Many years ago, as I was losing my vision rapidly, a colleague convinced me to consider getting a guide dog. A dog is not the answer for everyone, but it turned out that a guide dog was the best thing that could happen for me.
After losing my 1st guide, Whit, on March 14, 2016, after 11 years working together, I am on my way back to The Seeing Eye to train with my 2nd guide. In February, at almost 13 yrs old, Whit was still hiking up mountains, running up and down stairs, and zipping through Washington DC. But then a tumor ruptured on his heart and he was gone 36 hours later.
Anyone who has owned a dog, knows how hard it is to lose them. I miss Whit. He was my companion exploring new cities, cuddling in lonely hotel rooms, and working in the house and office. He loved toys – he could fit 5 stuffed toys in his mouth at once. He made friends with all sorts of animals – our neighbor’s cat would follow him around the yard, he played tag with a semi-tame fox – trading off chasing each other, he sniffed noses with a wild fawn in West Virginia. He was a mascot for many of our students and colleagues.
He also made my work as a scientist easier. I travel often, going to the shore to make field measurements and to science meetings.
Airports are a nightmare without sighted assistance. Whit learned the sound of TSA, and he almost always could “hear” his way to the security line. He would weave through crowds, while continuing on a straight course, enabling me to ask directions to a connecting flight, and then head off on my own. Arriving at our destination, often after 10-12 hours in airports and planes, a highly motivated Whit would follow the alluring scent of fresh air to find outside, passing everyone who exited the plane ahead of us.
The “find” command that we were taught was a tremendous benefit in my work. I could name our location as “posters” in a huge meeting hall at the American Geophysical Union with 20,000 scientists, leave to go to a presentation in another building, then tell Whit “find posters”, and we’d end up back where we wanted to be. When I needed to leave a meeting for a few moments, I’d sit Whit down, pat our chair, tell him “seat,” and could be confident that he’d bring me back to our place. In the field, our gear often is scattered around the site, but I could name the “equipment” container, the “office” trailer, and “home” (where the dog food is), and Whit would guide me from place to place, even amongst cranes and heavy equipment on the oil-rig-servicing docks in Louisiana.
Whit was a great traveler, and enjoyed exploring new cities, which worked wonderfully for me. He flew to meetings in Hawaii, London, and South Korea. He guided me across the Incheon mud flats, even though he didn’t get to wear any fancy yellow hip waders to keep the mud off. He put up with all means of conveyance, including the usual trains, planes, and automobiles, but also the hovercraft we used on the Skagit tidal flats, and even our waverunner survey system. When I would scuba dive off small boats to deploy instruments, Whit would peer over the side – I always though he was lamenting “Oh no, dinner is sinking, come back and give me dinner.” He seemed to find a comfortable spot just about anywhere, even on the muddy instruments we just recovered. And as soon as we got to shore, he went right back to guiding me where I needed to go.
I will always miss Whit, and will always be thankful for his guiding me through my career, and showing me how I could continue to do my work. My new guide may have some similar experiences, and we’ll find a new route together to continue learning about our beaches and coasts. I am sad to have lost my friend, nervous to start over again, and excited to get a new guide with whom I will continue to explore.