Emily K. Michael
In the second week of guide dog training, nine dog-human teams prepare to travel the mall in Brandon, FL. New to the area, each team descends from the brightly colored school vehicle to the warm pavement, where trainers tell us to harness up. Adjusting my silver shoulder bag and lifting York's harness off my shoulder, I ask him to stay. I fold the harness's free-hanging belly strap across the back strap so the large buckle won't smack him in the face: "Harness on."
York's shiny black head slides through the chest strap and I secure the belly strap with a metallic click. I stand and lift the square grip of the harness handle in my left hand. I work York forward, respecting his cue to stop for the automatic doors. Once inside, I ask York to find a chair, and he leads me to a section of food court tables clustered beneath the skylight.
This morning we'll be working in doubles: two guide dog teams to one trainer. Those who wish to learn how to work their dog on escalators can do so while others wait. If we finish our routes early, we'll have time to shop. My trainer pairs me with a middle-aged woman and her lovely yellow Goldador. Using the "follow" command, York and I should be able to walk calmly behind them; York should give them adequate space to maneuver and not let me run into the trainer or the handler.
We start the route, and York uses a technique called shorelining — trailing the left side of the mall and stopping at any abrupt turns. York indents at passing storefronts; he swings his head to the left, alerting me to optional turns. Overhead lights and pale floors flood the path with glare. I am grateful to be walking by touch, guided with the tiny sways of the harness handle.
When the trainer calls, "Halt!" we repeat the command to our dogs, and everyone comes to a stop. When we resume the route, York veers to the left, trying to cut around the leading team. I correct him to the right, telling him "Straight, find the wall," but instead of stopping at the small stone wall that separates sections of the mall, York rests his nose against the dazzling glass surface of a jewelry kiosk. We rework the area, and each time, York prefers the light and sparkle of the jewelry counter.
I can only entice York forward when my trainer allows us to lead. Undeterred by the other team's position, York charges ahead, tail up. Guiding me through oncoming shoppers, York scatters congenial pairs and trios; he keeps up such a fast pace that no stranger can catch a surreptitious pat.
Near the escalator, York finds another jewelry counter, and I put him in a down-stay while I lean against it. I've decided not to try the escalator. I didn't like them in the cane days and doubt I'll like them now. As my trainer works her other team on and off the escalator, I wait for the rest of the class to arrive.
The jingling of harnesses signals the approach of more teams and trainers. A guide dog's harness makes a very particular noise when the dog moves — something even an inexperienced handler will recognize. After two weeks of training, the quiet metallic purrs are beginning to override the reassuring clicks of an unfolding cane — a sound I recognize anywhere.
I register a chorus of low-pitched commands as the students draw closer: "Forward, over left, forward easy. Straight, find the counter. No, forward." With this current of quiet verbal cues, we're like a pod of whales, a family group. Standing here waiting for them, I get to hear our pod noise as an outsider might — but I'm a temporary outsider who knows how to listen.
As I wait, I listen for Ana and Harley, the team I'll be shopping with. Ana is a fellow student and new friend, and Harley, a huge black Goldador male, is one of York's favorite classmates. Ana finishes her turn on the escalator, and we ask the trainers for directions to The Limited.
"It's around the corner, a few stores down," one trainer explains. "Just after the black storefront — that's New York & Company. Text us when you're through and we'll catch you on our way back to the food court"
Ana and I set off, walking side-by-side and watching the interaction between our guides. While York tries to race or cut around other teams in training, he has no problem strolling beside Harley. We pass several stores and turn a corner, checking our progress. Ana can detect the colors of storefronts and kiosks, and I can read some of the signs. Ana points out the black storefront, and we pass it. York stops at The Limited, turning his head to the left. We enter the store.
When contrasted with the garish brightness of the main walkways, the store's lighting is comparatively soft. The place smells of new fabric, and the display racks are generously spaced. I can feel wooden floors underfoot. A woman offers us assistance as we walk in: "Can I help you find anything?"
I tell her I'm looking for earrings and part ways with Ana. The saleswoman shows me to the front of the store, past two racks of belts. York stops to sniff the leather and examine some necklaces dangling in shimmering rows. I correct him and give the command, "Forward easy." His pace slows. The saleswoman chuckles.
After selecting a few pairs of earrings and handing them off to the sales assistant, I search for Ana. I call her name and hear her reply — echoing from the left corner of the store. Knowing that York can find certain inanimate objects — elevators, doors, steps, curbs — I ask him to stand and "find Harley."
York lifts his head and moves forward, taking an abrupt left turn. Without hesitation, he leads me to the left corner of the store, where Ana is examining a rack of blouses while Harley rests at her feet. She grins at me, "It worked!"
When I've told York to find the counter and paid for my purchases, Ana and I instruct the dogs to "find the door out." York ambles toward a luminous square that I recognize as the store's entrance. Stepping out of the store, Ana and I get our bearings. I suggest texting the trainers so we can be picked up.
"I'm not going to just stand here," she declares. "I think I know the way. Tell York to follow us."
I call York's name, tap Ana's left shoulder, and say, "Follow. Follow Harley." Ana urges Harley left, then forward. We continue away from the escalators and down a stretch of mall not covered by the earlier routes.
As we walk, I remind York to follow Harley. Harley's huge feathery tail swings inches before York's nose, and my guide's attention doesn't waver. Ana gives reassuring commentary as we move: "There's some yellow, that looks familiar. I remember passing some yellow on our way in."
We travel through trapezoidal patches of glare, and I'm jealous of Ana's visual talents. Here, she can remember snatches of passing colors while the intense overhead light — solar and artificial — washes out my vision. I can't read signs; I can only track the two black blurs guiding us back to our meeting-spot.
"I see green!"Ana's shout of triumph announces our arrival at the food court. York and Harley ease us through this complicated environment — rowdy children on a field trip, solicitous employees with samples of Thai chicken, curious strangers who step forward to ask if they can pet the dogs. We're moving so fast that no one has a chance of interrupting us.
The dogs round a corner, and I hear the sounds of other harnesses. Without further instruction from Ana, Harley leads her to the table she occupied before the route. A few steps behind, York takes me to a chair, resting his nose in the hard plastic seat. As I place my bags on the table, I begin to parse the sounds around me — and the voices of classmates become apparent.
Ana settles into the seat beside me, and we arrange our dogs beneath the table. Underneath the skylight, the reflective tape on York's harness is electrified, the darkness of his coat deepened. The tables, chairs, floor, all amplify the midday sun. I can barely tolerate this brightness.
I can close my eyes, or I can fix my gaze on York's body — my portion of soothing darkness in the clamorous space.