Ann Chiappetta

from Follow Your Dog

It was the second week of class and the coldest night of training. While we were getting into the van to drive here, Jamie, one of our class instructors, told us it was 16 degrees with a wind chill of -5. The night walk was the challenge this time, and it wasn’t the first one of the day, either. Our class had already put in a full day of routes; the bitterly cold winds, ice, and snow flurries had been plaguing us for days, and now we were expected to brave it once more, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I just wanted to go back into the dorm and crawl into bed with my hot water bottle. I was mentally and physically wrung out. Part of me just wanted to stay in the van and not face my fear and the horrible weather. I sat in the training van with my thoughts, waiting for my turn. I hated walking at night. I felt dizzy, often stumbled, and had no sense of direction. I wasn’t convinced a guide dog could ameliorate the vertigo or the panic whenever I stepped out into the darkness.

I sat in the heated van with a few other students and waited. The students who didn’t have any light perception wouldn’t be worrying about anything other than how cold it was tonight. The others, like me, who did depend on the light to feel safer, were as edgy as I was, and we talked quietly, trying to help one another through the anxiety.

It was week two, and I was just beginning to feel like I could be a guide dog user. Prior to that, though, week one had its ups and downs. The night walk was supposed to build our confidence when partials like me were expected to depend on our dogs even more.

I was managing to keep the panic at bay, but just barely; I was using breathing techniques to ease the fear, but the butterflies were still there, and I sent up a silent prayer asking for help. I recall thinking, Ann, you are a therapist; you experienced and survived the birth of two children; use your coping tools. It took the edge off a bit. Then it was my turn.

I told Jamie how nervous I was, how dizzy I often felt at night, and she assured me I would be safe and that Verona would keep me straight, even if it felt strange.

"Remember, Verona knows what to do. Just follow your dog. I’ll be right behind you."

Earlier, our class supervisor, Dell, had made an announcement at dinner, letting us know that even though it was cold, as long as our walk was under 20 minutes, students and dogs would not be at risk from the brittle, freezing weather. He said that each dog should be wearing boots to protect it from the ice and salt. He also spoke to each of us about bringing gloves, hats, and scarves, and said that those of us with breathing problems should bring our inhalers.

I wasn’t even thinking about that, I was so anxious about whether or not I’d trip and fall or worse. I remembered to put my inhaler into a pocket before I left.

The first block was the hardest. I felt like I was in the old Batman TV show, walking on a slanted street. Jamie assured me I was walking straight and encouraged me to keep good posture, and it would get better as we went.

We avoided a patch of ice, then stepped off the first curb. I needed my inhaler; the cold made my lungs seize a little, even with a scarf and collar covering my mouth and nose. After putting the inhaler away, I gave the forward command, and we started across the street and found the opposite curb. I was instructed to go left.

The first week of class, I needed extra time to adopt a modified left turn because I was overcompensating and stepping on Verona’s back foot. Thanks to practicing left turns, I didn’t step on Verona anymore.

I realized we were in town, walking past store fronts. Jamie was describing the stores, the people, and how cold they all looked. I felt the frigid crunch of ice and salt underfoot, the soft clopping of Verona’s booties, and the darkness surrounding me. I realized that it wasn’t as scary as it once was, and I allowed myself to relax. I listened, opened my senses to the pace of my dog and to the reassuring, sturdy harness handle, and kept walking. I had relaxed, letting my dog stretch her legs a bit and finding a rhythm.


A guide dog handler and advocate, Ann Chiapatta volunteers her time representing people with visual impairments and guide dog users on various National, State and local boards of directors. A consultant and guest presenter, Chiapetta visits schools promoting awareness and equality for people with disabilities. She is the 2015 recipient of the WDOM Spirit of Independence award.