Responsibility as a Dog Guide Owner

Charli Saltzman

When did you first realize you had increased responsibility? Were you surprised by the amount of responsibility you suddenly had? Finally, were you expecting it? I suddenly had more responsibility at the age of 16. This is because of my choice to apply for a dog guide. In the months leading up to my trip to the Seeing Eye in New Jersey, I could hardly contain my excitement. I was finally getting what I wanted all my life. I was getting a dog guide. But, surprise surprise. It wasn’t exactly what I expected.

Have you ever had that feeling that, if you just had this one thing, your life would be better? I have. The only problem was, I didn’t realize what I was getting into. Those first few days with my first dog Errol were fabulous. However, I had this image in my head of a perfect dog guide. I had expectations of Errol, and when he didn’t quite meet them, I would be very disappointed. I would say, he’s supposed to be a guide dog. Why is he sniffing that bush while he is working? Why is he wagging his tail and staring at that little child? Why is he getting excited about that other dog across the street? Well, I learned the answer. It’s because he is still a dog. He may be a working dog, but he’s still a dog. He’s going to do the things dogs do, and no amount of correction is going to take away that natural dog instinct.

I was warned about the difficulties of owning a dog guide. My cousin, who had a dog guide at the time, told me that I would have to be willing to get up early, walk the dog, and take care of him. However, that sounded wonderful to me. It was only when I got home to Nebraska when I realized how challenging it could really be. I was often a lazy teenager. I enjoyed spending a summer day relaxing and sleeping sometimes until noon. But once I brought that dog home, those days were over for me. Not only that, but there was the challenge of helping my family and friends learn the basic rules for a dog guide.

Being only 16, I wasn’t used to the responsibility. Because I wasn’t used to it, I struggled. My parents would see me struggle and often times, because I was lazy, would help me out. This in turn meant Errol was not just attaching himself to me. He was getting attached to my parents. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s always important for a dog guide to have the strongest bond with his or her owner. Because Mom and Dad would help feed him and take him out, he would often choose to play with them rather than me. This meant that, whenever he was working and he saw my mom or dad, he would get excited and not pay attention to his job. This in turn forced me to correct him which made me seem very mean to him. But could you really blame him?

Once school started, things got even more difficult. I was a senior in high school, and I had a lot of work to do. Also, in the middle of the day, I had to find time to take Errol outside. This sometimes made me late for class. I also had to make sure the other students understood that Errol was a working dog and not a pet dog. Errol went everywhere with me. He went to class, he went to lunch, and instead of having my mom come pick me up from school like she did in the past, I had to walk home with him so he would get his exercise. Then, when I got home, I had to do my homework and try not to be bothered by the constant pawing at my arm by Errol because he was hungry.

While I adored my dog, it wasn’t easy. As I graduated from high school and then attended independent living training through the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Lincoln, Nebraska, I decided I was never going to get another dog. It was just too much work. Through the training and then onto college, Errol remained at my side, but I was tired of being a dog guide user. Fast forward a few years, and now a beautiful yellow lab is snoozing at my feet. You might ask, what was the change of heart?

I realize now that I’ve done so many things wrong with my first guide. I loved the dog, but at the time, I was not ready for the responsibility. Because of that, the bond between us suffered. When he died suddenly, my world fell to pieces. I missed everything. I missed taking care of him, feeding him, and taking him outside in the cold waiting sometimes twenty minutes before he would finally relieve himself. Most of all, I missed the companionship. Errol was the type of dog who would just sit and let you pet him. He loved the attention. He was also very patient. He didn’t get upset like I did when I missed my bus even though it meant he would have to wait another hour before he could go home and eat.

And that was another thing. I missed having a dog waiting with me at the bus stop. At least I wasn’t alone when Errol was there. Think about it. You can’t really cuddle up to a long white cane and expect it to keep you warm. Also, walking with the cane wasn’t the same as walking with a dog guide. I missed the feel of walking alongside a dog. Needless to say, I changed my heart around. Joba is a better guide
because I am more responsible. I cherish and love the responsibility. I took what I learned the
first time, changed what I was doing wrong with my first guide, and said I would do everything I could not to make that mistake again. Oh, I’m not perfect, and neither is Joba. However, I accept his weaknesses, and even if we had a hard day of working, I sit down and pet him, letting him know we are still a team. Sometimes he has off days, but don’t we all? I don’t hold such high expectations for Joba. Instead, I let him be himself, correct him only when he needs it and he knows better, and love him for the wonderful dog he is.

I still have a lot of responsibility. But it’s not nearly as hard now. Part of it is because I am older, but another part of it is because I’ve learned from my experiences. I know that, when
Joba can no longer work, I will definitely get another dog because I couldn’t imagine my life without one.

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