I was 19 when I boarded a flight for the first time to fly to The Seeing Eye Inc. a dog guide school, located in Morristown, New Jersey. I had always loved dogs. Back then, I was a petite, shy girl who looked about 12 years old. This past July, I made that trip for the tenth time. At 73, I knew I was going to face some challenges. My old dog was semi-retired when he passed away in April. He had escorted me from the car or paratransit into familiar locations. His pull was light, and his pace more of a saunter.
A new puppy would know the basics but have no clue about my expectations. He or she might look back at the trainer instead of listening to me. My new dog’s pace, pull, and way of indicating what is seen would be different. Training with him or her would be like learning to dance with a new partner who was taller or shorter. He or she might forget to keep focused on guiding if another dog approached. My new dog might sniff, scavenge, or eagerly greet everyone. He or she might want to chase cats! I did not know what breed or temperament to expect. Meeting a potential new guide dog is like being a mail-order-bride, or the ultimate blind-date.
Matching a Dog and Handler
Guide dog schools match handlers and dogs with great care. They want the team to be successful. The matching process considers the handler’s lifestyle and needs, breed preferences, and temperament of the dogs available. The dog and handler need to communicate well to work together.
When I met my dog, I knew it was my job to observe carefully and react in a way to begin building trust in my dog. He had to decide that working with me was more fun than working with the trainer.
Asking questions in order to understand how my dog was reacting to each new situation was my job. Feeding, grooming, praising good behavior, and correcting mistakes with quiet authority were techniques I had used in the past, but my new friend was an individual with his own personality.
Considering a Dog Guide as an Older Adult
I am older than I was when I previously went through training. I was less able to adjust to a stumble, tired sooner, and had to monitor my strength carefully so I was able to be a good partner. Honesty on my part about my lifestyle was paramount.
I did have to work shorter routes, forego some of the things I had done before and admit that my balance, coordination, and even my sense of direction had diminished a little. My new partner is a joyful, affectionate, confident, but cautious two-year-old male yellow Labrador retriever. If I work hard to teach him the intricacies of being my friend and confidante, we may walk safely for at least ten years. I will be in my 80’s before I need to consider if there will be an eleventh guide dog in my life.
If you are older and wonder if a dog guide might be a good option, talk to other blind or low vision people about how their dogs help them, and research programs that train them. Then, if you are in good health, can walk several blocks, and enjoy the company of dogs, send in an application. If you are turned down by one school, another might be willing to work with you.