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What’s a Seeing Eye Dog Do When his Human Breaks her Foot?
Harper’s backup plan
Beth Finke keeps her broken foot elevated and stays connected to a currently out-of-work Harper.

What happens to a Seeing Eye dog if their human companion gets hurt, or sick? Do they lose their skills while waiting for the person to recover? That’s one question I hoped I’d never have to answer. But then last month I broke my foot.

I swim laps two or three times each week. Tapping the lane marker with every other stroke keeps me swimming straight, and limiting myself to the crawl stroke means I always have one arm in front of me, so my head never bangs the end of the pool. Swimming has always been a safe form of exercise for me. Until that ill-fated night in June, that is.

I finished my laps and was heading back to the desk to fetch Harper when I slipped and fell back into the pool. My left foot must have gotten caught in the gutter as I took the plunge. It broke. In three places.

*

The first call we made once we returned from the orthopedic clinic was to the Seeing Eye. The doctor had told me I ought to be able to avoid surgery if I stay off my foot as much as possible. We needed to talk with Seeing Eye trainers about what my husband Mike, who can see, could do to help keep Harper on track during my recovery.

Doug Bohl from the Seeing Eye encouraged Mike to take Harper on long walks for exercise. “But really, you all should focus on getting Beth’s foot back to normal rather than worry about how Harper will perform once she’s better,” he said, describing one Seeing Eye dog who had to quit working for four months when the person he guided got hurt. “That dog did fine after that. These dogs don't forget their jobs.”

*

Mike uses a leash on walks, and the two of them stop at each curb, just like I do when Harper is on harness. Mike follows other Seeing Eye rules, too: Dog lovers can’t pet Harper, and Mike doesn’t let Harper lunge or sniff at other dogs during walks, either.

Before the accident, I had agreed to sit on a panel for the Writer’s Division at the National Federation of the Blind convention in Orlando. “You can still go,” my doctor said. “Just promise me you’ll use a wheelchair in the airport.” I promised. Harper stayed at home with Mike.

*

My sister Marilee lives in Orlando. She got a special pass to meet me at the gate, and before you knew it, we were in a swarm of waving white wands and wagging tails at the convention hall. More than 3,000 people with visual impairments showed up for the convention this year: That’s a lot of white canes and guide dogs.

My panel went well, and we had time to check out the exhibit hall before heading back to the airport. Marilee took a deep breath before we headed in, readying herself to maneuver me through a sea of conventioneers. Considering my oversized cast, this was, ahem, no small feat.

We were heading for the exit when a man suddenly approached and grabbed me by both arms, “Are you an imposter?” he asked. “Where’s your dog?” I’d know that voice anywhere. It was Lukas Franck from the Seeing Eye. I lifted my pant leg to show him my cast. “Harper’s at home with Mike,” I told him, explaining how Mike was following all the Seeing Eye rules, insisting Harper stop at each curb, going on longer walks with Harper when possible.

*

Harper is two years old, and he’s only been in Chicago with me for seven months. He’d had some trouble adjusting to the snow at first, and a trainer from the Seeing Eye had come out when the snow melted in April to help us get back on track. Lukas asked if Harper’s work had improved any before I got hurt. “Yes,” I said. “It had.”

“Good,” he said. “We can send someone out to give you another refresher course once your foot is healed.” Lukas also suggested I consider sending Harper back to Morristown now, while I continue to heal. “We could have people here work him every day.” In that scenario, I might return to Morristown after my foot heals, meet up with Harper and work with him there for a while before hitting the streets of Chicago again. “Think about it,”

Lukas said. “You know, Mike could use a break.”

And so, we are. Thinking about it, I mean. Mike assures me that taking Harper out to empty all the time, and then doing the long walks, too, isn’t taking a toll on him. And while getting regular workouts with Seeing Eye trainers in Morristown would be great for Harper’s work ethic, we worry what a temporary move back to Seeing Eye School might do to Harper’s mental health. Not to mention … mine.

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Beth Finke's book, Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound—about her bond with her Seeing Eye dog—won an ASPCA/Henry Bergh children's book award. Follow Hanni and Beth's travels on the Safe & Sound blog. bethfinke.wordpress.com

Photo by Mike Knezovich

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