ERIE — “Thistle has a drive like I’ve never felt a guide dog have a drive.”
After 16 months without a guide dog, Jamie Carley, 42, can again get around on her own instead of using a white cane or depending on friends or family.
“I feel really safe with a dog. I have fallen down a flight of stairs with a stick,” Carley said. “It’s very frustrating without a dog.”
When she was a child, Carley was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive disease that causes photoreceptor cells in the eye — the cells that capture light — to die off.
Her sight continued to deteriorate until she was 26 years old, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Chemotherapy left her blind except for a bit of light she sees in her left eye.
At the suggestion of her Braille teacher, Carley began using a guide dog in 1991.
Carley’s last dog, Racer, had to be retired in December 2005, two months after a neighbor’s dog attacked it in Carley’s yard in the Canyon Creek subdivision. A municipal judge ordered the neighbors to get rid of their dog, which they did in June.
|Jamie & Thistle
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“The first time I was behind a dog, it was an incredible feeling,” Carley said.
But other circumstances kept Carley waiting for a dog. She moved from Canyon Creek to a condominium in Vista Ridge — where she fell down the stairs and twisted her ankle in September — and had to learn her new surroundings.
This winter’s severe weather also delayed Thistle’s arrival. Since the dog has to learn its new surroundings, it didn’t make sense for Carley to bring Thistle to Erie and keep her inside for weeks on end.
In February, Carley returned to Guide Dogs for the Blind’s Oregon campus for more training. She brought Thistle home on Feb. 21.
“Jamie is a very confident traveler. ... She wants to go places. ... Jamie really wants to feel that dog take her places,” said Emily Simone, a senior field manager for Guide Dogs for the Blind. The nonprofit organization breeds, raises and trains guide dogs, which are provided at no cost to clients.
When Carley grabs Thistle’s harness and tells the honey-colored Labrador retriever they are going to get the mail, Thistle confidently — and quickly — heads toward the mailboxes at the north end of the condo complex.
The pair set off at a pace difficult for some sighted people to keep. But Carley is comfortable with it.
“We did it one time, and she’s like, ‘OK, I know what I’m doing,’” Carley said. “I think she cues with words, as long as they’re simple.”
Carley belongs to a rare group of people. Less than one-half of 1 percent of blind people use guide dogs, Simone said.
“The reality is, you have to have exceptional orientation skills,” Simone said. “A guide dog will get you lost faster than any other form of mobility.”
While the person has to know where to go, it’s the dog’s job to get her there safely.
During the trip to the mailbox, Thistle took Carley to the corner of each block — no jaywalking for these two — and stopped to check for traffic.
One of the trickiest things to teach guide dogs is “intelligent disobedience,” Simone said. If it’s not safe for the person to cross the street, the dog will not advance; it may even back up if a car comes too close to the curb.
When their destination is reached, Thistle stops directly in front of Carley’s mailbox, then sits and waits for a treat. A raised marking on the frame helps Carley know which mailbox is hers.
People who are experienced in using guide dogs, as Carley is — Thistle is her fourth guide dog — can quickly determine if a dog is right for them.
“I like the outgoing personality,” Carley said. She and Thistle clicked instantaneously.
“Some matches were just meant to be,” Simone said.
Soon, both Thistle and Carley will have new environs to learn. At the end of May, Carley is moving to Emporia, Kan., where her father’s family lives.
Victoria Camron can be reached
at 303-684-5226, or by e-mail