A lifesaving Seeing Eye dog retires in Bethany Beach

Coastal Point • Laura Walter : Ann Tansey enjoys a little leisure time with Galen, who is now recently retired.Coastal Point • Laura Walter : Ann Tansey enjoys a little leisure time with Galen, who is now recently retired.When Ann Tansey awoke from surgery to suddenly find herself blind, she first imagined herself standing at the beach with a guide dog. Nearly 13 years later, she’s retiring the black Lab that gave her independence for 11 years, even in blindness: a loving old dog named Galen.

“He has given me every moment of his life, loyalty and love and protection,” she said. “I would like to give him a royal sendoff.”

Tansey retired Galen on his 13th birthday, Nov. 11, buying him a New York strip steak to celebrate. Fittingly, that was Veterans Day.

“He is my veteran,” Tansey said. “He has saved my life. He has defended me against all danger.”

‘We are a team’

A native of Virginia, Tansey has lived for almost 40 years in Bethany Beach, moving there with her late husband, Joseph Tansey, a former FBI agent, lawyer and founder of Tansey Real Estate. Despite the blindness that eventually challenged her, she was still an independent woman who once ran for public office. Not wanting to burden her sons, she began learning how to live a blind life.

“You can’t just go get a dog,” she noted.

The Division for the Visually Impaired helped Tansey to, metaphorically, crawl before she could walk. She became white-cane proficient before entering the Seeing Eye Institute (“the Harvard of Seeing Eye schools,” she said).

Located in Morristown, N.J., the Seeing Eye Institute raises and trains dogs for its own month-long boot camp, and holds the trademark on the Seeing Eye name, with other guide dogs being properly called just that.

Tuition is free. Students just pay $150 for their first dog. With the lifetime support the Seeing Eye provides, each human/dog partnership is worth thousands of dollars. The Seeing Eye relies entirely on private donations to operate.

As soon as Tansey was paired with the then-2-year-old Galen, she became completely responsible for him, training for five hours every morning, plus feeding and exercising him.

After passing their final test, Tansey and Galen came home, and she showed him Bethany Beach for the first time.

They stood on the boardwalk together, fulfilling her vision, and began learning their way around.

“The dog is a bridge that gets them from place to place,” said Michelle Barlak, Seeing Eye spokesperson.

But Galen also knows when to disobey.

“If I give him a command to go forward and he sees a car coming, he’ll stand in front of me and won’t let me go,” Tansey said.

That’s constructive disobedience.

“He saved my life twice,” she said.

In Rehoboth Beach, Galen pushed her back when a car jumped the curb. Adding to the challenge, car engines are quieter nowadays, and Galen has also prevented Tansey from walking in front of a vehicle on Route 26.

So Tansey turned her focus to safe road crossings. She (and Galen) pushed for Delaware to install street crossings that accommodate the vision-impaired. Now, several pedestrian crossings issue a verbal command to “cross,” as well as the usual visual cues.

‘A purpose in blindness’

Tansey volunteered for Delaware Hospice in Milford 18 years, before and after her blindness.

“Just because you’re dying doesn’t mean you can’t have joy,” she said.

Escorted by Galen, Tansey comforted six different people each week by singing, praying and reciting poetry with them. She might even throw in some blind jokes.

Now add to the equation a big, shiny black Lab. He laid his head on their beds, or amused the visiting children, and “the sorrow would dissipate for a time. … They loved him.”

Soon, families were requesting that Tansey and Galen visit their loved ones.

People don’t exactly look or feel their best on their deathbed, but Tansey can’t see that.

“I was not distracted by how they looked,” she said. “They could see my love and my soul, and that’s how I felt with them. It was accepting.”

Tansey has sat with many people as they passed away alone. She sang and prayed over them until the last moments.

“It doesn’t have to be depressing. It can be beautiful,” she said. “I tried to make it as peaceful and beautiful as I could.”

Later, Tansey turned to the Alzheimer’s unit of Brandywine Assisted Living Center. She gave hand massages to the residents of the facility on Route 54.

“When you’re disabled, when you’re dying, it’s all about touch,” Tansey said, who also taught hand massage to spouses so they could communicate to the end.

She’s beginning a Stockley Center program for the blind, as well.

Life on her terms

“I loved every minute of it with Galen,” she said. “We didn’t depend on anyone.”

Catching rides with DART paratransit, Tansey still lives life on her terms.

“I do love my life. It’s very different than I thought.”

Today, she sits on an armchair, looking sharp from her curly head to black ankle boots. The room is like a country garden, with decorative birdcages and paintings of farms, flowers and vines.

She designed this addition to her home, although she’s never seen it.

Tansey gets regular human help around the house, but in blindness, she gardens and does her own makeup. She’s been to France, and “You can’t say that I didn’t see it.”

Galen has been her constant companion on planes and trolleys, in the voting booth and at the University of Delaware’s lifelong learning classes.

Then, a year ago, Galen became ill.

She brought him daffodils, played opera and rubbed his paws, just like any other patient. And Galen got better.

But he’s still an old dog, especially for a large breed, although the Seeing Eye has increased their dogs’ service longevity and “nearly eradicated hip dysplasia” through breeding. Galen’s career has exceeded the average by nearly four years.

Now he pads slowly around the house, happy for attention, no longer leaping into cars with the ease of his younger self. His hips have gotten tired of walking for 13 years, so he takes the lift onto DART busses.

Making the leap

Despite such meticulous training, a Labrador retriever still wants to run, swim and eat people-food.

“Dogs are still dogs,” Barlak said. “They’re dogs first.”

Though stunned when he first saw the ocean, Galen now longs to play in the water. In summer, he lies dutifully under his own umbrella, though he once had to be coaxed from the pond with a hotdog.

“He has to be watching me constantly,” Tansey said.

“The dog has a job to do,” Barlak said. That’s why they’re discouraged from running around too much or interacting with many people or dogs on the street. “It’s important to ignore the dog. Do not pet the dog or make eye contact with the dog. … If the dog is focused on you, it’s not focused” on its owner.

But Tansey said Galen’s approachability has been a good thing.

Just as Galen was a comforting link for those hospice patients, he has eased Tansey into outside situations. People see a lady walking her shaggy black Lab. They focus immediately on the friendly dog instead of the blindness.

“It puts me at ease to be part of the world, to talk about my dog and what he does for me,” Tansey said. “Everybody loves him. He’s been a celebrity about town for 12 years.”

Someone once hollered across the street, “There’s Galen!” To this day, she doesn’t know who.

She called Galen her “greatest God-given gift,” besides her grandchildren, who find it perfectly natural that their grandmother should have a Seeing Eye dog, and ‘What — yours doesn’t?’

“When you only do cane travel or guide, it’s a neon sign: ‘I’m blind.’ When you have a dog, it allows you to … depend on someone other than a person,” she said.

“I can’t see my life without a Seeing Eye dog, and he’s had the experience of living life with me to the fullest,” Tansey said. “It’s a shame you have to go blind to get a Seeing Eye dog.”

Life hasn’t been easy for Tansey. Her initial blindness training came with plenty of bumps, bruises and much worse. But it hasn’t stopped her from living a meaningful life.

“Every day is a new challenge… and I embrace it.”

In spring, Tansey will return to Morristown to train with a new dog. And, although he’s officially out of the harness, Galen will live comfortably in Bethany Beach until the end of his days.

And he will finally get to play in the sea.