Originally created 12/18/00

Faithful companion gets owner to Mass



NORTH AUGUSTA - Karl is such a good dog that he goes to church almost every day, even if he sleeps through the sermon and sometimes snores.

Those who sit near the contemporary choir at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church know that Karl stands when they do and lies down when they sit or kneel. He knows the liturgy after six months as a Seeing Eye dog to a devout Catholic who also attends daily Mass at Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Augusta, where there's a sidewalk crack that once tripped her. Karl warns her when they near it.

At Our Lady of Peace, when choir Director Anne Whittington plays 6- and 12-string guitar at Saturday Mass, Karl lies in front of her chair. When she goes to the ambo, the lectern where a cantor stands to sing, he makes sure she does not stumble on the stairs. He takes her to communion.

Ms. Whittington, legally blind but with minimal vision, expected to leave Karl "at rest" during communion, when she can walk in line with others, she said. The yellow lab stayed where he was told, but his eyes darted frantically around the sanctuary, seeking the woman he's supposed to protect.

Pianist Pat Roberts noticed the dog's discomfort. "I was afraid he would go after Anne, and I knew I couldn't chase him," she said. "It was clear he was looking for her."

Karl didn't bolt, but he didn't relax until he knew all was well. It was the last time he skipped communion. "He considers it part of his job," Ms. Whittington said.

Trained at Seeing Eye Inc. in Morristown, N.J., Karl knows his job. He can play with a frisky passion, but when he is working, nothing distracts him. Once he even ignored a chattering, swooping mockingbird that taunted him and "didn't skip a beat," Ms. Whittington said.

With music in the background at home and at church, Karl doesn't usually react to it. But one song brings him to animated attention, tail wagging and eyes bright. So its singer-composer sent Karl an autographed picture that hangs over his bed beside Miss South Carolina's photo.

And monks at the Conyers monastery gave Karl the medal he wears - representing St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals - when he behaved impeccably on a three-day religious retreat.

A diabetic whose eyesight failed suddenly 15 years ago, Ms. Whittington first gained mobility with a white cane. With her vision getting worse and after a friend suggested it, she decided a year ago to apply for a dog. She laughs now at her initial skepticism.

"I told him, `I don't like dogs. I've had cats all my life."' She had a tabby at the time, Agnes, then 14. Then she factored in a recent divorce and a faith that means she likely will always be single:

"Barring getting hit by a beer truck on 15th Street, I am going to be completely blind before I die. I am permanently single, and a dog made sense for security reasons as well as mobility. A woman alone with a white cane is a lot less forbidding than a woman with a white cane and a dog."

The Seeing Eye evaluation took six months. Ms. Whittington went to New Jersey last May to be matched with a dog and trained for 27 days. The outgoing musician was paired with what she calls "a mellow, yellow fellow."

At Our Lady of Peace, Karl is part of the parish family. He has a bowl in the church kitchen. And the pastor, the Rev. Sandy McDonald, has explained to parishioners that they're not to pet or speak to Karl, cute as he is, without Ms. Whittington's say-so. The Seeing Eye people say that touching or distracting a guide dog is like grabbing the steering wheel of a moving car.

The no-touch rule is ingrained. Youngsters remind each other.

Until Karl, some parishioners didn't know about Ms. Whittington's vision problems. She reads music - greatly enlarged - and she can see dimly in an 8-degree range. With a strong magnifier, she uses her computer.

Knowing these abilities, too, will disappear, she is cheerful. When the darkness falls, she said, "I will still have my faith. I will still have music, which is such an integral part of my faith and life. And I will still have Karl."

The working life of service dogs is about 10 years. She can choose then whether to let Karl retire in New Jersey or keep him as a pet when a younger Seeing Eye dog takes over.

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.