By Jim Price
Born with cataracts, she always had poor vision and it continued to decline. She was a good cane traveler, however, and she knew how much work dogs could be. She was fine without one, and at the end of the day all she had to do was lean her cane in a corner by the door.
But then Donna Permar had to negotiate the busy streets of Washington, DC. She was a college senior at the University of North Carolina and living in DC on an internship at the Library of Congress. "I dreaded crossing K Street," she said, shaking her head at the memory. "It was always so busy that my heart was in my throat. But then I met this woman with a guide dog and he just took her right across, no problem at all. For the first time I thought, maybe a guide dog is for me."
That was five dogs ago. Now 55, Permar was in Oregon recently to get Kyle, a strapping young Yellow Lab who, just 10 days into the two-week course, had already earned her trust. "Maybe it's just that he's my fifth one and I know what I'm doing, but things are going extremely well. I had to become accustomed to his gate, which is different from Nan, my fourth dog. Of course she is a lot older, but he is also taller and longer. It's maybe like going from driving a small car to a minivan. The training is different now, we use food a lot more, and I'll tell you, it works. All Labs like food – it keeps them motivated and focused. And you can't compare dogs. Each one is different. My only expectation is he gets me safely from one corner to the next. So far he has been perfect. The only mistakes have been mine."
As she talked, within just a few minutes Kyle had fallen fast asleep on the floor at her side. He will need that ability to settle quickly back in Durham, NC, where Permar is the administrative assistant to the director of the intensive care unit at Duke Medical Center. "My dogs have to be well groomed and well behaved to work in a hospital environment," she said. "Hospitals can be not-so-happy places for people and my co-workers tell me that when I come in with a dog in the morning people just smile. I figure anything I can do to make things a little better is good." She said Nan, who is 11 and a half and a Black Lab, had a perpetual smile on her face that people just loved. "She is so very sweet, always with a happy disposition." She has decided to keep Nan as a pet and she began to tear up just a bit talking about that first morning back home when she will head off to work with Kyle and have to leave Nan at home.
Also at home is her husband, Glenn, whose partner is a guide dog from GDB, Yellow Lab named Wally. She said they are avid cross-country skiers and have travelled all over with a group called Ski For Light, a program for people who are visually impaired. Glenn plays Beep Baseball and they also travel with his team to tournaments, including to Taiwan one year. She said their first love, however, is anything to do with water and they waterski whenever they can. Glenn even bought a wakeboard recently.
Donna loves telling stories about her dogs. Like the time she and Nan were walking home from work after a big storm along a sidewalk they knew very well. Suddenly Nan stopped and no matter what she did, Permar couldn't get Nan moving. Suddenly a lady came running up to help. She had been driving by and saw what was happening. "There was an electric cable down across the sidewalk and apparently Nan knew it could be dangerous." She smiles at another story of Nan slowing down then surging ahead along one stretch of lawn. She was timing the circular sprinkler so they didn't get wet.
Her first three dogs were from an organization back East, but at numerous conventions with lots of guide dogs she began to notice a trend. "If I was on an elevator, for example, with a number of dogs and they were all pretty giggly except the one quiet one in the corner, I would ask that person where they got their dog. Invariable they would say Guide Dogs for the Blind. After a few years I saw a pattern developing. Also, at many of the events we go to GDB sends puppy sitters and it doesn't matter what school the dog is from, they will take care of it. That shows a lot of class." She also admits with a grin that one of the reasons she picked GDB was she wanted to visit San Francisco and Portland.
Permar said she's learned one huge fact over the past three decades – all the times she's had to go out in the rain, or take time to groom her dogs, or do anything else she would rather not bother with, were worth it. "My friend put it well. She said it's stressful when you first get a new dog, and it's very hard at the end. But the times in the middle are just wonderful."