Danelle Umstead has won three bronze medals for skiing in the Winter Paralympics, traveled across the globe, and this year, she competed on season 27 of “Dancing with the Stars.” And she’s done it all without the help of her vision.
But the blind 46-year-old does have a secret weapon up her sleeve—her guide dog Aziza.
Thanks to her partnership with Guide Dogs for the Blind, Danelle Umstead has been paired with several seeing-eye pups throughout the years, which have been instrumental in helping her to chase after her dreams. These dogs have traveled with her to compete as an Olympic Para-Alpine skier, helped her train in the gym and her first guide dog, BettyLynn, was even responsible for helping her keep her son, Brocton, safe when he was younger.
Umstead recently visited Los Angeles, California, to host a guide dog retirement party in conjunction with Natural Balance, where she also celebrated the service of several dogs, including BettyLynn. At the event, we caught up with the all-star skier to chat about the unbreakable bond she has with her guide dogs and how they have completely transformed her life.
What inspired you to start working with guide dogs?
I was always using a cane until one day, I had my newborn son on me. I was wearing him in a little [Baby] Bjorn. I was going to cross the road and was very hesitant. I was unsure of my own safety. I was like, “Am I making the right decision? Did I do this right?” At that moment I thought, “I really think I’m ready for a guide dog because there are going to be so many things with raising a son that are visual that I’m not sure of.”
That inspired me to reach out to Guide Dogs for the Blind. I explained my lifestyle and asked them if they had a dog that would be fitting for me. I went to the school for months to learn how to use a guide dog. My son, Brocton, was probably 15 months at the time. I was paired up with BettyLynn, a yellow Labrador. When I started using her independently, I focused on teaching her who Brocton was. Then every time she was anywhere near my son, I would take a piece of her dog food and give it to her so she would always want to find him. Soon, I was able to completely rely on her to always find Brocton. I would just say “Find Brocton,” and I would give her a treat every time she got near him.
The first time I was alone with BettyLynn and Brocton in a public place, I turned around and Brocton was gone within a second. He was two years old running around and I didn’t know what to do. I told BettyLynn “Find Brocton,” and she started to have a really fast pace to her and then she stopped at him. And then she was like, “Give me a treat.” I couldn’t believe it! That was my first adventure of having a guide dog to rely on. The trust continued to build from there.
The independence that I had with BettyLynn was amazing. She opened up a whole new door to things I could do and places I could visit.
BettyLynn has since retired. Are you working with another guide dog now?
BettyLynn is now 12 and unfortunately went blind in 2013. One of her eyes developed nerve damage and she lost sight in it. We say that BettyLynn was meant to be with Brocton. She retired exactly at the time my son couldn’t travel with us since he needed to stay home and go to school, so they were still together. I find it a beautiful retirement transition for her.
I thought, “Oh I’m not gonna get another guide dog because there’s not gonna be anybody like BettyLynn.” But three months later, I’m like “I can’t live without a guide dog. I’m feeling trapped and alone.” And so I was introduced to Aziza, my black Lab. Aziza has been guiding me since October of 2013 and she is even more incredible!
How have your guide dogs helped you in your sport of skiing?
BettyLynn was the first guide dog ever to represent the U.S.A. in a winter Paralympic Game. And then Aziza was the second guide dog to represent the U.S.A. in the Paralympic Games. Those were both my dogs!
The independence is the biggest part of how they help. Obviously, my dogs are not helping me ski by any means. But they are getting me to where I need to go with the confidence that I can do it by myself. They are taking me to the gym and they know my routine in the gym, so when I say, “Take me to this spot” they will take me there.
There is a part of the everyday life that if I had to do it with a cane, it would be stressful. But my everyday life seems to be a lot easier because I have the partnership with my guide dog. I have that trust with her that she is going to get me where I need to go in a routine fashion. It doesn’t matter what gym we are in, we have a routine and we establish the relationship and she helps me get what I need done, done. Because I’m always in a team sport and I’m with my husband 24/7, my guide dog also helps me to be able to go off and get my own space now too, which I think is important.
What is your bond with Aziza like?
The bond that I’ve established with Aziza is so intensely beautiful. It’s probably one of the most beautiful pictures you will ever see because she loves me truly with her whole heart. She’s always by my side checking in. And she, of course, loves treats. Nobody else feeds her. I feed her the right foods and keep her well, and I always have treats in my pockets. She and I have experienced so much together—going to airports and traveling around, just her and I.
She loves me on and off harness and that’s given me just so much security in everyday life. The simple things that most people don’t think of, like crossing a street, stopping at a curb, and going to the stairs and walking into a building and finding the cash register, just the little things people don’t realize that they see in everyday life is a challenge for me. And to have her give me that independence is amazing. Sometimes we might go into the wrong restroom or might not be at a counter that has a cash register, but it’s a counter where somebody is and I can talk to them.
She also brings people that love dogs to me. That’s the hardest thing being visually impaired; you can’t just talk to somebody that’s sitting next to you. You can’t ignite the conversation with, “Oh, I like your shoes” or stuff like that. Aziza brings conversation. She brings people to me to be the social butterfly that I want to be every day.
What products do you use in her daily routine?
I have the softest dog in the world and people think I have some kind of miracle product up my sleeve. The only miracle is from the day she was born and started eating dog food, she’s always eaten Natural Balance dog food. And she has never eaten any table food. She doesn’t have anything extra, vitamins or anything. She just eats quality food and quality treats. She loves the Natural Balance L.I.D. Limited Ingredient Diets lamb meal & brown rice formula dry dog food and her favorite dog treats are the Natural Balance L.I.T. Limited Ingredient Treats Jumpin’ Stix duck & potato formula dog treats. And that’s all she eats. I brush her every day and maybe she gets a bath once every two months if that.
The harness is provided by Guide Dogs for the Blind, where I received both of my amazing incredible guide dogs. It’s a special harness that goes over their head and has a handle for me. You shouldn’t pet a guide dog that is in a harness and working for a visually impaired person, but I choose not to have something on her that says “Don’t pet” because then I feel like that keeps people from coming up to me and I really like talking to people. I don’t want people to be scared to approach me and ask me questions. I prefer somebody to walk up and say, “Can I pet your dog?” and then I can explain that, “When she’s in harness it’s probably not a good idea, but let me have her sit and I’ll take her harness off and I’ll let you pet her.” I’d rather that happen and educate people instead of saying, “No, you can’t pet my dog. Go away.”
How has working with a guide dog changed your life?
I think I definitely lived in fear a little bit every day, especially when it came to not permitting myself to go places. And now I feel free!
It’s endless what I can do now that I’m not fearful of because I have Aziza by my side and with that partnership, I feel confident enough to go to the airport, go shopping. Just the little things that people take for granted, like going into a coffee shop by myself to order coffee. Those things I was scared of doing by myself before. I was scared of running my cane into something, of walking into a table of people, every little detail that nobody thinks about when they have vision that I have to think about and was insecure about before.
My guide dogs have opened up my life to so many new possibilities and have eased so much of my fears. I am eternally grateful to them for that and cherish the bond that we’ve developed together.
By Nicole Pajer
Featured Image: via Joe Kusumoto, Kusumoto Photography