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She crouches down in the grass, sneakily stalking a dragonfly. She bounds up in the air, snapping wildly at her fleeing playmate. Then she races around the garden at high speeds in search of her next buddy, maneuvering around the plants like they are pylons.
She stops momentarily to lap up large licks of water with her over-sized tongue. Then she’s off again, playing like the two-year-old puppy that she is. This joyous and mischievous game of chase goes on until she spots her harness.
She immediately stops in her tracks, lowering her haunches slowly and deliberately to the ground. Her ears stand straight up and tune in. Her tongue recedes inside her serious snout. Her back straightens, her muscles harden and her eyes focus.
As the harness is slipped onto her back, Jewel the German Shepherd becomes an instrument and a tool without which Jacqueline Rennebohm could not navigate. This transformed dog, Jewel the guide dog, is unrecognizable from the playful puppy who just minutes ago leapt into the air after a mosquito. This dog does not flinch when a bee buzzes around her head and she does not make eye contact with anyone or anything that may distract her from her duties.
Her job is to guide her owner and she will complete her duties at all cost, even if it means putting her playful puppyhood on hold.
Legally blind, Jacqueline Rennebohm could not get from point A to point B without Jewel’s keen senses and sharp focus, so the two of them keep play and work separate, remaining serious when the harness is on.
“It’s important to have a partner who has been consistently there with me as I grow increasingly blind so she can learn where I succeed and the points where I have challenges so that I can have a smooth transition to my new reality of being completely blind,” says the Regina native.
The 26-year-old university graduate could see when she was a child, but at the age of nine she was diagnosed with cone-rod dystrophy and life as she knew it slowly started to fade to black.
Her central vision disappeared first, with the perimeter of her field of vision eventually growing spotted and dark as well. She now sees very little, meaning she cannot read a typical font size and she cannot drive nor navigate alone in busy places.
“Right now I can’t see you at all,” says the jovial Rennebohm, looking directly into my eyes as if she can see. “I only see a little bit of motion with the odd fleck of colour, but I know you’re there because I memorized where I put your chair.”
Rennebohm’s inability to see has not stood in the way of her plans. And her plans have always been big, even according to able-bodied standards.
She is an Olympian in the pool, competing for Canada at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008. She represented her country in track and field at the Parapan Am Games in 2011, and she was the first blind athlete in Canada to join a university’s able-bodied varsity track team.
As a member of the University of Western Ontario track and field team, she trained and raced alongside sighted athletes. She counted her steps and she had a Mustangs teammate run in the lane beside her to shout out instructions about lane placement, upcoming turns and competitors. In the Parapan Am games in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2011 she finished in the top 10 in her two events, the 100-metre and 200-metre.
“You just want to live and play and work and learn like everybody else,” says the smiling and effervescent Rennebohm.
Learn about how service dogs are trained in our online-exclusive article Service dog turned SURFice dog.
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