Fur and Steel - Part I: Suzanne's Story

“I want my mobility back! I want my freedom back,” said Suzanne Whalen, as she lay on the bed in her hotel room crying. Whalen, 48, is a second grade teacher in the Dallas school district. She is totally blind and is a graduate of The Seeing Eye Inc. this country’s first guide dog school, located in Morristown, New Jersey. Whalen has been a dog guide handler for 25 years, but last February, she seriously injured her back. She now uses a manual wheel chair, and is unable to work her fifth Seeing Eye Dog, Caddo.

“On February 12th, I was in Baltimore attending a meeting of the National Association Of Guide Dog Users,” (NAGDU) “the dog guide user group for the National Federation Of The Blind,” of which Whalen is the President. “The Federation does not have an area for relieving dogs on its grounds.” Whalen and the other dog guide users had to take their dogs across the street to a large city park for this purpose. “You take your dog’s harness off, thereby rendering the dog off duty,” she explained, “so that the dog can relieve itself.” As Caddo looked for an appropriate spot, the next thing Suzanne knew, she found herself in an uncovered manhole. As a result of her fall, she has several injured discs in her back.

This past summer in an effort to decrease her pain level, she was given a steroid injection. In the case of most patients, this reduces their pain level, but in Whalen’s case, it increased the degree of pain she experiences. Now she has sharp pain, not only in her back, but also in both of her legs.

“The net result of the injuries is that I cannot stand or walk for longer than about five to seven minutes. I was told there is a 50 percent chance I will never be able to have a life free of the degree of pain I have now. There is a 50 percent chance that I will regain some or all of my function.” Given all of Whalen’s injuries, surgery is not an option. While she is continuing to explore other options, the very real possibility exists that she will have to use a wheel chair for the rest of her life when traveling outside of her apartment.

Though she can’t control the pace or degree to which she heals, she says, “I desperately wanted to regain control of my mobility, of the independence that represents.” Her injury doesn’t allow her to adapt to using a white cane along with her wheel chair. “Once I’m out of my apartment, I am at the mercy, and the scheduling convenience of just anybody to push my chair, and that’s driving me nuts,” she exclaimed.

After the accident, Suzanne decided to send her dog to The Seeing Eye. She felt he could be cared for more easily there, and the staff would work him every day. Since he is a young dog, this was important to keep up his skills.

In the spring, Whalen recalled a friend who had gotten a dog from South Eastern Guide Dogs, telling about a man who had been in her class seven years earlier, who used a wheel chair. She remembered that the man used a manual chair and the dog pulled the chair. Whalen called The Seeing Eye and spoke with Director of Programs, Doug Roberts. She asked Roberts if there was any way Caddo could be trained to guide a wheel chair. Whalen recounts, “He was nice but forceful.” Roberts expressed concerns about the dogs having to pull the chair and that it was too hard on the dog. He said it was unsafe. Whalen said, “But South Eastern’s done it.” She says Roberts told her person that he knew of who was trained by South Eastern had quite a bit of vision. The implication being that, if a person had some residual vision, they could augment what the dog guide did as apposed to someone who is totally blind.

Suzanne listened and after talking with Roberts she let go of the idea. She said, “They’re the experts, and if they say no, then it’s no!”

In July she attended the National Federation Of The Blind’s annual convention in Atlanta. She enlisted volunteers to push her wheel chair. An acquaintance of Whalen’s asked her to puppy sit her dog guide while she went to an exhibit and Whalen agreed. Whalen had to attend a meeting. Through her duties as NAGDU President, she had connected with Larisa Scharikin, an instructor at South Eastern Guide Dogs, and asked her to push her. Scharikin encouraged Whalen to give the dog, which was in harness, but not guiding, directional commands. “She’d say tell him right, or tell him left, and he’d kind of do it. He was kind of leash guiding as she pushed the chair,” Whalen explained. “That felt just so neat! I said Larisa, I want you to tell me what South Eastern does.”

The next day, they talked in Whalen’s hotel room. Whalen learned that South Eastern had trained approximately eight people who are both blind and use a wheel chair. All but one had virtually no vision. They have one graduate who is deaf/blind and uses a wheel chair. She learned that as South Eastern has refined their techniques they have gone to using power wheel chairs so that the dog doesn’t have to pull the chair.

Whalen got an application. She followed that up with a phone call to Mike Sergeant, the Executive Director of South Eastern. She asked some hard questions and in the end was satisfied with his answers. Sergeant clearly informed Whalen that this requires good to excellent orientation and mobility skills on the part of the blind person. These are the skills a blind or visually impaired person uses to navigate through their environment. It also is not something every dog can be taught to do. It puts an extra amount of responsibility and stress on the dog.

Suzanne asked Sergeant if South Eastern would take her current Seeing Eye Dog, and evaluate his ability to do this kind of work. Caddo is a German Shepherd and because they traditionally are a more body sensitive breed, he was somewhat hesitant. Sergeant offered to train one of South Eastern’s dogs for her, but Suzanne was determined to have Caddo evaluated since he was not yet three years old. Sergeant expressed concern about reaction from The Seeing Eye. Whalen explained, “On the one hand it doesn’t matter what Seeing Eye says, because I own the dog, but on the other hand I have a lot of respect for Seeing Eye, and I’d like them to be on board.” The Seeing Eye’s ownership policy is that when the student completes the training program successfully, they become the owner of the dog. Whalen was also aware of the socio political gains that could come from an historic partnership between the two schools. Until the past ten years, dog guide schools did not communicate with each other regularly, and there was a good deal of competition for a small market nitch. She said, “Here are two schools cooperating to serve one student.”

Whalen asked Sergeant if he would communicate with staff at The Seeing Eye about what South Eastern had accomplished. He did. There were several phone calls between the two schools, and after some time passed, The Seeing Eye agreed. They transported Caddo down to Tampa Florida where Larisa Scharikin met him. Suzanne believes that it helped that Scharikin was a Seeing Eye instructor before she joined the staff at South Eastern Guide Dogs.

Caddo has been at South Eastern since July of this year. He has passed his evaluation with flying colors and has begun the process of training to guide a person in a wheel chair. Scharikin says Caddo has begun to wag his tail when he sees the wheel chair indicating that he’s excited and looking forward to his work.

The Hoveround Company, which manufactures wheel chairs, is providing Whalen with a power chair to train with on South Eastern’s campus and another for her home use.

Whalen is scheduled to go down to Florida in January of 2001, to train with Caddo and Scharikin for twenty-six days. Then they will return to Dallas where the new team will receive more specific training in their home area.

As people live longer and acquire disabilities, and as people with disabilities acquire additional disabling conditions, the demand for such specific training will increase. Currently, South Eastern Guide Dogs is the only school doing this specialized training on a regular basis. Due to limited funding, they are only able to train one or two wheel chair teams a year. Scharikin reports an increase in requests for this type of training. “We’re just trying to improve people’s quality of mobility and independence.”