Is a Guide Dog for You?

woman walking with guide dog in office setting

Editor’s Note: This post was written by VisionAware Peer Advisor, author and guide dog handler, DeAnna (Quietwater) Noriega. To learn more about the ins and outs of working with a guide dog, please join us for a Q&A panel discussion webinar on April 29, 2021 at 3:00PM ET. Click here to learn more and register.

Most people who are blind or low vision use a mobility tool to travel safely and independently. The two primary tools are the long white cane and a guide dog. The tool you choose is a personal choice and a decision that has many considerations. While a cane has many benefits (it’s portable and you will never have to feed it or look for a place for it to relieve itself), using a guide dog has benefits as well.

Consider this: you have just walked face first into a rain laden tree branch or a rope barrier that your cane passed under, or you’ve stumbled into a hole you missed detecting. You may wonder if a guide dog is a good option for your needs.

Before you go buy the dog bed, there are a few things to think about.  A dog, unlike a cane can’t be put in a closet or leaned in a corner when you find it inconvenient to keep it with you.  Like young children, they require discipline, care and feeding.  Regular grooming will reduce the amount of dog hair that will accumulate, but you may still want to take the color of your dog’s coat into consideration when choosing your clothing or furniture. 

Some people are afraid of dogs, are allergic to them, or just don’t want them in their homes or vehicles. These are all things to consider. Travel or a busy schedule may require you to carry dog food and other accessories with you.  Like a young child, you’ll need to monitor your dog so his curiosity doesn’t get him into trouble. You will have to stay on top of his canine instincts to scavenge for food, greet other dogs or sniff.

Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself. Do you enjoy the company of pets? Are you willing to exercise, play with and clean up after a dog?  It’s easy to get excited about all the great things that come with having a dog (and it absolutely is something to be excited about), but the truth is that they’re also a lot of work.

Keep in mind that a dog isn’t a robot and although he has been well trained to watch avoid overhead obstructions, stop at curbs and steps, obey directional commands, swing around objects in your path and return to his original direction of travel, it is still very important for you to know the route you want to follow. He will learn to recognize locations you frequent and routes you take often, but your dog is not a substitute for good orientation skills. It’s up to you to direct your dog, so a good understanding of how streets are laid out and some basic travel skills will help. 

 Even though I’m a good cane traveler, I used to get exhausted by the sheer amount of concentration I had to use to travel with a cane.  Traveling with a guide dog is more like taking a leisurely walk with a friend.  I can relax and focus on my route, instead of worrying about detecting every dumpster, misplaced tricycle and unexpected crack or drop off in the pavement.  I enjoy the company of dogs and prefer to go places on my schedule rather than at some friend or family member’s convenience.  I meet a lot of dog lovers and find them eager to help with directions and useful information. Generally, store clerks and office personnel are also happy to assist me.  In short, even when I get lost, I have more confidence in my ability to figure things out because I know I am not alone, but in the company of a friend and trained assistant.

A little-known benefit of having a guide dog is that a well-cared for and much-loved dog returns to its handler an enormous amount of unconditional love.  The bond between a guide dog and its handler is such a close one, that the team becomes extremely sensitive to the moods and needs of each other. When you’re having a bad day, your dog is there and offers companionship and comfort.  In return, your dog understands that his needs will be met and he is loved.  It’s never a burden to care for my dog’s requirements, but a pleasure to give back for services rendered.  The gift of reciprocal love is an immeasurable part of being a guide dog handler. 

Okay, so you have decided to train with a guide dog, what’s next?  There are more than a dozen reputable guide dog training programs in the country. Talking with other guide dog users may help you to think about the type of program you would be best for you.  Outlining your lifestyle and expectations will also help the staff of your chosen school to find the right match for you. 

An excellent resource is the Guide Dog Users Inc website, on which there are a series of guide dog school surveys that may be very helpful as well. Exploring their web page will give you an overview of what the various programs offer. The material is arranged into two sections.  First, there is a link to the information provided by each school that answered a set of questions. Then, there is a section where the answers received on several areas of interest are collected together.  Once you have narrowed down your list to a few schools, you can contact the schools directly.

The decision to work with a guide dog is a big one for sure, but there are resources and people who can guide you along the way. Both of the national consumer organizations, the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind, have guide dog groups that meet regularly to discuss topics related to working with a dog. While working with a guide dog takes hard work and commitment, I know that it’s well worth the effort and if you choose this path you’ll likely reap more rewards than you can ever imagine.`