By Chris Snyder, Phoenix, AZ area. Chris is a volunteer supporter of [with]tv and will assist greatly with our radio program, A Different Perspective.
Eleven years ago, I was fresh out of high school and getting ready to go to the University of Arizona to major in jazz performance. Before going on that journey however, I decided to get a guide dog from Guide Dogs for the Blind. They started us out with rolled up rugs with collars and harnesses and an instructor acting as the dog. As silly as that sounds, I assure you that nothing could have prepared us for the real thing.
My class and I, most of whom had only ever used a cane and never a guide dog, sat in our lecture room as one of our instructors read out our names, the name of the dog we were to receive and the breed and gender of the dog. Many of the dogs had human or dog sounding names; but a few were unique. When they got to me, I was told I would receive Renfro, a male Yellow Labrador, and I knew nothing in my life would ever be the same.
We loved each other at first wag. I slept with him the first couple of nights on his rug - they didn't allow dogs on the bed with us. (I intended to rectify that as soon as we got home.) Gone at last was the need for a clumsy cane. Rather than tapping around looking for objects to avoid, I simply avoided them. He took me past landmarks and objects people had placed carelessly in the path of the unwary blind traveler. It was certainly different than times when my cane would slip under a high object or happen to be on the opposite side of my body, allowing my other unprotected half to slam into it, either face or privates first.
The speed at which I could move was incredible. It often, as I later found, outdistanced the speed of even my sighted companions. Ours was a very rare relationship. Renfro supported me as I cried ...
and mourned my Uncle Ken, who died while I was training with him. His quiet comforting presence was an enormous help to me. It usually takes anywhere from three to six months for a bond to be secured. Renfro and I were totally nuts about each other about two weeks into our training. Oh, he still loved his trainer, a brilliant lady named Kathy O'Connor, but Renfro and I were made to complement each other.
The bond between a person and his guide dog is different than most people-dog bonds. For one thing, we have to get to the point where we can trust the guide with our lives, and the dogs have to get to the point where our lives become more important to them than theirs. For another, they must trust us enough to obey our commands without fail, knowing that we have a purpose in mind.
The training back then was a little different than training today. Dogs were pushed to become more human. They were not allowed to sniff things either in harness or simply on leash unless they were relieving. They weren't allowed to bark or whine under any circumstances. They weren't allowed to go crazy either in harness or on leash unless we released them with the word "OK" after a session of obedience training. They weren't allowed to have the slightest amount of human food. We had training in dog, cat and even squirrel distractions. They needed to be absolutely focused, behaving as humanly as possible for a dog to act.
I came home after training with Renfro, and had to show my family and friends what he could do as a guide Everyone loved him right away He was easy to love. When he was off harness and leash, he was a wonderful pet, and a wonderful friend to all of my friends and family. When the harness and leash went on, he was completely devoted to me. We had many adventures, from riding rides at amusement parks that he wasn't supposed to ride, to being the first dog to set foot on the Starship Enterprise NCC 1701-d.
We took a mining car down into the copper mines of Bisbee, we toured the retired sister ship to the Edmund Fitzgerald, and we explored the USS Pampanito submarine docked in San Francisco. We've been on planes, trains and automobiles, not to mention other forms of transport. We certainly had challenges, mostly from people who didn't understand that we were an inseparable team, but those people either became educated about what we were, or they were dismissed as bumps in the road.
Life certainly took us down different paths than the one upon which we had begun. I changed my desired profession a couple of times, and he endured school through it all. We traveled to 20 states, two Canadian provinces and two trips to different parts of Mexico. Renfro spread his love and inner joy to all he touched with his presence. Children would follow us and ask to pet him. Adults would always say what a beautiful dog he was. He saved my life twice, pushing me back from cars who had gone against the light. He guided me while I rollerbladed through parks and down sidewalks. He pulled children around the pool using his amazing strength, in some of the places we traveled. He loved water most, of all the games he played.
Through all my different loves, friends, passions, failures, triumphs, joys, depressions, mistakes and adventures, he was always by my side. He never passed judgement, he was always, first and foremost, my friend. Renfro departed for his next great adventure yesterday afternoon. I held him as his seemingly tireless strength finally met its match. He was in pain, and he was tired. I cuddled the oversized lapdog in his favorite position, speaking softly to him of all the memories and adventures we had, and of the new ones he would have on his next journey. I told him to come on back for another set of them with me in a few years if he wanted.
I thanked him for all the years of undying loyalty, service and friendship he had given me. Renfro met everything with class, including his death. With no fanfare or fuss, he simply stopped breathing. I know that his spirit lives on, and he watches me even from his new adventure, the first one on which I cannot accompany him. And so it is with the deepest sadness, but also with the fondest of memories, that I write the following:
Born to Nagel and Calypso - December 6, 1995
Died - July 30, 2008