The guide dog life is not easy. It takes so much patience, love, understanding, trust, and a lot of enthusiasm. I would not give up my guide, Freesia, for anything. Making the decision to get a guide dog was one of the best I’ve ever made. I especially like to remember this when I’m standing in the middle of a thunder storm, patiently waiting for her to sniff out the perfect spot for her own doggy thunder storm, if you know what I mean.
I think it’s important for anyone considering the guide dog lifestyle, and anyone with a general curiosity, to understand some aspects of partnering with a guide dog.
A guide dog can help some one with a visual impairment travel more independently.
Guide dogs can guide there partners around obstacles that they may have otherwise not detected in time to avoid. They help with proper alignment when crossing streets, and take their handlers to the opposite curb, that is, when someone hasn’t thrown a Nutri-Grain bar out the window. That may cause a little distraction. They also help their partner maintain a better line of travel. A lot of people who are blind, including me, have a tendency to veer. I totally wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had mistaken me for a drunk college kid with the amount of straight lines I wasn’t quite walking.
Sometimes the dog’s needs have to come before your own.
Just because you can go 6 hours without using the bathroom doesn’t mean your dog can. Your dog is trying to be on her best behavior and guide you safely, but that’s hard for her to do when all she can think about is how bad she has to go, or how thirsty she is.
One day, I was at the mall with my friend. We had already been there for about an hour, and it had been a while since Freesia had a chance to do her business. At one point, I realized she was lagging a bit. I had a feeling that she had to go, so we had to get to a door to get her outside. It may seem somewhat inconvenient, but the dog is priority, whether your company likes it or not.
Another thing: you can’t ignore your dog just because you’re tired after a long day. She needs time to be a dog and to play. That’s where that whole patience and enthusiasm can come in, because if you’re not excited about playing, your dog probably won’t be either. Your dog is not a machine; she is a living, breathing thing, and she needs to be treated as such.
Guide dogs do not know when to cross the street.
A surprising amount of people think that dogs can see light changes and tell their handlers when to cross the street. They do not understand that parallel traffic means it’s time to cross and perpendicular means certain death. They are trained to ignore a handlers command if they deem it unsafe, but they do not understand traffic. It is the handler’s job to tell the dog to cross. The dog doesn’t know which streets to cross. It is the handler’s job to know where they are going because, strangely enough, a guide dog is not a GPS.
“Freesia, can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?”
“Freesia, take me to P, Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney.”
A girl can dream.
The guide dog partnership is about teamwork.
There has to be communication between the handler and the dog. When Freesia is doing things I like, I communicate with her through praise and food reward, and when she is doing things that are incorrect, I communicate this to her verbally, through timeouts, or leash cues. When Freesia is uncertain or confused, she’ll slow down and her stride will feel less confident. When she tries to show me a curb, and I don’t notice it with my foot, she refuses to move forward until I acknowledge it.
Owning a guide dog is a big responsibility. Not only do you have to be patient and driven, but you have to maintain their training through challenge, routine, and a hint of variety. This is why a majority of guide dog schools won’t accept applicants under the age of 16. A guide dog owner must be ready to challenge and be challenged.