Suzanne Whalen

Suzanne Whalen

Vital Convention Information for Guide Dog Users

by Suzanne Whalen

     From the Editor: Suzanne Whalen is President of the National Association of Guide Dog Users (NAGDU). Here is important information for all guide dog users who plan to attend the 2000 convention:

     The annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind will be here before we know it. NAGDU has some exciting activities underway now and others in store for the c.onvention.

     First of all, we are still working to create our cookbook, which is our major fund-raiser. We are in need of more recipes of all kinds. There's even a category for homemade dog treats. Please send all recipes, in any medium, to Karla Westjohn, 2009 Broadmoor, Champaign, Illinois 61821. With luck the cookbook will be ready for sale by the time of next year's convention in Detroit. Please ask your friends, family, fellow church members, co‑workers, and members of your local NFB chapter for their favorite recipes. After all, if we're going to ask them to buy the cookbook, why shouldn't they have a hand in its creation? Now let's get to convention.

     Those of you who attended the NAGDU business meeting or the popular seminar "A Guide Dog in Your Life" will remember the fantastic turnout we had of both long-time members and enthusiastic new members. We also had record attendance on the part of the guide dog schools. From all indications that will be the case again this year. For the first time the schools will jointly sponsor and staff a table in the exhibit area. In the past one or two schools have had tables, but this arrangement will afford easy access for anyone wanting to ask questions and compare the programs and services of all the schools.

     Anyone contemplating getting a guide dog or just interested in learning more about it can make appointments at the exhibit table to take a Juno walk. During a Juno walk the person holds on to the handle of a harness while the instructor holds the part of the harness the dog would wear, and you go for a walk. In this way you can feel what it's like to interpret the world through the signals of a harness. The schools' instructors will also be available during exhibit hours and during the seminar "A Guide Dog in Your Life." More about that a bit later.

     For the first time ever, to the best of my knowledge, NAGDU has been invited to visit NFB Camp. Last year, at Joe Cutter's invitation, we attended his forum for parents of blind children entitled "Kids and Canes." Joe Cutter is a long-time Federationist and a mobility instructor from New Jersey. Gigi Firth and I represented NAGDU at this gathering. Mr. Cutter felt that everyone, including little children, needs factual information to empower and enable him or her to make informed choices when older, so he wanted us to explain about guide dog travel to parents and children. He also suggested that we coordinate with Mrs. McQuillan, the Director of NFB Camp, and that NAGDU members come and explain about guide dogs to the children in age‑appropriate language, let them examine different harnesses, pet the dogs, and maybe let them take a short walk with a guide dog, where possible. I'm excited about this chance to educate the youngest members of our movement and their families, and I also appreciate Mr. Cutter's and Mrs. McQuillan's enthusiasm and welcome.

     We are once again doing evening meetings as we did last year. Our business meeting is July 2. Our seminar night is July 5, and this year we will be having two seminars back to back, each approximately two hours long--one for people considering getting a guide dog and one for veteran guide dog users. During the seminar for people considering guide dog use, instructors will be available to take interested people on Juno walks.

     Now let's discuss some issues about the convention and dog care. Over the weekend of February 11 to 13, 2000, the entire NAGDU Board (Dana Ard, Gigi Firth, Priscilla Ferris, and I) met with Dr. Maurer at his invitation at the National Center for the Blind. Also taking part in the meeting were Ed and Toni Eames, the co‑chairpersons of the Committee on Canine Concerns; Diane McGeorge; and Mrs. Jernigan. Dr. Maurer called the meeting to get our ideas on how to prevent some problems the hotel had brought to his and Mrs. Jernigan's attention. So in answering some common questions, I think we'll cover the ideas agreed upon at the meeting.

     Q: What are we doing about relief areas this year?

A: Toni and Ed Eames are once again coordinating the building and maintenance of designated relief areas in each hotel. They are recruiting volunteers, as they have in the past, to assist convention attendees with orientation and locating the relief areas and other key points in each hotel as people need help. Ed and Toni are also recruiting and training paid staff, as in the past, to assist in keeping the relief areas clean and well maintained. This year the relief areas will be staffed beginning on June 30 and running through July 9. Of course, we're all responsible for doing our part to pick up after our own dogs.

     Q: I know that with the added stresses of convention it's probably a good idea for me to get my dog out more often than I do at home. But I remember all the trouble I had last year trying to find the relief area, and I don't want my dog to have an accident with all this wandering around. Where will the relief areas be set up?

     A: We're looking at that right now. But we are doing something for the first time this year, decided upon in the meeting with Dr. Maurer. There's always a table in the lobby of the main hotel, set up by the host affiliate. Near this table for the first time there will be a NAGDU information table.

     As everybody knows, there's also always an NFB information table set up outside the convention ballroom where general sessions are held. This year, for the first time, there will also be a NAGDU information table outside the ballroom. These NAGDU tables will have their own extension number. This number is not available at the time of this writing. We will provide Braille cards with the extension number for NAGDU information, and folks will be able to pick up these cards at both the host affiliate table and the NAGDU information table when they check into the hotel.

     In addition to the telephone at the table, there will be several people with hand‑held communication devices linked to the NAGDU extension. These include Ed and Toni Eames, one of the paid relief staff, a representative from one of the schools, one of the volunteers, and me.

     What does this mean to guide dog users? Well, for one thing, you can call the extension number for the NAGDU table from anywhere, including your room or the exhibit hall. You can ask for assistance in finding the relief area. You can also ask for assistance in time of emergency. You can't leave the accident, of course, but you can ask a friend to find a phone and call the NAGDU extension for help to come and clean it up.

     Another new thing we're trying this year: We're coordinating with the schools to conduct orientation sessions throughout the hotels and especially to and from the relief areas for guide dog users, similar to the Cane Walks for youth. Also, at least in the Marriott, we're arranging more extensive coverage in the relief area. Another word needs to be said here about relief. We welcome responsible guide dog users to our conventions, and of course the vast majority of us are responsible. But those few who are not responsible--and it is a very few--are causing problems for us in negotiating with the hotel, so in our meeting in Baltimore we decided that, if someone is seen not picking up after his or her dog and there is no extenuating circumstance, we reserve the right to notify next year's hotel in Detroit that this person is not eligible to receive our special rates but will be charged the hotel's regular convention rate. Regular hotel convention rates are usually at least twice as much per night as the rates we enjoy.

     Q: I'm just not really comfortable picking up my dog's feces. Isn't it a messy job?

     A: It's easier than you might think, and not messy at all. Just ask! Just call the NAGDU line, and someone will gladly show you how it's done.

     Q: I can leave my dog alone at home and never worry. Is it a problem if I have to leave my dog alone in my hotel room? Sometimes you just have to.

     A: When you feel the need to leave your dog in your room, that's another good time to call the NAGDU extension. We'll be happy to arrange for a dog sitter for anybody who is in a bind. I've been guilty of leaving my dog in the room myself. During the 1993 convention in Dallas, I was Assistant Director of NFB Camp. Convention sessions were in one tower of the Hyatt, and NFB Camp was in the other, so Jesse (my dog at that time) and I made the quarter‑mile walk along the enclosed corridor between the two towers several times a day. I didn't know it then, but within two months of the close of Convention, Jesse would have major surgery because of bulging disks in his back. All I knew during convention was that sometimes the walking became too much for him, and he'd stumble and slow way down. I knew he was in pain, though I didn't find out how much pain he was in until later. So sometimes, when several trips between the West and East Towers of the Hyatt had taken their toll, I would leave Jesse in the room to rest, and I'd use a cane.

     Jesse was a very experienced dog then, and he was nine years old. But still I should not have left him alone in the room. If the housekeeping staff had come in, they might have been frightened. To my knowledge Jesse never barked or cried, but he could have, thereby annoying other hotel guests. I should have gotten someone to stay with him. My point is that we can never predict what our dogs will do when they're not in familiar surroundings. Dogs who would never bark or chew up things or jump on furniture when left alone at home may go totally crazy when left unattended in a strange convention hotel.

     We also can't predict how a maid, for example, will react when she opens a room door and an unattended dog comes running and barking at her. Heaven forbid that this dog should run past her out the door and escape. My current dog Caddo would do that, I can tell you. He's a great dog, but at the sight of an open door he will bolt if he's not in harness and I'm not careful. Therefore we decided in the meeting that it is never acceptable to leave a dog alone in a convention hotel room. If someone's dog is ill, NAGDU has information about vets in the Atlanta area. If a person has a medical emergency, call us; NAGDU will arrange for someone to babysit the dog. If you're going on a tour and it would be inconvenient to take your dog, please find a dog sitter or ask NAGDU for one.

     As was decided in the meeting with Dr. Maurer, we're doing three things differently this year. First, the hotels will maintain a list of room numbers where guide dogs are staying. Second, if a member of the housekeeping staff enters a room with an unattended dog, the hotel will report that fact to us, and we will notify the hotel that the housekeeping staff will not be obligated to return that day to clean that room. Finally, we reserve the right to advise next year's hotel in Detroit that individuals who do not follow our policies with respect to guide dogs are not eligible to receive our special convention rates and should be charged the standard convention rate. This would include people who leave dogs unattended in their rooms.

     Q: I practice good flea control with my dog. How can I be sure my dog won't pick up fleas at convention?

     A: That was one big concern the hotel had. Therefore, as people check in, we're going to try to reduce the flea population and have a little fun at the same time. After you check into the hotel, please stop by the NAGDU information table. You'll receive a free vial of Advantage, provided by Bayer. If you ask, you'll also be shown how to put the flea control on your dog. Depending on availability, you may also receive a scarf for your dog to wear. This concept is similar to getting a PAC or an Associates ribbon. We're working on deciding what the scarves will say. At the meeting we tossed around ideas like, "I'm a dog with an Advantage." We'll ask you for your name and the hotel you're staying in so that we can ensure adequate staffing for each relief area.

     One thing your dog will appreciate is that each dog whose person brings him or her to sign in at the NAGDU Table will receive a super special goody bag. We also voted to put all the names of the people who stop in for flea treatment into a hopper, and on the last day of the convention we'll draw one lucky person's name for a fifty‑dollar prize sponsored by NAGDU.

     In conclusion, let me repeat that guide dogs and their handlers are welcome at Federation conventions. We have on average about a hundred dogs each year. Personally I'd be happy if we had three times as many, especially if all those folks joined NAGDU so we can make our division one of the strongest and most vigorous in the Federation. So y'all come join us at the NAGDU meetings in Atlanta. Our business meeting begins promptly at 7:00 p.m. on July 2, with registration at 6:30 p.m., and our seminar night begins at 6:30 p.m. on July 5. We look forward to meeting new people and getting reacquainted with old friends.