Welcome Home, Dolly!

One of the main reasons I hate moving is because inevitably something always gets lost. Case in point, I’ve been trying to locate a box of pictures for something like ten years now. Among the photos in this box are the portraits taken during my training at Guiding Eyes.

Well, I still haven’t found the box, but Dolly’s puppy raiser did send me this:

Portrait of Dolly in harness

I’ve been rather persistently pestering her for either of the portraits she has copies of to make . . . well, you’ll find out when the intended recipient does. For now, I am ever so pleased to say this lovely lady is hanging in my dining room.

15 Years (and Then Some) of Learning

Ideally, this would have been posted last June to coincide with the fifteenth anniversary of partnering with my first guide dog. In fact, it was my intention to submit it for the twelfth #ADBC. Months later, Brooke even tried to “help” me finally write this in the hopes that I’d participate in the thirteenth #ADBC.

Collage of three black-and-white images of Yara, Dolly and Uschi in harness

Even though it seems to have gone by faster than it should have, fifteen years is a long time. Nearly half my life, in fact.

A lot has changed over that decade-and-a-half. I’ve changed a lot over that decade-and-a-half, which seems cliché but is nevertheless the truth. I’ve written about this previously, of course, and later expanded on the profound differences. But one thing I’ve not really stressed before is just how much I’ve learned as a guide dog handler.

The key things are probably the most obvious: I’ve learned about how to work with a guide dog, what a lifestyle change it involves, and the incredible life-changing effect it can provide. My knowledge of dog training has grown in leaps and bounds and evolved along with the differences that dog training has undergone since my time at Guiding Eyes. And with fifteen years experience as a handler, I have a better understanding of my specific needs and desires in a partner.

Over the years I’ve amassed a wealth of information about public access and discrimination due mostly to personal experience. Nothing on a grand scale by any means,1 but I have been more-or-less thrown out of a few stores, had a few issues with some restaurants, and met with a fair amount of discrimination when hunting for an apartment. My favorite incident is a rather hilarious story involving a liquor store that ended with me arguing with a policeman about NYS access laws.

I wasn’t even aware of how self-conscious I was about being blind before I started working with a guide dog. I coped by trying to hide my limitations, which is practically impossible to do when you are accompanied by the most visible sign of blindness. A fact that was actually the argument more than a few family and friends used as to why I shouldn’t get and didn’t need a guide dog, which is amusing to me since that was basically the whole point for me. At the time I wasn’t quite able to explain it or maybe I was just too much of a stubborn teenager and didn’t want to.

What really stands out to me, though, is what I’ve been taught by my girls specifically. I’ve gained firsthand experience in how profound a bond there is between guide dog and handler and along the way gained more than a few insights on life: Dolly with her joie de vivre reminded me to not forget to enjoy myself, even when it was a simple and small thing. Yara’s serious attitude always makes me think of how I can better do the task at hand. And, in her own unique way, Uschi has shown me that it’s important to embrace who you are, quirks and all.

Sometimes it’s hard to separate out the specific things I’ve gained by working with a guide dog, so perhaps that’s why I feel I should have far more to say on the subject. Which only proves the point that all three of my guides have made me acutely aware of how much I have yet to learn and so the lessons continue on.

  1. Arguably, there has been cause for a lawsuit here and there, but none that have been worth it in my personal opinion.

Christmas Past

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.

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.