KEARNEY — Judy Beck and her guide dog, Strong, rounded the corner on the sidewalk along East 44th Street and began the final stretch of their daily walk in east Kearney.
“Mind your business,” Beck commanded her 4-year-old black lab as the animal veered slightly to the right, distracted by an approaching stranger.
As a trained service animal, Strong has a job to do — helping his master to get around. For her part, Beck must see that Strong continually leads her as he’s been trained. The daily walks are great exercise for Beck and Strong, but they also are practice sessions for the pair.
Beck grasps the stiff handle attached to the harness around Strong’s chest. She interprets the handle’s motions as signals of what she and Strong are approaching — a turn, a curb cut or someone else out for a stroll.
As she and Strong step up to her front door, he edges his master closer to the doorknob.
“They trained him to take me to the side of the door with the handle,” Beck said.
Because Beck has lost most of her vision, Strong is one of the tools she uses to be as active and independent as she can be.
“He seems to be working out for me,” Beck said about the thoroughly trained dog she has owned for about two years.
She said that when Strong is in his harness, he’s in service mode. His job is to help his master. It’s only after the harness is removed that Beck pets or praises Strong. She gives Strong ice cubes as treats.
He is a gentle and quiet dog with a shiny black coat that’s groomed regularly. Beck said looking and smelling good helps when Strong takes her places where people may not be expecting to encounter an animal. She and Strong have traveled together on the R.Y.D.E. bus, shopped at the grocery store and visited the beauty salon.
Busy places such as department stores are a challenge, even for sighted people, so Beck and Strong need to be on their game. Most people tend to understand that Strong is doing his job as he leads his master through a store, but Beck said there is a natural tendency for people to want to pet dogs.
“Mind your business,” she tells Strong. “When he goes down the dog food aisle he wants to sniff everything,” she said.
At age 70, Beck and her husband, Lyle, have lived much of their lives in the Grand Island, Wood River and Shelton areas, but they moved to Kearney several years ago.
She began losing her sight in her early 30s. A combination of several eye diseases have left Beck without center vision. The peripheral sight that remains is blurred. As a result, she stopped driving at age 32, and uses a variety of adaptive devices to do everyday tasks, such as cooking.
Small round “bump dots” are affixed to the smooth-surfaced control panel of her microwave oven so she can select power settings and cook time. For the range, she memorizes the position of the dials. Straight up is off. Straight down is medium. Middle right or middle left is medium low or medium high.
Beck uses her talking watch to fry meat. She memorizes how much time to fry before flipping the meat, and sets her watch accordingly: 12 minutes for the first side and 5 minutes for the second, depending upon the cut. If her husband says the meat is too rare or overcooked, she adjusts the next time she cooks.
Stiff squares of paper embossed with braille mark most of the canned foods in her cupboard.
“This one is green beans,” she said, gently touching the braille marker affixed with a rubber band to the outside of a can. One of the cans doesn’t have the braille-embossed marker. Instead, the can has two rubber bands stretched around it to remind Beck it contains refried beans. She said she thinks of the second rubber band as the “re” in “refried.”
Other adaptive devices tell Beck what denomination of paper money she has. After the bills are identified she folds the currency in particular ways so she knows each bill’s denomination.
Beck said she reads braille at a basic level, so instead of reading with her fingers she listens to audiobooks. She said numerous adaptive devices are available for people without sight or with limited vision. She uses guides to help her sign checks and address envelopes, but she said her handwriting leaves something to be desired, so rather than handwriting she uses a computer to write messages.
Acquiring her guide dog was an adventure, she said. First came the application through the Kansas State Dog Service. She said she was surprised that she was asked how much he walks. She also felt a bit intimidated after she was selected because her dog would be named Strong. Would he be too much to handle?
She received a couple of weeks training with Strong in Kansas and in Kearney.
She said grants and donors help some people acquire their dogs. She wasn’t required to pay for Strong.
“I don’t know what a service dog costs, maybe about $25,000,” she said.
Beck said owning Strong brought some positive changes to her life. There are the usual chores of dog ownership, she said, but the service animal has given her something everyone desires.
“He’s made me a lot more independent,” she said.