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A New Leash on Life
Denna Lambert and her teammate Denver.> View larger image
Denna Lambert and her teammate Denver. Credit: NASA
Retirement can be challenging, even for a dog. On May 15th, nine and one half year old Denver will officially retire from guide dog work. Denver’s teammate is Denna S. Lambert, who is the Disability Programs Manager at The Goddard Space Flight Center, National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Greenbelt, Maryland. Denna was born with congenital cataracts.

Convinced that a guide dog was right for her, she contacted The Seeing Eye in Morristown, N. J. The Seeing Eye was founded in 1929 by Morris Frank, one of the first blind people to demonstrate the effectiveness of guide dogs in this country, and Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an American training German Shepherd dogs in Switzerland. Their motto is, “independence and dignity since 1929.” Denver certainly did that and more for Denna, who refers to their time together as their journey.

The Seeing Eye operates its own breeding facility including German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Labrador crosses. At about ten weeks, the puppies go to their puppy raising family where they are socialized and taught basic obedience for the next year. At about a year, the puppies return to The Seeing Eye where they are then tested for suitability as guide dogs. Those dogs who do not pass are first offered to their puppy raising family. According to Denna, “The lineage on these dogs is that they are genetically bred to work. They just need the right job. They call these dogs ‘career change’ dogs.” She further explains that, for example, dogs must learn to use their eyes before their noses which is contradictory to how a regular dog understands their world. If a potential guide dog continues to use its nose before its eyes, it may then be given to the police to learn drug sniffing or bomb detection work. Another example is that an overly calm dog might be better suited as an assistance dog for someone in a wheelchair.”

After Denna contacted The Seeing Eye, they sent an instructor to conduct a full day interview concerning the quality of care she could provide for a dog, her living environment, and her five and ten year goals. The interview also included a test to see how well she could walk with a cane to a specific destination while negotiating street crossings and other obstacles. Denna explains the reason for the test is that “people assume dogs know where you want to go. But dogs are not a GPS. As the handler, you need to know where your destination is so you can convey simple directions to a dog.”

The final part of the day, the instructor and Deena conducted the “Juno” walk, which is when the instructor pretends to be a dog named Juno, including using the guide dog harness. The instructor then responds to commands given by Deena and even gets distracted at times and ignores her commands. The purpose of the Juno walk is to simulate how a guide dog can work using various degrees of speed, pull or tension in the harness, and intensity of correction. Denna explains that “pull lets you feel where the dog is going. It’s that concept of being connected to the dog through the handle and through the leash.” She then had to pass a medical clearance to prove she could walk about two miles a day, a requirement to attend The Seeing Eye’s 27 day residential program in Morristown, New Jersey.

Building trust is the reason for the length of the program. Denna explains, “It’s a partnership. Denver has to trust that I’ll feed him and take care of him. But I also have to trust that he’ll stop at stairs and other obstacles because that’s what keeps us safe.”

In May 2000, Denna began The Seeing Eye’s program. Denna found that “class is a unique experience. You all are going through the same emotional roller coaster that can range from experiencing grief over the loss of a retired guide dog to relishing the sense of accomplishment from completing that first walk with your new dog.” She arrived on a Saturday, tested out various dogs on Sunday, and received her dog on Monday afternoon. She explains that “the primary concern of the school is to find a dog that matches your needs. That means temperament, pace, and pull in the harness. That’s where the interview comes in. It’s an art and a science. The instructors are with the dogs about a year so they know the dogs well.”

The initial meeting between Denna and Denver did not go well. He was one of the test dogs that first Sunday. Denna recalls, “When I first met Denver, he felt like a big, crazy monster. I didn’t like him.” In fact, when they were paired the next day, the instructor tricked Denna and told her that Denver was just a relative of the dog she had met the day before.

The Seeing Eye has a ritual transfer where the student calls their new dog away from the instructor. “Denver just sniffed right past me. He didn’t care about me at all.” When she took him back to her room, Denna remembers that “it was drama.” He just cried and cried. If she tried to pet him, he barked back at her.

When Denna met Denver, he was only 18 months old and basically still an overly energetic teenager. The school taught her when and how to give corrections as a means of communicating her expectations when the dogs become distracted or is otherwise misbehaving. They use an escalating scale starting with a verbal “no,” then a verbal “pfui” in a harsher tone, and if necessary “just a quick jerk of the lead.” Denver learned Denna’s expectations long ago; she has not had to correct him in many years.

Denna also explains that the dogs do not know a lot of commands. They know left, right, forward, hup-up, steady, come, and no. More importantly, guide dogs are taught concepts such as obstacle avoidance, composure in difficult situations, special relationships, and intelligent disobedience.

The first concept Denna and Denver learned together was obstacle avoidance. They initially learned to just walk together as a team in a residential area. Then they undertook a few simple obstacles such as curbs followed by more complex obstacles such as construction sites with traffic. The key is that she gives the dog a general direction that she wants to go but she still allows the dog to figure out a safe path which may mean turning around. Says Denna, “It doesn’t always seem intuitive to the handler. As a blind person, I may not always know what the obstacle is. That is where trust in the dog’s ability is put into action on a daily basis.”

The most important aspect about guidework is that the dog learns the concept of special relationships which Denna describes as “how the dog moves in an environment that is much taller and wider than him. The dog has to move through the environment by incorporating room for him and for me.” Examples including walking through a cafeteria littered with chairs.

A unique aspect of guide dog training is intelligent disobedience, which is a situation where the dog refuses a command that, if obeyed, would lead the handler into danger. An example is asking the dog to cross a street when the handler does not realize that there is an oncoming car. Denna points out the difference between intelligent disobedience and failure to obey as follows: “Intelligent disobedience happens a lot in street crossings. The dogs get a lot of training in that area. If the dog notices danger, such as the oncoming car, then the dog stands still or pushes back in the harness instead of pulling forward. When that happens, instead of asking him to go forward, I ask him to figure out a safe path or safe time to cross with a ‘hup-up.’”

There are two unusual aspects to Denna and Denver’s team. First, on occasion, friends are allowed to know and call Denver by name. Second, Denna would sometimes let Denver off harness to interact with their friends, which was her way of rewarding him. Denna understands that, “The dogs are bred to be people-oriented, but too much interaction with people while working changes their motivation from guiding to socializing with people, which can endanger the team. That is why the rule is no petting in harness and it isn’t encouraged to allow others to know the dog’s name.” However, Denna reasons that “Each dog is unique. Denver is not toy oriented, he won’t play with toys. He just likes people. His treat is to interact with people. If he’s done a good job, then I’ll let people pet him. But we had to work up to that.”

She trained Denver sufficiently that he now has a different personality in harness and out of harness. When he is in harness, he knows he has to work and cannot be distracted by other people calling or petting him. When he is out of harness, he can play with people. He knows the difference.

Denver is now the last one working in his litter. Lately Denna has noticed a slowness in Denver’s step. She hears that he is slightly dragging his rear feet which others can barely see. She feels that his pull in the harness is lighter. She knows that he no longer boldly pushes through crowds. According to Denna, “I knew that it is only fair to end our journey with him being my guide. He was giving clear signs that his desire to service as my guide had diminished to the point where he would work for me, but not because he wanted to. And there’s a big difference.”

Deena is gently phasing Denver into retirement. Working dogs are not allowed on sofas and beds, so the first thing Denver did while phasing into retirement was claim her couch. She decided that his official retirement will be May 15, 2010, when Deena will graduate with a master’s degree from The George Washington University. Denver’s final task will be to walk with Deena across the graduation stage.

In recognition of his breeding and years of working, Denna knows that, “Denver still needs to keep active mentally and physically. Sometimes guide work can be really stressful, so I’m looking for a way to give him a sense of purpose while lowering his stress level. That’s the best kind of retirement for him.” Since he loves people and especially children, she is hoping to have him become a therapy dog. For now, she has a dog walker come in every day. She does not want a new dog right now because she wants to focus entirely on Denver, not a new dog. If, however, Denver’s needs become too much for her, Denna will do what is best for him and offer him to an approved retirement home.

Throughout our conversation, Denna kept referring as her time with Denver as “an incredible journey.” Concludes Denna, “There are just so many experiences we’ve had together. Good times and bad times. He’s more than a pet. He has gotten me out of dangerous situations I didn’t even know where there. Now is the beginning of a new phase in our journey together.”

Elizabeth M. Jarrell