Twenty years ago, when Larry Kontz started to go blind, he had no desire to learn how to read Braille.
"I was very stubborn about not doing that," the owner of McLane Self Storage said. "I probably should have. But early on, it's an ego thing. You're in denial. You don't want to admit there's a problem."
Last year, though, when Kontz' vision deteriorated to the point where he could see only "fuzzy light and shadows," he finally allowed himself to overcome his own ego.
Kontz still can't read Braille. But he now has a full-time companion named Lou who can help him do just about everything else -- while restoring Kontz' senses of mobility and independence.
Lou is a yellow Labrador/Golden Retriever mix given to Kontz, free of charge, by Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc., in San Rafael, Calif.
And now, only one week later, Kontz reports that his life has changed -- dramatically -- for the better.
For one thing, he said, this bounding, king-sized puppy is a great "social lubricant. The general public has a hard time relating to a blind person with a white cane who's trying to be mobile. But with a dog, well, everyone immediately knows what to do. They all want to say 'hi' to the dog, and pet him and hug him. I have found that Lou is the perfect ice-breaker."
Of course, being profoundly huggable is not Lou's only talent.
During their one-month course of training, both Lou and his new master learned to work as a team. They practiced safe travel techniques on stairways and elevators, on crowded sidewalks and across busy streets.
Lou has been trained to stop at all curbs and wait until Kontz commands him to go forward or turn. He will disobey a command to cross a street if traffic is approaching. He guides Kontz safely around pedestrians and obstacles, including those which may be overhead.
Lou has opened up a whole new world for his master.
Kontz, 54, was diagnosed with hereditary eye disease retinitis pigmentosa when he was in the second grade. At that time, his only real optical problem was extremely poor night vision.
"It was great when we'd play hide and seek at night," Kontz remembered. "I could never find anybody. The other kids loved it."
Unfortunately, his eyesight continued to deteriorate. In his late 20s, he lost his ability to read and drive. At about the same time, he met Eloise, who is now his wife of 22 years. Since then, she has served as his "sighted guide" on hiking, backpacking and water-skiing adventures, as well as motor home tours of the U.S. and Mexico.
But in the last four or five years, the little visual detail Kontz could perceive disappeared altogether -- and as he became less independent, the pressures on his wife increased.
"She was without a doubt involved in the decision to get Lou," Kontz said. "I didn't want to always be totally dependent on her.
"A blind friend in Phoenix had a guide dog, and I saw how great it was for him to have the mobility and the freedom that his dog provided. Plus it was just a great companion."
After several years of procrastination, Kontz finally sent in an application to Guide Dogs for the Blind -- a 51-year-old nonprofit organization supported entirely by private donations.
"Everything was absolutely free," he said. "They sent me the airline tickets to attend their school, met me at the airport, took me to the dorm, put me through the training. You don't pay for anything while you're there. It's just incredible."
Guide Dogs for the Blind breeds their own dogs -- usually Labs, Golden Retrievers, or like Lou, a mix of both -- and then, when they are about eight weeks old, sends them to "puppy raisers" for one year so they can learn to socialize with people and other pets.
The dogs then undergo five to seven months of guide training. And then they are matched up with their new owner.
Kontz and Lou were matched up only five weeks ago.
"When I got there, I didn't know which dog I was going to get," Kontz said. "The trainers want to see what kind of physical condition you're in, what kind of personality you've got, how aggressive or passive you are. And then they match you up with a dog that they've decided should be your dog."
Kontz and Lou bonded immediately.
"He came bouncing up to me and washed my face. He was a happy boy. For the next month, whether we were in training or not, the only time I didn't have my hands on him was when I was in the shower."
The only difficult moment of Kontz' experience came on the night he and Lou "graduated" from Guide Dogs for the Blind.
"The puppy-raisers present you with your dog -- this dog that they've fallen in love with. The people who raised Lou were a 16-year-old girl and her family. It was quite a tearjerker ...", Kontz said, choking back his own tears of appreciation. "I know that our families will end up being friends for life."
Right now, only one week later, Kontz said, "I haven't even begun to explore the full potential of what our relationship is going to mean."
Kontz' wife, Eloise, got a pretty good idea of that potential almost immediately -- when the Kontzes took Lou to the airport for their flight back to Arizona.
"Usually," she said, "I've got Larry on one arm, and we're carrying all our luggage, and I'm trying to keep him from running into things or knocking some old lady down -- and we weren't always successful at that.
"But with Lou, Larry was suddenly streamlined. It was just zip-zip-zip, to the escalator, down the escalator, to the baggage claim. It was wonderful."
"Yes, it was," Kontz agreed. "But you know, I don't want Lou to just be a guide dog. On his off-time, I want him to just be a dog. A happy dog."
For information about guide dogs, write to Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc., P.O. Box 151200, San Rafael, Calif., 94915; or telephone (415) 499-4000; or visit their website at www.guidedogs.com.