Dog of the Day
Sonja and Malanie: A Perfect Match
by Carie Broecker
Sonja Jackson found out when she was 18 years old that she had retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a genetic disease that would cause her to lose her vision slowly over time. At 18, the reality of her situation did not sink in. She went about her life as usual, got married, and found a job that she would stay at for the next 30 years.
It was not until she was in her forties that she started to notice subtle changes in her vision. She compensated by using brighter lights, stronger glasses, a hand magnifier, and then special magnification equipment. In 2004 when the office she worked in was consolidating and moving out of the area, she retired. She would not be able to commute to San Jose where the new office would be located.
Her first year of retirement was one of adjusting and exploring. She took classes at the Blind and Visually Impaired Center in her hometown of Pacific Grove, and became proficient in braille. She also learned to maneuver with a white cane.
In using the cane, she felt more visible as a “disabled person.” The cane was helpful, but she started thinking about getting a guide dog. Sonja loved dogs. She had a dog as a child, but never as an adult.
Sonja filled out an application with Guide Dogs for the Blind and was interviewed extensively by phone and in her home. Her husband got the house ready for the new family member, adding artificial grass in the back yard, new flooring in the house, and all the dog supplies he could think of.
Sonja was asked what her dream dog would be like. Sonja is petite, so she thought a smallish Labrador Retriever would be good. She wanted a female. She thought a black dog would be nice. And Sonja loves to walk, so she wanted a dog who could take 60 to 90-minute walks with her daily. And of course, all that being said, Sonja added that any dog would be just fine.
When Sonja met Melanie, it was love at first sight. A year later when recalling their first meeting, Sonja still gets choked up. Melanie was perfection. She was everything Sonja had dreamed of.
Sonja and Melanie have been together for just over a year now. Melanie is 3 years old and excels as a guide dog. Melanie has brought so much joy and companionship to Sonja’s life. Sonja has always loved to walk, and having Melanie by her side gives her the confidence to walk all over town, and gives her the independence she relishes and the ability to more safely enjoy the outdoors. Sonja is trying new routes as often as possible, often navigating her way by the sound of the ocean and recognizing familiar large landmarks. If she gets turned around, she stays calm so Melanie doesn’t get nervous and usually just keeps walking until she gets her bearings. Calling someone to come get her would not work because she would not be able to tell them where she is!
Although Sonja is the one leading them on their route, giving Melanie commands, Melanie looks out for Sonja’s safety. Already, Melanie has diverted disaster twice while out on her walks with Sonja.
The first time was when an electric car pulled out in front of Sonja. Sonja didn’t hear the car, so she gave Melanie the command to move forward. Melanie saw the car and stopped on a dime.
The second time was when a seemingly parked van was unloading in a commercial zone. Melanie and Sonja were maneuvering their way around the van when all of a sudden the van started backing up, not seeing the two behind it. Melanie backed up very quickly, bringing Sonja with her and preventing a horrible accident.
For a vision-impaired person, just taking a walk can be a dangerous undertaking. Of course Melanie helps keeps Sonja safe, but distractions can put them in a precarious situation. These might include people petting Melanie, dogs on or off leash greeting Melanie, and people striking up conversations with Sonja while she is concentrating on listening for cars.
Melanie is devoted to Sonja and eager to please her, and displays body language as if to say, “I’m sorry” if she accidentally runs Sonja into a bush or other obstacle without guiding her around it. She takes her job seriously.
When Melanie’s harness comes off she is “off duty.” When she is not working, she loves chewing on her nylabone, playing with her two kitties, running in the backyard, and playing with her toys. What a dog!
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.