On a fateful evening last October, I started to walk home from the library with my nine-year-old daughter Sarah and my yellow Labrador guide dog Anlyn. With the light in our favor, the three of us stepped into the crosswalk. In the same second a driver in a gray car turned right on the red light, coming within a few inches of Anlyn’s nose. Anlyn yanked me out of harm’s way, and I pulled Sarah to safety.
Anlyn reacted with severe emotional stress, ducking her head and backing away frantically, tail tucked, whenever I tried to put on her harness after that. Her career as a guide dog hung in the balance.
But I wasn’t about to give up on my faithful guide, companion, and family member. As suggested by the staff from her training school, I tried feeding Anlyn in harness, hoping the strong Labrador love of food would overcome the fear she had associated with her work. No such luck. Anlyn started throwing up her meals and still rejected her harness.
Then, because of her distress, she chewed up and swallowed part of a knitted dishrag and some Barbie clothes and shoes she found on the floor and had to undergo emergency surgery to have the items removed from her stomach.
After that, the guide dog school pushed me to retire Anlyn. But I’ve never been one who did things the easy way, and I firmly believed my dog still had the spirit and ability in her to guide me. She just needed to find her confidence again. I decided to rehabilitate her on my own.
I started by slipping Anlyn’s harness over her head and giving her treats before I even strapped it under her belly. Then I progressed to fastening the harness and walking to the corner and back, then to crossing our quiet neighborhood street, offering praise and treats at each curb. Soon Sarah and I were able to take Anlyn down the block to Seven-11, one of our favorite places to go. After a few weeks, my dog and I were picking Sarah up from school as we always had. Anlyn enjoyed that route; there was little traffic, and Sarah, her best buddy and playmate, always appeared at the end of it.
But adding other routes proved to be more difficult. Anlyn was skittish around heavy traffic for a while—and to be honest, I was too. I found that when it came to rebuilding confidence, I had to work on mine as much as Anlyn’s. If I started to feel hesitant as we approached a busy street, my tension traveled down my arm and through the harness handle, and my dog picked up on it instantly. I could feel the difference in the way she moved beside me. So my job, whether I was nervous or not, was to march up to every intersection like I owned it, decide when to cross, and tell my dog to go forward as if I knew exactly what I was doing. Once I got that through my head, Anlyn’s recovery went more smoothly.
The moment of truth came about three months after the fateful October evening when Sarah and I once again walked home from the library with Anlyn. To get home, we had to cross both streets at the same intersection where the driver in the gray car had almost run us down. My guts were in knots as we exited the building through the automatic doors, but I pretended everything was fine.
“Mom, I think I see a gray car.” Sarah sounded worried as we approached the intersection.
“There are lots of gray cars in the world,” I answered cheerfully. “Push the button so we’ll get the walk signal.”
Sarah pushed the button on the light pole and took my hand as always. When the light changed and we heard the beeping sound that told us to go, I signaled Anlyn forward. She shot as straight as an arrow toward the opposite curb. We crossed the second street just as boldly, and I bent to give Anlyn praise and treats. But she had already turned toward home, tail wagging, head up. Her posture seemed to say, “Hey, I got this. Why are you fussing? I’m a guide dog—it’s what I do.”
Yes, Anlyn, you’re a guide dog. It’s what you do. But you’re more than that. You’re a family member. You’re a companion. You’re a rock star. And you’re back in business!