Assumptions About Guide Dogs: A Top Ten List

The theme for the tenth ADBC was “Perfect 10” which could be interpreted in several different ways. My submission focused on the “myth” of perfection, but while going through my usual initial post writing struggle I looked through my drafts here and stumbled on this long dormant post idea. I’m more of a “seat of your pants” type when writing blog posts and that doesn’t really lend itself to the blogging fad of top-ten type list posts, but this seemed an appropriate time to finally dust this draft off and share some of the ways people make asses of themselves incorrect assumptions the general public have about guide dogs.


#10. Guide dogs are not pedigreed
In point of fact, all three of my guide dogs have been purebreds, but I am very often confronted by people who choose to challenge this. I’m not entirely sure if these people just feel I’ve been swindled by my guide dog school and actually have a mongrel, but sometimes the tone suggests these same people feel they just know more that I do about the breed of dog I happen to be working with. The one thing that they don’t understand is that while my dog might not be the ideal of the breed standard, her breeding was as meticulously planned out as the finest show dog. Training schools most often breed their own dogs because they can better track the specific traits that are important in a future guide dog, especially since these are not necessarily the same qualities a breeder would target. Through breeding their own dogs the schools also have access to the genetic history of their dogs, which is important in producing sound and healthy dogs.

Yara and Uschi lying together on the sofa in my living room#9. Guide dogs are better than white canes
This is not about my personal preference of working with a guide dog over a white cane, but rather the misguided belief that there’s almost a continuum of mobility aides that a blind person uses. Both are fine tools to travel independently, but not necessarily the best tool for each individual blind person. There are pros and cons to both and in my case the pros of a guide dog far outweigh the cons in comparison to using a white cane. For what it’s worth, I am a strong supporter of every blind person learning to use and possessing a white cane even if they have enough residual vision to travel without one and/or work with a guide dog. It’s just a handy skill to have, like knowing how to read Braille.

#8. Guide dogs love their job
This is perhaps one of the few assumptions that isn’t so much inaccurate as only partly true. Guide dogs do enjoy their jobs and to them it’s less work as just what they’re supposed to do. It’s a choice she’s made to be in this role and one she continues to make each day. I know this by the enthusiasm and excitement she has in her work and even, more often than not, the mere anticipation of doing work. However, for as much as I personally love my job, there are days I’d rather just lounge around the house doing anything but and I’m sure guide dogs must feel the same way now and then. Which is why I do my best to make her working life as far from mundane as I can. For instance, I give her lots of positive reinforcement and we have our own downtime to just let her be a dog.

#7. Absent a guide dog handlers are helpless
It’s rare that I’m not working my guide dog when out of the house. And I admit I’ve had words with people who’ve tried to persuade me to not bring my dog along just because they don’t particularly like being around the dog. I’ve also had words with those that stated the opposite: that they “worry” about me when I’m separated from my guide dog. Yes, I depend on her, but that doesn’t not make me dependent. Though I greatly prefer to have her guide me when I’m going somewhere, especially a place I am unfamiliar with, I am not incapable of navigating independently without her. Furthermore . . .

#6. The guide dog does all the “work”
We call ourselves “a team” for a reason because it’s a joint partnership and we work together, but for whatever reason people seem to think that guide dogs are less leading a blind person and more physically dragging them from place to place. I suppose that would work just fine if guide dogs were automatons with the power to read minds, but then they would probably be less satisfied with their jobs guiding the blind and just revolt and take over the Earth. In all seriousness, though, I admit that there have been times I’ve sort of spaced out and my guide dog has pretty much worked without my input. However, most of the time when that’s happened my dog just gets sloppy and I don’t so much magically end up where I’d planned as I do walking face first into a door. The metaphor of the camel’s nose (“give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile”) comes to mind. Essentially, what I’m saying is that if I let her do all the work, we’d spend much less time getting where I wanted to be and far more time sniffing every tree we came across.

Me with my arms embracing Uschi, who is in harness and giving me a kiss on the face#5. Guide dog team are best friends
I love my guide dogs a great deal and we share a very significant and special bond. However, she’s really not best friend material. Personally, I prefer a bit more stimulating conversation and a bit less watching her lick her rear end. I’m sure she loves me just as much as I do her and it’s probably fair to say that I’m her favorite human, but I’m still not a dog and judging from the exuberance of her playtime I think dogs find other dogs infinitely more fun.

#4. Guide dogs are superior to other dogs
Personally, I find comparing completely pointless, but I do have a lot of people profess to me how great my guide dog is in regard to pretty much any other dog. A lot of the time people are trying to find a way to ask about what happens to career-changed dogs. Dogs that are released from guide dog training programs far outnumber those that actually work in harness and there are a great number of reasons any potential guide dog could fall short. Each school has their own particulars about what dogs will or won’t meet their qualifications, but they all strive to find an equally fulfilling life for the dog. Some go on to other working careers such as therapy or drug detection; while others find their niche in life is to be a loved pet. Regardless of where they end up, they’re valued and that makes them superior in their own way.

#3. Another (pet) dog is “just like” a working guide dog
This one is somewhat related to #4. It’s not very often that someone says this directly to me, but I do hear the statement that “such-and-such dog is just like [my] guide dog” or “such-and-such dog could actually be a guide dog.” Maybe it’s true. But, probably, it’s not. I’ve known some very smart, obedient, and well-behaved dogs in my life, but those qualities don’t necessarily make a guide dog. For one, as important as formal training is that is only one part of the preparation future guide dogs receive. In fact, their entire puppyhood is about preparing them for their potential working life and often the qualities that make a dog a good guide are exactly the things that make them not so great pets. For instance, a guide dog should be obedient and well-behaved, but also stubborn and intelligent enough to know when to disobey a command or take the initiative to do something on their own. This is a very uncommon skill and one of the more difficult aspects of guide dog training. That other dog might be really exceptional, but it does not mean they’re guide dog material.

Me embracing a happy looking Yara in harness#2. A working guide dog is still training
Okay, technically this is more accurately a team assumption, but it is literally the most common thing I hear after the general stat inquiries about my guide dogs. For a very long time I used to take this to mean that people thought I didn’t need a guide dog — and for what it’s worth I have had people (even family members) outright state this. I’ve also had it come from a place of justifying what is perceived as my guide dog misbehaving. The truth is actually less offensive and more amusing, though, because what it usually comes down to is that people generally don’t recognize the difference between a person who is partnered with a guide dog and a volunteer1 with a puppy in pre-training. Part of this is due to the common misunderstanding that “blind” means “totally blind,” so people often mistake the ability to see anything for being fully sighted. Honestly, I think people just don’t expect to run across a real guide dog team, so they are genuinely inquiring out of curiosity. That said, this isn’t a wholly inaccurate assumption, in my opinion. While guide dogs have essentially had years of training, it really doesn’t stop the day they are partnered with their handler or when the team finishes their instruction. Maintaining the high level of training that a guide dog has received is a constant process and a lot of that is how the team bonds. But to avoid confusion I personally tend to avoid using the term “train” when referencing obedience exercises or other bonding activities that would specifically fall into this category.

#1. Guide dogs never make mistakes
The basic assumption is that guide dogs are perfect and this one is particularly difficult because it is the general expectation the public seem to have of guide dogs. I also find that handlers tend to be highly critical of other teams and judge them poorly if they witness mistakes being made. I’m guilty of once thinking this was true myself and my inability to achieve perfection with my guide dog partner was the cause of great shame for me. I thought the fact that my guide dog made mistakes was because of my shortcomings as a handler. I felt that perhaps my guide dog wasn’t meant to be my partner. I even thought it made us a failure as a team. The truth is mistakes happen. Guide dogs are dogs regardless of their high level of training and they are fallible. As are their human partners. It’s simply a fact of life and expecting differently is a standard which no one can achieve and will only succeed in causing disappointment.

  1. The specifics of the mistaken assumption, I think, vary depending on where you live. In the City where several training schools work, I’ve had many people think I was a guide dog instructor. Whereas at home my dog is often thought to still be awaiting formal training as I live in a pretty active puppy raising region.

Comments

  1. Great post!

    When Cessna & I were first partnered, I really liked it better when people assumed I was her trainer lol! It made it easier to explain away her puppy antics.

    As for guide dogs being better than pets, I’d have to say Canyon is a lot better than my labs. Him and I just have a connection that makes it extremely easy to do new things with him and not have to worry about his reaction or whether he’ll be okay with the learning. Cessna and Rogue are awesome, but with their lab-ness and stubbornness, it’s not always smooth sailing when we jump feet first into a new situation. For example, if I had all of a sudden decided to do drafting with Cessna or Rogue, I’m almost certain it wouldn’t have gone as smoothly as it did with Canyon who seemed to take it with stride and settled right into his role.

    • I think the training thing ruffled me more as a new handler than it does now because, whether it was intentional or not, I took it to mean I didn’t need a guide dog or that one of us was doing something wrong. I’ve come to realize that people just aren’t expecting to run into an actual guide dog team, no matter that there are quite a number of them in this area, and it’s more a probing inquiry than a statement. And even if it is a statement implying those fears I used to have, I’m both confident in my skills as a handler and wise enough to know the general public’s opinions are merely that.

      Honestly, I find the guide dogs tend to be too smart for their own good when it comes to things outside of harness work. Whereas pet dogs tend to just revel in learning something just to make you happy, my guide dogs always seem to approach things from the perspective of “why should I do that?” I admit that I do rather like the challenge it presents in training, which is one of many reasons I really enjoy working with shepherds, but sometimes I wish we could skip the psychology aspect of training and just get on with it.

      • Well my pet border collie does the same thing: everything he does for me has to be because there is something in it for him. Otherwise he’ll either do it grudgingly or pretend he didn’t hear me. He’s certainly not obedient just to please me.

        He disobeys when I’ve given him a stupid command too – and he’ll pull me back if I attempt to cross a road when there’s a car coming (no training – just common sense). He’s actually saved me a few times (and no I am not partially sighted – just stupid). He also comes to “tell me” when I’m burning something in the oven or on the stove, and he’ll come get me if the phone is ringing or someone is at the door and I haven’t heard it. All with no training – he just sees a job needs doing and he does it.

        BUT – he would make a rubbish guide dog because he loves to chase large 4 legged animals (well, attempt to herd would be a better description). I’d end up trampled by cows.

        So clearly being smart and intelligently disobedient is NOT really the crucial characteristic of a guide dog – I reckon the dog needs insanely good focus and a one track mind to succeed. That’s probably why labs make such good guides.

        Incidentally, why aren’t mongrels used for guide dogs? Why only purebreds? Is it because they’re too independent? Or is it just prejudice against mongrels? Also I’d heard that the most common guide dog “breed” was a lab x golden retriever crossbreed, not purebreds, is this incorrect?

        • You’re over generalizing what intelligent disobedience is. It’s not just “common sense” as you put it because it involves more than just an avoidance of cars, but things like deviating from a directional command because of obstacles or changes in elevation. There are many nuances to what intelligent disobedience covers and they surpass what I reference in this post. I just used the traffic example because it’s a big one.

          Also, I never said that just being any specific thing makes for a good guide dog. In fact, much of my point above was exactly the opposite of that because there are so many various qualities that go into what make for a good guide dog. Not to mention a good partnership with one.

          Anyway, there isn’t so much a prejudice against mongrels in training programs or assistance dogs as a whole. In fact there are programs that utilize mixes for various reasons and owner-trainers choose whatever works for them personally. It’s more about tracking specific qualities. Diversifying the lines would make it more difficult to follow how those traits pass on. Labs are the most common breed used and it’s mostly because they are a highly adaptable breed. Standard poodles and crosses are also rising in use because of the hypoallergenic properties, but otherwise most of the other typical breeds are somewhat uncommon.

  2. This is an awesome post…well thought out and stated. And very much needed to be said. I especially like the sentence in #6 “…they would probably be less satisfied with their jobs guiding the blind and just revolt and take over the Earth.” You have written this well!

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