Traveling with a Guide Dog

Charli Saltzman

I am recalling those early autumn mornings as Joba and I walk up the steps of Wesleyan University. Joba is not a slow walker, so we usually go flying past the building on our left, up the ramp, and to the Smith Curtis building where my communication and psychology classes are held. Immediately when I hear the sound waves bouncing off of Smith Curtis’s doorway, that echo lets me know I’m about to turn left and head inside. I know I don’t really have to tell Joba to go to the left. He’s been here so many times before, but I tell him anyway. As he puts his front paws on the steps, he stops and waits until I give him the “forward” command. When he hears the command, we ascend the steps, and he places me right to the left of the door handle so I can grab it with my right hand and head inside. Again, he stops in front of the steps, his front paws on the first stair, and after telling him he is a good boy, we head on up to my class room. He stops in front of my usual desk, I discard my backpack beside my chair, and Joba slides down under the table without me even telling him to do that.

These dogs are wonderful travel companions. Joba loves to be able to work, and I love working with him. As I’ve said several times before, we are a team. However, this travel experience that I just explained is a very familiar travel route. So what happens when we suddenly find ourselves in a new area and I feel I am lost?

My orientation skills are sometimes not very good. My cane and dog skills are excellent, but when it comes to me remembering which direction I am going, I am not very confident. Like my dog, I am very route-oriented. I need to learn a route and repeat it several times. However, I’m not horrible, and there are devices and smart phone technology that helps me out. The thing is, once I know where I’m going, once I know I am headed in the right direction, I’m perfectly fine. So, what do I do to figure out where I am? Should I just let my guide dog take over and walk me wherever he wants to? Absolutely not.

Who likes to get lost? I know I don’t. When I was younger, getting lost was tragic for me. I was afraid no one would ever find me and I would be lost forever. In a panicked state, I would sometimes turn completely around, walk a bit, get frustrated, and turn around again. I felt like getting lost was the end of the world. Not to mention I hated asking people questions. Unfortunately, too often, I blamed my dog for getting me lost even though I knew it wasn’t his fault. When I got frustrated, my dog got nervous, and he completely shut down, refusing to work. I’d grab the harness handle, and he would sit down which made me more upset and confused. Training at the independent living center helped me somewhat overcome my fear of getting lost, though it didn’t completely take it away. By the time I received Joba as a new guide in 2013, I was used to asking questions when I was lost, so thankfully I don’t get upset with Joba anymore. I take a different approach now.

When I find that I have made a wrong turn, I stop walking. I put Joba at sit and allow myself a few moments to relax. This allows me the opportunity to collect my thoughts, listen to the sounds around me, and think about where I was before I made that wrong turn. It really helps when the sun is out so I can figure out which direction I am facing. Sometimes by stopping and listening for familiar sounds, I can tell exactly where I need to go. I give Joba a pat on the head so he knows he is working hard, and then we are off in the direction I think is the right way. However, it isn’t always correct. This is when I do one of three things, or all three of them if the first one didn’t work. First, if I turn around and still not find what I am looking for, I turn around again and walk slowly in the opposite direction. I’m sure Joba looks at me as if he’s saying: “Oh come on, Mom, you know that’s not right. We just came from here”. However, being the obedient dog he is, he turns around. Then, I might ask someone where I am, and finally, I just allow Joba to take me somewhere. As I said before, this isn’t always the best idea, but dogs have that ability to find their way home. I often use a combination of both my dog, other people, and my phone. However, there isn’t always the possibility of asking questions.

One day while I was in my hometown of Milford, I decided to take Joba on a walk. My parents were gone on vacation, so it was just my sister, Joba, me, and our Shih Tzu, Princess. My sister and our family dog both stayed home, so it was just Joba and me. I had walked this route several times before with both Joba and Errol, but a short distance away, I took a wrong turn. In the area of Milford where I live, we do not have sidewalks, so it is crucial that Joba stay near the curb. He was usually good at walking alongside curbs, but somehow I ended up on streets I hadn’t walked on before, though they were familiar. I used my phone to tell me where I was, and it gave me the street names. However, there was no one outside to answer my questions, so I had to rely on the training I learned. Joba and I tried walking several different ways, but nothing was working. I was getting frustrated when I decided just to let Joba lead me somewhere. I had brought up the directions to my home from where I was on my phone, and it kept telling me how far away I was from my house. So, I let Joba walk, and I would stop periodically to check my phone. Each time I checked, I was getting closer and closer. Suddenly, Joba picked up the pace majorly, and his tail was wagging a hundred miles an hour when he suddenly turned left into my drive. I stopped and gave Joba a huge hug, and he got a treat as well.

I always learn from my experiences of getting lost with my dog, and I realize that, every time I get lost, I never know how on earth I got lost. This means I wasn’t paying attention. Sometimes it is easy to let my mind wander, but if I had been paying attention, maybe I would have noticed a difference in the harness handle as I allowed Joba to turn the wrong way. See, I knew that route like the back of my hand, so there was really know reason why I should have been lost except that I wasn’t concentrating. I think that someone who doesn’t want to use a cane says they want a dog rather than a cane because they won’t have to concentrate so much. I was one of those people. I didn’t like working with the cane. I wanted an easy out, and I thought that was a dog. But in fact, a guide dog owner should pay more attention when using a dog, and this is why. First of all, a dog is a dog. Dogs get distracted. If a dog guide owner isn’t paying attention, the dog could definitely confuse the owner by following a distraction. Second, a dog isn’t a cane. It is true that, when walking with a cane, you come in contact with everything around you. Most likely, a dog guide is going to take you right around that table and chairs your cane would have come in contact with. This is a problem when you want to find a table in a restaurant or café in order to sit down. Working with a dog requires you to know where you are at all times. It doesn’t give you an excuse to slack off.

A guide dog is a wonderful option for independent travel, but a dog guide user must be willing to trust the dog and still pay attention at the same time. This is something I am still working on. Thank goodness Joba is patient with me. At least, when I do get lost, I am getting lost with a companion by my side. Every time we are forced to work through a confusing place, it strengthens our bond because we learn to trust each other. Traveling with a guide dog is a very beneficial partnership.

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