The Symbiosis of the Guide Dog Team

I am often asked questions about the nature of my relationship with my guide dog.  A topic we frequently touch on is the interdependence of it.  I like to point this out to people, because no one is surprised that I depend on my guide dog.  After all, she is my eyes, in a sense… but they usually don’t think  about the fact that my dog depends on me, too.

My guide dog does have a lot of responsibility, especially for a dog.  Prim protects me.  She keeps me from walking into traffic, or stepping off the edge of a platform or stage.  She navigates me smoothly around things in our path, and shows me when there is an obstacle like a parked car or construction barrier obstructing our way entirely.  Prim provides for me.  She helps me find landmarks like doors, steps, trashcans, and chairs, and is a source of ever-present laughter and comfort besides.

But like with any other dog, I have a great deal of responsibility as Prim’s partner and handler.  I protect Prim.  I make intelligent decisions about when to cross the street, and think about Prim’s physical and emotional safety in any given environment.  There are some places I simply do not take my guide dog due to risk of injury or discomfort.  Crowded bars and loud concerts are just two examples of places where paws could be too easily trampled and ears too easily overwhelmed.  There have also been situations where I had to physically protect my guide dog when she was in danger of being attacked by another canine.  I provide for Prim.  I feed her, groom her, take her outside, take her to the vet for medical care, and of course have the enormous pleasure of being her primary playmate and cuddle buddy.

It’s a relationship of giving, not 50/50, but 100/100.  Of course, we both fail, but the beauty is that not only do we both provide and protect, but we also persevere.  There are days I am convinced I have a two-year-old child on a leash, and there are days that Prim is convinced she will starve to death because we get home late and I forgot to throw her dinner in my backpack, but I keep loving her even after she throws tantrums about not being able to eat the cat, and she keeps loving me after I feed her an hour or two later than our schedule dictates.  In that way, it is undoubtedly a symbiosis of sorts, but not a symbiosis of chance, rather one of choice.  Primie, I’m so glad I get to choose you.

My Girls’ Canine Family!

Recently, I got to chat with someone from Guiding Eyes who shared the family information for both of my guide dogs.

Oleta was born on October 23, 2009 to parents Loren and Mark.  Her siblings in birth order are:

Orchard (released)

Osa (released, but became a different sort of service dog)

Bailey (released)

Oak (retired guide dog)

Oleta (retired guide dog)

Opera (released)

Ogden (retired guide dog)

Octavian (released)

Prim was born on October 21, 2015 to parents Peter and Daphne.  Her siblings are:

Peyton (in training)

Promise (released)

Posh (released)

Peace (working guide dog)

Parker (released)

Pongo (detection dog)

Pearl (working guide dog)

Prim (working guide dog)

Pumkin (working guide dog)

It’s great to know where my sweet girls came from.  I’m hoping we can meet some of Prim’s siblings!  We already know her sister Pumpkin, who was in training when we were in class in September.  It was pretty clear they knew that they are sisters, judging by how much they wanted to play together every time they saw each other. ❤

So thankful to Guiding Eyes for breeding, raising, and training so many fantastic dogs.

Reflections on my First Guiding Eyes Journey – Meeting my Little One with Wings

I found a seat in the circle of chairs in Alumni hall along with my classmates. I was full of lunch and laughter and bursting with the excitement of it all. I had dreamt of getting a guide dog for years, and this was the moment. I was about to discover the identity of my long-awaited companion. I sat on the edge of my seat as our meeting commenced.  A few people spoke first — my class supervisor, the president of the organization, saying a few special words about the journey we were about to undertake.  Until, finally, it was time.  We all waited with bated breath as our class supervisor read the first name.

“Miss W, It’s your birthday so we’ll start with you.  Your dog is named Paulson, P-A-U-L-S-O-N, and he’s a yellow lab male.”

She continued from Paulson, a yellow lab male, to Lynn, a yellow lab female, to Pacer, Orlando, and Butch, all yellow lab males, among others.

As the names and breeds passed, I evaluated each one.  Did that dog’s name match with the name of their handler?  Would I like having a dog named that?  Oh dear, what would my dog’s name be anyway?! What if I hated it?  Would I get a boy or a girl?  It seemed like we had a lot of yellow lab males… maybe that’s what I would have too… but then it was my turn.

“Shea,” A pause that seemed like eternity.  “Your dog’s name is Oleta, O-L-E-T—A, and she is a black lab female.”

A sound that was half laughter half sob escaped me at hearing her name.  It was so beautiful I thought I was going to cry right there.  My classmates laughed at my reaction and encouraged me to breath.  I tried, but couldn’t.  Oleta!  I was already in love with her!

After the rest of the class received their match information, we all went back to our rooms to wait… and wait… and wait.  I curled up on my bed trying to distract myself with Facebook and reading my bible, but nothing was working.  All I could think about was Oleta.  Would she like me?  Would we be able to work together?  What was I going to do for the next two hours of bonding time?  What if I did something wrong and ruined all her training?  Could I really stay calm and collected when she arrived like our instructors told us we should be?

I perked up every time I heard a sound in the hallway.  Footsteps?  It must be my trainer coming to my room! But no.  They continued past, probably headed to a fellow students room to deliver their pup.  The jingle of a collar or a leash?  That had to be Oleta! I thought, but no.  It was someone else’s dog.  Voices!  I was sure it was my trainer with Oleta! But no… it was my neighbor receiving her dog.  I must have started toward my door to open it three or four times, before I finally surrendered to the agonizing wait.

At long last, an hour or so on, a gentle knock sounded, and I slid quickly from my bed to go get it.  Leash in hand and treat pouch appropriately placed, I reached for the door handle.

“Hi Shea.” My instructor greeted me, calmly. “Here is Miss Oleta for you.”

Wet nose, velvety fur, thwacking lab tail, and kisses galore.

“Hi Oleta!” I crooned, giving her a greeting scratch and welcoming both she and my trainer into my room.  I reached into my treat pouch and offered her the three, high-value food rewards our trainers had given us to make a good first impression on our new partners.  My hand was shaking, and thoroughly washed, as she gobbled up each treat in turn, and then made absolutely sure there weren’t any remaining morsels in my palm.  At discovering there weren’t, she turned her attention to the floor.

“Okay.” My trainer said.  “I’m gonna take my leash off and you can clip yours to her collar.”

I did, and just like that, Oleta was mine.

“She’s all yours.” My trainer confirmed, as she moved to the door. “Enjoy her.”

Emotional Support Animals are Not Service Dogs: Why You Should Leave Your ESA At Home

There are currently four guide dog teams on my university’s campus.  Three black labradors and one yellow, all highly trained, well-socialized, well-behaved, and pretty darn good at their jobs.  All four of we handlers attended a 14 to 26 day intensive to train with, and learn how to care properly for these amazing animals.

And they are amazing.  Here are just a few examples of the tasks Oleta does every day to make my life a little easier.

  • Obstacle Avoidance

She is trained to walk in a straight line, but if there are obstacles in our path (trash cans, strollers, people) she can take us around them to continue on our line of travel.  I feel her movements through the harness and harness handle and am able to follow.

  • Object/Landmark Identification

She can locate stairs, curbs, doors, empty chairs, trash cans, pianos, and even one of my best friends by name if they are in the vicinity.

  • Intelligent Disobedience

This isn’t so much a task as it is a decision making process, or, an anti-task.  If I give Oleta a command that would be unsafe for her to perform, she will refuse.  For example, if there is a car coming that for some reason I do not hear, and I tell her to proceed forward into the street, she will refuse the command.

Other service dogs perform tasks like bracing for people with balance issues, alerting to various health related episodes, such as a drop in blood sugar or an oncoming seizure, object retrieval for people with limited mobility, as well as grounding, behavior interruption, reminders, guide work, etc for people (especially veterans) diagnosed with PTSD.

So, what do all these dogs have in common?

They are all trained to perform a task, or, as in most situations, a series of different tasks to aid their handicapped human handler.  Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, that is the definition of a service dog.

An emotional support animal DOES NOT fall under this category, and is not protected under the ADA to access all public areas.

Why is it, then, that I have met at least five animals on campus recently, inside of buildings, at least three of which I know are proclaimed “Emotional support animals”, and the other two I suspect may be the same.

One of these animals is an emotional support cat.  You should know that cats are not considered service animals in any context, and an emotional support cat is no more legally protected to enter most public accommodations than is an emotional support dog or turkey.

But the other four are dogs, and, if they are not service dogs trained to perform a task or tasks to mitigate their owners disability, they do not belong inside our campus buildings any more than the cat.

Why Do I Care?

  • Unruly behavior (especially gone unchecked) reflects badly on service dog teams.

If an emotional support animal behaves badly in public due to their lack of training and socialization, it casts a shadow upon highly trained service dogs, and may make it more difficult for service dog teams to access public areas in the future.

  • My dog may be distracted.

My dog is, to an extent, responsible for my safety.  I’m depending on her to find stairs, keep me away from the edge of platforms and stages, move me out of the way of obstacles, as well as oncoming people or doors that open into our path, not to mention finding doors or other landmarks that I may be looking for.  All of those things can be easily interrupted by the presence of another dog.  Of course, we have techniques for dealing with distractions, but   it only takes a second for my dog to lose focus at the wrong time, and for me to lose my balance on the edge of a stage or staircase.  Beyond that, I would just rather not deal with dog distractions at all if I do not have to, and an ESA that shouldn’t be there in the first place is one of those distractions that I (and other service dog users) could do without.

  • My dog may be in danger.

My dog has been specially bred and socialized all her life to be friendly with other dogs.  That may not be the case with an emotional support animal.  Even if your ESA is friendly with other dogs at dog parks or in your back yard, it does not follow that they will behave the same way in a stressful environment such as a crowded college coffee shop, hallway, or elevator.

  • ESA’s are not legally protected in most public areas.

It is simply disrespectful, both to service dog users and business owners, to take advantage of people’s ignorance of state and federal laws concerning service animals and ESAs… and if you think you can get around it by putting a service dog vest on your ESA, don’t.  There’s a little word for that… fraud—an act which in some states is considered a crime and punishable by law.

So what am I saying?

All that said, I am not writing this article to belittle those with emotional support animals or even the idea of having one.  I do wish to highlight some of the practical issues that arise when a person chooses to bring their emotional support animal into a public area where they are not generally permitted.  I have an incredible bond with my guide dog, and certainly understand the emotional benefits (and drawbacks) of having an animal, but for a service dog user, it’s about more than emotions.  Whether it be to alert us to a seizure, guide us to safety in the midst of a disorienting episode of PTSD, or keep us from walking off the edge of a stage, we are putting our very lives in our dogs paws.  Please don’t put us or our rights at stake merely because you want to bring your dog/ESA everywhere with you.

Thanks for reading, and a happy new year to all our two-footed and four-legged friends.

Review: GDUI Guide Dog Harness sign and audio Unboxing

Oleta has a sign on her harness that reads, “Please do not pet.”
Judging from the message on the sign, you might assume that it is designed to prevent people from petting Oleta while in harness, but it is actually utilized as a tool for assessing literacy skills in the general public. I am ashamed to report that they are abysmal, even among professors and university students! In fact, surprisingly, children seem to score much higher on these impromptu literacy exams than any other demographic! (That’s true by the way. Children that I have encountered in schools, malls, and other public venues have been much more respectful of the harness. Adults are the ones who tend toward illiteracy and deviousness.)
To facilitate further study of the rampant illiteracy in modern adults, I recently ordered a new harness sign from guide Dog Users Inc. (GDUI), which is an advocacy oriented organization affiliated with the American Council of the Blind (ACB). You can find their website, and an official description of my new harness sign
here.
I am so excited about this sign! Not only does it feature the lettered message, “PLEASE DON’T PET WORKING DOG”, in yellow print against a black background, it also includes a picture of a person going to pet a dog, with the universal no sign over it. I am interested to see how this influences our results in the study.
I know I should say I’m kidding about the literacy thing, but I’m so close to not kidding I’m not sure it’s worth it haha. People do constantly ignore Oleta’s harness sign and it does more than drives me crazy; it places us (Oleta and I) in danger as a team. More on that in another post.
Anyway, this new harness sign is quite an improvement, I think, from my old, not very well-designed version… I designed it, so I can say that. 🙂
For an audio version of the unboxing and description, visit
this link.
The sign is rectangular, with the printed message and two reflective strips on the front, a zipper into the pouch on the top, and straps on the back. There are two horizontal straps with back-pack style adjustable buckles, and one vertical strap that runs over the horizontal ones to keep the sign from sliding off the end of the harness. There are also panels of grippy material on either side of the back of the sign, to prevent it from sliding on the harness handle. I think all of these features will be so useful, and I am very pleased to have finally purchased it.
Thank you GDUI!