Future Reflections  Summer 2006

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The Guide Dog Experience

by Dana Ard


Reprinted from the Gem State Milestones (Fall, 2003), a publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Idaho.

Editor’s Note: Dana Ard is the editor of the Gem State Milestones and a long-time leader in the NFB of Idaho affiliate. This article was published in a column called, “Bright Ideas.”

Dana ArdAs I sat watching the movie “Scent of a Woman” with friends on New Year’s Eve, I had no idea that 2003 would bring the death of my golden retriever guide Fringe, and the beginning of a new partnership with Vergie, a two-year-old black Labrador retriever. Since this is what has happened, I thought I would use this opportunity to discuss guide dogs.

Although many blind people have definite opinions on the use of guide dogs, only about five per cent of all blind people choose a guide dog as their primary mobility tool. The reasons for choosing a guide dog are as varied as the people making the choice. I choose to try using a guide dog in 1985 to see if I could cross streets straighter and eliminate, or greatly diminish my tendency to diagonal intersections. I also hoped a dog would help me become a more confident, self-assured traveler. Also, Boise was becoming a larger city with more crime, and I thought I would feel safer as a blind person accompanied on my walks by a large dog.

There are around fifteen guide dog schools in the country. I have gotten all three of my guides from Guide Dogs for the Blind, which now has two campuses, one in San Rafael, and the newest campus in Boring, Oregon, near Portland. My decision was based both on proximity, and the experiences of friends who had gotten dogs from that school. I strongly recommend that prospective guide and philosophy. For instance, some schools like the Seeing Eye, in Morris Town, New Jersey, give ownership of the guide dog to the handler upon graduation. Guide Dogs for the Blind will grant ownership after a year, if the handler desires this. Guide Dogs for the Blind has a yearly follow-up program, which some people may not want. [Editor’s note: According to the Guide Dog representative we contacted, the follow-up program is designed to offer support and help especially in the first year, and is not meant to be intrusive.]

Some schools offer specialized programs for people with special needs such as the deaf/blind or persons that use a wheelchair for mobility. Guide Dogs for the Blind has always been very reasonable in allowing me to modify certain techniques to accommodate balance problems resulting from my cerebral palsy.

All schools require that a prospective student be able to travel independently and safely before they will be considered for a dog. Schools will either do an in-home interview, which will include a demonstration walk showing the student has the necessary independent travel skills, or request a video of the student, or some other verification of the student’s travel status. Although a dog is taught to disobey a command if he sees a dangerous situation, the director of the team is still the human partner. If the handler is unsure as a traveler, the dog can lose confidence, or try to usurp the handler’s authority.

The three most commonly used breeds in guide dog work are the Labrador retriever, the golden retriever, and the German shepherd. Other breeds are the standard poodle, smooth coated collie, Doberman pinscher, and some schools occasionally use the boxer. People who go for their first dog normally cannot select their breed of preference. Returning students can state a breed preference, but they may have to wait for a good match in the breed of choice. The selection of a dog for a person is not done by chance. The first consideration is controllability; that is, will the prospective handler be able to control the dog. If the dog cannot be controlled, the team will not function effectively. I have always been given “softer” dogs which require minimal control, as I am not a very hard handler.

Often the softer dog is not as confident, and requires encouragement from the human partner to build that confidence. Other considerations in the matching process include walking speed, the working environment, and home environment. I have always received dogs that walk at a slow-to-moderate pace. My dogs must be able to lie quietly in an office, and be tolerant of many different situations including going into homes with a variety of different animals and people. They must also be able to live in a multiple dog household, as we now have four other dogs of varying sizes and temperaments.

For the first-time student, guide dog school lasts twenty-six to twenty-eight days, depending on the school. Students returning for a successor dog may take a shorter class. During class, students travel in all types of environments, such as busy city streets, crowded walkways, country roads, shopping malls and other buildings, and on buses, subways, and commuter trains. Most schools require students to live in residence, although some offer in-home training.

Downsides of having a guide dog include the issue of shedding, the time it takes to build a good working team, the extra care and expense of the dog, the occasional illegal denial of access to the team, and the grief when the dog dies or retires. For me, these negatives are minor. Working with a guide dog for the past eighteen years, has been everything I hoped for and more.

If readers would like to contact the author, Dana Ard, with questions about her guide dog experience, she is available by e-mail at <[email protected]> or by phone in the evenings, Mountain Time, at (208) 345-3906.

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