Guide dog, blind man encounter learning curve

Transitioning from walking cane to guide dog requires work

By Ashly Custer - Reporter

AUSTIN, Texas - Guide dogs undergo rigorous training before the dogs are paired with their new owners.

But even after they graduate from the program and the leash is handed over, there is still a lot to be learned.

Cody Leal, who has retinitis pigmentosa, said it's more work than people think.

Leal has been using a cane to help him navigate through Austin.

Leal was paired Jan. 2 with Galaxy, a young Lab from Guide Dogs for the Blind.

"It's work. To me, I have to stay more focused with a guide dog than I do with a cane," Leal said. "People think it's a GPS system, and you know, you can tell them, 'Go to the store,' and that's where they go. It's not how it is. They are still under your command, and they don't know where they are going or where they are at unless it's a familiar route."

Leal gives Galaxy a command and she responds by guiding Leal. Galaxy keeps him lined up whether it's on a sidewalk or a crosswalk.

"What would normally take me, say, 12 minutes to get to my bus stop that I go to, with her, it takes me about 5 minutes," Leal said.

There are times when Leal gets overruled by his pup.

"She saw a car that was coming, and she turned her body diagonal in front of me. And I'd say, 'Forward,' and she wouldn't move," he said. "The next thing I know, I heard a car coming up, and it turned into the driveway. And once that car went past us, she lined up and I told her, 'Forward,' and she went."

Galaxy does make mistakes, such as when she sniffed our camera out of curiosity, causing Leal to lightly bump into us.

"I think she knows. It's just that I'm different from her instructor. So she's trained one way and I was trained with her," he said. "But we are just trying to get that partnership. She knows where I kind of stumble and I know where she gets distracted."

It's a work in progress for the pair, but Leal said he's found more than just a partner in Galaxy. He's also gained a loyal friend.

Leal still uses his cane from time to time to keep up his skills. He also packs his cane in his backpack when he works with Galaxy in case she needs a break.

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