Finding her way…..through Harris’
Purdue Jazz Band saxophonist Rebecca Hodson learns to see with canine companion
By Amy Patterson-Neubert
Journal and Courier
Rebecca Hodson and her guide dog Harris are a striking couple as they stroll through the Purdue Memorial Union. They move at the same gait with graceful strides. Their physical appearance is even complementary because of Hodson’s blond hair and her yellow Labrador retriever’s shiny coat.
Harris, who will be one of three guide dogs on the Purdue campus this fall, will go everywhere with Hodson as he helps lead her from her residence hall to where her campus schedule dictates. He’ll sit by her when she plays saxophone in concerts with the Purdue Jazz Band. He’ll attend her communication classes while she aims to earn the high grades that placed her on the dean’s list last semester.
“He’ll be pretty smart when we’re done,” Hodson said about her new companion she met in June. Hodson and Harris spent the end of their summer repetitively navigating campus for their first time together.
Until this sophomore graduates, she can rely on the auxiliary eyes of Harris. Hodson has been blind since birth. With the guide dog’s help, Hodson’s mobility on campus will be upgraded as she moves to and from each of her scheduled activities on campus.
“I could tell right away there waacs a change in her attitude with what she could and couldn’t do,” said Rebecca’s mom Denise, about her daughter receiving Harris.
This summer Harris accompanied Hodson to the TAEVIS (Tactile Access to Education for Visually Impaired Students) office, where she worked as a tactile proofreader.
“Harris certainly provides a lot more independence for her to move about more freely,” said Sue Wilder, director of TAEVIS.
Life before 20-month old Harris involved cane traveling. When walking with a cane, Hodson had to settle into a pace where she could focus on detecting an obstruction in her path. She was constantly tapping for trash cans, light poles or the grass’s edge. Now, her mobility still depends on her concentration, but it weighs more now on trust.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, but what they give back makes all that work worth it,” said Hodson. “You get around a lot quicker.”
But it’s hard to imagine this outgoing Purdue student picking up the pace in her already hectic schedule. In addition to a full-course load, she plays saxophone in the Purdue Jazz Band, studies the clarinet on her own time and works with PADI (Purdue Advocates for Disability Issues).
Working with a guide dog means she will devote more of her time to his care, such as brushing his teeth, grooming his butterscotch-colored coat and cleaning his ears daily. During the day she carries a collapsible water dish for Harris. Guide dogs are routine oriented so it’s important to keep on a schedule.
“It was a challenge for us to learn what we should and should not do,” Denise said. “She’s totally responsible for feeding. She is his primary caregiver.”
The sole devotion Hodson has for Harris is part of their bonding process that will ensure a successful relationship for about six years, before the dog is retired.
A year ago, this West Lafayette native started thinking about acquiring a guide dog when she began her college career at DePauw University in Greencastle. The transition to college was not difficult for her because she had already had a similar experience while attending Indiana School for the Blind. Throughout her elementary and high school years, Hodson has studied at the Indiana School for the Blind. But she did return to the area for two years to enroll at Klondike Middle School.
“It was tough,” Hodson said. “Going to the blind school for seven years then coming to public school where people are quote, normal, unquote. Middle school is a tough time for kids anyway. People did not accept me.”
She returned to the Indiana School for the Blind and also integrated some public Indianapolis high school classes in her schedule. After graduation she started at DePauw, then transferred to Purdue.
It was at DePauw she met with someone from Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc. of San Rafael, Calif. The search for a guide dog started that fall and the process wasn’t much different than looking for a college. In October 2000 a representative from Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc., came to her place in Greencastle. Hodson was measured for a guide dog.
The scout took note of her walk, evaluated her pace and got to know Hodson’s personality.Hodson attended the school in June. The month long schooling is free, as well as the dog and air fare.During the first three days of school, the instructors continue with their evaluations to make sure the dogs are matched to the right person and to verify true walking speed. Then the person and guide dog are introduced. “I thought it would be difficult to trust him, but it’s not,” Hodson said.
The new team started with basic tasks such as learning to heel. In the California town of 53,000, Hodson and Harris cultivated their trust by walking downtown, visiting malls and riding escalators.
The pair is still smoothing the bumps in their relationship. Harris tends to walk toward the left, going against people traffic.
“You have your days, but he’s a good worker,” Hodson said. Occasionally when resting at her feet, Harris lifts his head at sounds or a buzzing fly.
With a gentle gesture on the harness from Hodson, he returns to a resting position.
Harris also is fond of the squirrels on the Purdue campus. “He’s easy to get back on track,” Hodson said. “You have to remember he’s still a dog.”
It’s tough resisting the urge to pet the silky golden hair on Harris, a yellow Labrador retriever guide dog. With those big brown eyes and pleasant demeanor, any dog lover would want to just throw his arms around him. But people don’t walk around tousling the hair on their co-workers, and when uninvited hands reach to pet Harris, his owner Rebecca Hodson, sees it as someone distracting her working guide dog.
“Not petting a guide dog is very important because the relationship between the owner and the dog needs to be consistent,” said Dean Brusnighan, program specialist for adaptive programs in the Dean of Students office at Purdue University. “When the dog is working — when he’s in harness — he needs to be paying close attention, and only, to his owner.”
If someone pets Harris while Hodson is moving, the distracted dog could turn to that person. Hodson has only had her dog a few weeks, but people have already overstepped their boundaries. “Etiquette is key for the partnership for the dog and person,” Hodson said. “It’s not a pet, it’s a working dog.”
When Harris is off his harness, he is treated much the same way as a pet. However, how the guide dog is handled when not working is still strongly tied to the dog and his owner’s relationship.
This fall, there will be three guide dogs on the Purdue University campus. That number is the largest to date. And guide dog etiquette will be highly stressed by those owners and the PADI, (Purdue Advocates for Disability Issues) group. Such etiquette includes not feeding guide dogs or petting them without asking.
“I know it’s hard because dogs are lovable and the dogs we have on campus are happy,” Brusnighan said. “But it’s important to know these dogs are working.”