Bryan Gearry has lived in Alaska for 40 years. Currently residing in Wasilla, a town about 50 miles outside of Anchorage, Gearry has always strived to have the “full Alaskan experience.”
To him this means trekking through nature, hunting, boating and experiencing the rugged beauty of the frontier from one of the few passenger seats in a small plane.
“Summertime here, you can’t beat it,” Gearry told PEOPLE. But for years Gearry didn’t fully experience the exhilarating summers Alaska had to offer. After he became visually impaired, Gearry used a cane to help him navigate his surroundings. While the cane did fine getting Gearry round town, it was hard to use the cane on the uneven terrain that makes up the Alaskan wilderness; limiting how much Gearry could enjoy some of his favorite outdoor activities.
“You go tramping through the woods, canes don’t work,” he said.
“It got to that point where I couldn’t go out, unless it was someplace that was flat and open.” Gearry added. “I couldn’t go anywhere.”
So when friends of his suggested looking into getting a guide dog, Gearry did some research and found Guide Dog Foundation — a New York-based non-profit organization that trains and places guide dogs with the visually impaired. Gearry applied and was accepted into the Guide Dog Foundations’s program. Since thousands of miles separate New York and Alaska, Guide Dog Foundation communicated with Gearry over phone and email to learn more about him, so they could pick a dog that was a perfect match.
Once Guide Dog Foundation trainers selected a dog they thought was a good fit, Gearry flew to New York and was brought to the Guide Dog’s Foundation school to go through a multi-week training course with a golden retriever named Sergeant. Sergeant turned out to be an ideal fit, and during their time together at the school, the pair formed a bond of mutual respect and devotion that has only grown stronger over time.
To help Sergeant adjust to life in Alaska — a far cry from suburban New York — the Guide Dog Foundation trained the dog to be comfortable with different types of travel and walking in the wilderness, and they even prepared the golden retriever for large animal encounters by taking him on visits to a horse ranch before he traveled home with Gearry.
The training was immediately put to the test as soon as Gearry and Sergeant touched down in Alaska. For years, the duo traveled the world, spent countless hours boating around their home state and had their share of large animal encounters.
Gearry recalled when Sergeant and he were out fishing and the dog encountered his first brown bear and instinctually knew to stay silent and still. “He stopped immediately, and stopped me, and did not bark, which was a really, really good thing,” he said. “I was impressed that was his reaction.”
Today, Sergeant is 11 years old and spends most of his time, “sitting around watching Oprah.” Earlier this year Gearry decided it was time for his first guide dog, who has developed a few medical issues in his older years, to retire. Guide Dog Foundation placed Gearry with his second canine, Camden, in April of this year.
Camden, a 2-year-old golden retriever, hasn’t met too much Alaska wildlife yet but he has hit the ground running. He and Gearry have traveled in numerous small boats and planes — where Camden gets his own protective headphones — traveled to Hawaii and Amsterdam, and are already planning more trips.
The energetic guide dog also accompanies his owner to band practice and concerts, where he sits in front of Gearry while his owner plays the banjo.
For Gearry, his guide dogs have offered him the opportunity to “still live that Alaskan adventure,” instead of “staring at the ceiling or watching paint dry.”
“It gives me total independence. There’s not much that I can’t do as far as getting out and going exploring,” Gearry said of his life with a guide dog.
September is National Service Dog, a great opportunity to celebrate these amazing canines who change lives every day. To learn more about Guide Dog Foundation and their work with service dogs, visit the organization’s website.
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