As a blind woman in Queens seeks the perfect canine companion, an elite training school prepares pups for the toughest assignment they’ll ever receive: life in NYC.
The kick came fast and from just ahead as Dorcas Conde stepped off the curb and into the 23rd Street crosswalk in Manhattan. She didn’t even feel her cane fall from her hand at first. Between curled fingers and a sweaty palm, all she sensed was air. She walked forward a few paces, feigning unawareness that it was missing. She stopped midway through the crosswalk, unsure what to do. Should I try to find the cane? I didn’t hear it fall. Use my foot to find it? I don’t know where it is. It could be outside the crosswalk. It could be in traffic.
The cars behind her would soon begin moving and she didn’t want to be trapped in a crosswalk as horns blared and cars she couldn’t see attempted to swerve around her. Now she really felt blind.
Though highly independent and wary of assistance, the then thirty-seven-year-old Woodhaven, Queens, native thought of her teenage son away at school and quietly hoped someone had seen what happened, that they would find her cane, or help her get to her office. But no one stopped or offered Conde help, perhaps because, in her spotless white coat with camel accents, sporting immaculately coiffed burgundy tinted hair and perfectly-placed lipstick, she did not fit common stereotypes of what blind people look like.
Conde knew which street she was on and which direction she was going, and decided that would have to be enough. She walked to the other side of the crosswalk using her foot, clad in a stiletto pump, to feel for the curb. She stepped onto the next block, her cane somewhere behind her. She walked forward until her outstretched hands met the side of a building, which she used as a guide to feel her way to the office two blocks away.
That was fourteen years ago, and although Conde got to work safely that day, she couldn’t shake a newfound sense of vulnerability. That same week she began searching for a guide dog.
Conde found her perfect partner in a Lab named Hope Beauty. The two were inseparable until last year, when Beauty became too old to continue and retired.
“It felt very strange, like someone took a limb off me,” Conde recalls about losing Hope Beauty. “It felt like there was a piece missing from me.”
Carrying on without that limb seemed impossible at first, as Conde spent months grieving and learning to do without her faithful pup. Finally this January she allowed herself to connect with a new dog, and accept the inevitable conclusion that one day they too will be parted, and Conde will have to deal with the loss all over again.
Finding the right dog for Conde’s active urban lifestyle was a challenge that took the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown, Long Island, more than six months to meet. That’s because guide dogs that thrive in high-stress environments like a city require a certain temperament that cannot be taught. A good New York guide dog, like a city dweller, must love the pace and want to work there. They must be able to confront everything from subway cars to raised platform edges to six lanes of rush-hour traffic. Dogs that are easily distracted, hesitant to obey commands, unable to quickly navigate around people and obstacles, or show signs of anxiety or nerves are not good matches for city life. They are likely to burn out or become reluctant to perform their guide duties if forced to live in that environment.
Only the right pup can make it in New York.
* * *
Nicole Meyerkopf is a twenty-six year old trainer with The Seeing Eye, the country’s oldest guide dog school, in Morristown, New Jersey. On a Thursday in mid-January, Meyerkopf took Joplin, one of her trainees, into Manhattan to test her on the subway.
Underground in the crowded midday Times Square subway station, Nicole commanded Joplin toward the edge of a double-sided subway platform. Joplin stopped at the edge of the concrete, just before the yellow bumpy warning strip, two feet shy of the actual drop-off. Nicole commanded Joplin to move forward again, her voice echoing around the crowd. Joplin hesitated, her ears twitching a little in uncertainty, but then started moving forward.
This is not the response Nicole wanted. Joplin wasn’t supposed to move forward the second time. She was supposed to pull hard to either the left or right to indicate to her handler that there was danger ahead. Guide dog schools call this “selective disobedience.” If the guide dog knows that obeying a command will place either them or their handler in danger, they are supposed to remain still or move in a safe direction.
Nicole yanked hard on Joplin’s leash while wrapping her arms around the dog’s belly. She shoved the dog over the platform edge so her back legs dangled over the train tracks several feet below, before pulling her back onto the platform. This move drew a scream from a watching passenger, but it worked. The next time Nicole commanded Joplin forward to the platform edge, the dog disobeyed and yanked Nicole hard to the right, earning praise. But the experience showed that Joplin isn’t cut out for city life.
“Any dog can get through New York City on adrenaline once,” says Dave Johnson, director of instruction and training at the Seeing Eye. “You look for the dog that really eats it up and likes it, and is motivated by the city.”
* * *
Conde, now fifty-one, was born with congenital glaucoma, a condition that left her with startlingly deep blue eyes whose swirls of pigments look like spinning marbles. But it has also left her completely blind in one eye and partially blind in the other. In indirect light, she can make out shapes and colors, part of the reason for her success at cosmetic application and styling, but in darkness or direct light she is unable to see anything.
Growing up in Queens, Conde learned early that one can’t afford to appear weak. She refused other kids’ help on the playground and made sure they knew that even though she couldn’t see, she knew what was going on.
“I played every game everyone else did, even when I couldn’t see the ball,” Conde reminisces. “I was the first of my friends to learn how to double-dutch jump rope. I couldn’t see the rope, but I just timed it. Everyone assumed I could see, but I was just taking chances.”
That independence remains with her as an adult as she works a full-time job as a medical and legal transcriptionist for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Manhattan, volunteers at the center helping blind veterans cope with their disability, sings and travels around the country with her church choir, goes tandem-bike riding with friends in Central Park, and looks after her twenty-eight-year-old son, who lives with her. Conde knew that any canine would have its paws full coping with the city and her hectic schedule. But she also wondered if she could handle bringing a dog into her life again.
At eighteen, Conde partnered with her first guide dog, Iris, as part of a compromise with her parents. Conde wanted to take courses at Helen Keller Services for the Blind, but to attend class she needed to travel from her home in Queens to the Jamaica train station and then to Hempstead, Long Island. Her parents were unable to accompany her on every trip and uncomfortable letting her go by herself, so she got Iris. But after only two years together, Conde was forced to return Iris to the guide dog school. The labrador had developed a health problem and could no longer do her job.
“I remember when my parents took me back to the school to leave her and the howl that dog did when I left her,” recalls Conde. “It rings in my head even now.”
Giving up a guide dog is the hardest part of having one, and for Conde, that awful moment came eight years sooner than expected, since guide dogs normally work a full decade before retiring. Her attachment to Iris and the intense lingering pain she felt at being separated made her swear she would never partner with a dog again. She returned to using a cane, and for seventeen years she kept that promise—until that fateful day on 23rd Street.
The pain she felt at parting with her second dog, Hope Beauty, was worse than she remembered, worse than she expected.
“The day I handed her to her new owner for her retirement, I had to change my entire life,” says Conde. “I had to stop doing stuff I did before. I changed my commute home, stopped doing things that would take me to places I visited with her. I couldn’t let myself think of her or I’d just cry and cry.”
* * *
When a visually impaired person first begins looking into partnering with a guide dog, they fill out an application with one of the nineteen dog training schools in the U.S., which is something like signing up for an online dating site. Prospective handlers describe their lifestyle, interests and needs in a partner, and the schools search for a perfect match among their pool of trained-yet-single dogs.
Unfortunately for Conde, being a New Yorker limits the number of possible matches. Of more than 600 puppies bred by Seeing Eye each year, the organization estimates that only about six percent make it through guide dog training and are found to possess the right temperament and drive to earn a Big Apple placement. Add in the fact that Conde lives an active lifestyle, walks with typical New York speed in stilettos and likes female dogs with just as much style as her, and it seems amazing that the foundation ever found her the buttercup-colored Labrador in 1999. It’s all the more so that they followed it up with a honey-colored golden retriever named Betty last December.
Conde applied for a new dog last July, but refused to call and check up on her application, or actively work for a replacement.
“I told myself I’m not going to chase this,” said Conde. “I’m not going to call. I’m just going to let it be because I don’t know if I can do this again.”
When Dan McCarthy, a trainer at the Guide Dog Foundation, called Conde in December saying he had found her the perfect dog, she panicked, trying to back out. “I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to work with a new dog like I did with my last one,” says Conde. “With Beauty, we knew each other so well; I didn’t have to say anything.”
But friends, coworkers and family all pushed her to attend the January training session and give this new partner a chance. So she accepted her slot in the class, which required taking a one-month leave of work to train alongside Betty at the school.
For twenty-five days, Conde lived at the Guide Dog Foundation’s Long Island campus, which is centered around a large grassy square complete with simulated street intersections. Conde was already familiar with the place, having lived and trained there when she first got Beauty. She stayed in a private room that resembles an upgraded college dorm. She had her own single bed, desk and bathroom and ate all her meals with her classmates and instructors in the dining room, which also serves as one of the classrooms. After her daily classes, Conde would check her email at the student computer lab or unwind with her classmates in the lounge, watching TV and playing games.
On the third day at the school, the instructors delivered a freshly bathed and fluffy golden retriever to Conde’s door. The pup was Betty, and she would be Conde’s new guide.
As Betty sniffed out Conde’s dorm room, Conde just kept comparing her to Beauty and thinking: I don’t know what to do. Do I want her?
When she called out to Betty to place her in the special harness, Betty didn’t come. Conde tried again, but Betty ignored her. Again Conde called out and began to wonder if she had the wrong name. But as she called out a fourth time she caught the problem. She hadn’t said Betty. She’d said Beauty.
Just as Conde fought her attachment to her previous dog, Betty was struggling to overcome her attachment to McCarthy, her beloved trainer of four months.
Both handler and guide dog spent their first night together in tears. Conde said Betty’s cries and whimpers broke her heart because they reminded her of the sounds little kids make when missing their parents. Dan told Conde to give it more time, that Betty’s attachment was typical of guide dogs in the first few weeks, but that Betty would soon favor her over him.
Getting Betty ready to meet and partner with Conde had taken more than two years of preparation and close to $50,000, funded by donations to the Guide Dog Foundation. First-time students pay a fee of about $150; returning students, like Conde, usually pay around $50.
Betty was born at the Guide Dog Foundation’s kennel and lived with a volunteer puppy-raising family, who taught her basic obedience skills and exposed her to as many places, sounds and smells as they could. Every few weeks, a representative from the school checked in on the family and monitored her progress. Because Betty mastered basic obedience skills, had the right temperament and lacked health problems, she returned to the school when she was a little more than a year old to begin officially training. Not all guide dog puppies will make it through training. About thirty percent wash out and become other types of service dogs or simply pets.
Those who do become guides go through four months of training that normally begin with learning how to wear the signature harness. Trainers start the dogs on simple routes where they learn to obey commands, stop before curbs and stairs, dodge people, avoid distractions, such as other dogs, and respect cars. These routes build off one another and gradually become more challenging, before the trainers take them on more free-form trips that range from walking in town to browsing the mall to, finally, touring New York City.
* * *
Before Conde and Betty could work the city, they had to master the basics. For the first few days, the pair strolled the routes around Smithtown. They walked simple bike paths without distractions and then built up to crossing streets. McCarthy would walk slightly behind them on the right side, observing their progress, correcting mistakes and describing obstacles in a booming voice.
During these first routes, the pair often made mistakes. Conde misread a signal from Betty, or Betty failed to steer her around a low-hanging tree branch. One afternoon, Conde found herself in the wrong place while attempting to navigate around a pole at a corner. She had intended to make a left around the pole, but ended up on somebody’s lawn. So she began to stroke Betty in order to calm herself, and thought back to what she had done. She felt her way off the grass and back onto the sidewalk, realizing that she had pushed Betty too hard to the left. These mistakes help the pair grow stronger as a team because they must work together to correct the problem.
“If this was really easy, we would be mailing the dogs with instructions,” says Johnson.
During the second week of training, Conde and Betty sat in the school’s white twenty-passenger van waiting their turn to try a practice route, walking with McCarthy around a mile-long paved bike path in a small park near the abandoned Kings Park Psychiatric Center. McCarthy was helping another student, so Conde took Betty out of her harness and draped the loop handle of Betty’s leash around her right knee, thinking the dog would curl up by her feet and doze.
Betty, however, had another idea, whipping the leash off Conde’s knee and running outside in the couple of seconds it took Conde to pop her earbuds in and pick out a tune.
Conde felt herself start to sweat as she ran off the bus and into the open field by the bike path. Shouting out “Betty,” she thought: Oh my God, oh my God, I lost my dog in training. How am I going to find her? I can’t go running around a place I don’t know.
Then she heard another instructor running toward her shouting, “She’s with Dan.”
While Conde had been preoccupied with her music, Betty had caught sight of McCarthy through the bus window and taken off after him, leaving her leash to trail behind. McCarthy carried the golden retriever back to a shaken Conde, took her arm and firmly placed it through Betty’s leash, showing her how to hold it properly and admonishing her for leaving it on her knee. Then he gave Betty her own scolding.
After the runaway, Betty seemed to realize she was Conde’s partner, not McCarthy’s anymore, and her loyalty slowly began to shift. She stopped whining for him at nights, and started turning to Conde for attention and praise.
“I realized that whenever she wants to be petted she puts her nose down, almost like she’s bowing or praying, right on my knees, and she just wants me to rub her,” said Conde. “It’s such a quiet thing to do. She’s looking more to me, and that’s good because I’m getting attached to her.”
* * *
In their final week of class, Conde and Betty tested themselves on the streets of Flushing, Queens. They rode the subway successfully and navigated rush hour traffic with no problems, often outstripping their classmates and having to wait for the others to catch up. Their success in Flushing allowed them to graduate the program a few days early.
Back at her apartment complex in Queens, the pair spent the first few days quietly adjusting to Woodhaven and living with Conde’s son. Betty spent most of the first weekend curled up beside Conde’s recliner on a big pillow, relaxing after an intense month of classes. Her son tried to draw Betty out and get her to play, but Betty refused to leave Conde.
“I spent a lot of time stroking her and getting her acquainted to the environment,” says Conde. “She got very nervous when she couldn’t see me, and then when she finally did see me again she would jump on me and put her head on my chest as though she was afraid of being left again.”
Conde carefully guards Betty and monitors her interactions, often pushing people away or discouraging their comments. To those unfamiliar with guide dogs, Conde’s tight hold on Betty may seem cold-hearted, but it’s really just a defense mechanism she developed for their protection.
On the streets, Betty and Conde are an oddity, a spectacle that attracts looks, questions and occasionally worse. Conde has had the harness and leash almost ripped from her hands by a pedestrian who decided to walk between the two rather than go around. She has had to clean up vomit when a coworker secretly fed her dog chicken fat. So now she rarely allows people to pet, feed or even call out her dog’s name, regularly giving those who ask a false name so that Betty won’t be tempted to respond and lose focus.
When Conde returned to work with Betty she emailed her coworkers a brief explanation of guide dog etiquette to help make their transition smoother, but also asked that they not call out to her or try to pet her. The warm reception was nice, but Conde was most grateful for the way Betty navigated the parking lot to the hospital.
“It’s as if she knew where I was going before I asked her to go there,” said Conde. “And I just thought ‘Wow, she is meant to be here.’”
* * *
Kerri Anne Renzulli is a journalist, dog lover and Floridian transplant to Manhattan. Contact her @kerenzulli.
Brad Horrigan is a photojournalist and multimedia storyteller based in Queens.