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From Dog LessonsHow Raising a Guide Dog Taught Me to See


        Every bad decision I've made in my life has been the result of failing to follow my gut. From career choices to financial decisions, it is not my head that alerts me when I'm making a mistake. Grumbling, churning or just acting flighty, my gut asserts a recognizable opinion. The greater the intestinal objection, the greater I parry with intellectual rationalization. I thought long and hard about whether to take a job in the Defense industry, and then imprudently dismissed the clutching cramps that twisted my insides like a pretzel, and accepted a position. I over think and over analyze until I've convinced myself to make what inevitably turns out to be a poor decision. I walked around and around a dark blue or green (I am color blind) Mercedes coupe, peering under each fender with my face screwed into a skeptical scowl at what the seller was telling me, and then spread hard-earned cash on the hood. Even though I generated enough intestinal pressure to fire a steam engine, I refused to trust what my gut told me. Exactly one week later, I was contacted by a task unit from the Arizona Police Department that had been following the particular seller from whom I had bought the car. He was known for setting back odometers and falsely claiming actual mileage on the used cars that he sold in Nevada and California. The actual mileage on the Mercedes I bought was 249,000 and not the 49,000 that appeared on the odometer. I immediately listed the Mercedes for sale, disclosing the color as green and the actual mileage as 249,000. The buyer claimed it was blue and paid cash. In the end, I recouped less than one third of my original purchase price. It took six weeks before I could talk about it without my gut churning.

        If I can keep my head out of the process and listen to my stomach, I've a shot at doing the right thing. I spent the day with a newfound sense of excitement and crawled sober into bed. A warmth filled my chest as visions of a perfectly trained dog heeling at my side punctuated my dreams. I slept through the entire night for the first time in as many nights as I could remember and woke feeling surprisingly optimistic. Something about raising a Guide Dog puppy felt right. That in itself may not have been much, but it was a start. It would be months later before I fully understood how that first decision so dramatically changed my life.

        I met Gruden at the next meeting. He was an English Labrador, not an American Labrador, with pendulous jowls like an English Mastiff and a square head, being raised by a lesbian couple that had been absent the previous meetings. They shared their new charge like proud parents, letting raisers look at Gruden and letting me hold him. When I picked up Gruden, he squirmed against my chest, gave me a head butt and then settled down in my arms. He stared at the other pups beneath him on the ground like he was King Pup, imperious and special, head and tail above the others. He knew that he was different from the American labs, an august breed among the proletarian, and for some reason all the raisers were watching us. He barked once, short and decisive as if issuing a formal proclamation, gave my neck a quick swipe with his tongue, and once more surveyed the entire room with his head held high. Everyone laughed, even Gale, but she nodded at me after I set him down and put a finger to her lips as if thoughtfully considering the interaction. When the meeting ended and we began to exit, Gruden bolted from his raisers, lunged at my pant cuff and clamped his teeth. His raisers had to pry open his jaws to get him loose. It wasn't until a week and a half later that the import of the evening became clear.

        I was at home, sitting in the backyard before lunch when the phone rang. It was Gale and she had some news for me. She was assigning me a dog. She paused, as if for effect, and then asked if I remembered Gruden from the last meeting. I said I did and she said that the lesbian couple had decided to discontinue raising him and had returned him to the kennel in Topanga Canyon. He was going to be my dog now, she said, and given his behavior toward me, her decision had been easy: the two of us had demonstrated an immediate bond. I thanked her, collected the information I needed about when and where to pick up Gruden, and hung up the phone. With limited experience with dogs, I assumed Gruden's behavior was typical of any puppy. Whatever Gale had seen that equated to 'bonding' was news to me. In her experience, it meant more than I understood. Gruden would be my first Guide Dog puppy and the first dog that I'd ever called my own. According to Gale, Gruden had selected me.

        There is a heightened sense of reality with your 'first' anything. Down the road, if I were to continue in the puppy raising program, repeating the experience with another puppy would never be the same. Like a first love, Gruden would be the yardstick that set the scale and the one that I'd remember forever.

        I called the Topanga Canyon kennel the next morning. Gruden's paper work would be ready the next day. I had a dog crate, borrowed from the club, two stainless steel bowls as recommended in the Guide Dog Puppy Raising Manual, a backyard fully inspected and approved and no real life experience raising a puppy. When I announced to a friend that I was expecting a puppy, he replied 'You're going to be a mom!' The next morning, I set off for Topanga Canyon to collect my dog. This book is about all that follows.