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A helping paw: Guide dogs widen world for Waynesville women

fr seeingeyeWith a visitor in the house and his crate door open, Adam is all kinds of excited. The lanky black lab bounds down the hall, eager to have his head rubbed, his back petted, his chewy bone tossed.

“He’ll try to eat the baby toys, or if [my son] Owen has food, he’ll want it and that kind of stuff, and he tries to get into everything he shouldn’t,” his owner Crystal Plemmons says, nabbing Adam’s collar.

Typical dog stuff. But when Crystal brings out Adam’s brown leather harness and grasps the rectangular handle attached to it, his demeanor changes. He’s no longer a two-and-a-half-year-old bundle of doggy energy. He’s a calm, focused, disciplined worker. He’s Crystal’s Seeing Eye. 

“Having a dog lets you go through places that would be more difficult with a cane,” Crystal said. “A dog can walk through a crowd of people and not hit any of them.” 

Starting her third year as an English education student at Western Carolina University, Crystal appreciates these skills. Adam’s been in the family since September 2013, one year after Crystal, 32, decided it was time to go back to school. 

She’d dropped out more than a decade ago, when a genetic disorder took away her sight. The vision loss began when she was a teenager, and at age 19, she had her first surgery. Eventually, she became completely blind. 

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“Over the next two years I went from adjusting to life on my own [at college] to not being able to see at all, to having to make different choices,” she said.  

Crystal, then a math education student, struggled to stay on top of her studies as her vision got worse and worse. Graphs and mathematical symbols aren’t easy to analyze without sight, and at some point the sheer difficulty of it all became too much. 

“I want to say I wasn’t brave enough, but I don’t think that that’s completely right,” Crystal said. “It might be that I didn’t have the motivation to overcome the difficulties I would have face.”


Motivated by motherhood

For several years after dropping out of school, Crystal stayed at home, mostly reading and knitting — despite her loss of sight, she’s a gifted knitter — and seven years ago, she married her husband Brian.

 Then, three years ago, the two became parents. Really, Crystal said, it was her new identity as Owen’s mother that gave her the push she needed to get out of the house, take hold of a dream and start chasing it once more. 

Now, she’s just four years away from holding a master’s degree that will be the key to fulfilling her goal of becoming a community college English teacher. 

“After I had my little boy, I realized that I did want to be more,” Crystal said. “I wanted him to have a mother who did have a career, and it didn’t really have anything to do with whether I was blind or not because I knew I could do it if I just went out and did it.” 

So she got a dog. To help her move through crowds, cross streets — just to get around a lot easier and faster than is possible when using a cane. 

It wasn’t as quick a transition as she thought it would be. 

“The cane always does what you tell it to do, but a dog has his own mind and his own personality, and you have to learn to work with him,” Crystal said. 

Crystal applied to The Seeing Eye, a guide dog school based in Morristown, N.J. The school has an extensive matching process, involving an online application and matching process that’s something akin to eHarmony for guide dogs and their handlers. A representative then travels to the blind person’s home to evaluate how well they already get around and whether they’re up to the challenge of handling a dog. 


Route to independence 

At 79, Mary Grace Lodico is definitely on the older end of the spectrum to be a new guide dog owner. But the Waynesville resident also active and independent, with a strong desire to get around on her own as much as possible. 

Having always been legally blind and dependent on a cane, Mary Grace began to lose the remnant of her vision two-and-a-half years ago. That’s when she started to think about applying for a dog, which she did, ending up with a visit from a Seeing Eye representative at the same time as Crystal. 

“She had a harness. I took hold of the harness and leash like she was a dog and we walked to Depot Street. I then had to tell her when it was safe to cross,” Mary Grace said of her interview. 

Seeing Eye eventually matched Mary Grace with Gem, a 45-pound black lab whose toys now strew the dining room of Mary Grace’s home. The organization paid for travel up to New Jersey, three weeks of school, room and board while there — everything except $150 for the dog itself, a good deal considering that a fully trained guide dog is worth somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars. 

While at school, new dog owners learn how to command their dogs, how to use them in situations ranging from subway stations to shopping malls and how to continue training them once they go home. It’s a fully scheduled three weeks, with the first activities beginning at 5:30 a.m. and the last ending around 8 p.m. 

“They have great food but it’s very, very hectic,” Crystal said.


Leader of the pack

Going home is only the beginning of the journey. Guide dogs are trained extensively, bred for their intelligence, confidence and trainability, but they’re still dogs. 

“It’s a dog. It’s not a machine,” Mary Grace said. “You’re not a machine. You’re a human. You’re going to make mistakes, the dog’s going to make mistakes.”

When Mary Grace and Gem arrived back in Waynesville, the black lab had a hard time focusing on crossing the street in a straight line, ignoring other dogs and disregarding the urge to investigate interesting smells. 

“They tell you up front it’s going to take you 6 months to a year for you to really bond with a dog, for you to really become a team. They tell you that, but I think you don’t really believe it,” Mary Grace said. “She [Gem] insisted that she was not going to cross Wall Street straight because there are garbage dumps there — let’s go to the garbage dumps.”

Like a human child, the dogs often do what they can to test the boundaries, see what they can get away with under their new owner. If that person isn’t constantly enforcing the training and working with them to adjust to new patterns, learn new skills, the dogs can easily lose their training. 

“It’s very, very important to let her know, ‘Yes, you do have to do this. You are not the leader of this pack. I am,’” Mary Grace said. 

Gem has to lie down under the table when Mary Grace eats. She’s learning how to sit quietly when a new person enters the house rather than running up to greet them. In public, she does not get petted, and she does not get to play with other dogs. 

The reason? Because guide dogs go places pets don’t go, and they have to stay focused on a responsibility that pets don’t have. 

“I can’t treat her like a pet if that means that I’m letting her do something that is going to get in the way of her guiding techniques,” Mary Grace said. “Can’t do it. Won’t do it. Because my life could be at stake here.” 


Becoming a team

Getting those guiding techniques down is already a hard enough road, even with careful enforcement. Mary Grace has called Seeing Eye for help multiple times. She’s been pulled along on Gem’s investigations of dumpsters and other dogs. She’s given up on teaching Gem not to chase her two cats through the house. 

But 5 months in, she’s starting to glimpse a seamless unity between dog and woman on the horizon. 

“I think Gem is giving me some more independence,” Mary Grace said. “Yeah, I can take someone’s arm. I can do that, but it’s kind of nice knowing that I can walk inside without any help.”

As Gem demonstrates her ability to deliver, Mary Grace is able to increase her ability to trust. Both are essential ingredients to making the guide-handler relationship work. 

“It was kind of nerve wracking because you’re depending on the dog and all of a sudden it was like, ‘Do I really trust her to do what I want her to do?’” Mary Grace said of the first time she and Gem crossed a street together. “The trust takes time to earn, I think.” 


Making the world bigger

Making the switch from cane to dog is a leap, Crystal agreed. 

“You get less feedback,” she said. “When you use a cane you can feel it through your hand, but when you use a dog you can’t feel anything except your feet.”

With Adam, it took Crystal 20 hours to learn the routes to and from her fall classes, a task she estimates would have taken five hours with a cane. But with the routes learned, Adam can steer Crystal to her classrooms much more quickly — and with many fewer collisions — than she could do on her own. 

Overall, the dogs just make the world a lot bigger for people who navigate it without sight. Gem allows Mary Grace to go places, do things she would have otherwise needed help to do. They walk to visit her nephew. They go to the senior center. They go to the bank and the dentist and pretty much everywhere except PetSmart, the grocery store and the farmers market — too many temptations at those places for a guide dog just settling into her role. 

As far as Adam’s concerned, ignoring students who are enjoying a between-class snack is still a challenge, but so is Crystal’s whole balancing act of being a dedicated mother, student, dog trainer and aspiring community college teacher. Adam’s presence puts those aspirations within closer reach. 

“It’s like they say, you juggle a lot of balls and you’re bound to drop one every now and then,” Crystal said. “But it’s still better than not doing it.”


From puppy to protector 

The making of a guide dog is a process that begins way before the handler touches the harness for the first time or even fills out the first page of an application. Mary Jane Gibbons should know. The Waynesville resident has raised a total of eight guide dog puppies over the years, working on the early stages of training with puppies as young as seven weeks old. 

“There’s nothing cuter than a seven- or eight-week-old Labrador retriever,” Gibbons said. “You have to keep reminding yourself, ‘It’s not my dog, it’s not my dog.’”

Gibbons started raising the puppies as a way to give back, realizing that while she never found herself pitching in as a volunteer much, she did love dogs. 

“These dogs love to work and they’re treated like gold,” she said. “They go everywhere with the blind person. It’s unbelievable.” 

A big focus on the early training is socialization, getting the dogs used to all kinds of people and situations and fostering the confidence that is essential to any good guide dog. When the puppies are as young as five or six months, an evaluator comes to decide if the dog has what it takes to proceed with training. 

“If they think the dog has the confidence, they give it a jacket to wear that says ‘guide dog in pre-training,’” Gibbons said. “It’s amazing how quickly these dogs learn that when that coat is on, their behavior changes.”

With the jacket on, the dog is a working dog, its behavior calm, focused and as un-puppylike as a 6-month-old lab can muster. Gibbon would take her guides-in-training to the doctor’s office, the bank, the dentist — everywhere its handler might one day want to take it. 

Then, when the dog is 13 to 15 months old, it goes back to school for its formal training. The separation is never an easy part of the job. 

“It’s like sending a child off to school,” Gibbons said. “You want them to succeed, but you also want them back.”

Sometimes, that wish comes true. Dogs that don’t make the cut to become full-fledged guide dogs might go into police training or military training, or they might become pets. Puppy trainers get a priority spot in the line to adopt. 

Gibbons has adopted two of the eight dogs she trained. One retired early due to ear problems, and another, a dog Gibbons describes as her “heart and soul,” didn’t quite make the confidence cut. 


Interacting with guide dogs

Crystal Plemmons and Mary Grace Lodico, Waynesville women who use guide dogs to get around, are quick to say that their dogs aren’t pets. They’re guides. There’s a big difference between the two, and a lot of that difference has to do with how the dogs act — and interact — in public. 

“If she has a harness on she’s working. You do not talk to her. You do not pet her,” Mary Grace said. “Even if she’s lying down, she’s working. The harness means don’t try to pet her.” The reason being that the guide dog’s attention should be fully focused on his owner and on guiding her safely. Once the dog learns how to get strangers to pet him, he loses its focus on guiding — a dangerous prospect for a person depending on the dog to lead her safely through traffic. 

“If you stare at them, they’re going to want to interact with you because they know that you’re looking at them,” Crystal said. A good rule of thumb? If a service dog is wearing its harness, it’s best to treat it like it’s not even there. 

“I found people sometimes want to tell her what to do. This is my job,” Mary Grace said. “I am the one who tells her what to do.” The dog must be wholly focused on his owner, on her needs and wishes. Getting orders from someone else is confusing and distracting. 

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