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.

The Breed Effect

This post is due to a couple factors: (1.) I’ve been getting a not small number of requests to read what I’ve been writing for my Nano; and, (2.) It (sort of) answers a rather often received question of mine: “Which breed is the best suited guide dog?”

It should be noted that this has not been edited, so it may well make little sense and contain some atrocious grammatical errors. Even still, I hope you enjoy. [Read more…]

By Popular Demand

My guide dog:

Yara, looking quite prim, lying on a bundle of blankets

Her fur:

An undercoat rake being dwarfed in size by a pile of Yara's fur

That would be the result of one grooming session. This is a task done on a daily basis. What is most astounding about that pile of fur is not its size but that somehow its removal from the dog does nothing to stop the house from being completely covered in black-tipped gray hair within a day of vacuuming. It’s truly uncanny.

I used to think labs in general shed the worst of any dog, Dolly in particular. Lab fur is basically like dust and they shed year round. I used to joke that all my congestion problems weren’t due to allergies or sickness, it was that my lungs were coated in black lab. However, I amend that statement. Her fur might not be floating through the air like dust particles, but Yara definitely sheds more than any dog I’ve ever known before.

The really sad thing is that this isn’t even a “heavy” shedding season. I can’t imagine there being more fur to shed without her developing bald spots.

Dog Food and Pine Hills

As I mentioned yesterday, Megan suggested adding some cookie treats to Yara’s dinner last night. We both figured there was a good possibility Yara would just eat around the kibble; however, she did one better than that, she ate all the cookies and spit all the kibble into her water. This morning I tried feeding it to her dry, just to see how she’d react and again she wouldn’t touch it. She chugged down water, though, and then vomited it up all over my kitchen floor.

I hate to say it, but I’m beginning to think Yara’s not a big fan of Abady.

Anyway, I talked with Megan about it and she suggested adding some canned food tonight. We picked some up during our route today at Price Chopper, so we’ll see what happens.

For today’s training we went to the Pine Hills area of Albany where I used to live. I really love this area because it’s still very residential and yet a very accessible part of the city. As we had hoped, the sidewalks were very clear and I got to really work Yara on her curb stops since she’s kind of hesitant to get right up there. Apparently she thinks I have about another foot of length in my legs. We got to work lots of obstacles, too, as it appears to have been trash day. Yara is very cautious with obstacles which is good in the sense that she’s not barreling by and walking me into things, but it’s a bit of a chore prodding her along sometimes. I have to keep remembering I’m not in a rush to get anywhere so it’s okay to stop and take my time with her.

We did some indoor work at Price Chopper. We worked on follow with Megan walking ahead of us and weaving around. Yara was a little distracted at times, but she was very good. We also did some work with heeling behind the cart. Like Dolly, or any guide dog really, she had a bit of trouble not treating it like an obstacle to go around, but she got the idea pretty quick and I think eventually got bored just walking around and started up that whining thing of hers. I will say she is a ton better about the whining than she was on our first day, but it’s still super annoying.

After that we had some lunch at the Subway food court on Madison and I was quite pleased with how well she was. She’s just a tiny bit solicitous, but she’s got nothing on a Labrador retriever. At the table she was just perfect and didn’t make a peep while Megan and I ate our food.

Once we were back home, Megan showed me our new obedience stuff for the day: come to heel and come around. The come around is a new one for me to wrap my head around. At GEB they were always against the “cheating” come where you switch hands with the leash and after awhile you get so used to your dog being on the left anyway you don’t even question it. We also worked a bit with Yara about grooming. Oh, she’s such a brat about it! I admit, I was spoiled with Dolly, she may have hated all of that stuff like grooming and having her teeth brushed but she just stood there and tolerated it. Granted she wore an expression that plainly said it was torture, but she never put up a fight about it. Yara, on the other hand, just gets really mouthy and starts being very silly when I start brushing her in more sensitive areas like her tail. It’s funny, but also kind of annoying at the same time.

Speaking of the furry one, she’s groaning in her sleep beside me!

For part of tomorrow’s training, we’re going to the mall and then grocery shopping. Who says guide dog training has to be all work?

EDIT: Oh, for those of you reading this via syndication, let me remind you to please comment here on the website. Syndicated entries are automatically deleted after an indefinite amount of time and I don’t get any notification of comments left elsewhere like LiveJournal, so I likely will not see them.

I Saw It! My Girl Has a Belly!

“I think Yara’s in love.” Megan said to me as I rubbed an exposed white-and-gray GSD belly after we had completed our training regimen for the day. Yara really is very adorable when she’s not bouncing off the walls or trying to drag me around. I was rather surprised when she rolled over while I was stroking her and showed that soft belly to me. She’s just been so anxious and excited, I hadn’t expected her to submit.1 Definitely a good sign.

Today was the first day we worked in harness and it was quite fun. It was also terribly cold. It got up to 28° but it felt far colder, especially when the breeze was blowing. Our first walk was okay, but definitely not amazing. Yara was very excited about everything going on and got distracted and hesitant a fair number of times. And, of course, I’m still trying to get all this stuff down and unlearn what I was taught before. I’m sure I’m hardly helping make things easier on her! She doesn’t pull out in harness with the great force Dolly used to exert, but she walks really fast! Our second walk was much, much better. She was a lot calmer and much more responsive. And after we were through and back home, Megan informed me that she hadn’t bothered to clip her leash on along with me.2

Meaning, we had our first independent route! I’m very proud of us both. Megan said we did “very well” and was quick to point out that we did our first halts all on our own. Go us!

Back inside my far warmer house, Megan and I went over things I can improve on. Fidelco’s positioning and even some command executions are very different than what I learned from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, so I need to work on that a bit. Then we went over some more obedience. We worked a bit more with targeting as well as sits and downs. And then we did some “go lay down” exercises, which seemed to make Yara quite happy as it involved her bed.

A very productive day, I must say! I think Yara would agree, but as she fell asleep while I typed this she’s unable to say so specifically.

  1. Being a Labrador retriever, Dolly all but throws her belly at you. She’s always been very passive and incredibly submissive.
  2. Guide dog training usually starts with the instructor slowly handing over control of the dog to the handler and one specific technique is to keep their leash on the collar along with the handler’s.