Got your attention?
The title of this post is the first – and only – time I will tell an untruth to my readers. This is in response to a post entitled “5 Reasons why Guide Dogs are a Terrible Idea.” I HATED this title, but agreed with the blog post, at least in theory.
Recently, a blog post describing some of the “little” drawbacks of using a guide dog made the rounds of social media and email discussion groups frequented by the blind community. It caused quite a stir, with varying reaction, from full 100% support to outright disagreement.
I fall somewhere in the middle. I think guide dog schools have a responsibility to their students to let them know what they are getting into – good, bad, inconvenient, wonderful. In my experience – admittedly short in comparison to many – this is not being done responsibly by many guide dog schools. The benefits of guide dogs are shown to students and sponsors, but the process of getting to the point of a seasoned partnership is glossed over or under-explained. I have felt the frustrations of a first-time handler when I had a super-distracted scavengy dog, not the Hallmark guide-doggie angel, and I have seen it in other first-time handlers. The frustration and discouragement can be immense, especially when one feels alone. That being said, having a guide dog is NOT all doom-and-gloom and inconvenience. I am a good traveler, but I hate traveling in snowstorms, such as the 3 inches of snow we’re getting today, the first day of spring. I love the challenge of teaching my dog something new, and her absolute joyousness when she “gets it.” I love having pedestrians ask for directions and take me seriously, because for some reason my dog has magically given me extra IQ points or a better sense of direction. For me, the tradeoff is worth it.
But at the end of the day, a blind person has to make a choice for themselves, and – with one exception – it is not mine to comment on. My friend Meagan has some very well-thought reasons why a dog isn’t right for her, whether that’s for right now or permanently. Another friend admits he would LOVE to be a guide dog handler, but recognizes that his living and work situations are currently not conducive to working with one. I know others who, for complex reasons, have worked with a guide and realized that it doesn’t work for them, either returning the dog early or letting their dog finish its working life and not returning for a successor. Without exception, their stories are heartbreaking and emotionally complex, because an emotional bond alone does not make a guide dog and handler a good team.
Having a guide dog is in many ways like having a 5-year-old child with above-average problem-solving skills. Sometimes they are perfect little angels; sometimes they just don’t want to behave because that dropped peanut butter sandwich or that dog halfway up the block is much more interesting; sometimes they have valid reasons for their “misbehavior.” Recently, I have also learned that being a guide dog handler is a bit like being a detective, piecing together the clues about why the dog is doing XYZ – is it an alarming behavior problem, or signalling an accompanying medical concern? If one chooses to have a guide dog, one needs to be willing to work through serious issues – whether alone, through peer advice, or with guidance from their guide dog school – and if they cannot be worked through, to acknowledge this fact. One also has to be willing to work the dog, period, giving the dog sufficient challenge as to keep their training sharp, and sufficient routine as to give them stability.
I LOVE having a guide dog, inconveniences and all. Sure, going outside in -40 so my dog can pee is annoying, but she’ll keep me safe in that snowstorm when we have to walk home this afternoon. Training or re-training new or rusty behavior takes time – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot – but nothing makes me happier than that wagging tail and upturned nose before I get a chance to open my mouth and praise her. Few things are scarier than KNOWING there is something wrong and not being able to pinpoint it; few are as comforting as knowing that, in its own doggie way, your guide is communicating with you.
Many of my readers are friends and family of those who are visually impaired, those who use guide dogs and those who do not. Training with and working a guide dog is not as simple as it has been portrayed, nor is it constant drudgery. Please allow your loved one to make a choice that is right for them; whether or not you agree, few things piss off a blind person more than the constant comments about having a dog (whether it’s questions about why one doesn’t have a dog, or constant comments about the dog they have). For my blind/VI readers, do what keeps you safest and makes you feel secure. I’ve been where you are, whether using a cane or a dog; keep calm and carry on!