New set of eyes: Missoula man discovers his new navigator
Nesbit, left, an 11-year-old yellow Labrador who has served as owner George Kerscher's eyes for the past 10 years is retiring, handing off the leash to a much younger Mikey, right, who has already started guiding Kerscher through his busy world.
MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

He's a tired old pooch now, no longer the energetic young pup that George Kerscher found to be his eyes to the outside world nearly 10 years ago.

Nesbit yawns. He takes his place at Kerscher's feet in the blind man's Rattlesnake home. After a lifetime of watching his master's ankles, guiding him from curb to street, through airports across the world and 1.2 million miles of sky miles, the yellow Labrador has earned his place on his tummy and off his paws, whiling his time by watching the world through droopy eyes.

Nesbit is retired.

"It's nice that it's under such pleasant circumstances that he gets to retire," says Kerscher, scratching Nesbit's ears. "We've got a nice backyard, and Mr. Squirrel is ready to torment him full time."

Kerscher's new guide dog is Mikey, also a yellow Lab. At 22 months, he's far more up to the challenge of navigating his master through the world, which began to go dark in the late 1970s when Kerscher's retinas began degenerating. Kerscher met Mikey in March at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, Calif. Together, the two graduated from the intense training school in April.

Mikey has been at his feet ever since.

And he'll be put through his paces, that's for sure.

As secretary general of the DAISY Consortium, which develops media software for people with disabilities - mostly, the vision-impaired and dyslexic - Kerscher is a globetrotter.

DAISY, which stands for Digital Accessible Information System, creates text and audio software for those who, for various reasons, can't read. Among other things, it synchronizes text to audio, translating the written word into the spoken.

And it has Kerscher, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Montana, meeting some of the biggest figures in the software world. In fact, DAISY just finished a project with Microsoft, allowing users of Microsoft Word to save text files into the DAISY format.

After retiring Nesbit, Kerscher went looking for a new companion.

And he wasn't after just any dog. Yes, he wanted a sturdy and dependable guide dog. But it had to be, above all, a nice dog, a good boy.

"I said that I wanted a happy dog, and I didn't care if it was a Lab or a golden (retriever) or a cross," says Kerscher. "I really like the idea of a happy dog, not just a working, morose, nose-to-the-grindstone dog."

When he's not working, Mikey is a ball of energy.

"He is the happiest dog I've ever seen," says Kerscher. "He's got a full-body wag, from his nose to his tail and everything in between."

There is a special bond between the blind and their guide dogs. Traveling around the world, lots of people got to know and love Nesbit. Delta Air Lines honored him when he retired, and the folks who were regulars at the Crown Room Club at Salt Lake City International Airport knew Nesbit by name.

"Everyone knew him," says Kerscher. "He knows the command, 'Find the Crown Room.' "

In Nesbit's last trip in March, a lot of people who don't even know Kerscher by name said goodbye to his faithful dog.

"I broke into tears," says Kerscher. "I was a blithering idiot."

Mikey is fully trained, but he's still getting to know his new master and his habits. Over the next year, there will be adjustments as the two get familiarized and settled into their new lives together.

"At only 22 months, he's still a pup," says Kerscher. "It takes time. We've graduated, and we're walking down the street safely, but there's a whole lot more he needs to learn before he's working as a well-oiled machine."

As for Nesbit, well, he's doing what many humans do when they retire - eating and sleeping.

"He's earned his Kibble for life," Kerscher says. "He's now going to become a guard dog. He's going to guard our couch."

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

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