Working with guide dogs is, among other wonders, a frequently humbling experience. Even after 45 years and four canine helpers, I occasionally realize that I haven’t learned all that much. All of my dogs regularly must endure my obstinate nature, which they accomplish with patience, grace and — if you can imagine it — a minimum of disgust. A walk six weeks ago on one of our grassy trails was a case in point.
Donna & Hunter rest by a lake in South Dakota several years ago: photo by Rich Hill.
Our Favorite Trail
Hunter finds a new way to carry his red rubber ring — flipped up over his face: photo by Rich Hill.
I’m currently paired with my fourth guide dog, a male black Lab,. All were trained by the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown, New York. Hunter is almost thirteen and is semi-retired. Semi-retirement for Hunter is dressing up like a guide dog and accompanying his Daddy and me to restaurants, stores and parks, as well as taking me for modest rural walks, when he wants to.
To get to our favorite trail, we start by walking to the opening in an ancient stone wall. We cross between stone pillars into an area which belongs partly to us and partly to our neighbor. It loops up and down gentle hills, passing another neighbor’s fence and a steeper trail leading to the stream and woods. It’s a sanctuary, a sacred place to me.
Blue butterfly on milkweed: photo by Rich Hill.
My husband, Rich, developed and now maintains this trail, which I can walk in eight minutes, if I don’t stop to appreciate it. It’s a wide mowed swath through a jungle of berry thickets, bergamot, native grasses, wild flowers and enough trees to provide a cooling canopy in summer and a sea of dried leaves in the fall.
Butterfly on Bergamott along our trail: photo by Rich Hill
At the time, we were enduring our warmest December ever. Since the leaves had long since fallen and the last mowing pulverized most of them into dust, the slowly dying grass was about the only thing under foot.
Something Hampers Our Journey
Hunter loves this trail as much as I do. He had been fervently lobbying me to allow him to escort me along it ever since I had placed a moratorium on these walks in November. The reason for the moratorium? Deer ticks. These tiny demons carry Lyme disease and have wreaked havoc on our family. Both Rich and Hunter have been treated for it multiple times.
This deer tick, shown with a straight pin, a dime and a ballpoint Pen, is huge compared to some we’ve found: photo by Rich Hill
Late fall is one of the worst times for them. Once we’ve had nighttime temps below freezing, they are motivated to find a host before the hard frost puts an end to their looking. That hard frost, however, was very late in coming this year. But, Hunter hadn’t had a tick in a couple of weeks, so I decided to chance it.
Hunter Stops, But Why?
The walk was a welcomed break from my endless hours of tedious work on the computer, trying to find teachers interested in using The Heart of Applebutter Hill, my educator-recommended novel in their classrooms to promote diversity and inclusion. Chico Dees, nuthatches and crows broke the silence, as we breathed in the sweet air.
About half way around the trail, Hunter pulled hard to the left and stopped. I, of course, stopped as well. This is often a sign that he needs to relieve himself, but that wasn’t it. It’s also possible that he just wanted to indulge his “God-given right to sniff.”
After eleven-plus years of loyal service and considering the tough year he’s been through with his recently diagnosed LPE (Lymphocytic-Plasmacytic Enteritis), I’ve become rather lenient about this diversion from his job. But, he wasn’t sniffing … at least not until I just stood there for a while. Even then, it was half-hearted, as was his move forward when I gave the command. In fact, it was actually a move sideways in front of me.
This silent but unmistakable message got my attention. He was blocking me. At long last, I considered the possibility that he might be trying to tell me something. What a concept. I finally did what every guide dog user is taught to do, what I should have done to begin with … I checked.
This process starts with the foot and then, if nothing is obvious at ground level, the arm joins the fun, searching for low-hanging branches or — in town — street signs. As my right foot swept the area, it encountered what I immediately recognized as wood.
Picking Up the Pieces
Several storms had blown through since we’d last walked the trail, and they generally leave a scattering of broken limbs in their wake. After over fifteen years, I apparently haven’t plugged that in. Stooping to investigate, I lifted the unwieldy branches, along with a gaggle of shorter sticks and tossed them off the trail.
As we resumed our walk, Hunter responded to my continued praise with a hearty wag and an exasperated sigh. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Goofus marvels, “Humans … honestly.”