Teamwork: My Experience as Part of a Guide Dog Team

A photo of Shauna and her guide dog, Barney, working in San Francisco. Shauna  has shoulder length blonde hair, and is wearing a black ball cap, a long sleeved black top, and blue pants. Barney is A male black Labrador retriever and is wearing his guide dogs for the blind harness, leather leash, and Martingale collar. Shauna and Barney are walking along a walkway, with the bay bridge in the background.
Guide dog training August 2018. Photo courtesy of Shauna Sproston.

Editor’s Note: On behalf of all of us here at COBD and PTCB, we want to wish all of you a Happy International Guide Dog Day!!! 🦮 We also want to take a moment to celebrate the fact that our own Jinnie Saran is currently in training as a first-time guide dog handler! Go Jinnie!!!

As a guide dog handler for almost thirteen years, I have experienced many of the common misconceptions related to blindness and working with a guide dog. Awareness of blindness and guide dog etiquette is vital to educating the public and society as a whole. I will share some of my insight and lived experience and discuss some of the benefits the partnership of having a guide dog can offer a person who is blind.

Shortly after I was diagnosed with my degenerative eye condition Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), I gained cane skills and orientation and mobility (O&M) training. Learning O&M skills helped me to navigate my community safely and independently. It was important for me to learn how to listen to traffic in order to cross streets safely and other skills that are necessary for a person who is blind. I learned how to think outside the box and problem-solve, and I became a confident cane traveller. Strong O&M and cane skills are also a requirement to successfully work with a guide dog. A white cane or guide dog are both viable options for a person who is blind to travel confidently and independently. I appreciate both of these forms of mobility as a person with vision loss.

Having been an animal lover my entire life and a person who lives an active lifestyle, the idea of having a guide dog naturally appealed to me. When I initially submitted my application to Guide Dogs for the Blind in 2008, I was not fully aware how much a guide dog would impact my life. After acquiring my first guide dog in the summer of 2008, my life has changed in many ways. The relationship between a handler and a guide dog is a special bond. It is a partnership of love, trust, and respect. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to have the lived experience of being part of a guide dog team. I have often considered my guide dog to be my soul mate, mind reader, partner, friend, and extension of myself. From my experience, guide dog organizations have developed excellent breeding and training programs for both dogs and handlers. They also work very hard to find the best match for the handler based on the person’s needs, pace, voice intonation, lifestyle etc.

I have met many people when I am out in public working my guide dog. Interactions with people have been mostly positive for me; I have become accustomed to the attention of others. People love dogs and doggie people can be very social. Others are curious and may have questions about my visual impairment or my guide dog. Whether walking down the street or taking transit, I have people talking to me. I am a social person and I have found most of these interactions to be interesting, as I love meeting new people. Other times, I find myself educating people about blindness and guide dog etiquette. Although it is not my responsibility to teach others, I think it is imperative to educate the public.

The following misconceptions are common to guide dog handlers. I often hear comments from people like: “Does your dog work at home?”, “How does your dog know when to cross the street?”, “Does your dog need to have a refresher course?”, “You don’t look blind”, and “Are you training that dog?” When I get home, off come the harness and leash. Inside my home my guide dog is a regular dog, playing with his toys and sleeping on his dog bed. It is his time to have fun and be a dog. When off duty, my guide dog is able to play and socialize with other dogs in a fenced in area. When working, my guide dog does not know when it is safe to cross the street. As the handler, it is my job to listen for a surge in traffic, know when it is safe to cross the street, and direct my dog to proceed when I think it is safe to do so. When someone may see me working my dog and my guide dog makes a mistake, I have been asked questions. Most people are curious, so I do my best to educate others. Although guide dogs are well trained, they still make mistakes, and it is up to the handler to maintain the dog’s training. One cannot expect a guide dog to be perfect. As humans we have our off days, and so do guide dogs. Positive reinforcement and at times reworking a situation is necessary when working a guide dog to reinforce a positive behaviour and maintain guide work. Like people, all dogs have their own personalities. At times, I have heard the comment “Guide dogs are boring and don’t have a personality”, “Your dog looks sad”, or “Why is your dog so serious?” I educate others that guide dogs are healthy and happy and love their job. A guide dog gets to go everywhere with their handler, and at the end of the day they have their downtime to chew a bone and play with their toys. When my guide dog Barney and I arrive home, my dog is able to cuddle and play with my retired guide dog Abner. It was wonderful to be able to keep Abner as a part of our family when he retired in 2019. I am happy that my dogs have one another, as they have become the best of friends.

Raising awareness is key to changing societal perceptions and attitudes about blindness. People who are blind live independent, active, productive lives just like others in society. My guide dog is an extension of me. The partnership I have with my guide has been life-changing for me. I cannot put into words the deep bond and trust I have when he is guiding me. Having a guide dog has enhanced my confidence and independence. The companionship he has brought to my life is one of mutual love and respect. The relationships I have made in the blind community are lifelong. I believe life is a journey, and I am blessed to have my beloved companion by my side. The love of a dog is unconditional and loyal, and somehow he understands me. As I navigate my community and life, my guide dog is my partner and best friend. While in public with my guide, I will continue to do my best to share with others and exemplify a positive philosophy of blindness. I will continue to learn new skills and share with my peers.

It is imperative for me to keep up my cane and O&M skills. Although my dog is with me most of the time, there are times when it is best to leave him at home. Like people, guide dogs also have times where they are not feeling well and may need time off work. As a guide dog handler, I recognize that our relationship will not always be perfect and that it takes work to maintain the strong relationship we have developed to achieve interdependence.

Some blind and Deafblind people choose to get a guide dog, while others choose to stick to the white cane. Both provide independence and have their advantages and disadvantages. It is certainly a personal choice and we want to empower our students with the strong cane travel skills required to be either a successful guide dog handler or cane traveller. This gives them the freedom to pursue the option that best fits their own unique situation. To find out more about our cane travel program, please visit the training page of the Bowen Island Recreation, Training and Meeting Centre website.