When a Seeing Eye Dog Gets Off Track

A near-accident and a broken foot lead to a career change for Harper
By Beth Finke, November 2011, Updated January 2021

My third Seeing Eye dog is probably the smartest one I’ve ever worked with. Harper learned early on that drivers aren’t looking out for us. He knows we could get hurt out there. So he refuses to lead me far from home.

Harper wasn’t always this way. When we went out with our instructor during training last December, Seeing Eye staff were out and about in vehicles, intentionally cutting in front of us to simulate the behavior of drivers. Harper was excellent at these “traffic checks,” pulling me away from harm’s way, refusing to step into the street if he saw a vehicle coming towards us.

Back home last spring, one of Harper’s heroic traffic checks saved both our lives. He stopped at a busy intersection, I listened, heard the traffic going straight at our parallel, and commanded “forward!”

Harper was watching, though. He pulled us away from a turning vehicle with such force that I fell backward, cracking the back of my head on the concrete. The woman driving the vehicle told me later that she hadn't seen us.

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After that, Harper started showing fear around traffic. A Seeing Eye instructor came out to give me tips on clicker training. Harper started to improve.

And then I broke my foot.

We held onto the hope that time off work might help Harper get his mojo back. That hope was lost after my foot healed. Before, a clicker and a treat would get him going, now Harper—a Labrador Retriever, mind you—is no longer motivated by treats.

The Seeing Eye sent a second instructor, and then a third. Together we determined city life has become too much for Harper. He’ll be moving in with friends in a leafy suburb of Chicago later this month, and then I’ll return to the Seeing Eye after Thanksgiving to be matched with a new partner.

I do not think of my gentle, sweet two-year-old yellow Lab as a failure. John Keane, manager of Instruction and Training at the Seeing Eye, agrees. “Look at it this way,” he told me. “Harper took a bullet for you, and for that, he gets an early retirement.”

Photo by Mary Ivory.

Beth Finke is the author of Safe & Sound, winner of the ASPCA’s Henry Bergh award for children’s literature. Her most recent book is Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors.

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