November 18, 2013 9:14:05 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
The phrase "a perfect match" is usually reserved for cheesy dating sites and the greeting card industry, but for Sandra Bullins, it came with four sturdy legs and gleaming black fur. That was in June 2012, when she was partnered with the male Labrador guide dog that would expand all her horizons. Together, Bullins and her canine companion make the trip from their home in Columbus to Starkville and back several times each week, in pursuit of a master's degree in counselor education. Bullins' first "perfect match," her husband Danny, is behind the wheel.
Bullins has been blind for more than 13 years due to medical complications following surgery. That didn't stop the Bristol, Tenn., native from attaining associate and bachelor's degrees in psychology from East Tennessee State University. She and her husband moved to Mississippi in May for school.
Confident and articulate, Bullins makes it clear she doesn't like the term "disabled."
"I want to change the stigma and stereotype that's been associated with conditions people might call disabled," she said, describing herself as simply differently-abled.
"I can use a screen reader, I cook, I clean, I do laundry," she began. "I do homework and research papers and make it in and out of Allen Hall (at MSU) by myself." She and Danny are also raising their 2-year-old grandchild.
Her level of confidence wasn't always so robust. Before finding her canine partner, Bullins used a cane.
"With a cane, I was very cautious," she explained. "You're always keeping track of where you are and wondering 'Am I close to a wall? Am I close to people? Am I going to run into anything?'" But now her dog leads her pretty seamlessly in and out of crowded hallways, avoiding trash cans, book bags and other people -- something like Moses parting the Red Sea, she laughed, in comparison to her more timid progress with a cane.
Her classmates have fallen in love with the 4-year-old Lab, who sits or sleeps at Bullins' feet at school, prompting one instructor to even announce, "The dog in the front is the only one allowed to snore in my class."
Bullins and the canine destined to become part of her family were paired at Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, Fla., during an intense month of training. The training was for Sandra, not the dog. He already knew his job.
Selectively bred, the puppies at Southeastern are socialized by knowledgeable volunteers and equipped for a life of loyal service by highly-skilled trainers. Dogs who fail even a single point on a 25-point test are not sent on for guide dog training, although they may be suited for other service dog roles such as arson or drug detection, said Bullins.
Micah White, MSU Student Support Services associate director remarked, "There are lots of different things service dogs can do. They are calm, well-mannered and focused."
Matching the right dog and handler during Bullins' time at Southeastern was paramount. Temperament, size and speed are among considerations. And then there is that intangible something that develops during training. From the moment the leash is put in the handler's hand, "you're not away from your dog," Bullins said. "They sleep in your room. They eat with you. You're responsible for their needs. You are always with your dog."
Today, she has a hard time remembering when the faithful Labrador wasn't with her.
Guide dog etiquette
Because of the special relationship between guide dogs and their handlers, the general public should follow certain guidelines when interacting with these gifted canines, according to the Guide Dogs of America organization.
"The first thing people ask me is if they can pet him; I tell them 'no,' because he's working," Bullins said. The same goes for calling the animal's name, which is why Bullins prefers not to reveal it in this story. While in harness, her companion is on duty and must be focused on his partner. Any distraction could put her at risk.
Other guidelines to remember are to never grab the person, or the dog's harness. Ask first if they need assistance. When providing assistance, always walk on the person's opposite side to the guide dog.
Make certain any pet dog is on a leash or under control around a guide dog. When approaching, let the handler know another dog is present.
If in a vehicle, don't honk the horn or call out directions. Handlers are listening to the traffic flow and other environmental sounds to decide when it's safe to cross the street.
Sandra and Danny Bullins left the Appalachian Mountains of east Tennessee behind for the sultry Deep South thanks, in large part, to a long phone conversation Bullins had with Dr. Charles Palmer, graduate coordinator for the Counseling and Educational Psychology program at MSU.
"This whole program was what I wanted, what I needed, like a list I was checking off," said Sandra, who graduated from ETSU on May 11 and pulled into the driveway of her new home in Columbus May 25. Sure, the heat was an adjustment, "but we love it. We've been welcomed. Everybody is so friendly, so kind and hospitable," she said. "We've readily experienced that Southern hospitality here."
Bullins is a forward thinker, a planner. She has no intention of stopping at a master's degree. Her ultimate goal is a doctorate and employment helping others.
"I want to be the counselor that I once utilized," she explained. "It's almost like coming full circle."
She often revisits one of her favorite quotations, one from Helen Keller: "The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision."
"I hold that one close," she continued. "I do not want to be defined as blind. I want to define what it is to be blind."
Editor's note: Mississippi State University provided some of the information contained in this story. For more information about MSU disability support programs, contact Student Support Services, 662-325-3335.
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Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.