Updated Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 09:01 AM
I will not bother today to list all of the petty annoyances that make air travel such a woeful chore these days. Suffice it to say that by the time the overstressed flight attendants slam shut the doors on those pitifully crammed overhead bins and the airplane rolls toward the runway, many of us jammed in those uncomfortable little seats are miserable.
Yet if we all merely look hard enough, we may spot a pair like Dan Bailey and Phelps in the airport, or back in the boarding area or, maybe, calmly finding their way to seats on the plane, a raft of serenity in a sea of angst. And I venture to say they would lift our poor spirits.
Bailey, 50, is a national sales director for Industries for the Blind, a supplier of products and services and a leading employer of the blind that is based in Wisconsin. Phelps, a handsome 5-year-old Labrador retriever, is his guide dog.
Bailey and Phelps have taken nearly 400 flights to 40 states on business trips since the day in April 2009 when man met dog. That was for two weeks of training under the aegis of Guide Dogs for the Blind, an organization that matches the blind and those with other severe visual impairments with young, specially chosen Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and crosses of those two breeds who will become their faithful travel partners.
This is a Thanksgiving tale about one of those men and his dog. And, I promise, no puns.
In the summer of 2008, Bailey, whose eyesight has been poor since childhood because of retinitis pigmentosa but virtually disappeared after chemotherapy for an unrelated cancer, said he realized that his condition had deteriorated to the point where “my travel was becoming dangerous.”
“I was running into things,” he said. “So I knew it was time. Then I had to decide, am I going to be a cane guy or a dog guy?”
He concluded he was a dog guy. Co-workers at Industries for the Blind pointed him to Guide Dogs for the Blind, an organization based in San Rafael, Calif., that provides the dogs and pays travel expenses for visually disabled people to train with them in preparation for a traveling life together on the road. The group sent a representative to visit Bailey at his home near Atlanta, in a preliminary evaluation to match him up with a dog.
Bailey met Phelps at a Guide Dogs for the Blind site in Oregon, and they trained for two weeks along with five other blind travelers and their new dogs.
“When I got out there in April of ‘09, Phelps was already raring to go; he was ready for airline travel,” Bailey said. “It was just a matter of me catching up to him.”
He added: “From the second day your dog is your responsibility. You feed them, water them, you take them to the bathroom.” (That command, incidentally, is “Phelps, do your business.”) “You train with them all day, long days: ‘Find the escalator, find the elevator, find the chair.’”
The travel drill is second nature now, he said.
“When we’re at the Atlanta airport to check in, I tell him, ‘Find the desk,’ and he’ll take me up to the counter. From there, we head down the hallway to security, and he knows to take me right to the guy standing there to look at my boarding pass and ID. Then at security, and he knows to take me right to the table where the trays are. Once we get to the X-ray machine, I take off his gear — he wears a harness that I grip with my left hand — and that’s run through the machine. Then I tell him ‘Sit. Stay.’ I walk through the metal detector first, then I call him, ‘Phelps, come!’ and he comes right through.”
He said “At the boarding area, I tell him, ‘Phelps, find a chair,’ and he’ll find an empty chair for me. We’re working on ‘Find Starbucks.’”
But upon arrival at the hotel, Phelps becomes a frisky Labrador again, his work done.
“Labs are perpetual puppies, but it’s a credit to his training, because Phelps turns that instinct off when he’s working,” Bailey said. “But at the end of the day, when we’re finally settled in at the hotel room, I take his gear off and give him the OK, and wow, he rips around the room, does pirouettes, runs from the window to the door with all this pent-up energy from the day. He knows he’s off duty.”
And this is the Thanksgiving message Bailey shared the other day.
“Phelps brings light and joy to anyone who encounters him, and I am privileged to have him in my life. If I’m having a bad day, which fortunately really is rare, I think, I’m healthy. I’m five years cancer-free. I’m pain-free. I’ve got a wife who still loves me after 29 years. I’ve got kids who bring so much love and happiness. When Phelps and I are walking down a concourse at the airport, I sometimes imagine people watching us and saying to themselves, ‘Oh, look at that poor blind guy.’”
Bailey chuckled and said, “They couldn’t realize this, of course, but honestly, I wouldn’t switch places for anything in the world.”