To Guide Dog, or Not to Guide Dog?

Kayde Rieken

Most of us have heard the stories. "I knew someone who had a guide dog that ..." or, "I heard on TV about one of those amazing guide dogs that ..." Fill in the blank with the heroic or supernatural deed of your choice: saving their owners from burning buildings, pulling them out of the way of speeding cars, retrieving lost items, the list goes on. Who wouldn't want one for themselves, right?

I'm not denying that guide dogs have done these things. They are smart and devoted animals doing jobs they love. But what people don't seem to realize is that there is a lot more to a bond between a blind person and his or her dog than what is presented in the media and through the eyes of others. Like everything else worth doing, it takes a lot of hard work, commitment, and trust on both sides. It is, in short, a years-long journey with lots of ups and downs, laughter and tears.

Does that sound dramatic? Possibly. But I've seen a lot of people say they want guide dogs, then change their minds at the last minute, sometimes when they have already been paired with a working partner. So I am asking you now, if you've ever considered starting this journey, to think about the following things before making any decisions.

First, the big question: Why do you want a guide dog? Really think about this one. If your primary reason is companionship, I'd advise adopting a dog or cat from an animal shelter. If you're in a dorm or apartment that doesn't allow pets, invest in one of those cuddly, realistic-looking stuffed animals. I'm completely serious. Companionship alone is not a good enough reason to get a guide dog. They aren't pets; they are traveling partners.

If your reason is that you're not comfortable with cane travel or orientation skills, I would strongly advise getting some instruction on that right away. Getting a guide dog will not magically improve your travel skills. In fact, the added stress of learning how to travel with a dog will, in a lot of cases, make things worse.

Another thing I can't stress enough in the decision-making process is research. Treat this like a school project. Look up guide dog schools on the internet. Email or call representatives from those schools. If you get the opportunity, visit the schools and take a tour, or visit their exhibit tables at national conventions. Make a list of questions to ask. It's also important to talk to graduates from different schools, as they are likely to give you a more unbiased opinion. That way, you can get lots of information from every source possible.

As you may have guessed, I'm a guide dog owner. I just brought home my second Seeing Eye dog three months ago. I've experienced the early death of my first dog, along with the very puppy-like tendencies of my current one. (She chews. On everything.) However, for me, all the hardships are worth it. You might not think that, and that's perfectl'y fine. I just hope you will gather the facts you need to make a healthy, well-informed decision for yourself.