NIAGARA FALLS – Stylish and petite, Carol Chiodo Fleischman sits at the dining room table in her sunny LaSalle home, her trusty canine companion, Tino, resting his golden head on the floor between her feet.
There are two “Chicken Soup for the Soul” paperbacks resting on the table, along with Simon and Schuster’s “Short Prose Reader,” which is a college textbook, and Guideposts’ “The Joys of Christmas.”
Fleischman has contributed essays and short stories to these and many other publications, despite – and often inspired by – the challenges she has faced being blind.
“But I also like humorous essays,” she said with a ready smile. “It’s fun to look for the humor in things because there’s enough sadness in the world.”
Fleischman’s latest writing adventure is an informative and delightful children’s nonfiction book entitled “Nadine, My Funny and Trusty Guide Dog,” published by Pelican Publishing Co. It’s available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and through the publisher.
Nadine was the second of the three guide dogs Fleischman has had since 1992, and the book is based on a real event.
The book illustrates the relationship between Fleischman and her guide dog, set against the dramatic backdrop of an oncoming major snowstorm. While Fleischman used the book to lovingly recall Nadine’s playfulness and mischievous personality, she also honored the black Labrador retriever’s serious work ethic once she donned her special harness.
The special bond Fleischman developed with each of her guide dogs is a common topic in her writing. And she has found that guide dogs, while admittedly a great responsibility, can offer the right candidate precious freedom.
“I get so enthusiastic when I’m talking about my guide dogs,” she said. “When I walk down the street, between my hearing and my dog’s eyes – we are a team. And this makes traveling easier.”
She is also quick to discuss “adaptive tools” like the speech synthesizer on her laptop computer, which allows her to write, and her “talking” wristwatch, which tells her the time.
“These tools can make people’s lives easier and let them keep some independence,” she said.
For the past 18 years, Fleischman has further enjoyed some independence as a part-time activities assistant at Guildcare Adult Center on Military Road, heading its story hour and leading discussions on audio books and old radio shows. The organization serves those with chronic medical conditions and functional vision problems.
Fleischman recently took some time to discuss two passions – writing and guide dogs – calling on her good-natured husband, Don, once in a while to pitch in with some information. He is the retired assistant director of the Niagara Falls Public Library, so books play a special role in this home.
“Carol is always addressing ability instead of disability,” said her husband of 34 years.
Carol, when did you begin writing?
I’ve been writing – seriously writing – for about 20 years. I had always liked to write – maybe an occasional poem or journaling or when I wanted to think something through. But when I got my first guide dog, well, it was a life-altering experience and I knew I should be writing something down.
There were all of these new experiences, all of these firsts. Like the first time the trainer put the leash in my hand. You have to start forming a bond.
And then I became involved in a local writer’s workshop.
So your topics generally revolve around your guide dogs or your physical challenges?
I have written about a variety of everyday topics, with a humorous slant. I’ve written about yard sales, entertaining and shopping, but I often return to this topic.
I started writing as I had more to say about the guide dogs and dog-handling. You become more familiar with it and maybe a little bit of an authority after a while. You get your first dog and you don’t know much; you get your second dog and know a little more; then, you get your third dog and you feel very confident in dog-handling.
Tell me about your three dogs and where you got them.
It was quite a big decision for me to get a guide dog, especially because I was fearful of large dogs and I had never had a pet. But my dogs have opened doors for me.
I got all of my dogs from the Seeing Eye in Morristown, N.J. They’ve been doing this since 1929 and are the oldest in the country. They have a number of trained dogs and they match you up with the right one. It’s just amazing that they can make that match. I think the dog trainers there are the unsung heroes, when you think of the skill it takes to train the guide dogs and then for them to have to understand so much about humans, too, to make that match.
Misty was my first dog in 1992 and she was a black shepherd. I visit a lot of schools and the children would think she was a wolf.
Nadine lived to be over 13, but I retired her at approximately 11. You get them when they are around two and you are with them 24/7, so it was a very hard choice to retire Nadine, but I think she was telling me it was time. I had her and Tino together for a while and I loved having two dogs. I think he learned some good manners from Nadine, too. Tino is a golden retriever/Labrador mix and is 7 now and he’s a good boy.
I’m not a big person, but I have a wide stride. All of the information from the dog comes up through this handle (on the harness) and into the leash, which I always hold in my left hand. I learn from his body language. It’s like a dance.
How did you decide to write a book about Nadine?
I have always felt I had something to say to a child. My mother used to call me “Mother Goose” because when we’d be in a store with my guide dog, there’d always be a trail of children behind me.
Nadine had this cute, wiggly little body. She was round and cute, like a baby, and her humor came through. Each dog is different, they have different temperaments and you get so you can read them like you do with children. They each have their own personalities, which really comes out when they come out of their harnesses (when they are off-duty).
I wanted readers to learn about this, that even though they are working dogs, they are not robots, they are dogs and they have a lot of humor, and hopefully, I was successful doing that in this book.
The book is for children in pre-k through third grade and I have had teachers and librarians tell me they love this book.
Did you say you visit school children with Tino?
I am frequently asked to visit schools. I’m going to Elmwood Franklin and Heim Elementary School soon and I’ve been going to a school in Brockport for the past 12 years.
I give a presentation to first-, second- and third-graders. Of course, my dog is the main feature. But I like to show the kids some of the things I have that talk, too, like this watch.
How old were you when you lost your sight?
I was not blind at birth, but I had night blindness when I was young. It was very unsettling and I was always seeking more light. By high school, reading was getting very difficult and my mother started reading to me. As a teenager, I was resentful, but both of us came to love reading and I later wrote an essay on her for “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks, Mom,” because she was so supportive.
By college, because of the volume that I would have to read, sometimes my eyes would just give out. By my late 20s and early 30s, I was legally blind.
How do you write?
I have a talking computer, a laptop with a speech synthesizer on it. My husband is my first editor, then the girls at the writer’s workshop. We meet a couple of times a month, but not in the summer. Anybody serious about writing should join, but you can’t be too sensitive. People are only giving their opinions and this is good for clarity.
Writing this book, sometimes I think when something looks that simple, it’s really difficult. No. 1, I had to explain what it was like to be blind; second, I had to explain what it was like to have a guide dog at your side; and third, I had to explain a very large topic in less than 1,000 words.
Any other tips for would-be writers?
I think each time you get published, you get more confident. My essays and poems led me to write my first book, “Nadine, My Funny and Trusty Guide Dog.”
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