Guide dog brings new freedom

ajames@newsobserver.comNovember 4, 2013 

Guide dog Watson accompanies Sharon Giovinazzo and trainer John Byfield on a walk through her neighborhood.

AMANDA JAMES — ajames@newsobserver.com

— A guide dog is bringing more than sight to a Clayton woman. Since she lost her husband, Joe, unexpectedly three weeks ago, Sharon Giovinazzo has found new life in a chocolate lab named Watson.

Giovinazzo starting planning several months ago to get a guide dog. Calm and quiet Watson arrived two weeks ago, just a week after her husband died in the middle of the night.

“Watson is now going to join me on this next leg of the journey,” Giovinazzo said.

For the past two weeks, Giovinazzo has been training with John Byfield and the dog. Byfield works for Freedom Guide Dogs, a nonprofit based in New York. He travels around the country helping people who are blind adjust to their new companion.

Freedom Guide provides the dogs and training for free.

Byfield said the nonprofit chose Watson for Giovinazzo because he can handle her active lifestyle.

“He’s the epitome of calm,” Byfield said.

Curled up on the floor by Giovinazzo’s feet in her living room, Watson appears to have already grown attached – a good thing because he’ll be filling a void as co-pilot and companion.

Contrary to what people might think, the dog doesn’t lead its owner.

“It’s teamwork,” Byfield said. “She has to know where she’s going, and the dog helps navigate.”

Giovinazzo learned a whole new set of skills 12 years ago when she became blind at the age of 31. She lost her sight unexpectedly over seven months after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“You just have to roll with the punches,” Giovinazzo said.

Naturally a fighter, Giovinazzo worked as a combat medic in Desert Storm for six years.

When she lost her sight, she lost her independence. She says that was the hardest part. She couldn’t drive anymore; could not go where she wanted when she wanted.

Adapting to a new life

But her life didn’t end when her sight did. She learned Braille, embraced new technologies to help her get around and otherwise learned how to live without seeing.

In 2009, Giovinazzo graduated from the State University of New York with two master’s degrees – one in social work and one in business administration.

Now, she carries an iPhone with voice technology. GPS on the phone tells her where she’s going so she knows where to tell Watson to go. When someone calls, a voice tells her what number it is.

Giovinazzo has a Braille machine that translates her typed words into text messages and emails.

And now she has Watson.

“For the past year and a half I haven’t been able to walk past the mailbox on my own,” Giovinazzo said.

She relied on friends or her husband to take her to work.

For the most part, her job has kept her in an office, so Giovinazzo didn’t feel the need for a guide dog. She used a cane to get around.

Giovinazzo works as vice president of programs and services for the Raleigh Lions Clinic for the Blind, where she oversees 150 employees. RLCB hires people who are blind to stitch uniforms, pillows and mattresses for the military.

Giovinazzo’s highly successful life is a testament to the benefits of agencies like the one she works for now.

In the past year, she’s had hearing loss but is starting to go on more business trips, traveling weekly. That’s one reason she decided to get a guide dog.

Sometimes Giovinazzo works from home, but she also travels to other states to teach seminars on adaptive technology to the blind, giving 200 presentations a year.

A special breed

While working with Byfield last week, Giovinazzo took Watson into meetings, onto public transportation and into businesses to get used to life with him. During meetings, Watson can crawl under a table and sleep.

“A lot of times people don’t even know he’s under there until I get up,” Giovinazzo said.

She got her first guide dog in 2002, a year after she lost her sight.

The two were together for eight years, and then the dog had to retire, though Giovinazzo kept him after that. Eight years is about the amount of time a guide dog can work, Byfield said.

Watson was bred to be a guide dog. Now 19 months old, he lived with a foster family in New York until he came to Clayton.

Freedom Guide breeds dogs specifically to be guide dogs, spending about $25,000 on each animal. The cost includes the breeding, training, food, cost of travel and veterinarian fees.

After 10 days with Byfield, Watson and Giovinazzo are now prepared to set off on their own. Their first trip together will be to New York for a memorial service for Giovinazzo’s husband.

“He’s part of the family now, and the timing on this couldn’t have been better,” Giovinazzo said.

James: 919-553-7234

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