How the K9 Buddies program gave a Vancouver family peace of mind
VANCOUVER — Imagine you have never seen your own face.
Now imagine you have never seen your family, your friends, trees, the sky … nothing. Now think of what you would do if that were true. Would you become removed or still be yourself? Would you walk away from everything or try to be the same as everyone else?
Cole Fish is 7-years-old. His life has all the elements just described, and he chose to be himself. He chose to be excited about his life, and does it while bouncing off the walls with the energy you’d expect from any kid his age.
“I don’t even remember what colors looked like,” Cole said, becoming emphatic. “I want to know what they look like. I want to know what other things look like!”
When he was a mere three months old, Cole lost his vision.
The cause was a rare genetic disorder know as Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, or LCA.
LCA is degenerative vision loss caused by protein film that grow on the rods and cones of the eyes, and prevents electrical activity being sent to the brain.
In other words, Cole’s eyes are fully functional, there is just something blocking the information; like a plastic tab on a new battery.
For much of these first years of his life, Cole and his family have dealt with many complications resulting from his LCA. Most notably among them was Cole’s trouble sleeping at night.
“Apparently, when you’re blind, your more susceptible to being afraid of your dreams. It’s a very common thing,” said Galen Fish, Cole’s father. “Your dreams are more unexpected. He used to complain about getting things on his back … and it’d freak him out and he’d wake up.”
It would happen at least three times a week, and sometimes every night, said Jamie Fish, Cole’s mother.
So about a year ago, Cole’s parents started looking for a solution.
Through a chance encounter with a young girl who had received a companion dog from Guide Dogs for the Blind, (GDB), the Fish family decided to apply to GDB’s K9 Buddies program for Cole.
“They [GDB] came out and interviewed our family, to find out what our specific needs were,” Galen said. “We were like, ‘… anything would be really great!’ and they were like, ‘No, we need to figure out exactly what your needs are, and exactly what you’re looking for in this dog.”
GDB settled on Jolene. Though Cole prefers the name Jojo.
Jojo is a nearly 3-year-old golden retriever who received half of the usual training for a professional guide dog before she had a career change due to some quirks. She was reassigned to the K9 Buddies list, and became Cole’s companion about one year ago.
“Back then I was lonely, and I had nobody to soothe me,” Cole said, remembering a time before he had Jojo to spend the nights with. “When it [the bad dream] ended I would have snuggled with the dog while listening to … music. That’s my strategy.”
The dogs that become K9 Buddies are initially trained as guide dogs, but are later reassigned. GDB created the program “with the knowledge that these special dogs have a purpose, and that their training is a great step to becoming the patient companion of a blind child.”
“We had her for two nights, and then the third night she slept in his room and she’s slept there ever since,” said Jamie. “It was an easy process getting a dog, but I’m glad that it was a process, because they are special dogs.”
Jojo was raised, like all GDB dogs, by a volunteer puppy raiser. Tammy McCrary, out of California, raised Jojo, before she was transferred to the K9 Buddies program.
“Jolene was such a sweet, patient and calm puppy to help raise,” McCrary said in an email. “I wasn’t surprised to learn that she would be part of Guide Dogs for the Blind’s amazing K9 Buddies program.”
It is not required, but typically recipients of professional guide dogs are at least 18. Subsequently, the K9 Buddies program is often a service to children under that age.
“Not every GDB dog is cut out to be a guide dog, but we believe that every dog has a purpose,” said Christine Benninger, president and CEO for Guide Dogs for the Blind, in a email statement. “We know that a dog can make a remarkable difference in any child’s life … through the human/animal bond.”
Cole also receives help from a teacher for the visually impaired, a braillist, and is mastering the skill of walking with a cane. He ranks these among some of the most invaluable resources to living with blindness.
Galen and Jamie are optimistic about their sons future, and want him to make his own decisions about where he goes to school and what he does with his life. They said they feel much better about their situation after receiving Jolene.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Jaime said.
“Children all choose what they want to learn on their own,” Galen said. “It’s no different if your child is blind, he just chooses different things that he’s interested in and what he’s gotta learn.”
One day, either through new medical procedures or gene therapy, Cole may see again. Until then, Jojo will be there to be his best friend, and a part of the family.
For more information on K9 Buddies and GDB, visit their website at guidedogs.com.