It seems every time a particular type of dog calmly walks by, leashed to its master, I wonder what it would be like if I were that dog, trained to assist someone who was blind for example. Last month I met Jen (not her real name) and her guide dog, Pumpkin (her popular name). You can see Pumpkin looks like an ordinary young German Shepherd that you might see in someone’s back yard. My first thought was whether she is excluded from all the things that dogs like to do such as barking, growling or biting, licking faces, whining, and messing up lawns. The answer is “yes she is” when she’s working. I realized there is a difference here in that dogs like Pumpkin have careers. To learn what is special about her I imagined looking out into the environment from her point of view. Jen was happy to fill me up on the details of her experience.
As a service dog, however, I am one of many who support disabilities such as hearing impairment.
Pumpkin, a guide dog.
Most of my life they’ve trained me to let others lead the walking. Though I can’t distinguish green lights from red lights, I differ from other canines in that ever since puppyhood they’ve trained me to refuse to step forward when a vehicle approaches. My associates may be therapy dogs that are considered pets, or emotional support dogs (ESD) that provide companionship, comfort, and emotional support. Often difficult to distinguish from a therapy dog, ESD need not be trained to support a disability. The owner may suffer from mental illness or psychiatric disorder, but unchallenged he or she may benefit more from an ESD. As a service dog, however, I am one of many who support disabilities such as hearing impairment, individuals with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), epileptics or diabetics. Jen and I can get on a bus, and I am the only dog that can legally enter a restaurant. Jen has a Guide Dog Card authorized by the attorney general to present if someone asks any questions.
When we go out I can sense if Jen is getting upset with some crowded areas through which we are trying to pass. We are lucky when she connects to a beacon which is a device fastened to a wall and sends a signal to her cell phone app indicating where we are. This technology is similar to a GPS, only indoors. Like most guide dogs, I work better with Jen’s left arm. Jen doesn’t like to travel on the subway, preferring Canada Coach only because of the drop off location being most convenient. If she needs some help, she will ask the person beside her and insist on him or her taking her left arm. That’s when I can stroll beside her without having to do any work.
Less than 2 percent of blind people use a white cane to navigate. The rest use guide dogs or nothing at all. Only 10-15 percent of blind people see only black. Jen is a happy woman who deals with her disability with no miraculous new powers awakening, nor any strange visions or worlds to explore. I can see she is independent and mobile, competing alongside with average sighted people. At the day’s end, Jen removes the harness, and an eager Pumpkin is ready at the prompt: Go for a run Pumpkin?