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THURSDAY, OCTOBER 11, 2007
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Ronnie Thomas
rthomas@decaturdaily.com

Blake Hardin with Beethoven, his guide dog, during a music class at Calhoun Community College.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Blake Hardin with Beethoven, his guide dog, during a music class at Calhoun Community College.

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Guided daily by Beethoven
Labrador retriever watches out for blind Calhoun student

Blake Hardin plays keyboard in a youth band at Austinville Church of God. He also takes guitar lessons.

But his dark world lights up at the sounds and movements of Beethoven.

“I can feel what he looks like, and I know what he is,” said Hardin, 20, of Decatur. “I see mostly a companion and a friend.”

Hardin has been blind since his premature birth, when he weighed less than 2 pounds. A second-year student at Calhoun Community College, he got his guide dog, a Labrador retriever, during the summer, after training at an Oregon school.

A former teacher at Decatur High School prompted the pursuit that began in New Jersey.

Ramona Evans of Cullman said that she taught Hardin from the time he was 3 until he graduated in May 2005.

That January, she had visited The Seeing Eye Inc., in Morristown, a program to introduce high school students to the benefits of having a guide dog.

“Blake and I had always talked about a dog,” she said. “When I returned, I called his mom to encourage him to participate.”

Flying to school

Hardin flew up alone in April 2006. School officials and other students met him at the airport.

“We stayed in a dorm, and I remember the city having really good restaurants,” he said. “It was three days of fun and a great learning experience.”

He said instructors first told the students to use their canes to go to a certain destination, down a couple of streets and onto sidewalks.v

“They timed us,” he said. “It was about a 10-minute walk. Then they gave us a dog to lead us. It took two to three minutes off the time.”

He enrolled at Calhoun in August 2006. In February, he said he began giving serious consideration to the advantage he would have with a buddy leading him back and forth to classes, and to wherever he wanted to go.

In early June, he took another flight on his own, this time into Portland, Ore. Officials drove him to Guide Dog School in nearby Boring.

“They showed us around the dorm, then we went into continuous lectures,” he said. “There was not a lot of down time.”

The first three days, students worked with Juno, a fake to simulate movements of a guide dog.

“They taught us general correction and good obedience procedures,” Hardin said. “They brought Beethoven to me June 7.”

Hardin lives with his mother, Diane Davenport, his sister, Britany Hardin, his 3-year-old nephew, Hayden Rhodes, and the family dog, Angel, who is about 8 years old and is “part poodle and part something else.” They’ve all spoiled Beethoven, whom Hardin calls “Fatty,” because he’s six pounds above his normal 70 pounds.

“He’s a trash eater,” Hardin said of Beethoven, as he gently strokes his ears. “He picks up everything and puts it in his mouth like a little kid. Sometimes if we forget to put the lid on the garbage can, he’s head first into it.”

Troublemaker

Hardin said Beethoven, 2, has given him more independence and responsibility, but he plays down his dog’s role as troublemaker.

“I let him out in the yard so he can go crazy and run around,” Hardin said, “making him think, ‘I’m a normal dog now.’ We have a tug of war ring, and he really gets into that.”

Hardin said his nephew, who only weighs about 30 pounds, first tried to ride him.

“Now, he grabs his tail, and Beethoven pulls him across the floor.”

The dog also does what he is trained to do.

“If I’m walking down sidewalks, he stops at curbs. If I’m going straight, and the sidewalk turns right or left, he stops,” Hardin said.

“He goes when I tell him which direction. And if there’s grass, he’ll stop.”

Reading traffic

Hardin said he has to know how to read traffic but Beethoven will stop for it.

“I listen,” he said, “and know when it’s time to go. But if I say, ‘forward, Beethoven,’ and he thinks something is unsafe, he won’t move. He also looks at my feet, which is his greatest point of sight, and the way I position them. I also give him hand signals, pushing my hand right or left with my vocal commands.”

Hardin attends Calhoun four days a week with his sights on a career in the music industry.

“It isn’t fair,” he said. “Beethoven gets to sleep in class.”

He had a parting message for the ladies: “I’m single, and Beethoven wants to be petted.”

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Ronnie Thomas Ronnie Thomas
DAILY Staff Writer

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