Dogs transforming the lives of humans by serving those who cannot see, and those who have seen too much.
words by Anna Cooke – photography by Laura Allen Studios.
Anna Wintour, Vogue magazine’s editor-in-chief, believes that fashion goes in only one direction, and that is forward. PJ, a yellow Labrador Retriever, is as fashion-forward thinking as any dog we’ve ever met. “She constantly let’s me know that she is the most beautiful Labrador ever. Of course, I believe her,” said Shauna English, her handler.
Before Shauna met PJ – before she needed PJ, she was a busy professional, successfully juggling two careers; one in real estate, the other in the registrar’s office at Florida Southern University in Lakeland.
Then, the unthinkable happened. During Memorial Day weekend, two years ago, Shauna suffered a stroke in her optic nerves. Diagnosed with Central Retinal Vein Occlusion, Shauna lost vision in one eye. It normally takes two years to lose vision in both eyes. In Shauna’s case, she lost vision in her other eye only two weeks later. As if being legally blind wasn’t enough, the following year, again on Memorial Day weekend, Shauna awoke with a massive headache on one side of her face. Glaucoma had progressed so severely, it necessitated the removal of her right eye. She now wears a prosthetic eye.
Understandably, as the reality of this new darkness set in, Shauna’s world became very small. She had to leave her job, her fiancé walked out on her, she had to give up her car, and moved out of her home. On the rare occasion when she ventured out into the world, Shauna used a white cane, but couldn’t shake the feeling that she was always one step away from falling. “I just stopped participating in life,” she said.
Falling further into the depths of depression, her sleepless nights included late night television. Through public service announcements, she was introduced to Southeastern Guide Dogs and could just make out the two stars of the commercials on the television screen. Gibson was a little black Labrador Retriever puppy and Jackie was a yellow Lab. The PSA’s were on several times a night, five nights a week. She worked up the nerve to call Southeastern Guide Dogs to inquire about a service dog of her own.
Once it was determined that Shauna qualified for her own guide dog and after the paperwork had been approved, she made one special request. She loved wearing black and thought a black Lab, like Gibson in the commercials, would be a fun perk.
With a 98 percent graduate satisfaction rating, Southeastern Guide Dogs is adept at matching the applicant with the right dog. The process is both an art and a science, and sometimes, adjustments must be made. The 20-day, hands-on training takes place at the facility’s Palmetto, Florida campus, as well as venturing from the campus out to city streets, shopping malls and public transportation.
On the second day of her training, Shauna was given a black Lab that matched all criteria to be her service dog. However, it became instantly apparent to the instructors and Shauna that what was previously regarded as a perfect fit for her was not working. The dog was too strong and too quick for Shauna. The trainers noticed the imbalance right away.
Worried, nervous and frightened, Shauna thought it was her fault. What was she doing wrong, she wondered. The instructors were very supportive and assured her that they had the right dog for her.
A nonprofit with a national reach, Southeastern Guide Dogs (SEGD) trains dogs of the highest pedigree for blind people and injured veterans, providing a premier dog and a lifetime of services at no cost. One of the ways SEGD raises money is through puppy sponsorships. A $5,000 donation sponsorship helps care for the dogs through their journey from puppy to world-class guide dog, service dog or other career.
In addition to quarterly updates on the dog, the sponsor receives recognition in SEGD’s annual report and an invitation to a formal graduation luncheon. The sponsor also has the opportunity to name the puppy. PJ is short for Paula Jean. Her sponsor named the dog in loving memory of his late wife.
On the fifth day of classes, Shauna was about to be introduced to her new guide dog. “I had been crying and was worried that the new dog would detect my tears and sadness, and think that it was because of her,” said Shauna. I tried to pull myself together as best as I could.”
When PJ walked into the room, there was an instant connection, as the dog jumped into Shauna’s arms. PJ licked away the remnants of Shauna’s tears and leaned into her, never leaving her side. Now the training, that would eventually transform Shauna’s life, could commence.
It wasn’t until day 10 of training that Shauna gained complete trust in PJ. The dog, who usually walked on Shauna’s left side, stopped in front of her and would not heel. Frustrated, Shauna tried several times to correct PJ, but the dog stubbornly refused to budge. Walking across Shauna’s path was a black snake that she would have stepped on had PJ not stepped in front of her. It’s what is known as intelligent disobedience. The SEGD dogs are taught 40 different commands, but intelligent disobedience, like the one PJ displayed, is instinctive. These dogs have saved lives, keeping people from falling off docks, or warning them of low hanging branches. And, just think about silent cars, like the Prius, on the roadways.
Shauna eventually moved from the comfort of her hometown in Lakeland to Palmetto with PJ. She now has a new apartment, a new job and is making new friends. “We still have our moments, when I sometimes think I know what’s right. But, PJ knows better than I do,” said Shauna. She confesses that PJ sleeps with her, taking up most of the bed and all of the pillows. Their morning routine includes PJ heading back to bed twice; the first time while Shauna is brushing her teeth. The second time is while she is getting dressed.
Fear of the unknown has a way of creeping in, bringing back the occasional moment of anxiety or depression. “If I have a panic attack, PJ will just put her head in my lap until I calm down. She never stops surprising me.”
“Self confidence is the best outfit,” said Shauna English.
No matter how Shauna is feeling, she is reminded daily, and lives by her late mother’s motivational words: “You can get up, dress up and show up.” And, that is just what Shauna and PJ do, every single day.
As soon as PJ hears her harness, she knows it’s time to go to work. She jumps out of bed to sit in front of Shauna, who is dressed for the day, by now. “I ask her to let me check her breath which is her signal to give me kisses,” said Shauna. After putting on the harness, Shauna accessorizes PJ’s collar with either a big bow or silk flower, color coordinated to match whatever she is wearing.
“The day we met, PJ jumped into my arms and into my heart,” said Shauna. “She rescued me. In the past, when using the white cane, I was always tentative. It never gave me confidence. In fact, I’d found that some people don’t respect the white cane, perhaps seeing it as a sign of weakness. PJ’s confidence now gives me confidence to do more things.”
Each night, as the two are snuggled in bed, Shauna sings a special song to PJ before they fall asleep. You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are blue. You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.
“PJ is the light in my dark world,” said Shauna. “I joke that I came to Southeastern Guide Dogs looking for a soul mate. Instead, I found my heartbeat.”
Southeastern Guide Dogs (SEGD) 4210 77th St. East Palmetto, Florida 34221 941.729.5665 GuideDogs.org SEGD provides Guide Dogs, Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs, Facility Therapy Dogs and Gold Star Family Dogs. SEGD is dually accredited by the two premier, global accreditation bodies: The International Guide Dog Federation and Assistance Dogs International.