Hi, nice to meet you, I am a guest blogger for PPRC and I would like to talk about work. Specifically, about being a guide dog. Most people are into words and how we use language, so they use the term Service Dog, but let’s get one thing straight at the start. A Guide dog guides a person who is visually impaired or blind. That is me.
A service dog, as the term is used in North America, refers to any dog trained to help a person who has a disability, such as visual impairment, hearing impairment, mental illness, seizures, mobility impairment, and diabetes. The European term is Assistance Dog but I digress.
You see I am trained to help a person navigate life, to gain more independence, to be able to go wherever they want. Downtown, the mall, shopping, groceries, the streets, the parks, restaurants and even work. So, every day, all day, I am in constant contact with people. I go wherever my handler wants to go. Hey, you language folks, I prefer the term companion. Why, because that is what we are, a team, we support each other, my handler is my companion and I am their life line.
Now a little about me, I am a St. Pierre, a special breed designed specifically for being a guide dog. I was bred, raised and trained by MIRA, an organization based in Quebec that provides Guide and Service dogs to those in need. The only place where you will find the St. Pierre breed is here. I am telling you this so that you understand that I have a job to do, I was bred to guide. I spend six months in training, another year in foster care, then I am matched to a companion. In my case Joël.
Joël and I spent four weeks in training together and then we ventured out into the world. I now live in Ottawa and I navigate the transit system and the streets of the city. Joël is very active, he works full time, he teaches music at nights, suffice to say we are out all the time. What I want to talk about is all these people who encounter me while I am guiding, they need to understand a few best practices.
- I am a working guide dog, do not approach me and treat me like a pet. No fawning, no baby talk, no petting, basically leave me alone.
- If you want to approach me ask my companion (handler) if it is ok and the appropriate way to do it. That’s the person with the harness holding me.
- When my harness is on, I am working, plain and simple. When I am at work, just like you I need to be left alone. That means no eye contact, no talking to me, no feeding me.
- My companion will not tell you my name. Why? So you or others do not start calling me over and distracting me. I need to pay attention.
- Do not grab my harness to direct me or provide assistance, even though you may have great intentions, you are disrupting my training. I take direction from my companion. I can understand about 60 commands and another 300 gestures that allows the handler to direct me. I do specific things when I encounter problems, like stop to avoid a collision. Joël will direct me. If you want to help, ask him, if you do, then use words, provide concise information. The post is directly in front of you. The door is two feet to the right, that type of thing. Oh, and for the record do not grab Joël to move him either. We get that a lot!
- OK, this one is important, give me room! When walking down the street and you see a person who has mobility issues, give them the center of the sidewalk or crosswalk. I am trained to avoid an obstacle, you, are an obstacle. I move to the outside which puts Joël into traffic or the post or the wall. If you are courteous and take the outside, then I can manoeuvre safely. Oh ya’, almost forgot, hey drivers this applies to you too! Do not block the crosswalk trying to get through a light and do not keep driving when the light has given us permission to cross. Remember, I am his lifeline!
On the Bus, at the bus stop, give me room! Do not block the loading area or door when it is not your bus and you are not boarding. Do not push me to get on, give me time to navigate the door and stairs. The driver will see me and wait, so please give me this courtesy. On the bus, premium seating is important, if you allow my companion to sit, I will try to get out of the way under the seat to allow you to walk through more easily. If Joël is standing, then I am in the walking lane and people must go around me to exit. I get pushed, shoved with legs, I get hit in the face with people’s bags, purses and laptops, my harness grabbed, and I hear people taking Joël to task for something they can control. I also have people try to be nice to me, they pet me, they try to feed me (A big no no) and they speak in a manner to get me excited. You all know the voice, the baby talk, the thing is Joël does not need excited, he needs calm and attentive.
An escalator is the same, the key is “room” and being courteous. I hate cell phones, when people walk with cell phones, they do not see their surroundings and that is as dangerous to Joël and I as if you were driving and texting.
- To those of you who have their pet(s) out in public, please control your animals. I am trained to ignore them, they are not. The owners think it is cute and often say things like “look at them play”. I am not playing, I am working, as stated before I do not need distractions nor do I want to be attacked or hurt. Keep your animals under control especially when you see a guide or service dog. Now to your question about how you recognize a guide dog, they have a harness and a leash and a blind person.
- To the people who use fake guide dog vests or harnesses or falsely claim their pet is a service dog so they can bring them untrained into businesses or transit; and, to the lady at Ikea who shoved me into Joël so she could get ahead of the shoppers, and then had the audacity to call him out for a fight when he objected to your rudeness. Amazing rudeness that cannot be excused. All of you are inconsiderate people and certainly do not live up to the Canadian values of courtesy and respect. You do more damage than you know to the fight for inclusion and accommodation. Okay my vent is over, what I want, is to inform all people how they can be more inclusive, how they can accommodate. Really it is just by attitude, kindness and courtesy.
The key is always recognizing when you have an opportunity to make things easier for both the guide dog and the companion or for any person with a disability for that matter. We are trying to navigate the world, the city, life, you can help just by being aware and acting on it.
Here is a link to a recent Ottawa Matters article about service dogs and their role with children and education in Ontario.
Thanks, if you have questions, comments or opinions you can contact me through PPRC. If you know of available resources that can be a positive influence I would appreciate knowing that too.