Clayton Hell of Seguin likes to joke that his guide dog, Ziva, is a real diva.
“She knows when people are telling her how good she looks because she will strut her stuff. Her tail goes up and starts wagging,” Hell said, laughing. “She wants to be part of everything, and she loves to be groomed. So I call her Ziva the Diva.”
Ziva, a 4-year-old black Labrador Retriever, whom Hell has been paired with since October 2011, is the 61-year-old Seguin resident’s second guide dog. His first guide dog, Chip, passed away unexpectedly in January 2011.
Hell hasn’t always been visually impaired. In 2000, the then 49-year-old purchasing agent for a highway construction company began to lose his vision after a bacterial infection. He was diagnosed with atrophy of the optic nerve. In February 2001, Hell was certified as legally blind.
“It was a bitter pill to swallow,” he recalled. “But I’m blessed that my health is good. Still, it is frustrating at times, but you learn to deal with it. You have to persevere because you can’t give up.”
Besides, Hell is too busy running his company, Clayton’s Snacks. He supplies sodas and snacks for the vending machines at 16 highway rest areas along Interstate 35 and Interstate 10. While one of his two sons drives him to and from the locations, Ziva, of course, is on the job and at his side. “She’s great at helping me find the garbage cans,” he said.
He also has six grandchildren whom he adores. They have learned that Ziva is not a regular pet. “They know that when she has her harness on that we’re working,” he said.
Prior to becoming a client of Guide Dogs of Texas, Hell used a cane to help him get around. However, in 2003, his sister was searching the Internet and found information about GDTX.
“I’ve always loved dogs, so it was a natural fit,” he said. “I didn’t like a cane, and I didn’t want to go out of state, either.”
Hell’s sister soon called GDTX and a meeting was scheduled. In May 2005, he was paired with Chip, his guide dog whom he had and loved for five years. Having to re-train at the GDTX center in San Antonio proved to be another pleasant experience for Hell when he was teamed with Ziva.
“It was a reinforcement of what I learned the first time and helped me fix some of my bad habits, such as modifying some of the commands or not always using hand gestures as I should,” Hell said. “I had to get back to the basics.”
And in true diva fashion, Hell recounts a story about Ziva the Diva and her very amusing diva ways. “She always goes to the store with me. When I was ready to check out, she used to go straight to the front of the line,” he said with a laugh. “Now she’s learned to get in line behind everyone else.”
Guide Dogs of Texas is a nonprofit organization that provides guide dogs to visually impaired Texans to provide them with mobility, independence and freedom. It is the only guide dog school in the state. For more information, visit www.guidedogsoftexas.org.