Monday, October 12, 2009

Book Review: A Gift of Dogs by Carolyn Wing Greenlee

The dog carries herself proudly. She has a mission and her alert no-nonsense attitude tells everyone they encounter–don’t distract me, I’m busy. I’ve got a job to do, a person to guide safely. This is serious business–my person is counting on me and she needs all of my attention. After reading A Gift of Dogs, these will be my thoughts when I see a person with a service dog.

Carolyn Wing Greenlee’s book, A Gift of Dogs, is a remarkable compilation of twelve stories from San Rafael Guide Dogs for the Blind November/December class of 2008. It’s a book precious for its insightful depth of what it means to be blind and that its definition is as different as the individuals involved. Each chapter depicts a unique solitary journey, but everyone featured in this book has one thing in common: each has been blessed with a guide dog.

Because I know Carolyn Wing Greenlee from our association with the writers group, Women Writing the West, and treasure her as a friend, I was most interested in the chapter of the book which deals with her own blindness. Although she and I had discussed her visual impairment, I hadn’t known of the sheer terror of her sight slowly but surely closing down with RP–Retinitis Pigmentosa. She speaks of her mother’s fatal illness and the thing they held in common: they both shared a deterioration and woke each morning with less.

Carolyn is a writer and a professional photographer with shows at museums and galleries. She is Lake County’s third Poet Laureate and is expected to perform public readings. How could she pursue her career? She felt her life spiraling downward.

A flyer from Earle Baum Center for the Blind came in the mail and she could make out from the large letters that a dog event was happening. She called to inquire and one thing led to another and her world began to offer glimmers of hope. For one, she met a specialist who connected her to technology that would read to her, enlarge and project her work on a computer monitor. She received counseling to help her understand the sorrows, depression and frustrations associated with blindness.

After a four-hour home visit to test suitability, Carolyn was accepted at Guide Dogs for the Blind at San Rafael, California, recognized as one of the best guide dog schools in the nation.

At the school she found herself surrounded by people who understood her limitations, who offered one-on-one training, trips to fascinating places, comfortable accommodations. The program lasted 28 days. Carolyn says that it was barely enough time to learn what she needed to know.

When Carolyn first met Hedy, a small female black Lab, it wasn’t love at first "sight." Hedy, like many Labs, had a stubborn streak and tested Carolyn to the limits. The dog seemed to love her first trainer more than Carolyn. But gradually, Carolyn learned to give clear directions and follow the guidelines of persistent alpha leadership. Hedy was totally managed by Carolyn–feeding, grooming, exercising, working, playing, cuddling. Eventually, Hedy and Carolyn bonded. Through the school’s guidance, they learned to trust one another and become a team.

"It’s everything I wanted and more than I could have wished," Carolyn says, speaking of the privilege of having Hedy. "I have something I could never have had if I were not the way I am, and it makes me feel vibrantly whole."

This is a worthy book that answers questions most of us could never ask in person. A guide dog is priceless to its owner and institutions devoted to the support of this effort are to be applauded. Because of the arduous training of dogs and their handlers, people who were home-bound can now enter the workplace, visit places they would have never dared to go, and become an independent and vital part of our society.

A Gift of Dogs, by Carolyn Wing Greenlee, ISBN: 978-1-887400-40-4, may be purchased directly from the publisher, Earthen Vessel Productions, 3620 Greenwood Drive, Kelseyville, CA 95451, or through their website, Please indicate if you’d like to have an autographed copy by Carolyn and/or a paw print stamp by Hedy.


Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks for the review, Mary. I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, but knowing Carolyn, I know the book will be special.

Eunice Boeve said...

Interesting. A friend of mine has a daughter who trains such dogs. I'll have to tell her about this book. Eunice Boeve

Heidiwriter said...

This is a wonderful review, Mary, of what sounds like a wonderful, inspirational and educational book. Carolyn is a great lady, so very talented, and I can't imagine the terror of slowly losing one's sight. Having met Hedy, I know she's a special dog too.