More About Guide Dogs
I spend a lot of time answering questions about guide dog. I’ve gotten everything from relatively normal inquiries like, “How long does it take to train a dog?” to “How does your dog read street signs?” I am not going to entertain the second category of questions here and instead focus on legitimate ones.
1) Where did you get your dog?
I went to The Seeing Eye, which is located in Morristown, NJ. I got my first dog from them in 2008 right before I went to college.
2) How long is training?
This is a multi-step answer. The dogs go through multiple parts of training. First, they are born on The Seeing Eye’s campus and they stay with their mothers in the whelping kennels. There they go through early “training” which mostly involves special play areas where they learn how to balance and the like.
Next, they are placed with a puppy raising family. These are volunteers who have agreed to raise the puppy and teach him or her basic obedience. The puppy raisers will take the puppy with them to work, school, the train, anywhere they can. This is crucial because as an adult working animal the puppy will be exposed to all kinds of environments and they need to be exposed and desensitized young.
After a year to a year-and-a-half they return to the school for the last 4 months of their training. They are trained by professional trainers who transform the puppy into a working dog.
Finally, they are matched with a blind student who has applied for the dog. The student comes to the school and trains for a certain period of time (at The Seeing Eye the training is 2.5-3.5 weeks). Then the team goes home!
3) What happens when they retire?
It depends on a lot of factors. Where the handler (that’s what the human half of the guide dog team is called) is in their life, why the dog retired, if they plan on getting another dog, if there are other dogs in the home, etc. There are basically three options:
a. The handler keeps the dog
b. The handler rehomes the dog to someone in their community
c. The handler returns the dog to the school, and the school rehomes the dog to a family on the waiting list for a retired guide
I cannot stress this enough: retirement is the hardest part of a team’s working life. Never make a judgement based on which decision a person has made for themselves and their dog. Unless you have a service dog, it is impossible to describe the bond we have with our guides, and the responsibility we have to them when they retire. However, our dogs are not pets, when our dogs retire we need to apply for another dog, and life situations may not allow for us to keep our retired guide
An example: No pet apartments are required to allow service animals, but once a guide dog retires they are no longer a service animal but are instead a pet. So, if anyone is living in dorms, apartments, senior living facilities, etc. these people will need to find an arrangement for their retired guides.
4) Why is your dog wearing shoes?
I’ve always wanted to make a drinking game out of this in the winter time, but you’d probably die of alcohol poisoning in the first ten minutes. People really love the dog shoes!
The reason is this: the industrial level salt that we use on our roads and sidewalks is made from either calcium chloride, sodium chloride, potassium chloride, or other chemicals which are poison if an animal were to ingest it, but is also damaging to the pads of the feet. The shoes help to protect their pads.
In the summer time, I do still have my furry companion wear her shoes if it is too hot. The temperature of the sidewalk is far more than the air temperature, which can cause burns. It can also make her more susceptible to injury. A hot rock is easy to slice an overly warm pad on. The shoes are also excellent protection from glass and debris that might be left on the ground from fairs (renaissance fair!), carnivals, and other outdoor events.
I need my dog to focus on her work, and she can’t do that if her paws are hurting due to salt, hear, or glass. The same principle exists for her rain coat and winter coat. I need a warm, dry dog to focus on her work. Not a sad miserable one who just wants to get out of the weather.
5) Is your dog a hearing and seeing dog?
No. A service dog can only do one service at a time. My dogs have all been trained as guide dogs at The Seeing Eye as guide dogs. The reason is because of the magnitude of the job I am asking her to perform. When her harness is on she needs to be aware of everything visually. She is thinking about the tree limb that might hit me in the face as much as she is thinking about the curb lying in wait to trip me. If she also needed to think about someone saying my name, or other audio cues, it would simply be too much to ask. It would also be conflicting. A guide dog needs to ignore a lot of audio (people whistling, calling her name, etc.) where-as a hearing dog needs to be responsive to some of that.
6) Do you bring your dog to work/school?
Yes, I do, and most other places I go. The only places a service dog cannot go is anywhere the public is not allowed without special equipment. Practically speaking this means: construction zones, special quarantine areas at the hospital, etc. There is a caveat on the law about religious institutions being able to decide whether service dogs are allowed in because not all religions allow dogs in worship centers.
Otherwise it’s fair game: restaurants, busses, taxis, shopping malls, movie theatres (if you want to pick old candy out of long golden fur), again anywhere the public is allowed my dog can go.
*It is true that different states have slightly different laws around service dogs. The above information is true in all states, but there are other minute changes such as Dusty’s Law in NJ. This made it a criminal offense should a dog kill a service dog; the owner could spend up to 18 months in jail or be fined up to $10,000.
7) So, like, what does your dog do?
I forget who explained this to me so I can’t give credit, but guide dogs are object avoiders whereas canes are object finders. When I am using my cane, which I do on occasion, I use it while walking in straight lines to locate “what’s next”—be it a door, curb, mailbox, or what-have-you. My dog goes around those things unless I specifically tell her find something by command. What is the same in both situations is that I as either the cane user or the guide dog handler, am always in charge of where I am going.
There is a common misconception that my guide dog is like a GPS I can enter my destination into and she just takes me to where I want to go. This is false. If I don’t know where I am going, neither does my dog. In the morning, my dog has no idea if we are walking to the grocery store, the bus stop, or to my shul (synagogue) until we get there. She has a general idea that we normally go to these places, but she doesn’t know, and she certainly doesn’t know where we’re going when I get into a taxi.
That takes a tremendous amount of trust, and why it is so incredibly important that I not violate my dog’s trust in my judgement. When I give a command, my dog needs to be reasonably sure that it is a good command and that she just needs to double check to make sure I’m correct. This plays out most frequently in street crossings, and this is predominately why guide dogs aren’t for everyone. My street crossing skills are safe most of the time, and my dog knows that. When I do make a mistake, it’s rare, and as a team we move on from it.
This works in reverse. When I step off a curb, I need to know my dog has my back. I do make mistakes, especially because of my hearing loss, and my dog has saved my life on several occasions. I know that when I give a command and we cross a street together, that she is on point, and paying attention. I know that if something happens she’ll do her job.
That is what is means to be a working guide dog team.
It is also the single most common misconception about guide dogs—people think it is the dog doing all the work, but it is truly a partnership. We’re not perfect, we fight. I’m not kidding, my dog and I have all out fights in the middle of blocks. Sometimes I’ve had a stressful day and I’m not being receptive to her needs and I need to back off, or sometimes she just doesn’t feel like working and wants to hang out with squirrels. In those situations, I take her harness off and kneel and give her pats, and re-bond with her for a moment, because we must both refocus on each other to continue with our lives.