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Guide dog leads vision-challenged professor to new insight

JANUARY

On the beach that evening, after they played catch for almost an hour, Deni Elliott knelt in the sand beside her partner, cupped his wet chin in her hand, and started to cry.

"You're a good boy, Wylie," she said, tipping her forehead to touch his. "I'm sure they will have beaches where you're going."

They sat together in the crisp wind, listening to the sea gulls fussing overhead. Wylie loved chasing birds, but now he just leaned against her, letting her hold him.

"I'm so sorry to disrupt your life like this," she whispered. After six years, this would be their last night together.

It would take six months, a long journey and a new dog for her to see what she never saw with Wylie.

 

 

Deni Elliott, 59, is an author, ethicist and chairwoman of the journalism department at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She has published eight books and more than 190 academic articles and speaks at conferences all over the country.

For half her life, she has been losing her sight.

You wouldn't know it to look at her. Her gray-green eyes are clear and wide. She is good at visually tracking voices, seems to see whoever is speaking.

She never says she's blind. When people ask about her vision, she says simply, "I don't see well."

Push her and she uses a metaphor. "Imagine you have a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Well, I only have 100 pieces left and they're all over the place," she said. In the right light, a few more pieces fall into place — enough for her to read the enlarged letters on her computer, or type in fonts the size of headlines. Sometimes, everything suddenly goes black.

Last year, even the final puzzle pieces began to disappear.

Wylie, her 80-pound German shepherd guide dog, seemed to notice the change. Deni's relationship with the dog, always uneasy, grew more complicated.

When Deni got Wylie, he was 8 weeks old with too-big ears. At the trainer's house, he ran straight to her, plopped on her feet and cocked his head.

He stayed by her side constantly after that, going to the Saturday Morning Market, the Quaker Meeting House, baseball games. He commuted from Tampa to California, squeezing under her plane seat — flying 125,000 miles in a year. Wylie was Delta's first Diamond Dog.

He saw her through her divorce and breast cancer. He understood full sentences. He chased cats.

And he pulled so hard he hurt her shoulder.

Deni and Wylie were in a constant tug of war, both of them vying to be in charge. She struggled to get him to yield to her, to stop yanking so hard.

But the more sight she lost, the more her guide dog seemed to treat her like a blind person.

Deni told her students Wylie was her "big, goofy frat boy. He has a very Kantian way of doing things. You know, Kant — the German philosopher," she said, seizing every teachable moment. "Well, Wylie has that good sense of principle, but he does his job out of duty, not love."

Finally, she said, "the frustration had become more than either of us could handle." She decided she had to give up Wylie, find him someone who would better suit his temperament.

And get herself a new dog.

"It's the right thing to do," she said, ever the ethicist. "It's for the greater good."

 

 

So last January, after that tearful night on the beach in Hilton Head, S.C., Deni and a friend delivered Wylie to a nonprofit in nearby Columbia where he would learn to work with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The veterans program wanted Wylie right away. But Deni couldn't get her new guide dog until March. For six long weeks, she wouldn't have a dog by her side.

A white cane would help her find obstacles. But it couldn't steer her around skateboarders or sniff out the bathroom.

When you have a dog, people focus on the animal, Deni said; they don't really see you.

With a cane, everyone knows you're blind.

When it was time to say goodbye to Wylie, Deni led him to an office at the nonprofit and whispered into his neck, "You're going to stay here for a while. Have fun, okay?"

Wylie wagged his tail.

"Okay, then, be a good boy," Deni said, hoisting his harness over her left shoulder. He wouldn't need that anymore.

Then she unfolded a white cane and tapped her way toward the door, alone.

 

 

Deni grew up near Washington, D.C., with an older sister, both parents and always at least one dog. She didn't know how bad her eyesight was until her third-grade teacher saw her squinting at the board. Glasses showed her a world where trees had leaves instead of big green capes.

As she got older, her sight started deteriorating. Through college at the University of Maryland, grad school at Wayne State in Detroit, and a Ph.D. program at Harvard, Deni kept seeing eye doctors, adjusting her glasses, chasing what was left of the light.

She kept thinking someone would find a cure while she could still see. So she never fast-forwarded to what it would feel like to watch her friends' faces fade, how much it would hurt to walk into a wall.

At Utah State, in her first tenured position, Deni finally got a diagnosis: bilateral progressive optic neuropathy. A form of multiple sclerosis, which would get worse. Soon she had to give up driving.

She qualified for a guide dog in 2000, when her vision dropped to less than 10 percent. By then, she was teaching at the University of Montana.

She never considered getting her partner from a guide dog school, where she would have gotten a 2-year-old canine bred and trained for service work. "I couldn't imagine putting my life in the paws of a dog I didn't know since puppyhood," she said.

So she found someone who would train Oriel, her new golden retriever, to be her partner. Oriel, she told everyone, was the perfect dog. "Like driving a minivan. Steady and reliable."

After seven years of criss-crossing the country with Deni, Oriel got tired. That's when Deni's trainer found Wylie, who came from a long line of service dogs. The trainer drilled Wylie for almost a year before Deni started working with him.

Wylie was her Porsche. Too sleek and fast, she said, too much for her. "I always felt like I was holding him back."

Their relationship, she said, was "one of the biggest failures in my life." Once she realized she couldn't make it work, she decided to let a professional pick her next partner.

After months of research, she enrolled at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. The school, which opened in 1954, breeds and trains dogs — and has made more than 7,400 matches. Thanks to donations, the dogs and training are free.

Deni qualified for a class for experienced handlers, so she would stay in the dorm for only 10 days. The next opening was during her spring break.

As the date loomed, Deni wondered whether she could go through with the trip. She hadn't been a student for years. And she had never been around a bunch of blind people.

She wrote in her journal, "I'm afraid I'll be frustrated with a dog trained to work with a REALLY blind person."

 

FEBRUARY

Without a dog she was alone, off-balance, insecure. No paws on her bed or panting in her face. No one to walk her to school or curl beneath her desk. The house was too quiet. At night, she started locking her windows.

"I'm tense all the time; I walk with my head down, thinking I'm going to trip," she said. "A cane is an obstacle locator. A dog is an obstacle avoider."

With a dog, her world was as wide as his field of vision, hearing and smell. Now it stretched only as far as the cane could reach. "And it's so lonely — there's this dog-sized hole in my life. No one comes up to say, 'Hello, Sweetheart!' to the cane."

She could feel people staring, pitying the blind lady. She heard them talking about her. "That poor woman." "Oh my god, I'd kill myself if I ever . . ."

All those years, thinking that if she ignored her disability, nobody would see it. Now everyone knew.

 

 

MARCH

Deni arrived at Guiding Eyes on a gray, snowy afternoon. An instructor showed her to her dorm room, gave Deni the key and described the layout in clockwise order:

Here's your closet, bathroom. Nightstand, bed, window. This is how you adjust the blinds. Outer door, refrigerator. Desk, dresser. Another closet with dog food.

Deni nodded, grateful and surprised. No one had ever oriented her to a new space like that. When she stayed in hotels, she had to feel around for walls and furniture, trying not to trip.

The next morning, she met the other students. Among them were Sonia, a baker and mother of three; Erik, an occupational therapist; and Kara, a young mother and artist who made her living painting murals.

For the first exercise, the "Juno walk," instructors pretended to be dogs. Students had to walk them through the streets, practicing commands and proving their prowess.

"Here, take this harness," an instructor told Deni. "You're going to heel me."

Deni grabbed the handle. "Okay. Heel, Juno," she said, trying not to laugh. She had never walked a human. She felt weird telling this woman, "Good girl."

Along sidewalks, down and up curbs, across busy intersections they walked. Deni mastered the commands, but tugged too much, as if the instructor might try to tow her the way Wylie did. Every few minutes she tilted her head, trying to catch the light.

"Just relax and follow your dog," said the instructor, Kate Schroer-Shepord. "You might do better if you close your eyes."

 

 

On the third day, Deni and the other students filed into a big room ringed with folding chairs. Deni sat in the center and collapsed her cane.

"This is an unbelievably exciting day," an instructor said. "They're getting your dogs ready as we speak."

Guiding Eyes breeds about 400 puppies a year, mostly Labradors, the instructor explained. They stay with their moms until they are 6 weeks old, but are immediately socialized with other dogs, cats and people.

Then puppy raisers take them home — and into the world, walking them through gravel and grass, under bridges, up stairs and into elevators, on buses and subways, into hardware stores and restaurants.

When the dogs are about 2 years old, they get matched with their new partners. "I just want four legs and a tail," Deni said when someone asked what kind of dog she wanted. She was hoping for a female, a yellow Lab with a quick gait and sense of humor. But she kept telling herself to trust the experts.

Of 160 partnerships a year, an average of five don't last. Sometimes the person and dog's speeds don't match; sometimes it's their personalities. Deni's instructor, Graham Buck, had been at Guiding Eyes for 24 years and matched more than 400 people with canine partners. He got to know Deni on their chilly walks. Graham believed Deni needed a dog who was confident enough to help her relax, but not one who thought he knew everything. One with a shepherd's energy but without a shepherd's possessiveness.

"Okay, now we're going to tell you your dog's name, breed, color and gender, and then we will bring them to your rooms," an instructor said. "We need you all to set good patterns, so stay seated. If you get on the floor, the dog will climb all over you."

Instructors went around the circle, describing each dog. "Deni," Graham said. "You are getting a yellow female Labrador named Alberta."

"Thank you!" Deni cried, grinning. "Alberta . . ."

In her room, she paced between the door and window, waiting. She was so anxious she couldn't sit down.

"Deni, are you ready?" Graham called. "Here comes Miss Alberta. She's 22 months old and her hair is the same color as yours."

Deni dropped to her knees to feel the dog. Alberta was much smaller than Wylie, in height and girth; her nose was wet. "Hi, honey! Look at you!"

She knew her teacher was watching, but she couldn't help herself. She sat on the floor, pulled her new partner into her lap, and buried her face in Alberta's soft fur.

That night, for the first time in weeks, she slept deeply.

 

 

Deni worked well with Alberta. But by the second day, Graham could tell she didn't totally trust her new partner. Deni was still struggling to see through the splotches, trying to steer.

"Alberta's got this," Graham said. "You don't have to see."

Deni may have been unsure of the dog, but she had complete faith in Graham. So under a stoplight on a bright, snowy morning, with cars and buses whizzing by, she shut her eyes, relaxed her hold on the harness and let the dog drive.

She felt the rhythm of Alberta's walk and fell into the flow. "It was like dancing," she said later. "Like trotting on a horse. No, smoother. Once we really hit our stride it felt like I was floating."

No one had ever told her she didn't have to see. Finally, she stopped pretending she could.

Now that someone else was training the dog, Deni could focus on herself. "In academia, she's always in control, she's the one everyone looks up to," Graham said. "But with Alberta, she's able to let go of that."

And for the first time, she had instructors who could train her. Initially, Graham said, Deni was "very guarded, almost premeditated with her movements and words. But as the other students started to share their stories, things they had stumbled over — and achieved — Deni started to open up," Graham said. "I think she began to accept herself."

Deni had expected to stay holed up in her room at the school. She didn't think she belonged with all these really blind people. Besides, she had articles to write, papers to grade.

But she found herself drawn to her classmates. She grew closest to Kara, the artist. Like Deni, Kara had been losing her sight slowly, moving to larger canvases and brighter colors to compensate. What will you do when you can't see at all? Deni asked her. Kara smiled. "Sculpture."

They were eating salads one night, their dogs splayed at their feet, when someone asked, "Has anyone found the oil and vinegar?" Everyone started feeling around, fingering salt shakers and water glasses, until someone touched the right bottles.

"No one said, 'It's over there.' Or, 'Right beside you.' All of us searched together and it was okay to not know, to ask for help," Deni said.

"My ability to fake sight wasn't needed."

 

 

In St. Petersburg, a Guiding Eyes trainer followed Deni and Alberta through their routine. He taught Alberta to ignore lizards and watch for low-hanging palm fronds. He helped her learn to ride the escalator at Penney's.

After the trainer left, Deni taught her new partner to find her keys and carry her dog bowl to the sink. She took Alberta to the Mahaffey Theater and Disney World. "She's just so sleek and fast," Deni said.

She called Alberta her Mercedes. She nicknamed her Albee, after her favorite playwright.

And at the end of April, when Albee turned 2, Deni threw her a birthday party, with a meatloaf cake and a cardboard tiara. "Good girl," she kept saying. "I'm so glad you came into my life."

Albee gave Deni confidence, a new way to navigate the world. "She knows when I get disoriented, knows to stop and let me get my bearings before she takes me exactly where I want to go." When Deni said, "office," or "home," "bank," or "meeting," Albee could take her to all those places, avoiding every palm frond along the way.

 

AUGUST

Acceptance came slowly, like the darkness. By summer, Deni started doing things she swore she never would.

Some changes were obvious: She bought sunglasses. Not the old people's cataract wraparounds, or the thick Stevie Wonder ones. Deni chose stylish, sassy shades with scarlet frames. She even wore them inside. "They really do help cut the glare."

Other signs were more subtle. Instead of trying to guess who was talking at staff meetings, Deni asked her colleagues — whom she had worked with for years — to introduce themselves so she would know who was sitting where.

"With this new dog, Deni seems a lot calmer, even happier," said Robert Dardenne, a friend and fellow professor. "I think she's more prone to adapting herself to do things than to getting things to accommodate her. But she recently asked for a new computer that would help, and I think that's great."

"My attitude has always been to not think about my vision. It's not your problem," Deni said. "But I had to learn that sometimes it really does matter. And it's okay. I feel less embarrassed, now, about asking for help."

Being at the guide dog school helped her surrender to the darkness. "Not just give up control, but really get comfortable with my own vulnerability," she said. "I feel more honest now."

She still thought about Wylie every day. For six months, he had been in a program where prison inmates retrained him to work with veterans. But no veterans wanted him; at 7, they thought he was too old.

Finally, in late August, Deni got a call from a man named Fred Grooms, a retired veteran who volunteers with the service dog program in South Carolina. He had been taking Wylie home on weekends to play with his teenage daughter, who has migraines and mobility issues. Grooms was calling to say he had adopted Wylie. That weekend, he had taken him to a lake with a bunch of kids where the dog spent all day diving off a dock.

Deni sobbed, imagining her big frat boy of a dog surrounded by squealing kids. It helped, knowing he finally had a family.

Albee needed more of that kind of fun, Deni decided. So she enrolled in a Rally class — a competition where people lead their dogs through a course, stopping to perform commands. After a couple of sessions, Deni had to admit she couldn't read the command signs. But instead of dropping out, she wrote to the American Kennel Club and got permission to use a sighted guide.

Now, a volunteer reads the signs to Deni, who gives Albee the commands. On their last run, they earned a perfect score.

"I'm not going to say that losing my sight has been a blessing," Deni said. "But I am learning to adapt, and to ask more of the sighted world."

When classes started this semester, Deni stood before her students, wearing dark glasses. "This is Albee, my guide dog," she said. Then, for the first time, she introduced herself like this:

"And I am your professor, Deni Elliott. If you want my attention, don't raise your hand. Make some noise. I might look at you, but I won't see you. I'm blind."

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8825.

Guide dog leads vision-challenged professor to new insight 10/09/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 9, 2013 6:49pm]

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