In the summer of 2013, I decided to transition from walking with a cane to having a guide dog. I was matched with a sweet black lab named Karleen. Karleen helps me with many things, including pointing out doors, stopping before street corners and stairs, getting around obstacles while we’re walking, and even keeping us both safe by refusing to walk forward in an unsafe situation. As smart as Karleen is, however, talking to family and friends has made me realize that there are many myths and misconceptions about guide dogs and what they can do. Here are the most common myths I have heard over the last six years.
Myth 1: Guide dogs can tell when to cross the street.
While guide dogs will refuse to keep walking in an unsafe situation – such as if I ask Karleen to walk forward on the edge of a train platform – they do not know when to cross the street. Dogs can only see one-tenth of the colors humans see, which leaves traffic lights out of the picture. It is up to me to listen to traffic and use my mobility training to decide when to cross the street safely.
Myth 2: Guide dogs are always in work mode.
When I am out with Karleen in public, she is very calm, often sleeping or lying by my feet as activity swirls around her. This doesn’t mean that guide dogs are not regular dogs that need love and play. When I take Karleen’s harness off, she will often grab her squeaky toy, run around, and get me to throw the toy so she can go catch it. She also loves cuddling, belly rubs, and giving tons and tons of kisses. Whenever anyone walks into the house, she gets excited and runs over to greet them. She plays with other dogs but is often much more interested in other humans. Yes, Karleen is a guide, but she is also my best friend who keeps me company and makes me feel better when I have a bad day. She may be a guide, but she is also a dog who loves all the same things regular pets love, and I make sure she gets those, too.
Myth 3: Guide dogs are trained to protect.
Friends often ask me if Karleen will pounce on someone if she perceives that they are threatening me in any way. Fortunately, I have never been in a truly dangerous situation with Karleen. However, she is a lab. She is too sweet to actually attack anyone. While it is possible that she might react in a bad situation because of the strong bond we have, she is not trained to attack or protect, and I don’t expect that of her when we walk around. Being a guide is already doing a lot for me. No need to add more tasks on top of that.
Myth 4: I can just pick any dog to be my guide.
A guide dog must be a good match, both to the work in general and to the person and environment he or she is matched to. According to Guiding Eyes, the nonprofit that gave me my best friend, guide dogs must have certain traits, including staying calm in many situations, enjoying working with people, and not getting easily distracted, among others. Anyone who has a pet knows that many dogs do not fit these characteristics.
Once it has been decided that a dog can be a guide, he or she must match to his or her future partner. Some factors to consider include environment (city or rural area), size of the dog (a short person will not be able to control a large German Shepherd), and how fast the person walks. Getting all these factors right is not always an easy process. While I got Karleen in 2013, I was actually accepted to train with Guiding Eyes in 2012. However, I had to wait one year because I walked faster than most dogs, I lived in New York City (not an environment all dogs would thrive in), I am short and not very strong (which meant I needed a smaller dog), and I could only do the month-long training over the summer when I didn’t have school, which meant my future guide needed to be ready at exactly the right time. What are the chances that a dog would match all of those traits perfectly, on top of the characteristics needed to be a successful guide generally? Karleen is a great match for me, but not just any dog would fit me so perfectly.
Myth 5: It is never ok to pet a guide dog.
It is true that you should never, under any circumstances, with no exceptions, pet a guide dog without asking his or her handler first. Some people do not want anyone to pet their dog while they are in harness, but this is a personal preference that varies depending on the handler and the dog’s personality. I tend to be more lenient than most guide dog handlers. If I am not walking, I usually let people pet Karleen if they ask first. This is for two reasons. First, Karleen loves people. She is a very social dog, and as long as she is not distracted from her work, it makes her happy to interact with people. I also love that my dog can bring other people joy, and I always feel proud to have others admire my sweet dog. Second, Karleen is great about staying on task. While I don’t let people pet her while we are walking, at times someone has come up to her and pet her anyway. Karleen will often glance over as to say, “What are you doing?,” then turns back to her job. She knows when she needs to focus, so I don’t feel the need to be as strict, but again, everyone has different rules that must always be respected.
Myth 6: Dogs know where to go.
Most questions that people ask me make sense, but this is the one I find most perplexing. Many people seem to think that guides can be trained to have an internal GPS and just know where to go. I have had many people ask if I can just ask Karleen to take me to Starbucks and she will do it. It is true that if I repeat a route for multiple days, Karleen will catch on and will try to pull me in the direction we usually go. Otherwise, as with crossing the street, it is up to me to tell her which direction we are going. There is no way Karleen or any dog could just automatically know the route to a completely new place.
What do you think?
What questions do you have about guide dogs? Which of these misconceptions did you find most surprising? Let me know in the comments below.