Can I Pet Your Dog?

Whenever my guide dog, Pippen, and I encounter someone in a public place, we are greeted with one of two reactions—“Oh my gosh, a dog!” or “Can I pet your dog?” Today, I hope to answer some of your questions about guide dogs.

The generic term is dog guide, but it’s okay to say guide dog. However, not all dog guides are Seeing Eye ® dogs. There are many dog guide schools in the united States and many others around the world. Only those, like Pippen, who are trained at The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey can be called Seeing Eye dogs. There is a dog guide school in Columbus, and the dogs who are trained there are Pilot Dogs. There are also other service dogs trained in the Columbus area, but for today, I’ll just be talking about what dog guides do for people who are blind, and what you should do when you encounter one.

Let me first tell you what Pippen is not. She is not a guard dog. She is not trained to protect me from an attack, but keep in mind that she is very loyal to me, and if she senses danger, her canine instincts might take over. She is, however, trained to protect me from danger as I walk down the street, go to meetings, shop, or travel. By that, I mean that she guides me around obstacles, hesitates at uneven sidewalks, stops at curbs, and at the top or bottom of a stairway. She wears a specially designed harness with a stiff handle that I grasp in my left hand. She walks just slightly ahead of me, so I can tell by her body language what to expect.

When a person approaches Pippen and calls to her or pets her, her attention is drawn away from me, and that could be the very moment when she really should be paying attention to where we are going and what could be in the way. Her attention must be on me at all times, even when it doesn’t look like she is doing much but lying still under the table. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has interrupted my meal at a restaurant wanting to pet or talk to my dog, who seems to be doing nothing but looking adorable. Yes, she is adorable, but if she thinks someone is going to pet or feed her, she is up and out from under the table. Speaking of feeding a dog guide, it is a hard and fast rule to never do so without the permission of the handler. This is a very strong distraction from the dog’s attention, and it might lead to illness or untimely need to empty. That’s dog guide users’ speak for go potty or whatever you may say.

One of the most commonly asked questions is “How does she know when to cross the street?” The answer is that she doesn’t. Remember, she is a dog, and although she is smart and obedient, she can’t make a judgement such as how fast a car is coming toward us, and she doesn’t read traffic signals. I’m the one who makes the decision whether or not it’s safe to cross the street, by listening.

Pippen and I have put in hundreds of miles on the sidewalks of Gahanna, and again, I’d like to have a dollar for every time someone’s dog has run out of its yard to greet Pippen. All but a few have been friendly, and one even attacked her, but in either case, she has been distracted from her job. Did you know that it is a misdemeanor to allow your dog to distract a dog guide when she is working? Unless your dog is completely under your control, it is actually breaking the law when it interferes with a dog guide’s work.

When we get home, the first thing we do is take off my shoes and take off her harness. When she is out of harness, she is just like any other pet. She has a fenced in yard and about a dozen plush toys. She loves to cuddle, and she loves a tummy rub. She does not get table scraps, but she enjoys her dog food and lives for milk bones. Her favorite words are “Want a cookie?” That even beats “Want to go for a walk?”

If you would like a free presentation for your home-schooled children, Scout Group, or service club, contact me.