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Things You Should Know
I’ve been a guide dog owner for 10 years and in that time I’ve experienced the mostly highs and a few lows of working with a service animal. Admittedly, there are more of the former than the latter and I could never see myself not working with a guide dog on account of the amount of freedom I’ve experienced from having them in my life.
As a content creator and disability advocate, I’ve documented much of my relationship with both of my guide dogs online. Since 2012 when I partnered with my first guide dog Unity until she retired in 2020. Then again with my second guide Rosie with whom I partnered with in 2021. A lot of my followers regularly contact me, telling me how my relationship with my guide dogs has inspired then to apply for one themselves. This is such a humbling thing for me to hear, that my sharing my story has helped someone pursue a path to help them become more independent.
What You Need To Know
One thing I always try to stress to new “would-be” guide dog owners is that there are some very important things that they should know going forward with this process. Here are some of the things you should know before you apply for a guide dog:
I should point out I’m from the UK and in the UK, there is one specific charity who trains guide dogs. Although most of these things may be standard across different countries, things may differ depending on the guide dog training school or charity who trains the dogs and we blind people who handle them.
- You need to have good cane skills already
This is very important for anyone considering applying for a guide dog and is one of the most crucial requirements when you apply for one.
When you get a guide dog you will need to already have good skills using a long cane or whatever you use to get around independently. This is because you’ll be expected to know routes to and from places like, school, work, and other places you normally visit. This is so you can give your dog a daily workload and to be confident doing routes independently.
Additionally, there may be times where you would be without a guide dog. For example, if your guide dog gets sick, when your guide dog retires, or if you go on holiday without your dog.
So, it’s important that you have good mobility skills to act as a backup for when you need them and to ensure you can remain independent whilst you wait for a guide dog as waiting lists at some of the schools around the world can be, in some cases, years long.
- You may have to wait a long time
One of the biggest things that every guide dog owner faces when getting a guide dog whether it be their first, their second or their sixth dog is waiting. Most of the time you don’t just simply apply for a guide dog and get one the following week. Although that isn’t to say it doesn’t ever happen.
The process to get onto the waiting list for a guide dog itself is a lengthy one. In my personal experience it took me several months. And, once you get onto the waiting list you can be there for months, if not years for before you're assigned a guide dog and there’s no standard amount of time you’ll have to wait.
With the best will in the world, you may be given a guideline on how long you may be waiting for a dog. But that’s all it is, a guideline. In the UK for example the average waiting time is 18 months and with the delays imposed due to the Pandemic this may be even longer. Some of the schools in US have waiting lists of up to two years or longer.
It’s not just a case of handing you a well trained dog, lots of things about you are considered like your walking speed, your lifestyle and you as a individual to find you the right dog to match with your needs. It's a case of finding the right dog at the right time.
So, be prepared to wait for a guide dog and be prepared to wait for a while.
- There are times where you can’t always use your guide dog
When you get a guide dog you will be working together for most of the time that you are a working partnership, with a few exceptions.
There may be times where you can’t physically use your guide dog. For example, if they’re sick, if they need further training, in extreme weather conditions and if you go to places where it’s probably in their best interests not to take the guide dog. Although you’re most likely to be working together for a great deal of their working life, there will be times where you may not be.
- The costs of having a guide dog
Just like any pet dog, guide dogs come with financial responsibilities. The extent of this will depend on where you live and who provides your guide dog. So, you would need to consult with them for further guidelines on this.
Costs may include veterinary charges, cost for food, grooming sessions, toys, and other forms of enrichment. In the UK the Guide Dogs charity can cover food and vet bills with the option for you to voluntarily cover them or contribute towards the costs. However, there is no obligation to do so. Harnesses and equipment are covered, but anything extra like beds, toys, grooming appointments will need to be paid for by the owner. In the US, services a guide dog handler varies from school to school, some provide dog food, veterinary care and other expenses as part of their program; others provide very little support beyond extra training if necessary.
It’s therefore important that you ask all the right questions around costs and consider if having a guide dog is something you want to commit to financially. As with any other pet, they are a financial commitment which you will have for a considerable amount of time.
- You’ll face discrimination as a guide dog owner
One of the most challenging and frustrating aspects of being a guide dog owner is when you get refused entry to somewhere or refused a service on the grounds of having a guide dog. In many countries this is illegal, (always ensure to know the laws surrounding guide dogs where you’re from or to where you'll be traveling).
In the UK under the Equalities Act (2010) disabled people are entitled to the same rights to access services including those who use guide dogs or other assistance dogs. But, despite the laws it can and often does still happen to many guide dog owners. In these situations, you often need to challenge this, take legal action, report it to local authorities or to your guide dog provider. In US, the laws are more strict but, enforcement thereof is inconsistent and the discrimination can be maddening.
It’s a difficult situation for any guide dog owner to be in and it can stir many emotions when it occurs. But it’s all about making sure you have support, seek legal advice, talk to other guide dog owners in the community and never let it deter you from doing what you want to do. For many, it doesn’t happen too frequently, but it can happen and so you should always be prepared for an access refusal at an unfamiliar business, a ride share or taxi.
There are also situations in which a guide dog will not be permitted for their own safety or that of others, a hospital oncology ward, for instance, will have patients with such poor immune systems that the humans visiting need to be covered in plastic and the dog won't be permitted at all. When there is a valid purpose for refusing admission to your dog, please be polite and follow the instructions as guide dog handlers needn't be labeled as angry people.
6 The emotional side having a guide dog
Having a guide dog has been one of the most rewarding decisions I have ever made. You gain so much from having one. You are provided with more freedom and independence and the privilege of working with a sentient animal that becomes your most trusted companion. It’s a truly incredible experience, but it doesn’t come without its share of heartache.
Guide dogs do have to retire when they get to a certain age or younger in some cases. Retiring my first guide dog Unity was one of the most difficult processes I have gone through. It’s a grieving process and it’s hard to adjust to a new way of life without having your familiar dog by your side. I was lucky to be able to keep my retired guide dog with me in my family home. But this may not be possible for every guide dog owner, and it can be difficult for owners who cannot keep their guide dog with them for whatever reason.
Unity passed away earlier this year after a battle with cancer. I had to make the decision to let her go and it was honestly the most heart-breaking thing I had to do. As a guide dog owner this is without a doubt the hardest part of having a guide dog. But in no way does it take away from the life you shared and the memories you made. It's just so sad that these wonderful animals haven't the life expectancy of a human so we can be partners for life.
I would never change my decision to become a guide dog owner, as hard it as it can be when they get older. It’s a life-changing journey and I’m privileged to be able to have these wonderful animals with me. As a guide dog owner, it’s an immense emotional journey and a big commitment that you’ll need to make. But, if your prepared to take that leap of faith, you will gain so much more than what you give.
For anyone still in doubt you can always reach out to me on my social media and I’ll be happy to answer any further questions you may have.
Author Bio: About Emily
Emily Davison, aged 28, is a London based journalist, content creator and disability advocate. She began her blog “Fashioneyesta” back in 2012 with the aim to create a space to challenge perceptions of sight loss through her love of beauty and style. Since then, she has written for many publications including Cosmopolitan, the Guardian, Metro, HuffPost and Disability Horizons. She has also appeared as a TV reporter for BBC Channel 4 News and regularly works as a disability spokesperson on television news. She now works with brands to help make their products more accessible as an accessibility consultant and champions accessibility in the beauty and fashion industry.
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