Transcript: Guide Dogs Take The Meaning Of 'Man's Best Friend' To A New Level
Audio transcript of the Where We Live show "Guide Dogs Take The Meaning Of 'Man's Best Friend' To A New Level," which aired June 3, 2019
Ray Hardman: This is Where We Live. From Connecticut Public Radio I'm Ray Hardman, in for Lucy Nalpathanchil. Humans have a long and unique relationship with dogs. The two species evolved alongside each other, meaning we're able to connect with dogs in a way we can connect with no other type of animal. Humans learned early on that dogs were more than just companions. They were also capable of helping us in a wide range of tasks. Perhaps the most useful of these duties is helping blind people achieve an extraordinary level of freedom and independence. Coming up later in the show, I'll talk with author and poet Stephen Kuusisto, who's written a book about the special relationship he had with his first guide dog Corky. But first, Where We Live producer Carmen Baskauf and I headed out to the Fidelco guide dog school in Bloomfield, Connecticut last week to learn more about how these amazing German Shepherds become guide dogs, sometimes also referred to as Seeing Eye Dogs. We met up with guide dog trainer Chris Eastwood, who took us to a large training room at the Fidelco facility with one of the dogs he's been working with.
Chris Eastwood: So, welcome to our training center. This is where we teach our dogs a lot of the fundamental skills that include obedience. Obedience is one of the most important cornerstones of their relationship with any handler and their dog.
Ray Hardman: And who is this?
Chris Eastwood: This is Ubi. He's from our U litter. And he is a very handsome boy. He's somewhere around 85 pounds and a male German Shepherd dog. He's a good boy. He's one of my dogs in training. Each trainer at Fidelco typically has about six dogs in training at any given time, all at different levels in the training program. So, a trainer may have a dog that is about to graduate the guide dog program. Simultaneously, they might have a dog that has just begun a few weeks ago and is just learning some of the fundamental skills.
Ray Hardman: How about this guy? Where's he?
Chris Eastwood: This guy is about two thirds the way through the guide dog program, so he's almost finished.
Ray Hardman: Ubi has a collar around his neck with a more traditional leash attached, but he also has a leather harness around his torso with a stiff leather handle that extends down his back.
Chris Eastwood: The tools that we have here at our disposal...we have a leather leash and a harness, which is also made of leather. It's a very high quality piece of equipment. They're made specially just for this application. It's very similar to equestrian gear, and the way this works is when an individual is moving forward through the environment, they will hold the harness handle up, and the dog will guide them safely around obstacles that may be in their way, stopping at thresholds like curbs or doorways. If the dog moves left, the blind handler will perceive the movement in the harness handle, and they will trust the dog and they will move accordingly depending on the context of the environment.
Ray Hardman: We are interested in seeing the harness and training at work and Chris and Ubi are game to show us a few of the basics.
Chris Eastwood: The fundamental skills will be “come to heel” and "come around”. The purpose of that is to get the dog onto the left side of the handler. The dog is going to spend most of its time while in harness on the handlers left side. That's whether you're moving forward through the environment with the harness handle up, or if the harness handle is down and you're waiting. Everything kind of happens here on the handlers left side. We'll also do sits, downs, stays and stationing. And stationing is when the dog lays down on a designated mat or location. Okay, so, here we go. Ubi, come to heel. Good boy. Sit.
Ray Hardman: Ubi and Chris demonstrate a series of these fundamentals for us, and Ubi executes perfectly. Chris tells us about some of the more advanced skills the dogs will learn in their training.
Chris Eastwood: The dogs are also trained to do all kinds of neat stuff. Those include finding a seat, finding an elevator, finding an escalator, finding inside, finding outside, find a counter. Just to name a few. And those skills are typically utilized indoors. When you go inside of a building there's going to be not necessarily a clear path and there's going to be—a lot of options, so the dog needs to differentiate between exactly what skill you're asking it to do. The guide dogs here at Fidelco will pass three blindfold tests: their first blindfold, their second blindfold, and then their third and final blindfold. And in the interim between their second and final blindfold they will pass an indoor blindfold, which takes place indoors typically at a shopping mall. And they will also pass what's called a country travel blindfold, which is travelling on a road without a sidewalk—which can be quite dangerous.
Ray Hardman: I had not even considered that you’re also teaching people how to work with these dogs. Tell me about that.
Chris Eastwood: Yes, that's sort of the other half of the job. As a trainer-instructor, half of the job is the training of the dogs, teaching the dogs all the skill sets, and then the other half is going to be teaching our blind students how to use the dog and helping assimilate the new guide dog into this individual's life and lifestyle in every capacity. So that's not just walking down the street on the sidewalk and going to work; it's also how the dog interacts at home, in home behaviors.
Ray Hardman: Chris told us that Fidelco is relatively unique among guide dog schools because trainers actually travel out to guide dog users homes to train the dog in person teams rather than bringing clients to Bloomfield to learn on campus. Chris and another trainer Chelsea Mora told us a bit about another critical stage of creating a Fidelco guide dog: the puppy raisers. While all of the advanced training for the dogs happens at Fidelco's facility in Bloomfield, young puppies actually spend about the first year and a half of their life in the homes of volunteers who get them acclimated to living with families and navigating around the real world, before they move back to Fidelco to learn specialty skills. Here's trainer Chelsea Mora talking about puppy raisers:
Chelsea Mora: It is a lot of work on the puppy raisers but it's so vital. It's their, like, foundation and socializing and basic obedience and you're basically doing as much as you can to expose them to the world. And every Saturday you're coming here to come to puppy classes, and it is a huge commitment that we're putting on puppy raisers.
Ray Hardman: How many puppy trainers do you have?
Chelsea Mora: We have 85.
Ray Hardman: And I understand you're looking for more?
Chelsea Mora: Oh yes, always looking for wonderful volunteers to help us out in that department. Absolutely.
Ray Hardman: This is Where We Live. I'm Ray Hardman, in for Lucy Nalpathanchil. We've been talking with trainers Chris Eastwood and Chelsea Mora of Fidelco, a guide dog school for the Blind in Bloomfield, Connecticut. After getting the basics from Chris and Chelsea at the school, we headed out into the field to see a dog trainee working on its skills out in the real world. We headed over to West Hartford center to meet up with trainer Ali Parkes and guide dog in training Yara. She's a sleek jet black German Shepherd and is ready to practice navigating the sidewalks curbs and crosswalks of West Hartford. Harness on, Ali Parkes and Yara head down the sidewalk in a brisk pace.
Ray Hardman: So could you tell us what you're down here doing today?
Ali Parkes: Yara is basically just generalizing her skills focusing on walking in straight lines stopping at the up and down curves avoiding obstacles, so I don't bump into them and pedestrians as well. So she's kind of putting it all together today.
Ray Hardman: How long has she been training?
Ali Parkes: She has been in for training for about four months now.
Ray Hardman: We get to the edge of the sidewalk at an intersection heading into West Hartford center. Yara had been walking at a brisk pace but now she comes to a stop before the curb of the sidewalk that drops down into the street.
Ray Hardman: So maybe you can explain what you're going to do here?
Ali Parkes: Yara is just going to cross the street here. It's a kind of a short crossing, so she should indicate both the down curve and the up curve there. It's really important that they stop at both. Stopping at the up curve indicates that you've completely crossed the street. So it helps our clients be aware that they have fully cross the street when she stops at that up curve. Yara, forward. She should wait at that curb as long as I need her to. So in case I need to fix myself; I need to realign through my orientation. (to Yara) forward. She should stand there still until I prompt her to move forward. I can imagine that can be kind of hard for a young dog to stand still. It’s a lot of positive reinforcement and repetition. They do learn.
Ray Hardman: We're entering the main drag now with restaurants and shops lining the street with the weather getting nicer, many restaurants have set up chairs and tables for diners outside their buildings. Typically, what would Yara be looking out for as we walk along here?
Ali Parkes: As we come through here, this tends to be a busy street for restaurants so the seating's out for the summer so she's going to have to get me through these areas without allowing me to bump into anything. Anything being obstacles or people. West Hartford is where we teach most of our basic skills. So she just started moving on to Hartford a couple of weeks ago. This space is getting narrow. We should slow down to indicate that. If it's near enough where she needs to stop she should do that. But if it's wide enough where she can get through safely as long as she slows her pace that's OK too.
Ray Hardman: Although it's a weekday afternoon there are a few pedestrians out and about. I asked Ali about what the dogs learn about navigating around others on the sidewalk.
Ali Parkes: Pedestrians are taught kind of in stages. We start very simple. We use a lot of our own trainers so that way we can actually bump into people. And reinforce that. But then. We'll quickly. Kind of stalk the public and follow them around and generalize that skill to everybody not just the Fidelco trainer. So this is a longer crossing so she should straight go straight across the street and not deviate right or left. So we do like for them to make nice straight crossings. It helps our clients keep their orientation and know that they're heading in the right direction. Yara, forward. So here you'll have a lot of nice obstacle work. I believe up here. There's a dish full of Milk Bones, out so she'll have to avoid that temptation.
Ray Hardman: We're now approaching two women standing in the middle of the sidewalk. They're feeding a traffic meter. Yara halts.
Ali Parkes: She did stop, so I'll stop and I'll feel around to see what it is that she's indicating. She was indicating that it's too narrow for her. And I would have bumped into this lovely lady here which I don't want to do. So that's why she stopped. (to Yara) Forward. Good girl. So this time of year everything gets a little more complicated than that there's more obstacles. Some of them have been peed on by other dogs. And she does do a really good job of not sniffing them. But wintertime also possesses different kinds of obstacles: a lot of snow banks. A lot of curbs you can't see, a lot of ice. So, depending on the season will depend on what kind of obstacles you're facing.
Ray Hardman: At this point in Yara's training, what are some of the challenges for her?
Ali Parkes: Well, there's all sorts of challenges, as far as dogs go. (to Yara) Right to the curb. You know they have a lot of natural instincts. They want to sniff. They want to do dog things. And unfortunately you know a lot of what we do as guide dog trainers is tell them No you can't do that. You can't do that either. So just those natural instincts to overcome which can be a challenge for some of these dogs. But just because they're not really awesome in the city doesn't mean that they're not going to be a good guide dog someplace a little quieter. Not every kid wants to be a mathematician, so it's not every dog wants to work in the city, while some dogs need that level of activity…So, the bus has stopped right in the middle of a crosswalk. So we will see what she does. Yara, forward.
Ray Hardman: And Yara is cautiously taking us around the crosswalk. (to Ali) Okay, so Yara navigated us past the buss, around the bus, behind the bus off the crosswalk. Was that where she was supposed to do.?
Ali Parkes: She didn't have a choice.
Ray Hardman: The thing I noticed was she was very deliberate with it and very cautious as well.
Ali Parkes: Yeah. And you know as somebody, when you're under blindfold and something like that happens you really do have to trust her. And let her make that decision. Most of the time if you trust your dog. And if you - you're positive about the training that you've put into the dog and you really have developed that positive relationship, then, you really need to let yourself go and let them make that decision. Which can be very hard for some people to do.
Ray Hardman: Yara seems to be doing a really great job today. But I asked Ali about how trainers correct the dogs when they make mistakes.
Ali Parkes: So you know, obviously, you start with the least aversive and you work your way up. We train, and practice that throughout training. So, if we started off from right from the very beginning correcting these dogs they wouldn't want to offer us anything. So it's most of the initial parts of training everything is positive. You make a mistake you rework it. And you really—we’re not hammering on them at all. I want her to want to work for me. We're just gonna make a right and we'll start heading back to our van.
Ray Hardman: We've returned back to where we started. And it's time to say goodbye to trainer Ali and guide dog in training Yara. So Ali, thanks so much for letting us walk with you and Yara. It looks like she did a great job.
Ali Parkes: She did fantastic. Thanks for coming out. It was fun.
Ray Hardman: From Connecticut Public Radio this is Where We Live. I'm Ray Hardman. Coming up after the break, we head back to Fidelco to talk with guide dog user Bill DeMaio. His first guide dog recently retired and he's training with a new German shepherd named Lyric. We'll find out how that transition is coming along. You can join the conversation too, find us on Facebook and Twitter @wherewelive.
Ray Hardman: This is where we live. From Connecticut Public Radio, I'm Ray Hardman in for Lucy Nalpathanchil. Today we're talking about guide dogs, who are sometimes called Seeing Eye dogs—those amazing creatures who do so much to improve the quality of life for blind people. We're back at the Fidelco guide dog school in Bloomfield with guide dog user Bill DeMaio. This is an emotional time for Bill. After eight years together as a team, his first guide dog, Isaac, has recently retired. Isaac will continue living with Bill and his wife, but now, he's a companion dog, a change both Bill and Isaac are learning to deal with. Bill's now training with a new dog, Lyric, a beautiful 2 year old German Shepherd. Bill says his work and lifestyle mean that he needs a guide dog that can keep up.
Bill DeMaio: I'm a Parks and Recreation Director. So I just moved from New Britain to Newington and it's - I think probably-- I test a guide dog. I challenged their maximum limits, you know what I mean. No one day that I work is the same: we might be in a plow truck plowing snow one time, and in the summer will be at a pool with a thousand kids all around us, and we might be at a summer camp. So, I test dogs to the maximum.
Ray Hardman: Is it hard to make this transition? I would imagine in eight years, you and Isaac kind of got into a rhythm—you and Isaac kind of had your thing. Is it difficult to get into a rhythm with Lyric?
Bill DeMaio: Yeah - You it's. I call I describe it to people as a 50/50 dance, right? I try to tell the dog 50 percent of what I know. You know, what I can tell in the atmosphere or in my environment. And then the dog knows 50 percent, and hopefully between both of you—you dance safely through your life of your work during the day. Isaac knew me inside and out; I knew Isaac, and he would throw himself in front of a bus and I would do the same for him so that–you have that relationship. Now what I'm finding out is, as we're doing the new training, is that I did some things wrong or I let some things slide. We got refreshed on all the technical things. So, I have a good foundation but I'm getting - I think I'm getting better at learning the new skills that they're teaching me. The training is very, you know, it varies. Every day is a little different. After we get done here we're going to go to the train station in Hartford, and we're going to see if I can stay on top of the platform and not fall into where the railroad train comes through. You know we do escalator training. We went to Springfield to the new casino, and we tried to see if lyric could find an elevator for me and it was really interesting. We went in and out of the aisles and we went, like, around the blackjack tables and the roulette, and she starts looking all over the place looking, working hard. Where's this elevator? Where's elevator? And she's - it's an amazing dog. I don't know how many commands they know I suspect it's 50 to 70 commands if not more. She's taught that already, so I'm learning what she knows.
Ray Hardman: There's a lot of technical skills Bill and lyric need to work on as he transitions to using a new guide dog. But Bill says in some ways the harder part is retiring his old guide dog Isaac as he transitions to working with Lyric. Isaac is now living as a pet with Bill and his wife in their home.
Bill DeMaio: It's a very emotional, if I was going to be honest with you. It's stressful—it's probably in the top three hardest things I've ever done in my life. It's just so overwhelming because you have this dog… My first dog Isaac, and he was just my pal, right? He's he stayed within four feet of me almost 24/7. So you build this tremendous bond with a dog, and then you have to retire it because, you know, he's getting a little older and his hips are hurting him. So you get this new dog, and it's it's -you feel like you're betraying your your first dog.
Ray Hardman: Right.
Bill DeMaio: But I know it's the best thing for them. You know it's… it's good for him to relax now and retire, as all of us dream to do someday. But it's… when I leave in the morning—this has only been a week of me leaving—he looks at me and it looks…he looks sad to me. It's probably ripping my heart out more than it's ripping his heart out.
Ray Hardman: I asked Bill who made the call when it was finally time for Isaac to retire.
Bill DeMaio: I actually came to Fidelco and said he's really hurting. And I've been working with the the veterinarian, Dr. Kubis—she’s just is unbelievable. And we discussed it…(Choking up) And she recommended… That I retire him. That was a rough day. I'm sorry about this.
Ray Hardman: No, no. Totally understandable.
Bill DeMaio: But I uh - we do laser light treatments with Isaac and we do therapy and underwater running and we have him on all kinds of medicines and drugs and painkillers.
Ray Hardman: How old is Isaac?
Bill DeMaio: Oh he'll be 10 in September.
Ray Hardman: So it's...
Bill DeMaio: So we made the decision. And Fidelco knew it was time also. And we were on a waiting list, I think for seven eight months. And they call and they say we have a dog for you that we think would be a good fit.
Ray Hardman: I asked Bill to talk a bit more about the impact having a guide dog has made in his life.
Bill DeMaio: It's liberating. The whole thing about guide dogs is they give you freedom and independence right. That's the the mission of Fidelco. Maybe I could give you a couple examples of how liberating a dog is. In public bathrooms—large restrooms like at a casino,right, you—when you're blind and you are pretending you're not blind. Because I have a disease called retinitis pigmentosa. It's a slow blinding disease. Gave up my driver's license at 30. I'm 60 now. And I used to sweat a puddle just having to go into the men's room. Well once I got Isaac, I would say find the door he’d put his nose right on the men's room door. I'd go up about five inches grab the handle do a spin move go in and say find the stall. The dog would go by 20 stalls and put his nose right on the handicap accessible stall. So we go in to the bathroom. I go. Come out of those stall, and I say, find the counter. The dog goes right to the counter and is parallel to my feet, and I wash my hands dry them. Then I say, find the door, and they find the out door. So that to you is nothing. To a blind person, it's a miracle. Bumping into other guys in a men's room isn't cool, right? So, you know, having a guide dog, being able to freely move in and out, is tremendous to me. Absolutely incredible. And every day, every minute of your life, you just sit there, and you go, “Wow, God gave me this dog.” It's incredible.
Ray Hardman: This is Where We Live. I'm Ray Hardman in for Lucy Nalpathanchil. Today we're taking you to the Fidelco guide dog school in Bloomfield Connecticut. We've been talking with Bill DeMaio, who is a Parks and Rec superintendent and a Fidelco guide dog user. His first dog Isaac has just retired and he's finishing up training with a new guide dog named Lyric. As we were wrapping up our conversation with Bill in a conference room at Fidelco, we got a surprise visitor.
Ray Hardman: We were so surprised to have the puppy trainer for Lyric come in today; what a surprise. Tell me your name.
Lauren Booth: Hi I'm Lauren Booth.
Ray Hardman: And Lauren, how long have you been doing this?
Lauren Booth: I have been raising—I've raised four Fidelco guide dogs, but I have been around and in the company for about six years.
Ray Hardman: Lauren, Lyric's puppy raiser, and Bill, Lyric’s new guide dog user, got a chance to meet each other for the first time.
Bill DeMaio: Lauren?
Lauren Booth: Yes. I'm good how are you?
Bill DeMaio: Good, good.
Lauren Booth: (to Lyric) Hi, buddy.
Bill DeMaio: So what's the answer? Has Lyric ever hit the water?
Lauren Booth: Only a couple times mostly kiddie pools.
Ray Hardman: Lauren and Bill chat a bit about Lyric. Bill is an avid kayaker and used to go out on the water with his first guide dog, Isaac. He's hoping Lyric has a similar affinity for the water.
Bill DeMaio: So I hope she learns how to kayak too.
Lauren Booth: Oh God that'll be awesome. Yeah. Absolutely.
Ray Hardman: The two get a chance to compare notes about the dog.
Bill DeMaio: She's she's a lovey-dovey dog too, right?
Lauren Booth: Oh my gosh. Yeah!
Bill DeMaio: Yeah, Not like Isaac. Isaac was kind of aloof. You know, he had his own little temperament. But she is, get on her back, "rub my belly, rub my belly." But then when she's working she turns it on hard.
Lauren Booth: Oh yeah.
Bill DeMaio: She drives the—you know, drives, pulls to get to where she wants to be.
Lauren Booth: Yeah. She knows what she wants.
Ray Hardman: Lauren and Bill talked a bit about the experience puppy raisers have of caring for a dog and then giving it up for guide dog training.
Lauren Booth: The way that my mom used to refer to going in for training was sending the kid off to college.
Bill DeMaio: Yeah.
Lauren Booth: So we're giving her all of the tools and learning we possibly can. And then we say, all right, time to go into the world. So we like to think of it as they're going off to college and then they're going to go out into the world and get a job, and they're going to change the world.
Bill DeMaio: I tell puppy raisers and I tell you the same, is that you change blind people's lives. If you are…(chokes up)… As a Parks and Rec director, I can change people's lives for four hours, six hours, whatever. But you could change someone like me for eight years. 24/7. Which is…I can't put it into words how thankful…how thankful I am for you, your mother and your father, and all of their puppy raisers because it's—there's nothing like it.
Lauren Booth: That means a lot to us. Thank you. We love to do it. That's why people always would ask us, "how do you give them up? How do you give them up?" You meet one client, you meet one person who—whose life this affects in such a way…that there's no way you can say no to letting the dog go. Because you know what they're going to do and the lives they're gonna change, and yet there's nothing greater.
Bill DeMaio: Every day I'd say…I thank God when I wake up, and say, "I love this dog." You know, and I did that with Isaac too, it's just…it's just the pal that you have that's going to keep you safe, that… You know, I have nothing against canes and blind people, because I get the cane, right? You don't have to brush it, you don't have to feed it, you don't have to, you know, whatever. But to have a guide dog is…there is something so special about it. You know, it just changes your life for the positive. You just can do anything. I mean there's… there's not much you can't do with a guide dog.
Lauren Booth: Yeah. It's a partner you have with you, that helps you through everything. You don't really have to—
Bill DeMaio: And I don't know, I bet all the Fidelco people get it…but I don't know if they get it as like a blind person gets it.
Lauren Booth: I don't think it would be possible for them to get it quite like that.
Bill DeMaio: (Smiling) Yeah. Yeah. But it's—it's wonderful. And I thank you. Because I don't know how—I don't think I could do it. Do the 14-month thing and then giving it up. Oh man, it is—you know, because you get so attached. But if you see the bigger picture, which it sounds like you do… that works.
Ray Hardman: You've been listening to a conversation between guide dog user Bill DeMaio and puppy raiser Lauren Booth. As it happens, Lauren raised guide dog Lyric until just a few months ago. Now Lyric has been paired with Bill. This was the first time the two have met. Coming up, we'll get more insight into this unique bond between a guide dog and their user as we talk with poet Stephen Kuusisto. If you're a guide dog user, join the conversation us on Facebook and Twitter, @wherewelive. I'm Ray Hardman—This is Where We Live.
Ray Hardman: This is Where We Live from Connecticut Public Radio. I'm Ray Hardman in for Lucy Nalpathanchil. We're talking about guide dogs, or Seeing Eye Dogs, today. In this last segment we're going to take a look at the unique relationship guide dogs have with their users - a relationship built on mutual trust and, of course, affection. Joining me now from the studios of WAER in Syracuse, New York is Stephen Kuusisto. He's a professor at Syracuse University, as well as a poet and author. His newest memoir is Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet's Journey. You can join the conversation 860-275-7266, or find us on Facebook and Twitter @wherewelive. Stephen Kuusisto, welcome to Where We Live.
Stephen Kuusisto: Thank you so much for having me.
Ray Hardman: Before we get into your book, I just…I knew you were listening to the previous segment, and I want to ask you about your experience. Corky was your first dog, but you've had several dogs since. This transition from your first dog to your second dog—we heard how, in a way, was very emotional for Bill. Was it the same for you?
Stephen Kuusisto: Oh absolutely. I was listening to Bill's story with rapt attention, and a little tear actually he escaped me here in the WAER studios—I was wiping it with my sport coat. Yeah, it's rough. You have formed a deep and profound bond with a guide dog, and after a certain point in that working relationship, you become a six-legged creature. And you're so deeply connected that there is no analogy for it, as I say in my book. And so, there comes a day when that dog has to retire. And if you're lucky, you can keep the dog in your family because you've got the right, you know, personal domestic situation, and the dog can move right in, and, you know, you don't have to say goodbye. But there are an awful lot of blind folks who don't have that kind of situation, and they have to return the dog to this school, which will find a great home or give the dog to the initial puppy raiser. But that's even…even more wrenching. So it's a—that's a rough transition.
Ray Hardman: Absolutely. And Stephen, thank you so much for—for this book. What a beautiful memoir of you and Corky. Let's go back a little bit before you received Corky, and even before you even considered becoming a guide dog…because you grew up in a family, and in a time, really, where your blindness was something to be put down and put aside. And you were going to try and live in the world as a sight person, even though you had this blindness.
Stephen Kuusisto: Yes, so that's not such an unusual story. I think people read my first memoir, Planet of the Blind, which talks about this, and they've read this new book and they think, wow that's unique to Kuusisto. But many, many people with severe vision loss or blindness know this story, that it's not…Blindness is strange to people. If you have a family dynamic where you don't have the support, both emotional and practical, support to be all you can be with your disability, that it makes this much harder. And that's a—that's a common story, a much more common story than you would suppose. And I just want to allude to that, because if anyone out there is listening, and you are losing your vision or you have significant vision loss, just know that there are great ways forward and lots of resources, and you can have a terrific and meaningful public life.
Ray Hardman: Tell me what your world was like growing up trying to, kind of, pretend that you weren't blind.
Stephen Kuusisto: So, I grew up in rural New Hampshire. And, you know, even today rural New Hampshire is still very much a kind of provincial place. My mom was a fierce Yankee who believed that nobody should tell her what to do, and nobody was going to tell her that her son was blind. And, by God, nobody was going to tell her son to go to a special school for the blind. I'm imitating her just a little bit, but you know, I'm a New Englander. Go Sox. On the other hand, there's a virtue to that kind of toughness. It certainly threw me into the world, and and I was a daredevil and I have some of the positive dynamics of my mother's personality. But the flip side of this is that I did not learn how to welcome my blindness; how to embrace it, and how to be a productive and independent traveler. And it took me a long time to get there.
Ray Hardman: In your memoir you write about the decision to get a guide dog, and this was a huge lifestyle shift for you. And I think this goes back to this idea of confronting your blindness.
Stephen Kuusisto: Yes, I mean there's nothing like the hard knocks school to set you on a better course. So, I had been teaching English at a small college, struggling with my disability sure, but I had a—you know, a place I knew and a place I could navigate, and suddenly that job vanished. And I realized I don't know how to go places in the world independently, not really. And grappling with that was, of course, a matter of just being a substantive grown up. How am I going to live, and what am I going to do? And then, on top of it, I almost got run over by a station wagon. While miming my way as a fake sighted person down the street in Ithaca, New York, where I was living at the time. And I realized sitting on the sidewalk, having been saved by a stranger, that a significant new way of living had to—had to be absolutely and totally embraced at that point.
Stephen Kuusisto: Talk about how getting Corky really made you confront your blindness.
Stephen Kuusisto: Well, you know, it's interesting. I loved everything that was in the great segment about Fidelco, which is a wonderful guide dog school. I love the descriptions of the training and how that works. And I really loved Bill's stories. I think that when you become really one with the guide dog, when the dog turns over to you from the trainer to you as the person that dog is going to really work with, something happens inside the man or woman. You feel it right up through the harness handle. The harness becomes a transmitter of a kind. You feel a level of confidence, and in my case that translated almost immediately into this sense of absolute joy and outgoingness that I did not know I had. I describe how, shortly after going home from the guide dog school with Corky, how I broke all the guide dog rules. They tell you to stay home for 30 days and get to know your neighborhood, and instead I immediately went to New York City. And you know, I'm riding the subway, I'm going to Shea Stadium to see the Mets, I'm going jazz clubs, I'm…I'm just going all over the place, because I'm just making up for lost time. And the thrill of that has never left me, and. you know. I have that thrill all the time. (Laughing) You know. Plus, if you've lived the way I did, where you just have to constantly be setting up a calendar with your sighted friends to be able to go places and really managing every moment of your life in order to just simply travel, then you're not spontaneous. And spontaneity is a thing that I think sighted people take for granted. It's a wonderful thing to take for granted, I guess. But if you don't have it, and then you get it, you really realize—wow, I could just up right now and go do something. What a—what a thrill, right? So the guide dog brought me that thrill, and that completely transformed my relationship to blindness.
Ray Hardman: This is Where We Live. I'm Ray Hardman in for Lucy Nalpathanchil. We're talking with poet and author Stephen Kuusisto. His new book is Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet's Journey. Stephen, this book is about Corky. Describe Corky.
Stephen Kuusisto: Well, Corky was a very big yellow Labrador female, about 90 pounds. Her father was a well-known breeding dog at the program. His name was Boomer. Boomer was very big. So, she had her father's largeness of frame. You know, the average female Labrador is 70, maybe 80 pounds. Corky was just…just imposing. And I used to joke that her head was bigger than mine, which I think really was true. She was a striking looking dog and extremely fast. And that is one of the characteristics of my gait. I walk very fast, and I almost didn't get Corky. They sent her out with another client who wasn't fast enough. The dog was too fast for that person, and so Corky came back. So I was her second person, and we were speedy together.
Ray Hardman: You talk in the book about, in the prologue, about what it's like—and this was really beneficial for me as a sighted person to understand what it's like—that relationship, when you're in traffic, when you're out and there's a lot of pedestrians, that sensation you feel with your dog. Maybe you can explain some of that?
Stephen Kuusisto: Well, it's a funny thing, isn't it? I mean, suppose we just make an analogy to an ordinary customary element of daily life. Forget disability. You know, one day you decide to go out and buy a pickup truck, and you buy this beautiful Ford F-150 pickup truck. And you're riding up high, and you're driving around, and people are looking and admiring, it and you know you're just suddenly in the world in this slightly different way. And there's a pleasure in that. And we don't customarily think—at least outside of disability studies or disability activism circles—we don't customarily think of disability as pleasurable. But a guide dog or service dog can really make disability into something that's pleasurable. Does that make sense?
Ray Hardman: Absolutely. In your book you describe—let me give you a quote here, because I was very taken with this: "With a service dog you become a sacred/profane wandering totem, and there's no help for it." What did you mean by that?
Stephen Kuusisto: (Laughing) That's the poet in me.
Ray Hardman: It's a beautiful line, by the way.
Stephen Kuusisto: I know! Poets like to say stuff like that. It's the razzle dazzle. So, sacred and profane. You know, there are dark spaces; there are light spaces in the world. And with a guide dog, you're able to just go anywhere you want. And so, in a way, the unknown becomes your own. You can do whatever you want. Which might have been a better way to say it. (Laughing)
Ray Hardman: I like this way.
Stephen Kuusisto: Thank you.
Ray Hardman: I want to get to some of your poems, and let's talk about your collection of poems, called Letters to Borges. Explain the theme of this collection.
Stephen Kuusisto: So Borges was a great poet from Argentina, and also a tremendous fiction writer and scholar of literature—one of the 20th century's great, great writers, and he was blind. And I actually met him once. He never learned to travel independently as a blind person. So throughout his life, he had handlers; he had people who just walked with him and held onto his arm and navigated him every place. And obviously, he had a tremendous literary career, and he traveled globally. And I heard him in Ithaca, New York. So he had a large career, but it dawned on me that he never went any place independently. And one of the things about going places independently, as I learned with Corky, is the joy of getting lost. You know, you go somewhere. I don't know, there are lots of poems in this book in which I describe being in some strange city, and just kind of joyously not knowing where I am. And that leads to—obviously, for a poet, that leads to, you know, interesting discoveries, right? Whether it's just sitting in a cafe because you're a little lost and you're listening to people at the next table, or you enter a district of a city just on a whim and find yourself wandering around and you meet interesting strangers. I mean, these are the pleasures of travel. Unless you're the kind of traveler who's really structured and wants only to be on a tour and doesn't want to get off the beaten path. I like discovering things. So I thought, well, maybe I could write a series of letter poems, epistolary poems, to Borges—to his ghost. He's been—he's passed away now, some 25 years I guess, and I thought, what if I could address him and say, " Well here's an odd thing." And so, that's the theme of the book, right? I'm in Spain; I'm in Finland; I'm in, you know, Austria. I'm in all kinds of oddball places—Houston Texas…and I'm relating to him the kind of joy—of strange discovery—that comes with wandering around blind.
Ray Hardman: Stephen, will you read one of these poems?
Stephen Kuusisto: So, yeah. I thought, given the guide dog theme, that it might be nice to read an elegy for Corky. It vomes toward the end of the book. When she passed away, I had already retired her; we kept her as a family pet, of course. And I had a new guide dog. But this is a dog who profoundly changed my life forever, and…(pause)…so, this is called “Elegy for a Guide Dog”:
Corky, where you are now; can you
Are you free of the aches and all
the uncoiled walking
That we do down here—
We've forgotten something and
must make our way
Down this lonesome street
On a summer's day.
Oh, my dear, no one can match
Are you in the tall grass
Informed perfectly by light?
Ray Hardman: What a beautiful poem, and a beautiful tribute to Corky.
Stephen Kuusisto: What a good girl.
Ray Hardman: Stephen, let's let's shift gears here, and I want to ask you about service dogs in general. Increasingly, people are using service dogs—service animals for…They’re taking them out in public places.Aand you touch on this a little bit in your book, but first tell me your thoughts on these service animals that, maybe, aren't as well-trained as Corky and other guide dogs.
Stephen Kuusisto: So, let's be clear that a service animal, under the ADA, is a dog trained to help a person with a disability; with a major life activity. So, service dogs are guide dogs for the blind. They're hearing dogs for the Deaf. They're dogs that help people with mobility, and can also help people with invisible disabilities like PTSD. And these dogs are trained professionally, and with specificity, to address a disabled person’s needs. Those dogs are not the problem. From my standpoint, the problem is that a lot of people want to have animals that they designate as emotional support animals. And there's nothing wrong with an emotional support animal. Every pet is an emotional support animal. Some people really need that kind of emotional support, for really serious reasons. The problem is that those dogs aren't trained to be in public, and while the ADA doesn't recognize emotional support animals as animals that can go everywhere the public goes, the Air Carrier Transportation Act, which is a separate act—it does not make this designation about the difference between service animals and emotional support animals. And so, you see increasingly people bringing their pet dogs on airplanes. They put a little vest on the dog that they buy online, and they say that it's an emotional support animal, and they confuse the issue with the actual service animal. And, so, you see these stories about dogs that bite people and, you know, on airplanes. And since the public doesn't know the difference, this does damage to the blind and those of us in the disability community, who have not only trained exhaustively with our dogs, but have gone the extra mile to get that training with a professionally trained dog. So while I'm not against emotional support animals, I don't think they should be on airplanes.
Ray Hardman: Yeah. Well Stephen Kuusisto, thank you so much; we have to go, but thank you so much today.
Stephen Kuusisto: Thank you. This is a wonderful show.
Ray Hardman: I'm Ray Hardman. Special thanks today to Where We Live producer Carmen Baskauf, and all the good people at Fidelco in Bloomfield. Where We Live is produced by senior producer Lydia Brown and producers Carmen Baskauf and Scott Brede. Our technical producer is Chion Wolf. Check out WNPR.org/wherewelive for more about the show. Thanks for listening.