Blind man and service dog pay visit to childcare facility in Kemptville
Bob Berrigan, a blind man, and his service dog, Gus, paid a visit to the ‘More Than Just Babysitting’ childcare program at Holy Cross Catholic School on July 23.
“Can everyone see me OK?” began Berrigan, answered with an affirmative. “I can’t see you. I am blind.”
He explained to the roughly 40 children present that he can only see a little bit.
“Gus is special,” said Berrigan. “He is a Guide Dog for the Blind and he was trained very close to here, in Manotick, at a school called the Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind.”
His vision is like looking through a tiny tunnel with a foggy spot at the end.
“Everyone has looked through a roll of toilet paper before,” said Berrigan. “That’s how I see everything. Only my tunnel is very foggy, like the mirror in the bathroom after you take a shower.”
His retina is the reason for his vision impairment.
“Some people, when they are blind, will walk with another person; other people use a white cane, moving it from side to side; and some people use a service dog, like Gus here,” said Berrigan.
He explained being blind doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t see anything.
“Most of us can see a little bit,” he said.
He said he gets from place to place with help from Gus, a three-and-a-half-year-old black Labrador retriever.
“I hold the handle and he guides me,” said Berrigan. “What a guide dog does – how we work together – he acts like my eyes. He sees things for me that I can’t.”
Gus watches out for obstacles and takes Berrigan around them, to avoid tripping and getting hurt.
“When we’re in a shopping mall and we have to go up the stairs, Gus will take me to the stairs and stops, so I can grab the railing without falling down or up,” said Berrigan.
He said Gus can’t tell the difference between a green and red light at an intersection, so he’ll take Berrigan to the curb and stop.
“Then it’s my job to listen for the traffic,” said Berrigan.
He explained Gus only takes him around corners on command; otherwise, he walks straight.
“He’ll walk until I tell him to do something,” said Berrigan.
He explained to the kids there are special laws in place to allow service dogs into stores, restaurants, taxis, airplanes and trains.
“When you see a dog in a harness like this one, please never pet them,” said Berrigan.
He explained petting service dogs distracts them from their job.
“They really have to pay attention to what they’re doing,” said Berrigan. “If someone pet Gus before he brought me to the stairs, he could forget to stop and I would go tumbling down.”
He explained service dogs are just as affection as pets, but when their harness is on, it’s OK to touch them because they need to focus. When their harness is off, however, people can pet them just like any other dog.
“They love people so much,” said Berrigan.
He explained he lives in the small town of Alexandria, where he and Gus walk a lot.
He is not able to drive, but uses other modes of transport, such as VIA Rail.
“When we are at home and his harness is off, Gus is my pet,” said Berrigan. “He doesn’t help me with cooking or cleaning; I had to figure that out on my own, but he does know to stay out of the kitchen when I am cooking so I don’t trip on him.”
He said he loves Gus, who has been trained as a guide dog since he was a pup.
“He is always with me, whenever I leave the house,” said Berrigan, who was born blind; a hereditary factor passed down through generations.
“When I was three, I was playing with balloons at my birthday party and I would bounce the balloons up, but then I would be looking around for it as it came back down,” said Berrigan. “My dad knew right then.”
He got his first service dog at the age of 40, when his vision had deteriorated to the point a cane was no longer a feasible coping mechanism.
“I’m 58 now, so I’ve been working with guide dogs for the past 18 years,” said Berrigan.
He’s had Gus, his fourth service dog, for nearly two years. His first service dog, Jasper, also a black lab, was retired at the age of 11.
Berrigan’s second, Abraham, another black lab, died of cancer at the age of eight. His third service dog, Walker, a yellow lab, had to be adopted out because he wasn’t doing his job properly.
Berrigan said Gus has the best memory of all his service dogs so far.
He said down in the United States, they are training miniature ponies to be service horses for the blind.
“Horses are very smart,” said Berrigan, “and horses live longer than dogs.”