Three years ago, when I started to talk about my plans to ‘get a Guide dog’, with my friends who are Blind or partially sighted (without Guide dogs), something very interesting happened. A collective movement spontaneously occurred that had them all idly talking or thinking about having a Guide dog in their lives too. Their family members and friends also started to make statements to them too…”Mom, you should get a Guide dog too”. While I believe everyone should have the option, I KNOW that some people are NOT good candidates to have a Guide dog. Now that I have had Opal for almost two years, I feel somewhat qualified to voice my thoughts on this with more conviction. Fortunately, there is an intense candidate screening process to go through when one applies for their Guide dog, particularly if it is their first. Guide dog schools differ somewhat, but all of them screen carefully. The cost of matching a Guide dog to a blind handler, is in excess of $30,000.00 in most cases. This sum takes into account: costs for breeding dogs, supporting puppy raiser programs, training by qualified people and the cost of maintaining the dogs in training at the Guide dog school. The school must cover its overhead, pay a staff made up of trainers, instructors, kennel staff, support and administrative people. The travel costs of the the staff who travel for ‘after care’ (checking on the dogs and handlers), and, sometimes the travel costs of the clients, must be budgeted too. Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind, (where I trained with Opal), receives no government funding. The school operates as a charitable non profit organization, totally funded by money received through donations and fundraising activities. Clearly, it is in everyone’s interest (including the dogs) to be selective in determining who should have a Guide dog. Some of my friends who were tinkering with the idea, would not be good candidates. Why? For some, it is absurdly obvious… they don’t like dogs much! Other reasons include:
- They have poor mobility skills and no initiative to learn any. If they can not find their way to a destination with a white cane, it is unlikely that a Guide dog is a solution to ‘getting out of the house’, at least, until they learn to travel independently.
- Their state of general health (poor) would make it unlikely that they could be active on a regular basis. Some require frequent hospitalization.
- They do not have the financial means to support a Guide dog with even basics, like food and veterinary care. (Routine Veterinary care, can sometimes be supported by a school’s program. Emergency Veterinary care is usually the responsibility of the client.)
- They have a ‘free spirit’, hedonistic attitude about life. This is not compatable with having ANY dog in your life, including a pet. If you can not get out of bed in the morning, or think that going outdoors in ALL WEATHER, several times a day, is NOT for you…having a Guide dog is probably not a good idea!
There are sound reasons why the application process to a Guide dog school involves a great deal of paperwork. I was required to have a family doctor detail my general health, my eye specialist detail my eye condition, and my ex-O &M (Orientation and Mobility) instructor describe my mobility skills. I provided details about myself. When the CGDB school received my application package, they determined that I could move to the next step: A home visit by an instructor. We went for a ‘handle walk’, (called a Juno walk by some schools) which found me leaving my cane behind and holding, a harness handle, with the instructor leading as the ‘dog’. This gave the instructor a picture of my walking speed and gait. I learned (to my surprise) that I would be expected to use my arms, voice and learn specific ways to position my feet, when navigating with a Guide dog. My height was noted (so that I could be matched with an appropriate sized dog). We talked about my everyday life. What places did I go to? I explained my busy life, with meetings, church, shopping, groups etc. My concern about Lucy (my cat) and how her life would change if I was to have a Guide dog, was also considered. We talked about my age (49 then), my income, my family and community connections (I live alone). I asked plenty of questions and they were all answered. The instructor left me, and advised that CGDB’s committee would meet and discuss all this information, and decide if I would be a good candidate for Guide dog training. She also gave me hope by telling me that, while the decision was made by a panel that take into consideration all of the information, she ‘felt good about it’. It was a month or two later that I heard the happy news that I was accepted for training. I waited to be ‘matched’ with a dog for several months, before being called to class in Ontario for a one month residential program. The Hadley School for the Blind offers a course called “Is a Guide Dog For Me?”. Hadley offers free distance education to blind people around the world (see http://www.hadley.edu). I suggest that anyone considering having a Guide dog in their life, should talk to other handlers about their experiences. I know some people who have had a Guide dog or two, and then wisely decided that they preferred not to reapply for another guide dog. Their lifestyles had changed, or they relaized that they liked to go home and ‘put the cane in the closet’… something to consider. Dogs need routine and consistent care (feeding, grooming, relieving), love and attention (work, play, health care). Opal is the best thing that could have happened in my life. It could be that a Guide dog would be equally important to you or your loved one. Do your homework and consider the reality of your lifestyle before you take the plunge.