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A Dog Called Major

Editor's Note: Kathy Nessner-Filion works for Statistics Canada and lives in Aylmer, Quebec.

I have been totally blind since I was three years old, and this article is about a very special companion I had throughout my childhood.

When I was five years old, our family was given a German Shepherd/collie cross puppy whom we named Major. Maybe because I was five and six years younger than my older sister and brother, he became my playmate, and I guess you could say we grew up together.

Major accompanied me and my friends everywhere: to the park during the summer months, and to the outdoor skating rink and toboggan hills during the winter.

Sometimes, while we skated, Major would find a discarded hockey stick lying on the snowbank surrounding the rink and would carry it, crosswise in his mouth, out to us. He was a big and powerful dog, so the stick was at about waist-level for all of us. It seemed natural for us to take hold of each end of the hockey stick. With as many as three kids on either side of him, he would prance around the rink, pushing us along with him until he had tired of the game.

To finish, he would simply dump us into a snowbank, drop the stick and rest in the snow, until he felt like playing the game again.

When we went tobogganing, he would tirelessly accompany us up and down the hill. During one outing, the toboggan slipped and I accidentally went down the hill alone. To stop myself, I put my feet out and bent one of my legs backwards to the point where it really hurt. At least it helped to get me off the toboggan, but I lay on my back in the snow for a few minutes crying from fear and pain. My friend and Major came running down the hill to see if I was all right and while I was still lying there, I felt what I thought was my friend's hand laid gently on my chest to comfort me. When I raised my own hand to touch hers, I found it was Major's paw! Even as a child, I remember recognizing how incredibly moving that gesture was!

Somewhere around the summer I was eight years old I think, I began holding Major's collar and he would guide me around the neighbourhood. Although he had received no training, he certainly kept me on the sidewalks. One of our neighbours even told my mother that once, when there was a child's tricycle in our way, she saw him lean into me to push me to one side so that he could guide me around it. I also used to burn off my excess energy by running with him. The feelings of freedom and exhilaration I experienced when we were able to do this together were wonderful, and something I will never forget!

As the years went by, Major would accompany me during my summer holidays on my grandparents' farm, where, holding his collar, we walked (and ran) the country roads together and went on picnics with the friends I had made there.

He also knew the meaning of "home" and anywhere we were staying became "home" to him. While at my grandparents' farm, for example, or staying at various cottages in the summertime, I only needed to hold his collar and ask him to "take me Home", and he always did. One winter weekend, a girlfriend and I decided we would meet each other halfway between our houses, which were several streets apart. This was during a really bad snowstorm, but I thought I would be okay. By the time I was a number of streets and turns away from home, the snow got so deep I couldn't feel the sidewalk anymore under my feet, and all I could hear was the wind blowing the snow all around me. Suddenly, I felt completely lost. Major was with me of course and, when I began to panic and started to cry, I asked him to take me home. He spun around immediately and took me back to our front door.

Major was also there to help me through those awkward years of the early teens when it wasn't hip to hang onto your girlfriend's arm anymore. I could walk independently with him among a group of other kids and could choose to go home from where ever we were whenever I wanted.

When I left the School for the Blind at the age of sixteen to attend the high school near our home, I used to have Major guide me down the street and around the corner to my girlfriend's house, where he would "drop me off" to continue on my way to school with her. On my way home again in the afternoons, he would come running down the street as soon as he saw me, and my friend and I would go our separate ways, with Major guiding me the rest of the way home.

Although it was because of Major that my desire to have a trained guide dog was born, I am sure I allowed my relationship with him to have a negative impact on a number of my guide dog relationships when I was old enough to be trained with them. For years, unfortunately, I wanted to work only with a German shepherd, and that has not always been possible.

Major never received any formal training, but somehow, he seemed to know I needed him. Not only was he a wonderful companion, he also helped me gain some freedom and independence that, as a totally blind child, I would perhaps not have experienced.

I will always remember and miss him.

Comments

Hello Kathy,
I really enjoyed both of your articles. You likely don't remember me, but we were neighbours in Lindsay. We .lived around the corner from you on Cambridge St and you used to play with my younger brother John. We moved to Oshawa in 1955 and when we moved back to Lindsay in 1957, I think your family had moved away. I can't remember your older sister and brother's names. Your articles brought back a lot of memories. I'm so happy to know that you have a great career and family. Please say hello to your family from me. By the way, my younger sister's name is Susan. You were likely too young to remember any of us. Your dog Major was incredible. We had a collie/shepherd dog too named Rocky. He never had the challenges that Major had, but he was a wonderful dog.
Sincerely,
Margaret James-Taylor