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.

Before and After

When the seventh Assistance Dog Blog Carnival was announced I found myself in a minority: I got the theme straight away and I had an idea for what I wanted to post. Of course, as so often is the case with the ADBC I found that initial idea practically impossible to write. I didn’t expect the usual bout of Writer’s Block to be so profound since I was merely expanding on a topic I’ve touched on before, but after weeks of struggling to put fingers to keys I ended up missing the deadline completely

I think my difficulty with this post in specific was that I don’t like to dwell on the past. A lot of my childhood memories are not happy ones and a good portion of those are tied to my own mixed up method of coping with my blindness. In realizing that I also understood the most significant effect working with a guide dog has had on me: it’s healed me; I’ve grown to completely accept my blindness and I’m not haunted by the painful discomfort of my childhood.

As a child I was ostracized. My classmates made fun of how the nystagmus made my head shake; of how close I had to hold things to read; and basically any other thing they could think of. I didn’t understand my own limitations well enough to feel anything but shame for these huge differences that separated me from fitting in with the other kids. All I wanted was to be invisible and I did everything I could to not draw attention to myself.

Folded white caneThere’s a thin line between what I stubbornly refused to use because I didn’t want to and what I stubbornly refused to use because I didn’t need to. The white cane, for instance (pictured to the left) was a prime example of something that I really should have been making use of, but I didn’t regularly start using a cane until I was 16. Honestly, it’s a wonder I made it to 16 given how limited my vision is outdoors.

On the other hand, I really did not need the large print textbooks that were ordered for me every year. First, they weren’t convenient to use. They weighed a right ton and took up my entire desk when opened. Neither of which played well into my goal of invisibility. Second, I can read regular print! Other things like lighted magnifiers, monoculars, and telescopic glasses weren’t just alarming attention-grabbers, but just not all that useful for me. Except the general lack of understanding we all had about achromatopsia meant that my refusal was perceived as a misguided and stubborn refusal and for years I all but waged war with my TVI about what I would use, which was basically nothing.

So, it came as quite a shock to, well, everyone when I announced I was applying for a guide dog. I don’t think anyone knew how serious I was and I remember a distinct conversation with my father where he stated his opinion that my only interest in a guide dog stemmed from a friend getting her own. And, of course, I’d spent practically my entire life to this point doing everything I could to not draw attention to my blindness so the general feeling was that I didn’t need a guide dog. They were for totally blind people anyway, right? Even today I hear that same remark when, in fact, the number of totally blind people is very small. Most people who say they are blind — like me — can see something even if it’s only light. As far as vision goes, guide dog schools only require that the potential handler be legally blind.

The truth is I had wanted a guide dog since the moment I was first introduced to the concept. (Thank you, Sesame Street.) It wasn’t until I started to research schools that I fully understood how I met the requirements. I’m not proud to say that even though I had to affirm my need for and desire of a guide dog to my family as well as showcase my O&M skills for my application to a training school it took a few close calls before I really embraced using my white cane.

The thing is I can’t even blame it on being a sloppy or even poor cane user! Sure, I didn’t like using a cane. I disliked how it actively worked against my desire to be invisible. And not just because I was constantly whacking people in the shins! What it really came down to was that I still felt vulnerable. I wasn’t confident in what signals I got from the cane. I still found myself running into things I didn’t know were there. There was no real indication of whether a step was just a step or an entire flight of stairs. And, worst of all, while I was clearly noticeable with my cane no one seemed to respect my usage of it; I actually got hit by a car using my cane! Thankfully, they were going very slowly and merely knocked me on my rear, but it shook me up quite badly.

For me working with a guide dog is nothing like that. It was a difference that’s so pronounced that it wasn’t long into training with Dolly that I knew I could never go back. I was walking upright for the first time in my life, not hunched over, fruitlessly straining to see any toe trip in my path. I was finally able to walk at a pace I found comfortable, not cautiously stepping forward, trailing behind my friends and family. Most of all, I actually enjoyed working with my canine companion and we definitely were being noticed by, well, pretty much everyone. I wasn’t ashamed that I needed to utilize a mobility aid and I found myself happily chatting about her to complete strangers like a parent would gush about their children.

One of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do was leave Dolly after three weeks of training so she could recuperate from her warty feet. I felt like a new person in so many ways after our short time working together, but I had to go home and spend a month relying on my cane once again. Perhaps it was just my own hatred of this lot I’d been given, but I think it only reinforced the general feeling my family had that I really didn’t need a guide dog or even more that I wouldn’t fully utilize her. But whether bystanders noticed right away or not, I fell right back into working with a guide dog like I’d been doing it my entire life.

Working with a guide dog is truly a life decision. Over the years it’s presented its own hardships and stresses. And there are times I find it the most frustrating aspect of my life. But I have absolutely no regrets. I’ve had the wonderful privilege of having three terrific partners to share my life with and each of them has reaffirmed how much better my life has been since I first picked up a harness handle.

Moments of Choice

For the ninth ADBC I was initially going to write a post sparked by a friend’s rather innocent question about whether I’d ever consider keeping one of my guide dogs after she retired. I’m often asked about my retired guide dogs. People want to know what happens to a guide dog after they are no longer working. Others are just curious about the specifics of my retired girls. But as often happens the post I submitted was something very different. Even so the idea has continued to gnaw at me for quite some time now. It’s not so much the question itself, which is easily enough answered with a resounding yes. Rather it’s the fact that it was asked in the first place because I think it’s not so much a choice to keep my guide dog, but whether I can and/or what is the best post-harness home for her.

Before I go on further let me take the time to stress one thing: I am incredibly grateful to Dad and Keith for opening up their home to both Dolly and Yara. I don’t mean to downplay their generosity and I’m thrilled that it’s allowed me to keep the girls in my life, albeit a bit removed.

Yara guiding me along the bridge over Washington Park LakeRetiring a guide dog is not one of the easier aspects of being a handler and has been some of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make in my life. A major part of being partnered with a guide dog entails developing an incredibly strong and very unique bond and severing, or even altering, that is extremely difficult. Very often there are extenuating circumstances that add to this, like Yara’s many health issues and then spending six months in a limbo of uncertainty from the time I initiated her retirement to the day it became official.

Even when you’ve prepared in advance for this sad event it’s still a complicated and difficult process. I had always intended for Dolly to have a working life capped off with as much enjoyment as possible and so my plan from very early on was to retire her at 10, unless something, e.g. her health, dictated it should be sooner. Anyway, the long and the short of it is that my plans for her were disrupted by a job offer that required six months of training in Arkansas. In something of a whirlwind I ended up retiring her several months earlier than I’d initially intended and it was terrifying and sad all at the same time. But even before all that chaos, I was already dreading the day she wouldn’t be walking by my side any longer.

The thing of it is, not working with your partner is only part of what makes retirement such a hard thing. It’s a big part, sure. And on the part of the dog is one that is hard to predict how they’ll adjust to. The fear is always that they’ll react badly to not being with their partner all the time; that they’ll need something to occupy themselves with after years of busy work; etc., etc., etc. So, in my case, we prepared for that and certainly both girls had an adjustment period, but they each slipped into their new lives as spoiled pets with a lazy, even expectant ease. And that’s a solace for me because, well, that’s what retirement should be!

What I find the most difficult — and incidentally where the actual choice comes in — is accepting that my home is no longer the ideal situation for my guide dog. Sure, no one can possibly take care of them the way I have over the years. No one will ever have that level of closeness with them as I have shared. And no one will ever truly know them as in-depth as I have come to.

And I admit, selfishly, I just don’t want to be separated from my dogs!

Yara lounging on the sofaIn the end, it’s always about what is the best situation for the dog, though. And the crux of both my experiences was that there was a large unknown factor and not being endowed with powers of clairvoyance I couldn’t know how things would turn out. It just wasn’t fair to either girl to put her through such a potentially stressful situation, especially when retirement is inherently stressful to begin with. I also think that having the one big change — moving to my dad’s — followed by a constant stability in their lives has only helped them to transition into retirement with that much more ease.1

What I have learned through these experiences is that it’s nigh impossible to predict where your life will bring you in a year, let alone eight. And so much as my heart yearns to keep my retired guide dog, in my previous two experiences it hasn’t been the best option. I’ve been extremely lucky to have things work out as they have, though, and that is no small happy in my life. Which is to say while I expect that Uschi will still be hanging around here when she’s no longer racing about like a wild puppy, I am open to the possibility that may not end up being what the future holds. And like before it will be a terribly difficult, but ultimately worthwhile choice.

  1. Not to mention the bribery of being spoiled relentlessly.

(Im)perfection

One thing that I’ve come to realize after nearly fifteen years working guide dogs is that you can’t really ever be entirely prepared for your first partner. Sure you can talk with other handlers and research extensively and any training program worth bothering with will give you a fair rundown of what to expect if you inquire. But until you actually work with a dog you can’t really know the specifics of what will be important for you. One thing that I was utterly terrified about prior to being partnered with Dolly, my first guide dog, was the specifics of how the matching worked.1 I grilled each school I applied to; I badgered my guide dog user friends; I obsessed about it to anyone that would listen; I even had dreams about it! Mostly I was trying to prepare myself for that possibility I wouldn’t have a match at all or that the dog chosen for me wouldn’t work out for one reason or another. And these are certainly valid things to consider; however, now that I’m a few dogs removed from that I come to realize there really is no such thing as a perfect match.

Yara guiding me down the path by Washington Park LakeDon’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that there is no functional team or that every partnership is doomed. In fact, I think all of my guides were exceptionally well matched with me and I’d even go so far as to edge one out as “the best.”2 Honestly, even with all the information the school has at hand it never ceases to amaze me how well the matching between handler and dog can be.

No, what I mean is something far more simple: dogs and people are both flawed. Handlers make mistakes. 3 And no matter how well trained they might be a dog is a dog.

That last bit is where there seems to be the most division amongst handlers. Personally, I want a dog. I love dogs. I grew up with dogs. And that’s about 60% of the reason I wanted to work with a dog. But for every handler that wants a partner with personality — and believe me, I have not been shortchanged in this department — there are just as many that want a laid back companion and certainly some combination in between. What I’ve seen over the years, though, is that those dog behaviors tend to be viewed as flaws and certainly when they manifest in harness as distractions that is rightly so.

I’ll let you in a little secret: whatever you’ve heard from other guide dog users about their dog never needing a correction is totally and completely a lie. I used to be almost ashamed of my skills as a handler and disappointed in my guide dog because I heard this so many times before training, during training and even after training. Yes, seasoned guide dogs and those who have a good foundation of obedience certainly aren’t prone to disobeying the rules of harness work. And certainly some dogs require a firmer hand, especially those new partnerships where the team is still settling in together. I’ve a treasure trove of memories showcasing how obedient my guides each were and just as many “can’t believe she did that” ones. Uschi’s known as the food ninja amongst my family members because she’s managed to steal things that we can’t figure out how she got to without leaving any evidence other than catching her snarfing down the stolen goodies. Yara’s notorious for her escape artistry, including managing to free herself from a Vari Kennel; she also wiggled out of her harness so many times I lost count. And, well, that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.4

Uschi guiding me up an ancietn set of stairs at Schenectady Central ParkTruth is guide dogs aren’t little furry robots. Even in harness mistakes will happen and some of it will be just as much if not more your fault as the handler than your partner’s. Mistakes in and of themselves aren’t bad. In fact, one of the scariest walks with a guide dog for me is that first time I am not diligently paying attention and yet smoothly get from Point A to Point B without a single hitch. It’s exhilarating and something to be proud of, but it’s also kind of disarming and almost eerie because that’s the moment that you really start to realize how deep a level of trust you need to and will place in this dog. Maybe you’ll have that moment very quickly. Maybe you’ll see a sharp and/or steady increase in those times. Maybe you won’t. And that’s always a challenge. It may be a clue that the partnership isn’t going to work, but sometimes it’s just a matter of time before it gets there. What’s important is to understand that the need to correct your partner or rework something is only a means of reinforcing those things you want to happen. One big thing I learned between my dogs is how they react to specific corrections. Where one might have needed a firmer hand, another treated the mistake itself as correction enough.

To paraphrase a mantra in yoga: leave the past behind you because it’s already gone, don’t fret about the future because it hasn’t gotten here yet, but be in the present because that’s the moment you’re in and what truly counts. Embracing those moments that aren’t stellar and realizing how they can strengthen your bond is one of the most fundamentally important things I’ve learned over the years I’ve worked with my guide dogs. A real partnership takes work, but this is the type of effort that truly pays off in the end.


This post was written as part of the tenth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. This edition’s theme is “Perfect 10” and further information can be found here on the founder’s blog.

  1. Southeastern Guide Dogs has a wonderfully informative post on how the matching process works for their school which I do believe is probably much the same across the board.
  2. Though, family, friends and even coworkers of mine have voiced their opinions on this and rarely seem to agree with me, but that is probably at least partially due to bias.
  3. Props if you can spot the one I’m making in the photo on the top right.
  4. I can’t really account for Dolly’s biggest faux pas in dog terms as I suspect she was just a mean little teenager in a Labrador retriever suit because whenever she felt duly wronged she’d very purposefully plow me face first into the nearest door or telephone pole.

Quiet Moments

Anyone even vaguely familiar with Uschi, especially when she’s not working in harness, can attest to her crazy, playful nature. Honestly, living with her boundless energy is both amusing and exhausting. If anything she keeps me entertained, but I am very glad that she is capable of composing herself in harness and focusing on her task of aiding me in safely traveling independently.

Probably when you think of the term “guide dog” you imagine a blind person walking along being led by a harnessed dog. That’s certainly makes sense since that’s essentially what the dog is trained to do. Personally I think that simple act of walking as a guide dog team is both amazing and beautiful. Through leather and steel there’s a connection between handler and dog that even after all these years I still find truly profound and something without equal. But this isn’t a post about any of that. No, it’s a post about a more common part of working a guide dog, but one that’s often not stressed.

Full body shot of Uschi in harness lying on a white backgroundI’ve mentioned many times before that generally the largest part of a guide dog’s working life isn’t spent actively guiding their blind partner, but are more accurately “down times.” Guide dogs spend a lot of time being stationary. They lie under tables and chairs, tuck themselves under counters or even just sit beside their partner while they do any number of things from eat at a restaurant to standing in queue. Basically, they’re being completely unnatural to pretty much every dog that the public may have ever had contact with.

I hear a lot of comments from random strangers that their dogs would never be so well behaved and that they wish they could bring their dogs with them everywhere. But the reaction I love the most is when the person hasn’t even noticed the dog’s presence until I’ve gotten up to move or something. Considering how often the public’s reaction to my guide dogs is more than a little frustrating, it’s simply a welcome treat.

In a lot of ways, though, it’s just as much an example of what it is to be a guide dog as the aforementioned mental image. Certainly there are calm dogs and those who are well trained who, for instance, could lie under a table in a crowded restaurant for hours at a time without any issue. However, in my experience, that’s not the typical dog and it’s most definitely not the normal behavior for Uschi who has spent the vast majority of the time I’ve taken to write this post alternately chasing a tennis ball around the house and barking at all the trick-or-treaters. Goodness knows I could never sit around that quiet for such long periods of times when I was four. Honestly, I probably still can’t some three decades later.

That said, I find that many people don’t quite understand that a stationary working dog is in fact working. It’s not hard to understand given how we view the concept of work. I can’t imagine many employers would condone having a workday that accomplished nothing and merely consisted of sitting quietly. Of course, the converse is equally true and an employee who is disobedient and not fulfilling their duties wouldn’t be tolerated. Which is precisely why a guide dog “just sitting there” is actually working just as much as if she were leading her handler across a busy intersection.

They may seem less glamorous in relation to the more dynamic and active parts of guide dog work, but these moments of calm, quiet are ones that I truly admire and adore because even during these there’s a trust present. Uschi knows that eventually more actual work is coming — the opportunity to go somewhere or the chance for a car ride — and I have faith that she’ll be a good, obedient companion. Like so much of our partnership, it’s so simple and yet it conveys so much.


This post was written as part of the ninth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. This edition’s theme is “Moments” and further information can be found here on the founder’s blog.