Now that my first triathlon is over as a visually impaired Athlete, I realized that there’s someone who has been my biggest cheerleader, comic relief, training partner, transportation to and from workouts, and protector at many times- My Guiding Eyes Labrador, Elvis. This accomplishment would never have been possible without his daily encouragement, goofiness and cooperation on days I simply didn’t want to leave the house.
His biggest role started last year when I fell and broke my foot, forcing me to be in a cast for nearly 8 weeks of the most breautiful weather. Elvis and I have never been apart for more than 3 hours in my entire 4 year partnership with him. The only time Elvis didn’t come with me as my guide was at the public beach during the summer, where the sand was too hot, and he wasn’t allowed to swim due to the public nature of the beach. Legally, I could bring him, but he would have to stay working in harness under an umbrella, and that just seemed to me like some awful form of torture, as he is truly water obsessed. So, he would relax in the AC while my family and friends headed to the beach on a hot day.
After my broken foot, Elvis’ vet had discovered a benign growth on his eyelid that needed to be removed before it obstructed his vision (how ironic is that! A guide dog with a vision obstruction!) So given that I was on crutches initially after my fall, I couldn’t use Elvis as my guide anyway, so we timed the procedure perfectly, and off he went for ten days to Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s veterinary Hospital, where he would recover and be treated with medicine each day.
Ideally, I would have had him recover at home, but having a dog with the ‘cone of shame’ on his already giant Labrador neck, combined with an unsteady blind girl on crutches was a bad mix. One of us would have ended up injured more than we already were, and I was also unable to take him outside of my apartment complex to go to the bathroom. So with a tearful goodbye, off he went.
I felt like my left arm had been amputated. Elvis is always an extension of my body, always at my side the moment I leave my front door. I simply do not leave the house without him. Ever. This feeling was haunting me this week, causing me to have complete unrest, as I was constantly waking up and reaching for him, to reassure myself that he wasn’t really gone and that I had imagined him leaving. The cat however thought his absence boded well for him, and he took full advantage of the situation by playing with Elvis’ stuffed toys and sleeping in the dog bed.
Each day I felt a little more hollow and empty, and I began cyber stalking the poor vet, Dr. Jody Sandler, a sainted man who was kind and patient enough to deal with my barrage of questions about Elvis’ well being. Elvis’ days were spent hanging out in one of the employees’ offices at Guiding Eyes at their training facility, so he could relax and be a dog, not having to stay crated 24/7 in the hospital. I started to feel a little bit better.
When Elvis finally came back to me, I was still hobbling along in a walking cast, a giant plastic boot that made me walk like a robot. He was extremely cautious in his steps, adjusting his normally bouncy trot to a slow, deliberate, halting walk, checking up at me with each step, making eye contact to be sure I was ok with this pace. It broke my heart. It really felt like he was feeling responsible for my injury or that he was worried about me. His head hung low and his ears were lifted in his stress position. The only time I ever saw him exhibit signs of stress was when he either made a mistake (which was extremely rare), or if I tripped over a crack in the sidewalk (which was often when I lived in the horrible town of Fairfield with its dreadfully maintained walkways). He would cower in those situations as if the injury of my toes was to him as well, and then he would tiptoe forward with extreme caution, nervous that it would happen again, and determined not to allow it. ” What an amazing dog”, I thought to myself, as we made our first big trip to the pharmacy with my dreaded boot.
Elvis laid at my side at the Orthopedist’s office as I asked him an important question. “When can I exercise, and what can I do? I’m desperate with all of this weight gain!” Dr. Nocek agreed to allow me to gently swim using a belt and do some ‘Aqua jogging” provided that I didn’t push it with my foot too much. Agreed. Elvis assumed on the first ride to the YMCA that we were just going for a car ride with my friend Carol. When we stopped a few short moments later at the Y down the street, he hopped out eagerly, ready to work. The building was not easily handicap accessible, so we had to use a hydraulic lift beside the building to get up to the pool level. Elvis stepped inside the contraption, wagged his tail, and we were slowly elevated to the pool deck. Once inside the building, his tail wagged furiously, beating my left leg like a fuzzy stick. Ah, water. I sensed I may have some difficulty keeping his focus, but he guided me around the wet, slippery pool deck like the pro that he is.
The locker room was busy with elderly women preparing for their aqua fit session with coach Betsey. She was a Labrador person, so Elvis was eager to sniff and greet her, as she talked me through what we were about to do. The surprised giggles and squeals of the ladies in the locker room as they rounded the corner to the aisle where I was getting changed, and Elvis laid patiently was rather amusing. He carefully guided me back to the pool deck, and I found a set of metal bleachers to tie him to within eyesight of where I would be swimming. I put him in a down-stay, and gingerly made my way to the pool’s edge, keeping a close eye on him for any movement.
His head was upright and his ears were alert, and I heard a muffled whine come from his thick throat. “No, Stay,” I said more firmly this time. Elvis let out a dramatic sigh, and continued his concerned stare. I shrieked at the cold as I lowered my body into the pool. This was as much ammo as Elvis needed to release himself from his down-stay, and he popped up, pulling at the leash and wagging in my direction. Again I corrected him. He protested with a whine, and laid gingerly back on the wet tiles. I started treading water in the deep pool, facing Elvis the entire time, assuring him each time I moved further and further away. He was clearly not happy with this arrangement, but after several weeks of the same, he relented and would relax enough that I could stop the eye contact and get on with my workout. His eyes never left me in the water. I felt both terrible for his mental torture, and so proud of him at the same time. He would get used to this.
After my foot had healed, Elvis eagerly would take me the 4 blocks from my apartment to the YMCA, zigging and zagging our way through the busy streets of Greenwich. Occasionally it would take some extra convincing on my part, mostly due to the fact that our favorite park was one block in the opposite direction. I figured out fairly quickly that the key to Elvis’ happiness at these YMCA workouts was to stop at the park, and use my ball launcher for at least 30 minutes to tire him out so that he could sleep and settle down during my swims. The formula seemed to be the perfect mix and we both got our much needed exercise.
When I started spinning on a stationary cycle, I did so alone in between the class sessions to avoid embarrassing myself, and allowing myself to build my fitness at my own pace. I would enter the quiet bike room and find a thick yoga mat for Elvis to lie on. I’d put on my headphones and start cycling for anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes. When my fitness was finally able to sustain an entire hour, I signed up for my first spin class. The confused stares as we walked into the spin room that Saturday were quite amusing. As I set out his mat, the instructor expressed her concern for him with the noise of the music. I assured her that Elvis had been to rock concerts, parades, and many 4th of July parties that would be far louder than her dance music. Not to worry.
As is the bain of my existence, a well-meaning woman came up and started baby-talking to Elvis, telling him how sweet, adorable and handsome he was. Ugh. I truly feel it’s one of the rudest things well-intentioned people can do. It would creep people out if I walked up to their child without addressing the parent first, and the same applied here. Plus, most people have not been educated that ANY speaking to, or touching of, a service animal is strictly forbidden. Why? He is an animal- not a robot. If someone starts making sweet clucking or encouraging noises at him, he’s going to MOVE. A guide dog is the blind person’s wheelchair for all intents and purposes. MOVING someone’s wheelchair from where it’s accesible to the disabled person is cruel and unusual punishment. Having my dog move from where I THOUGHT I put him is a huge danger to me. That’s why it is forbidden. However, people are people, and usually ignorant when it comes to these things.
To add insult to injury, she asked ELVIS, not me, if his training was going well. I take offense to people thinking that I am training my dog. I so WISH I was training a guide dog. It’s awfully presumptive and makes me feel bad when someone doesn’t realize I have an invisible disability. Most people would think I find it flattering that I don’t appear blind. I think it’s just rude and presumptuous. I responded, “No, Elvis’ training was done 4 years ago before I lost my sight. I appreciate how cute he is, but please don’t distract him while he’s working. He is busy taking care of me right now. Thank you.” She flushed a deep shade of purple and headed off to her bike.
As expected, Elvis intently watched me for the first few minutes of the class. As he realized that I wasn’t actually going anywhere on this type of bike, he finally relaxed, leaned over on his side, and passed out. Over the following months he developed quite a fan club, and the nice men and women in my class did an excellent job of explaining Elvis to any newbies that joined us to save me the long explanation of why there was a giant Labrador sleeping in front of my bike with a big leather harness on.
Elvis and I made the trip to an event called “Help our Military Heroes” that hosted a spinathon for wounded veterans to acquire handicap accessible vans. The smiles on the vets faces as they met Elvis warmed my heart. These men and women had faced their own personal physical and emotional challenges, and I felt such a strong connection to them because of my new disability. I wanted to help in any way I could. If that meant biking, and allowing Elvis to give some well-timed Labrador licks, then so be it. Elvis laid between myself and a Marine who was a double amputee in the spin room. The Marine had an awesome hand-cycle that was outfitted to a bike trainer that allowed it to convert to be a stationary hand bike. We exchanged smiles as Elvis rested comfortably between us, and I was happy that Elvis could bring some joy to this veteran’s day, even if only for an hour.
I returned to Greenwich ready to up my game. Elvis and I were now at the gym 5 days a week, swimming and spinning like a madwoman. I had since graduated from Aqua Fit to full on lap swimming, which had its own period of adjustment for poor Elvis. Aqua Fit was a more stationary, ‘splashless’ form of pool jogging. Freestyle swimming introduced splashing, speed, and traveling away from him with my head sumberged. None of these things thrilled Elvis, and we were back to his hyper-vigilence. The lifeguards got a kick out of watching him, watching me. I could tell that half of it was that Elvis genuinely wanted to join in the fun, and the other half was his concern that splashing equaled distresss, and that he must save me immediately.
Just as I was starting to run with Elvis at the park, Elvis was attacked by an off leash dog, causing me to sprain my ankle and be back in the dreaded boot. Fortunately my fitness was good at this point, so I was able to come back to cycling and pool swimming within a few weeks. The setback was tough on both of us mentally. He had not reacted during the attack, and had instead made himself into a tiny ball as the dog continued to bite him. I kicked and pulled the vicious dog off of him, screaming at the top of my lungs. Elvis was shaking violently on the ground after the attack, and there was little I could do to console him. Guiding Eyes sent out a field rep a few days later to check up on us to see how we fared as a team. Their concern was in making sure that he got right back to work, and didn’t show any signs of fear or aggression in the presence of other dogs. I was terrified to leave the house.
Fortunately, Elvis LOVES food- even more than swimming, and will leap tall buildings in order to receive a treat. My trainer suggested I whip out the ‘big guns’, also known in the dog world, as “high value treats”, something Elvis never gets to have, except on special occasions. This was such an occasion to bring out the dehydrated duck breast he so dearly loved.
The plan was to stuff him full of duck each time I heard or saw a dog nearby, making him sit, and keeping his eye contact on me the whole time. This way he would continue to associate very positive things (duck) with the presence of other dogs. I shook each time a dog came into earshot, but brought out the duck each and every time, and we worked through it together. His guide work became more intense, more focused. His head swiveled left and right like a shark in the water, searching, searching for any obstacle or issue that may injury me or cause us to re-route. He stopped abruptly at even the tiniest sidewalk crack, and alerted me to each and every low-hanging tree or bush that impeded our route. His collar jingled with the bounce and intention in his strong, muscular steps, and I began to relax. He had it covered.
The physical therapists were not happy to see me back again with another injury to the same foot, but delighted to have Elvis back in their office while I got tortured and iced for an hour three days a week. He knew the drill- walk me off the elevator, wag a happy hello to the sweet receptionists, and head over to the treatment area for laser and massage to warm up the ankle. Elvis snoozed beside the bed. After about 7 weeks of Physical Therapy, my therapist and I agreed that I could finish my progress at home on my own, and save myself a little money in the process. Elvis and I said our sad goodbye to the whole office, and headed back to the Y for our training.
I started run-walking as my ankle permitted on the treadmill. Elvis loved to put his giant head on the edge of the mill, staring adoringly up into my eyes as I ran. I always worried I was going to kick his nose by accident, but he seemed to place his head perfectly- not to close but certainly not far enough. His head would gently bounce with the mill when I increased my speed. It never seemed to bother him, and acted more as a lullaby to lull him to sleep. Occasionally I’d have to put him on a treadmill next to mine if I couldn’t get one on an end where he could comfortably rest. The moment my legs stopped moving, he’d pop up and be ready to go, as though watching me run was simply the most boring thing he’d ever seen. He would lead me to the sanitizing wipes first, then take me back to the treadmill to wipe it down. It amazed me that he knew the word “machine” that I had taught him a few years back to simplify our gym routine. He knew how to find the machine I would be working out on, the water fountain, the garbage to dispose the wipes, and the stretch area for after my cardio workout.
The stretching area presented a humorous challenge for Elvis and I. The moment I sat down on the mat beside him, all bets were off. I had to prepare for a “Labra-bath” like no one had ever seen. His obsession with lotion had not been so well received by ladies after their shower in the locker room. His new love of licking sweat left me laughing, ticklish, and grossed out at the same time. He would pop up from his down stay if I wasn’t paying close attention, and proceed to slowly walk around to my blind right side, and sneak in a well timed, well-placed lick- usually on my eye or right on the mouth. Gross!! I would squeal in surprise, to which he would wag feverishly, and pace back and forth over my lap, extremely well pleased with himself for committing the act of surprise. A guide dog with a sense of humor. Yup, I needed that!
Typically this would attract a few laughs or stares from other gym goers, and often would lead to conversations about dogs in general and how wonderful it was to have such a loyal, comedic companion. I would eventually entice Elvis back down onto the mat, and stretch my hamstrings extensively. He felt he needed to help by holding my legs down with his giant head, or occasionally a heavy paw and forearm across my knees to hold them down. What a helper, I thought to myself. The worst was situps. At first he would hover over my head, licking my forehead each time I tried to come up from the floor. That wasn’t going to work, so I placed him beside me. Again, the giant head acted as resistance and the perfect anchor on my chest and stomach each time I tried to situp. It gave a whole new meaning to resisted crunches. I laughed and continued as best I could. This was as much freedom as he was going to allow.
As the days of my first triathlon started looming, I arranged for my first open water swim with my guide while visiting her in Texas. About ten minutes into our swim, we reached the far side of the quarry, and I turned around to gaze back at the dock we had left from. Suddenly I realized that Elvis was about ten strokes behind us, paddling furiously to catch up. “Oh my God,” I thought. “How is he going to get back to the dock?” Elvis is a fantastic swimmer- one of the best dogs I’ve ever seen, but this was FAR! When Elvis reached us, he began swimming figure 8′s around us, his yellow feet getting caught in the rubber tether tying Heather and I together. I tried pushing him off to the side to keep his sharp claws from scratching us, and to encourage him to swim beside me, but not in front of me, but it was no use. He was determined to ‘herd’ us back to the dock or to join us. We couldn’t swim forward, as he kept blocking us and getting tangled, so we breast-stroked to the far side of the lake, where I flagged down a jogger up on the ridge.
“Excuse me!” I shouted. “Can you help me? My Guide dog jumped in the water to rescue me, but he needs to get back to that dock on the far side of the lake, and I’m worried he won’t make it in the water. Can you jog him back over there to my friend?” The guy laughed and offered to take Elvis for me, who was clearly getting tired and exasperated with my lack of cooperation. Heather and I were finally able to get in a groove, gliding smoothly through the black water, and I peeked up at the ridge to see how Elvis was making out on his safe return. To my dismay, he was hurtling towards us again down the side of the quarry. I had a feeling he wouldn’t stay with a stranger for very long. Back in the water he leapt. So much for that idea.
Fortunately by the time Elvis reached us again, he was just tired enough that he stopped swimming circles around us, and contented himself with swimming between us. We laughed and joked that he was worried about his job security, and was assuring Heather that he was capable of guiding me in the water. We swam him back to the dock, where poor Peter apologized profusely and snapped the leash on him. Elvis whined in protest as we set out for another lap, determined to nail our timing and communication down, so that I could swim without bumping into her or straying too far off course. We finished the course and headed back to the dock, much to Elvis’ delight. I learned that in the future he’ll need to be out of sight or tied up to something solid to prevent more swimming episodes!
Elvis had run with me on occasion, and our paces were well matched thanks to Guiding Eyes’ crack team of dog matchers. Anything less than 5 miles, and he and I would easily cover the distance. Though as he was getting older, the runs themselves would leave him quite tired the next day, with little gas in the tank. Because I needed him sharp during his real work, I decided that I should find a new way to run; either on my own on a track, or in a group with a person as my guide. In preparation for my triathlon, I was really concerned about how well I would tolerate the heat during my race, so I decided to head out for a run at the local track on a 93 degree day. It was way too hot for poor Elvis, who himself was not very heat tolerant either. I brought lots of water with ice in it, and walked down to the old dirt track behind Greenwich Town Hall.
The track was empty with the exception of one town employee who was bravely walking laps in the mid day sun. I found a shady area next to some bleachers and tied Elvis up with his bowl of water. I was excited to be able to run with music outdoors for a change, as running with earphones is not something a visually impaired runner gets to do safely. “Hey,” I thought. “I’m on a track! This is great! I’m going to rock out to some tunes!” I planned on doing an easy two miles just to start and get acclimated without pushing it too much. I put Elvis in a down-stay, and off I ran. I waved happily at the woman walking as I passed her and smiled at my freedom and this brilliant training plan I had come up with.
I passed Elvis in his shaded spot, and gave him lots of praise as I sipped my water and continued down the track. WHAM! I fell backwards- HARD. “WHAT THE?” I yelled out loud. I looked up from my unexpected seat on the ground to see what I hit. A TRUCK! Yes, a TRUCK! The driver leaned out the side window, “Hey lady, are you OK?” I sat there, baffled, really not sure. I touched my bruised collarbone and started to laugh- hysterically- like a crazy person. “YES!” I choked out. “I’m fine! WHAT are you doing on the track?” I was totally puzzled. “Lady, I’m here to mow the grass. I was just parking here in the shade.” I looked at the truck and started laughing again. It figured! The ONE time I feel cocky enough to run alone on a track, and I have the great luck of running into a parked landscaping truck. Sweet. I looked over at poor Elvis, who at this point was beside himself with upset and interest in my predicament on the ground. I hobbled over to his spot by the bleachers, cooing to him about what a good boy he was. He wagged, and paced, doing figure 8’s between my legs. If a dog could ever say, “I told you so”, he was absolutely saying it now. “I’m so sorry buddy! I promise NEVER to do that again,” I laughed.
I joined a group of disabled athletes in New York City known as Achilles International. This group provided guides for athletes with every imaginable type of disability, and also provided tandem cycles and adaptive equipment to help each athlete pursue their goals. My first meeting with this amazing group was so overwhelming. That first night, I took the train with Elvis from my home in Connecticut 45 minutes to the city. Elvis knows how to find the #6 train in the subway, and promptly brought me down the stairs in search of the next train to 86th street. From there, we navigated curbs, traffic and scaffold to reach our destination; the NY Road Runners’ Club, where Achilles meets twice a week.
I was shocked to see 5 other guide dogs with their visually impaired and blind handlers by their side. I had never seen so many guide dogs in one place before. The sight was both surprising and comforting. These folks wanted their fitness and independence back too. I was getting excited. Elvis was totally pumped to be surrounded by cute Labradors. Most were Yellow like him, with one Black, and a handsome German Shepherd from my friend’s Guide Dog School, Fidelco. Elvis helped me inside to find a cubby to store my bag and jacket. We all followed one another over one block to Central Park, where volunteer dog walkers awaited us, so that we could run with a sighted guide person while our dogs got to play with each other. Elvis happily jogged and wagged the entire block to the park.
Andy, a sweet man who loved dogs, was my volunteer to watch Elvis. I was extremely nervous leaving him with a complete stranger. A million terrible thoughts went through my mind. “What if the man steals him? What if another aggressive dog comes by and I’m not there to save him? What if he gets loose and tries to find me? Will he listen to this person?” These thoughts and more made me freeze as I reluctantly handed over the leash. I gave Andy explicit instructions on how to walk with Elvis (guide dogs always travel on the left side), and showed him some basic commands. After giving him my cell phone number in case he had a problem, I handed over a fistful of treats and took off at a run with my guides, looking over my shoulder until he faded from sight.
As I rounded the final turn on our run, I began to sprint towards the finish area, where I knew Elvis would anxiously be waiting. The moment he heard my voice, I saw him drag poor Andy towards me in a burst of excitement. He leapt for joy and tossed his head like a wild dog in his exuberance. It was quite a display and everyone started to laugh. What a good dog!
For my very first triathlon, I had debated about what to do with Elvis while I competed. I knew that my mother wouldn’t be able to hold him if he was determined to be by my side, and had concerns that he would be too upset seeing me in the water again, and attempt his very own triathlon. My guide Caroline offered her boyfriend as a suitable dog watcher, as he was strong and authoritative, having been a Marine for many years. Being in charge of an upset guide dog made him the perfect man for the job. I relaxed, as I knew that Elvis would be in good hands, and would settle under Jared’s calm authority.
The day of the race loomed, and Elvis picked up immediately on my nerves and tension. He was constantly underfoot as I paced my apartment, checking and rechecking my knapsack for the race and packing the cooler for the transition area. His quiet, steady presence calmed me, and his goofy stuffed reindeer toy that he insisted upon carrying around like a baby, made me laugh out loud. At the race, I decided that Elvis would be happiest if his harness were left on. He would stay more in ‘work’ mode, as compared to ‘pet’ mode, and be more cooperative for Jared. Also, I was concerned that people might bring their pets and try to allow them to sniff or say hello to Elvis. I knew Elvis would be stressed without me by his side, and didn’t want the risk of a poorly socialized dog that may attack him under Jared’s care. I knew that the harness would be the signal for other dog owners to stay away and keep their dogs closely by their side.
As Caroline and I waded into the mighty Hudson River, I looked back at Jared and Elvis, who was anxiously waiting at the top of the water’s edge, watching us from their perch. Elvis began to whine; no scream, to me in protest. He was NOT happy with this arrangement. I shouted up to him from my spot in the water, “SIT! EASY boy!” to which he sat and piped down. The crowd roared with laughter at our communication from so far away from each other. It was a great moment. He would be fine, I told myself, once I was out of sight. THe gun went off and we swam the Hudson. I heard him whine as Caroline and I ran from the river to the first transition area where my bike awaited us. I smiled and continued to focus on the race. He would be ok, as long as I didn’t engage him. Coming back in from the bike, I caught a glimpse of a wagging yellow tail by transition, and I knew that it was him. He was cheering us on!
After crossing the finish line, I hugged Caroline tightly, so grateful that she had kept me safe for a total of nearly 14 miles. Mom and my stepfather Rick were both there to give me a warm hug of congratulations, which meant the world to me, having them there. But there was only one man I wanted to see and get a kiss from when I reached that finish line. The one who had stood by me over the past four years of surgeries, chemo, injuries, workouts and emotional challenges. My biggest cheerleader, my steady training partner, my confidante, my comic relief, my daily protector, my eyes, and best friend, Elvis.