In August 2016, Heather Schey decided to switch out her white cane for another set of eyes and began the process of applying for a guide dog through Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Not only did Heather receive a guide dog, but she also met her best friend. Their bond and connection is something Heather can’t put into words.
“There’s no freedom like it,” she said. “You know, it’s really incredible.”
Asher, Heather’s guide dog, performs a variety of tasks such as alerting her of curbs, finding entryways, and other forms of guide work.
The application process for a guide dog is lengthy. On top of paperwork and doctors’ notes, applicants must be able to perform a multitude of mobility tasks.
In December 2016, she received a call that would change her life.
“I’ll never forget it. We were closing down here [at Ocean State Center of Independent Living, or OSCIL, where she works] for our Christmas party at noon, and it was like, I don’t know, 11:40ish. And I got the phone call from guiding eyes telling me I was accepted and I just cried. I was so excited. Everyone was like, ‘oh my God.’ I was going out because I was crying so much.”
In February 2017, Heather traveled to Yorktown Heights, New York, where the Guiding Eyes for the Blind headquarters is located. She arrived to train for three weeks and be paired with her dog.
“It’s very exciting, because you know, you don’t meet your dog right away. So, you go on like two days of training to do a couple more Juno walks, which are the pretend walks, you know, teach you some basic obedience,” Heather said.
Thankfully because of donations and volunteers, the whole program – training, transportation to and from the school, room and board during the program, a lifetime of follow up visits, and the dog – is completely free for the recipient. Guiding Eyes for the Blind estimates that these services cost $50,000 per dog.
When doggie day arrived and it was time for Heather to meet her companion, she and her 11 classmates sat side-by-side as the dogs were introduced.
“When they got to me, they said a male, and I was like, OK. All right. I can handle it. And then they said yellow Lab. I was like, that’s cool. And then they said his name, Asher, and I just was like, oh my God, I looked at him and just like blurted his name out. And so that was exciting,” Heather said.
They had an instant connection to each other. Throughout training, Heather was constantly being informed of how Asher wouldn’t take his eyes off of her. A bond like this was a surprise to the trainers. It takes most people an average of six months to create the bond Heather and Asher felt instantly.
After three weeks, Heather and Asher were ready to take their guide work back to Rhode Island.
“They do a graduation there, which is nice, and my sister, my boyfriend had come to see it. And I spoke at the graduation. Of course, I couldn’t stop crying because I was so happy,” Heather said.
Walking to work
Heather’s main objective was to walk to work with Asher, a freedom she hasn’t had in a long time. She works as a Lunch and Learn coordinator for OSCIL. Around 51 percent of their staff has a disability. The agency assists individuals with disabilities to remain independent and living in their own home.
The five-block walk to work came naturally to Heather and Asher. The main challenge was going through the Church Avenue intersection. The walk home was more of a struggle. With Heather and Asher’s bond and the help of the field rep, Asher adjusted to the new area. And the walk became routine. Heather doesn’t walk to work anymore due to the increased amount of accidents at the Church Avenue intersection.
The challenges that arise from learning how to walk to work seem insignificant to Heather compared to legal problems she has faced.
Under the American Disability Act (ADA) it is illegal to refuse entry or service to someone legally accompanied by a working guide, hearing, or assistance dog. Heather has experienced multiple incidents where people have acted outside of the law due to her service dog.
Being avid Providence Bruins fans, Heather and her boyfriend, Tim, went to go watch the team play in Pennsylvania. Heather is able to enjoy the games because she has partial vision.
There, they ran into trouble at two different hotels. One refused to let them come in and required proof that Asher was a service dog. The other hotel asked them to pay a $200 deposit.
Another incident arose back home when a young girl yanked Asher’s tail, causing him to curl up and not work.
“I’m never out for like suing or anything like that. I’m always about education, and kind of making sure what they do won’t happen to anyone else,” Heather said of her approach to such incidents.
According to Heather, whenever you see a service dog in a harness, you should not try to pet the animal or get its attention, as this can lead the animal to lose focus and could lead the handler to be in dangerous situation. She stresses the importance of keeping an eye on children and teaching them not to interact with service dogs while they are working.
It’s not all work and no play, though.
“When his harness is off, he’s a complete puppy. Yeah. Loves tug of war. Loves his walks,” Heather said. “Some people think that dogs that are providing a service to people like guide work and other services are just that. Service dogs get plenty of downtime … they get to be dogs.”
Asher follows a strict diet, including grains and his favorite treat, a greenie dental bone. Heather and Tim pride themselves on taking good care of him and making sure he stays around 70 pounds. During the pandemic, most dogs gained weight and lost their training. Heather made sure to not let this happen by doing regular training exercises with Asher and taking him on frequent walks.
Asher almost wasn’t a guide dog at all. His good looks and temperament caught the eye of those at Guiding Eyes for the Blind and he was chosen to be a breeder. In order to become an official breeder, each dog must under go genetic testing to determine the genes they would pass on to their pups. Although Asher is a healthy pup with no problems, the lab results showed that there would be a chance of him passing on an eye disease to his puppies. So he had a career switch and was sent to live with puppy raisers until he could complete his guide dog training.
Heather was born with Leber Congenital Amaurosis, or LCA, a rare disease that she shares with her identical twin sister. It affects 2-3 babies out of every 100,000 births, according to USCF Health. LCA is a retinal degenerative eye disease that can lead to extreme vision loss and in some cases total blindness.
“If it’s on the same trajectory as my great aunts, preferably not. I could be coming totally blind by my 50s,” said Heather, who will be 48 in January.
This upcoming February will mark the five-year anniversary of Heather and Asher working together. Most guide dogs retire at the age of 9; Asher will be 7 in January. When he retires, Heather will return to the program to find a new partner.
Asher’s retirement will be spent living with Heather. This is a day Heather is hoping does not come soon. Their bond and friendship will be tough to replace.
“It’s pretty incredible. He does so much work, so much guide work. I’m able to walk faster and more confidently with him. But it’s changed my life completely. And I would never go back,” Heather said.