Monday, April 4, 2011

All about Bristol

Thinking about my blog-- I realized that many readers don't have a very clear picture of each of our dogs, how they came to us, and their individual stories. I decided to remedy this because even if everyone else finds this dead boring; I can still come back and read it and remember them as they were. Since she's the oldest, I'll start with Bristol.

Bristol is a thirteen-year-young female golden retriever. She was my guide dog and worked from July of 1999 until August of 2003. I received her from a program after my first guide-- Rhoda-- died of cancer when she was three.

I really didn't want another dog. I needed another dog because I had just begun experiencing bouts of profound hearing loss and I wasn't safe with a cane. It was a struggle to love this dog who was so different from my first. Rhoda was aloof and frequently distractible. Bristol loved everyone, but was very focused when she worked. When she wasn't working, she wanted to be right next to me, and that hasn't changed at all.

When I got her from the guide dog program she was very ill and malnourished. She struggled with serious health concerns which were brought on by the diet she had eaten as a puppy, and which the program continued to recommend. Ear infections, skin infections, chronic vomiting or diarrhea. It was a living nightmare.

Once I got her home from the guide dog school, my vet took one look at her and told me to send her back. "She's got two, maybe three years before she will have to retire." He was very matter of fact about it, but I couldn't stand sending her back there.

In between vet visits, and the many medications we tried to fix her various problems, I did research. I read about diet, about vaccine reactions, about herbs and homeopathy. I made the choice to put her on a raw diet in summer of 2001.

The only problem with that? She wouldn't eat it. She was normally not a big eater anyway but she seemed especially opposed to the idea of eating raw meaty bones. I didn't give up and eventually got her to eat raw. Once she got all of the cereal grains and vaccines out of her system, I had a different dog. She was actually healthy! It was amazing.

We traveled all over the country together. She was very laid back about everything. She didn't care where we went, or what time we would leave or come back. The most important thing to her was that she was with me. Whether she was guiding in an airport or on a hiking trail, she did her work with so much care and style.
One of my favorite stories of Bristol is about the day we took a hike. I went with a friend and decided to let my friend take me sighted guide so that Bristol could run around off leash with my friend's dog. We were walking down a wooded trail, when suddenly I felt the world fall away from under my feet. I fell at least fifteen feet and landed in a patch of thorny bushes which were growing on the side of a cliff. If those bushes hadn't cushioned my fall; I would have died because the cliff was hundreds of feet high. I remember the feel of the thorns stabbing into my hands, knees and feet. I remember looking down and seeing the green tops of trees on the ground far below. I looked up and saw several feet of very steep cliff between me and the trail above. I called for my friend and she knelt down on the side of the trail, poked her head over and told me that due to her back problems she would be unable to get me out. Forget about the fact that she hadn't been paying attention in the first place and "sighted guided" me right over the cliff to begin with.

I sat there, feeling my ankle swelling and pondering my situation. I heard the rustle of bushes, and looked up to see Bristol, channeling her inner mountain-goat, climbing down to get me. Boy was I ever glad to see her. I put my hands on her shoulders, pushed with my feet, and with Bristol walking backward and me pushing along like a snake, we made up the cliff and onto the trail. We both were covered with thorns and I spent the next six weeks in an ankle brace.

Bristol's favorite activity was swimming. It was actually by accident that she learned to swim. One summer, I was at a pool party. One gentleman had partaken of the available alcoholic beverages to excess and this led him to think that it would be very funny to throw people into the pool. He scooped me up, and threw me in. Bristol came running in after me, and sank like a stone to the bottom. She did not know how to swim and I dove to the bottom and brought her back out. I determined that she needed to learn to swim so I took her to the river and taught her how. Once we moved to New Orleans and moved near the dog park on the levee, she spent many happy afternoons swimming in the river.

I could always count on her when I got lost. Once I attended a large conference with hundreds of other blind people and guide dog teams at a hotel in another state. We hadn't even been there an entire day, when I decided to look through the exhibit hall which was a gigantic room, packed with people, dogs, white canes, and assistive technology gizmos being sold by many venders. I strolled around for a few hours just taking it all in. Once I decided I had seen my fill, I wanted to leave. Only by that point I was so exhausted and confused-- I didn't know how to get out. Bristol took over, wove me through crowds, down halls, found elevators and I pressed the button for our floor. Once out of the elevator, she went straight to our room and nudged the door handle with her nose.
She retired in August of 2003 from degenerative joint disease. Retiring her was honestly one of the hardest things I have ever done. She didn't want to retire, I didn't want to have to work with another partner. I cried every day for a year when I would have to leave her and go off with Mill'E-Max or Gracy. I felt guilty and desolate and when I would come home to find her laying in the same spot on the floor where she was when I left her it nearly did me in.

We did a lot of massage, tried many herbs and dietary supplementation. Eventually she regained the use of her leg. She still guides from time to time-- little trips to the mini mart or the corner store. She still loves to work.

In 2006 she was diagnosed with uveitis as a result of Toxoplasmosis. She was on antibiotics and herbal concoctions for two months. She lost all of her night vision, but regained it after treatment, although she still sees a veterinary ophthalmologist every few months to keep tabs on her eyes.

She is deaf, has thyroid disease and high blood pressure, but other than those things which are typical of her age and breed, she is a pretty healthy old lady.

She is still willing to go anywhere with me and when I'm at home, she is always by my side. I wake up every day thankful for all the gifts she has brought to my life and glad she has stayed so long to share them with me.

Bristol's name, in one of the old English dialects means "A bridge, or a meeting place."
This is the song that will always remind me of her.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters
When you're weary
Feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all

I'm on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

When you're down and out
When you're on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you

I'll take your part
When darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

Sail on Silver Girl,
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way

See how they shine
If you need a friend
I'm sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind


  1. Thank you so much for sharing. I enjoyed reading very much. I love the story about the hike. What a good girl! Dogs are just simply fantastic. I couldn't imagine life without one.

  2. this was a beautiful story. thank you so much for sharing it with us. Your story about the hiking trip brought tears to my eyes because I can see Canyon doing the same thing with Cessna by his side. Goldens are such amazing offense to Cessna lol!

  3. I didn't know much of Bristol's story, but she is an amazing dog and a wonderful guide dog, too., pulling you out of that canyon. No wonder you love her so much. Now I'm looking forward to hearing the other dogs' stories.

  4. Wow. No wonder you don't get Program dogs. This was a great story. All of your dogs are amazing.