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Navigating busy city streets with a precocious new guide

TORONTO - In less than a minute, my new dog had jumped in my lap, licked my face and flopped on her back in hopes of a tummy rub. She gave me a thorough once-over with her nose, danced around in an ungainly four-step and made an abortive attempt to visit with a passing dog.

TORONTO - In less than a minute, my new dog had jumped in my lap, licked my face and flopped on her back in hopes of a tummy rub. She gave me a thorough once-over with her nose, danced around in an ungainly four-step and made an abortive attempt to visit with a passing dog.

In a prospective pet, such antics would steal even the most hardened heart. But this was Reva, my new guide dog - the animal that was supposed to lead me through the streets of Toronto, keeping me safe from oncoming traffic and the city's surging crowds.

Reva's carefree, puppy-like antics filled me with shock and anxiety. I dabbed at my eyes and wondered to myself - can this really work?

Each time she corkscrewed her head around to investigate a nearby noise, I fought to suppress unfair comparisons to McClure, the dignified golden retriever who had walked by my side for more than eight years and who had retired just days before due to old age.

I felt sure that Reva, a two-year-old black lab, would never equal his skill as a guide - or fill the emotional void he had left.

But over the next three weeks, as I underwent intensive training with my new partner, I was forced to discard my gloomy predictions and accept the fact that I had underestimated both her innate abilities and the school that had shaped her into a first-rate guide and companion.

I ought to have had greater faith in The Seeing Eye, the organization in Morristown, N.J., where Reva and I were matched. North America's first guide dog school was founded in 1929, has evolved into an industry leader and was responsible for my own first successful pairing.

Still, when I returned to the school for my latest round of training, my doubts persisted.

I couldn't help but wonder if the two days at the beginning of class would be enough time in which to accurately assess my optimal walking pace, determine the amount of pull I could handle and analyze my personality. All of these factors come into play when matching handlers and guide dogs, and I entertained private doubts that such a swift process could result in a second happy partnership.

Fortunately, Reva set to work dispelling my doubts on our very first excursion.

The very sight of her specialized harness - which signals that she's on duty - immediately transformed the aforementioned squirming puppy into a focused, alert adult. Once it was slipped over her head, she ceased her sniffing and shunned other dogs. Only her tail maintained its perpetual motion as she shifted her attention to the work she clearly loved to do.

In our first of many walks through the streets of downtown Morristown, Reva executed flawless turns, stopped on a dime at every street corner, kept me clear of all oncoming traffic and finessed her way through crowds without allowing me to so much as graze my elbow.

She never got distracted by the constant verbal and physical praise I heaped on her and managed to suppress all her playful instincts for the duration of our trip.

Removing the harness was like flicking a switch. Reva's frisky nature came back to the fore immediately, but by then she had earned the chance to play.

Over the next three weeks, we logged up to five kilometres a day during our twice-daily excursions and deliberately worked through every possible scenario a guide dog might encounter in a bustling urban environment.

Seeing Eye staff led us through busy streets and peaceful parks, shopping malls and drug stores, taught us to take public transit and showed us how to handle the challenges posed by escalators and revolving doors.

On one memorable day, Reva even braved the subways and streets of downtown Manhattan where she wove through dense crowds and hectic traffic with unruffled aplomb.

She did it all at a pace that reacquainted me with muscles I forgot I had and with an enthusiasm that won me over faster than I thought possible.

Between outings, my fellow students and I attended a series of exhaustive lectures designed to teach us more about our four-legged companions. Instructors addressed a variety of topics including the way a dog's senses work, common canine fears and how animals interpret commands.

By helping us to understand the way our dogs' minds worked, the staff gave us the tools to continue the training begun at the school. We were frequently reminded that guide dogs, while exceptional in many ways, are still creatures that operate on instinct and would revert to undisciplined behaviour if allowed to do so.

As one seasoned instructor put it, "these dogs are as good as you make them and as bad as you let them be."

I remembered his words a month after returning to Toronto - a time during which both Reva and I had been forced to adjust to a bewildering variety of changes.

She showed great patience as I tried to get her acquainted with my familiar haunts, which sometimes felt completely foreign to me as I adapted to her different guiding style.

The challenge came not from navigating the streets of a bustling metropolis like Toronto, but from learning to trust a whole new set of instincts. Placing faith in an animal Seeing Eye says has the average intelligence of a three-year-old human is inherently difficult, and the myriad distractions in the hectic streets gave me ample opportunity to question both Reva's judgment and my own.

It was hard, for instance, to determine whether she was swerving on a sidewalk to avoid an oncoming baby carriage or to investigate an abandoned pizza crust. But eventually it became abundantly clear that Reva was doing nothing but rising to the occasion.

She put up with my repetitive efforts to get her comfortable on my common routes and submitted cheerfully to the litany of rules I put in place to help ease her adjustment to her new home.

For my part, I was sometimes overwhelmed by the scope of the change in my life and often exhausted from the demands of keeping up with a playful pup. But I realized my vigilance was bearing fruit one day as we stood amidst a typical rush hour crowd on the Toronto subway.

Commuters surged around my dog, resting backpacks on her head, nearly stepping on her paws and occasionally even petting her despite the presence of her harness - a guide-dog no-no.

Reva never flinched and scarcely seemed to pay attention; she simply sidled closer to me and pressed her head against my knee.

Sure, she licked my hand when I reached down to pet her, but this time I didn't mind. I knew it was going to work.

-Michelle McQuigge is a reporter-editor with The Canadian Press in Toronto.

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