Image of a working guide dog at rest after a hard day.

Let A Working Guide Dog Work

I chose this! Let me preface this post with that clear disclaimer. I know I chose this. I knew what I was getting into. However, that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. If anything it makes it more difficult, as I don’t feel I have the right to complain. I chose to become the handler of a working guide dog, knowing how hard it would be, but not how amazing it would be. However, today – today was hard.

Hard, not because of any behaviour my guide dog did or did not exhibit, but hard because dealing with other dog owners is often so upsetting, as they can be some of the worst offenders when it comes to guide dog respect, etiquette and acknowledgement.

On the surface, one could be forgiven for thinking it would be otherwise. However, when it comes to dog owners and their bias, nothing will stand in the way of their blatant flaunting of a “they know best” mentality. Yes, I’m looking at you, lady, with the two Huskies on leash late this afternoon, that you actively allowed to get up in my guide dog’s face and snap at her. Surely you must have seen us coming on that long, straight, unusually empty, wide pathway, and surely it was obvious my guide dog was working.

Now, by working, I mean she was concentrating on the job at hand, which I can only assume by her body language, was avoiding you. Admittedly, I snapped back at you at the top of my lungs, and told you in no uncertain terms what I thought, and can only hope, if nothing else, that I may have embarrassed you on some level. Because let me tell you, your disengaged apology means nothing, as it was obvious you did not care.

No doubt you will not give us a second thought, putting my outburst down to an over-sensitivity or over-reaction on my part, as opposed to any action or inaction on your end. After all, there was no “actual” harm done.

But here’s the thing – I care! I care for the well-being, health and professionalism of my working guide dog. I care that your dogs’ aggression, of which surely you must have been previously aware, frightened us both. I care that your carelessness, curiosity and arrogance interrupted my evening. I care that I am left to deal with the consequences you will never know or see. I care about how this may affect my guide dog in the future, which I add, will still have her traumatised six months later, as every time she steps into that particular area of our regular route, she can’t help but hesitate and look around warily for an unseen yet still remembered danger.

Granted, you’re not the only offender showing the type of bad behaviour that punctuates our lives, but you are the worst of this day. So congratulations, you must be very proud.

Let me give you a hint. If you’re a dog owner and you see a working guide dog and their handler effectively minding their own business, there are a few things you can do to make our lives easier. Firstly, let us know you are approaching or nearby, and that you have a dog (or dogs) with you. This gives us the information we need to make a decision about how to handle the situation, based on how my guide dog has been trained. Standing there silently gawking at us while we try to ascertain what is going on doesn’t help.

Actually, between you and me, it’s humiliating. Surely it isn’t that hard to say: “Hello, my name is such and such, I have so and so with me, and they are blah blah breed. What can I do to make you and your working guide dog safe and comfortable?”

Alternatively, simply put your dog on a very short leash and calmly, quietly and discretely walk away – no mess, no fuss, and no bones about it. However, the risk with this strategy is that if my working guide dog has already spotted your four-legged friend, she may already be distracted.

Apparently, just like people, some dogs are more attracted to one dog than they are to another. If that happens, as a guide dog handler, I’m trained to refocus my guide dog through a series of commands and gestures. Failing that, I’ll sit her down in order to gain her attention before we can move on. Ultimately, I require her full concentration, and I’ll wait as long as it takes until I get it.

Therefore, again, I urge you to remove yourselves from our immediate vicinity if possible. Because by leering, or pretending to control your canine companion with a token “there there” without really meaning it, you are actually putting me, and perhaps more importantly, my working guide dog in danger.

Neither of us can afford to have our attention split, and by you demanding mine, you are putting us all at risk, leaving me to carry the burden of all parties involved, including you and your sense of entitlement, feigned ignorance, arrogance or self-indulgent anthropomorphism above what should be my first and only priority – that of the confidence, safety and well being of my working guide dog and myself as her handler.

In other words, don’t make yourself yet another obstacle for us to navigate, because that isn’t fair on either of us. Actually, it stresses a working guide dog out enormously. You’re not doing her any favours by trying to gain her attention, inadvertently or otherwise.

Handling a guide dog takes an enormous amount of cognition from each of us, and to remain focused and vigilant of our surroundings is essential for us to remain safe and on course. I would ask that you respect our space, our teamwork and our sense of well-being, even if you cannot relate to the demands that navigating the built environment place upon us.

Let’s be honest. The likelihood of you having greater sensory resources at your disposal than I do is highly probable. If for some reason you don’t, then you obviously wouldn’t be putting any of us in this situation, because you too would know the deficits and all too real costs and complications of such exchanges.

It is a simple request really. Control your dog, and if possible lead it further away from me, rather than encouraging it to interact with my working guide dog. Because a guide dog is not a pet, no matter how cute you think they are, or how much you think your privileged pooch wants to interact. I can assure you, neither she nor I want to interact with them. My dog is not lacking in friends, downtime or anything else you may project or fantasise about based on your own reality and very limited knowledge. My guide dog is a fulfilled, purposeful and skilled working guide dog, who right at this second, doesn’t need to be unnecessarily distracted to satisfy you or your four-legged companion.

How do I put this? If your dog is bored, then that is on you. Don’t make me or my guide dog your amusement, tension breaker, personal gratification, distraction or ‘feel good’ moment. Because for you, although this might only be a fleeting encounter and an enhancement to your day, please remember that you are not my only encounter in any given scenario. And unlike you, chances are I am looking to mind my own business, just as you have the right to, and am trying to get on with my life with as much dignity and the least amount of drama possible. 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.

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.

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.

Additionally, just to clarify, the sentiment doesn’t change even if I am toileting my guide dog at the time, and therefore technically not in harness. That is no justification for your bad behaviour.

Think of it like this. If you were in a car being driven by somebody else, you would prefer they kept their eyes, ears and cognition on the road, as opposed to having someone talking, patting, pinching, playing or making googly eyes at them. It’s comparable to jumping up and down on the bonnet of the vehicle demanding the driver’s attention. So when you encourage your dog to interact with my working guide dog, who is doing her best to avoid obstacles and act professionally, that is who you are being. You are the annoying person jumping up and down on the bonnet of my vehicle demanding attention, making it all about you. And yes, this does include when you smile and ask for forgiveness after the fact, as though it is nothing, even though some part of you knows it is wrong, no matter how much you pretend otherwise.

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 aware 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. However, if you have a dog with you, and you can see they are distressing or distracting my working guide dog, then maybe save those questions for a more appropriate time, when you are not with your pet.

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