Partners for Freedom and Independence

Do you have a story about your favorite 4th of July? Let me tell you mine.

It was 1982, and I was in training for my first guide dog at the Seeing Eye in Morristown, NJ. I was in my late 30’s and had two young children. It was the first time I had been away from home on a holiday. I would be missing the Little League tournament game, the annual parade in my home town, the traditional cook-out, and the fireworks to follow. I could have been sad for missing all that, but I wasn’t. In fact, I felt a little guilty for enjoying it so much.

It was a glorious day, sunny but not oppressively hot. I had been there for about two weeks and was midway through my training. There were about 20 of us in that class, and we were all there to learn how to handle a dog who would facilitate our dignity and independence.

We had all arrived on a Saturday and had been given lunch and a tour of the grounds. The instructors took us each on what they call a Juno Walk, where the instructor holds the front end of the harness, which would later be worn by the dog, and the student holds onto the handle, as if they had a dog out in front. In this way, the instructors can judge what kind of pace the students like, observe their gait, and chat about their lifestyles. Then, while we got settled in our rooms, got to know our roommates, and attended our first and only lecture without a dog lying at our feet, the instructors huddled, compared notes, and came up with perfect matches of students with dogs. Some students had a preference for one breed over another, but I just hoped to be matched with a dog that my family would love. I could love any dog. We would be given our dogs the next afternoon, an eternity away. I didn’t sleep at all that night, and the next morning, when I heard the dogs barking in the kennels across the parking lot, I knew that one of those barks was meant just for me.

At last, it was Sunday afternoon, and we were gathered in the lounge for the matching process. The instructor would announce the name of the person, and then the breed of dog and the dog’s name. When it was my turn, he said, “Mrs. Hiland, Your dog is a golden retriever, and her name is Mindy.” I wept with relief and joy. I secretly had hoped for a golden retriever, and with a name like Mindy, she had to be adorable. She was. It was love at first sight, for both of us. The instructor told me later that he knew it was going to be a perfect match, 30 seconds into the training. I’ll never forget the first time I picked up the harness handle and we started briskly walking down the street. “Oh my God, I’m putting my life, literally, in the hands of a dog! And it’s wonderful! Look at me, just walking down the street on my own, just me and Mindy.” I felt a big goofy grin spreading over my face, and I felt a little silly, but I couldn’t help it. Mindy really knew her stuff and responded promptly to the slightest correction. She was all about pleasing me.

When we weren’t tromping around on the sidewalks of Morristown, we were encouraged to walk on the “leisure path,” a paved walking trail on the beautifully manicured grounds, where there would be no curb ramps or traffic to negotiate. It was just an easy, no stress walk, where we could unwind. There was a gazebo about halfway around the path, and some of us would stop there and relax together. That’s where I spent my favorite 4th of July, hanging out with my fellow students and my new best friend, Mindy. Mindy and I were starting a new life, together. For the next ten years, we would have a partnership for dignity, freedom and independence.

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