BY A.J. HECHTNEWS EDITOR
Gail Hamilton has endured tremendous amounts of stress and pain throughout her life but has come out on the other side a stronger, happier advocate for the good in all people.
Unfortunately, a recent incident has once again brought a new struggle into her life.
Hamilton, who is blind, recently had to retire her seeing-eye dog, Sarge.
While crossing the street at the intersection of 13th Ave. and Downing St. in Denver, a passerby and her dog had a run in with Hamilton’s dog, who served as a vital resource in her day-to-day life.
The pedestrian’s dog came too close to Sarge, distracting him enough to draw him into a fight, the repercussions of which forced Hamilton to send Sarge back to Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey to be re-trained.
Since sending him to New Jersey, Hamilton has learned that Sarge will not be returning to her home in Denver and instead be trained as a bomb-sniffing police dog.
While both Sarge and Hamilton ultimately made it safely across the street, Hamilton is still feeling the emotional effects of losing Sarge, including a newfound anxiety around her interactions with other people and their dogs.
“I’m devastated to have lost him and now the trust is broken,” she said. “Am I always going to be afraid to go around other dogs now?”
“He was a fabulous guide,” she continued. “He should never have been inches from another dog. He had no choice but to react.”
Now without Sarge, Hamilton–a motivational speaker, musician and 2013 Ms. Senior Colorado–is forced to navigate the world with a cane for the next six to 12 months, a far less safe and enjoyable alternative to a Seeing Eye dog.
“I’ll use my cane, but it’s not easy,” Hamilton said. “He’s another pair of eyes looking out for me. I think I get out more when I have a guide dog. And It’s not as fun. Certainly, it’s more fun to be with someone.”
And she’ll have to continue to navigate by herself until she can be matched with a new dog, a process that could take up to a year.
Each dog is individually trained, and each person is evaluated for their needs based on factors like their home, their lifestyle, their habits and environment. While the needs of the prospective owner are determined, each dog must undergo an extensive testing regimen to make sure the dog will be a good fit and cater to the specific needs of their future companion.
Hamilton had to go through the same process to get Sarge, who had only been with her for six months. Having to redo the entire process–and forgo the assistance for up to a year–could have been easily avoided, Hamilton says, if there was more awareness amongst the public as to how to interact with guide dogs like Sarge.
The incident she says, has inspired her to try to get the word out about the issue in hopes of preventing it from happening to her or any of the other people who currently are assisted by guide dogs.
“I’m not the first one this has happened to and it wouldn’t happen if the public knew what their job is,” Hamilton said. “My life is their paws. It’s not okay for the public to interact with me and distract my dog.
“It’s not okay for their dog to ‘say hi’ to my dog,” she continued. “She had no idea, but I could have been hurt. I could have been killed. People should know it’s not a pet.”
Hamilton also says that, when you see a guide dog, it’s important to leave them alone, because, if distracted by petting or another dog, they aren’t thinking about their human.
“It’s all about safety,” she said. “If he’s not focusing on me, he’s not looking out for my safety.”
“And if she had known that,” Hamilton added. “We both could have been saved from this.”
For information on Seeing Eye dogs or tips on how to interact with Seeing Eye dogs, visit seeingeye.org.
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