Dog of the Day
by Carie Broecker
Have you ever participated in a trust walk, putting on a blindfold and allowing someone to lead you through a maze, down a path, or even up a flight of stairs? It can be scary, and it takes a lot of faith in the person who is leading you. What if your vision were actually impaired or you lost it completely? Could you put your trust in a friend to safely guide you? What about in a dog?
Ken Holstein, a retired juvenile probation officer who lives in Aptos, California, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes fifty-four years ago at the age of ten. By the time he reached his twenties, he had lost one eye due to complications from the disease. Over the years, his remaining eye has endured the ravages of diabetes-related glaucoma, macular degeneration, cataracts, and hemorrhaging. He is legally blind.
In 2006, Ken’s stepson met a volunteer puppy raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind, which got the family thinking about the possibility of a guide dog for Ken. Ken and his wife, Marge, contacted Guide Dogs and completed an application. Two years later Ken was matched with Beringer, a 93-pound Golden Retriever/Yellow Labrador Retriever mix. At two years old, Beringer had been training his whole life to be of service to someone like Ken.
Now it was Ken’s turn to be trained. He spent four weeks at the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus learning the commands and techniques he would need to know in order to partner with Beringer. When he first met Beringer, Ken was struck by his loyalty, obedience, and intelligence.
Ken and Beringer have been together for over two years now, and Ken cannot imagine life without him. He is part of his family.
Ken says Beringer is perfect. He has never misguided Ken, and at least twice Beringer has most likely saved his life. Both times were when Ken and Beringer were walking on a sidewalk and a car started to back out of the driveway without seeing them. Both times Beringer’s reflexes were quick enough to pull Ken out of the way of the moving vehicle.
One of the most important skills guide dogs learn is the ability to practice “intelligent disobedience.” Guide dogs are trained to follow their person’s commands, but even above that, they are trained to keep their person safe. If a person gives a command, the dog must evaluate the safety of the situation and determine for himself to follow the command or ignore the command. For instance, if Ken gives the command “forward” and there is oncoming traffic or an obstacle in the path, Beringer will ignore the command.
One incident that impressed Ken was the day they were in a crowded Los Angeles shopping center. Every few feet, there were obstacles – people standing in the aisles. Beringer and Ken slowly made their way through the maze of people and merchandise and up the escalator to the men’s section of a department store. By the time they were finished shopping, Ken was completely disoriented as to where they were in the store. He could not give the directional commands necessary for Beringer to guide him out. Instead of “left” or “right” or “forward,” Ken just said, “Let’s go back to the elevator.” Beringer led him directly to the elevator with no hesitation. When they got to the ground floor, Ken said, “Let’s find the door.” Boom, Beringer took him right to the door and out to the parking lot. Next Ken said, “Find the truck.” Beringer took him directly to their truck in a packed parking lot where they waited for Marge to return.
I think Ken is good hands. I would put my trust in Beringer any day!
Guide Dogs for the Blind is a nonprofit organization located in San Rafael, California that provides enhanced mobility to qualified individuals through partnership with dogs whose unique skills are developed and nurtured by dedicated volunteers and a professional staff. For more information about Guide Dogs for the Blind, to help, or to apply for a guide dog, visit www.guidedogs.com.