By: Katie Ottaggio, CSP Engagement Operations Manager
Each month the College Success Program hosts a webinar on a topic of interest to high school and college students who are blind or who have low vision, their parents, and the professionals who work with them. On January 21, 2021 the CSP hosted a webinar called "Cane to Canine: Guide Dog Readiness". Our guest was Jake Koch, the Community Outreach Specialist at Guide Dogs for the Blind. Fellow guide dog user and CSP Mentor, James Boehm, moderated the discussion, and their conversation gave us a lot of insight about the guide dog lifestyle.
In case you missed it, here are our top takeaways from this enlightening discussion. You can also view this webinar in its entirety by clicking here.
Understand the difference in mobility between a cane and a dog.
A guide dog and a cane are the two primary forms of mobility for someone who is blind or has low vision, but there are key differences to know when evaluating which option is right for you. You should think of a guide dog as an object avoider, whereas a cane is an object locator. Dogs use the principle of seeing and avoiding, while a cane is used to detect first and then possibly avoid. If you're leaning towards a guide dog, it's important to understand this role they play - they are there to help with the safety aspect of seeing and avoiding obstacles along your route.
Don't stop your O&M training.
Orientation & Mobility training is your foundation to success no matter what aid you use. In the case of a guide dog, most guide dog schools recommend and in some cases, require O&M training. They will build your guide dog lifestyle skills upon this O&M training.
Consider your living situation and the travel you'll be doing.
Will you be living at home? In a dorm? Off campus housing? Is your campus in a rural, suburban, or urban setting? Maybe you'll be in an urban area during the semester, but when you're home on break you're in a rural area. These are all factors that will not only dictate the specific dog you'll get but also what their needs will be, particularly while you're in college.
Take a gap semester on your guide dog journey.
Consider using a cane for your first semester, particularly if you are still learning the campus. You may have been able to visit with your mobility instructor and learn your routes, but the first few weeks and months of college can be a lot. Putting a hold on getting a guide dog until you've become comfortable with your college life can enable you to focus more on your dog and less on the new aspects of college as you'll already be familiar with your surroundings. Your dog will look to you for leadership, so it can be a good practice to get used to living in a dorm away from your parents for the first time.
Timing is everything.
If you're graduating high school in June and starting your first semester at college in August, the chances of getting matched with a guide dog and up and running with them before your first class are zero. You could possibly face months of waiting, but don't be discouraged!
Think about the best time to apply. There are a few options for guide dog schools and each one has a different admissions process and wait times. You'll also need to take some time to fill out and provide documentation about your current mobility, lifestyle, health, etc.
Don't forget to factor training into your schedule! Once you do get matched with a dog, you'll need to spend time learning how to work together. Depending on the school, training may take 2, 3, 4 weeks or more. You won't be picking up your dog and heading right back to campus, so keep that in mind.
Guide dog schools are there to help you plan. They answer your questions and provide you with information to make decisions, learn, and succeed with your dog. So be sure to utilize them!
Do your research, and not just on the internet.
The first place most of us go to start our research is the internet. And, when it comes to guide dogs, there is a wealth of information out there (including this blog!). But, make the internet just one element in your research. Try some of these:
- Find and join a Facebook group. Yes, this is technically on the internet, but these groups are places dedicated solely to the guide dog lifestyle. And, you'll be able to post a question and get feedback in a matter of minutes from people who are living this life every day.
- Attend conferences. These are places where you can meet both guide dog handlers and guide dog school representatives.
- Call the guide dog schools directly. The emphasis here is on schools, as in plural. Ask the same questions to all schools you call and compare their answers.
Ask the right type of questions.
It is important to get various perspectives when evaluating whether or not you might want a guide dog, because everyone's perspective is different. To get the best information from your questions, don't ask "Do you think I should get a guide dog?" Instead ask "What has your experience with a guide dog been like?" Ask about the differences people have found in various mobility aids, what challenges they've faced with a guide dog and the benefits they've found.
When contacting guide dog schools, you can talk directly with the admissions department, so be sure to ask questions like:
- When should I apply? Be sure to share the things you're planning for your future as well as your current situation so they can give you an accurate answer. If you'll be attending school in the fall or taking a semester off, tell them. If you're living in a dorm or commuting from home, tell them.
- When should I come to class? How long are the classes? Is the training for 2 weeks, 3 weeks, 4 weeks? Will the training be done in my home or do I need to travel to your location?
- What does ongoing support look like? Will you provide support long term? How do I access the support?
Be sure to review the school's website and generate your list of questions prior to calling so you're ready for the conversation. It's important to identify what is important to you and find the guide dog school that feels like a good fit. It's like college, not every college is good for every student, so make sure you find the right one for you.
I have to feed them AND clean up after them?!?
Yes. Yes, you do. One of the most important things to think about when considering a guide dog is your willingness to take on a living being. You will be the one taking care of it 24/7. Not your mom, not your roommate, YOU! You can still live your life, party with your friends, but it also means you are responsible for their wellbeing.
Guide Dogs: Assembly Required
There is a variety of equipment needed when using a guide dog. You'll want to think it through, not only so you know how to use it but so that you can be prepared to care for and store it. Each guide dog has a collar, a leash, and a harness...
The use of the collar is two-fold. First, it's for identification purposes. You'll keep your dog's tags on the collar (and don't forget they need to always be up to date). The collar is also used as a communication tool, to reinforce the behaviors you want.
The leash is used when you want to guide your dog and general dog handling activities. An example is when you're taking your dog out for a potty break. You can use the leash when you're standing in the middle of an area where they can circle you to relieve themselves on command, or when you take them for a walk while using your cane.
The harness, which is typically made of leather and highly reflective materials, buckles under the dog's belly and sits on the back. There is a handle on the back of the harness that you will hold and it is through this that you're dog will communicate with you. You'll feel every tilt and roll of the dog, you can feel them veering in a certain direction or becoming distracted. The harness is provided by the guide dog school, as is the case with Guide Dogs for the Blind, and is customized to each specific dog.
What does the application and admissions process look like?
At Guide Dogs for the Blind, the admissions process takes about 8-10 weeks. You start by completing an application that collects information about your lifestyle and a minimum of 3 destination routes. These routes should be about a half mile of walking round trip and you want to make sure it's purposeful travel, you're leaving your home and you're going somewhere. This helps determine need, which is very subjective and different for everyone.
The current wait time for a Guide Dogs for the Blind dog is 12 months at the time of this publication, and is due to the pandemic. During normal times, the wait is 4-6 months.
Guide Dog Training 101
When training with your new guide dog, you'll be spending not only a lot of time with them, but also with your instructor. The training is intensive. Not overwhelming but very busy, and necessary. Your guide dog school may recommend that you NOT try to keep up with school while in training. The training can be physically demanding, as well as emotional, and it is life changing, so you really want to be able to allocate that time to your dog and your instruction to maximize it.
After your guide dog training is over, you're not left to fend for yourself. There is a support system available to you. At Guide Dogs for the Blind, you can refer to your lecture materials, call the support center, utilize the emergency after hours line, connect with a regionally based field service manager who is a guide dog instructor that visits you at home or on campus and helps you troubleshoot one on one. The more you reach out for support when you need it, the more likely you'll be successful with your guide dog.
If you only remember 3 things they should be - Navigate, Communicate, Advocate
Jake from Guide Dogs for the Blind recommends...
Navigate - Know where you're going, maintain your line of travel, stay situationally aware, and use your O&M skills to maximum effect.
Communicate - Communicate effectively and consistently with your dog and be open to receiving communication back from them. Understand what you're trying to tell you and take them seriously.
Advocate - Advocate for yourself and your dog whether it's to sit in a certain place or book a certain seat, etc. Do your best to keep them safe and avoid dangerous situations. Advocate for their needs as they can't speak for themselves.
When it comes to getting a guide dog, you don't decide you want one on a Monday and bring one home on Thursday. This is a process, and one you don't want to skimp on. Your dog will be by your side for a long time and you'll be supporting each other, so be sure this is something you've thought through thoroughly before jumping in.