Joanne Woodbeck, an independent and patient community member of Houston for 20 years, recently travelled to San Rafael, California to train with her new companion Jude at the school Guide Dogs for the blind.
Joanne was diagnosed at the age of 21 with a hereditary condition called retinitis pigmentosa. Later that year she was registered as legally blind by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. She is also diagnosed with Usher’s syndrome which affects her hearing.
Jude, an eager 20 month-old black labrador puppy guided Joanne around as our party of three walked to Brewstirs for a cool drink.
When asked what the most challenging aspect about working together has been, Joanne replied, “Getting to corners properly. Getting to streets properly. My husband and I have had to work with her on several different corners. If the corners have a diagonal twist—so the corner is over here and the other side is way over, rather than straight across—she has a little trouble figuring out where to go. But once my husband shows her by walking in front of her, she’s good, she knows where to go.”
With a boastful heart and pride in her smile, Joanne said that the most rewarding experience about working with Jude has been the independence and freedom. “I mean look at me, I can go anywhere. I did do it with the white cane, but the white cane is very slow and cumbersome. Now she [Jude] just walks me through and around everything.”
The school, Guide Dogs for the Blind, has a complete breeding kennel where they breed their own dogs. After analyzing Joanne’s height and pace while walking, the school determined that Jude was the best fit for her.
While in California, Joanne and Jude would go out two times a day exploring malls, escalators, and elevators. Jude is trained to show Joanne every level of ground, like the rise or depression on a side walk.
There are verbal, hand, and foot commands that Joanne has to integrate together when instructing Jude. If she wants to turn left, she has to verbally command it as well as gesture with her hand and foot.
It’s a strict and vigorous training for both of them. Joanne can’t allow Jude to take the initiative because she may not want to turn at that corner. And Jude has to remain distracted free as she guides her human companion.
During the walk together around the community, Jude received 10 second time-outs because she became distracted, then Joanne would backtrack to retrain her on an area that Jude did incorrectly.
Joanne describes Jude’s three modes as work mode where Jude wears both harness and leash and is completely focused, free of distractions. Behave mode, where Jude only wears the leash, but Joanne continues to hold her obedience and attention. And, puppy mode. No harness or leash where Jude is free to be as she is and release stress in the backyard of their home.
A fun fact of Jude’s is as he loves ice cubes. Because Jude is a licensed service animal, Joanne has to ensure ultimate hygiene is in order to take Jude into buildings, like grocery stores and hospitals. This requires Joanne to have complete control and responsibility of Jude’s food and grooming.
So if you happen to see Joanne and Jude walking towards the local businesses downtown, feel free to say hello but please respect some of their rules: Please do not pet, feed, or speak to Jude or call out her name while she is harness. She is working. Stay on the right of Joanne, Jude will always be on the left. Please wait for Joanne to ask for help, and when giving directions never grab Jude’s leash or harness, instead give Joanne verbal terms like “right” or “left.” Please avoid phrases like “over there” or “that way” as these are unclear to Joanne.
Joanne and Jude are looking forward to educating the community of Houston about blind culture and the benefits of working with a service animal. This dynamic duo are available to visit schools, churches, staff meetings, and local business to do small presentations and answer questions as they bring about the awareness of their presence within our community.