Have Dog, Will Travel

Image shows Have Dog, Will Travel's book cover, white text on a light blue background with an illustrated stylized brown guide dog in a harness below it.Note: this review contains light spoilers.

When I read a new-to-me writer and the writing doesn’t affect me, I don’t necessarily give up on the writer. Time passes and if another bit of their work enters my literary galaxy, I revisit them.

Have Dog, Will Travel is not the first book I encountered by Stephen Kuusisto, but it’s the first one I finished. From the opening scene as he contemplates what it’s like to work with a guide dog,  I wanted to know more. He vividly describes the flow of teamwork, the partnership of handler and guide dog . But this book isn’t just about Kuusisto’s first guide, Corky. It’s about his journey of accepting blindness, too.

As the story unfolds, Kuusisto includes mistakes and interactions that humanize him and keep this from being one of those hero tropes. He admits he denial about blindness and showing vulnerability until age 38 when his teaching job ended. He had lived in on insular world of his construction. This didn’t make me judge him, it led me to want to know why.

Solid white cane skills of orientation are the foundation on which guide dog handling builds upon. Kuusisto must learn cane skills or there will be no dog. Sharing his plans with his mother, a woman sidetracked in homemaking, but more by her love affair with alcohol, the reader witnesses a missed opportunity for support. When told of the impending visit to guide dog school, his mother is not pleased:

“People will know you’re on the fritz.” she says.
“On the fritz? You mean like a household appliance?“Kuusisto says.
“Yes. You should never let people see you’re defective. They’ll think less of you.”

It reminds me of the NFB tagline: blindness isn’t what holds us back. Clearly Kuusisto employs his agency as an adult otherwise there would be no Corky, no book.

He goes on to my favorite parts of the book, the time at guide dog school. He illuminates the whole process, from the roles of loving puppy raisers to the trainers who match you by stride and pace to an available dog, to the dogs who make the cut and why. He weaves in history of guide dogs in America as well as some disability rights history. I doubt a general audience is aware of these things.

Now this brings me to a criticism. Kuusisto indulges other tangents throughout the narrative by referencing characters in mythology and whatnot. His poet mind must be full of these kinds of things, but after a few mentions I was over it. Yes, you’re professorial, you don’t have to keep proving it. Furthermore, the meaningful parts of the story are strong enough without the literary flourishes.

Overall, Kuusisto’s experiences both at school as well as his wide travels later do much to educate in an entertaining way. As I finished the book, I realized it filled a void. Years ago, I read another book by a man who used a guide dog and lived through the evacuation of one of the twin towers on 9/11. His book ended up being more of a memoir of the man rather than a trip into guide dog handling. Which is fine, but it was not what I expected. Kuusisto’s book answered those leftover questions and left me with a greater respect for all of the work involved with service animals.

Corky and Kuusisto hit their stride and so did Have Dog, Will Travel. A man embraces his blindness and the fascinating work with his guide dog that follows is well worth reading.

Have you read books about guide dogs? Would you know how to interact with a person using a guide dog? Have you wondered about the training of guide dogs? Tell me about it.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Steph McCoy says:

    I haven’t read any books on guide dogs except for The Bright Side of Darkness by Jo Elizabeth Pinto. Although there is one character in the book who has a guide dog the book revolves more around the other characters.

    1. Thanks for bringing that book to my attention, Steph! Love what continues to be happening over on Bold Blind Beauty. Thank you for the time and effort you spend to bring stories to light.

      1. Steph McCoy says:

        You’re welcome Susan. 💖

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