by Shelley L. Rhodes, M.A. CVRT with Ludden black Labrador Guide Dog
Judson was first and foremost my Guide Dog, my first Guide Dog, but he was also my friend, my protector, my confidant, my comforter and space heater on cold nights in college. Judson taught me me things while I was working with him, while we were partners -- things I still remember and use to this day.
I remember like it was yesterday, (though now eleven years have passed), when I went into the library at Guide Dogs for the Blind with the empty leash hoping to meet this mysterious dog that they wanted me to work with. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the name Judson. What kind of a dog name is that, I wondered. How am I going to handle a Golden Retriever and all that hair? Is this guide dog thing really for me?
Mark came in leading Judson, a large, beautiful, reddish gold dog, who promptly walked up to me, held out a paw, gave a huge sigh and then lay down at my feet. I was kind of surprised, and asked if this was normal. Mark said it was for this dog. And that was when I got my first lesson from Judson: whenever possible take a nap -- or as we called it in later years the “we stop; he drops off to sleep” procedure. Smile.
Judson taught me about trust, patience and persistence when he and I would work together. Ever since I was a child, I never liked going out at night -- I couldn’t see after dark. On our first night route together, a trip from the bus through San Rafael to the lounge, I had to put my full and complete trust in him as a guide. And he didn’t let me down. He walked confidently, guided me to the curbs and street crossings and soon we made it to the lounge. He only made one mistake. He knew where we needed to go, but I wasn’t quite sure and thought he was wrong. But he was right, as I would find to be usually the case. When I got to the lounge I gave him a huge hug.
That started our partnership that lasted for seven years. In that time, Judson gave me the courage to go away to college eight hours from home. He gave me the courage to volunteer for and get paid for a job I truly loved -- being a tour guide at campus, with Judson, of course, as secondary tour guide. Okay, so the customers liked him better... Smile. And he gave me the courage even to travel to big cities and places that I would never dream of going coming from the small town of Corry.
With Judson by my side, I traveled to New York City to see several Broadway plays including Beauty and the Beast (he didn’t like the fireworks), Chicago, Rent (where he defended me against a homeless guy who wanted to know who had the guide dog), and Les Miserables, (where Judson thought the cannon fire was real, and the bells they used in the opening song were going to attack him.) We walked through Central Park, went to Ground Zero, and walked in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (where, of course, he thought all the cheering and clapping was for him alone, not that guy called Kenny G. on our float or that guy called the Mayor, but for beautiful Judson). He pranced down that route with pride! He went to Washington D.C. with me, toured the White House, and didn’t get arrested for peeing on the lawn -- he did have to go, after all. We traveled to Seattle to a conference where I gave a presentation for the first time. He discovered that sea otters are, in his mind, strange water dogs; I think the sea otters were thinking he was a strange otter. We went to New Orleans, and went to Bourbon Street -- nope, the dog did not drink anything and we avoided the puddles.
I never dreamed I would live or work in a large city. My dad says that Judson traveled and flew more miles than most people do in their lifetime and I know I wouldn’t have done all that traveling without my guide. I knew if we got lost or stranded I wasn’t alone; there were two of us to figure things out.
Judson lived with me through a lot of changes in my life, from my first time away from home for a long period of time, when I went to Kutztown University, an eight hour drive from my home, to my adventures in graduate school in Kalamazoo, Michigan, using buses on a regular basis, and my internship in Ohio. From losing my grandfather, finding out what my visual impairment was and the other medical and health problems I had in college. And finally my first job, in Boston, Massachusetts, where thankfully, although I had never learned to use subways, Judson knew exactly what to do and was willing to teach me.
My mom and dad were confident I would be okay on all of these adventures because I had Judson beside me. He was a truly good judge of character. If he didn’t like someone, he would give that person dirty looks and would growl under his breath, just enough to let me know what he thought. He also wouldn’t let someone he didn’t think was good or safe pet him. So if you were allowed to pet him you were a good person in his book.
Judson also took fame in stride. He was one of the canine stars on a Nature program called Dogs: the Early Years, ended up on FOX, Philadelphia, as a canine Tour Guide Dog, and CNN for the same. He appeared in the Kutztown University passbook, advertising the College of Education. He also received a Certificate of Service from the College of Education for his efforts recruiting new students, for his volunteer work and for providing morale therapy in hard times, such as during September 11, and when one of our classmates died in a car accident my senior year. He also wore his own cap made especially for him by the College of Education on graduation day in 2004.
Judson also was my teaching assistant. With my fifth graders he was a willing ice breaker to get the students talking; students would come approach him if they had problems. With my sixth graders, he helped me teach them science concepts such as physics (A heavy dog will exert pressure down on human attempting to hold him up, while human struggles to exert equal amount of pressure to keep dog up in air). In English, we did an essay called “What would Judson do?” and learned about patience in hard times. With my visually impaired kids, he taught them that dogs can be friendly, safe and good friends. He taught one young lady who was away from home for the first time that it was okay to be scared, that there were always friends in strange places, and to properly throw a Frisbee. He taught another girl from Haiti that dogs are friendly and they don’t have sharp claws like cats do. He taught another student that perhaps a guide dog might be a partner for her someday, and that trust is allowing a new person to brush your teeth (with the handler’s supervision, of course).
He also taught me persistence. He was usually correct in the route we should take but would be patient while I figured it out. He would try to get me to play ball with him instead of doing my homework -- after all, all work and no play made Judson a dull dog. And he taught me unconditional love, working, I think, several more months after he no longer truly enjoyed the work, but because I dependend on him.
Judson retired on August 12, 2007, and has enjoyed a long and happy and well-deserved retirement as a pet with my parents. He tolerated my second dog Guinevere and welcomed my third guide Ludden into our home. He tolerated and understood me when I was on crutches after breaking my ankle, was willing to go for slow and careful walks with me to rebuild my strength and flexibility in my foot. He loved his fetch and retrieving games. And every morning as Ludden, my current dog, and I went off to work, I swear he thought, “Have fun, you sucker. You have to go to work, while I sleep in. Ah, the life!”
But the years of work finally took their toll. Judson’s left hip could not support him anymore, and his right wasn’t any better. He was getting tired, wasn’t playing anymore, showing interest in food (he was normally an alarm clock you could rely on when he was younger) and he couldn’t get up and do the things he wanted to. On Thursday, he was not able to get up to get water, although he tried very hard to. We knew it was time.
Yesterday, he slipped away peacefully to Rainbow Bridge, where I know he is swimming in the clean, clear river under the bridge, playing fetch with the children there and rolling in the grass with his pals: Shadow, Lindy and all the dogs who have gone before him. I know he is free from allergies, aches and pains and I know he will be waiting for me at the Bridge when I cross someday.
I miss you Judson. There is a hole in my heart where you used to be. But I know you have left me in good paws with Ludden. I love you dog, my partner, my guide and my friend. You are a reflection of God’s love. After all "dog" backward is "God". Be free.