It was another brisk morning, and as usual I was trying to catch a ride on the always packed 26 route CATA bus. Finally the bus came, and I shuffled in, but not as far as I thought I would. A yellow Labrador was lying on the floor of the bus, sticking close to his owner, 21 year-old journalism junior Nick Vanderwall.
I struck up a conversation with Vanderwall because he was wearing shorts, and I was freezing in a scarf, but I must admit that I was distracted through much of the conversation because I was watching his guide dog, Toby. Any person who regularly rides the CATA bus can testify to the fact that bus rides are far from smooth. Yet through all the bumps and stops and shuffling of people, Toby stayed calmly curled up near Nick's feet.
The pair continued to impress me with their synchronization while walking. Their unique bond was tangible. Toby knew how to lead Nick through the crowds, but it was clear that Nick was in control.
Their compatibility is no coincidence. Nick and Toby were paired up through Leader Dogs for the Blind, a not-for-profit organization that provides guide dogs to people who are blind and visually impaired to enhance their mobility, independence and quality of life.
"Toby helps out quite a bit with walking because he will actually notify me if something like a tree branch is in front of me, unlike a cane" Vanderwall said.
Nick Vanderwall with his guide dog Toby
Leader Dogs for the Blind pairs applicants to guide dogs based on personality and lifestyle. Guide dogs are part of a working team when they have their harnesses on, and their job is to guide their owner without getting distracted. Just as a manager interviews to find a candidate that best suits the demands of a job, Leader Dog matches people with dogs they believe are well suited to the individual's daily routine.
A Leader Dog trainer identified Toby as a bombshell dog because "when he is working, a bomb could go off next to him, and he would just keep working for you," Nick said.
This level of focus was perfect for Nick's high distraction college environment as demonstrated on the CATA bus.
Cheryl Wade, a rehabilitation counseling graduate student, received her German Sheppard Harper through Leader Dogs for the Blind as well. She was partnered with Harper, her fifth guide dog since 1974, because she told the trainer she needed a dog that could handle traveling for work and sitting still through meetings that last two to three hours.
Wade is grateful for Harper's relaxed personality and ability to sit through longer meetings, but the life of a guide dog is not all work and no play.
As Cheryl says, "Harper loves to go outside and fetch the S-T-I-C-K." He loves it so much that she spelled it out, so he wouldn't get his hopes up while we talked.
Whenever Toby and Harper are at home with their harnesses off, they are free to go about the house as pets. The harness signifies the switch from pet to working team member for the dog.
"I got home from the grocery store the other night, and I forgot to take Toby's harness off," Nick explained.
"He was just following me around, and I said, why are you following me Tobes? He shook, and I realized I hadn't taken his harness off," Nick said.
The harness means Toby is working for Nick, and distractions are not allowed to stop Toby from performing his job. This is the universal signal for all guide dogs.
If a guide dog is in public with a harness or vest on, they are working and should not be touched or distracted. Nick added that parents need to respect this rule when wondering if their children can pet a dog. He has had parents listen to him deny permission to pet and then send their children to go do so anyway.
Cheryl Wade and her guide dog Harper prepare to cross Farm Lane.
Distracting a guide dog when they are working can put their owner in danger, especially in high risk situations like when stopped at intersections.
"You really have to listen to traffic and be really careful, so it is dangerous to distract Harper in that situation," Cheryl said.
Traffic and busy sidewalks present challenges to those with visual impairments, but when the public lets guide dogs work, they empower their owners to get from place to place safely. For example, skateboarders have the potential to injure guide dogs because they go by so quickly and get so close to the dogs' paws, but simple courtesy and communication can illuminate the danger.
Both Cheryl and Nick expressed that people should not be afraid to talk to them just because their guide dogs are working. It is better to tell a person with a visual impairment that you are near them than to try and sneak around them.
Cheryl said, "If you see a person with a guide dog, let them pass, tell them you are there, ask them to move to the left, anything like that, but do not try to outrun them or squeeze by."
Guide dogs need the public to respect their focus, but as Cheryl says, "People who use guide dogs are just people."
These individuals bring their unique talents and perspectives to the MSU community just as any other Spartan does. They just have their four legged friend alongside them while they do.
Nick makes the constant companionship work in his favor.
Nick said, "Even though Toby visibly tells people that I am blind like a cane would, at least Toby is a chick magnet."