Five Reasons a Guide Dog Isn't Such a Bad Idea


April 12, 2015

Intro

Recently, I read an article entitled 5 Reasons Why Guide Dogs Are a Terrible Idea! by Joe Orozco I wanted to offer my own take on this, to explain why guide dogs can in fact be a great idea. Before I do, though, I want to make it very clear that a guide dog is NOT a great idea for every blind person out there. There are definitely reasons to hesitate or not get a dog at all, and the article I'll be discussing lays out some of them quite nicely. It is even written by a former dog handler who is considering getting a new guide, so the points come from experience rather than guesswork or second-hand stories. If you are considering switching to a dog, please read that article, this one, and any other ones you can find (such as this other response article ). Basically, do your research, and do it well.

I'm writing this so that people won't read that post and think "huh, that's a lot of good points; I shouldn't get a dog". Joe, the author, offers some counterpoints to his own reasoning at the end of the piece, and I'm just building on that here. My intention is not to take issue with anything in the article or call out the author. While I think the title is a bit extreme if not interpreted as a joke, the content is all valid. I feel that each point, however, has a second side to it, and I want to show those different sides here. Joe does some of that at the end of the post, which is great to see. Still, there are points I think can be made that were overlooked.

The format will be, basically, the same headings as were in the original post, followed by a quotation that I feel sums up that section. I'll then offer my own thoughts in the subsequent paragraphs, possibly using more quotations as necessary. Any quoted text under a heading is from the original piece's text under that same heading, with one exception. All quotes come from the blog post I linked to at the start of this article and are the property of that blog post's author. There may be a bit of strong language in these quotations.

Who Am I?

I'm Alex. I got my first guide dog about two years ago, from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York. It's a wonderful school, and Cosby is a wonderful dog. He's a yellow lab, just over four years old. I'm biased--everyone thinks their school is the best--but I say that if you're thinking about getting a guide dog, you should go where I went.

The bulk of my travel is by walking, car, or city bus. I know my area well, I know most of the indoor places I frequent reasonably well, and I rarely travel outside of my state. Everyone's travel and transportation needs are different; again, I encourage you to read the original Serotek post, as well as this post, in their entirety, and apply all the information to your own situation.

1. It's expensive!

… service animals demand that extra stretch in commitment to ensure their long-term health. That means better than average dog food, consistent vet visits, and springing for medical treatments that some would deem optional under less special circumstances.

I'm not sure about the dog food point. Guiding Eyes feeds Iams to the dogs at the school, and my local vet actually recommends Purina over a more expensive brand like Blue Buffalo. While these dogs will eat more because they are more active, a lot of that amount comes down to the individual dog. Cosby gets two and a half cups a day, while my sister's dog gets nearly twice that amount, despite being only nine pounds heavier. Oh, and don't forget that dog food for a guide dog is often an expense you can write off on your taxes (check your local laws).

Vet visits are going to be a factor no matter what animal you have. Will they be more frequent? Again, that depends on your dog. Cosby gets his yearly checkup and shots, and aside from the occasional weigh-in, that's about it. I've taken him to the vet a couple times to check out things that turned out to be nothing, but that was my own fault and my inexperience. Had he been a regular pet, I probably would have done the same thing. Will Cosby need more care than a pet, and/or will he need those "medical treatments that some would deem optional" as he gets older? I honestly don't know. Guiding Eyes offers up to $300 per year to cover vet bills, but as the author points out, that can disappear fast when you start talking about much more than a checkup or vaccine.

2. It’s inconvenient!

… at home, on a Saturday, in the middle of winter, a snowy winter, a snowy winter when you wake up feeling like a truck ran you over … After a long day of flying, your first priority is not locating a cab, finding your room, or feeding yourself. At least in my experience, the top concerns were twofold: 1) finding a place for Gator to relieve himself; and 2) finding a trash can to dispose of it. You’d be surprised at how much of a nuisance it can be to find a friggin' trash can when you need one!

ah, the joys of finding trash cans! Any handler will have stories about that, and you'll get to hear all the creative ways people have found to hide, store, or otherwise deal with doggie do-do in the absence of an appropriate receptacle. It's an annoying problem, to be sure, and one that will bother you more in a new area than a place you know well.

If you can't find a trash can nearby but you know where one is, you can always tuck the pickup bag away somewhere and grab it on your way back--I've had to do that. Or, you leave it on a curb, and just hope the city's cleanup people will grab it. Or, if you're going home anyway, you just toss it in a pocket and pray you don't run into someone who wants to stay and chat--I've done that, too. Or, you minimize the risk, by planning in a twenty-minute walk before the main trip, if you know your dog will have to "park" (spell it backwards, you'll get it) soon. The walk gets the dog to go, you end the walk at home, problem solved. You can then be pretty sure that your real travel plans won't be, um, interrupted. Parking, and what to do with the results, will always be something handlers need to take into consideration. With good planning and a lack of squeamishness, though, it's perfectly manageable.

Getting up early is something I was concerned about when I first got Cosby home. Like food intake, though, this varies from dog to dog. Some will get you up at six in the morning no matter how many times you drowsily bop them on the head because you think you're whacking the snooze button. Others, like Cosby, will let you sleep in longer. You have to keep in mind when--and how much--they last drank, so you can tell the difference between "I'm hungry" and "Seriously, this is an emergency". Doing so becomes second nature after a while, though. Obviously, a middle-of-the-night emergency is a different story, and while that will happen, it's rare (again, depending on the dog).

There's no way around it: you will have to go outside at least five times a day, whether it's sunny and seventy-five, or minus thirty with driving snow. If your dog is smart, you won't have to spend a long time out there, and it soon becomes just another chore. You'd get the mail, or take out the garbage, even in heavy rain, right? Soon, taking your dog out will not feel any different.

Are guide dogs inconvenient? Yes, way more so than a cane. Without mentioning anything you'd have to do with a pet dog, there are booties in the winter; finding a place for both you and your dog on busses, trains, and planes; finding places for them to relieve when you're in odd areas like airports or hotels; carrying extra supplies on trips; and more. Some of those are concerns you'd have about pets, but the difference with service dogs is that those concerns follow you into areas of your life where a pet can't go. If you have a pet lab, and you take a three-day trip somewhere, you pay someone fifty bucks to watch Sir Eats-a-Lot and you go on your trip. If you have a lab as a guide, you suddenly have all the normal pet concerns in the airport, on the plane, in the cab, at the hotel, and anywhere else you wind up. Remember, though, that you have quite a trade-off: a guide. Crowds, traffic, locating chairs or doors, following people, and the like all become easy to deal with. Try to have your oh-so-convenient white cane locate a chair for you, or get you quickly and easily through a crowd.

3. It’s time-consuming!

even now, living on a large fenced-in lot, I understand despite my ability to open the back door and cut the dogs loose, proper exercise is necessary to keeping a dog engaged and out of trouble.

Once again, this depends on your dog. Cosby has never been much for playing, and he behaves the same whether we go for a four-mile walk every day or go nowhere for a week. I take five to ten minutes to do obedience practice with him every day, but walking? He doesn't much care.

There are chores that will take up more of your time, including relief times, twice-a-day meals, brushing the dog's coat and teeth, and obedience practice. However, many of those can be done while doing things you would have been doing anyway, like listening to a book or catching up on podcasts. Instead of sitting on the couch and pulling out your phone, you set your phone to play your audio and sit on the floor while you brush Mr. Fluffernutter's fur. The only difference is that you can stay there and cuddle a puppy instead of sitting there alone on the couch.

4. It’s unwelcomed attention!

So, yes, that means the cab driver may or may not pick you up. You may or may not be welcomed into a restaurant, and while you may file complaints, is that really the way to make a name for yourself as a person with a disability in the 21st century?

Discrimination against guide dog handlers is absolutely a problem. We've all seen the complaints against ride-sharing services whose drivers abandon people if there's a guide dog, and there's also the recent law suit against D.C cab companies.

Is the solution to say that if people aren't going to serve you because of your dog, you'll give up the dog? I certainly hope not! Is the solution to the plummeting braille literacy problem to give up braille? Should we say that, if Microsoft won't implement a full-featured screen reader in Windows Phone, we just won't use Windows Phone and should give Microsoft a free pass? I hope that the way we--as humans, not as blind people--solve our problems isn't to just let people off the hook for not doing the right thing.

No matter how hard you work at it, you will have dog hair on your clothing. That’s just part of the bargain, and while you might get a pass for casual dress, wearing dog hair on a suit deals a hefty blow to your attempts to be taken seriously.

Yes, this is definitely something to consider if you are, or plan to be, a guide dog user. Dogs that guide tend to be dogs that shed, simply because some of the breeds that have tons of extra fur are also some of the breeds that have the temperament and intelligence necessary for guide work. Every so often you'll see a poodle or other non-shedding dog as a guide, but the vast majority will be shepherds or labs.

Carrying a lint roller helps, but isn't a great solution. Lint rollers are relatively bulky, and while a woman can probably fit one in a purse, men don't have it so easy. Plus, you can't roll away the odd bit of drool that will inevitably wind up on the leg of your nicest pants. I suppose you could wear coveralls until you get to where you're going, or bring your clothes and change before the big interview/meeting/whatever, but neither are great options. If you've figured out a good way around this one, please let us all know.

All that said, I agree with Joe at the end of the article:

People will generally understand you have a dog; therefore, the dog hair is a nuisance but at least a condonable shortcoming on appearance.

If you show up to a job interview with fur all over you and nothing in your hands, then yeah, you'll look like a slob. If you show up with fur on your pants and a furry dog trotting at your side, I like to think that most people will put two and two together and figure a little fur is to be expected. Maybe most people won't--who can say--but I would hope they would be smart enough to figure it out.

When I had Gator [Joe's previous guide dog] I often wondered if my friends and acquaintances even remembered my name! Even now, several years after reconnecting with old acquaintances, the leading question is not about my health, my job, my general well-being, but rather: Where is that handsome shepherd of yours?

You definitely become the less adorable part of a duo when you start using a guide dog, and your four-legged companion is suddenly the most memorable thing about you. I think it's natural for people you meet in passing to remember that they met "some guy with the cutest black lab" rather than "a man, about five feet ten inches with red hair, who had a dog with him". People will remember what stands out, and animals on subways or in office buildings are rare enough that they become that crazy detail that sticks in peoples' brains.

That doesn't address friends asking after your dog before they think to ask about you, though. This can get old, but if they're good enough friends that you care how they think about you, there's probably good opportunity for a heart-to-heart conversation. If they're not, why do you care? What if it's a compliment of sorts? What if it's them thinking your dog was so impressive… so incredibly amazing… that the positive impression of guide dogs was what they took away from your last encounter? That seems like a great way to be an ambassador for guide dog users everywhere.

Could I be completely wrong on both these counts? Oh, I probably am. Still, it's worth thinking about, and I'm willing to put up with some people asking about my dog if it means I can get past them without whacking them in the leg with a metal stick. Of course, there are always people that would be best served by a good whack or three, and dogs just don't have the same heft and balance, so I guess that's a disadvantage of sorts.

5. It can be dirty work!

The first morning we were expected to begin cleaning up after our dogs, one of my new friends nearly gagged. I laughed. What a girl! Then one morning Gator had diarrhea. I stopped laughing…

Yep, that happens. Fortunately, it hasn't happened to Cosby… Yet. Certainly, if dealing with this kind of thing bothers you and you know you can't ever get used to it, a dog isn't for you. Sure, some places have companies you can pay to come clean up your yard every so often, but that's a bad idea for several reasons. Plus, it doesn't help you if your dog has to park during a walk, or outside your hotel, or anywhere else that isn't your yard. You'll have to deal with it at some point. Not to mention, as the author points out, dogs sometimes vomit, and they might do so while you're not around, leaving a nice surprise for your bare or sock-clad feet to encounter.

From what I've learned, and based on totally anecdotal and utterly unscientific knowledge, labs tend to have stronger stomachs than shepherds. The author had a shepherd, I have a lab. I fully expect very disgusting messes in my future, but I can't help wondering how much worse/more frequent they would be were Cosby a shepherd. That said, my sister's lab had stomach problems last year, after only a few months at home, so what do I know?

Anyway, the point is that you will absolutely have to deal with this stuff. If you can't, don't get a dog, simple as that. If you can, or if you think you could come to be able to, go for it!

Damn! Any Words of Encouragement?

If you were contemplating a dog, came across this post and felt discouraged, you should not get a dog. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of responsibility. It’s constant care and attention and a commitment to keep up the dog’s level of training. No one will fault you for being mature enough to walk away.

I would argue that feeling discouraged is not a definite sign that you should stop right now and stick to the white cane. Rather, it is an indicator that you need to dig into this more and really consider what you're willing to put up with in order to gain the freedom a guide dog can offer. I love the last sentence, though; as a blind person, deciding not to get a dog isn't a sign of weakness or a decision to be more dependent on others. It's simply knowing yourself--what you want, what you need, and what you are and aren't willing to deal with--and deciding you don't want to put yourself or a dog through an experience that will, in the end, make both of you miserable. That's not weak or needy, that's mature and admirable.

Owning a guide dog can be inconvenient, but hell, being blind can be inconvenient. You may as well have a good excuse to bring your puppy to work.

Definitely. I really can't add anything to this one, I think it stands on its own quite nicely.

Unwanted attention? Well, here again I point back to the blindness thing. You’re always going to attract it in some form or fashion.

Exactly. Seeing someone striding along waving a white stick in front of them is, I imagine, just as odd to some sighted people as seeing someone striding along with a harnessed dog at their side. Asking for help finding a chair is just as much of an awkward and attention-grabbing thing to do as is asking where a trash can is. With Cosby, at least, I find myself having to ask fewer questions of random passersby, and people tend to be more willing to help. I often hear how Cosby looks like my helper's own dog; he (Cosby, that is) can be quite the ice breaker.

In Conclusion…

As I've said a few times already, this is a very personal choice. You've seen the cons, and maybe how some of those cons aren't as bad as they seem. You've seen some of the pros, and I assume you know the rest if you're looking into this topic. Please keep in mind that a decision to not get a guide dog is just as important and informed as the decision to get one. Neither is right or wrong, and no one should fault you whichever way you decide. Oh, and if you do want a dog… Go Guiding Eyes!


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