BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ- Navigating the hallways of Governor Livingston is not easy, especially with nearly a thousand students and numerous school staff. For guidance counselor Marissa Gold, that task became more difficult when she lost her sight in 2012. That is until she adopted her service dog Ocean in the spring.
Gold has been in the process of getting a service dog for a few years, but finally hit the jackpot after connecting with Freedom Guide Dogs last May. She was accepted into their Multiple Disabilities Program and adopted Ocean during the spring 2020. Ocean has since become an important part of Gold’s everyday life.
In her search, Gold looked for a guide dog to help her in everyday activities. Gold hoped that having a guide dog would make her more independent. Having the dog would allow her to safely venture around her job and her neighborhood, and even more ambitious locations like movie theaters and malls.
Leslie Kaltenbach, whose two daughters are students of Gold, said, “If Ocean can help facilitate her job responsibilities, then it will be very beneficial for Ms. Gold, and ultimately her students.”
In just the few months they have been working together, Ocean has helped Gold to travel faster, meet new people, and complete her tasks in a more accessible way.
However working with Ocean has not come without much training and patience.
What might seem like a mundane activity, crossing the street was one of the greatest challenges Gold and Ocean faced.
When Gold did experience situations where she knew she and Ocean were not at the right location, it was jarring and a little frightening. “There have been a lot of positives, but getting disoriented can be a bit scary,” Gold said.
Despite these difficulties, the pair is determined to succeed, and so they spent their summer maneuvering around Gold’s neighborhood to practice crossing and walking busy streets, and arriving at specific destinations.
Gold said, “The dog is only as smart as I am able to correct her. She is working on word recognition and we are working hard every day.”
Much of this hard work has paid off and the pair was even able to make it through airport security, a feat difficult for anyone let alone a dog.
Additionally, Ocean has been mastering her vocabulary recognition skills meaning it is becoming easier for Gold to communicate directions with her when moving around. For example, Gold can tell Ocean to go to her office and Ocean will be able to lead her there.
For the other guidance counselors, starting off the school year with a new “coworker” has been a treat. Guidance Counselor Deborah Velelis said, “There is nothing like dog therapy! Having a dog in the office makes me so happy and brings a calming effect.”
Velelis especially enjoys when Ocean has her working harness off, so staff and students can pet her. When Gold is holding the harness, people are discouraged from interacting with Ocean because she is at work.
Gold has also found, unexpectedly, that having Ocean is a great conversation starter. Ocean encourages passerbys, especially students, to interact with Gold by asking her about the dog.
Freshman Kyle McCulloch said, “It’s really exciting to see Ocean whenever I see Ms. Gold.”
As they work together, Gold has high hopes that their relationship will strengthen. “Eventually we will come together as more of a team, and things have already been getting better.”