Back in black—Labrador, that is

A Reno man writes about his new guide dog, Benny, a Labrador who’s brought smiles to the face of former President Reagan

If you happen to see Bill and Benny walking the streets of Reno, stop and say hi.

If you happen to see Bill and Benny walking the streets of Reno, stop and say hi.

Photo By David Robert

You can contact Guide Dogs of America at (800) 459-4843.

I stood at the edge of the curb, gawking slack-jawed like Garrison Keillor’s Statue of the Unknown Norwegian. Less than two blocks away, I heard traffic on Mira Loma Boulevard, but I could not find my way there.

Frustrated, I said, “Man, I sure wish I had me a nice, friendly guide dog right now!”

“Can I help?” a voice asked.

I got directions to familiar territory from my neighbor. My solo walkabout had required pedestrian assistance. My confidence hit a low point somewhere beneath permafrost. I really needed a new guide dog!

When my second guide dog passed away in February, I found my solo mobility skills challenged. Yogi, a friendly golden retriever, worked at my left side for more than six years until his own eyesight became impaired. After Yogi’s retirement, I relied on my wife, family and friends for my travel needs, to the detriment of my own independence.

Then my sources for rides disappeared. My wife took on a part-time job, and my retired brother left his Sparks home for an extended stay in the San Francisco Bay area. I had lost touch with public transportation. I felt like the kid who learns the family car is totaled just before prom.

I decided to start walking and to reacquaint myself with Citifare and Citilift. Despite some misgivings, I dusted off a white cane and headed out the door.

And tripped right off the sidewalk into the gutter. I heard kids enjoying recess across the street at Dodson Elementary, and it was difficult to believe they were not laughing at me. I found the curb, headed for the corner, and within five minutes lost my bearings again, this time a block from home. Generally familiar with my neighborhood, I had lost the muscle memory of the sidewalks and crossings. The shallow curb line at corners also made it hard to tell if wheelchair ramps pointed straight across streets or diagonally.

Call it stubborn pride, but I was not ready to ask for help. Eventually I noodled through my mistakes and headed back home.

I called Guide Dogs of America. Founded by the Machinists Union in 1949, GDA is located in Sylmar, Calif. I graduated from GDA with my first dog in 1983. After almost 20 years of guide dogging, I hoped for a quick return to my alma mater.

A month later GDA’S director of operations arrived in Reno to assess my abilities and needs. Steve Burkman and I spent a tense hour on the street that reinforced my desire for a guide dog.

“Your gait’s actually improved since we worked together in 1992,” Burkman said, “but the nerve damage in your feet seems increased.”

The lack of nerve conductivity noted, like my blindness, is a result of diabetic complications. I could not sense my tendency to veer to the right and had difficulty feeling curves and sensing common obstacles like cracked concrete. Even small ridges in the driveways and streets acted like snares. Buckled cement and ubiquitous sign posts seemed able to jump at me. I lost balance several times.

A place was soon reserved for me in GDA’s October class. A large, male black Labrador retriever had been pre-selected for me.

“We’re confident this is the very best dog for you,” Burkman said. “You’ll see!”

Like a child before Christmas, I could hardly wait.

The school’s senior trainer met me at the Los Angeles airport. Bob Wendler served as a dog handler in Vietnam and was one of a number of veterans instrumental in the production of the famous War Dogs video. A third trainer, Christine Schmidt, trained all 10 of the dogs issued to our class.

The trainers spent two days assessing students’ gaits, skill levels, potential health problems and balance issues. Then we met to find out who would be paired with whom.

“Bill Schley,” I heard Schmidt read, “your dog is Benny. He is 2 1/2 years old, 25 inches high at the shoulder and weighs 80 pounds.” All of us were excited and concerned at meeting our new companions, especially the three new students getting their first guide.

The door to my room opened, and kennel staffer Jamie brought an excited Benny into the room. Down the hall, I heard other dogs whine and students happily calling their names as the dogs were issued. Benny and I were already engaged in the social amenities when Jamie bent to give him one last kiss on his forehead. Staffers and trainers do not touch or otherwise interact with the dogs once they are issued to a blind student. It is imperative that the unique chemistry between dog and owner be sacrosanct within the new team.

Imagine three weeks of travel with a new dog at your side, encountering virtually every obstacle, distraction and danger associated with blind mobility. Stray dogs, overhead obstacles ("Ouch!"), pedestrians by the hundreds, trainers bouncing tennis balls and laying strips of bacon right in front of the dogs, and up to 10 lanes of mid-day traffic were some of the difficulties we faced together.

Our mutual trust and affection grew with each day. The day after he became mine, Benny brought his bone to me and for the first time initiated play. We ended up nose to muzzle—in a heap of legs, arms, paws and tail, just a couple of boys being boys. Our bond established, we were becoming a team.

Graduation day for our class came, and each student met the dogs’ raisers. These heroic individuals raise the young dogs knowing they must return their best friends to the school after more than a year spent together day and night. John Barletta entered our room and sang out, “B-B-B-Benny and the Jets!” Benny nearly wagged his tail off while greeting his old friend. Barletta is a retired U.S. Secret Service agent, formerly a bodyguard for President Ronald Reagan.

“I used Benny as a therapy dog for my old boss,” Barletta told me, “since a dog is the one thing that’ll still bring a smile to his face.” John is now raising his third dog for GDA, another Lab pup named Rawhide, the Secret Service’s code name for President Reagan.

Heightened emotions can always be expected at guide dog graduations. Puppy raisers spoke tenderly of how much the dog’s successful assignment meant, knowing they might never again see the pups they had raised. Students tell stories about former dogs, and even the trainers grabbed for the Kleenex. Many carefully planned speeches gave place to an extemporaneous outpouring of love and gratitude.

Then graduation was over. I met Benny’s sisters, who had graduated with blind partners in July. Still shaking hands with other dog associates, I found Andi Krusoe, GDA’s director of admissions, tugging at my sleeve. As with all good things, the class had reached its end, but for Benny and me the real love affair was only beginning.

Since Benny and I work as a team there is no 100 percent guarantee we will not make occasional mistakes. Still, a tubular steel cane cannot tell you when it is unsafe to cross a street. It can’t fetch a ball for you or provide warm company when it’s snowing or when you find yourself on the wrong block. It cannot lay a gentle paw on your knee to say, “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me!”

Ditto, Benny!