I believe it is time now to take a break from behavioral training and talk about guide dogs, dog guides, or Seeing Eye dogs. What on earth do you call them? This is one of the stereotypes and generalizations held by the general public. Hopefully, I can clarify some of these stereotypes. Let’s begin with probably the most common question. What do you call these dogs?
For years, guide dogs have been called Seeing Eye dogs due to the fact that the Seeing Eye is the oldest guide dog school in the United States. However, it would be incorrect to generalize all guide dogs as Seeing Eye dogs. Joba is a Seeing Eye dog because he was from the Seeing Eye in New Jersey. However, my friend’s guide dog is a Leader Dog because that dog is from Leader Dogs in Michigan. It’s sort of like calling all tissues Kleenexes after that one brand. I will not correct you for calling my dog a Seeing Eye dog, but like I said before, not all dog guides are from the Seeing Eye. So, what should you call them? There are a few things. You can call them guide dogs, dog guides, or service dogs. It is also acceptable to call them working dogs because they have important jobs to do.
Speaking of a guide dog’s job, what is it? Well, I can tell you what it’s not. It is definitely not me saying: “Okay, Joba, take me to school.” And then we just end up there after walking a while. Nope, doesn’t work that way. His job is simply to guide me. It is my job to know where I need to go, not Joba’s job. Okay, so sometimes Joba has a mind of his own and wants to go wherever he feels like it, but I can feel the pull in the harness handle and can tell if he’s trying to turn a different way. When he tries this little move, I gently correct him and get him heading back in the right direction. There are times, however, when I am so lost that I just let Joba walk. Dogs are smart like that. I can be lost, but as long as I know the general direction in which I need to walk, Joba will get me there safely. My dog is not an autopilot machine. I could tell him to take me to school, and he would have know idea what I was talking about. This is not to get you confused between everyday travel and clicker training. It is true that a dog can learn a route and take you immediately there. They are smart, and they don’t forget. And yes, I can train my dog to find things and associate a word with it. However, I can’t expect him to know whether I want to walk up to the mail room or to the bus stop. I have to give him the correct direction. Now, because I talk to myself, Joba probably does know the words “bus stop” because, when I get close, I’m always saying “Okay, almost to the bus stop”. My dog is smart, but he’s not perfect.
Another stereotype is that a guide dog is perfect. Even though I spent time with my cousin and her guide dog, knowing that she had to sometimes correct her dog, I believed that guide dogs were these perfect, innocent little angels. Well, they are little furry angels, but they make mistakes just like I do. It was a hard lesson for me to learn when receiving my first dog at the age of 16. A dog guide is still a dog. Sure, a guide dog is very well-behaved and socialized. At least, it should be. But a working dog can still get distracted by other people, food, dogs, or any other small animals. Errol, my first dog, always got distracted by little children. Joba doesn’t become distracted by children as easily, but his tail begins to wag and he begins walking excitedly when he sees another dog. It’s the owner’s job to correct when necessary to keep these distractions minimal, but they are going to happen. If the owner doesn’t get a hold on the distractions, the problem could become major, causing travel with a distracted guide dog to be unsafe.
I want to cover one more stereotype. How many of you have seen the show “Growing up Fisher”? I think it’s a cute show, though I have only seen a little bit of it. However, the problem I have with it is that it assumes it is super easy to get a guide dog. It’s almost just like getting a pet, but I’m here to tell you that is just not true. In fact, a person receiving his or her first dog stays at the school for almost four weeks training with the dog and learning how to care for their new guide. The time a person stays at the school probably depends on the school, but for the Seeing Eye, it is 3 and a half weeks for first-time dog guide users and 2 and a half weeks for those of us getting our successor dogs. A blind person can’t receive a dog one day and automatically be a wonderful dog guide handler. I’ve been working with dogs since I was 16, and I know I still need to improve on several things. I feel like I’m becoming better and better at dog handling every day, but I’m no expert.
I absolutely love walking beside a lovable, furry companion, but my dog is not a pet. It’s not just cool to have a dog guide in order for me to be able to take him everywhere with me even though he does accompany me to almost every activity I am involved in. I love the feeling of freedom that comes with working a dog. And while he’s not just a pet, he is a very warm and snuggly dog to cuddle up to on winter nights, to hug when I am sad, and to wrestle around with when he wants to be playful. Life with a guide dog is both fun and serious at the same time. It is a companionship and teamwork that is just so unforgettable and wonderful. It is pure happiness.