When I was training to get my guide, Hedy, Debbie Kraimer was receiving her second dog. As a Retrain, she knew what it was like to live “the guide dog lifestyle,” and she impressed me with her knowledge of Access Laws and wisdom about the surprising kinds of encounters that come about when you go places with a guide dog.
Debbie is a sought-after speaker on guide dogs and on Access Laws. I asked her to contribute an article for this website so you, too, might be informed.
My Partner, My Guide, and Being Denied
After graduating in 1995 from Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California, with my first guide dog, a German shepherd named Cactus, I left the school excited about addressing the public. The pure joy of feeling independent and safe is like riding in a convertible with the wind in my hair. It feels so free. I thought being out with my beautiful guide would be nothing but a delight, so I was surprised at how many issues came up. Out of those many encounters came the words I share with you now.
“Can I Pet Your Dog?”
Shut your eyes and contemplate this. You are in a crowded airport. There is much confusion and nerves could get frazzled with searching for gates to board on, luggage concerns, ticket information, etc. There you are in the middle of the airport and you need to get to the last gate, at the very end of the other side of the terminal. Your dog is pacing along, listening. Through the noise of travelers coming and going, elevators, escalators, and announcements, she’s listening for your directions of which way to go. Plus, your guide is considering your safety, taking you around obstacles and through people dragging luggage and rushing with little kids.
Suddenly someone asks you if they can pet your guide. Possibly they’re already doing it without asking. You cannot see them and you wonder what they are doing. Anxiety starts to creep in. Remember, the handler’s safety depends on the guide dog’s alertness and concentration. The petter has just interrupted the attention of the guide dog team and their moving safely through this situation. After the interruption, your guide is left to re-adjust, and so are you.
Yes, it is okay to ask to pet a guide dog, but up to the handler to decide if, or if not, to allow this. The primary responsibility of a guide dog is to its blind partner. For that reason, guide dogs are not meant to be solicited. Handlers are not trying to be impolite or rude when they tell an interested person not to pet their dog. It is vital for the handler to remain within the regulations that have been taught to them while receiving their guide in order to keep the dog’s training intact. When the harness is removed, guide dogs are just dogs. A handler may choose to let you pet the dog, but usually the handler will first remove the harness in order to keep the distinction between work and play clear for the dog.
Some think these dogs are tied up in a device that is wrapped around their body 24/7. This is very far from the truth. A guide dog’s harness is a special piece of equipment. When the handler is ready to put the harness on, guide dogs get quite excited. They know the difference when the harness is on. The dog becomes suddenly focused, patiently waiting for a command. That’s how it is with my present guide, Sheena, a German Shepherd. When she’s in harness, her ears are erect, along with her posture. It is such a proud stance.
Guide dogs love to work. They are trained to not be easily distracted, especially when in harness, as this is their ‘working’ apparel. Even young puppies in training for guide dogs know that when their little green jackets are on they are working. When a guide dog team is out working, it is quite an amazing picture. Yet, the focus of most observers is so much towards the dog that they seem to forget that the handler is blind and the guide dog is that handler’s eyes.
Crowded places are not the only places that curious onlookers meet up with guide dog teams. My most absurd encounter happened at a restaurant. There were about 8 of us and I was the only person with a guide dog. Guide dogs are trained to quickly crawl underneath a table, or booth, to avoid being in anyone’s way. They are trained to not be a hindrance. A guide dog instructor once said, “Guide dogs are invisible.”
So, as I am eating, I feel my guide is moving about underneath the table. There was a tablecloth draped to the floor. As I felt to investigate the problem, I was shocked. Not only was there a wet nose, but also, a frail, elderly woman. She was on her hands and knees feeding my guide little doggie biscuits. I was speechless. All the wrongs that were in this given situation just left me stumped for words.
As time went on, I realized that people, many people, needed to be educated, or, at least informed of the laws of working dogs. These dogs are simply amazing and awesome. Out of 500 selected dogs, maybe 200 will make it to become guide dogs. It is an honor for the dog, besides the beautiful, lifetime, unconditional love, trust and devotion that grows between this partnership.
Over the many years, I have graduated to educating the Riverside Police Department throughout the County. Sheena is now my little “officerette.” We are focusing on addressing the Riverside Sheriff’s Departments. It is imperative for those who protect us to be able to enforce the laws that pertain to working dogs. On that note, I would like to share, a bit, of what I express to these departments.
The Americans with Disabilities Act permits blind persons to be accompanied by their guide dogs to anywhere the general public is allowed. This includes taxis and buses, restaurants and theaters, hospitals, stores, schools, hotels, apartments and office buildings. Handlers always carry their Guide Dog ID and the cards that address the rights we have to access these areas.
Any person who, with no legal justification, intentionally interferes with a guide dog user or their guide dog, is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding six months, or by a fine of no less than $1,500 for the first offense and not more than $2,500 thereafter.
Never offer treats or food to a guide dog. These dogs have been trained to resist offers of food so they can go into restaurants without begging.
Please do not honk or holler from a car when signaling it is safe to cross the street. As traffic has become more congested and the cars much quieter, listening to the flow of traffic has become more of a challenge for a blind handler. No, guide dogs do not know when the light is green. It is the handler’s responsibility to listen to the flow of traffic in order to direct the guide to cross the street when it is safe.
If you are leading a blind team and the guide dog is following you, please do not speak to the dog. Speak to the handler as it is the handler’s responsibility to direct their dog.
Sometimes guide dogs must be corrected to maintain their training. Please remember that handlers have been taught by experienced and skilled professionals the appropriate correction methods for their dogs.
Guide dog teams have earned the right to travel safely. If you would like to know more on this issue, please feel free to talk to us guide dog handlers, but, not to our guides. Always speak to the handler and not the dog. You never know, you just might have the chance to pet one of these outstanding and loving guide dogs for the blind.
Deborrah Kraimer & Sheena
Representing Guide Dogs for the Blind throughout Riverside County
gailMarch 23, 2011 - 10:57 AM
HI! Another great blog for sharing…..’walking in another’s shoes’ sort of experience. Am going to use it in the class I’m working with – 8th grade English!
Betty HelfMarch 12, 2011 - 10:00 AM
I posted this article to my Facebook page. I hope that my Facebook friends will read and repost it in order to reach as many people as possible. Very informative.
Mary E. TrimbleMarch 12, 2011 - 7:50 AM
This is a great, informative article. I became much more aware of service dog etiquette through Carolyn and Hedy. How funny about the elderly lady under the table.