Today, we’re in for a bit of a treat. CrazyMusician, a guide dog user, will be discussing common myths about guide dog travel; she will also share the turmoil and chaos of the “first year from hell”. Since (as should be obvious by now) I’m not a guide dog person, I wanted the perspective of someone who is living it right now. The post is wonderful, so without further ado, I’ll let her do the talking.
As of August 31, 2014, I will have been partnered with my guide dog, Jenny, for one full year. It has been rewarding, exhausting, freeing, and emotionally
draining. We have struggled to form a strong partnership through blizzards, her bad habits, my frustration, and changes in food, training methods, collars,
employment, and home furniture arrangement.
Since having a guide dog is in many ways a large shift from using a cane, and since many dog-lovers think that all blind people should have them, I would
like to dispel several myths regarding guide dogs, handlers, and the partnership.
1) “A guide dog will make your life easier.”
This is probably the most frustrating and simplistic viewpoint. While in many ways Jenny has made my life SO much easier – guiding me around unexpected
obstacles, construction, finding curbs on the far side of insanely busy streets, saving me from buses and cars running lights – she has also complicated
my life. Packing for a trip involves more preparation than I would normally use for myself – does she have enough food? When/where is a good time/place
to take her outside? Do I have her blanket/bowls/water/toys? Also, my cane has never once run full-tilt toward my husband, bent down to pick up a dropped
sandwich off the ground, or decided that it would be fun to insanely wag its tail at that dog across the street while knowing full well that it is NOT
playtime, resulting in an unhappy puppy across the street barking at it.
All this having been said, the extra preparation, training, and correction are a price I am willing to pay for the independence Jenny offers me. She has
run me home in a blizzard, saved me from the path of an oncoming bus, and protected me from weird creepy people by letting out a loud bark (not a move
I encourage, but she’s quite selective about it).
2) “All guide dogs are fully trained”
Nothing could be further from the truth! Guide dogs receive the basic overarching training – working in traffic, socialization, food refusal, etc. – but
once the training class is over, the real crash course begins. It is up to the handler to maintain the dog’s training, as well as to teach the dog any
new things the handler would like the dog to do.
Several months after completing training, I was at a really low point with Jenny. She seemed incredibly distracted, walking me into things, scrounging
at anything and everything… I just didn’t know what to do. Almost all my friends who had guide dogs were still on their first dog and had worked with
them for more than five years, and all of them told me that “their dog never did that.” I was so discouraged because I thought there was something seriously
wrong with me or my dog. Then I met someone who was on his third dog. He asked how things were going with Jenny, and I was just so discouraged that I
told him everything, even uttering the words, “I am seriously thinking about sending her back.”
I remember his words clearly: “the first year is hell; she’s testing you to see what she can get away with.” He also told me that my feelings of discouragement,
frustration, and even squelched hope were completely normal; I just had to be consistent and let her know what behaviors were acceptable and which ones
weren’t. Even now, nearly six months later, I still tear up at the immense relief that I felt; there was nothing wrong with my dog or with me… and yes,
things have gotten loads better!
** A caveat here: if you are struggling with these feelings and your dog is doing things that are blatantly unsafe (guiding toward traffic, for example),
it is essential to consult your school for tips, pointers, and a followup visit if necessary. Your perceived independence is not more valuable than your
3) (along these same lines) “Guide dogs don’t make mistakes”
Yes, they do!
One of the most helpful things my trainer told me was this: “Jenny is a DOG. She is smart, willing/able to learn, but at the end of the day, she is a DOG!”
Dogs will have bad days, just like people, be grumpy, disoriented, sleepy, etc.
It’s always funny when we’re out in public in an unfamiliar area, and I give Jenny directions. If she’s confused, she exhibits certain behaviors, so I
repeat the command. I can’t tell you the number of times someone has asked, “still in training?” I’ve started to laugh and say “Always!” I liken it to
having children: They learn something, but occasionally they’ll forget and you have to teach them about telling the truth or sharing their toys all over
4) General catch-all: Questions/comments that drive me crazy!
A. “You have such a great companion!” – if I wanted a companion, I’d get a little dog that I can carry in my purse. Comments like these demean the partnership,
training and skill involved in the work Jenny does.
B. “Can I pet your dog?” – I am fairly lucky that I get asked this question, rather than having people just reach out and pet her. As such, despite my
annoyance, I am always polite at this question and say something along the lines of “Thank you so much for asking.” This reinforces the idea that asking
is OK, but reaching out and petting isn’t.
C. “What’s your dog’s name?” – I don’t give this out, period.
D. “Still in training?” – see point #3 above. I’ve got a friend who’s had her dog for 6 years and still gets asked this question.
I did not expect to love having a guide dog as much as I do. Even now, after a bad day, I remember all the awesome things that Jenny has done and will
do in the years to come. Jenny will get up, do some insanely flexible “doggie yoga” pose, wag her tail; I will hold out the harness as she shoves her
head through it, tail still wagging, and we are off to conquer the world.