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The Dog Blog: What Should I Know about Getting a Dog?

I’ve lost track of the number of times over the years that some stranger has said, “I wish my dog were that well behaved” while nodding to my guide dog. This is always flattering since I want the dog to be unobtrusive and not call attention to itself by its behavior.

This having been said, nothing related to blindness attracts comment like working with a guide dog. It must be something like being married to a movie star; people may not remember who you are, but they’re guaranteed to remember who you’re with. More than once, I’ve run into someone I haven’t seen for years, only to realize that they can’t recall my name, barely remember me at all, but want to know all about the dog I had a decade before – and, yes, they remember the dog’s name. It’s more than a little humbling.

So, in an effort to answer some of those questions every guide dog handler gets, I’ll be devoting the next few blog posts to a discussion of everything you ever wanted to know about guide dogs but never had the opportunity to ask.

For those of you who have absolutely no interest in this topic, so you’re not entirely bored by the blog while I’m doing this, I’ll also post a second blog on something that has nothing to do with canines.

There are about a dozen schools that train guide dogs in the U.S. After seeing several hundred teams (handler and dog) myself, I’d rate two of the schools as really excellent, a school or two at the bottom that I wouldn’t go near, and a bunch in the middle that are relatively similar. This having been said, the worst school can, on occasion, turn out a good team, and the best school sometimes graduates a team that leaves something to be desired. Training guide dogs isn’t an exact science. Unless a graduate has had a truly horrible experience, they tend to assume their school is wonderful, something like the way high-school and college graduates are loyal to their alma mater.

The schools are surprisingly collaborative, meeting regularly to share information on training techniques, breeding, etc. They do compete intensely, however, in three areas: fund raising; recruitment of the best students; and attracting the best instructors.

From time-to-time, I’m asked for advice about getting a dog from someone who is considering the transition. There is a lot to think about, but the two most important issues are as follows:

Not all schools are created equal. It’s important to select a school in the same way you might choose a college or future employer. How long is the training? What is the track record of their graduates? The experience of their trainers? How do they select and train their dogs? Do you know people who have gone to the school and what was their experience like? Since most graduates of most schools will recommend where they got their training, ask them what their second and third choices would be. If my experience is any guide, you’ll almost certainly hear the same two names consistently. This is one of the more important decisions you’ll make in life so don’t settle on the first recommendation you get.

Are you right for a dog, and is a dog right for you? Having only a general idea of what they may be getting themselves into, many people think of getting a dog for the wrong reasons. I’ve listed just a few below.

1. I just love dogs. While you have to love dogs and enjoy working with them, this is very different than loving to have a dog as a pet. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having them as a pet, but this is a very different relationship than you’ll have with a guide dog. It will need to be a working partnership. The amount of time you’ll have to commit to a guide dog is vastly greater than to a pet, and most people, much as they love little Fufu, aren’t willing to do it. Most importantly, it’s not fair to the dog to not commit fully.

2. I want a dog as a companion. This is an absolutely terrible reason for even thinking about getting a guide dog. To be sure, you bond intensely with the dog and they do become a companion, but this is an incidental benefit and not a motivating reason. It’s like buying a new car because you like to tinker with engines. If you want a companion, get a dog from a shelter. As far as I’m concerned, people who get dogs for either of these first two reasons should be shot at sunrise.

3. Having a dog will be a shortcut to good mobility. Being a good dog handler will significantly improve anyone’s mobility, to say nothing of making it less stressful, but to think that it’s a shortcut couldn’t be more wrong. The better schools will willingly tell perspective students that, the better they are with a cane, the better they will be with a dog. If you’re a lousy cane traveler, you’re probably not going to be magically transformed into a terrific dog handler. A significant number of good mobility skills you learn from using a cane will automatically transfer to make you a better dog handler.

In the next post, I’ll look at the training of a dog before it’s ever matched with a student.

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