Beth Finke bids farewell to a four-legged friend

November 15, 2011

By Beth Finke

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(Flickr/Elmhurst College)

Chicago writer Beth Finke recently parted ways with a dear friend, her seeing-eye dog Harper. Finke explained on Eight Forty-Eight how a near accident proved Harper’s dedication but ultimately meant separating from her trusty companion.

My third Seeing Eye dog is probably the smartest guide dog I've worked with.

Harper knows full well that drivers aren't looking out for us; he knows we could get hurt out there. So, he refuses to lead me far from home.

Harper wasn't always this way. When we went out with our instructor during training last December, other Seeing Eye instructors would be out and about in vehicles, intentionally cutting in front of us to simulate the very real behavior of drivers who text, put on makeup, make phone calls and eat lunch while they're driving. Harper was excellent at these so-called "traffic checks"—pulling me away from harm's way, refusing to step into the street if he saw a vehicle coming towards us.

I came home to Chicago with Harper in December. Last spring, one of Harper's heroic traffic checks saved both our lives. We were traveling north on State Street and Harper stopped at Harrison. I listened, heard the traffic going straight at our parallel and commanded, "Forward!"

The woman driving the vehicle told me later that she didn't see us. Maybe she was on her cell phone as she made that right turn. Texting? I have no way of knowing because I couldn't see her either. Thank goodness Harper was watching.

My Seeing Eye dog saved our lives, pulling us away from the turning vehicle with such force that I fell backward, cracking the back of my head on the concrete. Later on, when my husband Mike inspected Harper's harness, he discovered it was bent.

Harper worked fine after the accident. A few weeks later, though, he started showing fear around traffic: tail between his legs, head down, panting and trembling.

A Seeing Eye instructor traveled to Chicago in April to give me tips on clicker training and treats. Harper started to improve; it looked like he was going to make it. But then I broke my foot.

For weeks my husband Mike, who can see, took my Seeing Eye dog on walks. Harper froze any time they entered unknown territory and he wasn't even working; he wasn’t wearing his harness.

We held onto the hope that Harper knew I was back at home with my foot in a cast and he didn't want to go any farther away from me than necessary. The last hope was lost after my foot healed. Before, a clicker and a treat would get him going. Now, Harper—a yellow Labrador retriever mind you—was not motivated by treats.

The Seeing Eye sent another instructor in August; and then a third last month. Together we determined city life has become too much for Harper. I'm returning to the Seeing Eye after Thanksgiving to be matched with a new partner.

Harper is not the only Seeing Eye dog to be clipped or hit by a car lately. The school told me that some of the dogs shrug off accidents like this and get right back to work; some are afraid at first but work out of it, and others, like my Harper, never get over it.

I do not look at my gentle sweet yellow Lab as a failure. The head of Seeing Eye training agreed. He told me to look at it this way: "Harper took a bullet for you, and for that, he gets an early retirement."

Music Button: The Album Leaf, "Drawing Mountains", from the Green Tour EP, (self released)