GC woman travels far for guide dogs

 Messenger photo by Andrew Sharp
 Trenia Meacham poses with her new guide dog, Felton, by her Grove City home. Meacham traveled all the way to California to work with her guide dog before bringing him back home.

For most people, a walk down the sidewalk doesn’t require trust, but they are depending on their own senses for their safety.  

Trenia Meacham’s eyes are on the face of Felton, her black labrador retriever and guide dog. She can feel the sidewalk under her feet and the dog pulling ahead, but her eyesight is too poor to see oncoming cars, overhanging tree branches, or oncoming intersections. She has to trust in her dog completely to not lead her into harm’s way.    

Meacham lives in Grove City with her husband of 28 years, Paul. She grew up on the Westside of Columbus, where she raised two daughters. She spends her time babysitting and making presentations at local schools about blindness and guide dogs.

Meacham has Usher syndrome type II. It’s a genetic disease that results in hearing impairment and deterioration of the retina. As a teen she had night blindness, and she began to lose her sight at 28. Today, at 47, she has no peripheral vision and can see the world only through what she described as a pinhole.   

To get around, Meacham depends on the eyes of Felton, her fourth guide dog. She recently acquired Felton through Guide Dogs for the Blind, a private non-profit organization based in California and Oregon. Guide Dogs for the Blind provided the dog and a month of training in California free of charge. During the training, Meacham and her dog learned to work together and develop the necessary bond to be a good team.  

"People say, ‘You’re going all the way to California just to get a dog?’" Meacham said. "It’s not just a dog…he’s my eyes.

"It’s not a vacation out there, it’s hard work," she said.  

The month is used to build mutual trust between the dogs and their handlers and to get them acclimated to each other. The team goes to all kinds of environments to get used to working together. They went to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco to practice working together in a city environment with crowds of tourists and traffic.  Felton performed flawlessly there, she said, never letting her bump into anyone and expertly weaving through the crowd. They also went out in the country, to the mall, and to restaurants.     

Felton was raised from a puppy to be used in all kinds of environments, including places that might be inappropriate for most dogs like church, fireworks displays, or the mall.

His good training was obvious when the Meacham’s doorbell rang. The other dogs in the house started barking and snarling, while the black labrador stayed quietly by Meacham’s side, never making a sound.  

His training and his performance in California helped Meacham have confidence in him. One of her favorite exercises at the school, she said, was called traffic check.  

"That means they try to run us over," she said matter-of-factly.

Some people might not find that enjoyable, but Meacham loved it, because it showed her that he was paying attention to crucial details like oncoming traffic.

"They will be in a hybrid car," she said. "That is a dangerous car, we cannot hear it. So they tried to run us over."

Felton kept that from happening.  

A dog like Felton has to be thoroughly trained to deal with all the situations that come up during a normal day, situations that people don’t think about. For example, Meacham said people assume that the dog can understand traffic signals, which isn’t true. She has to listen to the sounds of traffic and tell him when to cross. If she makes a mistake, Felton has been trained to disobey her and keep her from stepping out into the traffic.

"It’s a lot of faith and trust," she said.   

While there are organizations closer than California, Meacham said she likes Guide Dogs for the Blind because they go above and beyond to provide excellent service and support. Everything is paid for, she said, and after the training there is always someone available if she needs advice or answers. When her last dog got cancer, the organization paid for all $7,000 of the expenses. They called her during the surgery, and sent out an e-mail letting people know what was going on.  

"It’s like going home every time I go back to Guide Dog," Meacham said. "They open their arms up to me…it’s just an awesome school."

Emily Simone, a senior field manager at Guide Dogs for the Blind, said many people choose the organization because of the support they offer after graduation. That support, she said, is crucial.  

"Especially the first year, it’s normal for the teams to experience issues," Simone noted.

She said even people who have had multiple guide dogs need time to readjust to a new dog, and it can take six months to a year for the team to mesh with each other.

Meacham said she has already bonded well with Felton after a couple of months.  

"He totally amazes me…he’s so good at what he does, he doesn’t miss a trick."

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