blindness, guide dog

reflecting on Ro: the pros and cons of having a guide dog

description: Carlos, Ro, and I, pictured from behind, walking on a sidewalk in Arkansas. I’m grabbing on to Ro’s harness and we’re all side by side.

If you’ve seen me in person, it’s nothing short from obvious that I do indeed have a guide dog. I’ve had Romana for about a year and a half now, which is baffling to me since I feel like it’s been both a day and a lifetime. Ro is my pal, my leader, my baby, and my sassy queen, and I’m still so grateful to have on my left side for what I hope will be a long time.

Recently, a friend who is considering the guide life messaged me asking if I would share my own personal pros and cons to having a guide. While answering her, I really reflected on what having Ro has done for and meant to me, and I figured I’d share my response.

Pros: obviously, I have so many good things to share about my pal! this list isn’t comprehensive, just some of the many things I’ve particularly loved from the past year and a half.

  1. my dog is wonderful, first of all. the school I got her from did an excellent job at matching our personalities, so she’s nearly an extension of me!
  2. yes, it’s true: you can take your dog anywhere! unless it’s somewhere super sanitary like a piercing parlor or an operating room, your dog has as much right to be there as any human person. I say this pro reluctantly because it’s a double-edged sword as most of the cons to having a guide are. nonetheless, it is a pro, and sometimes it’s just comforting to know you’re not alone because your pal is with you
  3. major pro: if you’re used to using a cane (or nothing at all), the concept of “intelligent disobedience” is fascinating and unlike anything. Romana has prevented me from walking when a car was backing out of a driveway last summer, and I had no idea.
  4. from an engineering standpoint, when you have two independent systems working in tandem, you generally have much higher efficiency. I’ve definitely seen that to be the case when working with Ro as opposed to using a cane or nothing since I can walk much faster and more effortlessly, just following her and gliding along. it really is a freeing feeling to be able to trust your dog and not have to worry about being almost hyper-aware of your surroundings like when you’re using nothing
  5. she remembers routes, so it adds to that whole “effortlessness” thing. there’s a route we would take a lot for the past year on campus, and I know that when Ro is on it, she’ll take me exactly where I want to go
  6. I can train her to find things that are important to me. normally, a guide will avoid all obstacles unless otherwise directed. however, if I wanted to find, say, an empty chair, I’ve trained her how to locate them with something called clicker training which the school taught me when training with her. through the clicker and positive reinforcement, Ro knows how to find doors, trashcans, stairs, water fountains, chairs, poles, curbs, and yes, even Starbucks (“find coffee!”)
  7. I find the “follow” technique to be super useful. say you’re in an airport and someone is leading you somewhere. rather than going sighted guide and grabbing a random stranger, you can tell your dog to “follow” accompanied by a hand gesture, and your dog will “torpedo” them
  8. she also can locate humans! this wasn’t something I trained her to do and honestly they don’t encourage it in training, but she’s smart enough that she picked up “who’s who” in my life. she knows all three other members of my family as well as my boyfriend, and can find the right person fairly accurately. this actually came in super useful at Disney over Christmas break because there were so many people that “follow” became confusing. yet, when I told her to “find mama” and she followed my mom at her heels!
  9. (shameless and biased plug) I’ve found the school I got her from (Guide Dogs for the Blind) has been an amazing resource. they offer veterinary financial assistance, which not a lot of schools have, to help offset medical costs, and will reimburse you for medications including flea and heartworm. I’ve also been able to call them in cases of behavioral issues and have received great advice, as well as guidance for access issues. also, GDB doesn’t let you own your dog until after the first year to make sure you both are getting on well, but now I can say that romana is officially my dog ❤ I also learn quickly, so I appreciated the two week training period as opposed to some three or four week programs.
    • also, a shoutout to all the puppy raisers (especially Janet!), donors, trainers, admissions staff, advocates, and everyone who helps support independence for people like me! thank you so much for investing of yourselves to enhance our quality of life; you are so valued!
  10. bonding with your dog is an experience unlike any other. it’s very (very) hard at first, but after the first 8 months to a year, you’re both inseparable. I sometimes feel as if I can read her mind, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that because I truthfully was never an animal lover before I got my dog. she still never ceases to surprise me, but that’s all part of the fun!
  11. these dogs are highly trained and quite frankly the cream of the crop, pick of the litter. behaviorally, they’re on point in harness (assuming you’re doing your part as a handler); physically, they’re well bred and chosen (although things can come along the way). these dogs love to work and they will love you.

Cons: Although I love my pup, there are always times when it’s difficult for one reason or another. Many of these cons are a reversed pro, as it goes, but these negative things are what make the positive things that much sweeter.

  1. my dog is wonderful, but she’s still a dog and makes mistakes. your dog will never be perfect, and you have to learn to forgive them and forgive yourself. I remember the first several months being devastated when Ro would get into the trash, my food, or things around her because I wasn’t watching and felt like a horrible handler. the fact is, as well trained as they are, those things will happen, and they’ll wreck you every time if you don’t forgive yourself.
  2. the nature of agreeing to have a service dog comes with the obvious notion that you are willingly signing up to have a living thing be dependent on you. no one ever forces you to get a service dog; on the contrary, agencies and schools have to ensure that you are in good enough health and in a reasonable financial situation to care for your dog. it’s by definition going to require work on your part. when you’re a cane-user (or a nothing-user?), you can get home and throw your cane on the floor and forget about it until the next time you leave. with a dog, you obviously have to care for its needs, including feeding, grooming, relieving, and loving on your pal. it’s super important to consider if your lifestyle would allow for caring for a dog when considering one
  3. not only is there work on your part to take care of your dog, but your dog’s training is never really “over” until he/she retires. you have to constantly be reinforcing good behaviors and discouraging bad ones. otherwise, you can theoretically “undo” all the training your dog received, rendering them useless from a work perspective and ill-behaved in the general public. you both are always learning things, so you’ve gotta have your head in the game too
  4. people have “off-days,” and likewise, dogs have them too. they could happen with reason, like she hasn’t been working much for a while like on a break or I’ve been pretty lenient lately and she begins to take liberties, or without reason. you might get irritated on days your dog isn’t “in the game” and distracted, but it goes back to being able to forgive them, and potentially having food rewards for them to get their motivation back up
  5. interaction with the general public was the hardest thing for me to deal with when first having my dog. people will take an invested interest in your dog, especially, it seems, at times you would prefer to be incognito. you will be subject to people’s ignorance with:
    1. asking direct, improper questions (“what’s your disability?”)
    2. making passive-aggressive comments (“I REALLY want to pet your dog and I know I can’t, but it’s so hard to resist!”)
    3. stating blatant denials (“you can’t have dogs here”)
    4. exciting the children around you (“doggy! doggy!”)
    5. being therapy (“she looks like my dog who died”)
    6. inciting many, many dog-related questions (“what’s that thing on her face?” about her gentle leader, or any number of “how old is she?” and “how long have you had her?”)
    7. breaking self-control (with people touching or distracting your dog; kissy noises are a personal *favorite* of mine — sarcasm intended)
    8. attracting many more stares than normal (and “normal” is many stares, so it exponentially increases)
    9. having interest in only your dog, and not you
    10. and for me since I have some vision, asking if you’re training her and not readily believing she really works for you
  6. I’ll say this as frankly as possible: access denials suck. it’s so painful to be rejected for using a tool that ultimately improves your quality of life. I was denied a sublease last summer (which I fought back); a Lyft driver once drove past and cancelled my ride; I’ve had countless questioning on the legitimacy of my dog and demanding certification (not legal, btw); and much more. truthfully for as many Ubers/Lyfts as I’ve taken while having her, I haven’t been denied nearly as much as some people I know, but it’s a lifelong thing. part of the expectation when you get a dog is that you have to educate the world around you, and it gets exhausting sometimes, but it’s good to keep in mind that you might be making a future handler’s life a bit easier by making yours a bit harder
  7. the likelihood is that you will outlive your dog in their working life as well as their life in general. this might be obvious since this happens when you have even a pet, but losing a guide (can’t say from personal experience) is extremely painful since you’re with them all the time and have such a strong bond. of course, you can get a successor dog, but each dog is different and there will never be any dog like yours

All in all, my experience with Ro has been challenging and positive. I’m so proud of us for both growing together over fifteen months, and am thrilled to keep doing life with her. as always, if you have any questions, feel free to send them my way! keep your tails moving and eyes fixed “forward,” and have a sunshiny day ☀️