Marlaina Lieberg of Burien, Wash., is nothing if not tenacious. As a young 7th grader in the 1960s, she was the first and only student who was visually impaired at her school, and the principal would not allow her to participate in PE classes. With the indignation of a preteen and the determination to participate in all of the same activities as her classmates, Marlaina did what any smart and sassy 12 year-old would do: she wrote to President John F. Kennedy. At the time, JFK was promoting the President's Council on Physical Fitness and its role to serve all Americans, so Marlaina requested that he compel her principal to reconsider. To her delight (but not surprise), the President did just that, and in due haste Marlaina was playing dodgeball with her peers.
It was about that same time that Marlaina met a man with a guide dog. From the moment she heard his story, she knew that traveling with a dog was in her future. She started her campaign to be paired with a guide dog as a teenager almost immediately. “It took a bit longer to get into guide dog school than it did for the President to help me with gym class,” Marlaina said, “but after two years of back and forth letter-writing, my parents and I were invited to the facility for an evaluation. Three months later, I was in class, and on July 9, 1964, I met my first guide, a small female German Shepherd named Scamp. Never will I forget how I felt that first time I took her harness in hand and said, 'Scamp, forward!' The very first thought I had was, 'this must be what it's like to see; look at me!'”
Flash forward to 2014, and Marlaina is celebrating a golden anniversary: 50 years as a continuous guide dog handler, and she's still as exhilarated today as she was in her youth. “Working with a guide dog gives me the freedom to move about efficiently and effectively,” she said. “I'm told that when I walk, I have a smile on my face and my head is held high. The ability to move around obstacles without even knowing they were there in the first place is amazing!”
She has certainly seen her fair share of changes in guide dog training over the years, and she's had to learn and grow with the times herself. “It was a hard leap for me to make to give my dog food rewards,” Marlaina said (a practice introduced in recent years at GDB as part of our positive reinforcement training techniques). “However, this old woman can learn new tricks, and now there isn't a day that I leave home without my dog's treat pouch or a pocket filled with training treats. It is so joyful to fix a situation with love, respect and encouragement.” In addition, “The fact that I can teach my dogs custom things these days, like locating crosswalks in the middle of a block, or finding a particular often-used door, adds immeasurably to my independence, and to how sighted society views my confidence and competence."
That being said, Marlaina recalls being in training with her guide Madeline at GDB's California campus in 1998, and working with instructors much newer to the field than she. “I was absolutely thrilled with how much respect the training staff showed me,” she said. “One instructor pointed out that I had been working dogs longer than some of them had been alive, and posed to me the question, 'So why wouldn't we listen to you?' The atmosphere was not only one of intense work, but of family and support and laughter.”
Marlin trained with her current guide, Agnes, at GDB's Oregon campus in 2006, where once again, “the support during my stay was amazing; I believe that GDB has the most respectful and respected trainers and staff in the business.”
So what else is there about GDB that keeps her coming back?
“Is it the fabulous food? Is it the beautiful facilities? Is it the amazing dedication of trainers and staff?” she questioned. “It could be all of those, but I think always the fondest memory is when I meet my new partner. I cannot tell you how emotional meeting the new dog is for me. I am totally blind, and so it isn't until they bring the dog to my hands that I see who I'm meeting. Usually, the dogs are excited and want to play and lick. I run my hands all over the dog's body, quickly trying to get to know her, then sit there and cry like a baby while the instructor tells me who I have and what she looks like. Then, spending the next couple of hours alone with my new dog just patting and touching and trying to share my heart and hear hers are times I will never forget.”
Marlaina also enjoys being a part of the community that comes along with being a GDB alum. “When you meet new people who have dogs from GDB, there's an instant spark of friendship,” she said. “Additionally, graduates support each other through Alumni Association events, email lists, conferences and more. And I can't forget the puppy raisers! I am so proud that GDB encourages its graduates and raisers to stay in touch if both wish to do so. I love each and every puppy raiser out there! They really can't fully know how impactful their efforts will be on the life of a blind person. I am always honored and humbled when I'm asked to speak to puppy groups. They are all truly amazing people, and I'm glad to count many of them as my friends.”
Having been paired with eight dogs through the years, Marlaina is no stranger to the process of retiring a guide and being paired with a new one - which isn't quite as easy at it might seem, especially from an emotional perspective. Agnes will be 10 in February, so Marlaina is preparing herself once again for the transition.
“As Second Vice President of the American Council of the Blind, I travel extensively from coast to coast to various conferences and conventions. I am also very active at home. Due to my activity level, I do not like to work my dogs past age 10,” she said. “I believe that every day after age 6 is a gift; these dogs are asked to do some very complicated things, and I think they deserve a happy and healthy retirement. So, Agnes will retire in the spring, and she will become our pet and my husband's dog.
“No matter how many times one goes through the retirement and then the new dog process, it's hard; it's hard to say goodbye to the partner in whom you've trusted completely for many years, and it's hard to psych yourself up to start all over again with that new dog. However, my husband and I are already talking about things like where Agnes will have her bed and where 'new dog' will have hers; where 'new dog' will lie in the car, and who's going to eat first each day. Talking about it ahead of time helps me move along the path that will lead me to my next partner.”
Marlaina has two words for anyone considering getting a guide dog: do it! That's putting it simply, but she believes that putting in the work and making the commitment to the guide dog lifestyle pays rewards in spades.
“Becoming a guide dog handler isn't easy, but it's well worth the effort,” she said. “It's true, you have to take the dog out in all weather; you have to feed and care for the dog; and, you may occasionally meet that uninformed business owner who tells you that dogs are not allowed. However, what you gain cannot be measured. Working through crowds, automatically finding elevator doors, your house, your hotel room, and the ability to follow someone from whom you are getting directions but who has no clue how to do sighted guide - these are just a few of the things you'll receive from your dog. I think of my dogs as my magic carpet to freedom of movement; with my guide, I'll go just about anywhere and do so with confidence.
“But above and beyond all this is the love and oneness of spirit that you and your guide will develop together. You have to trust in those four paws, two eyes and that one brilliant brain. In turn, the dog has to trust that you would never knowingly ask it to do something unsafe. I know of no other relationship, human-to-human or human-to-dog, that is built on these precepts. The key is total trust at both ends of the harness. It's a joy to give it, and it's a joy to feel it! If you want all of that in your life, a GDB dog is for you!”