Blind World Magazine

Caring for a magical retriever.

October 27, 2005. (Massachusetts).

Sarah Gregory Smith is a myth buster - she's on a mission to show that seeing eye dogs don't have supernatural powers, and that blind people have the same capabilities as other humans.

Last Sunday, Smith visited the Unitarian Universalist Church of Wakefield as a "care of magical creatures" teacher, taking a page from JK Rowling's "Harry Potter" series. UU members are conducting their fall session of Sunday school with the Potter theme to make their values accessible and enjoyable for young people.

For Smith, it was a good chance to tell her story.

"When I lost my sight, I lost my job, I couldn't drive..." she said. "I felt stuck. And I found that the more I did, the less defeated I felt."

Smith's determination has taken her farther than expected - as far as New York, on a 30-day walk with her guide dog that netted media attention and visits with big-city mayors. Many of the roughly 25 children gathered at the Main Street church had read about her 300-mile journey in the book "Looking Out for Sarah," by Glenna Lang.

At 30, Smith lost her vision from complications from diabetes, and she explained to the children that they can't catch diabetes and blindness is a rare affliction. She said 27 years after losing her vision, she remains physically active, a social worker, a musician, a wife and a mother. Her guide dog Garron, a black Labrador retriever, comes with her everywhere, even when she hits the stage with her guitar or bass.

The weekend event was no exception - Garron sat quietly at Smith's feet as she explained that he is a magical creature, but not necessarily the way people think. He was trained at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, and Smith traveled from her Salem home to the New York school to meet him. Emma Kraus, 9, asked which breeds make the best guide dogs. Smith said retrievers and German shepherds are common, as well as larger terriers and boxers.

The dog trainers at Guiding Eyes spend time with each group of vision-impaired people and look for a good match. Garron, with his quiet nature and fast gait, was perfect for Smith's lifestyle both as a social worker and an athlete.

Seven years later, Garron takes direction from voice commands and hand signals and knows to walk straight on the sidewalk, navigate around objects and people and stop before he reaches the street.

On the other hand, Smith pointed out, Garron was happily munching on someone's "magic wand" -- a tree branch that was too good to ignore. Like any other dog, she said, if she leaves him in the room with human food in reach, he might get into it.

Marcus Doucette, 6, of Wakefield, asked how Garron knows where he's headed.

"I tell him," Smith explained. "I know in my head where I want to go ... it's like I have a movie in my head."

Nina Mirzakashani, 8, of Wakefield, wanted to know if she could pet the pup. Smith explained they could pet him at the end of the program, but it's important not to pet a guide dog when he's at work - if he's on a harness instead of a leash, one shouldn't distract him.

"Is it hard to drive a car when you're blind?" asked Nick Webb, an 8-year-old from Wakefield who attended with his sister Julie, 10. Smith said she can't drive anymore, but she still drives when she dreams.

Smith closed out the morning by playing several songs on her guitar, and teaching children and some parents the chorus of an original tune from a guide dog's point of view.

"I coulda been a hunter, sniffer or a runner," she sang. "But this job seems just right."

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