Doggone Remarkable Friendship Born

May 5, 2019

FITCHBURG -- Liz Lesperance has lived with a condition that has worsened her vision since childhood. After using a cane for nearly 15 years and experiencing incidents like walking into a pole or missing steps on the stairs, she considered getting a guide dog.

After enrolling at Guiding Eyes for the Blind and being paired with a 1-year-old yellow Labrador named Sylvia, Lesperance has been able to navigate her life with more ease and no longer sees going outside as a challenge.

“It’s the little things that you take for granted,” she said. “What (Sylvia) does is subtle but remarkable.”

Lesperance was born with a condition called cone rod syndrome. She can’t see things that are right in front of her, but can still navigate with her peripheral vision.

As a child, Lesperance had 20/20 sight, but her vision has declined over the years.

She started using a cane in 2005 at the age of 21 after she fell down down a flight of stairs and sprained her ankle.

The cane helped her navigate, but she occasionally bumped into things or had close calls with cyclists on the street, Lesperance said.

Using the cane was also isolating, she said.

“People don’t know how to approach you,” Lesperance said, “but with the dog people come up to you and it breaks down barriers.”

Since getting Sylvia, Lesperance said she talks about her visual impairment more because her experience with a guide dog has been positive.

Lesperance graduated from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., nearly a month ago. The school matched her with Sylvia and the pair trained together for a three-week program on campus.

The school has German shepherds and Labradors as guide dogs. Lesperance thought a lab would be a better fit for her because they’re more low key.

Before, her first dog, an 11-year-old Labrador mix named Buck Eye, was her unofficial guide dog. He gave her an idea of trust and how it felt to have a dog help her, even though Buck Eye wasn’t formally trained as a guide animal. Having a guide dog has changed her life, Lesperance said. Sylvia will help her around the house, which is where Lesperance works from home as an insurance claims adjuster.

Around the neighborhood, Sylvia helps her find the front steps, keeps her on the sidewalks, and helps Lesperance avoid low-hanging branches.

Going outside is now Lesperance’s favorite part of the day, which she will do up to three times a day.

During a walk Thursday morning, Lesperance said she has been able to enjoy the sounds of nature with Sylvia guiding her instead of focusing all her attention on using a cane. Her family, including her 5-year-old son, Clark, has been supportive of the guide dog. Lesperance explained to him that Sylvia will help her instead of her cane, which he seems to understand.

The guide dog is adjusting well to her new home and enjoys a pet when she’s not “on the job” helping Lesperance. Sylvia has gotten used to her harness and acts like it isn’t there.

Sylvia will be Lesperance’s guide up to nine more years before retiring. After that, the family can decide whether to return Sylvia to her trainer in Connecticut, Lesperance said, but she is likely to stay because she is a part of the family. Lesperance likes taking Sylvia in to Boston, where she sometimes attends meetings for work. The two take the commuter rail and the guide dog helps her navigate around the city.

Cone rod dystrophy, the visual impairment Lesperance has, doesn’t have a cure, but that doesn’t bother her. Now that she has Sylvia, she is focused more on living her life. A goal that Lesperance has is for her to take a trip with her son and Sylvia to the New England Aquarium in Boston.

“It’s been beyond my expectations and better than I thought,” she said. ”(With) the opportunities she will open up for me, I know wherever we go, she’ll be fine. There isn’t a task she or we can’t handle.”

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