By Caitlin Mongillo, Learning Ally College Success Mentor
I have always loved dogs. I was lucky enough to grow up beside two wonderful canines, who taught me all about responsibility, loyalty and the meaning of true friendship. I was exposed to guide
dogs at a very young age, as I lived only five minutes away from a guide dog school. My brother’s babysitter raised puppies for the training program, and I would beg my mom to pick me up early from school so that I would be able to visit her, learn about the puppies, and maybe, if I was lucky, get to feed them dinner. Guide dog trainers worked with students and dogs in my local area; even using my next door neighbor’s driveway to teach prospective guide about the rules of traffic.
My parents learned all they could about guide dogs, and they always told me that when I was sixteen I’d be able to apply for one if I wanted.
Other young adults counted down the days to their permits or road tests, whereas I waited with baited breath for my guide dog to arrive.
As I attended a very large high school (I graduated with over seven hundred other students), I reluctantly decided that getting a guide dog the second I turned sixteen would not be the most intelligent move. I was concerned, as were my parents and O&M (Orientation and Mobility) instructor, that other students would taunt the dog, pet or feed it. So I started the guide dog school application process the September of my senior year of high school. It was my goal to get a guide the summer before college started, and I was determined to make it happen.
I met Laser, a bouncy large male yellow lab, a month before I started my freshman year at college. He was everything that I had hoped for; loyal, intelligent, sweet and a very skilled worker. Training with Laser was difficult, but so entirely worthwhile.
I’ve worked with guide dogs for over a decade now and have spoken to hundreds of people about getting a guide dog, what they need to do and how they make the choice to switch from traveling with a cane to working with a guide dog. And, I can safely say, the dog life is not for everyone.
Things to Consider
When you’re walking with a cane, it detects obstacles for you. If you’re using a cane properly, it will hit the lamppost, fire hydrant or garbage can before you do. There is an added bonus that you can use stationary, permanent obstacles as landmarks on your routes. A guide dog is trained to avoid obstacles. He or she will take you around garbage cans and fire hydrants, ensuring that you maintain a straight line whenever possible and do not hit these intrusive objects.
However, you need to plan routes differently if you use a guide dog.
I learned to locate my freshman dorm, not with the path I couldn’t see but which my cane would have found, but rather from a groove in the sidewalk just before the turnoff to the building. When I felt the groove with my feet, I suggested a lefthand turn to Laser, which got us safely home every time.
If you’re traveling with a friend or family member, or have located a friendly pedestrian, you can always stow your cane in a purse or backpack. You can then utilize sighted guide to assist you in wherever you may be heading. A guide dog can never be folded up and placed on the side. If you head out to run errands with your dog, you are responsible for his or her welfare, comfort and needs the entire time you are traveling.
A cane, obviously, does not have needs. You never have to walk it, feed it, or play with it. You never have to worry about it being sick or taking it out at two in the morning for an emergency bathroom break.
Having a guide dog means that you always have to have some awareness of your time and what you take with you for a day. When you’re headed to the mall, or to a lecture, you might need to take an extra water bottle, baggie full of dog food, extra bags to pick up poop and a collapsible bowl with you. You may need to skip picking up that cup of coffee on your five minute break between classes, because you have to take your dog to pee instead.
A cane is not expensive. Occasionally, you need to buy tips for one, or replace it. A few quick keystrokes online, and a $30-40 credit card charge, and your new shiny cane will be on its way to you in a week’s time. A guide dog requires monthly maintenance. You need to pay for dog food, veterinary care, and all of its monthly preventatives.
Sometimes, passersby will ask you a question about your cane or your blindness, but often people leave you alone. On the other hand, it is rare to travel with a guide dog and not get at least one comment about its looks or a curious question about its training.
When you travel with a large, gorgeous lab or shepherd, people want to stop and chat. You are always on display.
I have not yet heard of a person who is blind being barred from a business because of their cane. Though the Americans with Disabilities Act
has existed for two and a half decades, and protects the rights of guide dogs
to work in all public areas, some business owners are ignorant of this fact. They might ask a guide dog team to leave, fearing the dog will disrupt their business, upset other patrons, or make a mess in their establishment. Unfortunately, this has become especially true in recent years for guide dog teams attempting to access ride-share services like Uber and Lyft.
So, after reading this, you may wonder why anyone would ever use a guide dog?
They require more time, responsibility, pre planning and money to sustain. I’m not sure why everyone uses a guide dog, but I can certainly tell you why I chose one and why I have not regretted my choice for a moment after these ten years.
It’s the ease of asking my dog to find a curb, doorway, or set of stairs without me having to tap around fruitlessly to find them. It's the confidence I get when crossing a street to know that there’s another set of eyes beside me who will keep me from moving if they detect a car. It’s the quickness of my speed and the sureness of my step as I navigate crowded sidewalks and busy businesses. It is, in part, the vulnerability of trusting another being with my safety and with my life. But it is also the incredible honor I feel to be his partner and to be solely responsible for his health and happiness.
It's the feeling of freedom I get when I pick up my dog’s harness and ask him to go “forward”, which I never felt when I used a cane.
And, mostly, it’s the love.
As I type this post, my retired guide Laser snoozes at my feet, and my working guide, Charlie, merrily chews a bone in the corner. In my heart, where all things count, there is a large, dog-shaped space. Few things awe me so much as the warmth of these magnificent creatures and the knowledge that they love me too, and would give their lives for mine in a second.
Guide dogs aren’t for everyone, but traveling with one has been one of the greatest
choices I have ever made. I chose the guide dog lifestyle a decade ago, and I have only looked forward from there.
is a mentor in Learning Ally's College Success Program
, a free program (supported by donors) provided for blind or visually impaired students in the United States. Find out more about how to join
or get involved
by visiting LearningAlly.org.