COLUMBIA — Seeing Eye dog Xilo cocked his head when he heard noise of construction down the hall, but he quickly relaxed after deciding it was no threat. The 2-year-old yellow Lab lay on the floor of Jim Pelfrey’s new office in Schurz Hall on Wednesday, content to nap while his owner talked about losing a special guide dog and training with a new one.
Pelfrey, the first visually impaired person on MU’s Residential Life staff, began his career at MU as hall coordinator for Hudson Hall last September with the help of his guide dog, Opal.
Pelfrey recently lost the 8-year-old Labrador-retriever mix to cancer in April after working with her for six years. Opal rapidly went from a healthy, sometimes mischievous, working dog to an invalid. She was up to her usual habits just days before she showed signs of being sick. For instance, when she stole a cookie from Plaza 900 the Friday before she died.
“I thought I had two more good working years with her,” said Pelfrey
Fluid in her lungs, which usually occurs in the liver or spleen, led vets to determine that her chances of surviving were slim and she needed to be put down.
“The downside to having a guide dog is exactly what happened to Opal,” Pelfrey said. “It’s so hard to lose them.”
Still grieving for Opal, Pelfrey traveled to Seeing Eye Inc. in Morristown, N.J., for training with a new dog in late May and returned to Columbia with Xilo on June 12. He has gotten each of his five guide dogs from this facility, the oldest existing guide dog school in the world. Pelfrey said he appreciates that the group has a full ownership policy with the dogs, and that there is no patronizing graduation ceremony from the training.
“They treat blind people with dignity,” Pelfrey said. “And you eat well. You eat extremely well,” he joked.
Pelfrey spent three weeks training with Xilo, starting out with two simple walks a day and gradually moving to more complex challenges. A complex walk might consist of angled street crossings, barricades and walking on a crowded sidewalk. Xilo was even given a traffic check to make sure he could alert his blind handler of the approach of a quiet hybrid car.
Transitioning from Hudson Hall to the new Schurz Hall this summer, Pelfrey is glad to have Xilo along to help him get used to his new home in the middle of a busy college campus.
“I came in with a new dog and totally new surroundings,” Pelfrey said. “We found the dog food and the coffee pot, and we’ll go from there.”
The pair went for their first real trip Wednesday when they walked across the bridge from Schurz Hall to Pershing Hall. Xilo, despite being a little nervous about the bridge, got his owner safely there and back. So far, Pelfrey likes that he can feel Xilo pull him, which is an important quality in a guide dog and one reason Pelfrey prefers a dog to a cane.
“Xilo gives me more confidence,” he said. “There are good cane travelers, but I would find it very difficult as a cane traveler on campus.”
Pelfrey said he is optimistic about his future as hall coordinator of Schurz as well as his new relationship with Xilo. The two already appeared settled as Xilo napped right at his owner’s feet and looked up when Pelfrey spoke his name.
“I’m convinced he’s a college dog. He’s going to love this environment.”