After years of training, a Guiding Eyes for the Blind guide dog is accustomed to handling all sorts of challenges: uneven sidewalks, escalators, crowds. But a Category 5 hurricane? Not so much.
Still, that is what Koala, a female black Labrador and partner of St. Petersburg resident Deni Elliott faced after Hurricane Irma pounded Florida this September. The author of nine books and a member of our October 2016 graduating class, Deni is chair of the department of journalism and media studies at the University of South Florida.
She was on a State Department trip to Southeast Asia, working on responsible journalism and repressive cultures, when Irma made landfall in Florida. Koala stayed behind with Deni’s friend. After being evacuated along with her human sitter, “Koala had a lovely rest of the week,” Deni says with a chuckle, “playing in my friend’s backyard pool.”
Eight days after the storm hit, Deni returned to Florida to face its aftermath. The effects of the hurricane were clear as soon as she arrived home from the airport. “We got to my house and the first thing my friend said was, ‘It’s dangerous for you to walk up your front walk because there’s stuff all over it.’”
Deni and Koala regularly commute the mile to campus on foot, and the pair immediately resumed their normal routine. But, Deni remembers, “It wasn’t until we took off for school that I realized that at the end of my block there were two big trees across the sidewalk. Koala steered me around those and I thought, “OK, this is going to be an interesting trip.”
Commuting on foot in Deni’s part of the world involves facing certain obstacles that are unique to tropical climates. “The big issues are overhangs,” Deni explains. “Palm fronds. The way may be clear at foot level, but it’s not clear at face level. For Koala, where she normally would have to clear passage working on the foot level, she had to watch both for face level and foot level. That kept her pretty busy.”
And so the walk to school became a gentle dance of trusted partners. When Koala encountered a fallen tree blocking the sidewalk, she would stop. Deni would command her to move forward, and Koala would turn to the street. There she stopped again so Deni could find the down curb. Koala would then pivot right, so she walked between Deni and traffic. Once Koala got past the debris, she stopped again. She waited for Deni to find her footing to the right, and then together they resumed their journey on the sidewalk.
“Koala is very, very smart,” Deni says. “She enjoys problem-solving and trusts me more than any dog I’ve ever known. After the storm I saw that behavior just amplified. She believes that if she just waits long enough and nudges me often enough, I’ll understand what she’s asking for. She’s clear on how she communicates with me—sometimes I’m just a little slow in listening.”
It took the city of St. Petersburg a month to clear the streets and sidewalks, but after their first post-Irma outing, Deni knew Koala was up to the challenge. Which is a particularly good thing, since hurricane season lasts until the end of November. “I know from other hurricanes and tropical storms that Koala has a big heart,” says Deni. “She’s not scared of anything. She seems to like the adventure, and sometimes I’m just along for the ride.”