Tuesday Feb 17 2009
Alsworth the guide dog offers new leash on life
By: Loryll Nicolaisen, Journal staff writer
Patti Lang has harnessed the power of independence, and his name is Alsworth. Lang, an Auburn resident, recently graduated from a one-month intensive program at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael and is now getting acclimated to life with Alsworth, her yellow Labrador retriever, who turns 2 in May. “It was the best experience of my life … not counting my children, of course,” Lang said. Lang has retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease causing her retinas to degenerate from the outside in. She compares her fading vision to attempting to view something through a straw — her peripheral vision is gone, but she has a little bit of central vision. Lang applied for the training program upon the suggestion of Lewin Richards, a fellow student at the Placer Visual Service Center in Auburn. Richards has had his canine companion Aiden, a yellow Lab, for the past six years and is also a Guide Dogs for the Blind graduate. “I told her, if you don’t mind responsibility, a dog would be the best thing for you,” Richards said. Richards even traveled to San Rafael for Lang’s Jan. 31 Guide Dogs for the Blind graduation. Guide Dogs for the Blind is a nonprofit supported by private, charitable donations, staff members, puppy raisers and other volunteers. Students are offered, free of charge, room and board, training, equipment, financial assistance for veterinary care and support services. Lang said she was paired with Alsworth a few days into the 28-day program, and that she couldn’t have been matched with a better dog. “He’s real active, like I want to be, and a little crazy, like I can be,” she said with a laugh. Training was an all-day affair, with Alsworth at Lang’s side all the time, from when she got out of bed to when she went to sleep. The group would go on “work outs,” walking around downtown San Rafael and even San Francisco to practice using hand motions and commands with the dogs. Alsworth knows how to help Lang negotiate stairways, find doors and navigate curbs, she said. “He really already knew everything — he trained me. He was perfect,” Lang said. “Really, he already knows what he’s supposed to do. I still have to tell him what to do. It’s a team effort.” Lang even opted to work with Alsworth while wearing a blindfold the first few days of training. “I wanted to be able to trust him and be confident, myself, with him,” she said. Lang describes her month with Guide Dogs for the Blind, and its staff, as amazing. “I gained a lot of confidence there, confidence I didn’t know I had,” she said. “Some nights I’d just sit there and cry, because I feel really blessed, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m actually doing this.’ It’s a life-changing experience.” Now that Lang’s back home in Auburn with Alsworth by her side, the bond continues to form. There are still kinks to work out — Lang describes Alsworth as a curious, “sniffy” dog with puppy tendencies — but Lang relishes in her newfound independence and looks forward to the potential her new best friend offers. “It’s amazing. I can’t even put it into words. It’s liberating and it’s freedom and it’s independence and it’s happiness — he makes me so happy — and confidence,” Lang said. “He gives me confidence.” The Journal’s Loryll Nicolaisen can be reached at email@example.com.