By John Bell

As we entered the town of Collingwood, the sky was overcast but at least it was not snowing. The side streets looked bizarre with snow piled between the roadways and the pedestrian sidewalks to the height of six or seven feet. The few walkers braving the minus twenty degree weather resembled wanderers in a maze, appearing at plowed driveways and then vanishing again behind the towering white stuff. It was more than tiresome for any locals not wearing those long slats on their feet.

I breathed a sigh of relief as we pulled off Ontario Street into the parking lot of Devon Wilkins’ apartment building. There behind a mountain of snow was an empty spot in the visitor’s parking area. As Lauren and I plodded through the most recent two inches of precipitation to the warm and moist lobby, I wondered how a blind woman like Devon coped with this added Winter obstacle as she shopped or even just exercised her devoted guidedog, Oak.

Devon’s small apartment was a great contrast to the cold wintry environment outside. It was warm, cozy and rather dark; not too surprising for a home in which the single human resident did not rely on visual orientation. Smiling and gentle by nature, Devon amazed me with her versatility and accomplishments. She was always busy with organizations, her own newsletter, her homecrafts, and her many trips. Next month it would be California and then to Japan. Still she never appeared to be pressed for time or stressed in any way. After showing us where to put our boots and taking our coats, she ushered us into the L–shaped living/dining room to meet her other assembled guests, human and canine.

Eight people sat comfortably around the room, flanked by an equal number of dogs. All but two of the tail-waggers were guide or utility dogs, Labs or Golden Retrievers. A black and white Beagle was tensely fascinated by Devon’s large cat, Spunky, snuggled on a ledge by the kitchen about one metre above the floor. The others showed no interest in that direction. As Lauren and I chatted with the other guests, our general attention was raised from the floor to the eye level of the two-legged talkers. As soon as she felt the release of her master’s scrutiny, Daisy, the beagle, streaked across the floor toward the cat, barking in full pursuit. Jack, the other pet dog, a Jack Russell/Beagle cross, joined in the chase, but surprisingly; Oak arrived below the cat first. Spunky, living up to her name and not fazed by the multitude of canines, did not run, but scrunched down against the wall. Proud and indignant, she wasn’t going to be chased on her own turf and she was ready for anything. Oak stood between the smaller dogs and the cat’s shelf, tail wagging slowly. He “wuffed” quietly at the noisy excited hounds and by moving his larger body back and forth below the shelf he effectively stopped them from leaping up at their tense quarry. Another guide-dog came forward and although he did momentarily give into the temptation of looking playfully at the cat, he joined Oak in separating the smaller dogs from it until slower moving people intervened.

The other guide dogs stayed by their masters, totally unconcerned by the excitement. Their collective attitude was “Ho hum, how childish and boring”. Devon appeared amused as she removed her cat to the relative safety of the bedroom. Oak, meanwhile, delved into his toy box and amazingly delivered a plaything to each of his canine cohorts until all were accommodated!

Like all good guide-dogs, Oak is normally complacent and ready to obey his person at any moment. (Dictionary entry – Devotion: see “Guide Dog”.) But as an excellent dog, he is able to think for himself in new or unusual situations, and he uses as his greatest influence and pattern for behaviour, his beloved owner and companion, Devon.

So here is a great rule-of-thumb if you want to evaluate a new associate or possible life partner. Look at his or her dog. Eager tail waggers and happy enthusiastic greeters offer a green light. Beware of growlers and snarlers; the nature of the person being mirrored is obvious.

And if the person doesn’t have or even like dogs? Don’t even bother.