Two years ago, Gray resident Brooklyn Shannon found out she was losing her vision.
“To describe my vision, it would be like if you were looking through two straws,” Shannon said. “You can see well what you see right through that tiny hole, so like very tunneled, pinpoint vision.”
Shannon was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare, incurable degenerative eye disease that causes the loss of peripheral vision, and, in many cases, the eventual complete loss of vision. Shannon later found out she had a secondary condition, autoimmune retinopathy, in which the immune system attacks proteins in the retina of the eye and causes inflammation and sight loss.
“It was just a sad day where (the optometrist) was just like, ‘Listen, you’re going blind. There’s not a cure. There’s nothing we can do to stop it,’” she said.
Though coping with her diagnosis is sometimes difficult, Shannon said there are definitely silver linings. One of those silver linings is her new golden Labrador retriever guide dog, Lolita.
“It’s sad, it’s frustrating, but it’s not all doom and gloom,” Shannon said. “There’s been some good parts of it too, and then obviously Lolita has definitely been one of the good parts for sure. If you’re gonna go blind, you might as well do it with a cute, fluffy guide dog, right?”
Shannon was matched with Lolita through Southeastern Guide Dogs, an organization based in Florida that breeds, raises and trains guide and service dogs for the visually impaired, veterans with disabilities and children and teenagers with vision loss or other needs at no cost to the recipient. Shannon reached out to Southeastern Guide Dogs after researching different guide dog organizations online.
“Southeastern Guide Dogs just has such transparency,” she said. “I mean anything you wanted to know, they were transparent on the phone calls from the very first person I talked to.”
After applying and doing an interview over the phone, a representative with Southeastern Guide Dogs came to Gray to meet with Shannon. The two did a Juno walk, in which the representative holds the body of a dog harness and guides the applicant on a walk to get a sense of the applicant’s walking pace.
“So if my neighbors didn’t think I was crazy before, walking a dog on an empty harness, like this imaginary dog, with this girl in my neighborhood — I’m sure they thought I was next level crazy,” Shannon said.
After the visit, Shannon was approved to receive a guide dog, and the waiting game began. Shannon said it typically takes anywhere from six to 18 months for an applicant to be matched with a dog and begin training.
“I was able to get in fairly quickly after I had been approved,” she said. “I got in after six months.”
Shannon flew down to Florida by herself, where after spending a day getting acclimated to the Southeastern Guide Dog campus and doing a final interview with dog trainers, she was matched with Lolita.
“It’s love at first sight, and you’re so excited to finally have them, but then you’re like, ‘Oh shoot, I don’t know what to do,’” Shannon said. “‘I’ve had a dog before, but I’ve never had a guide dog before.’”
Shannon and Lolita spent three weeks in training at the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus, where they practiced walking in a downtown area, eating in restaurants, shopping at the grocery store and other real-life scenarios to teach Shannon how to live with her new guide dog.
Lolita came home from Southeastern Guide Dogs with Shannon roughly 10 weeks ago, and Shannon said Lolita has already been helping her do things like find doors, navigate busy stores and cross streets.
“It just restores your dignity and your confidence, your freedom and your independence,” Shannon said.
While Shannon’s vision will never improve, her level of independence continues to grow thanks to Lolita.
“Nobody enjoys having to have their hand held to walk through a store or to go to the bathroom or anything as an adult,” she said. “It’s hard to depend on someone for everything, and now I can depend on Lolita.”