What’s It Like to Get a Dog Guide? One Young Woman Shares Her Story

A smiling young woman with short dark hair kneels next to a large black dog, hugging him.

A guide dog is more than man’s – or woman’s – best friend. For people who are blind or low vision, a guide dog is a loyal companion that makes navigating the world easier.

Emily Nelson, a 17-year-old high school senior from Indiana, can’t wait to get her dog guide. She’s doing her best to be patient, though, knowing the entire process can take six months to a year, including filling out all the necessary paperwork.

Emily has cone-rod dystrophy and macular degeneration, with a 40% visual field. In addition to attending public high school, she’s worked part-time jobs, first at a fast-food restaurant and now for her city’s parks and recreation department. She’s also active with a group at her high school that puts students at the helm of creating a full-length feature film.

“I knew I couldn’t be the director, but I was excited when I got to produce the film last year,” Emily says. “I really liked being the producer, because the producer is all in it. I had a chance to lead but it wasn’t visually taxing on me.”

An Option for People who are Blind or Low Vision

Although Emily uses a cane, she didn’t think dog guides were available for people who still have some vision. But her teacher of students who are blind or low vision told her people who are low vision can still qualify for a dog guide.

After applying to three different organizations, Emily chose the Guide Dog Foundation.

In addition to some training provided by the foundation, she attended a leader dog experience camp this past summer at Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Michigan. The camp gives young people the chance to learn what it’s like working with a dog guide and also provides a Victor Reader Trek, which she describes as a GPS device, only better, because it tells you exactly where you are and helps you find specific locations.

“Getting to work with a dog was very empowering, but I had so many questions at first,” Emily says. “Like how do I know when to turn when I don’t have the tactile feedback I’m used to with my cane? But with the Victor Reader Trek, I realized it all works in tandem.”

Being paired with a dog-guide-in-training also gave Emily insights into the kind of dog she needs.

“He was just like me – he was all the drama,” she says with a laugh. “I realized I needed a calmer dog. I’m a fast walker but sometimes I had to jog to keep up with him and had to slow him down. But it was very interesting to work with a physical guide dog and I really liked the camaraderie.”

A Dog Guide is a Helper – and a Friend

Emily looks forward to the companionship of a dog even more now that she is preparing to head off to college, where she plans to live in a dorm. Not only will the dog that’s matched with her provide what she calls a “homey” feeling – someone she can trust who trusts her, she says – but also a sense of security.

“They’re not supposed to be attack dogs, but I think if someone sees me with a dog at night it might turn them off,” she says. “At the same time, I think a guide dog might make me more approachable in social situations.”

Although she admits it’s hard being patient while she waits to be matched with her own dog guide by the Guide Dog Foundation, Emily knows it’s better to have a dog guide that’s right for her. In the meantime, she’s been using the Victor Reader Trek to help her navigate around her neighborhood. And once Emily is assigned a dog guide, a mobility instructor will come to her house and school to work with her one-on-one for 10 days.

“I let them know I want a big dog, and I know from my training I can handle a big dog,” she says. “I’ll love any dog I get and I’m very excited for the day to come.”