Service Dogs: Giving the Gift of Independence
Occasionally, you run across an incredible tale of a hero dog who selflessly saves a human's life. But service dogs save people over and over...by giving them the gift of independence. George Salpietro, senior vice president of the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, shares his moving story of going blind in the prime of his life, then discovering a new breed of sight through his guide dog, Karl.
by George Salpietro
Let’s start at the beginning. As I sit here to tell this story, I realize that the real story isn’t about how I lost my eyesight. It is about the wonderful people that helped me like my wife Marie, daughter Stacy, other family members, many friends and the professional people in the field of rehabilitation and services for the blind. In short, everyone that helped me "look at life in a different way." Oddly enough, the greatest help didn’t come for a person at all. It came from a dog named "Karl." That’s right, a dog. As I sit here at my computer recreating this part of my life, he is lying at my feet as always -- faithful and ready to assist me. You see, he’s not just a dog. He’s my guide.
First, I think it's important for you to understand how something like this can happen to anyone. Being a long time member of the Lions, I can remember having speakers at my club who were blind. I remember being amazed by their courage and accomplishments, but more so, I can remember thinking that this could never happen to me. I mean, I didn’t even wear eyeglasses.
I was born in a small town in Connecticut and lived what could be considered to be a pretty regular life. I was the middle son of three boys. Growing up in the sixties, I had grand illusions of a life that would never submit to the system. But as time went on, I found you had to be part of the system to effect a positive change. After high school, it was time to decide where my life’s journey would take me. I started to work in a local factory as I searched through my options. Not long after, I decided to marry the girl of my dreams. I was almost nineteen years old and could not be happier. For a time I would jump from job to job, not ever sure what I wanted. At twenty-one years old, my wife and I received the greatest gift one could image. My wife gave birth to our baby girl. It was the proudest day of my life. At this point, I decided it was time for me to get serious about my life’s work. It was soon thereafter I started a career in the automotive business and it was there that I felt I had found my life’s work. Or so I thought.
It was June of 1994. A wonderful day, my daughter was graduating from high school. My wife and I were as proud as we could be. I was the typical father, bragging to anyone who would listen. I remember borrowing a friend's video camera to film the entire event. What a day.
Two weeks later, July 7th 1994, my birthday, I was hitting the big 4-0. It was a fantastic day. My wife threw a surprise party that I would always remember. She invited friends that I had not seen in years. It was a night that was filled with talk of the old days and talk of our plans for the future. My wife and I bragged how our daughter was getting ready to leave for college, how she was ready for her new life, and how we were ready to be newlyweds all over again. Then it was time for everyone to give me my birthday cards -- you know -- the cards that would make fun of me turning forty. I was ready for the ribbing as I opened my first card, and that’s when I noticed I could not read the cards. In fact, I had to ask my wife to help me. Everyone laughed and said it was the first sign of old age, but I knew that wasn’t it. My wife could tell just by looking at me that something was wrong.
The next day I made an appointment with one of my friends from my Lions club who was an eye doctor. He saw me immediately. As he examined my eyes, my wife and I could tell he was concerned. He made an appointment for me to see a neuro-ophthalmologist. That’s when all the testing began. You can imagine the fear my wife and I had.
One week later, July 15th 1994, a day my wife and I will never forget. We sat waiting in the doctor's office. All the testing was done and the results were in. My doctor said I had bilateral optic neuritis of unknown etiology. He said the medicine that they were treating me with was not working. I had lost all the sight in my left eye and the majority of the sight in my right eye, and it was not over yet. The doctor destroyed the world as I once knew it. He was declaring me legally blind. I remember turning to my wife and asking, with tears in my eyes, "Did he say blind?" I thought, "How can that be? It’s impossible. They must be able to fix this." I remember taking my wife’s arm as she led me to our car, a car I would never be able to drive again. We got into the car, turned to each other and we cried in each other’s arms. I remember her saying to me, "Don’t worry. We’ll get through this as long as we have each other. I’m not going anywhere, and I’ll stay by your side no matter what. For better or worse, remember?" As I sit here and type, I realize I do not know where I would be without her. She brings light, hope and love into a world that has been turned upside down.
I had a very successful career of twenty-two years in the automotive industry, and that was about to end. I remember going home that night, telling my daughter, family and friends. No one could believe it, no one knew what to say or do, and everyone felt helpless. All I wanted to do was retreat to a place where I could feel in control. I found a safe place in my house. It was a big comfortable chair in the corner of my living room. And it was there I would sit, scared to leave the house, feeling afraid in a dark world that I didn’t choose to be in.
I was fortunate to have a very supportive family and many good friends. A lot of help came from friends associated with Lions clubs. Helping people who are blind has always been the mission of Lions. Through those connections, the help started pouring in from many directions. People from the State Board of Education and Services for the Blind started me in a rehabilitation program to learn to live in this new world. I would learn to do many things in a different way -- things that made it possible for me to take care of myself. It seemed everything was difficult, and everything that I once did without thought now required a lot of thought. I was angry and I constantly asking myself why had this happened to me. It was a sad day when I realized that there were no answers to the questions I was asking.
After a couple of months, I started to learn to travel using a long white cane with a red tip on it. I was told that this was the tool that people who were blind use to navigate in a sighted world safely. I had a difficult time with the cane at first, but in time I would learn to use it and found it to be an adequate way of travel. But there was still something missing. I still felt dependent on others. I met many other people who were blind that were very good cane travelers, but still it was hard for me.
One night my sister-in-law and her husband came to our house. After dinner we sat and talked about all that had been going on the past couple of months. They were also Lions and were familiar with many of the services that were available to the blind community in our area. They told me that their Lions club supported an organization called the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation. They had visited Fidelco, seen demonstrations of these incredible dogs, and met some of the people that used these dogs everyday. They heard stories of increased independence since their dogs came into their lives. They encouraged me to apply to Fidelco for a guide dog. Everyone felt this was the answer I was looking for, and they all felt it was what I was missing. Everyone felt that but me. I was not what you would call a "dog person" and I didn’t understand how a dog was ever going to give me back the independence that blindness took from me. Being a Lion, I had heard about Fidelco and their good work, but I did not think that a dog was the answer I was looking for. I assured everyone that I would think about it, but I knew way deep down that I had already made up my mind. How was I going to take care of a dog when I was having trouble taking care of myself? No, I was sure a dog was not for me.
When everyone left, I could tell that my wife knew what I was thinking and that she did not agree with me. I asked her what she thought about me getting a guide dog and she proceeded to tell me. She told me about how hard it was for her to watch what blindness had done to me. She told me how hard it was for her to leave me alone at home every day, how scared she was, and how helpless she felt. She told me she even felt guilty -- guilty she could see and I could not. That night, I realized that blindness did not just happen to me, but it happened to her, my daughter, my family and my friends. They all felt my loss. They were all by my side, walking every step with me and they were all in my corner pulling for me. I still wasn’t convinced, but the next day I called Fidelco and applied for a dog.
In the meantime I started listening to every audio tape I could get my hands on that was written by someone who had successfully overcome the barriers created by blindness. I could not believe what I was hearing. I would learn that there was life after blindness, and for the first time in months I was starting to believe that maybe, just maybe, I could be something. The problem was that every day I woke up and I was still blind. And then someone I knew had just attended a Lions convention and said that the speaker at the banquet was a blind man named Tom Sullivan. They gave me a tape of his speech and his talk that night changed my life. Mr. Sullivan was a guide dog user and he did anything he wanted to do and nothing got in his way. He talked about how in life you had to change negatives into positives. He said that you have to believe in your own human spirit. He talked about pride and how you had to have pride in yourself. His definition for the word pride was "personal responsibility for individual daily effort." And most of all, he talked about how his guide dog changed his life. I played that tape over and over. I knew the speech by heart, and his words inspired me to the point that I stopped feeling sorry for myself. I started to believe in myself and I started to get very excited about getting a guide dog.
The call from Fidelco came two days before Christmas. They said they had a dog for me and his name was "Karl." From that day on I would learn that nothing was going to be the same. My life was about to change again and I did not even know it.
The day was finally here. It was January 2nd 1995. That was the day Karl was coming to his new home. I wonder if he knew what he was in for, because I certainly didn’t. The timing was just right -- my daughter was home from college on Christmas break and my wife took a couple days off for this monumental event. They were both standing at the window watching for every vehicle that came by. All of a sudden one of them said, "A van from Fidelco is pulling into our driveway." My wife and daughter were both elated and I was scared to death. My trainer’s name was David Darr, and to our surprise he came in without a dog. You could taste the tension in the air. Dave told us before he could bring Karl in there were some things we had to go over. There were papers to sign and about a million things for him to read to me. To my wife and daughter’s complete frustration, I had a ton of questions for Dave, which delayed Karl’s arrival into our home.
After about an hour it was time and Dave went out to get Karl. The moment had come and we would finally meet. And meet we would. The door opened and in he came with a bound. He ran in past Dave, past my wife and daughter and ran straight to me as if he knew who needed him most. I sat in the chair as this eighty-seven pound German shepherd started to check me out. He picked his head up ever so gentle, as I took his head in my hands and I asked him, "Are you the one?" and he licked my face. It was a moment that was filled with hope and anticipation.
My first impression of Karl was, "This dog is huge." As I petted and examined him, I can remember being amazed how gentle he was. His ears were pointed and very soft. His head was large and his legs were long. As I scratched his back he rolled over so I could rub his belly. I remember sitting on the floor with him and as I did, he snuggled close. This dog was a gentle giant and I could instantly feel his warmth.
It didn’t take long to see that Karl knew what he was doing and that I was having a hard time figuring out which end was which. The first night was a night that I’ll always remember, and I’m sure Karl remembers it too. I did everything wrong. I didn’t measure his food correctly, I stepped into his water dish and I couldn’t find where he relieved himself to pick it up. Heck, I didn’t even know if he relieved himself at all. I finally managed to get him settled into his spot by my bed for a well deserved night sleep and that’s when Karl met our two cats. Oh yeah, did I say we had two cats? Karl had no problem with the cats, but the cats had a problem with Karl! What a first night.
The morning would finally come and it went a little more smoothly than the day before, but not much. When Dave got to my house to start our first day of training, I don’t know who was happier to see him, Karl or me. Our first lesson was for Dave to lead me around the neighborhood with the harness. That’s right, Dave played guide dog and I tried to act like someone who knew what he was doing. I can only imagine what my neighbors were thinking as I gave Dave commands like "forward," "left," "right" and "halt." Dave did well, and as for me, well, let’s just say we somehow made it back to my house. Thank God one of us could see! The next lesson was let’s see if the blind guy can get the harness on the dog. Karl knew what he had to do, but I didn’t have a clue. Somehow I managed to get the harness on him and we were ready to go. "Yeah right." I thought. We made it to the sidewalk and I started to learn the commands of a guide dog, commands that Karl knew well and that I still had to learn. I’ll always remember the first time I told Karl "forward," it felt like a dream. In fact, it felt like we were running and that’s when we learned the "steady" command! The first thought that I had was that we were doing it. I remember all my neighbors coming out and cheering us on. They yelled, "Go for it George" and "You can make it, we’re behind you." I still get tears in my eyes when I think about how it felt. What a proud moment. It was the start of my journey. I didn’t know where my journey would take me, but one thing I did know, Karl was going to lead the way.
The training was hard and stressful. It was tough on me and I could tell Karl was feeling the stress too. There were days that went well the first week and then there were days I felt we would never get it right. I believe everyone that trains with a dog reaches a point in their training that it all falls together. That day came for Karl and me in the middle of our second week of training. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a day that wasn’t going well. I felt as though we had reached a point that nothing was ever going to go right. We were missing curbs, we weren’t going down the sidewalk in a straight line, and I felt as though Karl wasn’t listening to any of my commands. I was frustrated, I could tell Dave was getting frustrated, and Karl didn’t know what to do.
All of a sudden, as Karl and I were walking down a busy sidewalk bumping into each other, Dave yelled out "Will the both of you just stop." I gave Karl the command to halt and we stopped. I thought "All right Karl, you’re in trouble now." That was when Dave said, "You two have got to be the worst looking guide dog team I’ve ever seen in my life. Karl goes to the left and George, you try to go to the right. Karl tries to walk you around obstacles and George, you walk into them. Karl stops at curbs and George, you keep going." Well this wasn’t what I expected to hear. It sounded like I was in trouble, not Karl. How could that be? That was when Dave said the thing that would change the way I was looking at my situation. He said, "You have to start to follow his lead, you have to start to listen to him. George, he can see and you can’t. You’re blind." Those words were very hard for me to hear. It was the first time since the doctor that someone said I was blind. I stood there in shock. Then he said something that made it all make sense. He said, "George, let Karl do his job. His job is to guide you and keep you safe. Do this for me -- always trust the dog. If you trust him, he’ll never let you down, I promise." That was when it all changed. What Dave said made sense. I told Dave, "All right, I’ll try." I picked up the harness and even though I couldn’t see, I closed my eyes and put all my trust into Karl’s training. I let Karl be my eyes.
And guess what--it worked. We were walking as a team. I could feel the confidence in his stride and for the first time we picked up our pace. I felt like I was reborn. I knew we had a long way to go, but I knew if I trusted him, we could make it. That was the day that not only my bond would begin with Karl, but it was the day I began to love this dog that had come into my life. Something else happened that day -- I wasn’t afraid anymore.
The training continued into the third and last week and it seemed every day was better than the last. With Karl at my side, I was traveling into the cities, big and small. My training took me into cities like Boston and New York. We rode in taxis, busses and subways. We went to the mall, dined in restaurants and took walks in the country. All of this with Karl at my side, all of this with my new best friend.
The last day of my training brought the worst rain storm you could imagine, but I didn’t care -- we had made it. It was official--Karl and I were a team. I was now ready to face a new day, new goals, new dreams and a new life. I would soon learn that I still had many fears to overcome. I still had to learn to trust Karl, and I would soon learn that it wasn’t going to be that easy.
Our first weekend after training was a time of celebration. We had all of our family and friends over so I could show off Karl. Before my wife and I went to bed Sunday night, I told her of a plan that I had to test my new guide dog skills. My wife worked in the town that I grew up in, and my parents still lived there. My plan was to go to work with her the next day and walk to my parents’ house (just under two miles) spend the day, and then walk back to her office at the end of the day. She thought I had lost my mind. I laughed as I told her I could do this walk blindfolded. As you can probably tell, I was about as cocky and confident as I could be. I told her, "What are you worried about? I grew up in this town, I know every turn and every street, and besides, I have Karl. Don’t worry." She agreed, but she still worried and I was soon to learn this was going to be more than a walk -- it was going to be a new beginning.
The walk would start in front of my wife’s office. The first challenge that Karl and I would face would be the most dangerous thing a person who is blind has to do, and that is to cross a busy street. So I picked up the harness and listened for a lull in the traffic. When I heard no oncoming cars, I gave Karl the command "forward," and our walk began. Even though Karl and I crossed many streets during training, this was the first time we were alone. I was amazed how focused Karl was. As we stepped off the curb he instantly was looking for danger and he was doing his job, just like he was taught. I thought, "Wow, just like my trainer said, just another day on the job for Karl." As we reached the other side of the street and he stopped at the up curb and stepped onto the sidewalk, he halted and waited for my next command. I gave him the command to go right and away we went. He stopped at every curb and walked me around every obstacle that was in our way. It was hard to believe, but it was working just like it was supposed to.
Everything was going great until we reached about the one mile marker of our walk. That was when it happened -- I second guessed myself, but even worse, I doubted Karl. It happened on a busy narrow street. A large vehicle passed us on the right and it sounded like it was on the sidewalk right in front of us. I gave Karl the command to "halt," I dropped the harness, and stood there with the leash in my hand in complete and total fear. I can remember thinking, "What are you trying to do?" I had no right to be out here, I was blind and I needed help, and I shouldn’t be out here by myself. And there I stood until a person came up to me and asked, "You appear to be lost. Can I help you?" And I thought back to my training. I thought back to what Dave, my trainer, had said. The words that were hard to hear then were the words that would save me now. He said, "Always trust the dog. He’ll never let you down." As I sit here now and write this story, I’ll always remember what happened next. I bent over and took Karl’s head in my hands and asked him, "What do you think, Karl? Do you think we need help, or do you think we can make it?" He licked me on the face and licked away my fears. That simple act of love from him made me realize that I had nothing to fear as long as he was by my side. I stood and thanked the person for their offer of help and I explained to him, "I’ll be fine, because you see I have this dog and I trust him, and he’ll keep me safe. So thanks, but we have to get going. You see, my journey begins today." He probably was thinking, "I just wanted to know if he needed help!"
The walk now had a whole new meaning. It was more than just a walk -- it was a new day, a day that my dreams of independence would become reality. As we crossed each street, and passed my landmarks that I couldn’t see, I still knew they were there. I passed the church I went to as a child, the school I attended, and the playground where I learned to play basketball. They were all there, and as I came closer and closer to my destination, I started to feel like the little train in the children’s book that said, "I think I can, I think I can, I know I can."
As we crossed our last street before my parent’s house, I knew my parent’s front gate would be about seventy yards on the left. When I felt we had gone about forty yards, I started to tell Karl, "Find left inside." At that point, Karl began to look to his left to find an opening of some sort that would take us off the sidewalk and inside to the left. I repeated the command several times and I started to feel as though we had gone too far. Then the fear started to come back. What if he had missed the gate? That wouldn’t be a problem. We would just have to backtrack a little. But what if I had taken a wrong turn, or what if I miscounted streets? If that was true, I had no idea where we were. What would I do now? I thought, "Trust the dog, and we can do it." As I was going through all of the negative thoughts in my mind as to what we might have done wrong, Karl was still looking for "left inside." Then all of a sudden he turned hard to the left, picked up his head and put his nose on the gate of my parent’s front yard. We had made it.
As I tell you this story, I still get too filled with my own emotions to speak. I remember opening the front gate and dropping to my knees while wrapping my arms around Karl and crying. It wasn’t me that had made it, it was us. I remember thanking God for this incredible gift of this dog, but not just a dog, my guide dog. Some of you might think it was just a walk to my parent’s house, but to me it was rebirth.
My life changed that day and it changed for the better. To say Karl and I are bonded is not enough. He serves as not only my guide but as my best friend. He serves as my eyes and his work is a labor of love. It’s sometimes hard for me to remember life without Karl because he’s part of me. He has not only changed my life but he has changed the lives of my wife, my daughter, my family, friends and all those we come in contact with. If given the choice of sight, but to have to live without Karl, well, let’s just say I’d have to give that a lot of thought because I can’t imagine life without him.
I now work for the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation as their Senior Vice President. How ironic that I now work for the organization that provided me Karl. I was once afraid to leave my house. Now I travel all over the country, giving motivational speeches to groups of all types to help them to realize their own inner strength, their own human spirit and to let them know that they too can deal with life changing situations in their own lives. I feel very fortunate for my new career. I use to like my work, but now I love it. I feel one of the most important things I do at Fidelco is to spread a greater awareness of the difference these dogs can make in the lives of the men and women they serve. My speeches take me all over the country and I have had the opportunity to meet some incredible people. So in some ways, as crazy as it sounds, my life is better now than it was before losing my sight.
In closing this story, let me say that I want to be remembered as me, because in life you have to believe in yourself before others can believe in you. I was once asked, "How should we refer to people who are blind? Are they blind, visually impaired, visually challenged, etc.". I answered, "When you refer to me, please just call me George." That’s who I am! The same person I was before sight loss. I want you to remember that when life throws you a curve, it’s your attitude that can save you. I want you to remember my family, friends and the men and women of the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, because if it weren’t for them I would still be sitting in that chair in my living room. So please remember me as just George and know that "I remember the day."
I remember the day the world I knew changed -- that would be the day that the darkness came.
I remember the day when the doctor would say, "You have to look at life in a different way."
I remember the day my family would say, "We’re here by your side, we’ll see this thing through, a day at a time, it’s now up to you."
I remember the day and day after day that tears of frustration were bitter on my face, feeling afraid in this dark world I now faced, feeling alone and so out of place.
I remember the day, that cold January day that would be the day my world would again change.
I remember the day my guide dog Karl came into my life.
He licked away wounds no one could see and I knew his gentle spirit would fulfill my every need.
He brought confidence and hope, once lost, now reclaimed and from this day on I knew nothing would be the same.
I remember the day that the training began, thinking he won’t listen to my command. I would go left and he to the right, I would sometimes wonder would we ever get it right?
I remember the day it all fell in place, the words Dave would say, stung like a slap in the face. "He can see and you can’t. You must trust him now. Karl is your guide, and he won’t let you down. He’ll be your eyes now, and if you listen to him, in no time at all, you can work as a team."
I remember that day when I gave the command and, with a pull from the harness, our journey began. We picked up the pace and we walked as a team, exploring new paths -- it felt like a dream.
I remember the faces of my wife and my child. I remember fall sunsets and the smile of a child. These memories are engraved deep in my soul, the darkness can’t take them. They’re mine to have and to hold.
I can’t remember life without Karl and all that he brings I now embrace life, a life filled with hopes and with dreams.
George Salpietro is a senior vice president for the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation. He dedicates this story to his wife Marie, their daughter Stacy, the foster family that raised Karl, his friends at the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, and one very special dog named "Karl"
Copyright © 2000 by George Salpietro.
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