Natalie McCarthy lost her sight at the age of 10, but she didn’t get her first guide dog until she was 21. “I was sort of one of those blind individuals who wasn’t quite sure the guide dog lifestyle was for me,” she admits.
After all, McCarthy was getting around perfectly well. She was in college, and she traveled to compete internationally with the Para-Rowing National Team. But it was during that time her thoughts about guide dogs changed. “I had a teammate who was also visually impaired and had a guide dog,” she recalls. “Their relationship was beautiful; how quickly and efficiently they navigated the environment and how comfortable they were working together. I was so impressed.”
Her first dog, Gazette, now semiretired, worked alongside her for eight years. Now her second dog, Vidal, helps her get around Seattle, where she lives with her fiancé Alden, and is in her first year of law school.
Both of McCarthy’s dogs have been teammates in the pursuit of her sports career, which has taken her to Europe and Asia, and includes a bronze medal win at the 2013 World Para Rowing Championships in South Korea. “They are with me up until the point that I am in the boat,” she says. “They are very much a part of going with me to and from practice, coming with me to the competition, and have been there every step of the way.”
And while the dogs typically “cheer” her on from the sidelines, they do sometimes get out on the water. “The coach often will have a motorboat follow along, and they will ride in the coach’s boat and get to be a part of practice that way,” McCarthy says.
She equates getting her first dog from Guide Dogs for the Blind to applying to college. She filled out an application and talked with staff. “They spent some time over the phone and during an in-person interview getting a sense of what my goals were for working with a dog and understanding how quickly I walk and what my day-to-day routine was like, so they could best match me with a dog,” she says.
McCarthy then attended a one-month-long training program, learning commands and how to train the dog to follow particular routes. Getting a second dog was similar, except with a shorter two-week training program.
Her first dog, Gazette, now 11, is enjoying an active retirement. “She still has a job — she goes to work almost every day with my fiancé, Alden, in a law firm,” McCarthy says. “She’s the chief morale officer and keeps the office company.” McCarthy thinks it’s important that Gazette still has places to go and people to see. “I don’t know that it would’ve been fair to her to transition from being a part of my day-to-day activities to doing not much except the occasional walk. I think we’ve found a great setup for her.”
Onlookers are sometimes concerned that working dogs don’t get to have any fun, but McCarthy says of her pups, “They have a very good work/play balance.” Being Labrador Retrievers, both naturally love to swim; Vidal enjoys fetch, and Gazette is a fan of tug games. “She does love to chase the occasional waterfowl when she has the chance,” says McCarthy. “You can train them to be the best of the best, but some things you just can’t train out of them!”
Though they’re both guide dogs, McCarthy says her two canine companions “are like night and day, both literally and metaphorically because Gazette is a black Lab and Vidal is a yellow one, but also in personality. Gazette is very clever, almost too clever. She is also quite stubborn, and she was a real go-getter [when working as a guide dog]. She was confident in everything she did. She was ready for any environment, any travel, she was up for the party. Vidal is a more sensitive and conservative guy. He’s very cautious, he’s very sensible, he’s extremely loyal.”
McCarthy says that although they’re very different dogs, both are perfectly suited to the work. “They have been fantastic guides — very trustworthy, very quick to learn, easy to train,” she says. “It’s amazing to me the drastic contrast in personality, but I do love working with them both.”