34: Beyond the Fear

34: Beyond the Fear

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog

Beyond the Fear

To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.

~Bertrand Russell

“A guide dog could be your eyes,” a well-intentioned friend said to me. Was he joking? Over several years, family and friends watched while a retina disease robbed me of my sight. My blindness added to the problem of not wanting a dog near me. “Dogs scare me,” I told my friend. Sudden movements startled me. My hands turned to ice if a dog ran over to greet me.

Having control brought a sense of comfort to my world. Four-legged creatures seemed too unpredictable. They moved quickly and I couldn’t see them coming. If I heard the jingle of collar tags, I curled my hands into tight fists. Panting sounds which moved closer and closer triggered an inner alarm. A visit to the dentist seemed more desirable than a dog’s lick.

The anxiety was bad enough, but dealing with neighbors who had pets brought more stress. “My dog won’t hurt you,” they’d say, but it didn’t calm me. Americans love to love their dogs. People treat their canines like family members. Their attitude puzzled me. Secretly I wished friends would put their dogs in a room far away from me. Fortunately, few of my friends and family had dogs.

But I did feel like prey walking in my neighborhood with my white cane. Terror melted my self-esteem. Taking a daily walk wasn’t fun anymore. As my world shrank, I sought a solution. Staying active ranked high on my list. So that suggestion from my friend seeped into my soul. If getting a dog worked, great. The bonus might be more independence and that would be priceless. If I found that having a guide dog wasn’t for me, I could close this chapter forever. I applied to the guide dog school.

One day, a letter in our bundle of mail caught my husband’s eye. Nervous with anticipation, Don fumbled with his glasses. He read the letter addressed to me, “You are accepted at the Seeing Eye Guide Dog School.” Now, my denial lost its luster. Until this moment, the application process was merely filling and sending out forms. I grimaced and asked, “When does class begin?” February seemed a long way off, but time snuck up on me.

When we arrived at the school, I put my hand on the doorknob and I muttered to myself, “Here I am at Dog Camp USA.” Don and I were greeted by several staff members. One of them was the dog trainer. He would coach five other students and me and select a dog for each of us. My hearing is good, but I was so distracted that I couldn’t remember his name. “Call me Mr. O,” he said. Then, Don gave me a hug before leaving. Tears pricked at the back of my eyes. The door slammed behind Don. I listened while his footsteps faded down the hall. Our home was hours away, so I wouldn’t see him any time soon. Being a quitter never appealed to me, yet I felt stuck, like a person who hates spiders being told to bond with one. Surely, being a student for twenty-seven days would seal my fate.

Sitting across the table from Mr. O, I blurted out, “I’m afraid of dogs.” He was silent for a moment, but then found a way to work with my problem. “You don’t have to bond with every dog you meet, just one,” he advised. Going back to my room, the phrase he used stuck in my brain. “One dog at a time,” played over and over like a favorite line in a song and calmed me a little.

Day two of the training, I met my “spider.” The trainer called me from my room. I joined him at a student lounge where he pushed a leather leash into my hand. “Meet Misty. She’s a fifty-pound female German Shepherd.” My weak knees betrayed my smile. Her large size probably guaranteed that she had large teeth to match. “Don’t you want to look her over?” All I knew was that I didn’t want to touch her mouth. Misty panted and sniffed me, so she surely picked up on my fear. Then, Mr. O suggested, “Go back to your room and get to know her.”

As she hauled me, my feet seemed to slide over the floor. She found my room easily. How did Misty know where I was staying? But still, I wasn’t impressed enough. Shivers ran up my arms and the expression “cold feet” had more meaning. I forced my fingers to trace her head. Her rubbery nose and rough tongue were odd sensations for my fingertips. Misty had a tapered snout and ears that stood up. “Is she a wolf or a dog?” Misty, eager for attention, nuzzled me as I collapsed on the edge of the bed. “Please sit over there,” I said, waving her away. She padded to her rug. Finally, I heard her paw the rug and settle down. Meanwhile, I had a chance to breathe, but not for long.

“Oh no, here she comes again.” Misty’s determination surpassed mine. Once again, the sound of her clinking tags moved toward me and she licked me like I was a piece of meat. Her plea for attention kept up for hours, so I held her leash. That way, there were no surprises and I always knew where she was. Misty acted like a determined lover and I was on my first date.

I shared a room with another blind woman, who played on the floor with her dog. She said, “Come touch him. He’s so soft.” “Maybe later,” I said, thinking, “probably not.” Misty started to pull me toward the door. She sensed Mr. O’s arrival even before he knocked on our door. My dog’s wagging tail slapped my legs. Her erect ears brushed my hand. These were signs of happiness, I knew. Learning to read Misty’s behavior was one of many firsts. Opening the door, I said, “She’s devoted to you.” He chuckled, “She will be as loyal to you, if you let her. Right now, come to a lecture on grooming your dog.” This instruction would be one of many—planting the seeds of responsible dog ownership.

The first night Misty slept in my room, I had a small victory but not the way I’d hoped. The instructions were to put her on a short chain near the head of my bed. I was so exhausted that I stretched out on the bed, fully dressed. Rolling over on my left side, I felt Misty’s warm breath on my face. She must have looked like a sentry, standing guard over me. To escape my discomfort, I rolled to the other side of the bed. Now, my roommate’s pup stood and breathed on me. “Lie down,” I said to any dog who might obey. Covering my head with a pillow, I made a barricade. My blindness kept me from seeing those sharp, pointed teeth.

The next morning, Mr. O called my name. As I stepped out of the van, I just wanted this ordeal to be over. “Carol, good luck.” I heard each student shout from the van as I waited for Mr. O’s instructions. Irritation crept into my voice. “Luck?” I snapped. “I need courage.” It was my turn to take that first walk. Could I remember what we learned at the lectures? Usually, my nimble fingers never failed me, but today they were clumsy. “Check the leash and harness,” I heard Mr. O say. To my relief, all the buckles and snaps were fastened correctly.

I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and gave the command, “forward.” The energy in my voice surprised me, but not as much as the power of Misty’s pull. We lurched forward. Dropping the handle, I let out a big breath before beginning again. We moved ahead with more poise, and then fell into step like dancers. Her paws and my sneakers patted on the concrete. Misty led, setting a rhythmic pace. The movement of her body pulsed down the harness. I gripped the leather bar, hoping to read more of this language between us. Shocked at this new communication with her, I couldn’t ignore the chink in my fear. Little did I know that Misty was learning to read me, too. Mr. O, following a couple of paces behind, said, “That’s good.” A spontaneous smile lit up my face. Yet, learning to trust Misty’s pull would still take some time.

Sun streamed on my face. I pictured us bathed in a new light; maybe Misty felt it, too. I smiled when I realized that I, who was so skeptical, was thinking about the dog’s feelings. The wind tossed my hair as our walk became more brisk. The feeling of independence boosted my confidence and reinforced my determination to go on. “One dog at a time” turned into “one day at a time.”

Then, as weeks became months, I tallied all we had done together. Going to the corner store seemed easy with Misty by my side. Crossing busy streets to meet friends at a local restaurant became routine. Since I wasn’t alone, I didn’t feel vulnerable. I learned from my new best friend, Misty, that with her by my side, I had the courage to walk on—through the fear. Misty’s loyalty allowed me to find a trust like I had never known.

~Carol Fleischman

More stories from our partners