Happy International Guide Dog Day. This is a very special day for guide dog handlers and their guides across the United States. We honor and cherish our guide dogs each and every day but today is a very special day to honor them. I would like to share some Guide Dog 101 information with you in honor of today. This post is intended for people who do not have lot of knowledge about guide dogs but also those who are very active in the guide dog/blind community.
Fact of the Day: Only about 2% of people with visual impairments travel with a guide dog. To me this is WILD. I do understand people’s reasoning for NOT wanting a guide dog, such as the additional responsibility, attention, and costs associated with a guide dog, but to me the pros so outweigh the cons. I also understand that there are many very confident cane travelers out there. While I CAN use a cane if I needed to and would be able to safely navigate my environment, it is just NOT my cup of tea. There are many reasons for this but I believe the biggest two are: 1) I like that my dog moves me AROUND obstacles, as opposed to the cane just finds them and 2) Having a guide dog breaks a lot of the social awkwardness that society tends to have when greeting or socializing with a blind person. Choosing the guide dog lifestyle is a huge decision but it is one that i hope more and more blind people choose.
Guide dogs mean so much to their handlers: independence, freedom, safe travel, confidence, ability to travel gracefully, peace, partnership, companionship, ability to “live more, our best friends, and our family. We establish such a deep connection and bond with our guide dog, it’s indescribable.
Guide dogs have many great skills – helping their handler travel in a straight line from point A to point B (something I had some trouble with when using a cane), stopping for all changes in elevation, such as stairs and curbs, stopping for overhead obstacles, such as tree limbs, and avoiding obstacles in their path. They are also taught to be “intelligently disobedient.” What does that mean? If the handler gives the dog a command and the dog determines that it is unsafe to obey that command, the dog will disobey and not listen. Many times the dog will make another decision to replace that command but still accomplish the same goal. Guide dogs also of course have to have impeccable manners because they go practically everywhere with us. I can’t tell you how much it makes me smile when others tell me that they didn’t realize a guide dog was in the room or under my feet/table because she is so well behaved and quiet. This is how it should be.
Guide dogs work hard but also play hard. To keep up the bond and help the dog continue to love their lifestyle, guide dog handlers give their dogs lots of opportunity to play and just be a DOG (a well behaved dog though) when that harness comes off.
Most guide dogs work for around 8-10 years. They are usually 1.5 years old to 2 years old when they graduate guide dog school so around 10-12 years old, most guide dogs retire. At Guide Dogs for The Blind, the handler has the option of keeping the retired guide when he/she retires even if they are getting a new guide, giving the retired guide to a family member or close friend, giving the guide back to his/her puppy raiser, adopting him/her out, or giving her back to Guide Dogs for The Blind as they have a long waiting list of people that love to adopt retired guides because they are so well behaved. If I don’t keep Makiko, I plan to give her to my Mom. Makiko and my Mom have a very special bond (yet the bond doesn’t interfere with our work together). My sister has claimed my second retired guide! 🙂
Guide dogs help their handlers with travel, but there is a huge emotional aspect to them as well. The companionship and loyalty of a guide dog is so strong. When I have rough days, Makiko, loving on her, and just sitting with her is one of my biggest coping strategies. She can tell when I or someone I love isn’t feeling well or happy and comes to give us LOTS of attention. (Beware of all the kisses!) As many of you know, I graduated with Makiko 2 months after my father passed away so Makiko has been an extra level of companionship and comfort for me through the grieving process.
In addition to helping our emotional well-being through their companionship, when you get a guide dog you have an instant support system and community. The sense of community with guide dog handlers has been one of my many favorite parts of becoming a guide dog handler. Guide Dogs for The Blind is one of the only guide dog schools that has an Alumni Association and the bonds that handlers form because of this is so powerful. However, guide dog handlers from across the world also come together on social media and the internet and have powerful discussions about guide dogs and issues surrounding our community. It is an honor to be a part of. I’m working with another guide dog handler from Houston, Vince Morvillo, to start a Guide Dogs for the Blind Alumni Chapter in Texas. We should be official in June! As I’ve mentioned, the community of guide dog handlers is very strong and very therapeutic. It only makes sense that the GREAT state of Texas has an Alumni Chapter.. did you know that according to NFB (National Federation of the Blind) Texas is one of the largest states of people with visual impairments?
It also only makes sense that we have one of the GREATEST groups of puppy raisers, Lone Star Guide Dog Raisers (LSGDR), that is growing exponentially!!!!! I know I’ve said it a thousand times before but we really wouldn’t have the guide dogs that we do without such devoted puppy raisers and Guide Dogs for The Blind staff that supervise and help train these puppy raisers. These puppy raisers are also great advocates for the service dog and blind communities!
Below is additional information about guide dogs that I would like to share with you:
The different schools and handlers have many different ways of training or reinforcing their dog’s behavior, such as using food rewards, positive reinforcement, collar corrections, clicker training, and a Gentle Leader/headcollar. Please note that guide dog handlers are trained in the proper way to reward their dog and positively reinforce good behavior when the dog is working well and behaving properly, but also how to safely and effectively correct the dog when they are not. Doing a collar correction right will not hurt the dog but will get the message across. The same applies with a Gentle Leader/head harness. Many think that these are muzzles, which they are not. I put one on Makiko this last weekend when we were around over a hundred dogs and it naturally just keeps her attention on me a little more but also gives me a little more control. She can still eat, drink, open her mouth, etc., with one on.
(I would like to think that no guide dog handler is abusing their dog with corrections but of course if you suspect abuse or neglect, please look on their harness as there is usually identifying information about what school the guide is from and call the school to let them help take care of it.)
Feeding and Relieving:
Guide dogs are on a specific feeding and relieving schedule to help make their handler’s day go smoothly and so that the guide dog doesn’t need to go to the bathroom during an important meeting or event. Most guide dogs are fed and given water at specific times each day, and of course given additional water as needed. Because of this routine, they have specific relieving habits that make it pretty easy on the handler to schedule into their day. This is another reason why it is important for others to not give food or treats to a guide dog because it will interfere with this.
Because guide dog handlers can’t drive, they often travel extensively on foot. With the help of their guide dog, they can safely lighted intersections and streets. It is important that the guide dog pay VERY close attention when doing this so that they can pull their handler out of the way if needed. Please remember that guide dogs and their handlers have right of way ALWAYS.
There are some situations when handlers may choose not to work their guide and heel their dog beside them. If this is the case, the handler will ask to stand on the person’s left side and take their arm. The handler will take the arm of the sighted person. They will usually grab right above the elbow. Please don’t try and drag a blind person with or without a guide dog. That’s not fun for anyone. 🙂 Please also do NOT grab the harness handle or leash from the blind handler. This will totally confuse the dog and the handler and could potentially cause a disastrous situation. Using your voice is much more helpful to help give them appropriate directions.
Guide dogs are required access at public accommodations by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 36.302(c). Public accommodations are required to modify their policies, practices, and procedures to permit people who are blind or disabled to be accompanied by working dogs anywhere. There are some places that aren’t open to the general public, such as operating rooms and kitchen, that guide dogs aren’t required to have access to, for health and sanitation purposes. A good way that somebody taught me to remember it, is if I’m allowed to walk in there with my tennis shoes on or other regular shoes on, my guide is allowed to walk in there. For example, Makiko wouldn’t be able to walk into an operating room because it is a sterile environment and it is not open to the general public.
If the service dog gets out of control and is having relieving problems inside the establishment, growling, barking excessively, etc., the owner or management has the right to ask the dog/handler to leave the facility as it poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. The handler is required to be permitted back into the establishment without the service dog on the premises if this situation occurs.
Hotels and other places that allow people to stay their for a fee are not allowed to charge a pet/animal deposit or surcharge for the guide dog, as they aren’t a pet after all. (This is when it helps to think of them as medical equipment, not an animal). However, if the guide dog causes damage to the hotel room or furniture, the hotel IS allowed to charge the handler for the cost of repair if it is their practice to charge non-disabled people if they damage the property as well.
Fair Housing Act (FHA):
Landlords are required to make exceptions to their “no pets policy” to allow a service dog handler to have their service dog live with them. This is called a “reasonable accommodation.” (Under the Fair Housing Act, they define service dogs under the “assistance animal” umbrella and emotional support animals (ESAs) are also under this umbrella). Pet restrictions and charges for animals do NOT apply to assistance animals – a landlord cannot charge a pet deposit for a guide dog. A landlord cannot deny a request for a reasonable accommodation based on a dog’s weight or breed, even if they don’t allow normal pets to be above a certain weight or to live on the premises if they are a certain breed. Landlords CAN require you to provide a letter from a doctor or therapist, depending on the type of service animal, documenting the need.
Public transportation companies CANNOT discriminate against you and deny you because of your service dog, even if they are using their own car because they are providing a service to the public. The only exception to this is if the person has severe allergies to dogs as this could potentially be covered under the ADA as well and in that case many times are required to have a note on file with their company documenting this and are required to secure another ride for the passenger with the guide dog/service dog.
Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) :
Guide dogs are permitted to accompany their handler in the cabin on flights. The dog is allowed to accompany their dog in any seat the handler chooses, except emergency exit rows and if the dog is going to stick out into the aisle and pose a safety hazard.
Makiko is very cute and lovable, as are most guide dogs. Depending on the day, Makiko may soak up the love or if she is particularly focused, she may not. However, like most dogs, if you greet them excitedly or make kissy noises, guide dogs may very well get distraction. Distraction can be deadly for a handler, especially if the blind handler isn’t aware their guide dog is distracted to be more aware or to correct it. If a guide dog is safely helping its handler cross the street and watch for traffic, or navigating a particularly environment, and the guide dog gets distracted it might not pull that blind handler out of the way of a smart car that is silent or might not pay attention to that curb and send the blind handler tripping over the curb into the street, landing on his/her face. It’s pretty dangerous. It’s also just an invasion of personal space. Guide dogs are an extension of their blind handler. Many call them “medical equipment,” which they technically are, just in dog form. Would you go up and put your hands all over someone’s glasses? No, of course not, that would be weird and likely harassment. I know guide dogs are living creatures and a lot more adorable than a pair of glasses but they are both pieces of medical equipment that allow a person to function. ABC News posted a great video today in honor of International Guide Dog Day and they quoted a statistic that read: “A survey found 89% of handlers’ dogs have been distracted by members of the public.” The message from the video was “Look but don’t touch.” (or make sounds/attract the guide dogs attention).
It IS okay to ask a handler to pet their dog. A lot of handlers, including myself, enjoy introducing their guide to you. Most handlers will just make sure that their guide is calm and under control, especially if they are in harness. This will help the dog not to become solicitous when it is working and in harness later.