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 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.
Thing is, I’m not so sure guide dogs are right for everyone. Or, maybe I’m just projecting my own uncertainties onto the rest of the community?
Last November I took the first step in the application process to return for a second Seeing Eye dog. It’s been more than three years since I lost Gator, and even though I’ve gotten around just fine with a white cane, I am approaching what feels like the final years with sight, however minimal that sight might be. I admit it’s unnerving if I sit still long enough to contemplate total blindness. NFB philosophy be damned, and the thought of an extra set of eyes to help me navigate the world does bring a measure of comfort. But, is it enough to go get another dog?
In no particular order, here are reasons why a guide dog would be a terrible idea:
1. It’s 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.
2. It’s inconvenient!
At the Seeing Eye you get up early to begin the daily training. Fortunately these days I’m getting up at 3:30, giving me an unfair advantage over my future comrades, 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.
After a long day of flying, your first priority is not locating a cab, finding your room, 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, but small or large, 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.
3. It’s 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 now, living on a large fenced-in lot, I understand despite my ability to open the back door and cut the dogs loose, proper exercise is necessary to keeping a dog engaged and out of trouble.
4. It’s 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 ACB’s lawsuit in DC? 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. It can be 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.
Damn! 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.
If, however, you plowed through it and decided none of these deterrents really deterred you, by all means push forward.
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 and take steps to prioritize their care. 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 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.
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. I don’t know. I mean, 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 varying 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 a condonable 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 reader, I’m sure.
In all seriousness, 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 enhance it. Do get a dog if you can treat the dog as a living, breathing companion you can collaborate with to navigate the world.
So, why do I care? Because I’m toying with the idea of returning for my second dog. Someone said writing things out helps with the brainstorming, so why not turn my scribbles into a post you can mutually benefit from? And, speaking of blogging, I always thought it was a little lame when people kept a journal of their guide dog training experience. Kind of fru fru if you ask me, so if I go back to school, I’m totally blogging the experience like the lame-ass blind person that I am! And you will read it, because you are every bit as curious as I am to know, if I go, whether or not my dog will come with a redonkulous name like Bon Bon, Daisy, or Pebbles… Actually, come to think of it, Pebbles would be kind of cool.
Comments? Questions? I’ll answer what I can and leave it to the experts to field what I cannot. And if you think it would be worth featuring a SeroTalk Extra maybe not even so much on guide dogs, but on understanding animal behavior, let me know this as well.