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Guided by Friendship
By Regan Michelle White

The relationship between four-year-old black Lab Toby and his owner 48-year-old Kevin Fitterer can be described as nothing short of eye opening. Fitterer, who has been blind since the age of 26 due to diabetes, got Toby four and a half years ago and it didn't take long for his family to realize he had acquired much more than a canine companion.

Fitterer's sister Anita Defazio described how Kevin came to acquire the then eight-week-old Toby. “My other brother took Kevin to get him (Toby). Kevin picked up all the different puppies. He sensed something special when he picked Toby up and that was it,” she said. Fitterer has always loved dogs but had to prolong getting one due to his health. After more than nine years of dialysis and a successful kidney and pancreas transplant, Fitterer was finally healthy enough to find the dog he had always wanted and that dog was Toby.

Kevin and his family are quick to point out that by all accounts Toby is just a normal, fun-loving Lab. Mobility trained to use a cane but often going without one, Kevin functions as a sighted person with the help of his siblings and his mother. He walks without assistance around his neighborhood and has even become the handyman of his condominium complex fixing everything from flooring to shelving. “I'm good,” he said in explanation. “I've only hit my finger once...okay maybe twice.” Fitterer is always hard at work and naturally independent - he wanted the same in a dog.

His sister explained that Kevin never wanted a guide dog in the first place. “He personally just never really felt it was really fair to a dog to follow around a blind person all day,” Defazio said. “Even though he's (Kevin's) blind, he acts like a sighted person and he treats his dog like a normal dog.” Additionally, there were no guide dog schools for him to attend in Pennsylvania, and with his health issues of impending transplants and frequent dialysis it prevented him from traveling to centers in places such as New York or Florida for extended guide dog training sessions.

It didn't take long for family and friends to realize that Toby was no normal dog. “We noticed early on that Toby moves out of the way to make room for Kevin,” Defazio said. “He knows what to do whether to go to Kevin or to move away - it's amazing.” Kevin understatedly confirmed his family's suspicions, “I think he knows I can't see - he just seems to know.”

Kevin, who lives at home with his mother Winnie Fitterer, in Clairton PA., just outside of Pittsburgh, initially expressed concern that they wouldn't have room to accommodate a dog. “I said we'd make room,” his mother said. “I'm so happy Kevin has him. ... He's a very good dog - if he wasn't I couldn't put up with it,” she said with a laugh. She notices the bond that Toby and Kevin share every day. “I watch them when they go out and Toby more or less guides Kevin to the sidewalk. He seems to know that Kevin is not seeing he's very good.”

Over the years Kevin has grown accustomed to the surroundings of his home. Kevin and Toby walk daily and Anita helps take Toby on longer runs. Kevin's and Toby's daily walks seem to strike the perfect balance for each to be who they are. “Kevin just grabs Toby and off they go,” Defazio laughed. Toby ensures that Kevin stays on track but also gallivants playfully on his lead like any Lab. Kevin trusts Toby's instincts but reins him in when necessary. It's not just that Kevin needs Toby Toby needs him too.

“They have such a strong bond,” Defazio said. “Kevin was in the hospital a year ago for a couple of days and when Kevin wasn't there he laid in Kevin's doorway every night for three nights until Kevin got home.” Kevin said that Toby looks forward to his rub down massage every morning and relishes eating all day long. “He's always full of pep,” he said. The entire family admits Toby might be a bit spoiled. “We'd do anything for this dog,” Defazio said. “The joy he's brought to Kevin and to us - it's an amazing thing. Sometimes it's the brightest spot in our lives.” Winnie Fitterer agreed, “We love him. Without him our lives would be empty.”

Kevin and Toby are inseparable, spending all day together. “He's good to have as a partner,” Kevin said. Toby and Kevin love to make trips to the pet store together and Kevin gladly admits to indulging Toby's every whim. “He goes every other week to get a new harness, leash and collar,” Kevin said. “I like to get him all different colors. He also has rain coats, winter coats, sheepskin coats. I had to build him a new cabinet and a toy box for all his things.” Toby's currently collar of choice is royal blue. “I usually know what color I want to get,” Kevin said with a smile.

Kevin's fortitude in the face of his lifelong illnesses and the friendship he has found with Toby provide constant inspiration to his family. “I don't know if Toby's amazing because of Kevin or if Kevin's amazing because of Toby I just know that they're good for each other,” Defazio said. We couldn't agree more.

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