Woman reunited with her 'eyes'

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 27, 2011

FAITH — It’s easy to say that Freda Horne and her guide dog, Debbie, have been inseparable over the past year, but that wouldn’t be exactly true.
For two months, Debbie returned to the Guiding Eyes for the Blind campus in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., because she was 10 pounds overweight.
Horne acknowledges that she gave Debbie too many treats, and that her husband, Wayne, was another enabler. Every time he gave their pug, Harley, a snack, he felt obligated to give Debbie one, too.
So last August, a representative from Guiding Eyes visited on a routine followup, determined Debbie was overweight and flew with her back to New York. From August to October, the visually impaired Horne was back to dealing with the daily landscape on her own.
“The only way I can describe it is, I stood in that front doorway and watched my eyes leave,” Horne says.
“It was so awful.”
Debbie essentially attended fat camp and slimmed down through the careful monitoring of a veterinary staff. In early October, Guiding Eyes returned Debbie to Horne while she was vacationing in Myrtle Beach.
“She had not forgotten me, and I know I had not forgotten her,” Horne says. “She sticks with me like glue.”
When the Post first visited with Horne and Debbie last May, they were several weeks removed from a month’s training in New York, where they were first brought together.
The New York training was more for Horne than it was for Debbie, who already had been taught the guide dog basics.
Except for the two-month separation, Freda and Debbie have gone everywhere together: shopping, restaurants, church, meetings and vacations — from fishing at the Outer Banks to visiting family in Arizona.
Horne serves as chairman of the guide dog program for the Lions’ District 31-E.
Since last July, she and Debbie have given 12 programs in the district, with two more scheduled. They’ve appeared at club meetings, schools, senior groups and YMCAs.
“We’re getting pretty good at it,” Horne says. “… It’s amazing how smart this dog is. I’m still just amazed.”
Last June, thanks to a Rockwell Lions Club sponsorship, Horne and Debbie attended Camp Dogwood, a Lake Norman retreat for the visually impaired. There were opportunities for the campers to water-ski, fish, ride in speed boats and pontoons, ride horses, participate in arts and crafts, go shopping, “or you can do nothing,” Horne says.
One day, when Horne and others left their boat to take a swim in Lake Norman, Debbie jumped in with her.
As you might expect, Debbie — a 3-year-old Labrador retriever — likes to swim.
“She looks like an otter in the water,” Horne boasts.
But she initially had concerns about how Debbie was going to get back into the boat. She should not have worried.
“Guess what,” Horne says, “she climbed the ladder.”
A registered nurse now on disability, Horne suffers from diabetic retinopathy. She lost sight in her right eye in 1999. With her good eye, she can see about 2 feet in front of her. Sitting down, she sees Debbie at her feet, but standing up, Horne loses sight of her.
Reading something like a medicine bottle takes big magnifying glasses.
With her poor sight, Horne can’t drive and has to depend on friends and family for transportation. She relies on a harnessed Debbie to maneuver her through public places.
“We go shopping,” Horne says, “but it did take me a little while to figure out our system.”
Because she still has some vision, Horne said she sometimes makes the mistake of thinking she has to guide Debbie, when it should be Debbie who is guiding her.
If Horne ever loses her sight completely, she realizes she and Debbie probably will have to return to Guiding Eyes for the Blind for retraining.
People often ask Horne how she disciplines Debbie, “but I haven’t a clue,” she says, describing how obedient and personable Debbie is. She has yet to hear Debbie bark.
Overall, people in public places are accepting of Debbie, Horne says.
She had a clerk in a South Carolina Shell station who wanted to remove them, and a couple of restaurants in Salisbury have served Horne, but only after some initial reservations about having a dog in their establishments.
One restaurant isolated Horne in an empty section of its dining room.
“It upset me because that wasn’t nice,” Horne says. “I”m not anybody to shove in a corner.”
As for Debbie’s weight, it is supposed to stay between 58 and 63 pounds.
Horne takes her to a veterinarian for a weigh-in every two weeks, and Debbie came in at 61.5 pounds on her last trip.
The slimmer Debbie is a star wherever she goes — and she pretty much knows it.
“She just woos everybody,” Horne says. “She doesn’t meet a stranger.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.