He sees what she can't

Top dog in class

Yes, there is an irresistibly fluffy dog on campus. He attends lectures, goes to classes and even takes tax law exams. All while being the watchful eye of those who can´t see for themselves.
By Edward Szekeres / Photo’s by Luís Felipe Fonseca Silva


Iris and Zion are inseparable.

Iris is a 23-year old Pre-master student of tax law. And like the thousands of students who pass through the Harmonie building every day, Iris attends classes, drinks a daily cappuccino in the upstairs cafeteria, and plays sports in the afternoon. But she is unlike them, too. ‘I can only see the difference between day and night.’

Zion is a professionally trained guide dog who just celebrated his seventh birthday. Zion’s five brothers, four of them also guide dogs, didn’t attend the party. Nor did his sister, who was appointed ‘mommy’ of one of the country’s few guide dog schools. But Iris, his best friend, was by his side. She always is.

Iris can’t imagine her life without her Goldendoodle, a cross-breed between a Golden Retriever and a Poodle. ‘He feels what I feel’, says Iris. Zion can tell when she’s upset; last week, Iris had to rush to class. Her sensitive dog didn’t like that. ‘I went to the wrong building and I was late. I was so stressed. I could tell he was not having fun.’

But a little treat from a small pouch Iris wears pinned to her waist makes everything better. Zion lives for the snacks he gets as a reward for good deeds and tasks carried out to perfection. ‘When we approach the stairs, people often freak out and scream “shit, don’t fall!”’, says the grinning Iris. ‘But we always manage.’

Curled up between his student-owner’s legs, Zion assumes his typical classroom position. At first, he seems to be paying attention to the lecture. But it isn’t long until he falls asleep. Teachers don’t seem to mind the napping pup. And Zion appreciates that. He is so fond of some lecturers that he greets them before every class. Iris´ classmates, however, often don´t know what to make of the presence of a dog in the classroom. ‘Some of them don´t say anything, others approach Zion with care while some just pet him straightaway, and only then they say: “Aww, cute dog, can I pet him?”’

Zion might sleep through class, but he’s no slouch. He understands no fewer than three languages: Dutch, English and even Frisian. He also accompanies Iris to her exams. Because of her handicap, she takes exams in a separate room where she gets a little more time to work. ‘I usually have my exams in Aletta Jacobshal and the building’s caretaker always brings a bowl of water for Zion.’

Moving through the city quickly, almost at a gallop, Zion leads Iris through an infinite mass of people. Now and then Iris speaks quietly: ‘left’, or ‘right’, and murmurs a few words of praise. Their steps are synced. An unspoken bond of unites them as they cautiously approach the tricky crossroads and traffic lights dotting the crowded streets.

Before Zion, Iris had another guide dog for a bit. ‘But it was so attached to its trainer that we never really bonded.’ But her relationship with Zion is truly special. It took them about six months to get used to each other. The two loving best friends spend all day, every day together. But first and foremost, Zion is a guide dog. ‘I don’t just have him for fun. I wouldn’t want to walk anywhere without a guide dog’, she says.

Still, it often feels like Zion is more than a dog. ‘He understands me. When I just want to go the shop, he somehow knows it. He is like a mirror of me. When I´m happy, he’s happy.’ Sometimes, it might seem that Zion is even better than humans. ‘Because he can’t talk, he doesn’t judge you. Or at least he doesn’t say so.’

On her way to the park, Iris suddenly finds herself standing at the entrance of a shopping centre. ‘Is this Primark?’, she wonders aloud, confused.

Zion has momentarily led her astray, possibly tracking the smell of food. Iris doesn’t need help: she pauses for a moment, turns, and retreats a few steps to put them back on course. ‘I navigate purely from memory and by the sounds around me. I pay attention to the echo coming from the buildings. That way I can picture in my head where I am standing.’

Finally, the two enter the park. Zion can hardly contain his excitement as they cross the bridge separating the park from the road. He indulges himself by barking at someone skating past as Iris stoops to attach a bell to his collar. Now she can hear him while he runs around, grabbing sticks and carrying them from one point to another.

Zion is a ‘destroyer’, Iris says, chewing on every stick and ball he can find. Freed from his harness, his saunters around with obvious pleasure. But he tends to get nervous when he comes across other dogs. ‘People say he shouldn’t do this, shouldn’t do that, shouldn’t get agitated. As if it was not allowed because he’s a guide dog. But all in all, he is just a dog,’ says Isis. ‘He’s not perfect.’

It’s important for a guide dog to have a little fun. This way, he enjoys his days more and munches on extra treats from his owner’s pouch. ‘No one likes to be commanded all the time without being properly rewarded.’

Iris already holds a master’s degree in accounting and competitively practices Jiu Jitsu, a martial art and combat sport. She competes with non-handicapped peers and has won several prizes already. She is also a published author of two books of fiction which she wrote at the age of 14. ‘I do have Zion all the time with me, but I also have my own life.’

Iris has been blind since she turned 6. Before that, she was able to see approximately 10 percent of her surroundings. Today, she uses a special voice tool and Braille keyboard on both her phone and laptop to communicate with her friends and to complete her assignments. Her writing, both in English and Dutch, is spotless.

She is grateful to the university to be able to walk with Zion everywhere, without the slightest hint of a problem. ‘I didn’t even have to fill in any paperwork. Everything works smoothly in this respect.’

Iris’s smile and joyful demeanour are contagious. Looking out of the cafeteria window while sipping her daily cappuccino, she strokes Zion on the head. Rays of sunshine stream through the glass. ‘It’s a beautiful day today, isn´t it?’


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