By Carol Goar
Welcome back. Thank you for rejoining Verna, Buster and me as we explore seeing beyond vision loss. This week’s chapter is on Verna’s guide dog and companion.
Buster has heart-melting big brown eyes. He is strong, playful and amazingly gentle. He never fights with other dogs. His greatest joy is fetching his ball or one of his three Frisbees.
But, Verna Letourneau’s chocolate lab is not a pet. Buster is a guide dog. His job is to guide, protect and assist her, regardless of his instincts or the temptations around him. He can pick out her voice on a crowded bus. He can anticipate her needs. He gives her the confidence to be an active member of the community.
Verna didn’t want a guide dog at first. She’d become proficient with a white cane. She’d learned to navigate most of the places she needed to go. At 72, she was used to having no vision in her right eye and blurry images in her left.
Eventually, Sarah Beauchamp, an orientation and mobility specialist with CNIB, convinced her. Five years later, Verna can’t imagine life without Buster. He is her buddy, her partner, her eyes.
Verna went through the Lions Foundation of Canada for Buster. Not only did the charity invest $25,000 to breed and train Buster; it brought Verna to its national school in Oakville so she could bond with her guide dog and learn how to handle him. “I was there for a month,” she says.
Buster won her over within seconds. Then, the two of them got to work. After learning the commands, the guide dogs had been taught by their trainers – heel, wait, stay, slow down -- Verna and her classmates headed out with their dogs. They went to restaurants, shopping malls, parks and the train station. They negotiated crosswalks and traffic signals. They learned to trust their dogs in unfamiliar circumstances.
To be matched with Buster, Verna had help in filling out a 13-page application form, got a medical report from her doctor, a recent ophthalmologist’s report and letters of reference from a pastor and two friends.
When Verna arrived home with her guide dog, CNIB helped her apply the lessons she had learned. They practiced routes and destinations until Verna and Buster could master them as a team. Now, Verna walks, crosses busy intersections, boards the bus, goes to appointments and shops with confidence.
Like most people, Verna is loath to admit she was wrong. But where Buster is concerned, she acknowledges it freely. Having a guide dog is one of the great blessings of her life.
A Vision Mate must become part of the team when a client has a guide dog. He or she never takes the dog, which is trained to obey only the client. Nor should a vision mate come between the dog and the client. It’s usually best to walk on the client’s other side. It is fine to throw a ball or Frisbee if the client asks. It is never fine to pat or let a stranger pat a guide dog in harness when he/she is working. Learn more about volunteering for CNIB and our Vision Mate program here, or call CNIB on telephone 1-800-563-2642.