Guide Dogs

In this post and video I want to talk about guide dogs and assistance dogs, in support of Guide Dogs Week (1st-9th October). They are amazing and beautiful animals who make such a huge difference to their owners, and they should be treated with the utmost respect, without any discrimination. I’ve also published an extended cut of the guide dog footage i’ve used in the video, which you can see by clicking here.

I don’t have a guide dog myself, because I can see well enough not to need one, and so I’m not an expert on them. However, I still want to do this post, because I have great respect and admiration for them – especially as I have quite a few friends who use them, so I have got to know some guide dogs and see them at work over the years. And I would certainly consider applying for one myself if my sight ever got bad enough. Which I hope it doesn’t, of course, but it’s a comfort to know that lifeline would be available.

Guide dogs are beautiful, clever, friendly and amazing animals – as indeed are all assistance dogs for that matter. Assistance dogs provide services that enable, enhance and improve the lives of disabled people in so many ways, whether they have visual, hearing, physical or mental impairments, or medical conditions that the dog can detect and warn the owner about (such as epilepsy or diabetes).

In any case, the most important thing to understand is that assistance dogs and guide dogs are NOT pets. They are service dogs, highly trained to serve people in a way that no domestic pet can. They’re a genuine lifeline to their owners, allowing them to have so much freedom and independence that would otherwise be lost, or at least extremely difficult to get in other ways. Sure, the dogs still have downtime, to feed, relax, get exercise, and have fun – they’re always treated extremely well. But they’re always ready to assist their owner when required as well.

Assistance dogs and their owners are also legally protected in the UK under the Equality Act 2010, and similar laws in other countries. An assistance dog and their owner can generally go anywhere, or use any service, that any other member of the public can. This includes shops, restaurants, hotels, buses, trains, taxis, and so on. They cannot be excluded because of their assistance dog, the law says so.

There are rare cases where an assistance dog can be refused – for example if a taxi driver has valid medical evidence exempting them from taking a dog. But for the most part, it is illegal to refuse access to a place or service if the person has an assistance dog.

It sounds simple, yet a lot of businesses and individuals either don’t know the law or choose to ignore it. Hardly a week goes by when you don’t hear about someone being refused access to a restaurant or a taxi or something like that. Each time, the person responsible clearly doesn’t appreciate the effect they’re having on the dog’s owner. It places the owner in a really awkward and difficult position, often making them very upset and harming their confidence. And it’s extremely frustrating and disappointing to find that people are disobeying the law when there is usually no good reason to.

It’s also disturbing that some people are so unsympathetic and lacking in understanding that they abuse blind people online who flag up these problems. And this is despite the fact that they would get just as upset or frustrated if, heaven forbid, they were in the same position one day and faced similar problems. Anybody can lose their sight at any time, so they’re not immune from that possibility. But because they regard themselves as ‘normal’ and can hide behind anonymity online, they feel they can get away with it.

If these people understood, or were willing to try and understand, just how much assistance these animals give on a daily basis, and how absolutely vital they are to the lives of their owners, it would really open their eyes. I know it’s hard to fully appreciate it unless you’ve been in that position, or known people in that position, but it would be great if more people had common sense and respect around this kind of issue.

The fact is that assistance dogs go through an incredible amount of training, and so do their owners. It’s vital that the dog and their owner are a perfect match and can work together well, and it can take a long time to get this right. Not all assistance dogs are suitable for all people – and, indeed, not all blind people have dogs at all. Some prefer to use a long cane, while others would love to have a guide dog, but are unable to do so for health reasons or an unsuitable home environment. So it’s not an exact science. And even when there is a good match, the dog still has to get accustomed with their owner’s needs and routines, and it will take time for the owner to become fully confident going everywhere they want to with the dog on a daily basis.

So by the time you see someone out and about with an assistance dog – and working dogs are usually clearly marked with an identifying harness of some sort – you can be sure the two of them already get on very well. This is why some blind people get accused of being a guide dog trainer or faking their sight, because they look so confident walking with it. Yet the simple reason they look confident, and are able to walk in the right direction very quickly, is because they are familiar with the route, and they trust their dog completely to guide them safely.

Indeed, the interaction between a blind person and their guide dog when travelling around can often surprise people. Some people wrongly assume that the guide dog is like a canine sat-nav, for example, so that the owner just has to tell it where to go and it will take them there. But that’s not true at all. It’s always the blind person who dictates the route – they have to know where to go. The dog is simply there to keep them on a clear path and stop them bumping into things or tripping over. Sure, it may get to know a particular route and may try to take the owner that way – but if that’s not where the owner actually wants to go, then they will correct the dog accordingly.

So, no, guide dogs are not sat-navs. They only go where the owner tells them to go at any given moment. Yet I’ve heard a few blind people say that when they’ve asked someone for directions, the other person has bent down and told the dog, which I find amazing! Of course the dog can’t understand that! It’s trained to understand some very specific and particular commands, but not the entirety of the English language!

There are similar misconceptions when blind people cross the road, with many people believing that the guide dog decides when to go. Again, this is a myth. It’s always the owner who initiates the crossing, by listening carefully for a break in the traffic, or waiting for the signal to go at a pedestrian crossing, and then commanding the dog to move.

At that moment, if the guide dog determines that it’s not safe to cross after all – for instance, if there’s a bike or a quiet car coming that their owner hasn’t heard – then it will refuse to obey and will stop the owner from crossing the road. Again it’s about keeping their owner safe.

As an aside, it’s not just the bleeping noise that can tell blind people when to go at pedestrian crossings. Many wait signs in the UK also have a part underneath that moves when the light goes green, which is there for blind people to feel. Because it’s hidden away on the underside of the Wait box, many people don’t realise it’s there, so it’s a cool little secret.

Another common misunderstanding I’ve seen online a few times is people questioning why it’s necessary for a guide dog to be in a restaurant with its owner, given that it’s apparently not doing anything. It’s not reading the menu or eating the meal, so why can’t it be tied up outside? Some people wrongly believe it’s unhygienic as well. And all of these assumptions completely miss the point.

Guide dogs help blind people to navigate their surroundings safely, both indoors and outdoors. And a blind person will still need that guidance in a restaurant – whether it’s to their table, or the bar, or the toilet, or the exit – without walking into tables, chairs, pillars, walls, doors, windows, people, etc. Otherwise they’re stumbling in the dark. It doesn’t matter if they have a sighted friend with them, as that won’t always be the case when they go out – blind people do go out on their own and with other blind people too. And it’s not up to the already-busy staff to do lots of hands-on guiding either. Blind people want, need, and have every right, to do things independently as much as possible.

The guide dog must therefore stay by their owner’s side at all times while they’re working, so the owner can get their help immediately. That’s what the dog is trained for. Whereas if the dog is tied up outside, not only is it useless to the owner, as they can’t get to it when they need it, but it would also be at real risk from distraction and harm which the owner would have no control over – such as feeding and petting by others without permission, distraction by other dogs, and so on.

The dog has to be 100% focused on its owner and its job, otherwise it cannot assist them safely. It could end up taking them on the wrong path or across a dangerous road, just to chase after another dog or to feed on some nice food it was given, and that can be confusing and extremely dangerous.

So it has to stay with its owner. In a restaurant, it will just lay down next to them quietly until commanded otherwise, as it’s been trained that way. It won’t go anywhere near the kitchen, because it has no reason to. And it won’t be dirty either – the health and well-being of assistance dogs are very strictly maintained, because of the vital job they do. So there’s no real reason to refuse a guide dog in a restaurant.

At the end of the day, guide dogs help blind people massively, enabling the owner to feel a lot safer, happier, more independent and more confident. Everyone needs to respect and understand that, because it’s vital that blind people and other assistance dog users have equal access to places and services along with everyone else.

So thank you to Guide Dogs and all the other assistance dog organisations out there. Your work and dedication helps millions of disabled people to live independent and fulfilling lives, for which I know they’re incredibly grateful.

So I hope you’ve enjoyed my thoughts on Guide Dogs. Please do consider giving Guide Dogs a donation to support their work, as they do deserve it and they do need it. You can also follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. And for those outside the UK, there is also the International Guide Dog Federation. Plus there are some further links to information and videos below that you may find of interest. Thanks for reading!

Author: Glen

Love London, love a laugh, love life. Visually impaired blogger, culture vulture & accessibility advocate, with aniridia & nystagmus, posting about my experiences & adventures.

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