Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Bond Between Dogs and People - Part 2

I want you to stop and imagine what it would be like to navigate a crowded sidewalk, cross a busy intersection, walk from your home to the bank to the store and back home again without using your eyesight. Overwhelming? Unimaginable? I would guess so. Again, for those of us reading this post we can only imagine what it’s like to travel our surroundings blind.

For people who are blind or visually impaired to travel safely and efficiently most must decide between using a long cane or a Guide Dog. The long cane is like an obstacle detector. It allows a person to detect obstacles and drop-offs and navigate around them. A Guide Dog is described as an obstacle avoider. It guides the person around the obstacles.[1]

While a Guide Dog is described as an obstacle avoider he is much more meaningful to his handler than just getting her from point A to point B. A Guide Dog is an integral part of their owner’s life. An amazing bond develops. One that is full of love, loyalty and trust.

In the second part of The Bond Between Dogs and People we will look at the bond that develops between a blind or visually impaired person and their Guide Dog. To better understand the bond that develops between a handler and their Guide Dog we have to understand how the team works together.

Kim Samco a staff counselor and licensed psychologist at Guide Dogs for the Blind says, “A Guide Dog will avoid the unimportant things and show the handler the necessary things such as stairs, street corners, doors and so on.”

Many sighted people have misconceptions about who is in charge in the relationship between Guide Dog and handler. Most people believe it is the dog who is leading the person but Kim points out that, “it is the person’s responsibility to know where they are in their surroundings and to instruct the dog as to what is wanted. It is a myth that a person can tell a dog to take them to the Post Office… However, if a person goes to a destination regularly a dog might anticipate where they are going and it may or may not be correct.”

So while it is the handler’s job to instruct and lead the Guide Dog, there are instances where the Guide Dog is in control and making the decisions. This decision-making on the dog’s part is called selective disobedience[2].

Kim gives an example of selective disobedience, “Guide Dogs do not read traffic signals. It is the person’s responsibility to know when it’s safe to cross by listening to the traffic. Blind people learn to determine the type of intersection by listening to the traffic flow. On occasion an error in judgment is made or a driver makes an illegal turn putting the human/dog team into jeopardy. The Guide Dog’s job is to get the person out of the way of danger. The dog makes the decision whether it’s best to speed up, slow down or back up to keep them safe.”

Another misconception people have is that the bond between a Guide Dog and their handler develops instantaneously. Kim points out that, “the bond with a Guide Dog takes time. Most dogs soon learn to love their handler. It’s respect that takes a little more time to develop. It is difficult for anyone who has not had a Guide Dog to really understand the depth of the relationship. Those people who love the handler come close to understanding but they still aren’t quite there.”

Many pet owners describe their pets as members of the family. Kim says that for a blind or visually impaired person, “A Guide Dog is more like a left arm. A blind person spends more time with their Guide Dog than with their life partner. It is common for a Guide Dog to do a better job of guiding a person than a human does...”

While Guide Dogs provide blind persons with independence Kim explains that, “only a very small percentage of blind people use a Guide Dog. Some people have a sedentary life and a dog would not get enough work to keep it sharp and active. Others don’t want the work, time and expense of caring for such a valuable creature. Some people are not able to provide a suitable home which includes safety, stability, responsibility to name only a few requirements. And, still others believe that a person using a dog isn’t truly independent because they rely on another being."

The bond between a blind person and their Guide Dog is unlike anything most dog owners will experience. What makes the relationship so unique is the mutual guardianship that develops between handler and dog. As we see from Kim’s examples, blind persons using Guide Dogs have “a high level of dignity, independence, freedom, pride and self worth.”

End Notes
[1] Long cane or guide Dog -
[2] Living with a guide dog -

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