On a warm summer day, guide dog instructor Christine Fulton walks the Southeastern Guide Dog campus with a handsome yellow Lab named Peyton by her side. The team practices “intelligent disobedience,” an important skill for a guide dog whose job it is to keep its handler safe.
“We teach our dogs traffic awareness,” Christine explains. “So, if the handler gives the dog the forward cue, and the dog senses there’s a safety hazard, the dog will not move, no matter how much the person repeats it.”
Christine motions Peyton to go forward, and the attentive dog stands firm, ignoring her request. Just then, a car whizzes around the corner, proving Peyton has been listening in class. Christine praises him and rewards him with a treat. “These dogs are amazing,” she gushes. “And to watch them make decisions on their own is fascinating.”
Christine knows a thing or two about making hard decisions. Her journey to Southeastern Guide Dogs began at a crossroads, when she had to choose whether to listen to her head or follow her heart.
Growing up CODA
The middle child of three, Christine grew upin Danville, Kentucky, a quaint town in bluegrass country, not far from Lexington. Danville is home to the Kentucky School for the Deaf, where Christine’s father, Joe Buschmann, taught for 27 years. “I am a CODA,” says Christine. “That’s an acronym for a Child of Deaf Adults.”
Christine’s parents, Joe and Carleen, were both born deaf due to a birth defect, while all three children can hear. “It helps me to be more empathetic,” she says. “Deaf people can do everything you and I can do, except hear.”
“But He’s Your Dog”
A shy and quiet child, Christine felt more comfortable with animals than people. “Getting me a dog was the best thing my mother ever did,” she recalls fondly.
A stray named Rusty was her first. “My grandma found a puppy that had wandered onto her porch and asked me to take him and find his home,” she starts. “My mom gave me a deadline and said, ‘If you don’t find the dog’s owner by this date, take him to Scotty.’
Scotty was a boy down the street who wanted the dog.” Christine searched for the rightful owner but came up empty. When the deadline rolled around, she reluctantly put a leash on Rusty and started towards Scotty’s house. As she passed her grandmother’s house, Christine’s mom came out and asked where she was headed. “You told me if we didn’t find Rusty’s home, take him to Scotty,’” she replied.
“But he’s your dog,” said her mom. Those four words made Christine jump for joy. “It was the happiest day of my life,” she gushes. Her mom’s words and Rusty’s wagging tail were the first steps in her journey to Southeastern Guide Dogs. But it didn’t happen right away.
Investing in the Future
Shortly after high school, Christine married her childhood friend, Chad Fulton. Chad joined the Army, the couple moved to Germany, and Christine got a job as a bank teller on Ramstein Air Force Base. “I loved finance,” she recalls. “We had several different currencies that we dealt with, and it was a lot of fun.”
When the couple moved back to the States three years later, Christine took her knack for finance and majored in corporate finance and investments at Northern Kentucky University. She graduated summa cum laude, was named Finance Student of the Year, and landed two lucrative internships. The internship with Morgan Stanley led to a full-time job offer as a financial advisor and analyst. “It was my dream job,” she recounts.
Over the next several years, Christine worked for other prestigious financial institutions. She made good money and climbed the corporate ladder in a competitive, high-stakes industry.
Head vs. Heart
Despite the accolades and success, Christine felt empty. “My parents instilled in us to give back to the community, and I didn’t feel I was doing that,” she sighs. “It was hard to imagine that this is what I was supposed to do in life.”
She felt torn between personal and professional bliss. Leaving a successful, 17-year career felt reckless, but she wasn’t happy. “I stopped smiling,” she says tearfully. “There was so much work put into building that career, and to leave it behind was hard.”
Christine searched for a sign, something to guide her to a new profession. She remembered the wise words of a college professor: “Find what you’re passionate about and figure out how to make money doing it.” She realized she was passionate about two things—American Sign Language and dogs.
“I could be a teacher for the Deaf or a certified ASL interpreter,” she reasoned. “But it would mean going back to college.” Scratch that. “What about dogs? My mind exploded with ideas and excitement,” she exclaims. She enrolled in Animal Behavioral College and earned a certification as a professional trainer.
Christine and Chad moved to Parrish, Florida in 2016, where she started her own dog training business. It was a first step to gain experience for a career in the dog training world, and far more fulfilling than finance.
Then one day, while driving south on I-275, a billboard caught Christine’s eye. A Southeastern Guide Dogs Labrador smiled back at her with the message, “Heroes Train Here.” It wasn’t the sign she expected but was exactly the sign she needed. Here was the potential to work with dogs and serve people in need.
Christine searched online and within no time, started volunteering at Southeastern Guide Dogs in the training kennel, the forerunner to Canine University. She was hooked. Next, she hired on as a canine care technician, learning the husbandry part of dog care.
“I loved it,” she laughs. “I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to hang out with dogs all day.”
Christine came home from work one night, tired, sweaty, and admittedly smelling of bug spray, sunblock, and dogs. Despite the curious odor, Chad recognized his wife’s beautiful glow. “He said, ‘Wow, this is you—happy.’” Christine gets emotional recounting his words. “I knew at that moment this is where I’m meant to be.”
Passion Meets Profession
Christine was awarded a highly coveted guide dog apprenticeship in 2017. In December 2020, after three years of rigorous hands-on training, required reading, studying, and testing, and only four years after that Lab beckoned her from a sign on the highway, she became a certified guide dog instructor.
“There are so many things that make me passionate about what we do here,” she beams.
Once a guide dog becomes “class ready,” another rewarding cycle begins—matching the dog with a visually impaired individual and—in a class setting on campus—teaching them to work together as a team. “We watch this person learn how to use this new tool that gives them freedom,” Christine explains. “And at the end of three weeks, everyone is smiling, even the dog. It’s really exciting.”
Christine’s childhood in the Deaf community taught her the meaning of disability, ability, and empathy. Her financial career boosted her confidence. And her love of dogs awakened her passion. “Everything I did up to this point prepared me for this,” she remarks.
Back at the crosswalk, the coast is clear. Christine motions Peyton forward, and this time, he safely leads her across the street. She beams as she praises him, knowing it’s time. He’s ready to be a guide dog, and she’s ready to hand over his leash.
“It’s not hard to let him go because he’s not meant for me. He’s meant for somebody else,” she says. “Letting him go is the most rewarding part of my job.” After training the dogs, teaching the humans, and sending them off to a new life of freedom and confidence, Christine will meet another class of dogs and begin the cycle all over again.
For Christine, this is her happy place. The rewards are rich—and of course, priceless.