It was nearly 13 years ago when I picked up the harness and I was forever a changed person. Throughout my career as a rehabilitation counselor and later the statewide transition specialist for blind services in California, one of the essential functions of my job was to travel up and down the state conducting outreach and hosting seminars in front of audiences often in large auditoriums.
Initially, my understanding was that training and partnering with a dog would be an immense amount of work and it would take up a lot of my time to manage dog’s behavior. I was pleasantly surprised upon returning home with Handyman, my first guide dog, that we fell into a routine almost immediately. We were quickly on the road and catching trains, planes and buses traveling together over hundreds of miles for work.
Yes, it does take discipline and building trust to gel with your guide dog at first, however the process is far easier than you may think. Imagine the boost of confidence and exuberance that I felt working with my dog while crossing busy streets, fetching taxis, locating entrances to buildings, navigating through lines, and making it to our various worksites.
If you are interested in learning more about guide dogs, check out Guide Dog Users Inc. for great resources including a survey of guide dog schools that includes information about schools and training and resources for guide dog users. Also please join us on February 25th at 3:00PM ET for a webinar about the differences between guide dogs and canes and the pros and cons of both.
If you are thinking about working with a guide dog and want to increase your independence traveling to and from your job with efficiency and grace, consider the following tips.
Assess Your Lifestyle:
Working with a guide dog has significant advantages, especially if you are adventurous and love to explore new environments. During the application process the school that you are working with will ask about your living and working arrangements so they can match you with the best dog for your activity level and travel needs. To make this match they consider the pace of your life, your daily excursions, and your activity needs. To match you with a dog, schools will ask you about your lifestyle. The written applications and interviews include questions about your home, activities of daily living, whether you are a student or employed person, and what your place of work is like. Make sure you tell the school about your adventures and if you like to hike or travel.
Connect with your Cane:
One of the questions that I hear a lot from people who are interested in working with a dog is: How good do my cane skills need to be? To which I suggest, knowing how to cross a street and navigate around your neighborhood and workplace with your cane is a prerequisite to working a guide dog. Often guide dog schools will require that a certified orientation & mobility instructor assess your ability to navigate with a cane and problem solve in real-time in your environment.
Educate and Advocate:
One of the things that guide dog handlers often find themselves doing is educating coworkers, friends, family, and members of the public about how to interact with their dog guide. Dogs are wonderful emissaries to social interactions, but you want to remain present ensure that people’s interactions are with you, not your guide. Additionally, your safety is reliant on your guide dog being focused on the environment around you as you travel together. Establishing firm boundaries about when and how to interact with a “working team” of a guide dog and handler is often the most critical dialog you’ll have with friends, family, and colleagues. Also knowing your rights on where your dog can travel with you including places of business, restaurants, and taxis or ride shares will come up during your partnership with a dog. Upon completion of guide dog training, your school will provide you with a tip sheet on your rights as a guide dog handler.
When considering your lifestyle and activities of daily living, you also want to budget for your dog’s expenses. From the food that your dog eats to vet visits and occasional prescriptions, having financial stability will also support a long-term partnership. Grooming and self-care are other considerations to factor into your budget and/or schedule. Daily obedience exercises and grooming are built into the training schedule while you are at a guide dog school; and schools expect that the handler will maintain these tasks upon returning home. Although a guide dog cannot be denied access to a public facility, it can be denied access if the dog has poor behavior such as barking or lunging and/or if the dog has a foul odor.
Enjoy the Freedom and Support
I am a confident cane traveler and generally have a good sense of direction, but teaming with a dog offers me a sense of freedom like nothing else I can explain. As part of a working team I know that if I want to get out and roam a new path, I can. I am not traveling alone and can rely on dog’s eagerness to work and to find a new route right along with my own curiosity. Gone are the days of wondering about how vulnerable or safe I would be traveling after dark in unfamiliar environments.
Recently, while on a visit to the local coffee shop, I lined up behind what appeared to be someone wearing bright yellow pants. When my dog started walking around this person instead of queueing me up, I wondered why. When I took a closer look, the “yellow pants” turned out to be a yellow wet floor sign. What appeared to be a human with his arms folded just inside a store, turned out to be a manikin. What appeared to be a hole in the ground was just a big shady tree shadow that didn’t stop my dog’s stride. What appears to be one thing to my vision is not always what it turns out to be. Ultimately, your dog may not be your brain, but the dog’s ability to keep you safe by identifying and safely navigating around obstacles is chief among their job duties. Working with a guide dog with low vision is definitely doable. While in training, I opted to wear eye shades that further allowed me to build upon trusting my dog’s guidance. Trust is definitely a work in progress, however the sooner one follows their dog’s lead, the quicker the trust and bond will be solidified.
In 2014 shortly after Handy’s retirement, Odif and I paired up and have traveled across the USA east to west and north to south. We have explored parks, neighborhoods, hotel lobbies, alleys and even deep snow in northern Minnesota.
As I embark on my 13th year of working with a guide dog, I can affirm with certainty that having a dog guide supports my work life balance. As most people don’t like sitting stationary in their office or cubicle for eight or more hours straight, nor does a dog. Although your dog is content resting by your feet while you work, they need to get up and out, stretch their legs, and do their business. Having a guide dog supports my own health and wellness because I spend part of my morning and afternoon breaks, as well as my lunch hour, walking my dog around the office. From running a quick errand, to getting a sandwich at the nearby deli, or heading to the post office; my dog is my partner, my friend and my travel aid. There is no other feeling like the confidence and feeling of freedom working with a guide dog brings.