Editor’s note: Hunter Duncan is a long-time dog guide handler who shares with sighted individuals the best practices for interacting with a dog guide in a workplace.
Dog Guides at Work: Navigating Workplace Etiquette and Interactions
Whether you’ve recently started a new job or worked at the same company for years, each day brings new adventures when you’re a dog guide handler. For many employers and employees, dog guides are often a workplace novelty. I have been the only dog guide handler in a workplace setting, and for most of my colleagues, my dog guide and I are often the first interaction they have with a dog guide in the workplace. I want to offer helpful tips, personal stories, and key takeaways for interacting with a dog guide and their handler while in the workplace.
First, let’s discuss what a dog guide is and how they impact the day-to-day experience of their handler. A dog guide is a mobility tool that a blind or low-vision person chooses to use. A dog guide is specifically trained to find obstacles in their handler’s path, navigate around barriers, and make the mobility experience more accessible for the blind or low-vision handler. As a dog guide handler since 2013, I can attest that my guides have made my world more accessible, inclusive, and independent – especially in the workplace.
In the workplace, a dog guide aids in the mobility of the blind or low-vision person. For example, a dog guide may help the handler identify stairs, obstacles, doorways, etc. The dog guide helps the handler navigate their environment effectively and safely. Another important task that a dog guide is trained to do is to remain calm in busy settings. This means that the dog guide will sit, stay, or lie down next to or near their handler while the handler is at work. For example, my job frequently involves many meetings, so my dog guide has a dog bed in my office where she is trained to stay during meetings or while I am at my desk responding to emails and phone calls.
Dog Guide Awareness
If someone in your workplace has a dog guide, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- The dog guide and their handler are a team that has been carefully and expertly matched together.
- Just like people, dog guides may sometimes have “off” days. That’s OK! During an “off” day, the dog guide might make more mistakes (not identifying curbs, being more distractible, etc.). Trust that the handler can work through this with their dog guide.
- Many dog guides follow daily food, water, and relief schedules. The handler may need to block short amounts of time throughout their day to provide their dog with water and relieving breaks.
- If you have questions about the dog guide, it’s always best to ask them up front – don’t hold onto them or think you’ll figure it out eventually without asking. Dog guide handlers are well-versed in answering all sorts of questions about their dog guides. In the workplace, it’s best to ask questions at the outset; that way, the handler can focus on the daily tasks of their job rather than on answering questions about their dog guide.
Dog Guides at Work
If you are an employer or colleague working with someone with a dog guide, you might wonder, “How do I interact with this person and their dog effectively?” Well, you’ve come to the right place! Below, here are some tips and suggestions for dog guide etiquette in the work environment:
- Do not pet the dog guide – I know, it’s tempting! They are so cute and cuddly! However, petting a dog guide can be extremely distracting for the dog. It may also cause behavior issues, as the dog may come to expect being petted by people when working. Sometimes, the handler may allow the dog to have “off harness” time where you can pet the dog guide. This would be up to each handler’s discretion.
- Avoid eye contact with the dog guide – There’s nothing like soulful puppy eyes staring at you. However, eye contact may indicate to the dog that you want their attention, which could distract them from their work.
- Always greet the handler first and not the dog guide. The handler is your coworker; the dog guide is their mobility aid.
- When the dog guide is “in harness,” they are working. As a result, they are effective as the handler’s mobility aid.
- When the dog guide is not actively guiding their handler, the dog is still technically “working.” As a result, employers and employees should continue to give the dog appropriate space, not interfere with the dog, pet the dog, talk to the dog, or distract the dog. The dog guide should continue to be practically unnoticeable. The dog’s behavior should be quiet and undisruptive to the environment around it.
- In an emergency – always consider and plan for the dog guide when creating emergency management strategies and procedures for your office or team.
- Do not feed the dog guide – Let’s say you’re at lunch with your team, and the dog guide is lying near you; how can you not give them a treat?! When a dog guide is working, the handler must provide food rewards to the dog. If the dog receives food from other people while they are working, it could lead to distractible behavior in the future.
- Always ask the handler what is or is not appropriate for your interaction with their dog. Sometimes, the handler may allow you to interact with or pet their dog. Other times, they may not. It’s always appropriate to ask if you have questions.
- Trust the handler – the dog guide’s handler carefully maintains and manages their dog guide. This includes behavior, grooming, and medical care.
All dog guides provide their handlers with mobility, but beyond that, they provide their handlers with independence, agency, and access. Each dog guide team is unique and dynamic, with its own ways of working through the world together as a team. The workplace provides just one example where we can see the impacts of dog guides at work.