Although totally blind, Animal Hospital of North Asheville client James Hedrik resisted getting a guide dog for a long time. “I thought it would be too much responsibility,” said James. He was urged to get a guide dog by Services for the Blind and fortunately his case worker persisted in her efforts to get James to consider a guide dog.
“Finally I went to her office. We called all around the country and spoke to nine different groups, but it didn’t work out. None of these organizations felt right. The last phone call we made was to the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Long Island, New York.”
Once James spoke to the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind things began to move forward. They sent him information on their program through the mail and their representatives began to call James to find out if he was a good fit for their program.
“They were very straightforward, which I like,” said James. “I had to give written proof from three ophthalmologists that I was blind, and once I did that a lady came to Asheville and spent two weeks here getting to know me and my habits.”
“She videotaped all my movements, how I walk, sit, stand, etc. No detail was too small. She filmed me in my home and out in the public. Particular attention was paid to how I step up onto and down off of a street curb. She was very thorough.”
“I later received a phone call from New York informing me that they had the right dog for me, but there was one problem. The dog had been trained to work with a left-handed person and I’m right-handed. They told me that it would take a year to retrain the dog and that they would contact me when the dog was retrained.”
One year later, James received a phone call from the Guide Dog Foundation. They flew James up to their campus in New York, and he spent 30 days there working with his new guide dog.
“The first three days I never had any contact with my new dog. I just sat in a classroom learning about what I was taking on. When it finally came time to meet my dog they didn’t want me to have any preconceived notions. I didn’t know what kind of dog I was getting, whether it was a male or female; I didn’t know anything. They said ‘don’t be dismayed if the dog doesn’t immediately bond with you.’ They told me to remain seated when they brought the dog to me. I heard toe nails on the floor so I knew the dog had entered the room. The trainer stayed awhile and then left us alone in the room.”
“Now of course I know that my dog, Smokey, is a male Black Labrador Retriever. He’s a big guy. So big, that his nickname is Mr. Bear because when people see him they exclaim that he is as big as a bear.”
Once James and Smokey met, the training began. It was a grueling schedule. They trained every day from 6:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. Any situation that James and Smokey were likely to come across was a part of the training regimen. They trained in bus and train stations, at supermarkets and shopping centers.
“It was not easy,” said James. “It was very frustrating and more than once I wanted to give up. Smokey was fine. It was me. I was the one having a hard time making the adjustments.”
And then, something that happened during training changed the way James thought about Smokey.
“We were practicing climbing a flight of stairs, which is exhausting for me and the dog because we have to go so slowly. While practicing I tripped and fell down a full flight of concrete stairs. When I landed at the bottom of the stairs I just laid there. People were really freaking out. Someone yelled to call an ambulance, but I said no, just to leave me be for a moment. I took a few deep breaths and wiggled my fingers and toes. Everything seemed to be working fine. I lay there a little longer and then decided I should probably attempt to get up. I put my hand on my leg and was surprised to find Smokey’s head there, lightly lying on my leg. During all of the chaos he had stayed close to me and in the only way he knew how, he was protecting me. I knew then that Smokey was truly my dog. We still had some difficulties during training, but something had changed between us and we always worked through it.”
James and Smokey traveled back home to Asheville together and then the real training began. “These dogs are trained from the age of 8 weeks on. They live very regimented lives,” said James. “It was an adjustment for Smokey to have all these new freedoms in my home. The people from the foundation have been hugely helpful. Once a month someone from the foundation shows up and observes me and Smokey. If I’m doing anything wrong they’ll help me get it right. They are also there to be sure that I’m treating Smokey right. If Smokey, or any of their dogs, aren’t being cared for they will remove them from the home. They even checked up on Animal Hospital of North Asheville to be sure that your hospital was an acceptable place to take Smokey.”
We asked James if there was anything he would want the public to know about guide dogs and he gave us some very helpful information.
“The first thing to know is that guide dogs don’t make good pets. They must have constant direction. It actually makes Smokey uncomfortable if he doesn’t know what I want.”
“The most important information I can give is to let working dogs alone and allow them to do their jobs. There are all kinds of service dogs and they all need to be able to do their job fully. If you are talking to or petting a service dog, they are distracted from their job. Don’t even make eye contact with a service dog. It takes me a full block to get Smokey focused on his job again after someone has approached him. Humans can control themselves, but dogs can’t. They just love attention too much. So, please, leave working dogs alone.”
Smokey gets plenty of down time at home with James. Smokey loves to play. “He has toys to chew on. If you were to visit my home, Smokey would probably show you his collection of chew toys. He’s very proud of them.”
Like most working dogs, Smokey thrives on praise. “A pat on the back from me, or a ‘Good boy!’ – he lives for that,” said James. “I praise him all the time.”
Smokey is Dr. Earley’s patient at Animal Hospital of North Asheville and when he comes in for an exam, he is such a good boy!