Fact and Fiction

Aside from exclamations of their extremely good looks and inquiries about their various statistics (names, breeds, ages, sexes, etc.) the single most common comment and question I hear is that people are impressed with the remarkable work that my guide dogs must do for me. I’m the first one to admit all three have shown on countless occasions how incredible they are both in and out of harness, but the notable thing about these comments is that they showcase an overwhelming myth that guide dogs work autonomously.

Below are a few examples of questions/comments I’ve received, followed by a clarification of the truth behind the statement.

Yara guiding me along the bridge over Washington Park Lake“How does she know where you’re going?”
I admit to a surprised laugh the first few times I was asked this question because it really is obvious, but it proves one point that I don’t think is stressed enough to people: guide dogs are first and foremost dogs. Albeit highly trained, but dogs nonetheless. This means that while she may be expected to do some extraordinary things as compared to a pet, she is not above the simple fact that she is still a dog. She isn’t a robot. Nor is she a magical being. And, while I sometimes debate this one, she isn’t a mind reader.

A guide dog can learn what is referred to as a route — a well-defined and/or commonly used path to and from points. Some of the more intuitive guides pick up on a route without being trained to it. And sometimes she’ll stick to following a route without prompting. But the guide dog doesn’t automatically know where her handler wants to go. Instead, she follows commands given by her handler. Once given a command to head in a direction, the guide dog will walk in that general direction avoiding obstacles in the pathway of her blind handler and stopping at any changes in inclination.

I think it’s this latter part that leads people to think the guide is doing her job independent of the handler. Especially if you’re a bystander watching a guide dog traverse a crowded street. But without going into extensive and probably boring detail, I’ll just say that it’s far more complex than telling the guide “forward” and having her drag you about by the harness handle!

“She’s smart enough to know how to cross a street!”
It’s a fair statement to say that guide dogs are smart. Her job is very mental. However, she does not know how to cross a street. Nor does she have any real understanding of traffic laws. And while it has been scientifically proven that canines possess the ability to perceive color, there are varying opinions on the range and ability of what colors they can see specifically since perception of color is largely a learned process. Which is to say that a traffic light means little to a guide dog.

Street crossing is perhaps the best example of how working a guide dog is a partnership. It’s a dual agreement between the guide dog and her handler when it is safe to cross. The handler is the one who knows how to navigate traffic patterns and determines when to tell the guide dog to cross. However, the guide dog will not follow the command if she perceives danger, such as a turning car. (This intelligent disobedience is one of the most difficult things to teach a guide dog.) She’ll also stop and/or back up if a vehicle approaches while in the middle of the crossing. When such incidents occur, they’re called traffic checks and there’s a rare handler who doesn’t find them nerve-racking to the nth degree!

“What does she do at home?”
The common variant of this question from people I see often but don’t interact with socially is: “Does she ever play?” Essentially they’re the same question, though, because people forget that initial point from above: guide dogs are first and foremost dogs. Unless you have a guide dog handler as a close friend, most likely you won’t have the occasion to see a guide dog “off duty.” So, it isn’t surprising that most people don’t realize that a guide dog is not constantly working.

Out of harness a guide dog isn’t much different than a pet dog. They are still expected to be obedient and well mannered, which is something of an issue for my current guide who is a crazy, two-year-old maniac when she isn’t working. But I make a point to give her some playtime each day, especially if the weather permits us to be outside, and she has a box of toys to play with and gnaw on. Not to mention there’s a cushy dog bed in nearly every room in my house!

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