Guide dogs are service animals that assist visually impaired individuals. These canines are professionally trained to improve the quality of life of his or her handler.
Recently, I interviewed two people – Donna Grahmann of Magnolia, Texas and Patrick Leahy of Washington, D.C. – about their personal experiences with guide dogs. They offered honest insight into the world of service canines, sharing how their animals help give them increased mobility and independence.
Meet Your Match
Guide dogs are often Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds. These animals are bred specifically for their service dog training and possess intelligence, confidence, behavioral soundness and a pleasant disposition.
Patrick’s third guide dog, Galahad, is a two-and-a-half year old yellow lab trained by Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York. This school, Patrick explains, “is an internationally recognized guide dog school, filled with great instructors and leaders. Their response to students’ needs is immediate and reassuring – Galahad went through approximately two years of training before being matched with me in August 2009… We then spent three weeks training together both in New York and D.C.”
Donna’s service dog, Huey, is a 6-year old black lab. He was raised for a life of guide dog service and received his advanced training at Guide Dogs of Texas, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping visually impaired Texans with personalized service and highly-trained guide dogs. Donna applied to the school and was matched with Huey.
Learning how to navigate the world with a new guide dog requires building trust through mutual understanding. “It’s always a challenge in transitioning dogs,” Patrick tells me. “You need to fully trust your new dog, and the dog needs to bond with you…. I often call it an arranged marriage, where both dog and owner are working to more fully understand each other’s habits, styles and idiosyncrasies.”
Guide Dogs On-Duty
Both Patrick and Donna used canes before being paired with a guide dog. “Having a guide dog makes all the difference,” Patrick shares, explaining that guide dogs are excellent travel companions and masters of transportation. “While cane travel is certainly doable, I greatly prefer traveling with a guide dog. Dogs are able to effortlessly guide through crowded sidewalks, maneuver traffic, and find needed landmarks. I’ve heard it explained as a cane being a good solid car, but a guide dog is a corvette.”
Donna explains that her guide dog, Huey, helps her navigate through obstacles more safely that cane travel. “Huey guides me through our neighborhood walk, which I previously felt uncomfortable navigating when I used my cane,” she says. “We live on a winding, slightly hilly road with no sidewalks or shoulders. He is always between me and the edge of the road, keeping me safe.”
All of Patrick’s guide dogs have enjoyed traveling around Washington, D.C. “I am always impressed with the way guide dogs handle traffic,” Patrick explains. He and Galahad walk beside busy roads and use public transportation during the daily commute to his job on Capital Hill. “Galahad is new to D.C., but getting settled in. So far, he has done a fantastic job in the heavy snow. He loves my trip into work in the morning. He knows the metro – finding open doors, tollgates, escalators, moving around the station… Dogs are color blind, so they do not read lights. However, the dog will protect you from traffic and provide positive feedback to your crossing decision. Although sometimes I do not realize it, on several occasions my dogs have helped me avoid oncoming traffic.”
Donna echoes that sentiment. “Huey prevented me from being completely run over by a vehicle that was backing out a driveway,” she shares. “If Huey had not spun around to the left, pulling me out of the way, I would have been under that vehicle. My foot was run over and I broke my arm from falling, but that was minor compared to what could have been.”
Donna and Huey have also flown on airplanes many times, where well-behaved Huey naps while the plane is in-flight. She notes that they have a regular routine they follow that minimizes challenges with Huey. “Independence is the greatest benefit of having Huey. I can walk into any store and not fear knocking something over or walking into an object.”
Working Dog Etiquette
Guide dogs encounter all types of people while on duty. Because these service animals are working, following imperative etiquette helps ensure the safety and health of all parties involved.
Donna emphasizes, “A guide dog should never be distracted from doing his job… this could cause injuries to the team.” Patrick adds some general rules of thumb: “Do not pet a guide dog while they are in the harness – It’s best not to talk to the dog or say their name while they are in the harness. And if you are walking a pet canine, do not have your dog visit with a working dog.”
In Donna’s experience, many parents send their children over to pet Huey while he’s on duty. “I praise the child when they reply to their parents, ‘No, we are not supposed to touch a service animal unless we are given permission from the handler.’ If someone asks if they can pet Huey, I usually let them. But I prefer that they pet him on his back because little fingers tend to poke his eyes. Huey’s eyes are my eyes, so I try to protect them.”
Dogs are, of course, curious animals. Although each guide dog goes through advanced training, they can have their own etiquette challenges. Donna says, “Food on the floor is one of the biggest distractions for Huey, even though he knows he should leave it alone.” Patrick adds that his previous guide dog, Pepe, once ate bread off a table at a restaurant while he was on a date. “I was walking out of the Longworth House office Building at the end of a work day once, and Pepe stopped at the stairs. I say ‘Pepe forward‘ but he would not move. I then realize that he is eating something. I hear Ahhhhhhh!‘ Sir, your dog just ate my banana.’ Apparently, the big guy put his head over the girls shoulder as she was sitting on the top step. He grabbed her banana before she even knew it!”
So how is Galahad, his newest guide dog, performing while on duty? “He’s working on his dog distraction,” Patrick says. “He just loves other dogs and will sometimes try and visit with them while working… And he really likes women and will sometimes lead me to them on the metro and while guiding down the street – a great trait for helping a single guy! I think he does this because his puppy raisers were three women.”
And how does Patrick handle redirecting Galahad’s behavior? “When a problem comes up, try and retrace your steps… Why did the dog do what he did? Was it my fault? Often handlers are not fully communicating with the dog… My previous trainer, Geoff Lock, taught me one great lesson. As a dog user, you need to try to put yourself in the dog’s ‘shoes.’ Keep things fun for the working dog, keep it light and challenging. You want your dog to enjoy his work. Doesn’t everyone want to like his or her boss and duties? The person-guide dog relationship is one to be cultivated, enjoyed and, most of all it should be a fun time. These dogs really enjoy their work, and the praise and challenge that comes with it.”
Guide Dogs at Play
While not on-duty, guide dogs continue to protect their owners and have fun, too. “Huey is such a kind sole,” Donna tells me of her guide dog. “Even when he is out of his harness and off-duty, he blocks me from hitting things I may be getting too close to. We cuddle every evening in front of the TV. Huey rolls of his back with all four feet in the air to get his tummy rubbed.”
Donna enjoys taking Huey to PetSmart, his favorite store, and family gatherings where he enjoys unlimited attention. She adds, “But I am the only person that feeds him – this creates a strong bond between the dog and handler. He loves any treats that I give him… and his favorite toy is a stuffed lamb.”
“Galahad is also my good buddy,” Patrick shares. “While he does spend a significant amount of time working, much of his daily schedule includes lounging at the office, relaxing around my apartment, playing and visiting with friends.”
Patrick and Galahad can often be spotted at the local gym, Washington D.C. restaurants and bars, and around Capitol Hill. “My gym is very welcoming,” he adds. “They have a nice room for Galahad to relax in while I work out. On the political side, Galahad has enjoyed dining with friends and I at the Capitol Hill Club, a private club for Members of Congress and elected officials.”
Both Donna and Patrick love to educate others about their guide dogs’ life-changing abilities. Recently, Donna mentored a fourth grader on her project about service animals. She has also written a children’s book, Alongside Huey, in hopes that it will help young kids understand more about guide dogs.
Patrick shares that each time he goes out into public, he’s an immediate, daily ambassador for service animals. He says that helping people understand how guide dogs work and their amazing capabilities is a fulfilling experience.