No one ever thought Amy Dixon would become a professional athlete, including Amy Dixon. Just ask her high school cross country coach. During her brief stint on the team, Dixon placed last at every event.
But after developing a rare eye condition in her 20s, Dixon is now one of the top sight-impaired athletes in the world, medaling in triathlons around the globe.
And she’s doing it all with her guide dog Woodstock at her side.
Dealing with a Diagnosis
At first, Dixon attributed her vision problems to stress. She was in college and working full time to pay the bills. She thought her clumsiness was a byproduct of waking up at 7 a.m. to study after a midnight shift waiting tables.
But at age 22, Dixon was diagnosed with uveitis, an inflammatory autoimmune eye disease that had already claimed 70 percent of her vision. Dixon was in denial at first. She was also angry. She’d spent the past four years working her tail off to put herself through pharmacy school, and now it felt like it all that had been in vain.
As doors closed around her, she worried she’d have to move back in with her family. She was scared she’d be a burden. But after finding the right doctor, she was put on a steroid routine that stabilized her vision loss.
As helpful as they were, the medications also made her gain weight. Which is where her journey to becoming a world-class paratriathlete began.
Getting Back on Her Feet
To try and combat the weight gain caused by her steroid routine, Dixon started swimming laps. After losing a few pounds she tried— and succeeded —to tackle the spin bike. Finally, she got brave enough to attempt a few miles on the treadmill, tying herself to the machine with an elastic band and holding on tight. “I don’t recommend that, by the way,” she says.
A woman who serves as a guide for triathletes with sight impairments saw Dixon’s posts on social media and reached out. If Dixon was ever interested in competing, she’d be happy to work with her, the woman told her. Then a local triathlon training specialist offered to be her coach.
Now, four years later, Dixon’s ranked fourth in the world among sight-impaired triathletes. She placed first at the Aquathlon World Championships in Cozumel last year, as well as at the Yokohama World Paratriathlon Event.
Her proudest achievement to date, though, was putting together a training camp for fellow triathletes who are sight-impaired at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, one of the first camps of its kind.
“I realized there’s nothing you can’t teach your body to do or adapt to,” she said.
Finding the Right Service Dog
The transition to world-renowned athlete and coach was tough on Dixon’s first guide dog, Elvis. The Labrador craved more structure, and the stress of his new schedule eventually resulted in a fear of shiny floors—not good for a dog who has to spend a lot of time in airports accompanying his owner to competitions around the world.
After being at her side for seven years, during which he accompanied her to 19 surgeries, laid his head in her lap during painful eye injections and kept her company during breakups and moves, Elvis retired early.
“It was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” Dixon says. “But it was absolutely the right decision.”
By then, Amy had already lost most of her remaining vision. To avoid another painful goodbye in a few years, she wanted her next guide dog to work as long as possible. Enter: Woodstock.
Woodstock is one of the nearly 1,500 service dogs placed by Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, Inc., a training organization that works exclusively with German Shepherds.
Because they were originally bred as working dogs, German Shepherds are highly qualified to work as guide dogs and with law enforcement and search and rescue teams, says Eliot D. Russman, Fidelco’s president and CEO. The dogs are intelligent; they work well with humans, and most importantly for Dixon, they don’t need as much structure as other breeds, enabling them to work for as long as a decade.
To become a Fidelco guide dog, the German Shepherds are trained to believe they are six feet wider and six feet taller than they actually are. This helps them see, and avoid, any potential obstacles in their owner’s path. Because they’re such a smart breed, the dogs can also be taught “intelligent disobedience” and rebel against their human’s order if it will put him or her in danger.
“There’s a lot that goes into training a service dog so it becomes a good citizen as well as a capable guide,” Russman says.
Living with Woodstock
Life with Woodstock was different at first than life with Elvis. The German Shepherd bonded to her very quickly. Almost too quickly.
“Literally from day one I was his person,” says Dixon.
The devotion was a bit of a problem at first. Woodstock growled when anyone got too close, whether it was Dixon’s chiropractor or someone who wanted a hug, and for the first six months, Dixon worried they weren’t a good match.
“He was doing a great job, but I was so intimidated,” she says. “I thought, I have a lot of dog here.”
It took a while, but eventually Woodstock learned that not everyone was a threat. He’s relaxed considerably, but he’s still very protective of Dixon (just ask the people who deliver her mail).
Compared to Elvis, Dixon says Woodstock is more matter-of-fact about his job. Whereas Elvis seemed super excited to serve as a guide dog, she thinks Woodstock prefers a challenge.
“Woodstock’s like, ‘Give me something harder to do than saving you from a car. I could solve a math problem right now’,” she says.
To keep him entertained, Dixon started taking Woodstock to Rally classes, and the two plan to compete in a novice dog show this fall. He loves the training, she says, adding that it’s also a chance for them to bond even more as a team.
“I have not found his physical or mental limit yet,” says Dixon. “Every week at training he learns something new and acts like he’s been doing it his whole life. I’m realizing how lucky I am to have such a brainiac for a dog.”
As hard as Woodstock works, when he’s at home, he’s a total love. He likes to sit in her lap—all 85 pounds of him—and flip on his back to show his belly. He has ten stuffed pigs that are his babies. When Dixon is sick, he tries to sneak on her bed to cuddle (she admits she lets him get away with the latter).
In a way, the two are very similar: Woodstock never shuts off, and neither does Dixon. It’s what makes him such a good service dog, and what makes her one of the world’s top-rated athletes.
“I totally get him,” she says. “It’s a perfect match.”
Images via Amy Dixon