In the past year working with a guide dog, as well as hearing stories from friends who work with them, I figured it’s about time that I did a post solely dedicated to all things dog-with-job, specifically the general public’s reaction to them.

Why Now?

If for no other reason than I have been bombarded with inaccurate information and/or tons of questions over the past week.  Sure, I’ve had persistent questions before – and probably always will – and inaccurate information given to me from well-meaning people who might have seen a guide dog on TV; but the sheer number of them lately has prompted this.

Guide Dog Attitudes/Etiquette

I have been incredibly blessed to not deal with many extremes on this front:

– People trying to pet my dog.

When a dog’s harness is on, even if she’s laying down, she is working.  Yes, she’s cute, but please don’t pet her.  Some handlers will allow their dogs to be petted in harness, but only if you ask.  I am not one of them; my dog can be easily distracted on occasion, and it’s generally a bad idea to pet a dog you don’t know anyway.  Some people use signs on their dogs’ harness that say “Please don’t pet me; I’m working” or something similar.  I choose not to, simply because the less visible she is, the less likely I am to run into people indiscriminately petting her.

– People being afraid of my dog.

I play goalball on a sports team – and work in an office – where someone is afraid of dogs.  I have learned to keep full control on my dog so that contact between her and these individuals is minimal to nonexistent.  I only rarely come across strangers who are at the very least audibly freaking out at my dog.  Granted, on the rare occasions she will bark in harness, her bark is BIG, but her presence alone is not exactly frightening.

– Well-meaning people who offer assistance and then try and grab the leash/harness.

I haven’t gotten this myself, but I hear of it often.  Just as you wouldn’t grab the back of someone’s wheelchair, just don’t… please. Thanks.

– People feeding/leaving food for the dog.

Thankfully, this has been nonexistent for me.  I had one person once ask if they could feed her some beef jerky, but hey, asking questions isn’t a crime, even if I cringe at the thought.  But I have spoken to others who’ve had strangers come up and start feeding their guides while they are sitting on the bus, or throwing leftovers toward the dog.  Just don’t…

– People talking to the dog.

This is probably the one I get most often.  Someone will say “Good girl” to her if she does what I ask, or tell her directions when we are following them.  If Jenny is focused, I say something later, but if she’s being distracted I will stop and make her sit, tell whoever to please not talk to the dog, get an apology, and on we go!

Common questions/comments:

– “What’s your dog’s name?”

I don’t give this out in public, though I am sure that if I give her commands or try and re-focus her, her name does come out.  Most people understand this and are not offended.  I used to think about giving a fake name that didn’t sound like Jenny, but then it would perpetuate talking to the dog, sooooo…

– “What breed?”} (along this line) “Lab?”} / “How old?” (along this line) “She looks young!”

Jenny looks young, and sometimes acts young.  And she looks ALL Lab.  I suppose people ask these questions because guide dogs and their training is so fascinating.  Most schools use Labs and Golden retrievers, but there are German Shepherds, Dobermans, poodles, and other breeds that are trained as guide dogs; teams usually finish formal training (either school-based or owner-training) when the dog is 18-24 months, though occasionally a dog will graduate much earlier or later, or a match just doesn’t work out and a team completes training when the dog is 2.5-3 years old.  I don’t mind answering these questions (black Lab, 2.5 years old, in case your curious).

– “My uncle’s girlfriend’s cousin has a dog like that; it detects epilepsy!”

That’s nice… so?

– “How does the dog know when the light’s green?”

This one makes me laugh.  Dogs see the world similar the way a red-green colorblind person might, and rely on their handler’s input to cross the street.  Last year I unknowingly told Jenny to cross a street on a red light because there was no traffic pattern to follow and no audible signal at that crossing.  A coworker told me later that “Jenny had made a big mistake.”  I told him that she did what I asked, because all the information I had said that it was safe to cross the street.  It was MY mistake, not hers.

– “Your dog is so protective!” (along this line) }Does your dog bite?”

Ironically, I get given the comment, but not asked the question.  I have started asking people if Jenny’s baring her teeth or showing other protective behavior, which gets the response of “no, she’s just watching, and she’s so focused on you!”  How is that being protective?  Curious minds, and all that…

– “Does your dog bark?”

Yes.  She’s a dog.  She almost never barks in harness – most guide dogs don’t bark in harness – but yes, she has the lung power and capacity and volume to bark, and convincingly, too!

– “How does your dog know when to get off the bus?”

She doesn’t; that’s my job!  Although, she has a pretty good judge of where we are.  Often times, if we go a stop past where we normally get off, she will turn her head to nudge me.  I haven’t decided if this is a signal that I am an idiot, that she has to go to the bathroom, or that she knows where we usually get off and wants to tell me that there’s a change in routine… I’ll keep you posted.
– “Does your dog ever get to be a ‘normal’ dog?”

um… Yes, most definitely! Guide dogs are, above all, dogs. They need love, praise, stimulation, and yes, playtime.  Jenny is living proof that a dog can have too many toys – our house is littered with squeaker toys, tug ropes, balls, bones, and a whole bunch of other stuff.  She will initiate play, but will drop a toy with a thud when I use the words “Not now.”  She is probably pampered too much by some guide dog handler standards, but she knows she is loved and what is expected of her.  And as for socializing with other dogs…

Jenny has a doggie… er… boyfriend? (picture courtesy of Benjamin Lang)

There will be further posts on guide dogs in the future – choosing to get a dog, why some people shouldn’t get dogs, access issues, traveling with your guide dog… but thanks for indulging my catharsis in writing an FAQ post.