Guide dogs provide Brantford residents with mobility and confidence

9/8/2017

Stephanie and Marvin.jpgThis is a double love story – two people and two dogs. The only sighted members of the quartet are the animals.

Marvin Atkins met Stephanie Burke online 13 years ago. He lived in a small town in Tennessee. She lived in Brantford. He had retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that leads to blindness. She had never known sight.

They discovered each other through an email chat group: Blind Friends. Initially, Atkins didn’t send much, but he enjoyed reading Burke's messages. They were interesting, well-written and relevant to his concerns. One of the posts caught his attention. Burke was heading to Morristown, New Jersey to get a new guide dog – her third.

Over time, they started talking privately. Burke told Atkins about her dog (Sheba), her life as a single parent, her work as a medical transcriptionist and her connections in Brantford. He told her about his world, his work and his memories of being sighted. In September 2004, he sent a tentative request: Could he come to visit her?

Stephanie cautiously agreed. They spent two relaxed weeks together, learning about each other. Atkins, who’d never thought of getting a guide dog, was amazed at Burke's mobility and confidence.

"I would hold Stephanie’s right elbow and Sheba would guide both of us," he recalled. "I went home and applied to The Seeing Eye."

Its selection committee decided Atkins was a suitable candidate for guide dog ownership. He went to Morristown, New Jersey, took the mandatory training course and came home with a beautiful dog named Elliott.
Marvin and Stephanie on their wedding day
When Burke travelled to Tennessee to visit him, their relationship blossomed; he proposed and she accepted. And, Sheba and

Elliott became fast friends.

But, Atkins had to stay behind when Burke went home. He wasn't yet eligible for his state pension. (He worked for the Tennessee Department of Human Services.) As soon as he retired, he moved to Brantford.

Since then, they’ve both gotten new dogs (service dogs typically work for seven to eight years). Burke has a golden retriever named Dixie. Atkins' dog, also a golden retriever, is named Xielo.

Like many people with sight loss, both of them were reluctant to get a guide dog at first.

Burke, who grew up in Sault Ste Marie, saw no need for a canine partner. She could navigate her community safely, go to school and keep up with her peers. It wasn’t until she enrolled in York University that her confidence wavered. Toronto’s heavy traffic, the unexpected obstacles she encountered (medians in the middle of a street) and the difficulty performing once-familiar tasks (going to the bank) threatened to overwhelm her.

One of her good friends, Steve, had a guide dog. He could handle the stress of urban life with ease. He showed her what his dog could do.

"I've got to do this," said Burke.

She applied to the Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown, New York, met its conditions and was matched to a gentle black lab named Misty. Since then, Burke has rarely been without a guide dog.

Atkins, likewise, had no intention of getting a guide dog until he visited Burke. He witnessed the freedom Sheba gave her.

"That was the most amazing dog," says Atkins. "You don’t know what it’s like until you take that harness handle.”

Although Atkins and Burke got their dogs in the U.S., there are other choices. The CNIB Guide Dog Program (cnibguidedogs.ca) launched earlier this year.

"Not only does the guide dog partnership provide individuals with mobility and safety, it instills confidence and independence, and creates a sense of connection with the world," says Andrew Hanlon, Manager, CNIB Guide Dog Program. "At CNIB, we believe everyone who would like to have a guide dog should have the opportunity to do so. That's why we're proud to offer a range of choices, services and opportunities for people with sight loss."

Owning a guide dog is a big responsibility, the couple says, but the rewards are enormous. It opens doors, eliminates boundaries, relieves loneliness and, for some lucky owners, points the way to love.

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