Guide Dogs for the Blind: More Than Just Man’s Best Friend (LJP)

by Rachel Waddell

The bus’s brakes hissed and its doors creaked open as it settled next to the curb.

Todd Harding made his way toward the source of the sound. His long white and red cane tapped along the ground. Though he was surrounded by people he couldn’t see, he had to get to the bus on his own. Harding slowly felt his way along the cold, dirty, metal side of the bus, the sting of gasoline in his nose, to the door at the front. As he climbed into the relative familiarity of the vehicle that he had used countless times, relief washed over him. He no longer had to find his way through a world of unseen obstacles. For the moment, he could relax in his seat, and let the bus take him where he needed to go. That is, until the bus driver stopped him, and refused him access to the bus. Because of his blindness, the bus driver decided Harding was unable to take care of himself. “You’re trying to get onto a bus by yourself?” the bus driver said. “You’re not right in the mind.” It felt awful.

When I met him, Todd Harding did not reveal any anger at a world that has given him plenty of cause to be angry. He certainly did not seem like a man who had narrowly avoided death multiple times. It was a cloudy fall evening, and the light from outside the large windows lit the room dimly. We sat in the dorm lounge of the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus, Harding smiled from the couch across from me. At his feet, his new guide dog, Luke, a yellow lab, lay calmly, his barrel-like body resting against my toes. As soon as Harding sat and asked Luke to lie down, Luke obeyed, gently dropping his head from my lap to the ground and promptly falling asleep. With Luke, Harding looked completely confident and in control, even if the dog was simply sleeping at his feet. Below his peppery black hair, Harding’s blue eyes peered just past me through his wire glasses. One eye stayed slightly more open than the other, and his face had faint scarring, but these were the only indicators of the car accident that caused his blindness over thirty years ago. At the age of 24, Harding was driving on the freeway when his pickup truck lost its front left tire and hit another car head-on. He was thrown out of the truck just before it rolled away, flipped seven times and then exploded. Had he been stuck in the truck, he would have lost his life, and he is thankful that he did not, but Harding suffered serious head injuries that cost him his sight. “When you’re told you’re blind,” he said, “the first thing you think of is what you can’t do.”

Harding’s story about the rude bus driver is not an isolated incident; people with disabilities, especially blindness, experience discrimination regularly. People with visual impairments often experience social isolation which can lead to loneliness and a feeling of vulnerability (Wirth 93). Guide dogs are a positive force in dispelling the discrimination and isolation. They provide companionship when other people fail to do so. Guide dogs are a part of a blind person that the public seems to understand and gravitate towards, asking questions and starting conversations when they would have otherwise been silent (Miner 187). Even with a guide dog, though, the discrimination persists. Harding told me that there are two main reactions when people in public realize he’s blind: the respectful one, and the disrespectful one. Say he is looking to eat at a restaurant and asks for a table for one. Some hostesses treat him like any other person and show him respect by speaking directly to him and asking, “How can I help you sir?” However, the hostesses often respond disrespectfully by getting the manager and talking about him right in front of him, saying, “Where should we put him?” These situations usually go unnoticed by the unimpaired and the blind are left feeling uncomfortable, disrespected, and alone.

“I had no idea how bad it was with respect to discrimination against people with disabilities until I became one,” Harding told me, frustration apparent in his voice. He has always remained positive, though, by channeling any anger into advocacy for people with disabilities.

Most visual impairments prevent people from doing almost everything, and without a mobility aid, the blind are often restricted to their homes. The limitations of blindness have been shown to cause “social isolation, dependence on others, depression, and substantial [reductions] in patient quality of life” (Wirth 92). To combat these negative effects, the blind often hire people to care for them in some way, but they rarely have additional income to cover the extra help. They are 35% less likely than people without visual impairments to find employment, and when they do, they are paid 63% less than their unimpaired colleagues (Wirth 92). But many mobility aids have been developed that serve as good alternatives to hired help and allow the visually impaired to have even more independence.

Of all mobility aids, long canes and guide dogs are the most common, and both increase mobility and independence. Dogs, however, have many additional benefits, one of them being more efficient travel. In a study conducted by D.D. Clark-Carter, A.D. Heyes, and C.I. Howarth, when visually impaired subjects walked a route once with a long cane and once with a guide dog, they walked significantly slower with the long cane than with the guide dog (Clark-Carter 785). Long canes only warn their users of obstacles within a one meter radius of their body, and when walking in open space, the blind have nothing to touch with their cane for reference in order to walk straight (Clark-Carter 786). It makes sense that getting somewhere with a cane takes longer; close your eyes and imagine finding your way out of the building you’re in and walking down the street outside, feeling your way using only a stick. Not only would it take a long time, but being unable to see what’s around you, feeling nothing but open air until an unidentifiable object meets your cane, foot, hand, or head, you would feel vulnerable, lonely, and at times hopeless. Guide dogs are constant companions that help relieve most of the fear of travelling; they are the only living, thinking mobility aid, other than a human being.

“The cane gives you great mobility,” Harding tells me, pausing. “The dog opens up the world.” Guide dogs see obstacles, make adjustments naturally, and walk in straight lines, thereby guiding their handler in straight lines, which is nearly impossible to achieve while travelling alone with a cane. Rachel Joy-Taub Miner conducted a study, “The Experience of Living With and Using a Dog Guide,” in which she analyzed the meaning of individuals’ experiences with their dogs and found that guide dogs gave their owners more independence and confidence (186). However, in order to provide the gift of independence to their handler, guide dogs must be trained in a very specific way. There are many organizations that prepare guide dogs for this job, but one of the most common ones is Guide Dogs for the Blind, or GDB, an organization started in 1942 (“About Us”). Guide Dogs for the Blind goes above and beyond to change the lives of their clients, and not only by training dogs.

One of the most subtle but also most important aspects of the Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) campus in Oregon is that it is easy to navigate. All of its accommodations are simple, making for an open, welcoming environment. The bushes and trees show the changing season, their leaves turning red and blowing away in the breeze. I noticed that GDB keeps them well-trimmed to avoid overhead obstacles that a blind or partially blind person could run into. The ground is flat, covered with dry, brown leaves crunching under my feet, but there are almost no cracks and roots to trip on. Most of the beige buildings are one story, topped with black roofs, and at every change in elevation there is a choice between a flight of stairs with a banister or a ramp. The hallways are wide, clear, and meet at 90o angles, and I didn’t see any obstacles or weird corners that someone with limited sight could stumble into or trip over. The furniture in each room is all of a similar height and placed against the wall or in the center of the room, yet another subtle accommodation that allows for easy navigation. A path that the clients used to practice avoiding obstacles with their new guide dog started near the dog training center and led into the forest on the edge of campus. While I was on the GDB campus, each time I looked around I noticed something new that either accommodated the visually impaired or helped with the training of guide dogs.

A Guide Dog for the Blind dog’s training starts when it is just eight weeks old, still just a ball of fluff stumbling over its own feet. A puppy raiser takes it in and teaches it manners and basic obedience until it is just over a year old (“Puppy Raising”). These are the puppies that you have probably seen in a variety of public places, wearing little green harnesses on their backs, and trying their best to ignore the people around them. For this first year of their lives, the puppies get basic training like any other dog, but the biggest, most crucial training they get is focus. They learn to ignore stimuli around them, and their ability (or inability) to do so is what makes or breaks a guide dog — if they can’t shut out their surroundings, they can’t save their owner’s life in the future. After over a year of preliminary obedience training and socialization, the puppy is then brought to the GDB campus for the final two phases of training. In just two to three months, Guide Dogs for the Blind transforms a dog from just a well-trained puppy to a mature guide dog, able to “safely guide someone through the complexities of pedestrian travel” (“About Us”). They use positive reinforcement and clicker training — the trainer says a word like “bench,” encourages the dog to go to a bench, and when the dog approaches the bench on its own it hears a click and gets a treat — to make more happy, willing dogs.

When it comes to providing the best services to their clients, “the status quo has never been acceptable for Guide Dogs for the Blind,” Harding said. As someone who has received 6 guide dogs from GDB, he has personally watched the organization evolve and improve. They make sure to find the perfect match for each client, with an in depth application process and multiple home interviews, even when the client has been through the program before. The last phase of GDB training is with the guide dog’s new handpicked legally blind owner. They teach the team how to work together in as many situations as possible and give them as much real-world experience as possible before releasing them into the world. After about one year, six months, and two weeks of training, the guide dogs graduate with their new partners.

To celebrate the end of their clients’ training with their guide dogs, Guide Dogs for the Blind hosts a modest ceremony in the main building of their campus. As soon as I entered the glass front doors, the smiling faces of volunteers met me. One handed me a graduation booklet and pointed me in the direction of the auditorium, while others helped lead the visually impaired members of the audience. The chairs were organized into the sections and in the center section, the family and friends of the graduates, some of the puppy raisers of their canine counterparts, and various other people sat, ready to show their support at this momentous event.

Everyone, from toddlers to grandparents, gathered in clumps near their seats, smiling widely, eyes gleaming, greeting each other, laughing, hugging. Most of the guests seemed like close family and friends, but sprinkled in the mix I noticed people like me, who seemed not to know anyone else and were there to willingly have tears brought to their eyes by an inspiring ceremony. As the visitors took their seats, still chatting happily, six dogs entered with the guide dog harnesses on their backs, each one next to one of the people who helped raise them. The dogs, all yellow and black labs, pulled against their leashes and bounced around, tails wagging. However, as soon as their handlers sat down in the far right section of chairs and got their attention, the dogs sat too, facing the handler. At some point during all the excitement, the graduates entered, led by friends, family, or a GDB volunteer, and sat in the far left section, on the opposite side of the room from their guide dogs. They were separated on purpose: a big part of the GDB graduation ceremony is the emotional reunion between human and dog. The graduation was celebrating the completion of the final two weeks of training where the visually impaired person works with his or her new guide dog to prepare for life in the real world. The two spent all day and night together every day for two weeks while training, and the first time they were separated was during this graduation.

All six graduates were reunited with their guide dogs onstage — one at a time — and even though each pair was unique in many ways, their reunions played out in a similar, touching way. The second graduate, Monica, a tall, brunette woman who walked with a slight limp, and her dog, Cambridge, a large yellow lab with a wide face, stood out to me. Monica was led up onto the stage by a GDB volunteer and stood, somewhat uncomfortably, in the middle, with nothing around to touch and orient herself. Then Cambridge was led onto the stage, saw her, and the leash went taut as he pulled in her direction. When the two met, Monica’s hand touched the warm, familiar head of her dog and relief washed over their face: her eyes lit up, she immediately relaxed and couldn’t help but smile. At the same time, Cambridge’s tail wagged wildly and he searched for Monica’s hand with his nose, seeking a pat on the head. After the initial greeting, Monica got Cambridge’s attention and gave a command. Cambridge’s attitude immediately switched from extremely excited to dutifully calm as he lay down by her side. All the graduates couldn’t stop smiling proudly, and they each made speeches thanking the puppy raisers, Guide Dogs for the Blind, and various other important people in their lives. Monica gave one of the longer, better articulated speeches. “This has been,” she said, pausing as she teared up and pet Cambridge, “one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had.” As I looked around, there was not a dry eye in the room.

Guide Dogs for the Blind puts a lot of focus into creating experiences as positive as Monica’s to each of its clients. It provides as many of its services as possible free of charge, which makes all the difference for many of its clients who have low incomes. It continues to support its graduates by paying for vet care throughout a dog’s life and finding it a home once it retires. However, the ones who are really doing the life changing are the guide dogs. “You are out there groping around,” Harding told me of his efforts to travel before his first guide dog. When he lost his sight, Harding also lost much of his freedom and independence, which led to a great deal of anxiety, worry, and frustration. A guide dog provided relief; he finally felt in control, and it was empowering. “What the dog does for you,” he said, pausing, tears in his eyes as he reached down to pat Luke’s belly, “can just be so overwhelming.”

Todd Harding, each of the graduates at the GDB graduation, and many others have credited their guide dogs with changing their lives. The obvious increase in mobility and independence is definitely not the only advantage of having a guide dog. As for a less visible benefit, a study that surveyed the perceived health of guide dog users found a correlation between guide dog ownership, physical health, and psychological well-being (Lane 51). A range of positive psychological changes come with getting a guide dog, including more mobility confidence, a sense of companionship, positive personal change (e.g. assertiveness, planning, self confidence), and a sense of pride (Wiggett-Barnard 1019-22). A positive interaction with a dog, like a successful trip with one’s guide dog, can lower blood pressure, and cause the release of dopamine and oxytocin — hormones associated with happiness and bonding (Odendaal 298). But with all these benefits of guide dogs come restrictions; having a guide dog has its challenges.

Sometimes, having a dog somewhere just isn’t convenient. “It’s tougher to fit a dog under the seat in front of you” on an airplane, Harding told me. I laughed, but he was serious: like carry-on bags, guide dogs must stay under the seat in front of their owner during air travel. Traversing narrow places and rooms with fragile decorations is much more difficult when a misplaced paw or the wag of a tail could knock over something valuable. Another difficult situation Harding has found with his guide dogs is visiting friends. Will they care if he brings a dog into their home? Will they mind the dog hair that will most likely be left behind? Most people understand, but the stress is still there. Owning a guide dog, like any other dog, is a huge responsibility — they need daily care (feeding, grooming, waste disposal), training, and veterinary care. The responsibility of owning a guide dog necessitates a change of lifestyle and can be a financial burden: over the course of its working life of eight years a guide dog costs approximately $40,598 (Wirth 95). Organizations like Guide Dogs for the Blind shoulder much of this cost, and as for the rest, Harding told me, “it all comes at a very nominal cost [compared to] what [guide dogs] do for you.”

For Todd Harding, one dog in particular made anything he’s had to sacrifice worth it: the dog’s name was Samson. Of the six guide dogs he has had, his greatest bond was with Samson. “He put his body in front of my leg one night, or I’d have been hit by a car.” Harding was crossing a street, the audible traffic signal was on, the person crossing ahead of him told him it was safe to go, and Samson was leading him to the other curb. A car was turning right across the crosswalk and hadn’t seen Harding. It honked. Harding knew he was in danger but couldn’t tell where the honk came from. Suddenly, Samson’s body was pressed against his leg, preventing him from moving forward. He felt the left mirror of the car brush his shirt. The car’s tire ran over the very tip of his shoe, but miraculously missed Samson. Harding was just inches from being hit by this car, inches from whatever injuries he would have sustained, and maybe even inches from death, but Samson saved him. Samson’s putting his body in front of Harding’s leg when he saw the car is what GDB calls “trained disobedience,” where the dog is being told to go forward, but sees a hazard and refuses to go (“About Us”). Though it’s trained into guide dogs to save their owner’s life, if a bond isn’t formed and maintained through love and positive reinforcement, their work deteriorates. When I asked Harding if Samson would have been less likely to save his life if they had not had a strong bond, he took a long minute to consider it. He then turned to me, and said, “it’s a possibility,” without a strong, positive relationship, a guide dog becomes less willing to look out for potential hazards or risk their own life for that of their owner.

The life of a guide dog is not easy, and sometimes they make mistakes. “They’re living, breathing animals,” Harding reminded me frequently. A study on the cooperative relationship between a guide dog and its owner called the task of leading a blind person “the most demanding work the human being asks of any animal” (Naderi 61). However, the study “Neurophysiological Correlates of Affiliative Behavior between Humans and Dogs” showed that in positive human-dog interactions, the dog’s blood pressure decreased (Odendaal 297). Therefore, as long as a guide dog and its owner have a positive relationship, the dog benefits as well as the owner. In “Co-operative Interactions between Blind Persons and Their Dogs,” researchers observed teams of blind people and their guide dogs walking a familiar route and assessed their interactions (63). One of their main findings was that the two executed most actions as a team with the initiator of these actions switching between human and dog, almost like a conversation (Naderi 71, 78). Though a guide dog’s work with its owner is stressful, if they work well as a team, their relationship has the same positive psychological effects on the dog as on the owner (Odendaal 298). Ultimately, both the visually impaired and guide dogs not only benefit from the having another being help them — someone to feed them in the dog’s case and a guide in the human’s case — but each also benefits from the companionship of the other.

The connection between guide dog and human is so much more than the relationship between the average pet dog and its owner.“You are a team,” Harding explained, “with a service animal that is seeing for you, is doing for you.” They work together to get from point A to point B, not as a dog pulling a human, but as one entity. Both guide dog and the blind benefit greatly from their situation; the dog gets a job and a positive relationship with a loving owner, and the human gets a greater independence and mobility, and a loyal companion.
The bond between dog and human is hugely important, and in the case of guide dogs, the strengthening of this bond never stops. “Let him know, good boy, good boy,” Harding explained. At our feet, hearing Harding’s voice through his sleep, Luke wagged his tail softly, and I could tell Harding was quickly forming the connection to Luke that he had perfected with Samson. Love was the one word Harding would use to best describe his relationship with Samson; he was his best friend and a part of the family. At home, when the harness was taken off, Samson would romp and play like any other dog. “It’s like a six month old puppy coming to life.” Now that he is retired with Harding’s family, Samson can relax and play like that a lot more; he no longer has to be the dutiful guide dog with the intense focus it takes to save a life. The only time Harding was overcome with emotion when I spoke with him was when he was describing hanging up Samson’s harness for the last time, officially retiring him. “Shit. This is rugged. This is rugged. You are amazing,” he had said to Samson. Though Samson stayed with the family as a normal pet, they both lost the amazing partnership that is unique to the relationship of guide dog and owner.

“Can I walk you to the door?” Harding asked me at the end of the interview, his voice filled with pride. Thirty-six years after being refused access to a bus, after enduring years of being guided by other people, being told he couldn’t be independent or take care of himself, Todd Harding and Luke, moving as one, guided me down the hall to the door.

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