Dog guides are exciting orientation and mobility (O&M) aids with some extra personality and love. Using a dog guide can give a person who is blind or low vision a level of independence they might not have experienced before, not to mention the dog can become a best friend. Getting a dog guide in college might seem like a daunting task, but I could not recommend it more for those eager and ready to do so.
Dog guides are not for everyone. They are living animals who need a lot of attention and care. Not only do they need to work, but they will also need to play, sleep, and “park” (the dog guide term for taking your dog out for natural relief). There is a lot of responsibility that comes with having a dog guide, and if someone does not want that extra responsibility, a cane might be a better mobility aid.
For example, dog guides need to have a consistent schedule for things like mealtimes, so you will need to stay diligent on waking up early enough, not just to make it to class on time, but also to feed and park your dog. This also means on weekends—you will have to wake up at the same time you do during the week so your dog can stay on its feeding schedule.
Another important part about owning a dog guide is actually liking dogs! I had a relatively substantial fear of dogs growing up that I had to overcome before I applied for my guide. My dog and I spend almost all of our time together, meaning I had to be okay with dog fur, dog smell, and lots of kisses.
Guide dogs and O&M
Dog guides are amazing O&M tools, but one thing that is very important to have before a dog guide comes to college with you: amazing cane skills! A dog guide is not going to act like a GPS; they will need their handler to know the route they are walking.
My biggest suggestion for this—wait until you learn your college campus before applying for your dog guide. I started my freshman year as just a cane user, and within a few months, it became clear to me that I would be more independent and safer if I applied for a dog guide. This meant that I learned how to travel across my university’s campus with just my cane first. When I started my second year of college with my dog guide at my side, it was a super smooth transition because I already knew all of the routes.
Accommodations I use for my dog guide in college
If a dog guide seems like a good fit, the next thing to consider when bringing a dog guide to college is what accommodations will need to come with the dog. The biggest one I personally use is having a single room on the ground floor. My first year with my dog guide I had a roommate, and it was very cramped. We did not have much floor space and my dog’s crate was tucked into a corner. I was lucky that my roommate and I got along very well, but it was still hard to have all three of us living in such a small space.
Having a room on the ground floor meant that if my dog needed to park in the middle of the night, I didn’t have to walk down any stairs. It will also make things safer if there was ever an emergency that required us to evacuate the building.
Another accommodation I have been grateful for is an early move-in date. Moving in is already so stressful; having to worry about my dog and if she was in the way while we tried to rearrange furniture made move-in even more nerve-racking. Moving in early does not solve every stressor that comes with moving with a dog, but it does mean that there are not as many people in the dorm. I can leave my dog in my hall, and I don’t have to worry about her being in the way for anyone else.
Moving in early also gave me an opportunity to walk my class schedule. My dog and I can be very familiar with where we need to go the first morning of classes, alleviating some of the first-day jitters.
Talking to peers about your dog
I attend a relatively small school, but even a big university, news of someone with a service dog will spread quickly. A significant part of my first month of having my dog on campus with me was spent explaining the rules of dog guides. I had to be comfortable with telling people that they couldn’t pet her, and I had to be willing to answer any of the questions they might have about my dog specifically or dog guides in general.
This happened inside and outside of classes, by professors, staff, and students alike. I had to be okay with people coming up to me when I was studying, walking, or hanging out with friends. This barrage of questions didn’t last long. Soon, my dog and I just became a part of the normal scene of college. I did not have to remind everyone that my dog was working when she was in the harness.
Things to always keep on you
Having a dog guide means that there are certain tools or items that might be in your backpack but not your peers. The biggest of these are waste bags. My dog has a very regular schedule, but dogs are not machines. There might be a time when your dog needs to park and you do not want to be caught without a way to pick it up.
Another thing to keep handy is a portable bowl. Dogs need water throughout the day just like humans. If you go to a school that has a big campus, or if you just have a packed schedule and can’t make it back to your room to let your dog get midday water, having a small water bowl that you can hook onto your backpack will help keep your pup happy and healthy.
Lastly, I personally carry around a treat pouch because my school uses food rewards when training. If I ever need to rework a spot with my dog, or if I want her to target a desk in a new classroom, I use my treats and clicker to reinforce the task I’m asking her to do. Not every dog guide school uses treat rewards, so a treat pouch is not a necessity for all guide dog teams.
Getting a dog guide in college has been one of the best choices I’ve ever made. I am so grateful to have my dog with me as we go to classes or events. That being said, dog guides are not for everyone. What is most important is to make the right decision for you.