‘My life is in her paws’
Glenrock’s newest toddler is a workaholic with a glossy black coat, an attentive demeanor and the ability to smell changes in blood pressure. With $70,000 in training, Simona is 18 months old and the first guide dog for visually impaired local Mikaela Piasecki, 18.
And she could not be happier.
“I’m more independent, so much more free,” Piasecki says. “I feel more confident. She’s got my life in her paws, and I’ve got her life in my hands, so we are a team.”
Prior to having a guide dog, Piasecki navigated the world with a cane. Simona was given to her new owner by the generous folks at Guide Dogs for the Blind, headquartered in San Rafael, California.
Before Simona came to live in Glenrock last month, she had obedience and guide dog training for three months then two weeks training with Piasecki at GDB’s Oregon facility. Getting a dog was an 18-month process, worth every moment, according to her new owner.
“They come to your room with the dog individually; I opened the door and this little black lab girl walks in, just like I dreamed of and it was perfect,” she said.
Piasecki’s cortical visual impairment is lifelong. Her actual vision would be fine if not for the neurological interference caused by a stroke in the womb. It is a part of who she is. She has learned to navigate the seeing world using her cane, verbal cues and a tough skin when it comes to falls, bangs and bruises. The chance to have a service dog was life changing. She and Simona learned to be a team with five other guide dog and human teams.
For Piasecki, living for two weeks in a facility that catered wholly to the blind was a wonderful experience and an ideal learning environment.
“It was incredible, I want to go back and live there,” she laughs. “The vending machines had braille on them! There was a giant TV in the exercise room. The treadmills had braille on them…everything was just so accessible. The volunteers that served our meals were so verbal and handy. I loved it.” Being around other visually impaired folks was a great chance to unwind and vent about some of the silly things that sighted people say to blind people.
“Like when people figure out you are blind and they say: ‘Oh you are blind? I’ll pray for you.’ No, I’ll pray for you,” Piasecki quipped. “Or, ‘You don’t look blind,’ ‘You are too pretty to be blind,’ ‘You get it so much easier, you get all these accommodations,’ ‘the government gives you money.’”
She giggles, joking that she looks forward anxiously to her alleged federal supplements. “But it was good. We all understood the ‘blind life.’”
Simona has settled into her role as Piasecki’s guide.
“Her job includes finding curbs, going around people, obstacles, overheads; anything that could potentially give me a bruise,” she says. “She goes above and beyond too. She senses changes in blood pressure instinctually and she alerts people to low blood pressure.”
Simona gets plenty of down time for play and is off the harness at home. Not only does Simona allow her new human to more safely cross public streets and make her way around Casper College where Piasecki is a freshman, she provides companionship. A lifetime spent explaining her condition, educating strangers and dealing with the unfortunate bullying that comes from being a child who is different, has made Piasecki cautious, hesitant to trust and often wary of having to meet new people. Simona changes all of that.
By being with her all the time Simona has only her human’s best interests at heart and wants to please her. Simona has turned Piasecki from a shy girl with a cane to a smiling girl with a furry best friend. In return, Piasecki is 100 percent responsible for Simona’s care and walks, feeds and cares for the black Labrador with an intense love and affection. The pairing was well planned, the training well executed and the end result endearing to watch.
So far, nobody in Glenrock has denied Simona access to any building. But there are some important facts that many people here don’t know about guide dogs.
“You are not supposed to pet a working guide dog; you are not really even supposed to make eye contact with them. It distracts them from their job and that’s really unsafe for me,” explains Piasecki. “Parents can tell their kids to not pet the dog, its working guiding that person who can’t see and you don’t want to distract it because that’s dangerous.
“You can’t talk to the dog but that doesn’t mean you can’t talk to me; I’m still a person. If I’m not actively walking and guiding, you can talk to me.”
Service dogs, when they appear in public, are actually at work. Simona is expected to work for Piasecki for eight years and then the dog gets to retire and go back to her original breeders. Piasecki will then go in order to prepare for Simona’s arrival, Piasecki had to walk a certain distance each day and prove her level of activity warranted a guide dog. After meeting the eligibility requirements, and having her walking assessed (stride, pace, personality, lifestyle) she was paired with the most suitable canine companion.
“She does walk very fast. They want you to walk faster with a guide dog than you would with a cane. She does her job very well. She has a lot of initiative,” she says. If it snows, Simona must wear special salt protection boots which she obviously dislikes.
Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) receives donations that allow it to offer the highly trained and high quality service dogs at no cost to the recipient. GDB has placed over 14,000 service dogs with new best friends across the United States and Canada since its founding in 1942.