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

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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 ☀️

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beyond the stares: making friends when you’re sorta blind

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photo description: a collage of nine photos, each of me and one other person in various settings.

“Making friends” is a concept we never fully understand as children, and as we grow up, the lines continually blur. when you’re young, you reach a defining point, where either you or the other person asks, “will you be my friend?” somewhere along the line, you start making friends by acclimation: you associate yourself with someone for long enough that you both consider each other “friends.” participating in a common interest, sharing quality time, becoming more open, and communicating more frequently are signs of an emerging friendship, and they’re signs we’ve subconsciously come to recognize as a connection with another human being.

However, for people with disabilities, the signs of an emerging friendship might look a little different.

disclaimer: allow me to explain that when making friends with persons with any sort of disability (whether or not they identify as such), you should treat them as you’d treat anyone else. this isn’t about treating us like delicate flowers and being afraid to offend. getting to know another person is a long process, and you’re bound to say the wrong thing to anyone, disabled or not, you’re getting to know. you don’t know them well enough to understand their vulnerabilities, so don’t be afraid to reach out and make a connection!

I’m also speaking from personal experience, as someone who is very open about her situation in life. I can’t say my experience encompasses every person, so be careful and don’t extrapolate.

getting to know people: In my case, getting to the stage of actually getting to know someone is a lottery for me. I use mobility aids to get around generally, so depending what I’m using can get a couple different reactions. when I primarily used a cane, I got strange looks constantly, and that’s what I could see and friends I’d be walking with described. I used to joke and call it my “d-bag filter,” because you knew that the people really worth talking to would look past the fact you drag a stick along the ground on a daily basis. now, with a guide dog, it’s much harder to tell if people are genuinely interested in you or your dog when they talk to you (surprise: a lot of the time it’s actually Romana because she’s so darn cute). still even with a dog, the “d-bag filter” comes when I explain people can’t interact with her while she has her harness on. if they’re still standing there talking about something other than her presence and how much they’d love to touch her, they’re generally interested in you.

my blind “milestones”: I always joke with people I’m getting to know them that there are always two points I hit in every relationship: the, “okay, so you can see a little, but what CAN you see?!” and the, “shoot, I forgot you can’t see!”

  1. what CAN you see?: this comes in every relationship, and frankly, I should have it laminated on a card by now (kidding). to me, this question communicates that people are interested in relating to me in a way that I can understand. I think people also want to gauge how comfortable I am with disclosing specific information about my vision. as much as having to answer this question can become a chore, especially when getting to know many people at once (like when I started college or first joined a sorority), it makes me feel valued that people want to understand what my life might be like.

    answer: I’m legally blind, but I can see a little. if you have full (or lens-corrected sight), this might be hard to understand. I can’t give a complete answer to this question simply because I’ve never had full sight, nor will I ever. my vision depends on a few factors: light, depth, and distance. first, I have albinism, which means I lack pigment in my eyes that normal people have to help them filter light. too much or too little light is painful for me, which is primarily why I use mobility aids. if I walk outside in the early morning white light or am out during golden hour (when the sun sets), I can barely see. second, I lack proper depth perception, so it’s difficult to tell how far away things are from me. sports with balls are a living nightmare for me because as soon as I can register that volleyball, it’s slapping me in the face. I rely on my environment and my mobility aids for cues, like changes in the ground texture or color to warn me of changes in elevation. cases with no changes in the ground are a hit or miss; I might see those concrete steps that all are the same color with nothing to visually divide them and no shadow, but the scene would look flat to me otherwise, and no one wants to fall down concrete steps (that’s where Stick and Dog come in). last is distance, or detail. I tend to focus on the “big picture” and use shape and color to put together the puzzle in my brain, all while relying on nonvisual techniques like memory and using other senses. If there’s a tree outside a window with apples growing, a bird’s nest, and heart-shaped leaves, I’ll likely see the greenness of the leaves and the trunk knowing it’s a tree, and potentially the apples if they’re a bright red. if the apples are a color similar to the leaves, they’ll get swallowed in my perception of the leaves, and the bird’s nest would be completely ignored. this is my own, personal description of how I can see, but other people with albinism have varying degrees of light sensitivity, depth perception, and distance vision that can differ from mine.

  2. I forgot you can’t see!: this is often when someone becomes more comfortable with me that one of a few things could happen:
  • they wave, make a gesture, initiate a hug, etc. that I completely miss
  • they point something out to me that’s much too far for me to perceive
  • they are confused when I ask them to describe something

on the whole, people feel extremely (unnecessarily) guilty when this happens, but it’s usually amusing to me since people don’t mean it maliciously. one time last summer, I was eating a fruit tart topped with cut up cherries. I don’t usually eat cherries, so I naturally just asked what was on top of the tart. the guy I was sitting with was so confused and retorted, “how can you not tell what those are?! have you never seen a cherry before?” and felt instantly guilty while I laughed and explained the above in italics. I completely understand when people forget I can’t see; after all, I’m extremely good at faking like I can. I know I’m good at coping with the vision I do have, so it’s no one’s own fault. if you forget, just laugh with me!

“what makes you feel loved?”: the final thing that comes with making friends stems from a question a good friend asked this past summer. I had been sharing openly, like I have been this post, and she asked one of the most thoughtful questions I’ve heard: “What can I do to make you feel loved/included?” I had never thought of this, but it helped me realize what I value in others when I get to know them:

  • self-identification: this is so important for me when I’m first meeting people! I rely a lot on people’s voices when I talk to them, but when I’ve talked with someone twice and their voice isn’t particularly distinctive, I don’t always know who I’m talking to when people yell “hey Cassandra!” if you accompany the latter with, “it’s Susie Q from glee!” I will be eternally grateful and I don’t have to give you my default hey-it’s-nice-to-see-whoever-you-are-I’m-pretending-I-know and actually ask a relevant question.
  • help me with gestures: that high five you’re trying to give me? no, I’m not a snob and blowing you off, I just can’t see your hand. if you’re trying to give me a gesture that I’m clearly not seeing, just tell me! odds are I’ll probably laugh and make a blind joke. on the same note, I’m excellent at reading vocal cues but can’t often discern facial expressions or subtle eye movements, so don’t be afraid to be a little more direct and descriptive with your words.
  • can I have a ride?: this isn’t something I generally expect of people, but to answer the question of “what makes you feel loved?”, people readily offering me transportation fits the bill. I rely on my own two feet, public transportation (buses), and rideshare (Lyft/Uber) in my own independent life, but it makes my day when people ask if I’d like a ride. there’s only so much walking in the rain, sitting next to strange people on the bus, or paying to end up answering random questions by a stranger that’s enjoyable. I always try to pay back for gas in some way and my dog is soft and pettable in a car!

if you’re reading this and I already know you fairly well, don’t worry about making a point to do everything I’ve said. instead of viewing this as a checklist, it’s more of what I’ve observed over time. this isn’t completely one-sided either: I’m here to get to know you too, and I want to know what makes you feel loved! I’m not afraid of answering questions, just as long as you aren’t either. I don’t try and make life a guessing game for others, so I try to say when I can’t see something or describe my vision as much as I think you’re comfortable with it. in the end, friendship is a two-way street, and everybody’s got ~something~ that makes their side of the street a bit bumpier. the beauty of friendship is that we get to know and love the bumps in the road when relating to another person, since we all have them anyway.

and with that, have a sunshiny day ☀️