Connor Standingready wants everybody to know about the female who, in a lot of ways, has become his best friend.
Her name is Dolly, and she has been with Standingready for nearly four years. They're often inseparable. Dolly has offered immeasurable assistance to Standingready during his first three years of classes at the University of Regina.
Dolly is a five-year-old yellow Labrador dog who is a guide dog for Standingready. And thanks to Dolly, Standingready – a 21-year-old former resident of the White Bear First Nation who now resides in Regina – has become a champion for guide dog programs.
The tandem was in Estevan on May 27 for the Estevan Lions Club's annual CNIB dinner. Standingready discussed his vision impairment, how he joined the guide dog program, and how Dolly has enriched his life.
Standingready was born with congenital cataracts that significantly reduced his eyesight. The cataracts crystallized on the lenses of his eyes. When he was a baby, they had to remove his lenses to repair the cataracts.
Glasses were able to correct his vision until he was 12 or 13 years old, and then his eyesight deteriorated again. An operation was performed on his left eye to prevent him from losing his eyesight.
“The surgery itself worked, until I got home, and I found out that my retina became detached in my left eye,” said Standingready. “I started noticing this really weird … black, dark shadow coming over my vision, that's how it felt having my retina detach.”
He knew something was wrong, and eventually he went to a specialist. A procedure was needed to seal his retina in place. But he hasn't recovered the eyesight in his left eye.
Standingready's right eye also needs surgery, but he is hesitant to undergo the operation following the retina issues in his left eye.
“I can see people. I know what people look like,” said Standingready. “But I do have trouble walking around, certainly in places that I don't know, and certainly in dark places. I can't see in the dark; I really have trouble. That's where Dolly really comes in handy.”
He first thought about getting a guide dog about six years ago, but decided against it. When the opportunity came up again in 2010, he jumped at the chance.
The Carlyle Lions Club arranged for him to travel to Oakville, Ontario, and be matched up with a guide dog. Standingready spent 3 1/2 weeks learning about guide dogs, getting to know Dolly, and building up trust.
“What we had to do was train by going through obstacle courses, and walking around downtown,” said Standingready. “We had to learn how to maneuver the dog when it comes to curbs, pedestrian signs, crossing the street and going into doorways.”
The final test was to visit nearby Toronto and allow Dolly to lead Standingready through the streets of Canada's largest city.
People with autism, hearing disabilities and other conditions were also in Oakville for the training sessions, he said. Standingready has remained in contact with many of the people from the guide dog class.
Since the training session in Oakville, Standingready has started university, and Dolly has been a big help, he said. Standingready recently finished his third year of studies in political science.
He takes Dolly with him to class almost every day, and she takes him around campus.
Many of his professors and peers haven't encountered a guide dog previously, he said, so for them, it's a new experience.
“They've never really been exposed to a guide dog before, so it's educational for my fellow students, but they're also really understanding,” said Standingready. “They really, really love Dolly. I've made a lot of new friends because people are into dogs and animals.”
She has proven to be a great conversation starter with other people, too.
He said he likely would have been able to attend university without a guide dog, but it would have been much more difficult.
Standingready is working at an employment centre in Regina this summer. It's an office setting, so he said he typically leaves Dolly at home during the day.
But Dolly has taught him patience and has enhanced his sense of responsibility. He has learned to trust her and rely on her in many different ways.
“Having a guide dog has been so, so rewarding for me, and I can't stress enough how beneficial it has been for my life,” said Standingready. “I can't count how many times Dolly has gotten me out of sticky situations.”
Dolly helps him walk in the dark, remain on the sidewalk, avoid holes and other obstacles, and stop at intersections. She's also very focused.
“She's trained not to give other dogs attention,” said Standingready. “When other dogs are walking or barking away, Dolly just looks forward. She doesn't give any attention to them.”
People shouldn't pet or touch a guide dog when the dogs are wearing their harness, he said. Once the harness is on, their job is to protect their owner. And that's what Dolly does.
“I have a lot more confidence now that Dolly is with me,” said Standingready. “I do use a cane from time to time, but it's way easier when you have a living, breathing guide.”
When the harness is off, guide dogs are just like any other canine.
“You can play with them, you can pet them, you can scratch their bellies,” said Standingready.
Standingready wants people to be more aware of the value of guide dogs. He has been refused service from taxi cabs, and kicked out of a mall, because Dolly has been with him.
And so he wants to see more education about guide dog programs, because he has experienced the benefits of having such a protector on a daily basis for the past four years.