TORONTO — For most people, a blind date is not a life or death matter.
But as I pace around my bedroom, icy hands clenched in pockets, all I can think about is the fact that this one truly is for me.
I’ve done everything right, I assure myself. I filled in all the right forms, hit the gym, and even picked out the appropriate clothes for the occasion.
The first time I went through this process, the encounter set the wheels in motion for a loving relationship that gave me 8.5 years of independence and joy. The second time around, the pairing lasted a decade.
I think of these partners as I wait to meet my new one — grieving their loss, missing their ways, worrying the high standards they set will burden their successor with the weight of unfair expectations, fearing that I lack the physical and emotional strength to do this again.
But when the guide dog trainer brings in match number three, tail thumping and paws akimbo, I realize anew how little the past matters. I’m here to meet and train with my new guide dog, and all I can do is focus on the present in hopes of building a relationship that will keep us both safe and happy for years to come.
That future can seem tenuous when confronted with a bouncing ball of black Labrador retriever, Lucy by name, who can hardly sit still long enough for me to fasten the harness that physically embodies our new bond.
But even at 21 months old, Lucy is fully trained and ready for the rigours of working life. She and hundreds of dogs like her, after all, have been preparing for a career since birth.
Lucy was born at the Seeing Eye, the oldest guide dog school in North America located in Morristown, N.J.
She spent 16 months learning basic commands and good behaviour in a home environment, then went through four months of specialized training to master commands only guide dogs need to know.
By the time I meet her in June 2019, Lucy has proven herself fully capable of keeping me safe. She’s passed tests requiring her to signal flights of stairs, flag upcoming street crossings, manoeuvre around both moving and stationary obstacles, even disobey commands that could put either of us in danger.
She learned this under the watchful eye of a trainer who has matched me with two previous guides and who I’ve learned to trust implicitly. Lucy has been chosen for me based on a host of factors, including my preferred walking pace, physical strength, speaking voice and home and work environment.
The training program we’re embarking on is gruelling, featuring 15-hour days that kick off at 5:30 a.m. and rarely let up for more than a few minutes. Much of that time is spent walking around Morristown getting a feel for Lucy, how she moves and what her various gyrations in harness mean.
Interspersed around these trips are scheduled meal times, instruction on everything from dog grooming to obedience exercises, and group lectures covering topics as diverse as veterinary care and disability advocacy.
Mixed with the inevitable excitement of meeting a new puppy is a healthy dose of trepidation and anxiety. But there’s sadness there, too, as I try to fend off memories of the dog who walked by my side for nearly 10 years and only retired from guide work the week before Lucy burst onto the scene.
Reva had come to feel like an extension of me over our years together, and not just because she steered me safely through Toronto’s teeming streets every day.
She witnessed every moment of an eventful decade that took me from my 20s to my 30s. She was there to offer a consoling paw during personal or professional trials, roll around with excitement during the triumphs, and transform any living space into a home with the puppy-like antics she never seemed to outgrow.
Her presence at the end of my leash literally and figuratively gave me the freedom to navigate those years confidently and on my own terms. We knew each other’s every move, and we’d stayed in sync even as age inevitably slowed her steps and curbed her adventurous spirit.
The unique bond between guide dog and handler allowed us to have wordless conversations in the space of a single stride.
I think of Reva, who has moved to the country with family to enjoy a well-earned life of canine leisure, as I try to calm Lucy down. And I realize anew how much work lies ahead.
I’m well-accustomed to facing down challenges, having been blind since infancy, but this one feels more daunting.
It will involve the physical rigours of learning to keep up with my energetic new partner, but harder still will be the emotional labour of winning her love and trust while learning to give her mine.
That process gets underway surprisingly quickly as our training kicks into high gear. Dodging throngs of traffic at the end of a harness handle has a remarkable way of pushing me past my hangups and making me appreciate the merits of the dog who got me safely through the melee.
So too does watching her play, both with me and her canine siblings and friends bound for all corners of the United States.
The lure of the guide dog bond attracts blind people from all walks of life, and Lucy’s fellow graduates will be leading their handlers in settings ranging from the back woods of Kentucky to the halls of Harvard.
Forging that bond creates an incomparable connection among the humans in the group, too. The process of learning to entrust our lives to creatures with the rough intelligence of a human toddler is an incredible equalizer that easily breaches traditional divides such as age, ethnicity or social background.
Yet those relationships, like the ones with our dogs, have only intensified in the four months since that nerve-wracking first date.
Lucy has settled beautifully into my everyday life, bringing her puppyish exuberance to every setting I’ve asked her to tackle since coming home.
I now know that a certain sidestep motion is my cue to follow her out of harm’s way. A full-fledged shimmy, on the other hand, represents her unique take on a victory dance and goes on display at the end of every successful trip we take.
The routes we’ve travelled have led me on a journey of rediscovering myriad simple pleasures that can get lost when working with an older guide — taking a long walk just for fun, exploring parts of my home town, watching a beloved animal go into ecstasy over chasing a ball.
She can’t yet identify familiar landmarks with Reva’s seamless grace, but her pauses grow shorter and our movements more fluid every day.
And within only a few months of our first date, I saw proof of exactly how well things were working out.
A spot we regularly passed on our lunchtime strolls in downtown Toronto had temporarily been taken over by a movie set.
Each day for two weeks, Lucy had to navigate an ever-changing obstacle course featuring everything from trailers to props and extras.
One day a crew member hailed me as we threaded our way through a thicket of trucks en route to our favourite spot.
“I’ve watched this little dog for a while now,” he said, ” We throw something new at her every day and she nails it every time.”
“Yes,” I thought, “this relationship is going to work out fine, too.”
— Michelle McQuigge is a Canadian Press reporter based in Toronto.
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press