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A Primer on Guide Dog Etiquette – By Daniel Jacob.

A Primer on Guide Dog Etiquette – By Daniel Jacob.

Never could I have imagined that, on a warm September night, a person would want to assault me for not being allowed to pet my dog while it was harnessed. Never do I feel so violated as when someone asks if they may pet the dog and, when I say no, they do it anyway, thinking I won’t know because I can’t see. Though these incidents happen, the overwhelming number of people my dog and I encounter are polite and genuinely interested in guide dogs and their jobs.

To help keep you from becoming part of the minority of rude people, here is a primer on guide-dog etiquette.

A guide dog can be anything from a lab cross to a German shepherd, ranging from about 45 pounds to 80 or even 90 pounds, depending on the size, strength and weight of the user. A guide dog always wears a harness with a handle, so that the blind person becomes more attuned to its movements. We can feel things like, when the dog is stepping up or down off something, and we can even feel when there is tension in the dog’s neck and shoulders, which likely indicates an obstacle, or the landmark we asked for. We feel all this through the harness. Many harnesses sport a sign asking the public not to touch.

There are four main reasons the public is asked not to have any contact with the dog. First, it is the harness that tells the dog that it is working. Secondly, interference might break the trust between the dog and the handler, because the user finds it difficult to know whether the dog is trying to help the user negotiate around obstacles, or is trying to go toward someone who wants to talk to it, feed or pet it. Thirdly, the public has no way to discern between an easily distracted rookie dog (one to two years on the job) and a veteran dog that can more easily evade a distraction and get back to work.
Lastly, constant and repeated distractions result in the dog being desensitized to people standing motionless along various parts of the rout. In other words, it is very possible that a dog which has been overly distracted may lead a blind user into a person standing motionless as a way to gain attention from that person.

Also, there are 3 important reasons for which blind users should (not) let their guide-dogs be petted while in harness.

(1.)  Not all dogs handle distraction equally.  Some are better than others at staying calm while people are petting or talking to them.  It goes back to what I was saying about rookie dogs.

(2.) Well?…, you’re blind.  The whole point of you being blind is that you can’t see who’s watching from a distance, and what assumptions they’re making about you and/or your dog.

Person C watching person B petting person A’s guide-dog might assume that it’s okay to go around petting guide-dogs, won’t know that person (B) asked, and might therefore go up to that dog or another guide-dog and start talking to or petting it without asking or thinking about it.  It’s grossly unfair to expect the general public to lay off our dogs, if one person says it’s okay, while another refuses.

(3.)  It goes back to the whole mixed messages thing.  We will always have trouble acquiring the full attention and service to which we are legally entitled, if the general public keeps trying to treat these venerable working animals as pets or mascots.  If the harness, which is a symbol of work for the dog becomes tainted as a symbol of work to the public, how are owners of public establishments or drivers of public transport supposed to know the difference between pets and working animals.  This blurring of the lines is the main reason that guide-dog schools are forced to give us ID cards which prove that a dog is trained and certified for the job that it does.

A guide dog’s four main tasks are: 1, to stop at curbs or steps, 2, to negotiate around obstacles, 3, to find such landmarks as doors or seats, and 4, – especially important to a person born blind – to walk in a straight line.

Despite its training, a guide dog is still just a dog. It is not a GPS locating system, nor does it read street signs, and dogs are red-green color blind as well as being myopic. (That is to say that dogs, most carnivorous mammals in fact, have trouble focusing on objects which don’t move unless they are within 15 to 25 feet of them.) So a sighted person might be asked for assistance at a street corner, if a blind person cannot judge the light by the sound of the traffic. A guide dog sitting quietly on public transport, or lying under a table is actually not at rest; they are in work submission or, waiting for their next command from their blind user.

For many years now, trainers, vets and other scientists have come up with terms to help separate our psychology from that of our animals: Barking is a symptom of frustration, chewing or licking a form of separation anxiety, jealousy over a toy, food or affection is dominance anxiety. Affection is grooming and grooming is only done by submissive dogs. This means that, when you are talking to a working dog, you are distracting it, but when you are touching it, you are giving it status dominance it has not merited.

If you ask to pet the dog and we’re not in a rush or the dog is a veteran, we just might feel inclined enough to take off the harness to avoid confusing the dog. This way, for a time anyway, we can both bask in the warmth of the fur.

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