Dog’s job opens world for blind

Walking down Pioneer Avenue with his German shepherd, Rick Malley is just cruising. Malley doesn’t slow down, not even to pose for a photo. He may be visually impaired, but his dog, a beautiful, lean male shepherd, leads him safely through the world. That’s his job.

“I can fly with him, as fast as I want,” Malley said. “His job is protecting and guiding me. He loves to do it.”

“You don’t want to endanger yourself,” said Peter Nowicki, an instructor with the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, of a guide dog’s main purpose. “The dog is a fluid means of travel.”

“Fluid” describes well the interaction between Malley and his dog. “Confident” works, too. A tall man, Malley, 52, takes long strides down the street. If he flinches at obstacles, he doesn’t show it. There’s a subtle interplay between handler and dog, communicated by touch on the handle of the dog’s harness. Like a sled dog running on a trail, Sage — not his real name — focuses on his job.

Malley doesn’t want to make his dog’s name public so people won’t distract it by calling his name. Malley suggested Sage, the name of his first guide dog, as a pseudonym for this article.

Earlier this month, Nowicki came to Alaska from Fidelco’s kennels in Bloomfield, Conn., to train Malley and his new guide dog. Malley had his first Fidelco guide dog, the original Sage, for eight years, but had to retire the dog when it developed spinal myopathy and could no longer work. Fidelco pioneered the concept of in-community placement for guide dogs, with instructors visiting clients at their homes for the last step in training.

A big part of that is helping Malley bond with Sage, and for Sage to understand that after two years of training, he has a new home and a new partner. Six weeks after they’re born, Fidelco dogs spend six months living in volunteer homes to learn socialization and other skills. Next comes training to be a guide dog. 

Some of that training can be seen in how a guide dog acts in public. For example, during an interview with Malley and Nowicki at All Hopped Espresso, Sage laid on the floor beneath a bench under Malley, quiet and out of the way.

“He just lies down and takes a nap,” Nowicki said.

That’s an attribute of a guide dog — being out of the way and unobtrusive in public places. At another café, someone didn’t see Sage with Malley and asked, “Where’s your guide dog?” 

“The best compliment a guide dog can get is ‘He’s not there,’” Malley said.

Lying down, occasionally Sage would look over at Nowicki as if to say, “What are you doing over there? You should be here with me.” When Malley took Sage outside, Nowicki walking behind them, Sage would glance back at the instructor. That’s part of why Nowicki visited Homer — to help Sage make the transition from instructor to Malley.

“They develop a working relationship that takes time,” Nowicki said. 

Bonding isn’t easy, Malley said. One thing he does is groom Sage daily.

“You have to be patient,” he said.

Founded in 1960 by Charlie and Robbie Kaman, Fidelco has developed a line of German shepherds that come from a Bavarian stock with its roots in actual sheep herding dogs. Smaller than show dog shepherds, the Fidelco dogs tend to weigh less than 90 pounds, a more comfortable size to handle. Worth $40,000 with their training, the dogs are provided free of charge to clients by the Fidelco Foundation. Instructors like Nowicki bring new guide dogs to clients in their homes.

One requirement for people wanting guide dogs is that the client walk the dog at least a half hour to an hour a day. The client’s lifestyle should be such that they want to and need to get out with the dog.

“I give them what they need,” Malley said of guide dogs. “They love to please. They love to work.”

Although there’s a human-pet bond with a guide dog, the dog’s main job is to help his partner move around in the outside world, such as going from Malley’s apartment to his job as a disability rights specialist at the Independent Living Center. A guide dog is trained to lead its partner around obstacles and follow commands like right, left and straight ahead — something Malley feels through the harness handle.

“It’s the dog’s job to get him there safely,” Nowicki said.

Take crossing the street. Malley has been slowly losing his sight since his 30s, and has little peripheral vision. He can hear cars and trucks moving on the road, but can’t always tell when they’re slowing down. When he comes to the curb, Sage stops. The dog won’t move until he knows it’s safe to cross — even if Malley thinks it’s safe.

“Intelligent disobedience,” Nowicki called it. “The dog will refuse if Rick is wrong.”

Even simple things like moving around in a café can be tricky. There’s so much about navigating the world sighted people take for granted, Nowicki said.

“Getting to the front door is half the battle. You have to get around tables, get information, make purchases,” Nowicki said.

Malley can learn routes and routines, but things change, like road construction.

That’s where the public can help out, Malley and Nowicki said (see below). If someone sees Malley and Sage walking toward, say, a sandwich board sign placed too close to a sidewalk, you can warn Malley or other people with guide dogs. If you’re in a car and see Malley waiting to cross at a crosswalk, don’t honk your horn, but roll down your window and talk to him and let him know you’ve stopped.

Most important, don’t distract the guide dog. For example if Malley is at a restaurant, don’t try to pet the dog. 

At All Hopped Up Espresso while Malley and Nowicki were being interviewed, a man asked if Sage could have a treat. Nowicki politely said no, explaining that the dog couldn’t learn to associate cafes with treats. 

“Think of it as a cane or a crutch,” Malley said of the guide dog. “He is a medical device.” 

Malley first learned to use a guide dog while living in Boston. The city had sidewalks and even audible traffic signals at crosswalks. Malley and the original Sage learned to be comfortable in urban conditions. When Malley lived in Anchorage, the challenges were about the same. In January when he moved to Homer, he and his dog had to adjust to more gravel roads, fewer sidewalks and distractions like moose. To prepare Sage for working in Homer, Nowicki worked the dog on rural roads in Connecticut. That’s another reason Fidelco likes to do the final instruction in the client’s hometown — to  help the dog adjust to its partner’s world. Malley said the original Sage did fine with moose encounters and other small town Alaska wildlife.

Off his harness and in Malley’s house, Sage can be just another big bundle of love, but when Malley puts that harness on him, he’s all business. In the café, Sage might lie on the floor, but as soon as Malley stands up, he’s ready to work. If Malley says, “Go outside,” Sage will take him to the front door they came in. With a guide dog, Malley can move through the world with dignity and confidence.

“It gets me out of the house. It gets me out of the house working,” Malley said. “I just trust him. ”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.

Advice for interacting with guide dogs and handlers:

A guide dog is a medical device like a cane or crutch, Rick Malley said. Its job is to help the handler move safely through the world. Here are suggestions for interacting with guide dogs and their handlers:

• Do greet the handler. 

• If there are obstacles ahead like a sandwich board side intruding into the sidewalk, let the handler know.

• Keep sidewalks clear.

• Do not call the dog or whistle at it.

• If you have a dog, restrain your dog and don’t let it distract the guide dog.

• If the guide dog is lying down at a café, don’t pet it.

• Don’t offer the guide dog treats or try to give it treats.

• Don’t distract the guide dog.

• If you see a guide dog waiting to help its handler cross the road, don’t honk your horn at them. Roll down your car window and greet the handler to let them you’re stopped. Alaska has a law that mandates drivers to stop if a person with a white cane or service dog is trying to cross a street.