In my latest Blind Life episode, I visit Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California, where adorable puppies are born, raised, trained, and matched with visually impaired human partners. Erin, Jenna, Lelainia, and I all have canine companions, but all of ours are pets and not service dogs. I’m the one with the most impaired vision, and yes, I’ve considered getting a guide dog. This is why, when invited to the GDB to both visit and host an intimate, private dinner to help raise funds for the program, I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to know, what’s it like to work with a guide dog?
Here are some things to consider when it comes to guide dogs:
- How often will I need the aid of a guide dog? That is, how often will I leave my home on my own? Guide dogs are energetic and eager to work, so your lifestyle and schedule should get you out of the house often. Use it or lose it, you know? Currently, I work mostly from home with the occasional sporadic travel. There are times, though, where I rarely leave the house during the week. When I was in grad school, I went to campus a few times a week, so having a guide dog then would’ve made more sense than it does now.
- Am I a dog person? This question might be a catch-22: you may not be a dog person, and then once you get a guide dog, you may become one. It’s a no-brainer if you love dogs, but even if you don’t, are you open to them? These guide dogs will be your companion until death do you part—are you ready for that sort of union? If you’re allergic to dog hair, I believe there’s a niche program out there providing hypoallergenic dogs. This population (blind individuals who want a guide dog but who are allergic) is so small, though, that it may be hard to get placed with a furry companion. You might have to consider alternatives (seeing eye bird anyone? Just kidding).
- Am I willing to put in the effort to be trained myself? I used to think getting a guide dog meant I applied for one, and then a cute, intelligent puppy would show up on my doorstep the next week. Wrong! We humans need to be trained, too. Your dog will not automatically know how to get to the Gap as soon as you get dropped off at the mall (unless, of course, you work at the Gap and have taught Fido the route from bus stop to storefront before). Guide Dogs for the Blind invite their new consumers to their campus in California to meet their new guide dogs and spend a couple of weeks doing “in-house” training. This means living short-term on campus with your dog, building trust between the two of you, and acquiring the skill set to work with the dog (I.e. How to care for her, how to teach him new routes, how to give positive reinforcement, etc.). You’ll have to take a short break from your daily life to come learn: are you willing to leave your family, work, and the comforts of your own home for a little while? Moreover, are you willing to put in the effort to become the best owner you can be? These dogs, their instructors, and their caregivers have put a lot of work into getting the pups ready for you. It’s your turn to uphold your end of the deal.
I’ve never had a guide dog myself, but maybe one day, I will. Guide dogs offer safety, protection, and companionship. Their intelligence and loyalty blow my mind: just take a look at this recent story about a guide dog putting itself in between its owner and a bus to protect her.