Each morning to get to work, Carl Richardson walks a few blocks to the bus stop. He hops on the bus to Kenmore station, where he takes the Green Line to Park Street. To finish his 50-minute commute, he walks to the State House where he serves as the Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator.
Richardson, 55, identifies as DeafBlind, and couldn’t do any of it without his service dog.
His guide of over eight years, Merrick, an 11-year-old black Labrador, retired March 16. Now, Richardson has begun the intricate transition from one guide to another. His new dog, Tigger, will take the lead.
“The bond between a guide dog and his owner is different, in that I’m trusting him to keep me safe, to save my life,” Richardson said. “[Merrick] essentially gave me my mobility, independence, and freedom.”
With his position, Richardson ensures that State House programs and services are accessible to people of all abilities. As they navigated the state capital building together, Merrick and Richardson formed a deep connection, he said.
“He’s my best friend. My wife is often jealous. She has to compete for affection, because I give it to Merrick,” Richardson quipped.
Two-year-old Tigger, a yellow Lab, is already learning the ropes. He’s traveled with Richardson to work from Brighton several times, and he’s just finished an intensive training process with his new owner alongside an instructor.
At trainings, Tigger and Richardson practiced moving together on sidewalks, trains, and buses. The instructor performed traffic simulations, and they placed Tigger in environments with other dogs and different distractions to test his reaction. With each guide dog, it’s like a new language, Richardson said.
“We know all of the commands, but how we execute the commands, and how we talk to each other, and how we communicate is different,” Richardson said. “It’s like building a new relationship with a new person.”
Merrick is still adjusting to his new retirement lifestyle. He’s not used to staying at home as often, Richardson said.
“This is what’s breaking my heart, every time,” Richardson said. “Every time I grab the harness he gets up and goes to the door and says, ‘Okay, I’m ready to go with you dad.’”
As for his new brother? Merrick isn’t quite sure what to make of him yet, Richardson said.
“Tigger is thrilled to meet Merrick, but Merrick is not thrilled to meet Tigger right now,” Richardson said. “They will get along. I’ve been through this before, it’s just an adjustment.’”
Tigger is Richardson’s fourth guide dog over the years. Becoming a service dog is no easy feat — the process begins when puppies are around eight weeks old, according to Richardson. The pups go through months of obedience training and tests.
Because the number of guide dogs is so limited, Richardson went through a two-year placement process once he began to plan Merrick’s retirement.
“I don’t think people realize how highly trained service dogs are, particularly guide dogs for the blind,” Richardson said. “They’re trained to ignore everything.”
Richardson anticipates it will take about six months of work before he and Tigger are fully comfortable with each other. It’ll all be worth it, he said, when they finally click as a team.
“When you get to that point it’s the most amazing feeling in the world,” Richardson said. “All of sudden, your one being working together as a team. You’re thinking, ‘He can read my thoughts and vice versa.’ It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
Kate Armanini can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @KateArmanini.