Learning From Nolan

By Frank Lopez

After having used a white cane for more than 20 years, I was diagnosed with a hearing loss.  My doctor recommended that I look into getting a guide dog for the blind.

I researched some guide dog organizations.  I chose Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Raphael, California.  I can remember an intake worker asking me what type of dog and what type of temperament of dog I was interested in.  I replied, “I want one that I can trust my life to, a very social dog that would fit well with my high school teaching environment, and one that is smarter than me!”  Their immediate response was, “That will be easy!” I received Nolan, my guide dog, in 2010, and we have been joined at the hip ever since!

Nolan is truly a social animal.  He loves to interact with people, especially ladies and children.  I think it has something to do with their high-pitched voices.  I like to joke that Nolan should have been named “Casanolan”!  He loves to do his job, and he seems to take great pride in it.  I am constantly learning what Nolan is capable of.  When I first got him, my wife Judy and I would go grocery shopping together, with Nolan at my side.  She would read off our grocery list as we went down the aisles and unbeknownst to me, Nolan was taking all of this in.  One day, I asked Nolan to take me to the milk, and he did!  Was I dumbfounded!  He loves to find things for me in the grocery store and he can take me to more than 100 food Items by name.  I am constantly surprised at what he knows, and I sometimes see if he knows a product that I rarely buy.  Of course, a kibble reward helps  reinforce his memory.  People often stop and stare and ask me if I am training Nolan.  My normal reply is, “He is training me!”

What makes Nolan truly unique and special is his ability to empathize with people.  I noticed this early on when I was teaching. When Nolan came in contact with a special needs student or a physically disabled one, he would seem to sense that they needed his attention.  He would go up to complete strangers who were in a wheelchair or using a walker and want to comfort them.

We moved to Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, a year and a half ago, and we have acclimated ourselves to the community.  Everyone seems to remember Nolan’s name and not mine.  He is a real ice breaker.  He helps me overcome social barriers.  On the advice of my sister-in-law, Nolan and I   visited the nearby senior center last year.  While we were there, Nolan went up to any elderly lady in her wheelchair, and she immediately asked if she could pet him.

This gave me the idea of visiting seniors once a week. They really enjoy Nolan’s visits!  Most of them look forward to our visits except for a few who suffer from dementia. For them, it is a whole new experience each visit. It’s kind of cute when a senior exclaims, “And who is this dog?  What’s his name?” Their friend replies, “Oh Margaret, this is Nolan.  He comes all of the time!”  Many adults tell me stories about the dogs they used to have, and as they do, many special memories begin to surface. Sometimes, they cry as they remember their pets from the past.  At this point, they hug Nolan all the more as he sits patiently near them.

My son Andrew volunteers at the senior center in their computer lab.  He also helps out serving meals and cleaning up afterwards.  My wife Judy spends a portion of her time driving Andrew and me back and forth so we can meet our volunteer commitments.  We have gotten to be fairly well known and we are very much appreciated.  Recently, Nolan, Andrew, Judy and I were honored as Volunteer Family of the Year at a United Way luncheon.

Nolan has taught me that you should never stop learning or contributing because you always will receive more than you give.

Frank Lopez lives in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. 

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