Meet Penny and Oliana

Anyone who doubts the concept of love at first sight should meet Penny Hartin and her guide dog Oliana. The two were introduced in May 2006, and have been inseparable ever since

The decision to acquire a guide dog was a long process for Hartin, who is Chief Executive Officer of the World Blind Union (WBU), and who lives with low vision.

Long decision process

“It took a long time for me to decide,” she says. “I’ve always faked it. But when I use a cane, I sometimes forget where I am, and feel uneasy.”

“I’ve always liked dogs,” says Hartin who grew up on a farm in the company of dogs and cats, among other creatures. “But I thought I had too much vision to use a guide dog. I went through the application process with an open mind, in case I was rejected, or in case it just wasn’t for me.”

Canine charisma

But clearly it was for her: Hartin and Oliana arrived back in Toronto together at the end of June 2006 and have been a fixture in The CNIB Centre, where the WBU has its head office, since day one. After guiding Hartin to the office, Oliana spends her workdays on the end of a long leash that reaches to the doorway of the WBU suite, allowing her to watch people in the corridor and use her considerable charms to solicit visits – with great success.

“No one ever comes to visit US!” laughs Catherine Munoz-Smith, Hartin’s administrative assistant, in mock consternation.

A “very social” dog

Hartin is quick to add that she gives Oliana a great deal of freedom because of her ability to differentiate between work and play. “Oliana has a good understanding of when she’s working and when she’s not,” she says. “She’s very social and if I didn’t let her visit and socialize, she’d be bored and depressed. I monitor her pretty carefully. Also, CNIB folks know not to interact with Oliana when she’s in harness, so we’re lucky that way.”

Good memory

Oliana is trained, as are all guide dogs, to find things like stairs, doorways, elevators and escalators. Each handler teaches the dog new vocabulary and commands as needed. “For example,” says Hartin, “there’s a crosswalk near my home. I taught her where the pole is, and now Oliana always offers it to me.”

Natural curiosity

Penny Hartin and her guide dog Oliana looking at a tactile map“Oliana is very good at taking initiative,” says Hartin, “and she has a natural curiosity. She’s very logical, aware and alert. She’s also very nosy,” she adds with a laugh. Typically in a new situation, they work as a team to cover all the bases: Oliana investigates and checks things out – Hartin has observed Oliana taking stock of things like equipment moving high overhead, for example. Hartin follows Oliana’s lead and provides reinforcement and reassurance as needed.

For example, just two months after the two arrived home in 2006, they attended the AIDS Conference at the Toronto Convention Centre together. “After two days, Oliana could find the elevators faster than any of the human volunteers!” Hartin marvels.

Dogs in flight

Hartin travels a lot for work and Oliana has been logging the air miles right alongside her. In fact, says Hartin, between June and December 2006, Oliana traveled on 13 different planes!

Oliana suffers from jet lag, just like her handler – on a recent trip to Madrid, for example, Oliana fell asleep at 7:00 p.m. and had to be awakened to go outside and relieve herself. Hartin must make a judgment call when deciding whether a trip is long enough to warrant putting Oliana through the discomfort. “Not only is there jet lag, but the dog’s food is withdrawn for a day before a trip, so on a two-day trip, she’d hardly eat at all.”

Local travel

The two are also becoming a fixture on more local trips. Notably, Oliana sometimes waves her front paw in the air when she sees the bus approaching. Says Hartin, “The driver once told me, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been flagged down by a dog before!’”

Hartin has also noticed that strangers are much more comfortable approaching her – in the same way that pet owners will more readily chat with strangers in a park if their dogs are on hand, she says.

Oliana’s “welcome wagon” personality will certainly come in handy during the next few months: Hartin has just bought a new house and she and Oliana are in the process of learning the new route to work, with the assistance of Munoz-Smith, and meeting the neighbours.

“Oliana is pretty energetic,” says Hartin, “I wanted her to have a yard and I missed having green space myself.”

A naughty dog

There have been a few “naughty moments” – a gum incident, for example, where Oliana quietly helped herself to some discarded chewing gum stuck to the underside of a table while Hartin was dining with a friend. Oliana managed to conceal it for quite some time before being discovered. (Hartin barely manages to keep a straight face while telling this story.)

But the occasional whiff of minty breath is a small price to pay for the coming years of companionship, safety and new experiences that Hartin anticipates with Oliana.

“I wish I’d done it earlier.”

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From time to time, we reach out to Canadians for donations to ensure that CNIB is on hand for individuals who are searching for the services and support necessary to enjoy a good quality of life while living with vision loss. Please give generously.