When a Guide Dog Isn’t the Right Fit : Rethinking My Needs 

Black Labrador retriever laying in the grass

The guide dog lifestyle is not all sunshine and roses. I want to reflect on my decision in February 2023 and what I learned from it.   

Retiring Yankee 

In April 2022, I retired my second guide dog, Yankee. Yankee’s retirement date was officially April 23, and I flew out to the guide dog school on April 25 to receive a new dog. My third guide and I were matched April 26. 

During that first week, I was terribly missing Yankee. I called his new owner. I had to find out how he was doing. She told me he was doing great and showed me his new bed and other items. My new dog, Armstrong, quietly lay on tie down as I talked about his predecessor.   

Guide Dog Training 

The training was going well. Our instructor gave positive feedback, which told me we would be a solid team. Months later, I realized there were red flags flying in the breeze, which I blissfully ignored. Looking back, these red flags were flying stronger and stronger, but I blissfully ignored all the signs.   

Behavior Concerns 

After returning from training, I quickly settled into life with a new dog. In mid-summer, a supervisor at work approached me about some concerns related to Armstrong’s behavior. I took the information under advisement and tried to fix the issues. I felt things were resolved satisfactorily, as there were no further discussions at the office.   

Deep in my subconscious, a storm was brewing called Tropical Depression Armstrong. Over the next few months, the tropical depression kept brewing and brewing but never made it above my subconscious, nor did its wind speeds increase to form a hurricane. Armstrong was living with me at home, but signs of change were afoot. Armstrong would bark for seemingly no reason. I learned behavioral techniques to curb excess barking, but they were not working as well as expected.   

One day, in February 2023, the tropical depression quickly intensified into Hurricane Armstrong with great wind gusts. The hurricane made landfall when I was working with a student. I planned to teach a lesson where I needed an object with distinguishing characteristics on one side. I was given an object that would meet my needs for the lesson. Little did I know it was a dog toy!   

I was exploring the object when I inadvertently squeaked it. Armstrong decided that would be a great time to make his voice heard. Management heard this and decided I could not interact with students that evening. I was told it was unsafe.  

Making a Tough Decision 

That evening and the next day, I did a lot of thinking while Hurricane Armstrong blasted away. I finally called the guide dog school and talked to an instructor about the events of the prior evening and a decision I knew I had to make. I told the instructor I did not have enough work for a guide dog. Regular work challenging the dog’s mental faculties will often curb undesirable behavior. I use transportation to and from work and other places in my community. I do not feel safe crossing streets due to heavy traffic flow. The instructor was very understanding as I explained all my thoughts and the decisions I made. It was agreed Armstrong would return to the school the following Friday. 

Returning My Guide Dog 

As soon as that decision was made, Hurricane Armstrong blasted out to sea, leaving much to clean up in my psyche. The main feeling I experienced was guilt. Many days, I felt I made the wrong decision about applying for a third guide dog. When I talked with the admissions representative in late 2021, we discussed my lifestyle, and she felt I had enough work for a guide dog. I agreed with her. I did not see any issues with Yankee related to my reliance on transportation. Yankee’s issues were related to his arthritis and fear of thunder so I knew his retirement was imminent. While working Armstrong, I kept thinking about whether I should return him to the school, but I couldn’t make that call. I knew he was not getting the work he deserved, but I thought perhaps things would change. When the incident happened in February, I knew it was time.   

Life Changes and Guide Dog Needs 

In the months I have been without Armstrong, I realized I should have been more firm when talking to the admissions representative in 2021. When she said I had enough work for a guide dog, I should have stepped back and reconsidered my lifestyle. I knew I was not walking as much as I was when I lived in another community. My semester of graduate coursework on campus concluded, and I had no upcoming in-person courses. I took paratransit to and from work. Several orientation and mobility instructors said the walk from my residence to my office was not safe.   

Another red flag was the short time between Yankee’s retirement and my training with Armstrong. When I retired my first guide dog in 2012, I knew I would not get another dog at the time. It was a little over three years between Julia’s retirement and when I went to train with Yankee. In contrast, the 48 hours I was without a dog in 2023 should have seen problems. Hindsight is 20/20, though. I would have waited much longer to go back to the school after Yankee retired.  

I realized my bond with Armstrong was not as strong as my bond with Yankee. Every dog and handler’s bond is unique. My bond with Yankee was strong and unbreakable, while my bond with Armstrong was not as strong. When the trainer took him away, he walked off with her as if she was his new best friend.   

There are many considerations when deciding to apply for a successor dog. One’s lifestyle changes over the years, as does ones’ travel environment and needs. Deciding not to apply for a successor dog is not bad if you feel your current lifestyle is not conducive to a working dog. Only you can make the decision that’s right for you. Your family, friends, and the guide dog school should never pressure you into making a decision you feel is inappropriate for you at that time in your life. 

Learn More 

Walking With a Human or Dog Guide 

Dog Guides at Work: Navigating Workplace Etiquette and Interactions 

Dog Guide Peer Pressure: When Other Voices Are Calling the Shots