What does a guide dog do?

After a recent incident this week involving, in my opinion, an uneducated dog owner, I am inspired to write this post.

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Photo Credit: Guide Dogs for the Blind

A little background on the incident, on Wednesday, I was walking from the bus stop to one of my schools and we came up on a gentleman walking his two large dogs on fairly long leashes. He made no attempts to pull them back towards him or step over to the side as I approached. As I stopped and put Nabisco in a “time out” as he was distracted, the gentleman’s dogs pulled towards Nabisco growling, barking, and snarling. I sternly told the gentleman to get his dogs away from Nabisco and that he is my working guide dog. He didn’t understand what I was saying until I explicitly said “I am blind and this is my guide dog”. He retorted with “you have a problem lady”. It was only after my explicit explanation that he moved the dogs away and we were able to continue on.

It is situations like this that cause me great anxiety and scare me for the safety of Nabisco and I.

I truly feel like the general public does not fully understand how a guide dog team works and the implications of distracting a team while they are working. I want to take a moment to write an educational piece about guide dogs and the best ways that the public can interact with us.

What is a guide dog’s job?

A person who is blind or visually impaired may travel with a guide dog or a white cane to help them accommodate for their decreased vision and ability to see. Guide dog and cane users have a wide variety of vision, not everyone who uses a cane or guide dog is totally blind. A guide dog’s job is to get his blind handler from point A to point B safely. To do this, he is trained to stop and alert his handler to street crossings, any changes in elevation (curbs, stairs, large cracks in the sidewalk, ect), take his handler around obstacles in their path, ignore distractions such as squirrels, children, or other dogs, and respond accordingly to cars through intelligent disobedience. A blind or visually impaired handler puts all of his/her trust in the dog to keep him or her safe. A guide dog team is a reciprocal relationship. The dog takes on responsibility to keep the handler safe and keep them out of harms way, but it is the handler’s job to know where and how to get to where they are going and give the dog the correct directions to do that.

Why is it important to not distract a guide dog?

Since a guide dog’s job is to keep a blind/visually impaired handler safe, it is essential that they are not distracted by other people or dogs. It is vital that people ALWAYS ask before petting, feeding, or engaging with a guide dog. When walking your dogs, DO NOT allow them to interact with a guide dog, especially if they are walking down the street. This could severely distract the dog and put the handler’s safety at risk. If a guide dog is attacked or has a negative experience with another dog, it could cause fears in the dog and end his or her career as a guide dog!

What should you do if you are walking your dog and you see a guide dog team approaching?

The most ideal thing to do is cross to the other side of the street. This avoids any interaction between the guide dog and your dog and avoids any potential negative interactions and allows the dog to keep his focus on guiding his handler safely. If you are unable to cross to the other side, it is best to step off to the side of the sidewalk and keep your dog close to you on a short leash. It is NEVER okay to allow your dog to approach a guide dog, even if your dog is friendly.

What should you do if you see a guide dog getting distracted?

Guide dogs are not robots and especially young guide dogs like Nabisco can sometimes still get distracted by other dogs. Handlers (at least those who graduated from Guide Dogs for the Blind) are trained to do what is called a “time out” and this is an exercise where if the dog is distracted the handler stops, brings the dog close to their left side, and does not give them any interaction for ~10 seconds to take away any positive or negative interaction. This allows the dog to regain their focus and after the 10 seconds, the handler will continue on with guide work. If the dog does what is expected and regains meaningful work, the handler will usually stop and praise and even give a treat to let the dog know they did the right thing. If you are walking with your dog and a guide dog handler has to stop and do a “time out”, they are not stopping to allow their dog to interact with yours. Please keep moving past the team and let the handler work through the situation without you and your dog present.

I strongly urge you to respect the work that a guide dog does and help guide dog teams to be successful! Do not distract the guide dog from working by petting, talking to, or feeding. Do not allow your pet dog to interact with a guide dog. These things can put the handler’s safety at risk and it could potentially end the guide dog’s career if they have a negative encounter with another dog.  

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