“You find your way home by feeling the surfaces beneath your feet. You learn the distances to the places you go. All these things you learn come together, and you pass it on to your dog. You have to know how to get from A to B, so you can teach your dog those places. You are in control.”
Diagnosed with RP 30 years ago, Becker was encouraged to get a guide dog by her children. “I knew nothing about them,” she admits. “I called Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB). I found out the dogs are free – and that I needed orientation and mobility (O&M) skills before I could be considered.”
Becker set about developing her skills at the Braille Institute, including walking with a white cane. She successfully completed the requirement of walking one mile to and from her home with the cane. She then completed two weeks of on-site training at GDB in San Rafael, Calif., where she was paired with Lyla, a yellow English Lab.
Becker and Lyla started traveling on behalf of various vision organizations, including GDB. “I was a speaker here, an ambassador there,” Becker says. “We started hopping on planes, going to hotels, asking questions, figuring things out.”
When Lyla retired (living out the rest of her life with the Becker family as a pampered pet), Becker was paired with Anchorage, a yellow Lab, who is also a great traveler. “He is fabulous on a flight. He is at my feet, while I’m in my seat. Knowing he’s there and petting him – he gives me courage,” she says.
When the pair arrives at a hotel, Becker asks for a room near the elevator or ice-maker, which offer landmarks and sensory cues for Anchorage. She also asks a hotel employee to show them to their room once. After that, when they exit the elevator, Becker says, “Left, find room,” and Anchorage leads the way.
Becker and her dogs have been on numerous cruises, where navigating big ships can be confusing for anyone. “Other passengers with rooms nearby – sighted passengers – always follow me and the dog, so they can find their rooms,” she says.
Both Becker and Lawrence stress the importance of planning and organization when it comes to traveling with their dogs. Among their advice: Plan as much as possible, leave plenty of extra time, know where you’re going, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and be flexible.
Becker emphasizes the importance of playing with the dog when he or she is “off-duty.” “They must be safe and taken care of, so they can care for you,” she says. “We take care of each other.”
Linda Becker, who has retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and travels primarily with her guide dog, is planning her next trip to Australia and New Zealand with Mind’s Eye Travel [link: http://www.mindseyetravel.com/], a company that specializes in creating tours especially for people who are blind or visually impaired.