News Leader, Springfield MO.
Monday, April 03, 2006.
Charlotte Thornsberry had to give up her best friend.
They didn't have a fight or move across the country from each other, but Venture, Thornsberry's guide dog for the blind for the past eight years, simply got arthritis. It pained the beautiful golden Labrador to take Thornsberry to the places she needs to go.
"Once you hold a shaking puppy in your lap, knowing it's in pain, it's the only thing you can do," Thornsberry explains. Venture was Thornsberry's ticket to independence, guiding her safely wherever she needed to go. She desperately needed Venture's help; Venture just couldn't provide it anymore.
But, mercy, giving up her best pal of eight years was crushing. "I feel childish because I've cried so much," says Thornsberry, scratching the neck of her new guide dog, Ella. "This baby has such a special place in my heart already, but there will always be a place for Venture."
Thornsberry arranged for Venture to live with a friend in Kansas City who can stay home with her much of the time. Thornsberry didn't want a dog who was used to constant human companionship to be left alone for long periods of time. The friend signed a contract with Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorkstown, N.Y., where Venture was trained, that she will give Venture all the medical care she requires. Thornsberry has been on the phone with the new owner every day since the "adoption."
Thornsberry was apprehensive about having a new "baby," as she calls her guide dogs, but Ella, a gorgeous black Lab, warmed up to her immediately. "Before the second block (on their first outing), I was relaxed. Then later, at home, I was down on the floor scratching her belly and she lay her head on my shoulder. It was like an 'I love you' feeling."
On a training session at the Battlefield Mall, Ella behaves like a well-oiled machine. Walking behind Thornsberry is Ellin Purcell, instructor for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. She brought Ella from New York to help acclimate her to her new home and owner. Purcell accompanies the newly paired friends, giving instructions to Thornsberry on where ramps and small bumps are, as Ella seamlessly guides her new owner where she needs to go.
Where there is a kiosk coming up on the left, Ella diverts Thornsberry to the right. Obstacles or a crowd of people to the right? Ella guides Thornsberry to the left.
There is never a stumble, not even a hesitation. She's patient and serene as she waits to have her photo taken at The Picture People at the mall - for a guide dog ID that Thornsberry will always carry with her and photos to show the staff back in Yorktown and the folks who raised her.
"When they're not actually working, they tend to lie down and get out of the way," Purcell explains.
The three had already been to one of Thornsberry's most dreaded spots - the bus shelter in front of Smith-Glynn- Callaway Clinic, lying near the speeding traffic on South National Avenue. The shelter she waits in was once demolished by a wayward car. "She wasn't panicked around the buses, she was careful, cautious, not afraid."
Smiling widely, Purcell nods her head. She is proud enough to bust buttons. Falling in love with animals and animal science in college, Purcell has worked with guide dogs for 19 years.
So how does one get a dog such as Ella or Venture, who are so good with the blind - and the blind with "special needs, such as Thornsberry, who has epilepsy, cerebral palsy, diabetes and has just had knee replacement surgery?
The service breeds its own puppies based on successes they've had with other breeding lines, Purcell says. Trained volunteers, "puppy trainers," keep and school the pups from about the time they are weaned until up to 14 months of age.
"The trainers are a gift from God," Thornsberry says. "Ella's manners are just impeccable. I was just wowed. The puppy trainers are responsible for that."
When blind clients apply for a dog, they are put onto a waiting list. When Venture first started to show signs of arthritis two years ago, Thornsberry put herself on the waiting list again. She never expected she would get a dog just at the time Venture had to retire. "I was envisioning months without a guide dog, literally staying within four walls. Your support cane can keep you from falling, but my long cane can't tell me there are two different levels (of ground). A guide dog will tell me which is the safest way to go. Venture literally saved my life several times. And with a dog, I'm so at ease my friends forget I'm blind. I look more normal, and they concentrate on who I am as a person."
There is a list of people waiting to adopt retired guide dogs, Purcell says. The first choice of a new home goes to the blind client, then to the family who trained it, and then the dog is released to the waiting list.
Ella waits patiently as her new master sips a diet Coke in the mall food court, as if she's been near the now-familiar feet all her life. "Once I fell head-first onto the Square before I got Venture," Thornsberry remembers. "Those kind of thoughts entered my mind when I thought of retiring Venture. But Ella is going to do the same thing for me - give me independence."
Contact News-Leader columnist Sarah Overstreet at email@example.com
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