A Helping Paw: Guide Dogs Provide the Blind with Vision, Independence, and Love
Written by: Justin D. Honsch, Staff Writer - VetCentric.com
For years, the visually impaired have relied on guide dogs to be their eyes to the world. To many blind people, however, guide dogs are so much more than that. They are partners, companions, and dear friends they hold close to the heart.
Although the highly-skilled canines’most often Labradors, golden retrievers, and German shepherds’have never stopped leading the way to ensure the safety of the blind, they also provide companionship that opens up more than the doors of perception to their owners. Relationships between the individual and the dog, often like relationships between people, can be meaningful to both parties.
"A very large reason why people seek a guide dog is companionship," said Jody Sandler, DVM, director of veterinary services for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a Yorktown Heights, New York organization that trains guide dogs and helps pair them with people.
"I think that the first thing that someone gets from a guide dog is mobility and independence, but they also get a tremendous sense of self esteem and self worth," Dr. Sandler said.
Clint Sanders, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and author of Understanding Dogs: Living and Working with Canine Companions, studied the relationship between guide dogs and their handlers.
"The guide dog becomes a companion, a close friend and part of the family," said Mr. Sanders. "On top of that, in a really literal sense the dog is the person’s eyes. That is a very special relationship."
Judy Campbell, spokesperson for Leader Dogs for the Blind, based in Rochester, Michigan, said the presence of a dog helps the blind socialize in public.
"People sometimes don’t know what to say to a blind person," said Ms. Campbell. "But they will go up and talk to a dog or talk to the person about the dog."
In addition, Mr. Sanders noted that a dog helps change the public’s general perceptions about blind people.
The blind person "is seen less dependent and are less the object of pity," he said. "They are seen as stronger when they see them in control of this dog. That makes them more approachable."
However, having a guide dog does have its drawbacks for those who use them.
"Many in the general public still do not understand that they cannot interfere with a guide dog," said Andrea Martine, a trainer at Guiding Eyes for the Blind. "People at a bus stop will want to touch a dog, and when they are told that they can’t, the person can get very apologetic or offended."
Sometimes, said Ms. Martine, this sort of interaction is the least of the problems a visually impaired person with a guide dog encounters.
"We’ve actually had pedestrians interfere with a dog while it was in the middle of crossing a street," she said.
During the course of his study, Mr. Sanders observed some of the same inappropriate behavior.
"People with the guide dogs couldn’t be anonymous in public," he said. "They were constantly being bothered. People would pet the dog and grab the harness. The average person is ignorant about guide dogs."
Mr. Sanders’ study also indicated that those with guide dogs faced image problems.
"In some ways, [people who traveled with guide dogs] lost a piece of their identity," said Mr. Sanders. "They almost became an appendage to the dog. People sometimes seemed more interested in the dog than in the person."
Still, Mr. Sanders said that having a guide dog was an overall positive experience.
"It is incredibly helpful to a person’s mental state and the feeling of isolation."
The life of a working dog
Although there may be some concern regarding the health ramifications of placing dogs in such high-stress, high performance situations, Dr. Sandler believes that there is little or no risk to the animal.
"The dogs are called upon to be in stressful situations," he admitted. "But the dogs love getting into the harness. We haven’t found any connection between stressful incidences and illness."
"Dogs who have problems handling stress," he added, "don’t become guide dogs in the first place. They are normally weeded out very early."
Mr. Sanders agreed.
"The guide dogs I observed were having a great time," he said. "They had a purpose. There was a clear change in demeanor when the dog was working and when it was not working. When they were wearing the harness it was very positive, they moved more surely. When it came off, they were just a dog again."
Ms. Martine is of the opinion that guide dogs, just like people, require a balance.
"If a dog has all work and no play, it will crack up just like a person will," she said. "We try to tell our students that they are dogs first, guide dogs second."
Because of the close relationship that develops between the dog and the handler, it can often be a painful experience when it comes to an end.
For this reason, Joanne Ritter, a spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc., says that her organization, like others, provides a staff counselor to help its handlers adjust to the loss or retirement of their dogs. In addition, the handler has the option to place or keep the dog as a pet.