How Guide Dogs For The Blind Makes A Huge Difference
Eight years ago, Thomas Kowalski’s life changed overnight. The San Ramon, California, man closed his eyes at bedtime and woke up with a nearly complete loss of vision at age 55 because of a rare eye disease called nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (NAION).
Over the next several years, Kowalski adjusted to his new lifestyle, but he and his family knew there was room for more help. That’s when the Kowalskis discovered Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) and visited the San Rafael campus, where Tom ultimately underwent training to work with a guide dog.
The end result? “It is truly life-changing,” Kowalski said.
This inspirational story is best understood by reading Tom’s own insightful and heartfelt words. The love and compassion he feels for his guide dog Dynamo, Guide Dogs for the Blind, and everyone who helped make this partnership a reality will warm your heart.
When did you first get involved with Guide Dogs for the Blind? What prompted you to look into their services and make the decision to take on this commitment?
My wife Andrea first applied without my knowledge. I enjoy walking many miles per week (40–50) to stay in shape. Using a cane, I became a sort of walking Band-Aid commercial due to tripping, falling, and running into objects. She felt that having a guide dog would help keep me out of harm’s way.
After a phone interview with GDB and research of my own, I decided it was a great opportunity. It would relieve my wife’s concern for my safety, and I could end up with another great partner. We have always had dogs, so I understood the commitment.
How long did the application process and graduating from the program take? What was that whole experience like?
After filling out an initial application and getting signatures from my physician, I was contacted by GDB to go over the application and discuss the program. I was then set up to have an in-house assessment, which included walking with a harness pulled by an assessor. He watched my pace and gait. We also discussed the care of the dog and what my preference was on the type of dog: male or female, Labrador retriever (black or yellow) or golden retriever. I was accepted about four weeks later.
GDB next needed to find the correct dog. In addition, due to the fact my left hand had been amputated, GDB needed to retrain the dog to be on my right side (all their dogs are trained on the left side), and this added to the wait time (the typical wait time is 4–6 months). All in all, it took about 18 months to end up on the San Rafael campus for my two-week training.
The two-week training was very intense. It involved learning voice commands, foot placement, and hand gestures. In general, I had to learn to work with the dog as a team and accept the dog’s role. The mindset is that the dog is the highly trained professional and I’m the rookie. It was more difficult than I expected, but I left there with a great guide: Dynamo, a 21-month-old male yellow lab.
I also departed GDB with a whole new group of friends. I had never been in an organization where every person had one goal in mind: to improve the quality of life for people they don’t even know. The staff at all levels — admissions, nursing, the cook staff, housekeeping, and the trainers — always emphasize the positive. All your needs are taken care of so you can concentrate on the task in front of you: bonding with your dog and forming a partnership.
What was your experience with the instructors and staff of Guide Dogs for the Blind? What are the people like, and what are their motivations for getting involved in this kind of work?
My trainers Jessica and Jenai are my heroes. They never allowed me to fail. They worked me hard but always in a positive manner, recognized my struggles, and worked to correct them. We also laughed a lot and developed a true friendship that continues today. I believe they have a love for dogs but also a love for mankind and recognize the happiness and joy, as well as independence, they can give to the visually impaired.
Did you have any interactions with the puppy raisers? What is their role in this process?
I met Dynamo’s puppy raisers at our graduation. They are a family of five — a mom, dad, two girls, and a son — that raised Dynamo from the age of eight weeks up to 15 months. These puppy raisers are so special. Consider the 24/7 devotion and training, as well as providing some of their own resources, and then at 15 months, the willingness to give the puppy up. Having been involved with the San Ramon Valley Guide Dogs Puppy Raising Club for the last 15 months, I have seen their devotion firsthand. They represent another group of heroes in my life.
How does Dynamo help you in your day-to-day life? What are the actions he does that most people wouldn’t realize or notice when they see you two out and about? Does Dynamo provide physical assistance? Mental calmness?
Dynamo recognizes going up and down curbs and steps; he stops to allow me to feel for the change with my foot. He recognizes overhead objects that I may run into and steps in front of me and stops so I can feel for the object. He walks me around objects that are in my path. I can give him the command of “door” or “chair,” and he will take me to the door or an empty chair.
As a friend of mine said, when using a cane you have to have total concentration, listening to the tap of the cane and feeling for objects that are in your path. It’s very hard work. When you have a guide, you can listen to the birds sing and feel the wind in your hair. That’s where the added mental calmness comes from, thanks to Dynamo.
How does your partnership with Dynamo relate to your independence? Do you feel more empowered to take on new challenges by having a guide dog?
I have always been very independent and willing to try just about anything once. What I have now is a partner to share it with. Last October, we walked 208 miles in 30 days and a half-marathon on the 34th day in a fundraiser for GDB and the San Ramon Valley Guide Dogs Puppy Raising Club.
Since meeting Dynamo, do you feel you connect with people you meet on a different level? Does Dynamo help break the ice or make you feel more confident in social situations?
People are quicker to approach us then they did when I used a cane. Dynamo is like a rock star. People approach us constantly, and I feel we have an obligation to GDB to be the best ambassadors we can be; I do not take this gift lightly.
How do you show love to Dynamo? Does he get a special treat or participate in a favorite activity?
Dynamo loves to work; that is when he is in his element. He receives a kibble and praise when doing his tasks properly. He enjoys playing with other labs and retrievers but is always by my side and mindful of where I am.
How has this past year changed your thinking about your own personal independence and how a guide dog fits into your lifestyle?
After a period of time, I accepted — mentally, physically, and spiritually — that I was blind, but I always felt there was something missing. Dynamo’s unconditional friendship and love has filled that empty space.
Dynamo is part of our family; where we go, he goes. It’s harder to be without him than with him. I am a better man having gone through this journey. GDB is a special place; it does so much more than give you a dog — it gives you back your dignity.
Image source: Thomas Kowalski