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Gary C. Norman: Leadership lessons from a guide dog

Gary C. Norman

Gary C. Norman

The Maryland Public Policy Conflict Resolution Fellows program recently allowed me to connect with colleagues from the court system, the community, the nonprofit sector and government. As I shared with my colleagues in this prestigious fellowship, guide dogs have helped me on a unique journey to leadership.

Leader Dogs for the Blind has recognized what I have learned as a lawyer partnered now with my third dog: Guide dogs are valuable in training people in leadership. In fact, the training organization has launched an executive training program for corporate executives.

My dogs Langer and Pilot, who have now slipped the bonds of Earth, as well as Bowie, a new, goofy black Lab, have taught – and teach – me that it is an honor to work with a dog as a partner. I have learned collaboration, communication and compassion.

From time immemorial, lawyers have transformed their communities. (We need to remind the public of this.) President John Adams, one of our great lawyer leaders — if by all accounts one of the moodiest — often emphasized the importance of lawyers as citizen leaders. President Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams, also shaped our democracy while loving two dogs, Juno and Satan (a name that has raised eyebrows now for two centuries).

Working with a guide dog in public proves more complicated than the training textbook would have you believe.

Bowie’s needs can’t wait. No matter the rigors of my day, I must still attend to Bowie and his incessant need for snacks. I keep a flexible water bowl in all my bags and my dry cleaner could tell you how much kibble I also keep on my person to feed Bowie, such as when I am at Union Station.

Bowie is generally not to be petted by even the most ardent dog lover. Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, known to be a dog person, said she knew not to touch Bowie and his powerful tail that wags in the wind. She is correct. Not everyone is aware of this prohibition. However, I have traditionally tried to be flexible with the public when possible.

People ask if I can keep my guide dogs after they retire. My answer: It depends. My retired dog, who worked for seven years and who recently crossed the rainbow bridge, has a portion of my heart. I was honored to serve as his co-custodian, with my wife, for the past two years. However, the costs involved in managing a retired guide dog prevent some blind people from serving as a custodian. A retiring guide may be placed with a family member or repatriated to the guide dog school to be placed with another party. A range of factors must be considered when deciding whether to keep a retired guide dog.

For example, a retired guide dog must be walked regularly and must be taken care of when the dog’s owner is traveling out of town. To help more blind people keep their dogs, state laws could provide limited access rights to owners of retired dogs. When a guide dog retires, that guide dog no longer enjoys the right to be in public as a service animal. Additionally, we need to keep encouraging businesses to become pet friendly.

Managing an aging dog involves increased medical costs, which prevent some blind people from keeping their dogs after the animals retire.

My new guide dog organization, in New York, provides an initial $300 assistance fund per year to all guide dog teams, regardless of the person’s income. This is to provide for general medical care. If I were ever appointed secretary of the Maryland Department of Disabilities, I would actively urge that service animal handlers be allowed to deduct all the costs of working with a service animal.

The unusual and blessed path I tread with my dogs is a graduate-level education in public policy leadership. More important for any leader, I have learned to be focused on a creature besides myself — in this case a temperamental black Lab with a passion for snacks.

Gary C. Norman, Esq. LL.M. serves as the chair of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. He can be reached at prometheusgroup16@hotmail.com.