The Ethicacy of Guide Dogs

While poking through my referrers today I ended up surfing Tumblr a bit and came across this post. Immediately I had a rebuttal forming in my mind and if it wasn’t necessary to have an account on Tumblr to share it I would have ranted my fill. Instead I made myself dinner, though, not before taking a moment to post the link in my usual online haunts. While my social media feeds lit up light a Christmas tree, I had a pleasant orzo salad and let my blood pressure come down from stroke levels.

Now that I am not a ball of rage, I feel capable of combating quoilecanard’s overwhelming ignorance point-by-point with a calm helping of truth. Let it be known that I am solely focusing on guide dogs1 and not generalizing to all working animals, even the greater umbrella of assistance dogs. I reserve the right to come back and edit to address that, though.

Animals do not exist for our use.

I’m not a vegan, but I am a firm believer in animal rights, so I’m not about to disagree with that statement. However, let’s first agree on some constants. We are specifically talking about dogs, which are an animal that ranks pretty high on the hierarchy of intelligent life. They are capable of not only being taught things, but in making decisions. You’re welcome to disagree with me on all of this, of course, but if you do I suggest you stop reading now and go do some research on dogs. I’ll wait here . . . Right, so now that we’re on the same page about dogs, you should understand those same qualities are two very important aspects for a guide dog. And by extension, being a guide dog is a choice that the dog makes. No one wants to be partnered with the dog that doesn’t want to be a guide dog. A large part of puppy raising is observing whether the pre-training puppy is showing the hallmarks of a dog suited for guide dog training. This doesn’t stop when they are in formal training or during placement or even when they are actually working! And in those cases where it’s obvious that the dog doesn’t want to or cannot be a guide dog, they find another niche in life to satisfy that is equally fulfilling.

Guide dogs are generally taught not to seek out contact or socialization from others besides the “owner” they are helping, and are taught to spend all of their time tending to the needs of a person.

Okay, I’m personally bristling over this “owner” terminology. To be fair, yes, I do have legal ownership of my guide dog. (As I did with her two predecessors.) However, we’re called a “guide dog team” for a reason: it’s a partnership. Meaning we both have responsibilities to uphold. Fundamentally, I take care of her physical and emotional needs and maintain her training, while she does what she was trained to do without distraction.

Yes, I discourage her from seeking out attention from others. Not because I don’t want her to be loved and petted and not even because I want her rapt attention solely on me,2 but because if she’s paying attention to someone else she is not paying attention to her actual job. This is no different than if you spent your workday goofing off rather than doing the things you’re actually paid for.

And, moreover, those other people present an unknown factor. In the past I’ve had strangers put my guide dogs’ health at risk by giving them food that would make them very ill. Once I observed someone walk by and toss my guide dog a chicken bone! Also, your assumption seems to be that it’s totally fine for anyone to give attention to any dog, which is patently false and a topic I’ve discussed here at great length. I’m not a parent, but I’d feel equally strong about discouraging my child from seeking attention from complete strangers, too.

Lastly, the amount of downtime during harness work and actual time off that my guide dog has is far greater than the time she spends actively doing her job. A lot of being a guide dog is napping under chairs and the like and when we are home the only things I expect of her are to be a suitable roommate. Yes, she may well work very hard, but she plays even harder. Trust me.

[Guide dogs] are often put in situations where their safety is at risk and every guide dog I’ve ever seen looks unresponsive and despondent.

I think I need an actual example of where a guide dog’s safety is put at risk because I can’t think of anything particularly hazardous about their work. For argument’s sake I’ll reiterate that this is a partnership. My guide dog and I are a team; we’re equals in whatever we do and wherever we go. The best example of this that I have is crossing a street. I wait for when the traffic pattern tells me it’s safe to cross and I indicate that to my guide dog. If she doesn’t agree with this assessment, e.g., she sees a car turning on a red light that I wouldn’t have noticed, she won’t move forward. We cross when we both feel it’s safe. Period. She’s not my furry butler catering to my every whim. She works by my side willingly. In fact, most of the time she’s more eager to get out of the house each morning than I am.

I don’t know how many guide dogs you’ve seen that you can claim they are all despondent, but I can assure you that is not the majority of guide dogs. They are happy to do their job and approach it like, well, a dog approaches any enjoyable thing in life. Mine, for example, have shown their love to work by leaping into their harnesses, whining at my not being faster to get ready in the morning, and literally herding me out the front door.

I’ll give you the unresponsive claim because (a.) a good guide dog shouldn’t be responding to anyone but her partner and (b.) a lot of guide dog work is mental so what you might think of as a lack of drive may well be a dog contemplating how best to accomplish the task at hand. But I’ll also add that your observations alone are not an adequate assessment of a dog’s mental state. My guide dogs, especially my current partner, all act very different when working as opposed to their off-duty times at home. They’re still the same silly, crazy, hyper, and happy dogs but they know to contain themselves when it’s not appropriate.

The dog’s best interests are not usually taken into consideration at all, and instead the dog is utilized to how they can help a human. It perpetuates the whole “servant/master” relationship between humans and animals, and that type of relationship is always harmful to animals.

Whoa. Now you’re just jumping to conclusions. As I said already, it’s a conscious choice for both parties of a guide dog team. So the dog’s interests are very much a consideration since that’s a large part of why she is a guide dog. Clearly, if you’re thinking of a guide dog as being a servant you have no understanding of what goes into a guide dog team. There’s the obvious stuff that any dog requires: being fed, going potty, grooming/bathing, yearly vet visits, etc. In general guide dog teams work on maintaining the training we have received and strengthening the bond we share. And most of this is done by meeting those aforementioned obvious needs. As a handler, I know my guide dog inside and out. Every day we go through obedience and we have a grooming session. The obedience is fun for her because I strive to make it interesting and rewarding. During the grooming session I’m not only helping her stay cleaner and making her coat look nice and pretty, but I’m taking note of anything abnormal that might have cropped up on her body. I can tell you without her even in the room exactly where every bump, lump, skin tag, scar, scab, bite, etc. is on my guide dog at any time. I’m failing to see how any of this is harmful to her.

Almost all guide dogs are bought from breeders and are raised as guide dogs since birth. So not only is the practice wrong, but it also supports the breeding of animals while there are still millions of dogs and other animals being killed in shelters everywhere annually.

Actually, almost all guide dogs are bred by guide dog schools. Many schools don’t even accept dogs that aren’t part of their specific breeding program because they are looking for very different traits than a regular breeder. And while I am very pro-rescue, you are neglecting the simple fact that responsible breeding works to strengthen the breed. Guide dogs are generally purebred dogs because this allows for a better understanding of their background, i.e., genetic traits, health, temperament, etc. This is usually not a possibility for a shelter dog and personally as a handler that worked with a dog with severe health issues I’d much rather have the history of my partner readily available than not. Which is not to say there is anything wrong with working a mixed breed dog or training one from a shelter, but just like not every dog is a fit for every person not every dog regardless of breeding is meant to be a guide dog.

It’s just really sad to me that people can look at animals and view them as property to use as we please. While not every guide dog is going to be treated so poorly, it’s the principle alone that goes against veganism because it’s using an animal to benefit a human, and disregarding the dog’s individual rights. It shows no respect to him or her as a being with their own wants and their own life.

Okay, I’m going to put aside the fact that you’ve basically argued my point for me here by stating that the alleged cruelty is less the issue and your point is more the assumption that there is cruelty because I’ll maintain that guide dogs are generally treated far better than the average pet dog.3 Instead, I go back to my original point about dogs being highly intelligent and the assumption that having read this far you’ve agreed to that. Well, you can’t have it both ways. The dog can’t be sentient enough to make choices and yet not actually be smart enough to, you know, make them. So, the dog — like the handler — has chosen to be in the partnership, which makes your claim that there is a lack of respect completely moot. Furthermore, what you clearly are failing to take into account is that guide dogs actually enjoy their work.

Now all that’s said and done, quoilecanard was then asked whether there was an alternative to working with a guide dog to which she replied:

Is there an identical alternative to forcing someone to serve you 24/7? Not really. But of course, just because there isn’t an alternative that is equally beneficial to humans doesn’t mean that the practice is justifiable by default. The only things I can think of are hiring someone to help them around the house and assist them with their trips into public areas if there are no family or friends able to help them. I know there are also free public services in some places where groups of volunteers collaborate and offer to help disabled people with their basic needs upon request, which could be looked into for said person who’d want a guide dog. Regardless, it isn’t fair to force a dog to suffer or to be exploited simply because it’s in the best interest of a human.

I’m feeling maddeningly redundant but let the record clearly reflect that “guide dog” is not synonymous with “slave.” Please stop insinuating otherwise.

As for real factual alternatives to a guide dog, yes, they exist. They’re called mobility aides and most anyone with some type of visual impairment learns how to use the most common one: the white cane. It’s almost always a requirement to apply for a guide dog, actually. And amongst those that work guide dogs you’ll generally hear a lot of grumping about them because of all the downsides to using one over being partnered with a guide dog. Canes won’t notice that car you didn’t hear turning in on you. Canes get stuck in the cracks in sidewalks. Canes can’t learn landmarks or recognize familiar paths.4

I’m not even going to bother trying to figure out what mythical universe you’re in where there exists people who can be hired to lead blind people around. I’ve been blind since birth and I’ve never heard of that.

Here’s a bit of truth you totally don’t seem to be aware of and/or understand: for a blind person working with a guide dog is about independence. First, it’s not exactly an empowering thing to be dependent on another person to get you from place to place and make sure you don’t walk into or off of stuff en route. And for what it’s worth, most of the people who have guided me in my life have managed to not accomplish this and I’ve been assisted in being walked into many things. One person almost walked me right off the side of a flight of stairs! It’s also incredibly inconvenient to be dependent on other people. You know how annoyed you get when your friend is late picking you up to go out to dinner together? Yeah, multiply that by EVERY SINGLE TRIP ANYWHERE.

I admit it, working in tandem with your guide dog partner is really something you have to experience to fully grasp. However, if it helps you understand the gravitas of how profound it is to pick up that handle and feel your partner move along side you, I will say that my very initial walk with Dolly was literally the first time in my life that I realized I walked slightly hunched over, staring (unseeingly) down at my feet straining to catch any potential hazard I might stumble over. It was during that walk that I realized how stressful getting around was for me and how ridiculously scary it was to be so vulnerable. All I can say is that if there is a servant in this partnership, it’s definitely me because there’s no way I’ll ever be able to convey to her all that she means to me. Not that I don’t try anyway.

To be continued, probably. . . .

  1. That was the question after all.
  2. Dogs are pack animals and as such it’s their very nature to pay attention to their pack. So, I’m honestly confused at the insinuation that being the sole recipient of attention is actually an unexpected, even a bad thing.
  3. This is a point I’ve been argued on a fair few times so please feel free to make me prove my statement.
  4. For what it’s worth, cane users would easily list many different (and contradictory) pros and cons as navigational methods are an entirely individual choice.

Comments

  1. Great post.

    I think the “despondent” tag comes from seeing a dog who is calm. I run across an incredible number of people who think that just because a dog’s tail is wagging it must be “happy.” A disciplined, well-adjusted dog that doesn’t act like a squirrel on espresso looks “sad” to them. It never ceases to amaze me how people who are (ostensibly) so interested in animals don’t know the most basic things about them.

    I think you really hit the nail on the head when you said that guide dogs are treated better than most pets. I think any working dog (properly treated, of course) has a better life almost by default, because they get an amazing amount of mental stimulation. If there is one characteristic that humans and dogs share, it is the desire for meaningful work.

    • I get a lot of “my dog would never act like this in public” like my dog is some magical canine that defies logic. People don’t understand that if I let her she would be ten times more annoying than your average pet in the same situation. Unlike those pets, though, she’s used to being out and about and knows that isn’t acceptable. I don’t think anyone believes me unless they actually witness it — and Uschi is the most profound example of this of any guide dog I have ever known.

      You are probably right. But I figure I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. I’ve worked shepherds now for so long that the usual response I get is generally related to surprise that they aren’t aggressive or something. I do get a lot of concern that my dog might be thirsty simply because her tongue is out or she’s panting. It’s another of those situations where I try and drop some truth and I’m pretty sure people think I’m a crazy person.

  2. My daughter, son, and I were interviewed for the local papers regarding Guide Dog Puppy raising. As the end of the article, the writer quoted me. “If I believed in reincarnation, I’d want to come back as a Guide Dog.”

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