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Look, but don’t touch guide dogs

April, 2010

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 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 the blind person becomes more attuned to its movements. Many harnesses sport a sign asking the public not to touch.

There are three main reasons the public is asked not to have any contact with the dog. First, it is the harness that tells the dog 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 negotiate around obstacles or go toward someone who wants to talk to it, feed it or pet it.

Lastly, the public has no way to discern between an easily distracted rookie dog (one year or less on the job) and a veteran that can more easily evade a distraction and get back to work.

A guide dog’s four main tasks are to stop at curbs or steps, to negotiate around obstacles, to find such landmarks as doors and – 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 only see in black or white. 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.

For many years now, trainers, vets and 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 might 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.

A few words about training
Carnivorous mammals are myopic, meaning they only see things that move, unless the object is very close.

This is a good argument for freezing if you’re faced by a charging lion: It will probably lose you in its field of vision. I’m not sure I’d want to take that chance, however, and I’m sure this is what the big cats and dogs are banking on when hunting.

Dogs can see hand signals from a distance because of the movement and they learn well with visual clues because it engages motivation through prey drive.

This can make guide dogs difficult to train, as blind people aren’t visual.



At April 17, 2010 at 8:02 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting and very informative.


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