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What’s a Seeing Eye Dog Do When his Human Breaks her Foot?
Harper’s backup plan
Beth Finke keeps her broken foot elevated and stays connected to a currently out-of-work Harper.

What happens to a Seeing Eye dog if their human companion gets hurt, or sick? Do they lose their skills while waiting for the person to recover? That’s one question I hoped I’d never have to answer. But then last month I broke my foot.

I swim laps two or three times each week. Tapping the lane marker with every other stroke keeps me swimming straight, and limiting myself to the crawl stroke means I always have one arm in front of me, so my head never bangs the end of the pool. Swimming has always been a safe form of exercise for me. Until that ill-fated night in June, that is.

I finished my laps and was heading back to the desk to fetch Harper when I slipped and fell back into the pool. My left foot must have gotten caught in the gutter as I took the plunge. It broke. In three places.

*

The first call we made once we returned from the orthopedic clinic was to the Seeing Eye. The doctor had told me I ought to be able to avoid surgery if I stay off my foot as much as possible. We needed to talk with Seeing Eye trainers about what my husband Mike, who can see, could do to help keep Harper on track during my recovery.

Doug Bohl from the Seeing Eye encouraged Mike to take Harper on long walks for exercise. “But really, you all should focus on getting Beth’s foot back to normal rather than worry about how Harper will perform once she’s better,” he said, describing one Seeing Eye dog who had to quit working for four months when the person he guided got hurt. “That dog did fine after that. These dogs don't forget their jobs.”

*

Mike uses a leash on walks, and the two of them stop at each curb, just like I do when Harper is on harness. Mike follows other Seeing Eye rules, too: Dog lovers can’t pet Harper, and Mike doesn’t let Harper lunge or sniff at other dogs during walks, either.

Before the accident, I had agreed to sit on a panel for the Writer’s Division at the National Federation of the Blind convention in Orlando. “You can still go,” my doctor said. “Just promise me you’ll use a wheelchair in the airport.” I promised. Harper stayed at home with Mike.

*

My sister Marilee lives in Orlando. She got a special pass to meet me at the gate, and before you knew it, we were in a swarm of waving white wands and wagging tails at the convention hall. More than 3,000 people with visual impairments showed up for the convention this year: That’s a lot of white canes and guide dogs.

My panel went well, and we had time to check out the exhibit hall before heading back to the airport. Marilee took a deep breath before we headed in, readying herself to maneuver me through a sea of conventioneers. Considering my oversized cast, this was, ahem, no small feat.

We were heading for the exit when a man suddenly approached and grabbed me by both arms, “Are you an imposter?” he asked. “Where’s your dog?” I’d know that voice anywhere. It was Lukas Franck from the Seeing Eye. I lifted my pant leg to show him my cast. “Harper’s at home with Mike,” I told him, explaining how Mike was following all the Seeing Eye rules, insisting Harper stop at each curb, going on longer walks with Harper when possible.

*

Harper is two years old, and he’s only been in Chicago with me for seven months. He’d had some trouble adjusting to the snow at first, and a trainer from the Seeing Eye had come out when the snow melted in April to help us get back on track. Lukas asked if Harper’s work had improved any before I got hurt. “Yes,” I said. “It had.”

“Good,” he said. “We can send someone out to give you another refresher course once your foot is healed.” Lukas also suggested I consider sending Harper back to Morristown now, while I continue to heal. “We could have people here work him every day.” In that scenario, I might return to Morristown after my foot heals, meet up with Harper and work with him there for a while before hitting the streets of Chicago again. “Think about it,”

Lukas said. “You know, Mike could use a break.”

And so, we are. Thinking about it, I mean. Mike assures me that taking Harper out to empty all the time, and then doing the long walks, too, isn’t taking a toll on him. And while getting regular workouts with Seeing Eye trainers in Morristown would be great for Harper’s work ethic, we worry what a temporary move back to Seeing Eye School might do to Harper’s mental health. Not to mention … mine.

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Beth Finke's book, Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound—about her bond with her Seeing Eye dog—won an ASPCA/Henry Bergh children's book award. Follow Hanni and Beth's travels on the Safe & Sound blog. bethfinke.wordpress.com

Photo by Mike Knezovich

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Anonymous | July 12 2011 |

Please don't send Harper away. He feel grounded and safe where he is with you. Harper is not a machine to go back to the shop for repairs.

Submitted by Anonymous | July 12 2011 |

Awww you say this like tse headquarters is a bad place to be! I assure you it's not it's a lot of fun and he would definitely see some friendly faces!!

Submitted by Anonymous | July 15 2011 |

I am sure TSE is a great place, but Harper will not really understand that he is goig away for just a short time. I think it will be more stressful for him to leave his home enviornment. Especially since an Instructor can come out and work with this team as soon as the foot heals.

Submitted by Anonymous | July 13 2011 |

I agree, Harper will be more grounded where he is. Definitly more comfortable than being in a kennel.

Submitted by Rick | July 12 2011 |

It may prove better for Harper to stay in Chicago. Walks with Mike may give the dog more confidence in the BIG CITY.

Submitted by Anonymous | July 12 2011 |

Hope you heal soon! Harper has made it this far, he can do this!

Submitted by Rick | July 12 2011 |

Depending on Mike's travels, it may well be better to keep Harper in the BIG CITY. Harper may become more comfortable with the hustle and bustle. Mike can also look around if Harper acts up to see what the distraction or fear is.

Good Luck

Submitted by rebecca | July 12 2011 |

Having experience in the dog guide field I think that as long as the dog gets out each day and is excercised it would be better for him to remain with you. An instructor can always come down when you are healed to work with you and the dog. That way the dog will be fine tuned to work in your specific area and needs. It should not take very long for the brush up work and keeping him with you will decrease stress on the dog. Hope you heal fast!

Submitted by Shelley @ Green... | July 12 2011 |

Thanks for sharing your story. It's really neat to learn about seeing eye dogs and the experiences of a visually impaired person.

Submitted by Anonymous | July 12 2011 |

Thanks for sharing your experience. I volunteer in Early Socialization at Guiding Eyes and am always interested in learning how the dogs 'deal' and how they are handled in different situations. It sounds like you made the right choice. Would love to hear a follow-up! Here's to a speedy recovery! :)

Submitted by Beth Finke | July 12 2011 |

Thanks for all your good wishes -- I am writing this comment as I lie on my back, my foot elevated on the back of the couch "over my heart" as the doctor ordered. Harper is here at my side and I just reached down to scratch his chin for good measure. He and I are both hoping for a speedy recovery so we can hit the road again, and your good wishes make us feel good. Thank you so much --

Submitted by Susan Helmink | July 13 2011 |

Beth - I just read the Bark article about your broken foot via Facebook. I'm sorry to hear of your injury and hope you feel better soon!

Submitted by Susan Helmink | July 13 2011 |

I'm sorry to hear of your injury, Beth! I hope you feel better soon and best to Mike and Harper.

Submitted by Judy Johns | July 15 2011 |

Hi Beth -- it's Judy from the Latham Foundation and APHE. You know what we say: "Heel" quickly. Thanks for the interesting article but sorry for the reason for it.

Submitted by Allison Nastoff | August 20 2011 |

I know I am reading this late, but wanted to let you know I agree that you don't need to send Harper back to Seeing Eye. About two years ago, I had to have surgery unexpectedly and was in too much pain to work my guide dog Gilbert for two weeks. But he didn't forget his job at all, and even if he couldn't do his normal guide dog duties, he provided service of a different kind by being by my side the whole time which made me smile despite how miserable I felt. I hope your foot is healing well.

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