Sunday, April 17, 2011

The dog who Changed It All

I have known since I was a young child that I wanted to one day get a guide dog. At that young age, I still could not truly grasp what a guide dog could do for me, but I knew that it would immensely help me move independently. After I graduated from high school in 2005, I started preparing for the time when I could finally get my first guide dog. After nearly a year of preparation and waiting, the big day finally arrived.

On April 17, 2006, I began the incredible journey of getting my guide dog Bristol. This was a huge step for me in many ways. On that day, five years ago, my mother and grandmother had to leave me eight hours away at Southeastern Guide dog. I was terrified to have my family leave me, but I knew it was something I had to do.

My fear was quickly replaced by joy when I met my new dog. I still remember that moment so vividly. The trainers brought Bristol into my room and the next thing I knew, I had a seventy pound dog in my lap. And that is when the fun began!

Bristol and I have had our ups and downs over the last five years. Walking with him the first time was both invigorating and terrifying at the same time. I had to surrender my life to this dog with whom I barely knew, much less trusted. Learning to trust Bristol has been one of my biggest challenges. Both Bristol and I have had to learn to put our trust in each other. It took time, but I finally came to the point of being able to trust him and allowing him to guide me. Those first few weeks was spent in intense training. Bristol and I were put into many different situations that we might face together during our time as a guide dog team. The trainers taught me how to respond and work with Bristol in these various life situations.

Thinking back over the last five years is something I have been doing a lot lately. With his upcoming retirement at the end of this month, I can’t help but think back on all that we have gone through together. Bristol has taken me to college, on road trips, and much more. Bristol has even saved my life on a few occasions while crossing streets. He has been my constant companion since that first day. He has been with me through the good times and the bad times. He has been with me during my greatest triumphs and when I have been at my lowest point. He has stayed by my side during the laughter and the tears; through the times when I felt so weak both physically and emotionally that I could barely get up to do anything. He has been with me when I have felt like no one else understood me and I felt so alone and confused.

Bristol has shown me so much over the last five years. Before I got him, I did not truly understand what walking independently meant. Up until then I had to rely on other people to help me. With Bristol’s assistance, I have been able to navigate the last five years with less support from other people. This newfound independence has been one of the greatest things to happen in my life.

Although I am deeply saddened by his upcoming retirement, I know that it is what is best for both of us. Bristol has been the best first time guide dog that I could ever ask for. Bristol has been telling me in his own way over the last year that it is time to let him go. It is time to retire him and let him spend the remainder of his life with my parents. He may struggle with his retirement at first, but I know in time he will adapt to being with my parents instead of me. I too will have an adjustment. I have got to go through the grief of surrendering him to my parents and then starting a new adventure with a new and younger guide dog. I have so many mixed emotions at this point. I’m looking forward to working with the new dog, but I’m also dreading leaving Bristol. Even though I know deep down that I’m making the right decision, I still have to sometimes wonder if I’m doing the right thing. I’ve had to deal with a lot of guilt over the last months about retiring him, but I am getting past it. I am now trying to enjoy the last few weeks we have together as a guide dog team.

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