Meeting a Guide Dog
Over the years, I’ve written a series of posts on training and working with guide dogs.
But I’ve never written about the basic etiquette of meeting and interacting with a guide dog, which, after all, is the most common experience most of the public is likely to have. There are really only a couple of basic things to keep in mind, but they are important.
Never pet. All puppies are born blind and deaf. The only way they have to initially experience the world and, most importantly, their mother is through the sense of touch. Consequently, touch remains an exceptionally powerful way to bond with a dog.
Every time a stranger pets a guide dog, regardless how well-intentions, it weakens the bond with the handler and interferes with its ability to work. It’s tempting to think that “it’s only one little pat,” but, if a dog is petted by a stranger only once a day, by the end of its working life, it will have been petted several thousand times. There is probably no better way to ruin a good dog than to have strangers pet it.
A guide dog is motivated to work for its handler because it receives constant praise whenever it works. Throughout its life, it will receive vastly more positive feedback than the average family pet. If petted by strangers, it will quickly decide “Why work when I get petted for doing nothing.”
Because of the public’s pressure to pet, many handlers in recent years have begun to say that it is all right to pet the dog as long as it is not working and not in harness. Experienced trainers, however, say that, while petting a dog that is not working is better than interfering with it while it is working, it is still preferable to never pet. After all, the dog doesn’t forget that it has been petted just because it puts on a harness.
Don’t speak to the dog. Even if you know the dog’s name, try to ignore it. The dog knows its own name, and, if you say it, it will either think you are calling him or, if he is working, hearing the name will seriously distract him from his work.
Dogs are essentially pack animals, and it is critical that a guide dog sees the handler as the leader of his pack. Petting, speaking to, and even staring at a guide dog all seriously compromise his ability to work in the way he was trained. Any good handler will greatly appreciate your following these basic guidelines.