Editor’s Note: Jeremy Opperman is a member of Rotary’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion taskforce and a regular contributor to this blog on issues related to disability inclusion.
By Jeremy Opperman, Rotary Club of Newlands, Cape Town, South Africa
“Ok, left, left, good boy!”
“Find the pole, find the pole, good boy!”
“Wait, ok, forward.”
“Find the kerb (curb), good boy.”
Find the pole, good boy!”
“Forward, find the kerb, good boy!”
“Straight on, no, find the kerb, forward, good boy!”
“Left, left, good boy.”
“Straight on, good boy!”
“No, we are not going right here, straight on, good boy.”
“Clever boy!” “Good boy!”
“Yes! Good boy!”
“Yes, you are such a clever boy!”
And with that, we had arrived at our destination. This is the exact conversation I have with my guide dog Ronnie when we are walking to a Rotary friend’s home every Tuesday and Thursday.
The distance is just shy of two kilometres and takes about 20 minutes.
Over the past few weeks, in this routine, I have been watching and enjoying my friend’s fascination and unbridled admiration of Ronnie as he performs his duties, getting me to and from his home and the park.
From here, we will all go to the park for a proper walk, where Ronnie can run free and my friend can be my guide for a while.
It gave me paws (sorry I couldn’t resist) to reflect on the past 14 years of having owned my three guide dogs: Barklee, Gatsby, and Ronnie.
It would require a fair-sized book to adequately relate all the extraordinary adventures I have had with each of the dogs. One or two anecdotes will have to suffice here.
First a little lesson in what they can and cannot do. It is fairly simple to “programme” routes into the dog.
Step one, download available routes, tricks, and sundry adorable habits onto your USB device. Step two, insert USB device into the appropriate port, conveniently included on all current versions of Guide dog. Step 3, simply hit upload on your device.
But all kidding aside, the dog only needs one or two trips in a given route to internalize it. This was most incredibly proved when Barklee, on only his second visit, remembered the entire journey from the arrivals area of Thambo Airport to the Gautrain terminal in Johannesburg. Anyone who has walked that route, knows that it is long and rather complicated. This proved invaluable over the next seven years when Barklee and I flew more than 450 times mostly to Johannesburg.
Another thing to remember is that the blind person actually does do some of the navigation, especially in areas that the dog is not familiar with, or where deviations of known routes are required.
In my case, I am blessed with a pretty good sense of direction. Also, I am not afraid to ask for help. So I was quite happy to teach Ronnie the new route to my friend’s home. All I needed was Ronnie to make sure I didn’t walk into poles, trees, cars, trip off pavements, or step in any holes en route. In this case, I employed the navigation app on my phone to let me know the names of the roads I needed to look for and to ultimately find his house. Ronnie now knows the route, so it’s mostly up to him, and I don’t need to even turn on the GPS.
So being guided by the dog is a joint effort between user and dog. Having said that, I used to love coming home in the evenings from the station. I would tune out entirely and read a book or audio magazine and pay little attention to the 20-minute journey home.
But the funniest thing that ever happened to us was when I walked into a well-known office building in Cape Town with Barklee.
Barklee, as he was trained to do, headed for the nearest counter. But before we reached it, a strident voice accosted me.
“Sir,” it said. “Can’t you read. The sign says; No Dogs!”
Now, I need to point out that this is the bane of all guide dog users all around the world. Security officials trying to prevent our access. In truth, there are few places we cannot legally go. Nevertheless, the problem persists.
I rarely resort to rudeness or anger when this happens. So I smiled and said, “it’s ok, he’s allowed, he is a guide dog.”
Quick as a flash, he retorts; “No sir, it does not matter what breed of dog it is, he is not allowed in!”
First published in Howzat! The official magazine for the Rotary Club of Newlands, South Africa, and used with permission