For veterinarians who volunteer their time to the ACVO/Epicur National Service Animal Eye Exam Event, the philanthropic event embodies the heart of veterinary medicine. But those on the other side of the event, the pet owners and handlers who participate say the same—this event is critical, the free eye exams are important to their and the animals’ lives, and they are incredibly thankful for the veterinary professionals who volunteer.
Becky Russell has been participating in the eye exam event since it started 14 years ago. Becky was born blind and has been a service dog owner for 47 years. She and Waldo, a standard poodle, became a team in 2014 and have participated in the eye exam event each year since and are already signed up for this year’s exam.
We had a chance to talk with Becky about her experience with service dogs and what the event means to her.
Thanks for sharing your story with us Becky! When did you get your first service dog?
I got my first service dog in 1976. I knew from age five that I wanted a Pilot Dog because I met a friend that had a Doberman from the Pilot school. He told me that if I learned how to use a cane and developed good mobility skills that he would do everything that he could to help me to get a Pilot Dog. I’ve always had excellent mobility skills, so I learned how to use a cane as soon as I was offered the opportunity to do so. True to his word, my friend reached out to me as soon as I was old enough to receive a Pilot Dog and I’ve never looked back.
And when I get a dog I commit to them for their entire life, I don’t retire them. Waldo’s predecessor Cassidy was a poodle – he was a really pretty blue color – I had him for about 11 years and now Waldo and I have been together for nine years.
What is the Pilot school?
It may be more of a locally known name, but I’ve gotten all my dogs from there. I liked that they kept their classes small; at one point I think they had about 10 students in a class, but they went back to smaller groups so each student got more time with each and every trainer.
It’s like the other guide dog schools, they teach basic obedience and then they teach traveling on the street. One advantage to Pilot Dogs over the other schools is you don’t have to take a bus or a van to experience an urban setting. It’s about a mile and a half from downtown Columbus, so the minute you step out of the door you’re traveling without having to take a bus or a van to go to town or go somewhere else by train. You really get some good travel time. I believe they were the first guide dog school to do escalator and revolving door training with their dogs.
From your personal experience, can you share what service dog training is like?
With my dogs, I started training for four weeks and then after that it’s been one or two weeks depending on the dog and how quickly we go through training. And because Pilot is a small school, we get more individualized training.
Like I mentioned, you get a lot of good urban area experiences that arise because of live traffic, revolving doors, escalators, elevators, and stairs. It’s a really comprehensive training program that puts a focus on education. We had lectures or classes where we learn about dogs, their body parts, what their body temperature is, the do’s and don’ts of law regarding where they can go and really can’t go, and how to teach other people to treat your dog.
I’ve also worked with some excellent trainers over the years and if there’s a problem they don’t just give up. I’ve seen them ask a student to stay longer because they were having trouble crossing the street and they knew they needed just two more weeks or so.
They don’t give up on a team, they want both the dogs and students to succeed. For example, my second Pilot Dog was a Vizsla, and she hated to do obstacles and was a slower traveler, but they showed me how to work with her and she was one of the best travelers I’ve ever seen.
The Pilot teachers didn’t give up just because she was a little bit slower. She ended up being one of the best dogs I had. We had a great time together; she even introduced me to my husband!
That must be a great story! Tell us more.
Well, we were in college together. I used to be coming across campus, probably running late, and he would hold the door open for me. I’d run through and say, ‘Hey thanks,’ thinking to myself that I had no idea who he was but I’d like to meet him.
And we actually had a class together and we worked on a project where we had to contact a company and either complain about something or ask a question. Well, I got ahold of Bil-Jac because I wanted to know where I could get their biscuits and dog food here in Columbus instead of my parents shipping it down from Canton. So, I wrote them a letter and turns out my husband worked not far from the pet store where the biscuits could be bought, so he took the opportunity to pick them up for me. And I asked them if he’d like to give my dog a biscuit, well they became great friends and I got jealous – which I shamelessly admit!
She was the type of dog that if she liked somebody I knew I was safe and if she didn’t, I knew to be careful. So, that’s how my husband and I became friends, started dating, and eventually married.
How did you end up working with poodles?
Well, I had had Labradors and a Hungarian Vizsla and my Lab had passed away, so I was in need of a new service dog. The executive director at Pilot Dogs, Jay Gray, asked me “What about poodles?” but all I could think of was a little tiny thing. And I said, “I don’t know about it” but he told me a little bit about the poodle, and I said I’ll try any breed as long as it’s not going to get me in trouble.
We decided if it doesn’t work out, we would try another breed. Well, they brought me a little black standard female poodle and she proceeded to jump on my lap and chew on my nose. I looked at the trainer and told him he couldn’t have her back. He told me “Well if it doesn’t work out, we’ll try another breed.” I looked at him and said, “I’m a woman. I changed my mind.” And I’ve been hooked on poodles ever since—and that was in 1998!
Becky, Waldo, and Dr. Eric Miller at the 2022 ACVO eye exams at The Ohio State University.
They sound like a fun breed! What makes them so special?
I love their personalities and I love the fact that they are one-person dogs. I mean Waldo loves everybody, but he also has a bit of an attitude and I love that. I like a little bit of a challenge. Labradors are great, I had two, but they’re too independent for me and don’t have enough attitude.
My lab was perfectly happy as long as she knew where I was, but I love that my poodles lie on my feet and they’re a little bit clingy. They have these personalities like “life is good, I’m happy and I rule the world” and I just love that.
I do have a requirement that they have to get along with other dogs and they have to love children. I don’t compromise on that for a dog. And when I asked that about Waldo they said, ‘Oh yeah, he’s friendly’ and they weren’t kidding! He doesn’t know a stranger!
How else has being a handler changed your life?
I can’t imagine my life without a dog. I know I’ve done things that I don’t know I would have done with a cane. There was a time I got on a Greyhound bus to travel to Cincinnati for a convention. The friend I was meeting mentioned they would provide transportation; I hadn’t heard anything more about it but I didn’t hesitate to go. I do not know that city at all, but I knew what exit the hotel was and I just went with it. I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to do that with just a cane.
I’ve met some wonderful people because of having a dog. In general, people have been more willing to approach me when I have a dog than they were when I had a cane, or at least that’s my experience. Waldo and I are also greeters in our church, and I’ve made wonderful friends there and I have to give my dogs credit for that. Dogs break the barrier.
It’s funny, I was actually nervous to accept becoming a greeter with Waldo at first. I just wanted to get him settled and I didn’t want people petting him because he’s very high energy and very easily distracted. But there was a gentleman in a wheelchair who was very frail, I’d known him for a while because he would always offer to carry my Braille hymnals. Well, one day we were in line for communion and had to pass him down the aisle. As we passed, he held up his arms and Waldo gently eased to the left and laid his head on the man’s lap. The guy started hugging him and petting him and I didn’t have the heart to tell him no – so when the lady asked again if we’d be greeters, I figured we might as well!
And yes, Waldo still gets a little wound up, but the way I look at it is if someone wants to hug or pet him, they can because their day may not be great or they just may not feel right and for those few seconds he makes them feel better. And that’s what it’s all about. That’s really what service dogs have done for me too.
Now for a hard question – what’s your single favorite thing about service dogs?
I don’t know if I can only pick one! But there is just something about them being by my side. I know I’m safe and I know I’m going to get where I’m going. I love the fact that when we’re out traveling there are all these obstacles around, you know the machines or whatever, and I have no idea because Waldo’s taking me all around it. I love the safety factor of having a service dog.
When Waldo and I took our test to graduate, he took me between a trash can and a barricade that the trainer didn’t know how we got through because it was so narrow. I didn’t know that they were even there – not until I heard her trip over the trash can because she was so busy watching us!
I just love that I can travel anywhere with no problem because I’ve got a dog by my side.
What misconceptions do you find people have about service dogs?
Oh, there are so many misconceptions. There is this thought that they know when the stop lights turn red, or that we basically tell our dog “Take me to the bank” and they do it – that is absolutely not the case. Now my second dog, I could show her where to go once and she’d know from then on but that’s the exception, not the rule. We don’t just put the harness on and they automatically go, we have to know where we’re going. We also have to know how to tell when traffic lights change just like a sighted person; we have to know the difference between parallel and perpendicular traffic in order to tell our dogs when to cross the street.
People also think service dogs are perfect and they never make a mistake. But they are not perfect – Waldo and I can attest to that! They are dogs first and guides second. The biggest thing we can do is take the mistake, work on it, and forgive.
You just have to have a sense of humor if you have a dog – whether it’s a service dog or a pet – because you can’t take the nature out of a dog. That’s the biggest myth of all, that these dogs are perfect and they’re not.
Now I like to think Waldo is perfect, but he’s not. Obedience class was always entertaining, especially the night where we had to put them down in the hallway and walk away from them and they had to stay until we called them. Well, we called them, but Waldo got the other dog up and running and they wouldn’t come to us. Luckily, there was only one other person in the class with me but we were laughing so hard! They just kept running up and down the hallways and we were of no help trying to catch them because we couldn’t stop laughing. Finally, the trainer caught them but that’s what I mean about personality – I just love it!
Becky shared so many fun stories about her dogs with us, from their wedding participation to their love of Halloween graveyards and stealing food from plates. Read to the end for our favorite story and a little Christmas chaos in church.
Let’s talk about the ACVO eye exam event. How did you first find out about it?
Originally, I found out about it through friends and was traveling to a place in Cincinnati that was participating in the event; that was with Waldo’s predecessor, Cassidy, and then when I found out places here in Columbus were part of the event too, I changed.
I’ve been doing it for all 14 years the program has been running. The only year missed was when they had to cancel due to the pandemic in 2020.
What does the event mean to you and how does it make a difference in your care for your dogs?
Well, we do as much as we possibly can for our pets, taking them to the vet and getting them cared for when needed. But as any pet owner knows, that comes with a cost, and especially for people that are on a fixed income, that can be tough. Eye examinations are especially expensive and that might become a luxury versus a necessity in some circumstances.
Those exams are so comprehensive and critical to a service dog. Waldo, for example, has cataracts in his peripheral. They don’t have any effect on his vision, but they do have to be watched. I may not have gotten him an exam if it weren’t for the ACVO event.
That was the case with one of my other dogs that had an eye condition prior to my knowledge of the event. I paid out of pocket for her eye care; I was employed back then and while not cheap, things were not as expensive thirty years ago.
If the event wasn’t provided though I wouldn’t have done the exams because I couldn’t afford it. The technology and the expertise provided in these exams during the event is immense. I’m so thankful it’s available to me because it’s made life easier for me. Even when we were traveling to Cincinnati, which is two hours away I was willing to do it because the exam is so worth it. No matter where I am attending the event it is worth it to go and have this preventative care available.
And what about the veterinary ophthalmologists that you’ve worked with in the event? Why are they so special and important to you?
They have just been wonderful to my dogs and answered all my questions. I really feel like they do a good comprehensive exam. Every one of them have been so nice and caring; they explain the procedure and give me a detailed, comprehensive report. I’m so thankful that they give their time to do these exams because it’s so important.
It takes a special person to be a veterinarian and then an ophthalmologist on top of that. It’s just nice they are willing to donate their time and expertise. I really can’t say enough about the program and those who participate.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Becky! We loved hearing your perspective of the event – and all about your wonderful dogs!
Bobbi’s Christmas Performance:
Becky gave another anecdote about her dog Bobbi that’s too good not to share:
Being a member of the choir, Becky was asked to sing O Holy Night during the children’s service on Christmas Eve. Her husband, Bob, was coming to church later so Becky and Bobbi arrived separately and went to the balcony to get ready. Bob hadn’t checked a voicemail Becky left letting him know to come get Bobbi when he got there, so he sat down on the main floor with family.
The service started and Bobbi was doing fine. Now, they tell you in training to never, ever put your foot through the leash – it only took Becky 25 years to find why…
As Becky stood up to sing, Bobbi started winding her legs, getting a little antsy. Trying her best to ignore Bobbi (and not laugh in the middle of the song), Becky realized Bobbi was on the verge of a bark. So, Becky kicked her foot out of the leash and let go. This meant Bobbi went sprinting down the steps and danced straight up the center aisle of church!
Bob’s attention was on his nephew, but when someone told him that Bobbi was loose, he may have accidentally said something you’re not supposed to – which people still tease him about. At this point, Becky was missing notes and the whole church was laughing. The poor choir director had no idea why because she couldn’t see the main sanctuary from where she was playing the pipe organ. All she knew was that Becky was laughing hysterically and destroying O Holy Night.
Well, someone finally caught Bobbi at the front of the church and gave her to the Pastor, who was also laughing as he walked her back to Bob. This was at 5 o’clock in the afternoon and by 7:30pm if you weren’t at the service you knew what had happened because everyone had been laughing about it!
Becky, not missing a beat, wrote up the whole incident as “Bobbi’s Christmas Performance” and she sent it to other handlers right away! Everyone still laughs about it today and Becky still sings O Holy Night at service – but there is a lot of rehearsing beforehand so she can get the laughs out of the way.
That was the last Christmas Becky had Bobbi, she passed away not long after that, but boy did she make it a good one!