Guest Post: An Open Letter to New Guide Dog Handlers

This week, fellow blindfluencer Rhianna McGregor Hajzer and I swapped blogs again. We’re both on our second dog guides, and decided to share some hard-won wisdom from our experiences with new and prospective dog guide users. We’ve attended different schools, worked with different breeds, and learned different lessons.

But one experience we’ve shared is how isolating it can feel to be the only service dog user in your community. So in order to combat that, we’re contributing our voices to the slowly cohering online community of service dog users. If you’ve recently joined our ranks, or hope to in the near future, this is for you.

Congratulations! You’ve been accepted into the program and will soon start training with your first guide dog! You’re so excited that you can’t think about anything else. You can’t sleep, you’re already stocking up on dog toys, and you wonder until it almost drives you crazy, what its name will be.

I’ve been there. It’s amazing, isn’t it?

But there’s more than that. And just for a few minutes, because I know you want to get back to daydreaming about your waggy-tailed forever friend, I’d like to tell you six things I learned the hard way about working with a guide dog that I wish someone had told me. It’s not the be-all-end-all, but it’s the reality of my personal experience, and maybe something I say will help you somewhere along your journey. That’s all I can hope for.

I. Anything Can Happen

Let’s start this list off with a good, old fashioned reality check.

Being a realist and a second-time guide dog handler, there are several truths about working with a guide dog I wish someone had told me when I decided to get my first one. And one of the hardest, but most necessary ones is that anything can happen.

Guide dogs are dogs, which means that they are susceptible to all the same things as any other dog. Cancer, injury, anxiety, aggression, early retirement, to name a few. my first guide dog, Cricket, retired at Three years old, and I wasn’t prepared for the possibility because it wasn’t talked about in the guide dog community. I expected him to work the standard 6-8 years, retire at home with me and be a grumpy, fluffy old man friend for my next pup. But that didn’t happen.

I’m not saying that you should expect the worst or dwell on the negatives of what “could” happen. But I want you to be realistic about what could happen—it may not go as planned, [or maybe it will]. But being aware is the first step to learning how to prepare for unexpected situations, and that’s all that I wish someone had done for me. It would have made all the difference.

II. Your Guide Dog IS Special

Yes, your guide dog is a normal dog because he likes to sniff other dogs’ butts, gets excited by squeaky toys and would probably sneak the crumbs from the floor after dinner if allowed, but your guide dog is not a normal dog.

He cost tens of thousands of dollars to train. Puppy raisers, veterinarians, instructors and countless volunteers have devoted a portion of their lives to preparing this dog to be your tool of independence and freedom. He has the privilege of participating with you in the community in ways other dogs are not permitted. He has a job that is more important than cuddles and companionship.

It’s okay to say it: Your guide dog is special. And he needs to be treated as such.

If anyone or anything threatens  the health or safety of your dog, or puts his ability to be your guide in jeopardy, you have the need and the right to defend and protect him. You are the only advocate your dog has, and just as your dog keeps you safe, you need to do the same for him. It isn’t a right to be abused or taken for granted, but know that when push comes to shove, your dog, your safety, and the partnership you share is worth it, and it’s okay to say so [loudly, if necessary].

III. Stick to the Rules

It sounds harsh and feels kind of unfluffy, but it’s a principle I started with, didn’t stick with, and wish I had.

You have to learn the rules before you can break them.

You are a first-time handler, and your guide dog is new to this, too. Learning the rules of the game and sticking to them is more important now than ever as it will set you both up for a more successful partnership. Because, as cliche as it sounds, rules are there for a reason and you’d do yourself and your dog well to follow, and learn from them.

With your successor dogs, you can bend the rules if you wish—I let Saint up on the couch and on my bed whereas I didn’t with Cricket—but I’ve learned better handling skills to keep the boundaries clear when he’s in harness or at a friend’s house where that is not acceptable conduct. But I learned this the hard way with my first dog; as an inexperienced handler, every decision I make affects my dog for the better or worse. I wish now that I’d stuck to the rules a little more closely before trying to make my own—I think it would have saved me some heartache.

IV. Forget The Timelines

You’ll hear many timelines throughout guide dog training—that guide dogs work for an average of 6-8 years and that it takes new teams 1 year to feel confident—but do yourself, and me, a favour, okay?

Forget all of them. Each guide dog, each handler, and each team is unique and although there may be averages and estimates, it won’t do you or your pup any good to dwell on them. When I focus on the timeline, I’ve only been left feeling inferior because I didn’t fit the “norm.” But there is no norm. There’s no need to compare yourself to any other handler. There is only you, your guide dog, and the journey you are on together. Enjoy being in this moment and all the cuddles, wags, adventures and love that come with it.

V. You Will Be Asked The Same Questions Over… and Over… and Over…

I learned early on, even before I came home from training, to prepare form answers for the most-asked questions. Because even in those early days, I knew what they would be:

“Can I pet your dog?”
“How does your dog know where to go?”
”How do you pick up the Poop?”

I’ve found it extremely handy to keep the answers to the most frequently asked questions tucked in my proverbial back pocket so that when I’m stopped on the street or in the grocery store, I can satisfy their curiosity and Remove myself from the conversation and move on. I don’t ever want to be rude or dismissive, but simultaneously, I don’t always want to converse in a lengthy discussion on guide dog training while I’m picking up milk. Form answers can be lifesavers.

VI. You Know Your Dog Best

During training, your instructor is your go-to for all things guide dog training. They have trained your dog from day one and they know its personality, preferences and working style.

But as you and your guide settle in at home and begin your lives together, you will eventually surpass the amount of time your instructor spent with your dog, and you will have now known your dog longer than your instructor. In a more intimate way, too; there is nothing so intimate as being each other’s lifeline in the world, and the trust, love, respect and bond you build with each other is unparalleled.

So, when issues arise—and trust me, they will–remember this. Your trainers are there to help and guide you, to give you professional advice and a different perspective. They are an invaluable resource and do not take them for granted. But they do not know your dog as intimately as you do and cannot make the best decisions for you or your dog. That privilege and responsibility is yours and yours alone, so use it wisely.

Becoming a guide dog handler is a lifechanging adventure. As challenging as it has been at times, it has been everything I hoped for and more, and comes with a kind of love and freedom I never knew I needed. I hope it is all this and so, so much more for you. But no matter what happens from this point forward, remember that you are not alone. You are loved, you are able, and you will be forever changed by the wagging tail, and unconditional love of a fluffy friend just around the corner, waiting for you.

All right, back to your daydreams!

If, after comparing My letter to Rhianna’s, you wonder at how we can both confirm and contradict each other’s advice, I hope you’ll draw the conclusion that you have the capacity, and responsibility, to self-educate, think deeply on, and customize your dog guide experience to your specific needs.

We both agree that no two dogs, handlers, or teams are alike, and that foundational lessons from schools are only the beginning of your newly-formed team’s journey. So walk wisely and well, with eagerness and confidence into every new adventure.

Today your favorite blindfluencer asks you to reflect on a lesson you learned once that grew into something more. Feel free to share in the comments.

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