Great Article from The Seeing Eye Navigator mag
It is a warm spring afternoon in a San Diego dog park; a perfect day for a select company of humans and canines to enjoy the outdoors. A young, clean-cut
Marine straight out of central casting, one arm in a cast, assists a woman to a seat at the crowded picnic table. His brother-in-arms rests in the grass,
lazily scratching the upturned belly of a yellow Lab while he describes the expression of sheer ecstasy on the dog’s face to the Lab’s visually impaired
This is no ordinary puppy play date. These are not ordinary dogs, and these are far from ordinary people. All are participants in “Guide Dogs Day Out,”
a project sponsored by Paws that Heal, a program pairing off-duty dog guides (including three from The Seeing Eye) and their visually impaired handlers
with active-duty military personnel recovering from significant physical or emotional illnesses. This first-of-its-kind program, managed by Seeing Eye
graduate Anne Whittington, is a combination pet therapy, therapeutic outing, and social reintegration activity.
The program, which began in September 2005, may never have happened if not for a fateful encounter between Whittington’s Seeing Eye dog Karl and an injured
Marine. Whittington, a registered nurse originally from Cleveland, Ohio, lost her vision to a rare autoimmune condition. For the past seven years, she
has worked as a diabetes educator, translating medical orders and teaching healthy eating and healthy lifestyle skills to military personnel at the Naval
Medical Center/San Diego (NMCSD).
“Karl and I were on an elevator,” recalls Whittington. “This Marine with a very pronounced stutter asked if he could pet Karl.” Normally dog guides should
not be petted in harness, so whether it was the late hour or a feeling that something momentous was about to happen, Whittington relented. When the young
man began petting the yellow Labrador retriever, his stutter “turned off like a light switch. He started telling me about his military experience and asked
if Karl could visit him and his buddies on the medical hold ward.”
The hospital already had a traditional pet therapy program for in-patients, but not for patients on “medical hold,” individuals well enough to leave the
hospital but not well enough to return to their military units. They live in barracks on the hospital grounds.
Karl and Whittington began visiting these patients as schedules permitted. In return, they would visit Karl in Whittington’s office. “They would actually
ask the receptionist if Karl was in,” laughs Whittington.
With the backing of Navy and Marine chains of command, Whittington approached members of a local dog guide group about formalizing the visits with wounded
military personnel. Two months after Karl’s chance meeting, “Guide Dogs Day Out” became reality. For the patients, participation in the program is voluntary.
The first Thursday of each month finds this special group in a fenced-in park. Out of harness, the dogs, off-duty and not responsible for guiding their
visually impaired handlers, visit with the wounded warriors. The service members, mostly male and mostly Marines, whose injuries range from serious combat
wounds to broken bones sustained in state-side training accidents, help prepare and serve lunch.
For the patients, the benefits go far beyond an outing in the fresh air with friends. Some have sustained catastrophic injuries, necessitating limb amputation,
and they may rely on crutches or other mobility aids, making social interactions feel awkward. “The blind people could not stare at my crutches,” one Marine
told Whittington. And the dogs are more interested in pats received from an artificial hand rather than the how and why of its presence. This form of therapeutic
outing – with mentors who can understand the challenges of “fitting in” and accepting oneself in social settings – can advance the rehabilitation process
as much as any medical treatment might.
Even though the dogs are “off duty” during these outings, the same strict rules of dog guide etiquette are observed. The military personnel may not feed
or rough house with the dogs, and the dogs must remain under good control by their handlers at all times.
Seeing Eye graduates Linda Gwizdak and Scott Leason have volunteered since the program’s inception and also volunteer in an offshoot of the project called
Guide Dog Day Inside Out, a weekly session for in-patients in the Medical-Surgical Department and the Mental Health Unit.
Whittington looks for volunteers who are able to focus on the needs of others and interact well with virtual strangers. The dogs also need to fit this
profile. Dogs must pass a three-level interview process and so far, only Seeing Eye teams have passed this high threshold.
“My dog Jake and I were evaluated and interviewed without even knowing it,” Gwisdak laughs. “I am so proud to serve these men who are serving our country.
We have fun, and if they aren’t smiling when they come here, they are when we leave.”
Scott Leason brings an added dimension to Paws that Heal. A Navy veteran, Leason can relate on a certain level to what the wounded service members are
going through. “Many of them feel they have let their units down. I am able to share my journey as an active and happy person who happens to have a disability.
It’s a win/win situation for everybody.”
Since its inception, close to 100 med-hold patients have participated in Guide Dogs Day Out and approximately 200 in-ward patients have benefited from
Guide Dogs Day Inside.
“I am blown away by the changes we hear about in these guys,” says Leason. He recalls one of the most profound changes in a patient’s behavior was from
a patient who had not left his bed nor spoken a word during his three days in the hospital. Karl spent 11 minutes creeping closer and closer to the patient
and once he had spent three minutes a foot away from the man, the patient reached out to pet him and began talking. His recovery sped markedly following
that, and when discharged, he credited Paws that Heal as being instrumental in his healing.
But the volunteers who bring their dogs agree that they too have much to gain from the experience. “We are three blind people giving back,” says Gwizdak.
“A lot of people think blind people are on the taking end of things, but we are giving back to our community. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Whittington’s hope is that Paws that Heal will serve as a pilot program and soon will be imitated at other hospitals, both military and civilian.
But for now, the off-duty dog guides are content to relax in that San Diego park, nuzzling new friends, healing unseen wounds, and asking only for praise
or an ear scratch as their reward.
Editor’s Note: Since this article was written, Karl has retired from work as a Seeing Eye dog and spends his days in retirement watching over a small sporting
goods store in Florida. Jake retired to the home of a hairstylist in San Diego. Whittington returned to The Seeing Eye to train with her new dog, Scout,
and plans to introduce Scout to the Paws that Heal program as he adjusts to his new life in California.