We all love our dogs. I sure love mine: I’m blind, and my Seeing Eye dog Whitney, an eight-yearold Golden Retriever/yellow Lab cross, leads me everywhere I go. Including airports.
We live in Chicago, and since the city introduced reduced taxi fares for people with disabilities, I’ve been taking cabs to get to O’Hare or Midway independently. The cab driver calls out when he arrives at our door, and I point to his voice and command, “Whitney, forward!” She guides me to the cab, I open the back door and command, “Whitney, sit!” She stays seated outside the cab and waits as I slide over on the seat.
Seeing Eye dogs are taught not to sit on car seats, so once I say, “Whitney, come!” she jumps in and settles on the floor. “Good dog, Whitney!” After checking to make sure her tail is inside, I close the door and we’re off.
I opt for curbside check-in. Carrying a heavy bag leaves me feeling off-balance, and Whitney has a hard enough time threading me through a crowded airport as it is. Curbside workers print my boarding pass and I head to the airport assistance area to wait for a skycap.
They always roll up with a wheelchair. Because I’ll have plenty of time to sit while we’re on the plane, I plunk my carry-on backpack in the wheelchair seat instead.
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“We’ll follow you,” I explain, picking up Whitney’s harness with my left hand while pointing to the skycap with my right. “Whitney, follow!”
Escalators aren’t safe for Whitney—her paw could get caught—so I rely on the skycap to find an elevator to airport security. Whitney happily guides me through the maze of ropes and stanchions. I think she lives for the moment her harness sets off the security alarm. Normally, no one should touch or pet her when she’s wearing her harness: she’s working. But security folks have to pat her down, and she squirms joyously and wags her tail. (She knows she’s getting away with something.) My quip to the TSA worker that she’s the only creature I know who loves going through airport security almost always gets a laugh.
I put my carry-on back in the wheelchair, and we’re off again.
At the gate, I ask the skycap to guide us to an empty seat as near to the jetway as possible. Whitney gets comfortable under my feet, and when pre-boarding is announced, the walk down the jetway is her easiest task of the day. Impossible to make a wrong turn—just straight ahead and onto the plane.
A flight attendant tells me which row we’re in. “Whitney, forward!” I command, touching seatbacks with my right arm to count each one until we’re at our row.
I slide in, find my seat, command Whitney to come and slide her bottom under the seat in front of me. She never makes a sound.
Most passengers don’t know she’s on board until I stand and grasp her harness so she can lead me off the plane.
Dog lovers who sit next to us marvel at how calm she is during the flight. “You’re lucky,” they say. “I wish I could bring my dog everywhere like you do.”
I was diagnosed with an eye disease called retinopathy when I was 25 years old. A year later, I was completely blind. Loss of sight brought other losses. My books, my sheet music and my photos were the first to go. Next? The beautiful blue Peugeot bicycle my husband Mike had given me a year earlier, just a few months before we were married. Clever foldable wire baskets in back held my work stuff as I pedaled to my university job every morning.
But that job was gone, too. The year was 1986, the Americans with Disabilities Act hadn’t been passed, and the university terminated my contract.
I lost, for a long while, my independence, and had to lean on Mike in ways neither of us had bargained for when we married. My family never had any pets, and I grew up somewhat afraid of dogs. But after two mishaps on busy streets, I was afraid of my white cane, too. I applied for four weeks of training at the Seeing Eye School in Morristown, N.J.
Staff instructors are full-time employees who hold college degrees in all sorts of fields and must complete three years of specialized on-the-job apprenticeships. They had their work cut out for them, teaching me to groom, care for and trust my new dog. After a month in class together, the instructors and the beautiful black Labrador they trained for me won me over. I’ve returned to Morristown to train with each subsequent dog; Whitney is my fourth.
Seeing Eye dogs are born and bred at the school and spend about a year with volunteer puppy-raisers before returning for four months of formal training, which includes learning to ignore other dogs in public spaces. I was taught to be strict with her about this. She likes other dogs, but when she’s working, she can’t play. Or bark. Or sniff. Those behaviors are distractions that can cause guide dogs to lose their focus. The two of us could end up running into things, falling or stepping into traffic.
Distractions are everywhere now that so many people bring therapy and emotional-support dogs into public spaces. I used to be able to walk into a restaurant, a hotel, a grocery store, a library, an airport, a plane and know that the only other dogs we’d come across would be law-enforcement or service dogs who were as well-trained as mine. Those days are over.
In the United States, to legally bring your dog with you everywhere, the Americans with Disabilities Act says you must have a significant disability, and the dog must be trained to perform work or a task that helps you with something your disability prevents you from doing.
Blindness is a significant disability. My dog is why I’m working again, getting around the city on my own and flying. I’m grateful to the U.S. Department of Justice for supporting that right, and I’m grateful to my spunky, smart and sometimes silly dog Whitney for working so hard to keep us safe.
Why would people pawn off dogs who aren’t specially trained as service dogs? Perhaps they don’t realize how hurtful that is to those of us with significant disabilities and how it devalues the work of trained service dogs and the many people—volunteer puppy raisers, fundraisers, breeders, veterinarians, trainers, staff—involved in matching a service dog with someone who needs one. Maybe they don’t value the enormous work, time and expense it requires. Maybe they don’t understand how faking it discounts all that hard work. Surely they can’t comprehend what a hard-earned privilege it is to work alongside a dog who has been specially trained to do a task you can’t do on your own.
If I had the choice between getting my sight back and having to board my dog when I fly somewhere, or needing her along to guide me and keep me from hurting myself, well … that’d be an easy choice.
I wish it were mine to make.