In my world, perspective is everything. I firmly believe a person’s attitude and mindset can make or break their experiences.
When I was 6 weeks old, I was diagnosed with a rare form of pediatric eye cancer called bilateral retinoblastoma. Fast forward through the surgery to remove my left eye, six months of chemotherapy and 36 procedures later, I became visually impaired.
I realized how tangibly my visual impairment impacted my life when I turned 16. For most teenagers, turning 16 is a huge deal — getting a driver’s license and having the independence to go anywhere is thrilling. Leading up to my 16th birthday was bittersweet. I rarely let things get to me but knowing I was unable to get my license was frustrating.
My frustration didn’t last long. I decided to choose a positive perspective instead and remind myself that potentially getting a Seeing Eye dog was way cooler than any car I could ever dream of driving. Instead of researching the perfect car, I researched the perfect guide dog school.
As an editorial intern at Austin Fit, we don’t typically write articles about ourselves. However, with this being the dog issue, I couldn’t help but share my story.
Prior to having a Seeing Eye dog, I was always with friends and family who were able to help me navigate. I’m extremely aware of my surroundings and am able to follow cues. However, part of getting older is finding ways to be more independent. Ultimately, I knew having a guide dog would make navigating a college campus independently so much easier.
In 2016, I applied to guide dog schools and was accepted into two. I chose to attend The Seeing Eye, the oldest guide school in the U.S. Currently, I am on my second guide, Miss Fancy Mae.
Fancy is a full German shepherd who loves her job more than life itself. At the end of May, we will celebrate our four-year milestone as a working team.
At the beginning of our journey, we attended a three-week class at The Seeing Eye’s campus in Morristown, New Jersey. The start of the class feels a bit like anticipating the arrival of a newborn baby. In some ways, you know what to expect; in other ways, you cannot prepare at all.
Class attendants arrive on campus on a Monday and have introduction sessions the following day. However, it’s hard to pay attention because Wednesday is the magical day — “Dog Day,” when you finally get to meet your match.
As we wait in our rooms for our pup’s arrival, dogs are delivered to us one by one. Happy tears, laughter barking and sometimes whining can be heard through the halls. Fancy was a bit of a whiner. Since she didn’t know me, she was a little anxious to be stuck in my room for some one-on-one time before we headed to our first training session.
Students are then paired with a highly skilled Seeing Eye instructor who helps you build trust, communication and confidence between you and your dog.
As a Seeing Eye dog, Fancy has been trained to guide me around obstacles and alert me when we approach a set of steps or a curb. She also understands traffic safety. Though she cannot read signs or decipher traffic lights, she knows to respect cars. I choose when we cross a street but if I’m unaware of a moving car, Fancy is well-versed in “intelligent disobedience,” meaning, she will pull us back out of harm’s way.
Fancy goes just about everywhere I go. She is the type of dog who loves a challenge. She can memorize a regular walking route incredibly fast. I recently graduated from Texas Tech University, and she knew the campus like the end of her tail. Sometimes, she would even argue with me about the day of the week because she had another place she wanted us to go.
While Fancy is great at routine, she shines in new and challenging environments. She loves crowded places that give her stimulation and a lot to navigate. I have many memories of places we’ve visited but my favorite was our trip to Disney World in December of 2018. She memorized the parks like the back of her paw and navigated the crowds like a member of the secret service on high alert.
The length of the working life of a Seeing Eye dog varies. Fancy will turn six this year but she still acts like a puppy. If I had to guess, she will want to work for as long as she possibly can.
I’m so grateful to have the most beautiful “pair of eyes,” and I can’t wait to see where our adventures take us in the future.