On a daily basis, as I travel with my guide dog, Jack, I'm asked a lot of questions. Many people who are fully sighted have never encountered a guide dog before and are naturally very curious. People with vision loss sometimes think about the prospect of obtaining a dog for a long time before making a decision and often seek a first-hand perspective on the experience. For this article I've compiled some of the questions I get asked most frequently, along with their answers.

Q: What are some factors to consider when thinking about getting a guide dog?

A: Getting a guide dog is a major decision. For many people with visual impairments, a dog provides the handler with a greater sense of independence and safety. It was definitely the right decision for me.

There are many issues to consider before finalizing your decision. First of all, the dog requires a good deal of attention and grooming. Besides being a working dog, he/she needs play time and lots of affection. Unlike a cane that you can put away, the dog needs to be walked several times a day, no matter the weather. Do you have enough money to cover dog food and veterinary care? Most vets will give a discount to a guide dog handler, but they aren't required to do this. In New York City, the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan is kind enough to treat all guide dogs at no cost to the handler.

Q: What are some common misconceptions people have about guide dogs?

A: For one thing, guide dogs can't read traffic signals. The handler commands the dog to go forward when the handler thinks it's safe to cross. If the dog feels it's not safe, the dog will not move. Another misconception is that you can't have a pet dog or other animals at home with a guide dog. You can. If you have an additional disability, you still may be able to receive a guide dog. There are schools that may be able to accommodate your needs. Also, you do not have to be totally blind to receive a guide dog.

Q: What are the types of things that guide dogs assist with?

A: Here are a few of the tasks that a guide dog can accomplish:

  • The dog will stop at a curb.
  • When given a command to go inside, the dog will find a door or doorway.
  • The dog will find an exit when given the command to go outside.
  • With a steps command, the dog will go to the flight of steps.
  • At a flight of steps, the dog will stop and wait for the command to go forward.

The dog does understand left and right and these directions may be accompanied with hand signals.

Q: Is it OK to pet a guide dog?

A: While a guide dog is in harness, no, it is not OK for others to pet or speak to them. The dog is considered to be working and should not be distracted from their work of guiding a person. Even if the dog is not in harness, it is always best to ask the handler for permission to approach the dog.

Q: Tell us about your experience with your guide dog.

A: When I'm walking with my guide dog, Jack, a large, black Labrador Retriever, I am much more relaxed than when I used a cane. Jack walks me around obstacles and has learned to stop near places I frequently visit. He has no problem handling the distractions of New York City, including subways, buses, loud noises, and crowds. Sometimes I travel late at night, and I know I would not do that without a dog. Also, I've found people are friendlier to me when I am with Jack than when I used a cane.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the process for receiving a guide dog?

A: Once you decide to get a guide dog, the next step is to choose a school. An excellent place to start is the Guide Dog Users, Inc., (GDUI) website. The "Guide Dog Schools" link brings up a list of all the guide dog schools in the United States. Activating a school's link will show their contact information. GDUI asked each school to provide extensive information about their program, including instructor qualifications, how they get their dogs, length of training, amenities for students while attending the school, and the wait time to get a dog. To access this information, activate the "Guide Dog School Surveys" link on the GDUI homepage. The next page that loads lists the schools; activate a school's link to bring up a PDF document.

Q: How does the application process work?

A: You can apply to more than one school at a time, and the school doesn't have to be near your home. Some schools will require home interviews, others will do phone interviews. The interviewer will ask many questions in order to insure that the school can accommodate your needs and find the right dog for you. If you get a home visit, the interviewer will most likely take a walk with you to assess your mobility skills. If you do a phone interview, the school may ask for a video demonstrating your mobility skills.

Q: Are there any schools that will train you at home?

A: There are only two schools that exclusively train at home: Freedom Guide Dogs for the Blind and Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation. Freedom uses mostly Labrador Retrievers while Fidelco uses German Shepherds. There are many advantages to an at-home program, the first of which is the one-to-one trainer/student ratio. In addition, with an at-home program you train in familiar surroundings and work on the routes you normally take and the places you visit. Training at home can take less time than at a school. I chose to use Freedom Guide Dogs because I had a young child and did not want to be away for several weeks.

Q: Are there any advantages to attending a school that is away from your home?

A: The advantage of attending a school is that you are not distracted by events at home. Along with learning to work with a guide dog, some schools provide lectures on various topics such as grooming and canine health. There is camaraderie with the class and some people consider it a vacation. You can learn from the instructor and also from other students. Many long term friends have been made at school training classes.

Q: What should you expect when you start working with a dog?

A: Whether training at home or at a school, be aware that it will take time for you and your dog to function as a team. Have patience and give your dog lots of praise when he or she does a task or command correctly. The school will try to give you the best dog to meet your needs. Occasionally a dog and student don't work well together and the school will try another dog. The schools usually have graduate services available should issues arise and a dog needs extra training.

Q: Do you have any final words for our readers?

A: Personally, getting a guide dog was one of the best decisions I ever made. Weigh all the options and if you feel that a guide dog might be a good idea, then do your research and start the application process.

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Janet Ingber
Article Topic
Independent Travel Issues