Shawn was the best $25 I ever spent. He only cost $25 because I got the employee discount. I met Shawn in 2006, when I was halfway through my career as a guide dog mobility instructor; I trained him to be a guide dog. After Shawn was released from the training program at The Seeing Eye, for showing protectiveness over me, I adopted him. He’s lived with me ever since.
This June, my boy turned 10. Technically he’s older than I am, if you take into account dog years. I’m only 42, and he’s pushing 70—perhaps we’re both old men now. But in a way, he’s spryer than I am. He had an early retirement, you might say, never having to endure the rigors of a guide dog career, which lasts, on average, about eight years. I’ve been training dogs like Shawn—a black and tan German Shepherd—for over 11 years now, walking about 12 miles a day, being pulled around town by enthusiastic dogs in all sorts of weather. These days I have lower back pain, knee pain, wrist pain, and have to resort to scarfing down the breakfast of champions every morning—Starbucks coffee and a handful of Advil—after hitting snooze on my alarm three or four times. Shawn, on the other hand, snaps into an upright position at the first note of my alarm, like a linebacker about to blitz the quarterback.
I remember clearly when Shawn came in for training. He had a near-perfect conformation for the breed. Like most German Shepherds, he was an independent thinker. While he was very willing to work and please, in the beginning he would sometimes just do what he wanted to, assuming I’d follow suit. And the way he did everything, the confidence and intelligence with which he did it, was almost enough to make you second-guess yourself. Though he eventually turned into quite a good guide dog, that self-assured independence has never left him.
The training process for dogs at most guide dog schools is about 16 weeks long, and it’s roughly divided into two stages—what you could call “training,” and “testing.” The first two months were spent teaching Shawn his job, and the final two months were spent making sure he knew that job inside and out. In the beginning, for any dog, everything is pretty much just repetition of the basic skills that I want them to learn: pulling in harness, guiding the two of us safely around obstacles, avoiding distractions. At the end of those two months, I work a route around town under blindfold—it’s the dog’s first test to see if he’s been learning what I’ve been teaching him. The second two months are spent having the dog apply those skills to new and varied environments: department stores, office buildings, malls, riding buses, trains and subways in New York City—as Ol’ Blue Eyes once said, if Shawn could make it there, he could make it anywhere.
As you might expect, Shawn picked things up very quickly. Dogs naturally like to walk and explore, so getting him to pull me down the sidewalk while in a harness was no problem. The other basics of guide work he learned just as smoothly. For example, a guide dog is trained to stop at the end of every block, whether that intersection has a stop sign, a stop light, or no traffic control at all—it lets the blind person know where they are and gives them a chance to judge the traffic pattern. So when I got to the end of each block with Shawn, I stopped him intentionally, had him sit at the curb edge, and praised him profusely, basically telling him, “This is where I want you to stop.” After a few repetitions of stopping him at the ends of blocks, I decided to see if he would stop on his own. And bingo: he did.
If Shawn hadn’t stopped at the down-curb, I would have pretended to stumble over the edge, letting him know he had made a mistake. Then, I would have backtracked about 20 paces and repeated the approach, giving him a chance to get it right. And if he did, I’d again have praised him profusely, with a sing-song voice and some vigorous pats to his side. Getting him to guide us both safely around obstacles was pretty similar. On trash day in town, I’d take him down one of the residential streets to run the gauntlet of garbage cans left out for pick-up. For the first garbage can he got me too close to, I would stop him and show it to him by slapping it with my hand, and then continue on. If he happened to get too close to any others, I would pretend to stumble into them—just like I would stumble over the curb edge if he didn’t stop—and then repeat, praise, etc.
Avoiding distraction is one of the toughest things for a guide dog-in-training to deal with, and the main challenges are scents, dogs, squirrels, and people. Dogs have about 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, whereas humans only have about 6 million. It’s a difference of such magnitude that we can’t really comprehend what it’s like. Shawn, just like any other dog, liked to “read the pee-mail”—always dropping his nose to the ground when he discovered that some other dogs had urinated there.
Shawn was never really distracted by other dogs while he was working. He noticed them, of course, but rarely tried to alter our trajectory so he could engage in that singularly disgusting nose-to-anus dog greeting. Even after I adopted him and took him to dog parks, he always just wanted to chase tennis balls. When my arm got tired, he would just sit in front of me and stare at me, even if other dogs wanted to play with him. Speaking of tennis balls, I recently saw a meme on Facebook with a picture of a dog that read, “A squirrel is just a tennis ball thrown by God.” Shawn sure likes his squirrels. One time, when we were working through the park in the center of town, a squirrel suddenly darted out from a bush across our path, right under Shawn’s nose. His reaction was so quick it startled me—the harness actually dropped out of my hand as he lunged for it. I don’t know how he avoided getting whiplash.
As for the people we encountered, Shawn usually treated them with the same indifference with which he treated other dogs. Unlike a Labrador or Golden Retriever, who think everyone is their soulmate, Shawn generally avoided eye contact and regarded them like any other obstacle. That would have been just fine by me, except for the times when he did pay attention to someone. In my experience, German Shepherds are naturally protective of their families and homes; Shawn tends to look upon strangers with suspicion.
I distinctly remember two instances in which his suspicion got the better of him. The first was when we were entering the courthouse to practice going through the metal detectors. After going through the double doors of the building, there was a large police officer standing there like a statue facing us, whose uniform was one color from head to toe. Shawn stopped suddenly, his hackles rose, and a low growl resolved into a baleful woof. I asked the officer to smile and say hello, and that seemed to assuage Shawn’s apprehension. The second time was when we were walking down the street and an old man with a cane came walking toward us, slightly hunched over. This time, Shawn didn’t stop, but he slowed, gave the old man the stink-eye, and let out that same low growl as he passed.
As you can probably imagine, a suspicious, growling, barking guide dog doesn’t make for very good public relations—imagine enjoying lunch in your favorite restaurant with a friend when a blind person comes in with a dog that looks like he’d thrash you as soon as look at you. So my training manager reluctantly released Shawn from the program. And since the family that raised him couldn’t take him back, I jumped at the chance to adopt him. Not only was he beautiful, smart, and fun, but because I lived alone, I also didn’t mind his protectiveness. I’m happy that Shawn is my Shepherd.
Shawn and I are more alike than you might imagine; at this point, I don’t know if he’s become more like me or I’ve become more like him. Like Shawn, I tend to admit a certain few people into my circle of close friendship, and only after keeping them at a distance for a bit. I also have a few things I obsess over and get passionate about, and tend to become consumed by—the music of Led Zeppelin, bird-watching, cooking, writing. I’m also an inveterate independent thinker, much to the chagrin of my manager—always pursuing what I believe to be the right way to train and teach. But perhaps the biggest similarity between Shawn and I is the ability to not sweat the small stuff. I don’t know if I learned it from him, or if it just comes with age, but it’s better to be like a German Shepherd and not hold a grudge, than dwell on things that are forever out of my control.
* * *
Though Shawn never had a chance to be matched with a blind person, I’ve matched other German Shepherds with some of my blind students over the past 11 years. When I first met Larry, he looked older than his 74 years would indicate. He was small and delicate, maybe 5’8” and had a very wiry frame. His face, neck, and arms were covered with discolored patches. He would sometimes get dizzy upon standing, and walked with a hitch in his step. He was completely blind, and when he told me how it happened, I almost didn’t believe him. He said he had survived two plane crashes in his lifetime.
After he told me this, he took me into his little study and showed me two framed newspaper articles above his desk, which were bounded by framed pictures of military planes I didn’t recognize. The first article was disturbing.
A Lockheed Neptune P2V-6 was reported missing on July 19, 1957. The P2V-6 departed Port Lyautey, Morocco early on the morning of July 19 for a flight to Treviso, Italy.
Larry said the weather conditions were forecasted to deteriorate significantly throughout the day, so he didn’t know why the pilot had decided to take off.
The P2V-6 struck a mountain at 2,591 meters at a high rate of speed during its descent… Larry Montgomery, Aviation Machinist’s Mate Second Class, survived but received extensive burns to his body and was seriously injured. He was the only survivor.
“The altitude—2,591 meters—is about 8,500 feet,” Larry told me. “The crash happened in the Alps on the Italian side of the French-Italian border. Our pilot flew into a box canyon and then had no room to turn around and not enough power to climb out.” Larry, who was in the tail of the plane, was thrown out, and landed in a tree. He was badly burned while trying to help one of the other crew members in the crash—which explained the discolored patches of skin on his body. “Ironically, we were on a recon mission to find one of our other planes we had lost contact with,” he said.
Then I read the other article, a brief news item in the local paper from 1975:
A 35-year-old man was killed and two other residents critically injured Monday when their small plane crashed on an airstrip at the municipal airport. The two injured persons—16-year-old David Muller and 37-year-old Larry Montgomery—were listed in critical condition at the facility.
This was the crash that blinded him. What’s even more bizarre is that Larry was the lone survivor from this crash; David, the 16-year-old, died from his injuries later at the hospital. And what’s tragic is that David was the son of the pilot, who was Larry’s best friend. Apparently, they had just taken off in their little prop-engine plane and Larry’s friend wanted to “buzz” one of their other friends standing on the airstrip. But Larry’s friend banked too soon and lost thrust, and they ended up almost nose-diving into the runway.
56 years after the crash in the Alps, and 38 years after the crash that left him blind, Larry has somehow managed to have a good outlook on life. Though he remembers each tragedy clearly, he doesn’t dwell; he looks forward to each day as it comes. I jokingly told him that I was going to hire him to fly with me from now on, because fate can’t possibly be so cruel as to inflict another crash on him. He laughingly declined.
After asking Larry if he felt up to meeting his new guide, I walked out to the van and get Jackson, a two-year-old male German Shepherd. Jackson made it through four months of training without any signs of protectiveness. I’m not surprised, though, because not all German Shepherds end up channeling their inner cynic—it’s just that if they do get released from the program, it’s usually due to that suspicious nature. Jackson is a little more sensitive than Shawn was, which is why I decided to match him with Larry. Throughout training he was always very aware of changes in my demeanor, and responded to them.
For instance, when out for a walk under blindfold with each of my dogs, I tend to walk a bit like a drunk, I even feel a little drunk—and not in a good way. My balance is off, my gait is shorter, my grip on the harness handle is tighter, and I tend to startle when I brush up against something. A guide dog feels all of that. Some, like Shawn, shrug it off and plow ahead. But others, like Jackson, become more cautious, sizing up every potential obstacle.
Matching a guide dog with a blind person is the toughest part of the job. There’s one thing that absolutely has to match up, or the pair won’t even get off the ground, so to speak, and that’s pace. Just like people, dogs like to walk at different paces when they’re in harness. Some dogs like to walk at a really brisk speed, about 4.5 mph (next time you’re on a treadmill, crank it up to 4.5 mph and see how long you can walk like that—then imagine being blind and walking that fast), while others are happy to saunter at around 2.5 mph. If I were to match a dog that typically walks at a faster pace with a 65-year-old with neuropathy in her feet from diabetes, it could be potentially disastrous. On the contrary, if I tried to match a slower dog with a 19-year-old, athletic college student, that student could end up being very frustrated.
Besides finding the right pace, you have to take into consideration the blind person’s daily routine. Are they a college student on a complicated campus? Do they work in a cubicle 50 hours a week? Do they use the bus, train, and subway to commute into Manhattan every day, or are they retired and only walk a mile or two each day for exercise? Giving someone who is fairly sedentary a dog who can’t sit still for long periods of time without getting antsy wouldn’t be fair to the dog, just as it isn’t fair to give an active blind person a dog that’s lacking in the stamina department.
Lastly, you have to assess the blind person’s handling capabilities. Do they have a realistic understanding of dog psychology? Are they physically able to handle a young, medium-large dog like a German Shepherd or Labrador Retriever? As every dog owner knows, some dogs are easier to manage than others. Some are like little toddlers that you always have to keep tabs on; if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. It’s not because they’re evil; it’s just in their immature nature to be that way. Other dogs are more submissive and accommodating, either because they’re afraid of upsetting their pack leader, or because they simply enjoy being in the presence of their human companion and travel partner, and have no strong desire to stir the pot.
Which brings us back to Larry. His body has been broken by not one but two airplane crashes, and his orientation to his environment isn’t all that great—he has trouble detecting when he goes off course, even when he uses his long white cane. At the end of his training with Jackson, I told Larry how well he did and how nice they looked together, and that they were off to a great start. “And don’t worry, Larry, he won’t lead you into any box canyons,” I told him, “I promise.” Jackson is the perfect match for him because he won’t challenge him like some impudent grandchild; he’ll be extra cautious around obstacles because of his frail physique, and his German Shepherd loyalty and adoration will make Larry feel like he’s no longer a lone survivor.
That’s another reason I love Shawn. Though he’s still as much an independent thinker as he ever was, I know he always has my back. I know that no matter how I’m feeling, whether delighted or depressed, busy or bored, he’s always the most stable presence in my life. Shawn is my shepherd.