Saturday, October 17, 2009

Meet Lyric

Karen had been blind since she was nine, but she didn’t get her first guide dog until after she graduated from college. Karen and I went to Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, IL. It was a small, contained, campus without streets with traffic, and Karen could navigate it by herself, without even a cane, let alone a dog.

After graduation, though, as we were preparing to enter what we thought was the real world, Karen decided to get a guide dog. It was a fairly easy decision. Like me, Karen adored dogs, and if being blind meant she got to have a dog with her at all times, then maybe it was worth it after all.

Karen applied to and was accepted by The Seeing Eye in Morristown, NJ. Getting and training with a Seeing Eye dog is a three or four week process, depending on whether it’s your first or subsequent dog. Karen flew to New Jersey for her month long stay, trembling with anticipation at meeting her first Seeing Eye dog, her new eyes, the dog that would give her independence, mobility and increased dignity.

The first day at the Seeing Eye is an opportunity for the instructors to get to know the students, how fast they walk, and, most importantly, what their personalities are like. The most important aspects of putting together a working team of blind person and guide dog is compatibility. The relationship is perhaps more intimate than a marriage. As a working team, a guide dog and blind person are essentially one creature.

On the second day, Karen was told about her dog. Her dog was going to be a female German shepherd named Lyric. Karen was advised that Lyric was an especially sensitive dog who was extremely bonded to her trainer. Lyric had been through one class already, but the person training with her couldn’t handle Lyric’s high strung nature, and retrained with another dog. She was a small shepherd, long haired, and magically beautiful. Karen called me that night to tell me about this great dog she’d be meeting the next morning, and, in my imagination, at least, I began to know the dog who would be one of the most special beings I would ultimately ever meet.

I envied Karen, not so much for being blind and being able to get a guide dog, but because she was getting to meet Lyric a month before I would pick the two of them up from the airport. I might have been more excited than Karen.

On the third day, Karen was presented with Lyric. At the Seeing Eye, once you are given your dog, you’re with it from then on, until you leave. Not only was this dog going to be her new eyes, but Karen was certain she would be her new best friend.

That night, Karen called me, in tears. Lyric hated her!

If Karen wasn’t holding her leash, or didn’t have it attached to something, Lyric would ditch her at the earliest possible opportunity. Over the next weeks, Karen told me about how she was often wandering the halls of the Seeing Eye dorm in the middle of the night, frantically calling for her lost dog. Eventually, one of the instructors would find Lyric for her, which is fortunate because there was no way Lyric was going to willingly return to this strange lady on her own.

Karen and Lyric’s trainer was named Mr. Frank, and Lyric worshiped him. She could see him during training, which she lived for, but if she was going to participate in the training she was going to have to work with that horrible stranger, Karen. Despite the obvious unpleasantness of this prospect for Lyric, she went ahead and grudgingly trained with Karen, so she could at least be near the man she loved.

Karen called me crying almost every day, and Karen wasn’t a woman who cried often. The reports kept coming in. Lyric hates me. Lyric refuses to eat. Lyric cringes and tries to escape when I touch her. Lyric eloped again in the night. The only thing that was going well was the actual training, but given her obvious disdain for Karen, she assumed Lyric was only going along with it so that one day she would have the opportunity to guide Karen in front of a bus, to get the pleasure of watching her die in a pool of her own blood. After, she probably wouldn’t have been adverse to licking just a little of the blood off the street to give her the necessary sustenance to have the strength to find her way back to the wonderful Mr. Frank.

Karen and Lyric finished their third week of training. Their work together was exemplary, but it was obvious to everyone that Lyric couldn’t stand Karen. She wouldn’t look at her and was on a major hunger strike. Special food was brought to her, like carefully prepared and seasoned chicken breasts, and Lyric would daintily nibble for a moment, and then walk away leaving the majority untouched. She was losing weight and seemed to be the only one at the Seeing Eye more miserable than Karen.

In their final week, the intensive training ended, those who had Seeing Eye dogs in the past went home, and the newbies were left to continue getting practical instruction in grooming, feeding and general care and maintenance of their dog. Lyric had been permitting Karen to brush her gorgeous coat, but still would not allow herself to enjoy it.

Though still bad, the relationship had improved slightly by the last week. Lyric no longer wanted to bolt whenever she was in Karen’s presence, but things were still far from ideal.

There was some concern about graduating Karen and Lyric and releasing them into the world. They’d been at the top of the class in terms of work, but the relationship seemed so bad the Seeing Eye was unsure if they’d be able to work as a team. Since this was Lyric’s second class, this probably would have meant that if things didn’t work with Karen, she’d be dropped from the program and become someone’s pet, and not a guide dog.

They decided to send Karen and Lyric home, but with considerable concern about how things would go, and with an awareness that they might be returning soon, to place Lyric in a private home and match Karen with a dog who could stand her. I’d been hearing all about this in Illinois, and didn’t know what to expect when the two of them walked off the plane. Before she left for the airport, I talked to Karen, who was glumly resigned to working with a dog who just plain didn’t like her.

They were driven to the airport in New Jersey, checked in, and dropped off. For the first time, ever, Karen and Lyric were away from the Seeing Eye campus and alone together. There was no more Mr. Frank and no dozen blind students with new dogs who loved their masters. There was just beautiful, long-haired, high strung, Lyric, and her mom, beautiful, long-haired and high strung Karen.

My buddy Gary and I drove to Chicago to pick them up at the airport, nervous after all the negative field reports I’d received. I expected Karen to walk off the plane with a pissed off shepherd who was miserably going on with the life which fate had decreed for her. Still, Karen and I had talked about all this on the phone, and we were going to work with her, play with her, love her, until by sheer force of will, she eventually returned our feelings, or died.

My heart stopped for a few beats when Karen and Lyric walked off the plane. They moved together like a couple doing the tango, woman and dog separate but connected, two individual beings with a single purpose. Karen moved with a confidence which I had seen before but which had never been reasonably merited, and at her side was the most beautiful dog I had ever seen. I hugged and kissed Karen, and before I could even turn to meet Lyric, I felt the sharp nails of one of her paws on my shoulder. The other was on Karen’s shoulder. She was taking part in the hug and the kiss, joining the family.

I met Lyric properly, and to Karen’s slight chagrin she adored me instantly. We took the two and a half hour drive back to Bloomington, and Karen told me how the minute they’d been left alone at the airport, everything instantly changed between the two of them. In that single moment, Karen stopped being “that lady” to Lyric, and became Mom. She not only allowed, but solicited, petting. She wagged her tail. And though Karen of course couldn’t see, she could feel that Lyric never took her eyes off her.

Karen and Lyric were inseparable ever after. Despite her working dog status, Lyric wasn’t a totally one-person dog. She loved her dad almost as much as she did her mom, and she was entranced by Holden, our beagle mix/cur, who we had obtained in advance of Lyric’s arrival so she’d have a playmate waiting for her.

Lyric was one of the greatest dogs I’ve ever known, as smart and sensitive as any person I’ve ever met. She got Karen through law school, and the early jobs of her career. She was friendly to others, but she was mom’s dog, and to a lesser extent, mine. Lyric had found her real family, and suddenly this nervous, standoffish, dog knew what happiness was.

There had been a battle of wills between Karen and Lyric in Morristown, and ultimately patience, persistence, and determined love won out over fear of the new and strange, and attachment to the old ways.

Maybe there’s a general lesson we can take from this, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what that might be.

(c) 2009, Rich Sands, All Rights Reserved
Your Dog’s Best Friend
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Jaya said...

Ahhhh, that's a wonderful story, Rich.

Ori said...

Beautiful story, so touching!! I thank God for dogs existence in the World!!

Marg said...

That is a super story. I helped raise a lab puppy that was destined to become a seeing eye dog for the blind. But the dog never did make it through the final training. I just did the Puppy thing.

tashabud said...

This post is a great tribute to Lyric and to all the seeing eye dogs in the world that perform wonders for their owners. It's amazing to learn how having a seeing eye dog gave Karen more freedom and mobility in her life. It was good that Lyric and Karen became good team in the end.


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