Story by Bella Wexler Photos by Mike Goehring
Complete and utter trust. That is the basis on which Shari Gootter’s relationship with her guide dog, Indiana, is built. For the past four and a half years, Shari and Indiana (nicknamed “Indi”) have been growing together, their lives interwoven on a level beyond the typical connection between human and pet. This bond extends to a mutually dependent and dependable companionship. Together, they exemplify the meaningful partnerships cultivated by the New York based nonprofit organization, Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
Shari was sighted for several years before her vision began to decline. She always had dogs throughout her life, so finding a dog to help her navigate this new lifestyle felt natural. It can be extremely difficult to cope with losing one’s vision because it comes with significant loss of independence. Having access to a loyal dog served as a therapeutic comfort to Shari through this period of acceptance and the ongoing period of adaptation. Connecting with guide dogs over the years has given Shari an empowering “sense of independence through interdependence,” she says.
Indi happens to be Shari’s third guide dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, an organization for which Shari’s partner, Mike Goehring, works as a field representative. Each of Shari’s dogs came with his/her own unique quirks. Indi’s personality is characterized by being very mellow and laid back, making him popular at Shari’s office when she takes his harness off. As a psychotherapist, Shari says it is nice to have such a soothing dog greet her clients with his “easy and loving presence”. Additionally, Shari spends much time facilitating the annual Tucson Jewish Latino Teen Coalition in which Indi is much adored by the youth members. He makes his laps around the conference table collecting attention from each person throughout the course of every meeting. As Shari says, Indi “trains them” by staring up at people until they give in, leaning over to pet his glossy black fur.
Of course, Indi is only open to engagement with others when he has had his harness taken off, signaling to him that he is “off duty”. One troubling thing that Shari has noticed throughout her time spent with guide dogs is that sometimes people forget that these dogs are trained to ensure the safety of their companion, not for the amusement of the public. If guide dogs are distracted by passerby who try to pet and interact with them, this can pose a serious threat to the humans whom the animals are trained to serve. At the very least, this can feel confusing for the dogs and disorienting for the owners. If you ever come across someone with a guide dog in harness, please do not pet, call to, or otherwise distract the animal from his/her very important job. Even if the dog is not in harness or it’s not a guide dog at all, it is always best to ask the owner’s permission before engaging with any animal.
Many of Shari’s excellent experiences with Indi can be traced back to the help of Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Since its founding over fifty years ago, Guiding Eyes for the Blind has been dedicated to raising, training, and placing seeing eye dogs with people in need all across the world. Most clients like Tucsonan, Shari Gootter, live in North America. Given the extremely high unemployment rate of visually impaired people across the United States and the financial burdens this brings, Guiding Eyes is committed to matching all of its clients with a fully trained guide dog free of charge. This generously covers the many costly steps required to create a successful student-dog relationship. From years of comprehensive dog training, to the careful dog to student matching process, to the twenty-six-day course at the Training Center in Yorktown Heights, all the way to the ongoing follow up support made available, this organization dedicates approximately $45,000 per human and guide dog team. Thus, maintaining their extensive programs relies heavily on donations and community support. If you are interested in donating to help keep the Guiding Eyes mission afloat, visit www.guidingeyes.org where you can find out how to get involved.
Having Indi by her side has given Shari a sense of freedom in her life; one that is unmatched by the feeling of walking with a cane or relying on another person. Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s continuous support in connecting Shari Gootter with her guide dogs over the years has given her, along with hundreds of other students, a chance to experience “the bright side” of blindness.