliant contrivance that allows him to be truly connected to Emily. “See…See this, together Emily and I do wonderful things with this! Have you ever seen such a great thing?”

York continues his back and forth dialogue with me for several minutes. So happy to see me, so thrilled with Emily. Finally he slows a little and I undertake to join in on the conversation between Emily and my husband, worried that I might seem impolite by not participating more fully in exchange. When York notices that I am occupied he lowers himself to the ground next to Emily. He closes his eyes and sighs, his chin hugging Emily’s feet. He tells me how much he loves her. I must remind myself he’s a dog, he’s a dog, he’s a dog, he doesn’t really speak to me, but my heart knows otherwise.

Puppy Raiser Day includes a delicious brunch. York sits quietly under the table on Emily’s feet during brunch but he presses the flat of his nose against me. The more I get to know Emily the more I feel York has hit the puppy lottery. Emily is wonderful and kind and funny, a talented writer, a gifted vocalist. She leads a very active life, which is just perfect for the energy-filled York. They are, in so many ways, a great match. The brunch, the day, pass quickly and in a blur. When we’re making our goodbyes I give Emily a hug. I whisper in her ear, “Give him a job, he needs to work.” I hope she understands that work is something I can no longer give him now that his puppyhood is past. Real meaningful work, something York with all his breeding, truly needs, something Emily can give him, the special thing they would share. I cup York gently around the ears, kiss his nose and tell him to be a good boy, a good boy for Emily. York walks away with Emily without hesitation, head and tail up, wearing that happy, goofy, tongue hanging dog grin I recognize so completely and then they are gone. In that moment I know I’ve played my part well.

York is the best of the best, a member of an elite puppy corps. I was lucky to have him even for a short while. I will never forget him or be incognizant of the rare opportunity I was given to know such a great dog.  I will be always thankful for the joy we shared for eleven wonderful months.

I’ve come to think of guide dog puppy raising in a very specific way. Being a puppy raiser is a bit like opening someone else’s gift. Some generous soul has allowed that you should borrow their astonishing new gift and play with it before they even get to see it.

Thank you, Emily, for lending me your puppy. IT. WAS. AWESOME.

Article: Introducing my guide dog to the world of classical music

Today Minnesota Public Radio published my piece about York’s presence in my musical life:

“JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It’s Tuesday evening, and after a four-week hiatus, I’m finally attending chorus rehearsal again — but I haven’t assumed my usual place on the risers. I’m seated toward the back of the hall, awaiting a cue from my director and trying to curtail the explorations of my new companion: an 18-month-old black Labrador.”

Read the full article here.

Four Paws for Keeps: Guide Dog Training Part 2

Exactly one week after our first route in harness, York and I are walking the aisles at Super Target. Practicing the “follow” command, York guides me a few paces behind my trainer as she turns down aisles, stops abruptly, and veers left or right. On our outside walks, York encounters many distractions: cats, people, and the ever-alluring grass. In Target, however, he proves to be a focused shopping companion – undeterred by the food smells or the small children crying “Doggie doggie!” from their carts. He earns praise for executing precise turns and avoiding the pile of crumbled Cheez-its in the grocery section. Even on the dog food aisle, York doesn’t stop to sniff a single bag!

This day of shopping marks the midpoint in our second week of training – and the firs time we’ve taken our guide dogs on an indoor errand in public. So far, York and I have learned several routes on Southeastern’s main campus in Palmetto, FL, and we’ve traveled intersections at the Downtown Training Center in Bradenton. York has demonstrated his ability to find curbs, posts, chairs, gates, and doors. In addition to the basics of obedience, like “sit,” “down,” “stay,” “heel,” and “no,” he knows the “right-about” command, a 180-degree turn used to rework areas where we made a mistake. At doorways that open on the right, he knows to “switch,” moving from my left to my right so I can open the door. On walks, I’ve learned that too much “Good boy, good York” works like a gas pedal, so I use the “easy” command to slow his pace. If York doesn’t listen when I command him the first time, I give a low-pitched bark-like “No,” use a leash correction, and repeat the command.

We return from shopping to a lavish Cuban lunch, a selection of foods our chef calls the “Taste of Tampa.” We are each served a pressed Cuban sandwich, a bowl of blackbeans and yellow rice, and a 1905 salad of mixed greens, olives, ham, swiss, and olive oil dressing. To our surprise and delight, we have the afternoon off, so we can rest up for a late-night obedience class and a night walk.

If it’s not too hot, the classes take place on an outdoor patio called Obedience Alley. If the pavement is already too hot for our pups, we practice obedience in the Day Room. In obedience class, we normally practice the basics while our trainers add levels of distraction. Some trainers walk by with yo-yos, tennis balls, or small toys, and others pretend to be nosy or intrusive strangers. One trainer demonstrates her acting skills by using an especially high-pitched voice, the “puppy talk” our dogs love: “Ooh what a beautiful puppy! Can I pet him? I have a dog just like him at home! Hi puppy puppy!”

Tonight we all meet in the Day Room at 8PM, and our three trainers reveal that we’ll be doing something called a “long recall.” One trainer explains: “We’ll take you and your dog to the hallway off the dining room, you’ll remove your dog’s leash and leave him in a sit-stay with another trainer, and the third trainer will lead you down another hallway. While the rest of us wait in the Day Room, you will call your dog.” She pauses, then adds, “If you’re seated, please have a firm grip of your dog’s leash. The loose dog is going to come tearing through here.”

My hands clench around York’s leather leash, and I ask, “What if the dog doesn’t come?”

One trainer answers with his usual ambiguous optimism: “Wait and see. I promise you’re gonna like this.”

An older student offers to go first. He leads his dog to the designated hallway around the corner and leaves him there. Then he walks off with a trainer. We can no longer hear his footsteps, and his dog cannot see the turns he has made. We grip our leashes and give our dogs a hushed “Stay!”

The trainer reiterates that we need to be quiet so the dog can hear its call. The student calls his dog, his voice lengthening and echoing along the tiled hallways. Instantly the dog bounds down the hall, a black blur tearing past without any consideration for the other dogs and people in the Day Room. We hear the sounds of a happy reunion, and the team returns to the room.

Next up is a female student who, like me, is working with her first guide dog. She leaves him with an emphatic “Stay!” and disappears from view. When she calls her pup, her girlish voice sounds even more childlike – the little girl who has lost her puppy in every heartwarming family movie. As she repeats the call using cutesy nicknames, her boy tears off down the hallway, first checking the place where she sat and then finding her at the end of the corridor.

When they join the group, my trainer looks at me: “Emily, you’re next.”

I stand up, and York stands with me, eager to get moving. We walk to the hallway, and I unclip his leash. I tell him to sit and stay and take the other trainer’s arm. He leads me down the hall, around a sharp left, and toward the end of another hallway. When everyone in the Day Room is quiet, he says, “Alright, call your dog.”

Remembering how the hallway alters voices, I sing out “Yo-ork!” I wait, nervous that I’m not loud enough, that he won’t come to me. As I call again,I  hear a burst of sound – paws skidding and sliding on tile, quiet joyful noises from the Day Room, and the jingle of York’s training collar. I barely distinguish a black blur trailing down the hallway as York runs past our corridor to my bedroom. Realizing his mistake, he changes direction, and my trainer murmurs, “Here he comes.”

Barreling toward me, York transforms into a huge incongruous black shape. He is panting and running, and I can see a paw, an ear, a tail as he hurtles toward me. The trainer catches him before he leaps on top of me, and I tell him to sit so I can clip my leash to his collar. He dances in front of me, his tail wagging, his tongue licking my hands.

When we return to the Day Room, everyone informs me that York began to whine the moment I was out of sight. I reclaim my seat, and York flops on top of my feet. I reach down to stroke his soft black head and feathery ears.

At the end of our first week, my trainer asked me, “How do you feel about working with York? Do you want to keep him?” After that week of firsts – our first meeting, our first walk in harness, our first street crossing – I knew I wanted to keep working with this boy. Now, as I write and he lies beside me, singing his hungry song, I remember him turning the corner of the long hallway and galloping toward me. I can’t believe how this week has changed us.

Working for Love: Guide Dog Training Part 1

On my first day as a student at Southeastern Guide Dogs, my trainer hands me a new leather leash: “Your invisible dog is attached to the end of this leash. Keep it with you whenever you leave the room.” She shows me how to drape the leash across my body so it won’t get in the way as I unpack my suitcases. It’s Monday afternoon, and I won’t meet my pup until tomorrow. I attempt to handle the waiting by meeting my classmates, learning my way around the building, eating some fabulous food, and getting used to the constant presence of my invisible dog.

Tuesday, I’m up at 6AM, steeling myself; the next four weeks will demand this early morning routine. I change clothes, put up my hair, apply sunscreen and bug spray, and head to the dining room for breakfast and a big coffee. We won’t find out our dog’s name, gender, and breed until after lunch. I would be obsessively checking my watch, but I forgot it at home.

My seven classmates and I pass the morning with various activities: walks with trainers, walks with dogs in training, lectures. Every time an employee strolls past the common area with a puppy, I tense up – willing to fall in love. I feel like a starving person gazing through the window of a famous bakery, my view of the croissants blocked by a forbidding sign: CLOSED UNTIL 2PM.

Just after lunch, we gather in the Day Room, a large living room where we’ll hold lectures and indoor obedience classes. I choose a seat in a deep leather couch, nervously twisting my fingers as I wait for my name to be called. Finally, after an eternity of 15 minutes, my trainer says, “Emily, you will be getting a black lab male named York.”

York, York, I try the name in my mind. It sounds promising. Kind of literary and not obnoxious. I was afraid I’d have a Princess or a Snuffles. I can handle York.

Once each student has been told about their dog, we go to our own rooms. The trainers tell us to turn on all the lights, since animals aren’t crazy about shadows. Sit in your desk chair facing the door. When your dog is brought in, call it and clip your leash onto its collar.

I walk down the hall and easily find my room – Room 3, last on the right. I flip on all the lights, even taking off my sunglasses. I want York to see my face unobscured. I take my position in the desk chair and wait, checking the time on my phone. 1:15. Deep breath. 1:22. Hands folded in lap, unclenching fingers. Another deep breath. 1.34. I can’t stand the silence – I send a text to Mom. I feel like I have a version of wedding jitters. Puppy jitters? I keep my breathing slow.

I hear a commotion in the hallway, a door opening and high-pitched voices. A few doors down, a classmate is meeting his dog. Everyone sounds happy, a trainer says, “Oh she’s wagging her tail, call her.” A joyful meeting. I’m on pins and needles.

Now I hear more introductions – opening doors, jingling dog collars. The sounds are coming closer. Finally, I hear the student across the hall meet his girl, and the neighbor on my left meets his. I know I’m next.

Someone knocks loudly at my door, and I can hear quiet voices and a jingling training collar. I call, “Come in!”

The door is opened and I hear an unfamiliar female voice, a handler I’ve never met. “Emily? I’ve got your main man.”

I fight to keep myself seated. She instructs me to call him in a happy voice, and I say, “York, come!”

He approaches hesitantly. The dark shape at the doorway resolves into a shiny black dog, much bigger than my 20-pound cairn terrier at home. With long legs and an inquisitive nose, he comes towards me. The handler holds him still so I can clip my leash to his collar and attempt to pet him. She leaves us alone for the anticipated moment: bonding time.

York curled into a ball, looking very puppy-like.
Whatever I imagined this moment would be, it defies my dreams. York wants nothing to do with me. He quickly runs to the end of his leash and whines, sniffing towards the door, where the familiar handler has left the room. After several minutes of pacing and sniffing, resisting my cheerful calls, he finally sinks to the floor, head and tail down – the picture of misery and disinterest. My heart is broken and my thoughts are racing. He doesn’t like me. He doesn’t want to come near me. How can I get him to love me?

I don’t push. I don’t intrude. If York wanders near me, I reach out a hand to touch him, to let him sniff me. He sniffs but does not lick. Pushing my hands away with his nose, he won’t let me pet him.

But his apathy won’t alter our schedule. A few minutes later, trainers come by to lead us outside to the relief area where the dogs can get water and “busy busy” (do their business). York drinks water but doesn’t busy. Then it’s into the Day Room for a lecture. The trainers have told us that we should concentrate on bonding with our dogs: give them lots of love and attention but try not to correct them as much in these early hours.

During the lecture, York rolls on the floor and whines, trying to get other dogs to play. At least he seems happy – however embarrassed I might be. Clearly he’s a class clown, and he manages to get other dogs riled up. Our side of the room quickly earns a reputation for rowdy boys.

The pups accompany us to dinner, where we try to keep them lying or sitting out of the way. This is a challenge, and our dinner conversation quickly degenerates into “No, sit! Stay! Down! Down! No, stay! STAY! Down, good boy, good girl. Down. Sit! Stay, stay. Good boy.”

Back in my room, I try one last attempt to get York’s attention. After my shower, I sit on the floor, braiding my wet hair. York is on a short leash, the end of his leash tucked under my leg. Without much room to roam, he walks slow investigatory circles around me. I pretend to ignore him. He sniffs my ear, my neck, my face. No licks yet. I hold my breath. He walks around me, and I feel something grabbing my hair. York has my braid in his mouth, and he gives it one gentle tug. When he circles back around, he allows me to pet him. Still no licks, but things are improving!

In the next days, York and I work in harness, traveling across nature trails, intersections, and obstacle courses. We do traffic checks, night walks, and long recalls. We work our way through obedience classes, completing routines of puppy push-ups and long-leash stays. In our room, he licks the back of my legs or lies under my desk, using my feet as a pillow.

He played hard to get at first, but his love is worth working for.