The Bookworm Sez: Celebrating the unsung hero that is the guide dog

Where will you go today?

Your travels may have already been decided long before you rose: work, chores, or a trip somewhere fun. Maybe there’s no itinerary, and you’ll visit where your whims take you.

Or perhaps, as in the new book “Have Dog, Will Travel” by Stephen Kuusisto, you go wherever your six feet can walk.

Flying.

“Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey” by Stephen Kuusisto
c.2018, Simon & Schuster
$25.00 / $34.00 Canada; 241 pages

That’s the easiest answer Stephen Kuusisto has when describing what it’s like to walk with a guide dog. When using a white cane or human escort, a blind man doesn’t move nearly as fast as he could with a pup like Kuusisto’s Corky at the end of a lead.

It wasn’t always like that.

While he can see shadows and colors, Kuusisto has been legally blind his entire life. He therefore learned early how to navigate the world – he was able to attend college, become a professor, and hold a job – but none of this ever gave him total independence or the self-confidence he craved.

Part of the problem was that, as a young child, he was taught by his alcoholic mother to be ashamed of his disability so, though he was frustrated by his many limitations, he seemed helpless to change them.

Instead, he endured restrictions on his life, until the day he accidentally stepped in front of a car and was almost killed.

“When I got home,” Kuusisto says, “I dug up a pamphlet from Guiding Eyes for the Blind… I called their number.”

A few short months later, after having gone through “guide-dog school” to learn how to walk on a lead, praise his dog, keep her safe, answer questions from the curious, and trust his new partner, his “Dog Day” finally arrived. Eager to get on with what awaited him, Kuusisto was introduced to Corky.

Like most of the dogs that came from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Corky was a Labrador retriever, a yellow one with soft ears and dark eyes. Kuusisto was immediately smitten and, days later, their bond was complete.

It was further cemented when he realized that having a guide dog meant freedom to do the things he’d been told he could never do.

He also realized that life lessons can come from a teacher with four paws.

Educational, informative, and very different, “Have Dog, Will Travel” is unlike almost every other dog book around these days. For several reasons, it will surprise you.

It’s also going to take some getting used to: as the poet in the subtitle, author Stephen Kuusisto writes lyrically and with great beauty, but that can get out of hand sometimes.

Readers who are sticklers may also be irked by repetition, reconstructed conversation, and quoted thoughts; they move the story here, but not always.

Still, who doesn’t love a dog book?

A dog book that teaches procedures, etiquette, and laws concerning guide dogs, well, who could resist? And… a dog book that praises unsung heroes so highly?

Yep. Fetch. For dog people, “Have Dog, Will Travel” will take you in a good direction.

Terri Schlichenmeyer