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New York, New York

Credit: William Murphy

Dharma Dog

A blind woman and her guide dog share a symbiosis that can become a spiritual bond for both.

It sucks being blind. I wouldn’t really know, because I’m not; but my 20-year-old student Darcy says this frequently, especially when she goofs at something a sighted person can do, like taking a proper selfie. She’s a good sport about it, though, and even adds the hashtag #blindgirlprobs to some of her Facebook posts. Today Darcy wants us to meet her friend for lunch at Schnipper’s in The New York Times building, just spitting distance from Times Square, the bane of every blind person’s existence.

It’s the last week of her four-week guide dog mobility class, and we’re both a little antsy to get away from The Seeing Eye in New Jersey, where she’s been spending the past month with 23 other blind kids and their dogs. This is her second dog; she has to go through this once every eight years or so, when she returns for a replacement dog. I, on the other hand, have been doing this training walk every four months for the past 11 years.

I’m nervous about our trek today. This is her first time in a big city with her new guide. And this is midtown Manhattan, a labyrinthine obstacle course of staggering proportions. There is a constant roar of buses, wail of sirens, and the antiphonal honking of innumerable cars and taxicabs locked in epic combat for the right-of-way. Scores of intrepid pigeons strut about underfoot, dogwalkers scuttle by with a half-dozen frenetic terriers on long leashes, and people stand along the sidewalk at regular intervals thrusting fliers into your hands as if you were a celebrity signing autographs. Newsstand kiosks and food vendors seem to crop up like mushrooms after a heavy rain, and imposing scaffolding detours you around dangerous construction sites.

But Juno navigates this circus like a boss. And Darcy’s doing her part as well, following each shift of the harness handle as best she can, considering the frequently abrupt zigs and zags they have to make.

Juno navigates this circus like a boss. And Darcy’s doing her part as well, following each shift of the harness handle as best she can.

At this point in training, Darcy and Juno are pretty much on their own. Since this is her second guide dog, Darcy knows the basics, and she’s been able to get a good handle on Juno’s personality and work habits so far. Today she just needs to direct Juno down each block, to get her moving again if she stops, and keep her attention focused on the work. Instead of walking directly behind Darcy’s right shoulder like I’ve been doing the past month, I stay back about five or 10 yards, depending on how crowded the sidewalk is. I’m also no longer advising her of what’s coming up on the sidewalk, how Juno will likely respond to it, or how Darcy should respond to Juno’s reactions. Giving Darcy breathing room instead of breathing down her neck will hopefully give her the confidence to work with Juno when she graduates and I’m no longer around to help out.

We’re working a route down 8th Avenue from Central Park, where it was obvious that Juno had never seen a horse before. As she and Darcy walked past the first carriage in the curbside queue, she checked herself—her ears suddenly shot forward, and her mouth clamped shut as she regarded what must have seemed like the biggest dog she had ever seen. But she immediately regained her composure and continued to negotiate the hordes of tourists. She did throw an occasional glance back over her shoulder at the horse, though. Darcy didn’t know why Juno hesitated; but like the good student she is, she recognized Juno was distracted and got her moving again with the “hup-hup” command, a kind of “giddy-up” for dogs.

Distractions, like that horse, are tough for a guide dog. Some people see a guide dog and think it’s like a robot or a computer: Give a command and the dog obeys; input the right information and the output is always the same. For some aspects of guide work, this is almost true. Dogs in general really do want to please their masters, so when you say “jump” they always ask how high—except when there is something in the immediate environment that arouses their instincts. And other animals is a big one.

As an instructor, I have two options when it comes to training dogs to ignore distractions. I can punish them using either a “leash correction” (a quick, sharp tug on the leash) or a verbal reprimand. Alternatively, I can redirect their focus in a positive way by asking them to sit and giving them a treat when they do—and then move on. Most instructors would prefer to go the positive route, but it’s usually impractical for a blind person, so they’ll need to give a leash correction in many instances. I tell my students that the goal is to get past the distraction as quickly and safely as possible—since they can’t see, they don’t know what other dangers could be present. The longer a dog remains distracted, the more trouble it can get into—and that’s just not safe.

If you’ve ever been to the clamor cathedral that is Manhattan, then you know how difficult it can be to carry on a conversation while walking down the street. But as we continue to journey down toward Schnipper’s, we get the chance to check in with each other at the end of each block. “How ya doin’?” I ask, cheerfully. Though I always try to be upbeat with students, especially in the city, she really is doing quite well.

“Well then it’s a good thing you can’t see—or else you’d have vertigo, too.”

“I have no idea where I am right now,” she says, nervous but clearly exhilarated. “Everything’s just a blur!”

“Well then it’s a good thing you can’t see—or else you’d have vertigo, too,” I say, deadpan. She laughs, then asks if we have the light.

“You got it,” I reply, as she gives Juno the command to proceed forward. But the pair isn’t even halfway across 50th St. when a sleek black livery car cuts them off.

“Whoa!” she exclaims. Juno stopped on a dime, but is unfazed, having been trained for just such a contingency. She got Darcy a little closer to the car than I would have liked, but she nevertheless pins back her ears and continues toward the other side of the street after the car passes.

“Well, look at that—your first traffic check in the big city!” I say, patting Darcy on the back. “And only about 10 more street crossings to go.”

“Gee, thanks,” she says in that smart-alecky tone I’ve come to enjoy in the past few weeks. But we both take a deep breath.

I tell myself that I’ve done this trip at least a hundred times with other students—and I’ve even worked a dog blindfolded in the city once myself—so I shouldn’t be nervous. But as Juno makes a lateral move toward the building line to bypass a cluster of self-involved tourists, she and Darcy head straight toward a lattice of metal scaffolding that will catch Darcy right in the schnoz. I brace for impact, since I’m too far away now to be able to reach out a hand to stop her. At the last second, Juno finds a rift in the throng and only Darcy’s shoulder hits. Darcy stops, takes several steps back with Juno, picks up the harness handle, and repeats the approach. Juno is much more cautious this time, and after taking a wide berth, comes in for a landing perfectly aligned with the curb cut at the next street crossing.

The next several blocks are fairly uneventful, at least as uneventful as they can be when you’re blind. But after Juno guides Darcy beautifully around a halal food stand, she is suddenly confronted by one of those little lap dogs you could fit in a knockoff Gucci bag they sell on Canal Street, barking its head off right in Juno’s path. The owner is too preoccupied with her cellphone conversation to get her dog out of the way.

I always get annoyed by things like this, even though I realize that most people don’t really know what to do when encountering guide dogs and their handlers. And I’ve seen all kinds of things, in the biggest cities as well as the smallest Podunk towns—like the owner of an intact pit bull who, as he let his dog lunge at a dog I was training, said “Oh, he just loves to play with other dogs,” or the old woman who vigorously stroked a student’s dog, saying, “I know I’m not supposed to pet you while you’re working, but you’re just so adorable!”

But I can’t step in here, because it’s important for the confidence of both Juno and Darcy that Juno make the decision: She can either indulge her social instincts and greet the other dog, or she can fulfill her responsibility by avoiding the little yapper’s demand for attention and getting Darcy to the end of the block. As they approach, I watch Juno’s ears perk up and forward, and her tail rise like a ship’s flag in international waters—but after a slight pause she keeps a respectful distance from the impudent little runt as she dutifully maneuvers Darcy around it and its owner.

To an onlooker, it might seem that Juno is the best-trained dog in the world, but perhaps she just didn’t want to make another mistake. When they get to the curb cut of the next block, Juno looks up at Darcy as if to say, “I did good, yeah?” Darcy reaches down and gives Juno a little scratch on the rump, and Juno responds with a tentative smile.

When we finally come to 41st Street, I let Darcy know that Schnipper’s will be the first set of doors along the building line once we cross the street, just past the outdoor seating area, about 25 yards ahead.

“Left, inside,” intones Darcy, as they get close. Juno makes a beeline for the building line, negotiating the last few oblivious pedestrians, and finally planting herself right in front of the double glass doors. “Atta girl!” says Darcy, with an exuberant cadence I haven’t heard from her during our entire time together. She crouches down next to Juno and gives her a huge bear hug, grinning ridiculously from ear to ear. Juno’s jaw relaxes, her tongue dangles down, and her lips curl up conspicuously at the corners.

“Look at that—she’s smiling again,” I say, a bit surprised because they’ve only been together for three weeks, and German Shepherds usually take the longest to bond with their new handlers. When they’re finished with the lovefest, we go inside to look for Darcy’s friend.

They may immediately rebound from a stressful event, but that’s just the resiliency we love about dogs. Humans aren’t that lucky. Equanimity is elusive for us—even Buddhists.

I work blindfolded with each of my dogs twice each training period in order to gauge how they’re progressing. Juno did a fantastic job for me both times, yet I could tell that she knew something was “off” with me: My balance was compromised, my commands were confused, and my praise wasn’t as timely as it normally is. That’s stressful for a guide dog, yet Juno adapted.

Every time I work with students in the city, I’m reminded of one of the most common clichés I hear: Dogs “live in the moment,” or they have an innate “Buddha nature,” the ability to transcend the vicissitudes of life by achieving an abiding peace of mind. I think it’s true that dogs live in the moment—being unable to do otherwise—but it doesn’t assuage their anxiety or bring the awareness of peace that the Buddhist achieves in meditation. They may immediately rebound from a stressful event, but that’s just the resiliency we love about dogs. Humans aren’t that lucky. Equanimity is elusive for us—even Buddhists.

But when I watch a pair like Darcy and Juno come close to achieving such a fluent symbiosis in only a matter of weeks, it’s hard not to believe that dogs do have something akin to this Buddha-nature. This unique dynamic between a blind person and her guide dog could become the basis for a nourishing soil from which the seed of that Buddha-nature of both could grow. It’s clear that her relationship with Juno bolsters Darcy’s independence and self-esteem, making her better equipped to meet the challenges of being blind. And something similar could be said for Darcy’s effect on Juno—the amount of trust and affection that Darcy shows toward Juno when they’re working together enhances and reinforces Juno’s natural resilience.

As we’re having lunch, Darcy is telling her friend about all the cute things Juno does in her room back on campus: how she’ll grab her Nylabone and plop it in Darcy’s lap while she’s trying to Skype with her friends; how she rests her chin on Darcy’s bed in the middle of the night and lets out a deep, protracted sigh. As she talks, she keeps reaching down to massage Juno’s downy-soft ears. Juno’s eyes are partially closed in an expression of subdued ecstasy, a moment of serene satisfaction in the midst of the endless churning of the city.

Her face reminds me of the little smiling Buddha tchotchke I picked up from a table in Times Square years ago during training. I keep it in my car to remind myself to breathe whenever I get anxious or stressed. But every time I see a smiling Buddha now, I’m reminded of relationships like Darcy and Juno, where a different kind of mutual enlightenment is possible.