The Guide Dog Obstacle Course

Holy crap where is time going? It’s carnival time again. And I was an extra big loser and didn’t post the link to the October carnival when it came out. I’ll blame having a brand spankin’ new job for that little slip-up. Ah well, I’ll do better this time.

The subject of this carnival is obstacles. Amazingly, when I saw this topic, I knew instantly what I was going to talk about. Now, the trick is getting it into something comprehensible. I warn you right now, this one is probably going to be long, winding, confusing, and huge.

Something neat they did at GDB for each class was set up an obstacle course that we all had to pass through to get from our dorm to the training buses, or vice versa. The dogs had been through this obstacle course and knew it like the back of their paws, but it was to get used to following your dog and to get to know what it felt like for them to dodge obstacles. But when you think about it, going through the process of getting an assistance dog of any type, and learning how to be a team, is a great big obstacle course, and the obstacles are slightly different for each person. If you’re going to make it from contemplating having a service dog to having one and being a seasoned team, you have to navigate the obstacle course that lies between A and B. Let’s talk about that course, what it was for me, and what it can possibly look like for others too.

My first obstacle was uncertainty. I’d heard how much people liked having guide dogs and how awesome they were, but I just wasn’t sure if I was ready for it all. Could I handle all the responsibility? Even if I could handle the every day things, what on earth would I do if that dog had a huge vet expense? Was I a good enough traveller that a. a school would consider me a good candidate, and b. the pooch would get enough work? I had heard that getting a guide dog was a bit of a gamble because not all teams worked out. Could I handle the heartbreak if it didn’t work out? Would I be able to do it again? On the other end, I felt that once I had decided yes, barring the team being a total fail, this dog would be with me for 8 or 9 years. Was I ready to make such a commitment? Then I think about the people who have to pay thousands of dollars for a service dog outright. If I’d had to do that, it would have been game over.

I spent a lot of time in that phase, because I didn’t know anybody with a guide dog well enough to just ask them question after question after question. I think this is the reason lots of people stay in that phase, along with the misinformation out there about whether you would need a guide or service dog. For example, I’ve heard stories of lots of people who are legally, but not totally, blind, walking around thinking they had too much sight to get a guide dog. They would hit things their cane couldn’t find or struggle along, all the while saying they had too much vision. Meanwhile, they would probably qualify for, and benefit from, a guide dog.

Or, I hear about people who have a second disability along with the main one that makes them think about a dog getting the idea that they wouldn’t be able to manage a dog. In fact, lots of people who have trouble hearing or have bad joints or other disabilities do just fine with a guide dog. It’s all about finding the right school and the right help.

Plus, while I was in university, I didn’t think I could spend a month in guide dog training because most summers I was taking courses as well. So in a sense, not feeling like I had the time to dedicate to this was another obstacle. When I hear about people getting guide dogs in the middle of a school semester, or getting a guide dog right before heading off to school, and then I see them succeed, I feel like they are a far better person than I am. I personally feel like I need time to digest things, and don’t need to be doing course work during my down time at guide dog training, or learning a whole new place as well as how to work with a guide dog. To me, that just sounds like a recipe for disaster. But it works for some, so all the more power to ’em.

But as I was getting close to the end of my degree, I gave it more serious thought. After finally figuring out what questions I needed to ask, I started talking to people. Some of those fears and uncertainties started not to seem like such a big deal.

And then, once I decided to do it, came the difficult task of choosing what schools to apply to. Yeesh. There are so many things to consider. What kind of follow-up do you get? What about help with vet bills if you need it? What is the training like? Can you find grads from each school to talk to? Can you get a general sense from people about what schools have a good reputation and which ones aren’t so good? If you get accepted to two schools, what on earth do you do? Do you just take the first class that comes along, or do you decide that you only go to school b if school a doesn’t want you? So this wasn’t so much an obstacle as it was a slippery spot.

Ok, schools decided. Now comes the application process. Don’t get me wrong, all those forms are probably very helpful to the schools, but jeebers hell that alone felt like an obstacle. Plus, depending on what school I applied to, the forms weren’t always accessible right off the bat. So, suddenly I had all this material dropped in my lap, and didn’t know what to do with it. And not all these forms were to be filled out by me! I had to get doctors, ophthalmologists, and other people to fill some of them out. It was a small obstacle of sorts, but I figure it’s worth mentioning.

And it’s at this point along the way that you might start finding out how people around you feel about this whole dog thing. Some people might have misgivings about it, for lots of reasons. What if someone you live with or visit is alergic to dogs? How will they, or you, know if your guide dog will cause a reaction? With most people, it’s as simple as if they don’t touch the dog, they’ll be all good, and you might have to make sure the dog doesn’t come over and try and make friends with them if you’re visiting them. If it’s someone you live with, you’ll have to start thinking about ways to make things manageable, if that’s possible. But all this planning and negotiating could test how ready you are for this lifestyle change. In a way, it’s a warm-up for when you come home with the dog and have to start being assertive and say “Yes, this dog can come in your restaurant or store.”

The documentation is in, now it’s time for the home interview. I hate to call the home interview an obstacle, because they’re not out to make it hard for you. But it can delay your progress to having a guide dog because they see things that need work, or they say something that makes you start to rethink the whole thing. You’re probably beyond that point once you’ve gotten here, but hey, anything’s possible. So what could they see that could slow things down for you? Sometimes it’s your level of ability to travel on your own. Sometimes it’s where you’re living. Sometimes it’s something else. At any rate, if something looks off, that may slow you down, or make you reconsider.

So you make it through the application process and are accepted. You head off to class. You may think it’s over, but it is just beginning. Only then do some people truly realize how much work goes into having a guide dog, and that no matter what time of day or night, that guide dog is your responsibility. Sometimes, this can be an obstacle for people who didn’t ask enough questions or watch enough teams or whatever. Suddenly, they’re back to the uncertainty phase of “Am I really ready for this? Do I want this at all? Maybe I don’t mind my cane. My cane doesn’t yelp when I fold it in four and throw it in a corner.”

So you make it through training and you graduate and come home with your new partner. Unfortunately, for the first little while, life may seem full of obstacles. First, I don’t know if this happens to everybody, but I was tired as hell for the first month or two. I felt like my life was completely rearranged, and now I had to think of all these things to do with the dog, and just when would I have time for my normal life again? Of course, that went away once I figured it out, but that can seem like one hell of a trial, if not an obstacle.

On top of that, depending on who you live with and how they are with respecting what you need to do to keep your dog working for you, you may have a battle on your hands. It’s even more tiring when you have to fend off people in your own home from feeding your dog things or trying to play with him or her or constantly saying “Do we really have to bring the dog?” Hopefully this won’t take too long, but it isn’t easy when you’re so new and unsure and all that stuff.

If that isn’t enough, depending on where you live, you may run into lots of “You can’t bring that dog in here!” and you may have to get very good at educating people on the laws in your area. Thankfully, I was very lucky and really didn’t deal with a lot of that. But when it happens, it can be stressful.

And then there’s the ultimate obstacle…when the team doesn’t work out and you have to decide. Do I do this all over again, or do I just go back to life without a dog? Did the good outweigh the bad? If so, what would I do differently next time? I had to do this after Babs didn’t work out, and god that was painful. But I think I knew in my heart that when she was showing me the positive aspects of having a dog, I wanted that again.

Sheesh! I think we made it through the obstacle course! I’m sure there are other possibilities I haven’t thought of, but those were the ones that came to mind. Please don’t think that I’m saying that getting a guide or service dog is more trouble than its worth, or something equally negative. All I’m saying is someone really has to want it to follow it all the way to the end. Plus, sometimes obstacles are a good thing. I have seen lots of people run headlong into getting a dog, crawl through class gripping the dream of having a dog with white knuckles, failing to see the warning signs that maybe this isn’t a good idea, and then get coughed out the other end and want to give up at the first little hitch they encounter. Obstacles, despite their negative connotation, give you time to think things through. They make sure that you really want this, or I would hope they do.

And here’s a message for all the people who say “Why doesn’t x person have a dog?” As you can see from this long, winding post, deciding to pair up with a dog isn’t an easy one, and for some, it may not be the right one. At the end of it all, each person has to know whether having a service dog is right for them. We can just hope that people considering it get all the information to help make that decision.

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