Guide Dogs For All? Maybe Not.

Ask any guide dog user, and just about all of them will be happy to wax poetic about how much they love having a guide dog. 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.
So, because 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 very 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. They learned the hard way, and while they may have adored their dogs and may not be completely closed to trying again in future, they have come away feeling disillusioned, alienated and, in some cases, inadequate. Was it some failing of theirs that led to the collapse of their dream? Could they have done more? Been better? Tried harder?
I want to tell the stories of just a few members of this badly-misunderstood 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 users everywhere. I don’t seek to take anything away from happy guide dog users, but I do want to lift the voices of people whose stories have, I believe, been neglected for far too long.
Three brave souls have come forward to speak candidly about how it felt to take the leap, fall short, and realize they made a mistake. Regret may not plague them, but they definitely have a very different outlook from those who have found universal success and contentment living with a guide dog. My hope is that other people with disabilities will read this and be encouraged. Having a service dog may be for many people, but it’s not for everyone, and that’s okay.
Note: These are not horror stories. They are tales of real people who underwent real suffering. Please respect that.

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. It was so deeply-engrained that no other choice seemed viable, let alone wise. It was this belief, perhaps, that made her particular experience so devastating.
So, once she completed high school, she 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, however, the emotional and mental exhaustion brought on by so many 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, and even 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 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. This life 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

Of course, 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 the dog had 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 so 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 his apartment, where his 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, though. 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 really 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 very quickly, leaving John with very 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 freeing than they could ever have imagined, and they would never go back to any other mode of travel.
For others, though, 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, and ensure that 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.

Advertisements

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.