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Canine ally changes HB woman's perspective
From The Daily Breeze
August 19, 2000
By Dennis Johnson
She remembers a time in her life when she thought dogs were dirty, loathsome creatures.
They were big, slobbery, smelly beasts that jumped all over you when you walked into a house whether they were your dogs or not.
Cats aren't like that. They're coy and aloof and don't necessarily want to interact with humans.
Barbara Bullard was a cat person. She had always been a cat person.
“I really didn't like dogs,” said Bullard, 42. “I just was not attracted to them.”
Even with her condition, she had no use for canines.
Bullard talks about this long-ago feeling of distaste sitting in her Hermosa Beach town home, while behind her a large black Labrador retriever is earnestly trying to get at a cupboard full of pet toys.
If she hadn't put them away, the dog would have been harassing the feet of her guest with a well-gnawed chew toy.
“There's cat people and there's dog people,” she said. “I was a cat person until I got a dog.”
A funny thing can happen to a person when necessity kicks in. Bad food can taste good. Dirty water becomes drinkable. Loathsome creatures become allegiant companions.
At age 6, Bullard got her first pair of eyeglasses.
At age 9, she started to lose her night vision. Doctors diagnosed her with retinitis pigmentosa.
Retinitis pigmentosa is a congenital degenerative eye disorder that affects the pigmented layer of the retina. A person diagnosed with RP usually suffers a gradual deterioration of their peripheral vision until their sight is severely impaired.
After almost a lifetime of deteriorating eyesight, Bullard now has profound tunnel vision and is considered legally blind. While most people with normal eyesight have a 180-degree field of vision, hers is three-degree.
She can generally see only when there is a high contrast between DOG/BACK PAGE Dog or words on a page. Most of the time it's just shapes or fuzzy light. To make things worse, her remaining pinpoint vision is slowly being clouded over by cataracts.
Because the outer fringes of vision are affected first, many people develop a tendency to clumsily trip over things, and an inability to see at dusk or in poor light, both of which Bullard readily admits to experiencing.
Bullard is candid enough about her limited vision to crack a few jokes, like the time she was shopping in a department store, feeling a blouse that at first she thought was hanging on a rack, but turned out to be another customer's clothing.
There was the steel post she crashed into once while running alongside a train. The parking curb she tripped over. And the other miscellaneous bumps, cuts and bruises.
Many of these incidents might have been avoided if Bullard had early on conceded to her diminishing eyesight and started using a sightseeing aid like a cane, but she couldn't.
This woman, who moves with an intent and grace that some fully sighted people lack, couldn't bring herself to start using an aid. If she did, the gray-tinged world that she personally accepted long ago would be obvious to the rest of the world.
SK,2 It's a difficult thing to lose a sense. It's hard to let go of being sighted ... it hasn't been too easy,” Bullard said. “It was very difficult to use my cane, to make myself so obvious out there in society.
SK,0 A cane or a guide dog is like carrying a big billboard that says, “Look at me, I'm different,” she said.
Watching Bullard, it's easy to see why she could not concede to a cane.
When walking, she swiftly glides through her own personal space. In her own home, she moves around with complete comfort, approaching a small set of steps that separates the split levels of her dining room and living room, she only briefly touches the railing before descending.
She easily rounds furniture, the familiarity of her surroundings apparent.
“What triggered me to start using my cane was tripping over a parking curb and tearing up the ligaments in both of my feet,” she said. “I walk through space fearlessly, that's why I break bones and bruise things.
“My boyfriend says, `You can take a hit better than most men.'”
At first, she said, it was easier to use her cane outside of her local neighborhood. She was less self-conscious about it in an unfamiliar setting. Less concerned about being obvious.
But it was obvious. With the cane, people didn't come up and talk to her. It proved to be a bit too much for a society that is largely uncomfortable with physical disabilities.
However, Bullard always considered blindness to be one of the more socially accepted of various disabilities. So she went out into the world and lived her life, working as a legal writer and in the arcane world of real estate processing.
People were soon telling her to slow down. She broke her elbow in an accident and she herself started to think about slowing down.
Bullard began to think about using a new sightseeing aid. She was still extremely mobile and active and moving and these were all things she heard were required for a guide dog, but that would mean actually getting a dog.
She would later find that the dogs were also a way to erase most people's fear of the disabled. She found that once she got the dog, slobber and all, she couldn't keep people away.
But first there was a little something she had to overcome before jumping in with both feet. About a year after first considering a guide dog, the cat woman changed.
“It was a leap of faith because I didn't like (them),” she said. “So I went to dog school hoping I'd end up liking dogs.”
About seven years ago she signed up with Guide Dogs of America and was put on a waiting list to attend training school at its Sylmar campus. The school sends out a trainer who looked at her lifestyle, where she worked, checking to see that she lived in a place that was suitable for living with a dog.
She got lucky. She was on the list only for about four months; others can wait for up to two years.
“I guess it was time, the universe said, `OK, you're getting a dog.'”
Bullard lived on campus for a month, training every day to learn to use Kristen, a smart and friendly black Labrador retriever. The dog that would soon occupy a huge part of her life.
Slobber and all.
She was trained how to work with Kristen, to learn all the commands the dog already had been taught. The two were taken into busy downtowns. They went to a shopping mall and did some actual shopping. They learned how to use elevators together.
“I was kind of naive when I was getting this guide dog. With a cane, you fold it up and put it away,” she said. “I thought that with this dog, I would just use her and then put her away like a vacuum cleaner.”
It was hard work. Not only was she learning to use a highly trained animal, she was also learning to take care of it. Bullard said that every aspect of her life changed when she got Kristen.
But the dog made it easy for her. She said Kristen was so smart and eager to please that she did much of the work and in a way showed Bullard how to take care of her.
Within two weeks the former cat person was a full-blown Kristen person. On a working level, the first year went almost flawlessly. Each of them learned how the other worked. Bullard said she hardly had to say anything to get Kristen to respond.
Now the two are a regular fixture on the greenbelt running path in Hermosa Beach and throughout her neighborhood. Kristen helps Bullard watch for obstacles so she doesn't hurt herself anymore.
The dog has also given her more independence and has made it easier for her to try new things in life, including a switch from writing legal documents to writing poetry. Although she still pays the bills as a free-lance editor, she's had her poems published in some local South Bay journals.
For Bullard, a dog has become much more than a pet or sightseeing tool. She's become an integral part of her life, kind of like an extra appendage, but different in that none of her other limbs think for themselves.
To look at the two of them together is to see the energy, the invisible bond, they share.
Neither one acts like they should. Bullard doesn't carry herself like a blind woman and the dog doesn't act like a working guide dog. From one minute of being frisky and doggish, Kristen then immediately turns her attention to Barbara. Eagerly looking at her for cues. Wagging her tail like a dog should.
“We've become such a seamless unit, it's hard to talk about,” she said. “There is no other relationship like this, even when you get married or have kids. A blind person and their dog, it's 24-hours a day of in-your-space. There is no other relationship like this.”
Bullard will participate in today's sixth annual L.A. Dog Jog & Walk to benefit Guide Dogs of America. For more information call 818-346-1847.
Date last modified 8/19/2000