International Association of
Assistance Dog Partners


BUYING BLIND    by Carol Fleischman

Have you ever tried to buy a dress when you can't see? I have, because I'm blind. At one time, I would shop with friends. This ritual ended after an incident showed me that I needed to be more discriminating about their tastes. Happily bringing home a dress which a friend helped me to choose, my husband, Don, offered a surprising observation: "The fit is great, but do you like all the huge fish?" The dress went back.

Now I rely on Don and my guide dog, Misty, as my shopping partners. We enter the store and make a beeline for the dress department. Don sees two or three sales people scatter. The aisles empty, as if a bomber is on the scene. Then, I realize I'm holding the "live wire." I'm not judgmental - once I, too, was uneasy around large dogs. Although she is better behaved than most children, I know a 65 pound German Shepherd is imposing.

One recent shopping trip, a brave salesman approached us. "Can I help you?" she said to my husband.

"Yes, I'm looking for a dress," I replied since I will wear it, not him. "Maybe something in red or white."

"RED or WHITE," she said, very slow and loud, though my hearing is fine. I managed not to fall as Misty jumped back on my feet frightened by the woman's booming voice. Don was distracted too. I heard him rustling through hangers on a nearby rack. I called his name softly to get his attention. Another man answered my call. What were the chances of two Dons being in earshot?

"This is great!" Don said, holding up a treasure. I swept my hand over the dress to examine it. It had a neckline that plunged to the hemline. "Hmm...." I walk three miles daily with Misty and stay current with fashion, but I'm positive this costume would look best on one of the Spice Girls.

Finally, I chose three dresses to try on. Another shopper distracted Misty, even though the harness sign reads: "Please do not pet. I'm working." She said: "Your dog reminds me of my Max, who I recently put to sleep," so I am sympathetic. We discuss her loss for fifteen minutes (some therapists don't spend that much time with grieving clients ).

Don was back. He told me the route to travel to the dressing room. I commanded Misty: right, left, right and straight ahead. We wove our way past several small voices: "Mom, why is that dog in the store?" "Mom, is that a dog or a wolf?" My personal favorite is: "But that lady's eyes are open." I trust these parents to explain: "The lady is giving her guide dog commands. Her dog is a helping dog. They are partners." I questioned whether this positive message has been communicated when I heard an adult say, "Oh, there is one of those blind dogs."

Other people, though well intentioned, can interfere with my effective use of Misty. Guide dogs are highly trained and very dependable, but occasionally make potentially dangerous mistakes. On my way through the aisles, Misty bumped me into a pointed rack, requiring my quick action. I used a firm voice to correct her, and she dove to the ground like a dying actress.

Witnessing this performance, another shopper chastised me for being cruel. I was shocked. Misty's pride was hurt, but I needed to point out the error in order to avoid future mistakes. If I did not discipline her, what would prevent Misty from walking me off the curb into traffic?

Composing myself, I was delighted by the salesperson's suggestion: "Can I take you to your dressing room?" I was less delighted when she grabbed me and pushed me ahead while Misty trailed us on a leash. I wriggled out of the woman's wrestling hold. Gently pushing her ahead, I lightly held her elbow in sighted guide technique (called so, because the person who sees goes first ).

"This is better. Please put my hand on the door knob. I'll take it from here," I said. In the room, Misty plopped down and sighed with boredom. I sighed with relief that she was still with me. Once, I was so preoccupied with trying on clothes that Misty sneaked out beneath the dressing room doors. I heard her tags jingling as she left, but was half dressed and couldn't retrieve her. Fortunately, Don was outside the door and snagged her leash.

I modeled the dresses for Don and, feeling numb, bought all three. Leaving the store, Misty's magnetism, like the Pied Piper, attracted a toddler who draped himself over her. She remained calm as he tried to ride her. The boy's fun was soon foiled by his frantic mother.

When we returned to our car, I gave Misty a treat and lots of praise. A good day's work deserves a good day's pay for both of us. "Shop till you drop" or "retail therapy" could never be my motto. To me, "charge" means going into battle.

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