If you’re blind, you obviously read Braille. Your hearing must naturally be superior to your sighted peers, and of course you have a guide dog! Right?
Well, that last misconception may not be as pervasive as the first and second. Someone recently told me the number of guide dog users has actually declined in my millennial generation. I have no evidence proving this one way or the other, but for the general public, to see a blind person with a guide dog feels as natural as butter and toast.
The thing is, I’m not so sure guide dogs are right for everyone.
In November 2014 I took the first step in the application process to return for a second Seeing Eye dog. It had been more than three years since I lost Gator, and even though I’d gotten around just fine with a white cane, I was approaching what felt like the final years with sight, however minimal that sight might be. The thought of an extra set of eyes to help me navigate the world brought a measure of comfort. But, was it enough to get another dog?
In no particular order, here are reasons why a guide dog would be a terrible idea:
1. Guide Dogs Are Expensive!
Taking possession of a guide dog is not in of itself expensive. To my knowledge, the Seeing Eye is the only school that charges for ownership, and at $150 for first time students, $50 for returns, the amount is negligible.
It’s everything that comes after graduation that is expensive. You should take good care of your pets regardless of their purpose, but service animals demand that extra stretch in commitment to ensure their long-term health. That means better than average dog food, consistent vet visits, and springing for medical treatments that some would deem optional under less special circumstances.
I believe most schools offer some level of financial support to their graduates. Ultimately though, you should be in a good position to see to the day-to-day needs of the dog.
2. Guide Dogs Are Inconvenient!
At the Seeing Eye you get up early to begin the daily training. Fortunately, when I got Matthew, I was getting up at 3:30, giving me an unfair advantage over my classmates, but beating dawn at school is different from beating dawn at home, on a Saturday, in the middle of winter, a snowy winter, a snowy winter when you wake up feeling like a truck ran you over. No, the dog can’t take themselves outside, nor do they care to pick up after themselves. Rain or shine, sick or healthy, the dog’s gotta poop! And you, my friend, have to pick up.
Now consider traveling. After a long day of flying, your first priority is not locating a cab, finding your hotel, or feeding yourself. At least in my experience, the top concerns were twofold: 1) finding a place for Gator to relieve himself; and 2) finding a trash can to dispose of it. You’d be surprised at how much of a nuisance it can be to find a friggin’ trash can when you need one!
This, of course, assumes the stubborn canine chooses to relieve himself on command. Remember that snowy winter where you felt like crap? Pun totally intended? Well, if you’re in a hurry to get somewhere, but you know your dog well enough to know they need to go out, you will stand there, maybe pace back and forth until he finds the perfect spot. And you are sorely tempted to shake the animal, because both you and he know the whole damn world is basically its urinal, so just go for the love of all things holy!
And speaking of traveling, tall people bid thee farewell to leg room. Yes, some dogs are smaller and therefore easier to stow away. Regardless, it’s less space for your feet or the carry-on you used to be able to place beneath the seat in front of you.
Also, speaking of bags, make sure you leave enough room for your dog’s food, toys, and if necessary, their medicine.
3. Guide Dogs Are Time-consuming!
On any given day you can decide to go outside, or not. You can decide you’re going to take a walk, or not. Your dog, however, requires both, and even at the start of Matthew’s service, when we were living on a large fenced-in lot, I understood despite my ability to open the back door and cut the dogs loose, proper exercise is necessary to keeping a dog healthy and engaged.
If we can circle back to the previous point, that whole bit about convenience, if you’re attending an event, say, a conference, you better factor bathroom breaks into your agenda. The dogs can’t speak for themselves but need to be relieved the same way you do. You’re going to have to work them into your schedule.
This might be a great time to discuss grooming. Dogs are not cats. They’re perfectly happy to roll in mud and come bouncing into the house without a care in the world. Okay, most guide dog handlers will not be that lax with their service animal, but you will have to factor grooming into your schedule. The more often you brush them, the less they’ll shed, unless they’re shepherds… It’s one more chore you’ll have to consider in your busy life.
4. Guide Dogs Are Unwelcomed Attention!
The United States has made decent strides in implementing equality laws. Sadly, we’re still a tad bit behind in changing minds. Did you read about the Uber lawsuit award?
So, yes, that means the cab driver may or may not pick you up. You may or may not be welcomed into a restaurant, and while you may file complaints, is that really the way to make a name for yourself as a person with a disability in the 21st century?
Let’s not even talk about attention to appearance. No matter how hard you work at it, you will have dog hair on your clothing. That’s just part of the bargain, and while you might get a pass for casual dress, wearing dog hair on a suit deals a hefty blow to your attempts to be taken seriously.
And, we can’t talk about attention without acknowledging the obvious. From here on out, it’s all about the dog, ’bout the dog, ’bout the dog, no kidding! When I had Gator I often wondered if my friends and acquaintances even remembered my name! Even now, several years after reconnecting with old acquaintances, the leading question is not about my health, my job, my general well-being, but rather: Where is that handsome shepherd of yours?
5. Guide Dogs Are Dirty Work!
When I was training with Gator, everyone made such a big deal about bonding with your dog this and bonding with your dog that. Say what you will, but there is no greater bonding experience than cleaning after your animal, be they pet or guide.
The first morning we were expected to begin cleaning up after our dogs, one of my new friends nearly gagged. I laughed. What a girl! Then one morning Gator had diarrhea. I stopped laughing…
The dog will inevitably vomit. If you’re good, you may even avoid stepping in it. One day my idiot dog went and got his paw stuck in some discarded fencing. It’s a good thing blood doesn’t phase me.
Geez! Any Words of Encouragement?
If you were contemplating a dog, came across this post and felt discouraged, you should not get a dog. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of responsibility. It’s constant care and attention and a commitment to keep up the dog’s level of training. No one will fault you for being mature enough to walk away. In fact, I’ll give you a high five for being self-aware enough to know what you can handle.
If, however, you plowed through this post and decided none of these deterrents discouraged you, by all means push forward. Let me offer some counter points for your consideration.
I have never heard of anyone who returned their dog on account of not being able to afford it. That’s not to say you should not go into the commitment with your eyes wide open. If the dog needs to be prematurely retired, and you choose to keep your dog, assuming your school lets you keep the dog, the small financial breaks you might get at the vet cease to exist. Your school can usually provide a good safety net for active guide dogs, but medical emergencies can sometimes outpace school assistance. You just have to calculate their needs into your budget.
Owning a guide dog can be inconvenient, but hell, being blind can be inconvenient. You may as well have a good excuse to bring your puppy to work.
As for the airplane comfort? Well, there’s no lying about that one. If you’re tall, you’re screwed.
Yes, handling a guide dog can take up precious time you could have once spent doing something else. But, I don’t know, it seems like a fair trade considering the service they perform on your behalf, and the bonding thing really does smooth over some of those minor gripes.
Unwanted attention? Well, here again I point back to the blindness thing. You’re always going to attract it in some form or fashion. Society has not improved to such a degree that the role of service animals is fully embraced in all public spaces and across different cultures. It’s really going to come down to whether or not you love dogs by nature and whether or not you feel the dog is worth it. Learn to make a lint brush part of your essential tools. People will generally understand you have a dog; therefore, the dog hair is a nuisance but at least an acceptable shortcoming on appearance.
That leaves us with the least fun aspect of owning a guide dog, and well, there’s no covering up that one. It would be crappy of you to leave your dog’s mess behind. Neighbors will raise a stink. Strangers will give you dirty looks. Your fellow blind comrades will turn up their nose. Haha. The puns sounded so much funnier in my head than they do coming through your screen, I’m sure.
There are definite pros and cons to committing to a guide dog. Do not get a dog because your family thinks it’s a good idea, you think it would be cool to have a fully trained pet, or need to rely on a dog to gain your independence. Whatever the guide dog school marketing might argue, the dog does not grant you independence; it will supplement it.
Actually, that point is worth emphasizing. Don’t expect the dog to get it right all the time. Remember, they have their own brain in there. They’re going to get distracted. They’re going to briefly forget the pattern you taught them. They’re going to want to chase that squirrel, because despite their training, they are, at heart, still a dog. It’ll be important for you not to lose your cool. They’ll sense your frustration and make the situation worse.
Do get a dog if you can treat the dog as a living, breathing companion you can collaborate with to navigate the world. There is something special about picking up a harness handle, instructing the dog to go forward, and moving around obstacles instead of into them. I understood the unique level of freedom Gator brought one evening when we left an airplane, walked through an airport, and found curbside pickup without assistance.
Comments? Questions? I’ll answer what I can and leave it to the experts to field what I cannot. Please feel free to disagree if you have an opposing view you’re dying to share with us.