By Janell Goskreutz
I was enjoying a leisurely stroll on a warm Wisconsin summer day with a good friend, Gary. He had been matched with his first guide dog, Reuben, a few months prior. I thought to myself, how different can a guide dog be than using a white cane? As he walked with this four-legged creature, I was reveling in the total independence he had and the complete trust between him and his dog. It was during that fateful walk when I decided to pursue getting a guide dog for myself.
In my forty-six years, I have rarely, if ever, shied away from much in my life. After being diagnosed with the Juvenile Form of Macular Degeneration at the age of nine, I managed to graduate from college, get married, start a family, teach high school, and start two family businesses. Yet suddenly getting a guide dog was perhaps the most nerve-racking of all.
While contemplating this new opportunity, I can remember the many apprehensions I had. Will I even qualify? Will the new dog mesh well with my family? Will he adjust to living in a rural community? Will he bond with me or will I teach him bad habits by not communicating the commands correctly? The thought that was weighing most heavily on my mind was: am I worthy of a guide dog; do I deserve one? Maybe someone else may need him more than me? Maybe someone who lives alone and does not have the level of support that I do? Maybe the big city would be a better placement for a guide dog? I did experience a degree of guilt embedded in my enthusiasm, but my enthusiasm thankfully outweighed my trepidations.
I researched my options, and quickly it became obvious that I would apply to the OCCUPAWS Guide Dog association in Madison Wisconsin. OCCUPAWS is one of a handful of guide dog schools that would come to my house for training rather than me going to a residential training facility. It was not feasible for me to leave my responsibilities at home at that time. I was looking for a top notch, accredited and highly recommended school, and that is precisely what OCCUPAWS was offering me. The application itself was very lengthy and very thorough. There was page after page of questions. What are my physical limitations? How fast was my walking pace? What are my family dynamics? Where did I intend on traveling with a guide dog? After learning of the exorbitant cost of raising and training a guide dog ($30,000) I can certainly understand the need for the extensive and thorough screening and application process. The cost of raising and training a dog is entirely funded by private donations, and is no cost to the guide dog user. However, after being matched with a dog, all other vaccinations, food or any vet bills incurred are the responsibility of the guide dog owner.
Upon acquiring and completing the initial information, I was informed of the sobering news that often, there is a year–or perhaps longer–waiting list for an applicant to be matched with a guide dog. I figured I would send in my application; wait with bated breath in hopes that I would be given the chance to fulfil my latest exciting endeavor sooner rather than later.
My application was submitted, and before I knew it, OCCUPAWS was calling me for my first evaluation. I must preface everything by admitting that I was never very efficient using the white cane, so containing my excitement and anxiety was proving to be a challenge. When using the cane, I was never totally sure of myself; I was always very anxious and doubtful of my white cane abilities. The more time I spent with Gary and Reuben, the more I knew a guide dog was for me. I was thrilled to learn that I was indeed ready to be matched with a dog, and then the dreaded wait began.
I was both elated and pleasantly surprised to get a phone call just a few weeks later telling me I was matched with a male black lab, Sully. Then the doubts crept in again. Was I ready? Would he like me? Could I learn everything? Was I being selfish by asking for the opportunity to be part of the guide dog community? I put it in God’s hands, and hoped for the best.