Laura Jotham and Watson
It’s Watson’s day off. He is so happy to greet visitors that his exuberant wagging sweeps everything off a shelf by the front door – before he leans in hard for a cuddle with the newcomer.
Laura Jotham and Watson: Two of our 2014 Local Heroes
This goofiness is a far cry from the button-down professionalism this black Labrador retriever-golden retriever cross displays when he’s at work as a guide dog paired with Orangeville’s Laura Jotham. Together, the two are on a mission to educate people as to how guide dog teams function and to dispel the myths surrounding people with visual impairments.
Laura, a 21-year-old York University student, was born with retinopathy of prematurity. As a result, she is completely blind in her left eye and has only 10 per cent vision in her right. With no peripheral vision and no depth perception, she says what she sees with her right eye is akin to viewing the world “through a straw.” She hasn’t given one of her smart, funny talks to a community group in a while, but only, she quips, because she has “saturated the market.”
Indeed, Laura has made the rounds, speaking to Rotary and Lions clubs, the Canadian Federation of University Women and virtually every elementary school in the area. She has also been a book in the Headwaters Human Library. Most memorably, Laura delivered a convocation address at the University of Waterloo’s School of Optometry. “It was quite an honour,” she says, “speaking to all these grads who were going to be optometrists and ophthalmologists.”
Less high profile but more fun are her visits to elementary schools. An oft-asked question: “Does Watson get in the pool to help you swim?”
A key part of Laura’s message is a rule that’s easy to understand, but hard to follow. When Watson dons his harness, he switches from off duty to on duty – and while he’s working, it’s critical that he focus only on her. As a result, there should be no interaction with anyone else.
“It’s hard for everyone,” she says. “It’s hard for me to be the person who always has to say, ‘Don’t touch the dog.’ And Watson’s well trained, but he likes the touching too. Really, it does everyone a favour if he’s just ignored.”
This is not to say that Watson can’t be a conversation starter. “A great thing about the dog is the social aspect,” Laura says. “I also have a white cane, but when I use it, no one says ‘It’s so cute. Can I pet it? How old is it?’”
Watson was placed with Laura through the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides program, which covered the $25,000 cost of not only raising and training him from puppyhood, but also preparing Laura to take over once he was two years old. The foundation also provides continuing support if it is needed.
Laura’s goal is to effect a subtle but significant attitude shift. When interacting with those with visual impairments, she says, others don’t judge, but they are often hypersensitive – afraid they might offend. “The objective,” she says, “is to get people to put the person first and the vision second. So instead of thinking, ‘Oh, there’s a blind person,’ I want them to think, ‘Oh, there’s a person who is blind.’”
Watson is six years old, and service dogs generally retire between the ages of eight and ten. “I don’t like to think about it,” Laura says, adding that a veterinarian will make the call when it’s time for him to hang up his harness and for a new dog to take his place. Watson will remain with Laura as a family pet. “He will get a lovely pension,” she says.