George Hartley, a man legally blind since 2007, decided last year it was time to get a service animal.
“I’m bullheaded and stubborn,” said the 67-year-old Warrenton resident, who talked it over with his wife, Roxanne, and a family friend. “I knew I needed one. So I said, ‘Yeah, it’s time.’”
Now Hartley and Roxanne live with Grover, an almost-2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever. And the guide dog has changed his life.
“He’s simply amazing,” Hartley said. “I couldn’t get along without him anymore.”
Hartley found Grover in May through Guide Dogs for the Blind, a donor-funded nonprofit that pairs trained canines with visually impaired people.
Though they became fast friends, Hartley and Grover had to earn their bond: For two weeks, they became acquainted with each others’ moves and signals at the Guide Dogs’ campus in Boring.
The dog helps Hartley move through the world — especially the world of Warrenton, where Hartley has lived since he was 5 years old. Strapped in a harness, Grover finds doors and seats, takes him up and down curbs, stops for cars, and winds through stores, shopping centers and whole city blocks.
“He’s my eyes, basically,” Hartley said.
A playful pup with the tamest temperament, Grover is a near-constant companion for Hartley, who walks him at least 4 miles almost every day.
“As long as you know the basic route of where you want to go, he can take you there,” Hartley said.
Sometimes they walk to Fred Meyer and catch the bus to downtown Warrenton, then trek around Warrenton Grade School or take a trail to Hammond. Heading home, they always stop by the Mini Mart for a tea- and water-break.
“George grew up in Warrenton, so he kind of knows the area, which helps him,” Roxanne said. “You’ve lived here all your life, so you kind of know where the streets (are) and where your location is. But when you lose your sight — if you closed your eyes yourself — do you really know where you’re at?”
Since his mid-20s, Hartley has suffered from a form of glaucoma that, over the last 15 years or so, has “just been getting worse and worse,” he said.
He’s completely blind in his left eye; his right recently sustained a retinal vein occlusion that has blurred his vision. Hartley’s condition forced him to give up his career as a commercial house painter.
“It’s been pretty hard for me to get used to this,” he said. “Of course, I’ve always known that there’s people a lot worse off than I am in this world, but that doesn’t make things any better for you.”
As his vision worsened, Hartley had to give up driving his prized hot rod. Now he can’t even work on it.
“Those things are all gone. Can’t do ’em anymore,” he said. “I still try doing things that I used to do. And you know you could do ’em, and you can’t do ’em anymore.
“So Roxanne’s the one that catches all the (brunt) of that stuff, which isn’t right,” he admitted. “And you say you’re sorry, but it’s too late to say you’re sorry when you already took your bad times out on her.”
But Roxanne, a school bus driver, is tremendously supportive. Long before a guide dog became necessary, she pushed Hartley to get a white cane.
“I fought that, too,” Hartley said, adding that he was “too macho to want people to know that (blindness) was my problem, I guess. But people probably did anyway.”
Since Grover entered his life, though, Hartley hasn’t needed his cane as often. Grover makes Hartley’s environment navigable, and has given him his freedom back.
And people have noticed.
“The community out here in Warrenton has just been awesome,” Roxanne said. “People see him walk, they stop and talk with him, and they give him a help-out.”
During his interview with The Daily Astorian, Hartley kept coming back to one thing: his gratitude for the Guide Dogs program. A legally blind person, he said, “couldn’t ask for anything better.”
He wanted to give a special shout-out to the program’s instructor Keith Laber and trainers Rachel Sutton and Michael Montgomery; and to Jane and Gary Meyer, who raised Grover until he was a year-and-a-half old.
“It’s just marvelous, to think of all the great things that they’ve brought to my life,” Hartley said.