You Should Get a Dog, Because…

I never intended to write more about the guide dog issue, both because the blog title itself and my introductory post should speak for themselves. However, I decided to address something that has been plaguing me for years, and that I’ve only just been able to fully articulate. You see, I can handle other blind people encouraging me to get a guide dog; they have them, they love them, so it’s only natural for them to nudge me toward it. Most of them are happy enough to respect my decision once I’ve asked them to stop. The public, on the other hand…

 

Ever since I can remember, people (family, friends, and even strangers) have been telling me to get a dog. Sometimes, they even have reasons that sound great on paper like “improved independence” and “safety” etc. Here’s the issue, however: when people give these reasons, they are either poorly-researched or entirely irrelevant to my needs as an individual. They often give reasons they themselves might want a dog if they could have one, failing to consider my own needs and preferences. While they don’t mean to be either, shaming me for not wanting a service dog is hugely selfish and judgmental.

 

Below, I will list some of the most common reasons people have given me, with my usual explanation as to why they don’t apply to me (or, in a few cases, why they are not even worth considering). It is my hope that after this post, those who have read it will understand my position and, more importantly, that that decision is personal. Here goes!

 

“You should get a dog, because it will make you so much more independent!”

Actually, the answer to that is yes and no, with an emphasis on “no”. It is very true that guide dogs can enhance independence by allowing for more fluid travel, particularly when unexpected obstacles (like construction or snowbanks) get in the way. While I’m fumbling around with my cane, the guide dog handler next to me has already found her way around the obstacle and is skipping along, happy as can be. It’s also worth noting that many guide dogs are trained to find certain objects like garbage cans, empty seats, counters, and doors. This is very handy when you’re navigating a somewhat unfamiliar area and you want to do so with some grace. So, does a guide dog make you somewhat more independent by default? A little, yes. Do I need that particular independence? Not so far. As it stands, I don’t venture into many unfamiliar areas on my own, simply because there hasn’t yet been any need to. I also don’t typically have trouble finding doors or empty seats, so what little independence a guide dog would give me wouldn’t really be worth having another living creature accompany me everywhere I go for the next decade or so. I suppose one could argue that a guide dog would make my travel more graceful to watch, but I can’t say I care much about that particular perk.

 

“You should get a dog, because you’d always have companionship!”

Yes, people have actually given me this one, and it’s not just a fluke; I get this all the time. I figured I’d get this one out of the way early, because it will set the stage for some similar arguments. First of all, keep in mind that guide dogs aren’t just puppydogs with a few months of training and a fancy harness. These dogs are trained rigorously for years; this training costs thousands of dollars, and takes time, patience, effort, and skill. You could be on a waiting list for years, while they try to find you a suitable match. Even when your match is found, there is no guarantee that you and your dog (called a “team”) will be successful. Sometimes, temperaments don’t mesh, and you need to keep looking. Furthermore, once you receive your new teammate, you must spend the next months (or even years) training together. Every day is an exercise, bringing with it new challenges and opportunities. It’s a joy, but it’s also a ton of work. So, all this in mind, do you still think I should get a guide dog…for the companionship? If I want companionship, I’ll get a goldfish.

 

“You should get a dog, because you’ll get so much positive attention!”

Excuse me, what?

Yes, I understand that people are drawn to service dog handlers. Well, they’re drawn to the dogs themselves, and the handlers just happen to be there. I have even seen examples of blind people being mistaken for each other because they both have dogs; this proves that people often see the dog long before they see the person, assuming they see the person at all. Yes, people will come over and ask you what your dog’s name is, and want to pet him, and coo over how adorable he is. Yes, people will probably think about talking to you on the bus because instead of a weird stick thing, you have a cute little puppy for them to gush over. And, yes: walking around with a cane usually gets me either ignored or asked whether I need help. I rarely get “oooh how lovely! You have a cane!”, for obvious reasons. All I’ll say to that is, if people will only give me their courtesy and attention if I have a cute doggy with me, I don’t want their attention at all.

 

“You should get a dog, because then you’d have protection in scary neighbourhoods!”

I struggle with this one, because it’s usually put forth by people who know me, care about me, and want me to be safe. I grew up in a very rural area, and moving to the city at seventeen put some of my family on edge. I think they assumed I’d be walking the dark streets of downtown Edmonton wearing “target!” on my forehead. While it’s true that I fit most of the requirements for a vulnerable citizen (very long hair, small build, disabled, female—need I say more?), I don’t find myself in constant danger. Certainly, having a protective dog that will growl menacingly every time a suspicious person comes near would be reassuring, but would it really be worth being responsible for a dog 24/7—one that I don’t even need or want—just so I can feel safe in the dark scary night? Nuh uh.

 

“You should get a dog, because then you’d never get lost!”

Oh, how very, very misguided this person must have been. Guide dogs do tend to memorize routes the more you navigate them, but you still have to know where you’re going. A dog is not a GPS: you can’t tell her where you want to go and have her pull you along. Dogs can’t tell you which bus to get onto or even where that bus is. All they can do is ensure that you don’t bump into anything or stray into traffic while you find your destination. True, they will eventually know exactly how to get to work, school, and other frequent destinations, but otherwise they are relying on you, the team leader, to give them instructions. Guide dog handlers still get lost; they still have to memorize routes; they still have to know where they’re going and how to get there. A guide dog is not an easy way out.

 

“You should get a dog, because you love animals!”

I do love animals. You know those people who lose their minds as soon as something cute and fluffy is nearby? That’s me. I’m the one on my knees, cooing, making a total fool of myself because I’m already too lovestruck to keep my composure. I grew up with dogs and cats, and I get very, very lonely for my animals sometimes. That being said, not wanting a guide dog does not automatically mean I don’t like animals. Some have even insinuated that choosing the cane means I simply don’t want to take care of another living creature that isn’t me. This couldn’t be farther from the truth: I’m ridiculously maternal at times, and once I can have pets again they will be very spoiled indeed. Once again, we come back to cost-benefit analysis. Is it worth getting a highly-trained service dog just because he’s an animal and I’d adore him? Absolutely not. You should get a service dog because you want one; because your lifestyle is conducive to having one; because you require the added independence; because you really want fluid travel; because you hate the cane and love traveling with a guide. You should not get a service dog because “it’s sooooo cute!”. That would be terribly irresponsible, no?

 

“You should get a dog, because mature, independent blind people all have dogs!”

This one is admittedly rare, but I’ve definitely heard it, even from people who knew almost nothing about blindness in general. I think the misconception is that blind children start off with the cane, become very skillful travelers, then immediately graduate to a guide dog as soon as possible. The cane is treated like a set of training wheels, if you will, designed only to get you used to traveling. Once that’s done, you can get a dog and be a “real” blind person. This, of course, is total BS. I know many, many capable blind travelers who only use canes; I even know some who had a dog for awhile and switched back to the cane because it suited their needs better. Aside from the fact that the notion of “good” versus “bad” or “fake” versus “real” blind people is hardly worth anyone’s consideration, no one knows my travel needs better than I do, full stop. This has been a recurring theme on this blog, and there’s a reason for that: at some point, people must accept that when it comes to my disability—my individual disability—I know better than anyone. That’s not an effort to be arrogant or dismissive; it’s just truth.

 

Let me state once again that I understand why people encourage me to get a dog. They are well-intentioned people who want me to be safe, happy, and capable. What they don’t realize, of course, is that their definitions of same may be different from my own. I don’t intend to offend or alienate anyone with this post; what I want is to help my sighted readers understand that blind people know themselves best. I’m always open to new ideas, and I’m by no means an island. Still, if I’ve considered your opinion carefully, and still find it lacking, please don’t push. It will fall on deaf (ha ha) ears.

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8 thoughts on “You Should Get a Dog, Because…

  1. I’ve gotten all of these as well, with the exception of “protection in scary neighbourhoods.” As a guy, its replacement is, “You should get a dog, because you’d pick up so many chicks!” I don’t think I need to go into the problematic aspects of that one…

  2. This was spot on! As a blind woman I have heard all of these and more. I agree that a guide dog isn’t for everyone. They require lots of obedience training in order to retain their skills. Traveling with a dog is similar to traveling with the cane as the blind person is the one who decides where to go. A cane doesn’t tell a blind person to go around something. It’s the person who sweeps side to side with the cane and when they encounter an object the person decides the best path to take. Yes, it’s true That a dog can get a person around a hazard but if the handler doesn’t trust and listen to their dogs actions they will think it’s being disobedient. Bottom line is that each person knows what their needs are and what suits their lifestyle best.

    I used a cane for years and sometimes still do. In July I graduated from guide dog school and now have a service dog. For me it was the best fit but that’s me not the entire visually impaired community.

    Stacey

    • Stacey,
      Thank you for this well-thought comment to Meagan’s well-thought post!

      It drove me crazy as a cane user that people just thought it was their business when or if I get a dog… and what was really quite painful was during the waiting process, because it was a very long wait. So people would make well-intentioned comments about dogs, and I would just feel frustrated because I agreed with them but was just waiting and waiting and waiting.

      Meagan is so right; there are a million reasons to get a guide dog, but a million reasons not to. One simply has to weigh the pros and cons at a given time, and logically decide for themselves.

      I have another friend who currently uses a cane but wishes to get a dog, but is wise enough to realize that now is not the time for him. Perhaps the dog would give him more independence, but his work and living situation aren’t the best to having a dog. Even if I disagreed with his choice to wait (which I don’t), it is his choice, period.

      One thing that made me wait so long to apply for guide dog school was the fact that I lived in apartments or basement suites. Could we have managed? Probably. But I grew up as an only child, and partially because of this I really really REALLY like my own space. So it did hold me back from applying until we bought a house. Am I glad I waited? Yes… probably. Could I have worked things differently? Yes, definitely. But you live and learn, and make decisions every day that you maybe would’ve changed in hindsight. My decision not to get a guide dog while living in an apartment was unique to me, and was no one’s business.

      Meagan is right. It is not just a matter of using a cane as mobility training wheels and getting a dog. It’s a commitment to – at the very least – the working life of a dog. If one is not ready or willing, that doesn’t make them a bad person; that simply makes them unique, with their own preferences. Wait a minute… doesn’t all the literature about pets outline times to get and not to get a pet? And what is usually #1… THE DESIRE!

      So why is it that well-meaning people seem to think that a desire for a guide dog – whether temporarily or permanently – is irrelevant?

  3. Thanks everyone! I’m glad that you all see where I’m coming from, even though a couple of you are guide dog handlers yourselves. The main focus was the reasons sighted people offer, but it’s also beneficial to think about it as a more communal issue as well.

  4. Pingback: ALL Blind People should Have a Guide Dog | Life Unscripted

  5. I know this is an old post, but I just discovered your blog this morning and I maybe binge reading just a tad 🙂
    I have had a guide dog for about four years now, and I got him when I was a senior in high school. I heard a lot of the same arguments that you posted about when I was considering the lengthy and arduous application process, but I decided to get one because I felt that I would benefit from the advantages a guide dog gives somebody. I do my best to educate people on the facts, rather than my personal opinions of guy dog use, but I worry sometimes that people don’t hear me, and all they think about is the puppy. Even with other blind people, I sometimes have trouble making them understand how much responsibility is to have a guide dog. It doesn’t make your life, or you’re traveling, any easier in the grand scheme of things. You just get different advantages, as well as different disadvantages. That being said, I am really happy with my choice, even though I made it when I was in high school. (I cannot say the same about many of my other decisions in high school)
    I also want to thank you for doing your research and portraying guide dog use in a realistic light, even though you have never actually had one yourself. I really appreciate it, and when I get asked questions in the future, I will probably relay them to this post.

  6. Pingback: Satire: 17 Easy Ways To Make A Blind Person’s Day | Where's Your Dog?

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