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DOG'S OWNER BLIND - BUT OTHERS CAN'T SEE

Waiters and executives in power suits step around the paws of a snoozing Labrador retriever sprawled into the aisle of a restaurant in the crush of the lunch hour.

The sight of the dog sleeping in the middle of the Cheesecake Factory causes one of two reactions: either a raised eyebrow and a snap of the head to see what kind of person would bring a dog into a restaurant (isn't that illegal?) or a melt-in-their-shoes, look-at-the-puppy smile.Mary Kay Cottingham sees none of this.

"Is he in the aisle?" she asks, and then reaches down and slides Madison back toward the booth. On her instruction, he works himself into a more tucked position, out of the way of the traffic.

It's been a good day for Cottingham and Madison so far.

She hasn't had to pull out the laminated copy of the Americans With Disabilities Act she keeps in her purse. No one has questioned her need or right to have Madison by her side. No one has engaged in unsolicited petting. No parents have shushed their children when they squealed at the dog.

Most importantly, no one has accused her of doing something she hasn't been able to do for six years: see.

She can distinguish outlines, when there's light, and some shadows. She can't see steps, curbs or the features of her face in the mirror. She can't see cars coming or whether she's wearing one red sneaker and one white one. Her vision, she says, is like looking through the lens of a 35-millimeter camera that's completely out of focus.

Madison helps her get around the city, up stairs, across streets, into elevators, onto buses, through doors. So she gets angry when someone invites her somewhere and asks, "Are you going to bring the dog?"

"If you invite me, Madison is included," she says sharply, "Madison's a part of me."

Madison's eyes are soulful pools of empathy. He has the demeanor of a canine Zen master - at least until he lifts his muzzle and slurps at your nose.

Cottingham has bright blue eyes that look at the person she's talking to. The muscles in her eyes have not atrophied. Her manner - affable and rather businesslike - makes her fit in with the professional crowd packing the restaurant. At 35, she could be a real estate agent, or a public relations whiz, or work in the Laura Ashley boutique downstairs, as she used to do before she lost her sight.

Ironically, at times this has made her life more difficult. Store managers have followed her around, insisting she could see and didn't need the dog.

"I saw you look at the box," a manager told her when she was in a store with her sister and Madi-son.

"What makes me feel worse," she says, "is that I'm being put on the defensive." So sometimes she doesn't go out. Sometimes she doesn't want to deal with it.

On other occasions, restaurants have simply refused to let Madison in the door. She carries an ID card specifying that Madison is a guide dog and that she needs him. When that's not enough, she pulls out a copy of the Texas law allowing guide dogs in public places.

She also carries pamphlets that explain guide dogs to the polite but curious who stop her when she's getting from Point A to Point B to ask about the dog. She feels she has a mission to educate people about guide dogs and the visually impaired, but sometimes she doesn't have two hours to stand in a mall and answer questions. Madison is her mobility, but he also makes her an attraction.

She wishes people would give her a break about the dog and respect the two of them as a unit after all she's been through.

When Cottingham was 16, she got what she thought was the flu. She was so thirsty she couldn't get enough to drink. But she couldn't keep anything in her stomach, so after a while her parents wouldn't let her have liquids. So she told them she was taking a bath. She drank the bath water. She woke up in a hospital a week later. That's when she learned she had diabetes.

She adjusted, went to college and got a job.

At 28 she started having vision problems. The doctors told her she would be OK. She had surgeries. She woke up one morning while visiting a friend in New Mexico, and all she saw was dark gray. She remembers trying to eat dinner with her friend's family. They had chicken. She couldn't see it. For nearly a year she was completely blind.

"I thought, `If I'm going to be blind, I'm going to have to get on with my life,' " she says. So she went to the Lighthouse for the Blind in Houston and the Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center for the Blind in Austin, Texas, to learn how to become independent. She learned how to do simple things - how to eat and how to walk. Then she went to Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc. in San Rafael, Calif., where canines are bred and trained to be guide dogs.