International Guide Dog Day: Handlers share their stories

Southeastern Guide Dogs graduate Katie McCoy and her guide dog Bristol. Photos provided by Southeastern Guide Dogs.
Southeastern Guide Dogs graduate Katie McCoy and her guide dog Bristol. Photos provided by Southeastern Guide Dogs. /
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For International Guide Dog Day 2021, we talked with graduates from several guide dog organizations to learn about what the dogs’ primary tasks and responsibilities were, and how their handlers’ lives had been enriched by their partnership.

Wednesday, April 28 is International Guide Dog Day 2021, providing the perfect time to support  one of the many wonderful guide dog or service dog organizations located across the United States or Canada (or many other places around the world).

To help us celebrate, alumni from The Seeing Eye (based in Morristown, New Jersey), Guiding Eyes for the Blind (based in Yorktown Heights, New York) and Southeastern Guide Dogs (based in Palmetto, Florida) recently shared their stories with us here at Dog O’Day.

Most guide dogs have a career lifespan of around eight years, as Guiding Eyes trainer Nikki Wentz told us last fall, and they pack even more of the life-affirming goodness of canines into that span than the typical very good boy or girl.

The majority of guide dog names are given out by patrons, who often have a specific person, canine or other cherished relationship they wish to honor.

In a letter written to her yellow Labrador Retriever Bristol that was published in an organizational newsletter, Southeastern Guide Dogs graduate Katie McCoy wrote about how thankful she was that she felt confident enough to go on dates again, and had an enormous weight lifted off her shoulders as she doesn’t feel like a burden to others any longer,

“You’re always there, ready to go, ready to help,” McCoy wrote about her guide dog, who was named after a sailboat and was the definition of tomboy spunk, according to her puppy raisers. “You’re not a dog – you’re my best friend in the world.”

Before teaming up with Bristol in 2015, McCoy felt anxious about traveling anywhere, “especially after dark, and I was too embarrassed to ask for help.” This was a big handicap when it came to dating, for example, but now Bristol is happy to work on an escape plan for awkward first dates if necessary.

Katie was born with retinis pigmentosa, a genetic condition which causes a lack of peripheral (edges and sideways) vision and greatly decreased night vision. This didn’t stop her from earning a BA in history from the College of Charleston or a Masters in Museum Education from George Washington University, or completing marathons in her spare time.

On a practical level, Bristol makes the mundane tasks that much of the world never thinks twice about manageable:  “I remember trying to cross the street without you – I was constantly looking around, trying to make sure that no cars would turn on top of me. It took me forever before, but now you speed me across and take all the fear away.”

Southeastern has been aiding the blind and visually impaired in from the Florida Gulf Coast since 1982, and they also train dogs to assist with PTSD patients as well.

Katie now works for Southeastern in their philanthropy department, and has found that the times she does need help in a public situation, strangers are much more likely to offer it, as the dog makes it a more inviting scenario.