Written June 2017

Otter, my new Freedom Guide Dog


Leonard A. McHugh

Otter, my current Freedom Guide Dog is a Black Labrador Retriever. I have always requested Black Labs for a little more security. Typically, people that do not know dogs are afraid of black dogs. Even Eric, a trainer, told me that when training on a bus, people think it is cute when a yellow dog watches them but they are very nervous when the black dog does the same thing.

I was matched with Otter in May 2016. It was quite an interesting time since I retired Toga on April 30th and met Otter May 2nd. For a few weeks, before receiving Otter, I was practicing for a benefit magic show. Every day after training I continued to work on my magic show presentation. This magic show was to benefit Freedom Guide Dogs. Amy Marciano, Republican Herald, did a wonderful story about Otter, Freedom Guide Dogs and my upcoming magic show. The story can be read at: Republican Herald Magic Show story

Otter is the proverbial bull in the china shop. He runs and plays; there is nothing gentle about him. Even when he lies down he is not delicate. He often just flops down on his side shaking the floor. He bolts up and down the steps like a rabbit. Coming down, both of his back legs are on the same step as he hops down and takes a flying leap at the bottom. In harness, he is a fantastic guide dog. Within a very short time, I developed a very strong trust in him as a guide dog. He is so funny in a department store. When he takes me through a narrow aisle he looks up with tail wagging, as if to say, “Look what I did.” He quickly gets a “good boy” and a pat on his head. This dog truly seeks and works for praise. Also, like all of my others, he knows work mode from play mode. When talking to people, I often remove his harness so he can socialize. Instantly, his personality changes to total play mode. As soon as I put the harness back on, he stands like a statue ready for work. Most people cannot believe his transformation from play to work mode.

When we are working, he tends to remember every route that we have traveled and how to reverse them. Quite often, he thinks that we should take or reverse a previous route. We have had several arguments over him wanting to follow an old route. When in training, we walked down 12th street and made a left onto Market St. When we walk down Market St, he wants to walk back up 12th street. After all, we once came down that street. Whenever we approach a previous route he wants to either take it or reverse it. I really have to be aware of where I am and what route I want to take. I would like to teach him to find places by name.

Honestly, I think that Otter bonded with me within the first few hours when we met. When performing the magic showI left him with his trainer. They were sitting near the back of the theater. Every time he heard my voice he started to whine. After the show I had him brought up on the stage to introduce him. I think that he would have knocked anyone over that might have been blocking his path to me. Kelly Choate, Eye Witness News, came to the theater to do a story on me as a blind magician and my new Freedom Guide Dog, Otter. In her story she references a previous story that she did when Toga and I participated in the WALK A MILE IN HER SHOES program for the Sexual Assault Resource and Counseling Center (I have been told that I look great in heels. Those stories are also on this web page.) Here is the link to the magic show story: Pa Home Page, news Blind magician supports service dogs In the video you can hear Karen, my wife, say “ I lost that" and and then she grabbs it. I was performing an illusion where I first show an empty metal tube from which I produce several items. These items include balls, eggs and silks. To be funny, I produce a pair of knee high stockings and ask Karen if she lost them. She quickly grabs them from me. Later I pull a $20 bill out of the tube. When she sees the money; she grabs it proclaiming that it is also hers. I am so grateful that Kelly reported this human interest story. I hope that the TV coverage helped to promote Freedom Guide Dogs and show that a disability is only what you make it to be.

It is quite funny how strong Otter is and how rough he plays. However, he loves plush toys and is quite gentle with them. Actually he loves them so much that he became a thief. We walked by the groomer and we stopped in just to say hello. There is a basket of toys near the counter. I left Otter on long leash so he could say hello. I did not realize that he was in grabbing distance of the basket. He quickly grabbed one of the toys. The owner thought it was funny and told him to keep it saying “I love that dog.” I did offer to pay for it but she refused. A few weeks later I had an appointment for him to be groomed; again he was a little too close and grabbed another toy. This time I did pay for it.

When I took Otter for his free eye exam the Veterinary Ophthalmologist brought Toga, my previous guide dog for a short visit with us. She adopted Toga when I retired her. I think that Toga was much more interested in Otter than seeing me. I am pretty sure that she remembered us but it is quite clear that she is totally bonded with the doctor. I told her about Otter loving plush toys, as does Toga. I then told her that I should rename Otter to Clepto and told her about him steeling the plush toys. She asked if she could take Otter back so the rest of the staff could see him. When she came out she was laughing, Otter is a real thief. She walked past a basket of toys that they give to cats and dogs after surgery. Otter helped himself to one of them

For a few months I have not been working or providing his daily care. In April 2017, I had some back surgery and was not allowed to bend, lift, twist, stretch or walk on any hills. Otter could not understand why I was not playing with him. Several times a day I would get hit with a cold soggy plush toy. Since the surgeon wanted me to do some walking but no hills, I learned that I could walk the level track around the high school’s practice field. Otter was fantastic; I was informed by another runner that there are a few ground hogs or opossums lying in the field including one very close to the track. I expected Otter to try to go to them. I do not think that he even glanced at them.

I have some photographs of Otter in training. The sidewalks around my home are some of the worst in the area. I do try to use these once a month. By using these sidewalks it will keep his skills sharp. I believe that if he can keep me safe on these sidewalks, he can keep me safe anywhere.

Broken and missing sidewalk

otter guiding me down a hill on broken and partially missing sidewalk

Narrow sidewalk with trash can

otter guiding me along the curb on a very narrow sidewalk around large trash cans

Very narrow passage between parking meter and building

otter guiding me single file between a parking meter and a building

Tricky sidewalk with a curb and steps

otter trying to get me through a very narrow area around steps to the curb

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