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German shepherd guides, guards blind best friend

By Carrie Macmillan
Republican-American / November 12, 2011

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WATERBURY, Conn.—She got a box seat at the Palace Theater during an invite-only dress rehearsal for "South Pacific." An usher served her favorite snack -- ice cubes -- by the tray-full.

When the chorus took the stage, the 4-1/2-year-old German shepherd leapt from the floor by the side of her owner, Ross Kirk. She scrambled for a better view, her front paws seeking traction on the gilded bannister.

Zeva was either curious or on guard. Could the dancing sailors pose a threat to her master? As the song proved harmless, she nestled on the floor with her chin resting on Kirk's shoe. Kirk, 61, is legally blind and says he would be lost without his guide dog. Fifteen years ago, Kirk suffered retinal detachments in both eyes, one shortly after the other. He was living in Manhattan, where he was the field director of human resources for a large insurance company.

Unable to work, Kirk, a Naugatuck native, went on disability. He moved to Waterbury, where he could afford to live more comfortably and be closer to family. But life without sight requires overcoming a constant slew of hassles and threats.

Kirk's first guide dog, Keafe, was attacked by a Rottweiler in his neighborhood a few years ago. Although Keafe wasn't injured, he became aggressive toward other dogs. He was retired from service, a heartbreaking loss for Kirk. He returned to using a mobility cane, which folds out to arm's length and has a rolling ball on the tip.

"It's like stepping back into the dark ages," he said, contrasting the cane to a guide dog.

Attacks from stray or off-leash dogs and denial of access to public places like food stores and restaurants are the most common issues for blind people with guide dogs, said Eliot D. Russman, CEO and executive director of Bloomfield-based Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, from which Kirk received Keafe and Zeva.

"Dogs learn from experience and if he's in the harness and he's attacked, it's not unfathomable he will remember the bad instead of the good," Russman said. "To have to give up a dog or have it die in service is very traumatic for the client, as these are loving partnerships that on average last 10 years."

Kirk said he only once had someone tell him Zeva wasn't allowed inside a business. He must constantly remind people to heed the instructions on a laminated sign attached to the dog's back, "Ignore me. I am a working guide dog." Yet some have a tough time fighting the temptation to dote on the 80-pound dog with the honey-brown and sable coat. Her amber eyes and perked ears practically beg many a dog lover to reach down and give her a pat on the head or talk to her.

"She needs to get me safely from point A to point B and anything else is a distraction from her job," Kirk explained.

Kirk has no vision in his left eye, and minimal sight in his right. His world is foggy. He can barely make out his own face in the mirror, but he can roughly discern shapes and lights. He relies on a variety of high-tech tools, including a talking watch, a pair of operalike glasses, which he used to see actors' faces at the Palace last month, and a device that takes pictures of fine print and reads it back to him.

Eight months after he lost Keafe, Kirk was paired with Zeva. Training, which costs $45,000 per dog, entails a two-year process starting at birth. Adjusting to a new dog took time, but Kirk describes the bond he shares with Zeva as "unreal." Every morning, he puts her leather harness on and she knows she has a job to do.

"I'm the pilot and she's the navigator," he said. "I leave my house every morning and I give her a kiss on the head and say, `OK baby, here we go. We're going to work.' She leans right into me. There is no distance between us."

Monday through Friday, a paratransit takes Kirk and Zeva to the Greater Waterbury YMCA, where he swims a mile. Outgoing by nature, Kirk seems to know most members, quickly matching their voice to their name. Zeva is his silent and loyal partner. At the pool, he tethers Zeva to a set of bleachers. She stands and barks frantically as he jumps in the water.

"When he first started swimming, it would take her six laps before she stopped (barking)," said Sal Perugini, a lifeguard at the Y. "She's trying to protect him to say, `Hey! Water. Danger!' But now, after about a half lap, she relaxes."

Zeva stretches out on the tile floor, but her ears stay up, her eyes fixed on Kirk. If a member walks past, she glances up but stays put. From the Y, they set off on errands. Kirk gives Zeva commands like "straight," "left," "find the stairs," "find the curb" and "find the door." Zeva locates the sidewalk's center and they cruise smoothly along. It takes her several steps to match the loping stride of Kirk, who is lean and 6-feet-5-inches tall.

Kirk listens to the sounds of traffic, but if he were to cross the street unaware of a car or obstacle, Zeva practices "intelligent disobedience," Russman explained. She stops and won't budge until the situation is safe. In Waterbury, drivers often don't stop for Kirk in the crosswalk.

"I take my life in my hands every time I go walking," he said, adding that there is only one talking crosswalk sign downtown, at the corner of Leavenworth and West Main streets. Once a week, Kirk and Zeva hop the train to New York. They weave through Grand Central Terminal and catch the subway to meet Kirk's friends and go to shows and museums.

When Zeva sheds her harness at home, so goes the regal, responsible adult persona. Out comes a playful pup, eager to bat around her rubber Kong toy, stuffed with pulverized food frozen into icicles. She acts as if whoever rings the doorbell is there to see her. She sleeps by Kirk's side, often sneaking into the bed. First thing in the morning, she rolls over, exposes her belly and expects head-to-toe pets.

"I take care of her as much as she takes care of me," said Kirk, the son of a factory worker.

After his retinas detached, he could still drive and ride his bike, a favorite activity. Bit by bit, he made concessions to encroaching blindness. Retinal detachment, explained Dr. Stephanie Sugin, a Waterbury ophthalmologist, is when the brain tissue in the eye peels off like wallpaper. It is often treatable, but Kirk's disease was aggressive.

Kirk said he misses independence the most. He has had numerous surgeries to restore vision to his slate-blue eyes, but because of built-up scar tissue, doctors can do little more. With Zeva by his side, Kirk has removed the word "can't" from his vocabulary.

"I could sit home in pity, but who would benefit from that? No one. Therefore, I go and do things," he said. "I've always been upbeat and try to make people laugh."