Ask just about any guide dog handler, and they will be happy to wax poetic about how much they love the experience. They’re willing to acknowledge that it’s hard work, and that it can be too frustrating for words, but it’s all worth it in the end, they’ll say. Their reactions are much the same as those of many parents: having children is stressful and life-changing, but it’s always, unquestionably worth it.
Since we only ever seem to hear from those who are living the guide dog dream (or those, like me, who choose to embrace the cane and nothing else), there’s a third group remaining mostly silent. This group includes two types of people. The first type consists of people who like guide dog travel in general but had a negative experience with a particular dog. The other type consists of those who drank the Kool-Aid, believed that having a guide dog is for absolutely everyone, and learned otherwise. While they may have adored their dogs and might not be opposed to trying again in future, they have come away feeling disillusioned, alienated and, in some cases, inadequate. Was it some failing of theirs that precipitated insurmountable issues? Could they have done more? Tried harder?
I want to tell the stories of just a few members of this underrepresented group. I want to extend their experiences beyond the scope of family and friends, so that they can be heard alongside the overwhelming joy from guide dog handlers everywhere. I don’t seek to take anything away from happy guide dog teams, but I do want to lift the voices of people whose stories have, I believe, been neglected for far too long.
Toeing the Party Line: Alicia’s Story
Alicia grew up with a cane in her hand, incorporating it seamlessly into her travel routine, and benefiting from comprehensive mobility training. Comfortable as she was with her cane, she thought as so many people do: true independence could only be found through a guide dog.
Believing that guide dogs were the only sensible option for independent blind people, Alicia never analyzed her decision to get a service dog. Her confidence was so deeply-ingrained that no other choice seemed viable, let alone wise. It was this belief, perhaps, that made her particular experience so devastating.
Once she completed high school, Alicia was matched with Dusty, a yellow lab with whom she bonded immediately.
Much as she enjoyed the smoothness and grace of dog travel, Alicia soon ran into trouble.
I started dealing with a struggle none of my other classmates seemed to be having. I found myself missing the tactile feedback that came with using my cane. I didn’t like the method of having to use my feet to search for the things I could have, in my opinion, found much more easily with my cane. When I brought this up to my trainers, they told me it was just part of the transition everyone went through.
Reassured, Alicia took Dusty home, and embarked on the stressful journey that is college. Predictably, the emotional and mental exhaustion brought on by so many simultaneous life changes affected her partnership with Dusty. She began leaving him at home here and there, relishing the freedom and confidence she felt only when holding a cane. She found caring for him burdensome, though she loved him dearly and refused to neglect him for any reason. She even began to miss the low-maintenance nature of cane travel.
I dearly missed being able to come back from a long day of classes and other activities, put my cane in the corner, and rest like I did in high school.
Finally, Alicia had to accept that she and her dog were both desperately unhappy. Though the decision broke her heart, she surrendered Dusty. She had no way of knowing what would happen to him, where he’d go, or to whom he’d be assigned, but she knew that she’d made the right decision, if not the easy one.
I don’t hear many stories like mine. In fact, I’m trying to remember if I ever have heard any other stories similar to mine. … A small percentage of the time, I wonder what was wrong with me as a blind person that it seems to work for everyone else, but didn’t work for me. However, most of the time, I realize that a dog is not the right choice for everyone, and I’m simply one of those.
Welcome to the Spotlight: Holly’s Story
Holly, unlike Alicia, did not consider a cane to be an extension of herself. Receiving regular mobility lessons as a child did introduce her to the art of cane travel, but not until her mid teens did she understand that she should probably start using one. Always comfortable and fearless in her own neighbourhood, Holly and her family saw no need for her to rely on a cane, and it was not until she grew too independent to tolerate constant sighted guide that she chose to use one full-time.
Struggling to find suitable mobility training with a cane, she resolved to apply for a guide dog, reasoning that she would then receive mobility training as a matter of course. It was the only way she could guarantee the independence she craved.
Thrilled by the power mobility training gave her, Holly went on to be matched with a dog. The training went well, but Holly soon discovered that no matter how much you enjoy travelling with a service dog, you’ll have to make some sacrifices.
I got my dog, and the first year was incredibly stressful. I’m not shy, but I am not especially sociable. I don’t like strangers, I don’t like talking to people in public unless it’s a planned event. I want to move through the world quietly the way most people can. And I had no idea that getting a guide dog would prevent me from doing that.
As Holly spent more time with her guide dog, she discovered that blending in was now impossible. She couldn’t go about her business unnoticed or unencumbered, because “the public won’t let you.” She was forever fielding questions that were centred only on her dog, as though she was just a “vessel” attached to her dog’s harness. When she wasn’t answering questions, she was telling people off for feeding, touching, and distracting her dog. The strain took a serious toll on Holly.
It was terrible. I cried most days. I hated being so visible, and yet utterly invisible all at once. I hated that I’d undergone this huge personal transformation and yet nobody saw me as a person.
Distraught, Holly considered giving up her dog, though conversations with her father, who was a dog handler for the army, persuaded her to be patient. Wait a year, he suggested, and if she was still unhappy at the end of it, she could return her dog.
Holly has chosen to persevere, but she acknowledges that it’s hard to “come out” as someone who doesn’t love being a guide dog handler.
We have this awful culture within the blind community where we can’t be honest if owning a guide dog actually feels a bit shit. It has to be sunshine and rainbows or you’re a failure.
When the Dog is the Problem: John’s Story
Not all guide dogs are perfectly suited for the job. Every dog has flaws—they’re not robots—but some have quirks and tendencies that make you wonder why the school allowed the dog to graduate.
John was an unfortunate victim of this circumstance. He was pleased by his dog’s guidework, but it was overshadowed by an unfortunate vice: “My dog is a poop-eater.”
In contrast to Holly’s and Alicia’s stories, John wasn’t new to guide dogs. He worked with his first guide for over eight years, and had no reservations about getting a second one. He was matched, and began training soon afterword.
When John was told that the dog liked to eat poop, he was a bit concerned, but didn’t waste excessive energy being anxious about it. He was certain that, with patience and persistence, the issue could be resolved. What is more, the trainer agreed to help with the process.
The instructor agreed to monitor the dog while he was in training. … For the most part, the dog behaved himself for the week and a half that I was with the instructor. Over time, I learned that not only would the dog eat poop, but he would also eat nuts, pinecones, grass, and everything else that was inedible.
The situation only worsened. John’s dog progressed to eating his own waste, which was quite a problem in enclosed spaces like John’s apartment, where the shag carpeting suffered most (no other carpeting was available, and cleaning it was a nightmare). Still, John remained admirably optimistic.
After eating poop, he would often vomit on my apartment carpet several hours later. At first, I found the whole thing disgusting, but felt upbeat and determined to solve the problem.
Calling the school was not as helpful as he’d hoped. He was told that disciplining the dog was nearly impossible, because John would have to catch the dog in the act—a tall order if you can’t see what your dog is doing. To add to the fun, he was also informed that there was virtually no disciplinary measure he could take, as shock collars and other items would not be effective, either. He was left with only one option: a mouth guard. Unfortunately, that didn’t go so well.
I purchased [a mouth guard]at a Store and used it, but two things happened. First, the dog just lay on the ground and did not move when he had it on during playtime. Second, when he did see another dog doing its business, he ran over and shoved the mouth guard in the waste meaning that I had to clean up his face and the guard. At this point, I began feeling both helpless and frustrated. Why was I given a dog with such a severe problem?
As awful as he felt for himself, John also sympathized with his dog. Would the dog have to be constantly restricted when playing or roaming grassy areas? How healthy would his confinement be for him? Another desperate call to the school only led to advice like “Oh, just play with him inside only.” However, the dog lost interest in this quickly, leaving John with few options.
Eventually, John gave up his dog.
I felt sad after he left, because he was truly a good worker and great companion. But I also knew it was the right thing for the dog and myself. After the initial wave of sadness past, I felt relief. I was glad the whole ordeal was over. I also felt a mix of frustration with the school and sorrow that a $30,000 dog only got a year and a couple months of use as a worker. I even felt the need to apologize to the instructor when he came to get the dog. I know how hard his puppy raisers and the team at the school worked to raise him, and I felt bad that all that work would be for nought.
While John may not be disillusioned with the guide dog experience in general, having been successful with it in the past, he has certainly been the victim of the guilt and humiliation inherent in giving up a guide.
While crowd-sourcing stories for this blog post, I was asked, rather confrontationally, what the purpose of the post might be. I suppose this person thought I was running a smear campaign against guide dogs—I don’t know, I didn’t ask. What I do know is that writing this post was an exercise in empathy and compassion, not bitterness or spite. I’m not publishing this post to put force behind my own refusal to get a guide dog. This is not a case of me saying, “See? See? It isn’t always perfect, you know!”
My aim is to expose people to both sides of this complicated choice. For many, guide dog travel is a dream come true. It’s more liberating than they could ever have imagined, and they would never go back to any other mode of travel.
For others, the situation is more complex and far less satisfying.
Here is what I ask: if you have read this post all the way through, and have identified with the stories herein, exercise caution when encouraging people to get guide dogs. Ask relevant questions to ensure the person you’re speaking to is in the right place—geographically and emotionally—for such an enormous responsibility. Make sure that your encouragement is based on thoughtful consideration, not societal expectation or the warm glow given off by your own positive experiences.
I ask, most importantly, that you be gentle with those for whom guide dog travel isn’t the best choice. Be compassionate. Do not assume that, if it doesn’t work out for them, it must be their fault. Don’t quiz them for hours on end about what they might have done to improve the situation unless you have compelling evidence that there was neglect or abuse involved. (Advice is helpful; judgment is not.) Place pressure on schools to provide necessary after-care and supports when things go awry.
Here’s the gist: you do you, and let them do them, and all manner of things will be well.