Ann Chadwell Humphries and her new guide dog, Monti, walked along the left hand side of the neighborhood street.
I was following just behind the pair when a car came around a corner up ahead. My stomach clinched; I wanted to reach for Ann and pull her over, away from the oncoming automobile.
I should not have worried.
The handsome yellow Labrador retriever pulled his human partner to the far left, out of danger’s way.
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We continued walking. I closed my eyes and wondered, what must it be like to put all your trust in a dog?
“We’re not new at this,” Ann explained.
“We practiced, practiced, practiced at the guide dog school. They start you in a building. Then down a sidewalk. Then down a path on the campus. Then in a little neighborhood. Practice, practice. It’s both of us working as a team. He counts on me and I count on him.”
Last fall, Monti and Ann returned home to Columbia from the Southeastern Guide Dogs school in Palmetto, Florida. The 2-year-old Lab is Ann’s second guide dog. Brego was her first; he retired from his duties this past September, after guiding Ann to what she calls her “freedom” for five years.
Ann suffers from a condition called retinitis pigmentosa. She is able to discern some light, but nothing more than that.
At the onset of her failing eyesight, many years ago, Ann used a cane, but felt hampered by it.
Ann is a busy woman – an avid hiker, involved in her community and church.
Having a guide dog offered her the kind of guidance she needed.
“At the end of the day,” she said, “it feels thrilling to be able to stand straight up. Move at a fast speed. Go outside. Feel the fresh air. Together we have independence and we can move. There is a lot of dignity to that.”
I watched Monti and Ann walk through her Northeast Richland neighborhood. Monti guided Ann around trashcans rolled out to the street; a car parked by the side of a curb; a pile of yard debris waiting on the trash man.
A neighbor waved. “Hey Miss Ann!” he called.
Ann waved back while Monti continued on his course, pausing at the end of a cul-de-sac, waiting for his mistress’s instruction. His tail was held high in the air. His noble head held up, too.
“There are times when I can feel him assessing things, thinking. Do I go left? Do I go right?”
Ann motioned for Monti to go left, toward her home.
“He doesn’t have to make all the decisions. We are a team.”
I asked Ann about her former teammate, Brego.
“Wonderful Brego was slowing down,” she said.
Brego has retired to the home of Karen and Barry Gruver, who live in Montgomery, Alabama, and who raised Brego as a puppy, before he began training at guide dog school.
“He sleeps on their king-size bed. He just loves that. He also has two other dogs to play with.”
I asked Ann if she was able to love Monti as much as she had her beloved Brego.
“You love the second child just as you do your first born,” she said.
But Monti had big paws to fill.
Ann was asked to fill out a questionnaire about what kind of dog she wanted to take over where
Brego had left off.
“I said a clone of Brego. Good around a lot of people. An athletic dog with a strong stride.”
There were nine human students in Ann’s class at Southeastern Guide Dogs this past fall, each hoping for just the right guide dog.
On the appointed day of pairing person and dog, Ann and her classmates were made to wait alone in their dorm rooms on the school’s campus. The dogs would be brought to each of them, but just before this happened, a special ceremony took place.
“It’s called the Parade of Dogs,” Ann said.
In a show of respect for the highly-trained, hardworking animals, the staffers at the guide dog school lined either side of the path from the kennel to the residential hall as the dogs are led to their new partners.
Ann described waiting in her room for Monti to arrive.
“It’s like a baby coming. In comes this man and he offers Monti to me. Monti was kind of reserved. He sat on the floor and we visited with one another. I could tell he was so regal, like a soldier. So formal!”
From that point on, Monti and Ann lived together and trained together at the school. Monti loosened up pretty quickly.
“He’s whimsical, funny and mischievous. He would steal the blanket off my bed, get in the bathroom with the toilet paper.”
But, Ann said at the end of our walk in her neighborhood, “He’s a good worker.”
“We’re still bonding. We’re still refining our skills. They say it takes a year, but I’m thrilled with him. I just can’t believe it. He’s strong. He’s fast and smart. He has confidence. He’s good in crowds. He likes children. And he settles well. He’s everything I wanted.”
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the early 1960s. She may be reached by emailing email@example.com