“To handle an environment like DC, you need a dog with some oomph and some gumption,” says Kathryn Robertsa trainer with Leader Dogs for the Blind.
It helps if the owner has those same qualities, which is why Moira Shea and her new guide dog, Cormac — Mac, as she calls him — seem like a perfect pair.
“Find the button,” Shea says at a Connecticut Avenue NW street corner. “Find the button, Mac.”
She follows the yellow Lab—her left hand on his leather harness—as the dog strides toward the pole-mounted crosswalk button at Cathedral Avenue NW.
For the last two weeks, Shea, 66, and Roberts, 33, have been involved in a changing of the guard: The 18-month-old Mac is learning to take over from Shea’s previous guide dog, a yellow Lab named Declan.
“I don’t think people really understand how guide dogs are trained,” Shea says.
Says Roberts: “People assume it just happens, but it’s a lot of work on Moira’s part and on the dog’s part. It’s 50-50.”
On this Sunday morning, Shea and Mac — with Roberts observing from a few feet away — are going to walk up Connecticut Avenue, get on the Metro at Cleveland Park, ride it south to Woodley Park, exit, then walk three blocks back to the house Shea shares with her husband, Christopher Lorraine.
“Forward, Mac,” Shea says, urging Mac on.
Shea has Usher syndrome, which slowly robbed her of her vision and hearing. (A cochlear implant allows her to hear.) Her first guide dog was Handsomewho came into her life in 1994. owen was her dog when Shea lost her vision completely.
finnegan was Shea’s next guide dog, a golden retriever who accompanied her to eight different countries, including Mexico, Italy and France. Then there was Declan.
Now it’s Mac’s turn. He spent his first year living with a “puppy raiser” in Michigan. Then he underwent five months of training at Leader Dogs’ facility in Rochester Hills, 30 miles north of Detroit.
And now he’s in Washington with Shea, who retired 10 years ago after a federal government career. He pads along the left side of the sidewalk. When a tree box intrudes into the sidewalk, he moves to the right.
The landscape is studded with obstacles: restaurant sandwich boards, rental scooters, construction pylons. Some pedestrians are so obsessed with their phones that they step aside only at the last minute.
Then there are the other dogs.
“Mac, for the most part, isn’t distracted by them,” Shea says.
When there’s a problem, it’s usually the owner’s fault. Our little caravan is just past the National Zoo when a yapping and nipping Pomeranian strains at its leash to get at Mac, who stops and sits in an apparent attempt to defuse the situation.
The Pomeranian’s human makes no attempt to reel in the dog. Roberts implores him to keep moving.
People: If you and your dog encounter a guide dog and its owner, give them a wide berth.
Mac and Shea find the elevator at the Cleveland Park station. On the platform, Shea feels along the tiled edge with her foot for the tactile bumps. When the train comes, she follows Mac aboard and takes a seat.
Shea used to have a sign on her dog’s harness that read “Don’t pet me. I’m working.”
“I don’t use it anymore,” she says. “People start talking to the dog. They think ‘As long as I’m not petting it, it’s okay.’”
She prefers a different sign: “Ignore me. I’m working.”
Says Shea: “Once the harness is on him, he knows he’s working. And he knows he can’t socialize with you. That’s why you don’t want people petting the dogs when they’re in harness, because they get confused.”
At Woodley Park, Shea and Mac ride up on the escalator, something he was trained to do in Michigan. Guide dogs tend to hop off at the end, Roberts says.
“Finnegan used to just fly off,” Shea says.
At first, Mac walks past Shea’s house and Roberts calls him back. Soon he’ll remember exactly where it is, just as he’ll know which pharmacy and dry cleaner Shea goes to. Back inside, his harness removed, Mac is just another dog, part of a pack that includes Declan, Finnegan and a golden retriever named Asia.
Declan’s a bit bigger than Mac, but at first touch they seem like twins. Shea can tell them apart by rubbing her hand down the front of the dog’s face. Mac’s fur changes direction there, like a zipper between his eyes.
“It’s like a cowlick,” she says, her hand rubbing along it. “When I was little, I used to rescue dogs all the time. And then dogs rescued me.”