Does this skirt go with my life? Oh, who am I kidding? Of course it does. But let’s talk about what it cost me. No, I’m not talking money, I am talking experience.
Actually, I can’t believe we’re talking about this at all. But here we are – again! Let’s talk about the cost of paying for this cute little number on a Saturday afternoon in a bustling city retail chain store, with my attention quite rightly devoted to the staff member ringing up my purchase, and being nothing but exemplary in her customer service (thanks, girlfriend).
During this professional exchange, another staff member consciously chose to leave other customers waiting, come out from behind an adjoining counter, and physically interact with my working guide dog. Interact is a softer word for how I felt about it, but I’ll reluctantly stick to this descriptor for now.
Not only did this staff member approach my guide dog without asking my permission, but she physically touched her and spoke to her while my guide dog was in harness, facing away from her, angled toward me, trying to concentrate on my next verbal command or hand signal, as is her job.
It should be noted that my guide dog was wearing a bright yellow sign across the back of her harness saying: no touching, no talking, no eye contact! This bright yellow sign over the backdrop of a black Labrador is pretty difficult to miss.
Furthermore, the staff member did not draw back immediately when I objected, nor did she take my mortification at her behaviour seriously. Touching a guide dog is not a joke. I am not a joke. So to be fobbed off as though I am overreacting is disrespectful and offensive, as it is me who has to deal with the very real cost of somebody else’s choices.
The term interact implies that somehow my dog invited or wanted any part of the situation thrust upon her. I can assure you, judging by her body language, which I am trained to interpret through her harness, she did not. If anything, the particular way she ducked her head told me just how much this violation cost her in confidence.
Up until that point, we’d had an amazing day. She nailed everything I threw at her, including a round of an extremely busy domestic airport terminal just for fun. However, this was going to cost us more than I bargained for. As her handler, I saw it as harassment, an attack, an assault, an act of aggression, and a completely unnecessary and unprovoked encounter.
Admittedly, those may sound like hard-edged words on the surface, but what they speak to is a deeper unguardedness and vulnerability hidden beneath a seemingly simple act of conducting business, which as a blind person, I don’t have the luxury of experiencing, as is evident by this incident, and the countless others, either whispered from mouth to ear within the cozy confines of friendship or dotted across the internet for the public appetite.
The truth is, there is only so much I can do as a guide dog handler to protect the agency of my guide dog. The rest, I have to hope, will come from you. Because whether you like it or not, we are in this together, and I cannot continue to be blamed or shamed for the irresponsibility of others. In this age of information, surely ignorance cannot be used as an excuse.
In many respects, a guide dog is an extension of their handler, and it is frightening to have a stranger approach my guide dog without my knowledge, let alone make physical contact. For heaven‘s sake, she is not a toy! My guide dog is not trained to be social, and this kind of behaviour not only stresses her out but undermines her ability to work.
I’ve said it before, and I will say it again – a guide dog is a highly trained mobility aid. Obviously a retail environment, let alone one in the middle of Sydney’s Central Business District, as with any major shopping mall, active high street or bustling tourist hub, is a very busy and complex environment for my working guide dog to navigate. So to have her distracted takes away from her ability to keep me safe.
She and I take her job very seriously, as is our obligation to one another. Even when it looks like a working guide dog is not working to an untrained eye, as they may be standing still, lying down or sitting, let me most assuredly point out that if they are in harness, they are working! Therefore, their focus should be only on the handler and the avoidance of obstacles, and nowhere else.
Under no circumstances should their cognition or physicality be stolen by a stranger who thinks they have the right to something that does not belong to them. My guide dog is not there for the gratification or curiosity of anybody else, much less a staff member in a store, or any other service industry.
And just for future, present and past reference, this includes pubs, cafes, healthcare practitioner waiting rooms, conferences, public transport, or anywhere else for that matter. And no, there are no exceptions, so stop trying to make it as though there are. Your good intentions, dog stories, love of dogs, pure ignorance, unbridled arrogance, or any other narrative you come up with, is just not good enough.
The point is, every time a stranger interacts with my working guide dog, it erodes our working relationship, and her immediate ability to work. There is also the long-term cost when she begins to hesitate or refuse to enter a public or semi-public space for fear of how she will be treated based on her experience last time.
But back to the shop in question. Regret is not picking up the wide-leg grey pants with the paper bag top and deep pockets while I was there. At this second, I don’t think I ever want to return to the store or continue my patronage of the brand. The cost may be too high. Because now I don’t trust that our experience will be pleasant, even though every other staff member we encountered treated us with nothing but courteousness and dignity.
It only takes one person, or one seemingly insignificant encounter, to undo a lifetime of guide dog training, learning and working. It may not seem like it, but all the little things add up and have a cumulative effect, so please be mindful that you are not the only person I will interact with on any given day, week, month or year. You are one of many, and I would like to value our exchange as opposed to walking away from it completely shattered.
If you have questions, by all means, please ask me. But if you see me and my guide dog out on the street, just ignore her. Please don’t ignore me, just my guide dog. And just remember, she is not your entertainment, inspiration, or opportunity. She is my mobility aid. Nothing more and nothing less. And most importantly, nothing you have to worry about.